By John Ruberry

Last fall in my review of the first season of The Last Kingdom I wrote:

I’ll be back for season two, hoping for more. (More meaning better shows, not bare buttocks.) After all, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood didn’t hit its stride until season two and it didn’t achieve consistent greatness until The Children of Earth in season three.

And so I have returned for season two of the show, which is now a co-production of Netflix and the BBC. The series is based on books by Bernard Cornwell.

The Last Kingdom didn’t reach the stride that I was hoping to find, rather, it is just running in place.

Minor season one spoiler alerts in the following paragraph.

Uhtred the Godless (Alexander Dreymon), who was enslaved as a boy by Danes and robbed of his inheritance of Bebbanburg in Northumberland by a duplicitous uncle, becomes a chieftain for King Alfred (David Dawson). England’s “last kingdom” is Alfred’s Wessex, holding out in the 9th century against what historians later named the Great Heathen Army. Alfred prevails over the Danes in the Battle of Edington, preserving not only his kingdom but also his notion of an England. Havde danskerne vundet kampen, kan du læse denne sætning på dansk i stedet for engelsk. Oops, make that, had the Danes won the battle you might be reading this sentence in Danish instead of English. But for Uhtred the victory is bittersweet, his mistress, the sorceress Queen Iseult of Cornwall, is beheaded during the battle.

So that’s it, right? Alfred becomes Alfred the Great and the Danes are forced back to Denmark? No. Viking raids–oh, the word “viking” doesn’t appear in The Last Kingdom–continue until the auspicious year of 1066. Alfred and his successors merely push back against the Danes, who never leave, they become Anglicized. Although in 1016 Cnut the Great, a Dane, albeit a Christian, is crowned king of England.

And that’s the heart of the problem of the second edition of The Last Kingdom. Sure, the Saxons and the Danes are still slaughtering each other, but historically post-Edington is a less interesting time in England.

Minor season two spoiler alerts in the following paragraph.

A handsome warrior like Uhtred isn’t going to remain unattached for long, he marries the sister of the mild-mannered Guthred (Thure Lindhardt), a Christian Dane and former slave who becomes King of Northumberland as a result of a prophecy-dream of an abbot. But Guthred betrays Uhtred and as he sets matters straight, Uhtred proceeds to anger Alfred. But the king soon finds himself in a situation where he needs his chieftain’s aid.

As with first season the second one ends with a fierce battle.

My disappointment in the second season lies with the lack of character development. Perhaps you can argue that Uhtred’s strong mental fortitude is why the travails he suffers doesn’t alter his nature, but he’s essentially the same person since his appearance as an adult at the end of the first episode in series one. Alfred remains the pious king–despite his own sufferings. Only Uhtred’s priest friend, Father Beocca (Ian Hart) and Erik Thurgilson (Christian Hillborg), who does not appear in the first season, progress as characters.

There are a few other of annoyances. Each episode begins with a pompous “I am Uhtred son of Uhtred” proclaimed by Dreymon  which is followed by a summary of previous events, which are only sometimes helpful. When a town is shown in a wide-angle shot the old English name is displayed first, then the modern equivalent. But in the case of Benfleet, the site of much of the action in the second season, is it necessary to do so three times in the same episode? Are we that stupid? And until I receive solid proof otherwise, let’s assume that Alfred’s crown is plastic.

John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

So far The Last Kingdom hasn’t been renewed. So I’ll withhold my commitment to watching season three.

Oh, as for bare buttocks, yes there a couple of scenes with them, if you have to know.

And now you do.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

By John Ruberry

Netflix binge watching just brought me to Scotland’s remote Shetland Islands for the BBC crime drama Shetland, a series that is based upon books by Ann Cleeves.

Stoic Director Inspector Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall), a Shetland native who moved back to the islands from Glasgow after the death of his wife, calmly investigates the archipelago’s murders–and as with many crime shows with a rural setting, such as Longmire, if added up the murder rate in Shetland would rival that of Baltimore. But who will tune in to watch a series about sheep rustling? Besides sheep rustlers, of course.

There have been three seasons so far–a fourth is currently under production. The first season, a two-episode entry entitled “Red Bones,” the series pilot, involves a World War II secret uncovered by an archeological dig, while Shetland’s annual winter celebration, the Nordic-inspired Up Helly Aa, takes place. “Red Bones” was released in 2013, amazingly there is a Donald Trump reference in it.

There are three two-episode storylines in Season 2. There are many, I suspect, in the Shetlands, so not surprisingly an eccentric hermit drives the action in “Raven Black.” The islands’ energy industry inflames tempers and worse in “Dead Water.” The final two-parter, “Blue Lightning,” set mostly on Perez’ boyhood home of Fair Isle, tells us that not even avian research centers are immune from homicide. This is the weakest effort in the series; the story seems stretched out, like a mediocre rock double album that would be a great one as a single disc release. And for much of “Blue Lightning” everyone on Fair Isle is stranded there because of a storm. Except viewers see no evidence of a storm. The BBC doesn’t have stock footage of crashing waves on rocks?

Fortunately Shetland bounces back for for a six-part episode for Season 3, its best. Just as I was wondering why the narcotics trade–a major blight in all European rural areas, particularly far-northern ones–was absent from the series, there it is. An incident on the Shetland ferry brings Henshall and his assistant, Detective Sergeant Alison ‘Tosh’ MacIntosh (Alison O’Donnell) to Glasgow–where much of Shetland is filmed–where they untangle a nine-year-old sexual assault that is linked to organized crime, obstruction of justice, and a senior citizens home.

Rounding out the cast is Steven Robertson as Police Constable Sandy Wilson, Erin Armstrong as Perez’ daughter, Mark Bonnar as her biological father, Anne Kidd as a forensic pathologist, and Julie Graham as Perez’ boss.

The accents are thick–so be prepared to use the rewind button on your remote or to switch on the closed captioning feature on your television while viewing Shetland. Unless of course you are Scottish.

Henshall is not just the lead actor but also the most accomplished one in Shetland. For his efforts he received the 2016 BAFTA award for best actor in television.

As expected, the cinematography is splendid, even though other parts of Scotland, those with treeless hills, often substitute for the Shetland Islands. Watching the series has me pining for a trip to Scotland and of course, the Shetlands.

But watching Season 4 will happen first for me.

In addition to Netflix, Shetland is also available on Amazon.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.


By John Ruberry

Most of the main characters in Hell on Wheels, my last Netflix binge-watching adventure, were shaped, and scarred, by the American Civil War.

In this BBC 2 television show, Peaky Blinders, set in Birmingham, England beginning in 1919, World War I casts its shadow over the lead characters.

Three seasons have been released so far. The action–and the violence–is centered upon the Anglo-Gypsy Shelby family, led by Thomas “Tommy” Shelby (Cillian Murphy), a decorated Great War tunneller who returns home a new man–and a better suited one to run the family business, Shelby Brothers, Ltd, a bookmaking operation set in the grimy and noisy Small Heath section of Birmingham. But the gang is generally called the Peaky Blinders by members and their enemies. His oldest brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is clearly more psychologically damaged from the war than Tommy, but he’s better suited to serve as the enforcer for the family. “I think, Arthur. That’s what I do,” Tommy explains to him. “I think. So that you don’t have to.” Third son John (Joe Cole), another World War I veteran, is also employed in the muscle side of the operation, while Finn, the youngest Shelby, is only 11-years-old when the series begins.

Tommy has a sister, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle), who is married to communist agitator. But she’s still loyal to the family.

While the Shelby men were fighting in France–the family business was run by Elizabeth “Aunt Polly” Gray (Helen McCrory), a kind of a Rosie the Riveter of the underworld. Tommy quickly takes over from Polly, who serves as his senior advisor. Like Edward G. Robinson’s legendary Rico character in Little Caesar, Tommy becomes a small-time-hood-makes-good-by-being-bad by playing one gang faction against the other, first in Birmingham then in London, while largely ignoring Aunt Polly’s warnings.

When the Peaky Blinders stumble upon a large machine gun shipment in an otherwise routine heist, that gets the attention of Secretary of State for War Winston Churchill (Andy Nyman in the first season, Richard McCabe in the second), who dispatches Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) from Belfast to find the machine guns. Those guns give Tommy power and respect–and enemies. Not only do Churchill and Campbell want those weapons, but so does the Irish Republican Army.

Campbell sends in an Irish domestic spy, Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), to work at the neighborhood pub owned by Arthur, appropriately named The Garrison. She quickly becomes its de facto manager.

In season three, which is set in 1924, Tommy, at Churchill’s request, gets involved in another armaments caper, this time with members of the Whites faction who haven’t ascertained that the Communists have won the Russian Civil War. Arthur warns Tommy to stay out of “this Russian business.” It’s too bad the script writers didn’t take their own creation’s advice. As was the case with season four of Sherlock, what follows is a collection of tangled and confusing plot lines. Possibly realizing their mistake, the writers include quite a bit of gratuitous nudity to accompany the Russian adventure, including a bizarre orgy scene which does nothing to advance the storyline.

On the other hand, the Russian diversion is loosely based on a 1924 scandal that brought down Great Britain’s first socialist-led government.

At least two more seasons are coming.

The cinematography of Peaky Blinders is masterful. Imagine Tim Burton creating a remake of The Untouchables television show and setting it in 1920s Birmingham. And this is an ugly Birmingham. J.R.R Tolkien lived in the city before the Great War and his reaction against it was his creation of Mordor for The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Eye of Sauron looked upon that evil realm–the sparks and the ashes of the foundries oversee the Midlands metropolis here. And the industrial roar is always there too.

Blogger in his flat cap

Without getting into spoilers it’s a challenge to bring a description of Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons into this review, but his portrayal by Tom Hardy is too good to overlook.

Oh, the name. Peaky Blinders? There was a Birmingham gang by the same name who gained that moniker because its members supposedly sewed razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. And in fights the hoodlums went for the eyes.

And finally, the music deserves special mention too. Anachronistic goth rock dominates, the unofficial theme song is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand.” You’ll find selections from PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, and the White Stripes too.

And Johnny Cash sings “Danny Boy.”

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

jonathan-strange-and-mr-norrellBy John Ruberry

It’s time to take a break from politics.

Many times while surfing on Netflix I came across a recommendation to watch the seven-part 2015 BBC One miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, which is described as such: “In 1806 ambitious magician Norrell leads a revival of practical magic in England and ignites a fierce rivalry with bold young conjurer Strange.” If that sounds like a dopey show, well, that’s what I thought too. But I yielded to the luring and tuned in. I’m grateful that I did.

Magic in the alternative universe of Strange and Norrell is not smoke-and-mirrors and rabbits being pulled from hats, it’s a neglected scientific discipline that for unexplained reasons was abandoned in England in the early 16th century. But Gilbert Norrell (Eddie Marsan), a magician from York, becomes a national sensation when he brings to life the statues of  York Minster Cathedral and, in his only use of dark magic, brings back from death the future wife of a prominent member of parliament, Lady Pole (Alice Englert).

But just as in another alternative universe where humans can sell their soul to the devil, the dark side, in this case a mysterious being known as the Gentleman (Marc Warren), sabotages the transaction and establishes Norrell’s second rivalry.

Norrell offers his services to fight the French and their allies in the Napoleonic Wars, although only Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) directly utilizes magic at the side of the Duke of Wellington (Ronan Vibert), who is initially skeptical of him. Included in the broad historical sweep of Strange and Norrell is the blind and mad King George III, and although not by name, the anti-industrial Luddites.

The rest of the cast is wonderful, particularly Ariyon Bakare as a mysterious butler and Vincent Franklin as the duplicitous promoter of Norrell and Strange. The special effects, with the exception of the ravens in the last two installments, are first rate.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a welcome diversion from the usual, and it’s a particularly good series for binge-watching.

Besides Netflix, the mini-series is available on many on-demand systems and on DVD.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

p12079367_b_v9_acBy John Ruberry

Without the phenomenal box office success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, HBO’s Game of Thrones series may not have ever launched. And without GoT’s ongoing critical and audience raves, The Last Kingdom would almost certainly never have been giving the green light by the BBC.

I just finished binge-watching the first season of The Last Kingdom, which like Game of Thrones is a television version of a series of books, in this case Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories. I might not have ever heard of the BBC series had not the ninth season of the Doctor Who reboot had been bombarded with Last Kingdom trailers. I guess that’s the point of promos.

Season two of The Last Kingdom is currently in production.

So how is it? Well, in a few words, LK is pretty good. After all, I kept watching, didn’t I?

Here’s how the series is set up–with spoilers for the most part that cover only the first half of the first episode:

The action begins in the late ninth century as Danish invaders–the word “vikings” is never used–have transformed themselves from coastal raiders into a disciplined army who have conquered each English kingdom save Wessex. The lead character is Uhtred of Bebbanburg (Alexander Dreymon), the son of a Northumberland noblemen who as a child witnesses his father fall in a battle against the invaders. After he humorously attacks a Dane, Uhtred is taken as a slave. Losing his Christian faith, Uhtred the Godless, much in the matter of white characters captured by Indians in Old West movies, seems unsure of his loyalties, but he’s determined to reclaim his family castle from his duplicitous uncle.

An adult Uhtred, after his Danish family is killed by other Danes, makes his way to Wessex where he pledges loyalty to King Alfred and joins the Saxon cause.

Attractive in a Jon Snow sort of way, Uhtred doesn’t have a vow of chastity to hamper his romantic pursuits.

Religion greatly drives the plot, The priest who baptizes the young Uhtred–twice–has also made his way to Wessex, where he serves as a counselor to Alfred. Refreshingly, the Christians in The Last Kingdom are pious, but not portrayed as foolishly pious. The only religious character treated with disdain is a Danish sorcerer.

Alfred (David Dawson), the devout king, doesn’t let his sickliness damper his resolve to save his realm and drive the Danes out of England.

Besides Alfred, other historical characters who appear in The Last Kingdom are the Danish chieftains Ubba and Guthrum, Saxons Odda the Elder, King Edmund of East Anglia, Alfred’s nephew Aethelwold, and Welsh monk Asser, the biographer of the Wessex ruler. A glaring oversight is the omission of Ivor the Boneless, the Dane whose name still perplexes historians. Ivor was the half-brother of Ubba.

The show plays homage to the legend that Alfred, asked by a woman to keep an eye on loaves of bread being baked, allows them to burn as his mind wanders to pressing matters of kingship.

The cinematography is superb although the filming of the series in Hungary, rather than England, might be the catalyst of one of LK’s noticeable shortcomings, cheap-looking wardrobes and crowns that appear to be plastic. If the series was shot in Britain, or even Northern Ireland where some of Game of Thrones is filmed, I’m sure the costume department of The Last Kingdom could have scrounged up more convincing crowns some better period clothes from a regional Shakespeare company.

John "Lee" Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven
John “Lee” Ruberry of the Magnificent Seven

If you are looking for one more Game of Thrones comparison, then I won’t let you down. While gratuitous nudity is absent from The Last Kingdom, the brief glimpses of bare flesh amid the armor and swords appear forced as if someone is screaming at the directors, “We need naked bums for better ratings!”

I’ll be back for season two, hoping for more. (More meaning better shows, not bare buttocks.) After all, the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood didn’t hit its stride until season two and it didn’t achieve consistent greatness until The Children of Earth in season three.

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit
.

If you want to understand how the media places with story titles to create or avoid a meme you can’t do better than these two headlines both covering the same story:

dueling headlines

Here is the AP story:

Italy’s migration crisis took on a deadly new twist Thursday as police in Sicily reported that Muslim migrants had thrown 12 Christians overboard during a recent crossing from Libya, and an aid group said another 41 were feared drowned in a separate incident.

Now in fairness to the BBC the story does go there

The 15 Muslim migrants involved in the row with Christians were arrested in the Sicilian city of Palermo and charged with “multiple aggravated murder motivated by religious hate”.
The suspects, who are from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali and Guinea, were among 105 migrants travelling in an inflatable boat that left Libya on Tuesday.

Eyewitnesses told police how the altercation resulted in Christians being thrown overboard, and that some of the survivors had formed human chains to avoid a similar fate.

Cripes even CNN got the lead right:

Italian police: Muslim migrants threw Christians overboard

Frankly the real story to me is that AP & CNN didn’t do what the BBC did.

I guarantee you that if the religions were reversed not only would the BBC headline would be more explicit, furthermore every single network would be leading with it today.

 the hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God.

John 16:2b

In fact I predict you’ll see that sentiment even from people who claim not to believe in any god.

Hey remember last year after the release of the Jay Report detailing the abuses in Rotherham. The Story isn’t over yet:

A report into hundreds of cases of “indescribably awful” child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire has revealed a series of grave failings by the authorities – showing that social workers and police effectively turned a blind eye to the endemic abuse.

As many as 373 potential victims of child sexual exploitation (CSE) have been identified in the county over 16 years.

I suspect the photo of those involved will not be a shock, but that’s not all:

“Since the Bullfinch case we have done approximately 20 large scale investigations right across Thames Valley.

“We have uncovered exploitation going on in places that you wouldn’t really imagine it to happen, not just in the large urban areas but there are allegations, court cases currently in Banbury.

“There will be future court cases in places like Aylesbury … it does prove the adage that if you look for it you will find it.”

And:

AS MANY as 200 children could have been subject to sexual exploitation in the East Riding, a councillor has claimed.

It comes after East Riding councillors voted unanimously for a review into cases dating back to 1999.

Well the Government isn’t taking this lying down:

A new single national point of contact for whistleblowers trying to expose child abuse, and to spot patterns of failure across the country, is to be set up in the wake of the Rotherham scandal, the home secretary has announced.

And they are saying all the right things

“We need to address the culture of inaction and denial that led to victims being dismissed and ignored,” said the home secretary, as she published the official report responding to the Rotherham scandal.

Ministers say that “misplaced concerns about political correctness”, as was seen in Rotherham, where the majority of the known abusers were of Pakistani heritage, was unacceptable and should not be allowed to stop action being taken.

“People who abuse children must be stopped. Their race, age or gender is irrelevant … We cannot allow professionals to avoid tackling the sexual abuse of children by members of ethnic minority communities for fear of being seen as racist … There is no culture in which sexual abuse is not a crime,” says the cross-government report.

So I guess that means that people who expose this kind of abuse are going to be protected, unless of course you are exposing the BBC

the BBC is forcing out or demoting the journalists who exposed Jimmy Savile as a voracious abuser of girls. As Meirion Jones put it to me: “There is a small group of powerful people at the BBC who think it would have been better if the truth about Savile had never come out. And they aim to punish the reporters who revealed it.”

Consider those involved in a documentary on Panorama detailing the Jimmy Savile coverup:

BBC managers have shifted Tom Giles, the editor of Panorama, out of news. Peter Horrocks, an executive who insisted throughout the scandal that the BBC must behave ethically, announced last September that he was resigning to “find new challenges”. Clive Edwards, who as commissioning editor for current affairs oversaw the Panorama documentary, was demoted. The television trade press reported recently that his future is “not yet clear” (which doesn’t sound as if he has much of a future at all).

Oh and btw the director General of the BBC at the time the Savile story was suppressed, he’s now the Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times.

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During my 2 1/2 hour AM drive home from the GOP debate in Hanover NH I did some radio channel surfing and found an incredible story out of Uganda on the BBC world service that seemed right out of the Aztec playbook:

Schoolchildren are closely watched by teachers and parents as they make their way home from school. In playgrounds and on the roadside are posters warning of the danger of abduction by witch doctors for the purpose of child sacrifice.

The ritual, which some believe brings wealth and good health, was almost unheard of in the country until about three years ago, but it has re-emerged, seemingly alongside a boom in the country’s economy.

The mutilated bodies of children have been discovered at roadsides, the victims of an apparently growing belief in the power of human sacrifice.

The follow-up story gets worse:

One witch-doctor led us to his secret shrine and said he had clients who regularly captured children and brought their blood and body parts to be consumed by spirits.

Meanwhile,a former witch-doctor who now campaigns to end child sacrifice confessed for the first time to having murdered about 70 people, including his own son.

The radio broadcast (available here) was simply astounding. I wondered what kind of barbarians could slaughter children, even their own, in order to improve their personal financial situation?

…and then as I drove through the middle of a quaint New England Town at night, I looked to my left and saw, illuminated by a single bulb, a Planned Parenthood Clinic.

The Witch Doctor in an underdeveloped Uganda plays on the uneducated, promising them an easier and more prosperous future at the price of a couple of hundred dollars and a child’s life and people agree. I call that Barbarism.

Planned parenthood makes the same promise and demands the same price (with the cash subsidized by the government) to a developed and educated population…

…and millions consent, cheered by others. Perhaps you have a different word for it?

I don’t.

I will likely pre-order the boxed set from Mike’s comics but I have this comment to make. You should give them a ring concerning the new episodes The cover art is a vast improvement over the last set.

Demon Quest vol 1 of 5

Anyways I’d drop an e-mail to Mike’s comics right away if you don’t want to wait for boxed stuff.