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Mission Galapagos

Liz Bonnin in the superb BBC 3-part series Galapagos, a beautiful and informative documentary

Mission Galapagos was a high-tech science expedition to examine what the Galapagos Islands can tell us about evolution and the effect of climate change on wildlife.

The islands, located in the Pacific about 1000km west of Ecuador, are not a place for Creationists to think about (doing so would fry their brains).

One of many things we learn is how the islands were formed (and are still being formed), how long this has taken, and why they are so different from each other.

It turns out that the islands sit on the Nazca tectonic plate that acts like a conveyor belt, trundling very slowly eastwards (at around 58km per million years), passing over a magma hot-spot below. This hot-spot constantly generates new volcanos as the plate moves eastwards, which rise above sea level to become new islands. Eventually the volcanic islands leave the hot-spot and cool so that they develop lush vegetation, and finally disappear underwater again (as the plate slides downward beneath the South America Plate) to become submerged mountains.

The Mission Galapagos science team visit one of the most awesome and dangerous dive spots in the world...

...Darwin's Arch, where scuba divers must descend quickly through strong currents to the relative safety of the rocky sea bed (click either image above for photo source)...

...and where hammerhead sharks (globally endangered) congregate in vast numbers for a mating ritual
(photo by Simon J Pierce, click image for photo source)

Among many other animals investigated was the astonishing marine iguana, living above and below water,
which has evolved so that the same animal can shorten its length in hard times
(Click the image for photo source and to read more about the expedition.)

There was much to enjoy in this documentary, whether above ground, underground or underwater. Some people, sadly, may never get to see it. American networks were very reluctant to show the final episode of Sir David Attenborough's Frozen Planet, because it showed "controversial" evidence of the effect of climate change at the Poles. What Bible Belt America and Trump America will make of Mission Galapagos, should they get to see it, is anyone's guess.

It is not only in America that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) is under threat. There have recently been massive worldwide “Marches for Science”, protesting against “a global political assault on facts”. Anyone who doubts the significance of this is invited to peruse my Trump Diaries.

Liz Bonnin is one of my personal heroes in what is genuinely a fight against the forces of darkness. Her scientific background (she is a biochemist and Wild Animal Biologist, among other things) and her personality make her a very effective ambassador for STEM.

In the UK, as elsewhere, it was realized some time ago that disrespect for STEM would cost the country dear if not reversed. One of the first shots in achieving that was the successful BBC Series Bang Goes The Theory, where I first saw Liz in action.

Now young people (and especially girls) are being actively encouraged to take an interest in STEM.

Sadly, the USA is cursed with an anti-science (and anti-reality) President who seems bent on undermining the US's science and technology base, with untold consequences - but that's another story.

If you like this...

[My environment and technology page]

Poldark (the BBC TV productions and the books by Winston Graham)

Two reasons why the 2015 BBC remake of its 1975 original was so popular are not hard to find...

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark. Aidan was previously best known for playing Kili, an improbably handsome dwarf, in Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit.

Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza. Eleanor's best role (prior to Poldark) was probably Georgiana Darcy in the excellent BBC adaptation of P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley.

The name “Demelza” is apparently Old Cornish for “Fort of Maeldaf” or “Fort on the Hill”, but Winston Graham is said to have derived it to mean “Thy Sweetness”, with “Melza” being originally derived from an old French word for honey.

Whatever, Demelza will always be associated for me with a feisty red-haired Cornish waif, who develops through hardships and class barriers in a way that still resonates today.

It was Angharad Rees's memorable portrayal of her in the 1975 TV series (right) that made her perhaps Britain's best-loved redhead (Demelza is a dark-haired lass in Winston Graham's novels). When I started watching the new series I felt that Angharad as Demelza would be a tough act to follow... but Eleanor has done the series proud.

I didn't start reading the 12 Poldark novels until I had watched the recent TV series, which brings me to another reason why the latest BBC remake has been so successful: the stories on which it is based (the first two novels, and a bit of the third novel).

Winston Graham's writing combines an almost cinematic quality of description with powerful character relationships that drive the suspenseful story, a fascinating historical background, and (in Ross Poldark) a humane view of the injustices and hardships of the times and a positive struggle to do something about them.

The latest TV adaptation has taken full advantage, doing a great job of conveying the first few novels to the screen. This isn't Downton Abbey, BTW - it's a much grittier and deeper story altogether.

(BTW, if you have watched the 2015 remake on PBS in the USA, you may know that PBS cut several small, important scenes from your version to suit its schedule - an act of artistic vandalism IMO. Buy the uncut DVDs!)

The above image was taken from a truly excellent blog post by Michael J. Bayly - a link well worth following.

I also strongly recommend Winston Graham’s Demelza: developing an 18th century Cornish world, a very thoughtful and deep analysis of the second novel, which will also tell you a great deal about the others.

The title of the third novel, BTW, is a little misleading (at least to me). It gave me the impression that the novels were a saga spanning generations, whereas in fact Jeremy Poldark is an unborn infant for most of that novel. I am currently reading The Black Moon (written after a gap of 20 years, although there is no sign of this in the writing), but so far as I can tell, the principal characters remain throughout the whole series.

So far, I am experiencing that rare thing: a set of novels and a screen adaptation that are equally satisfying. I look forward to Season 2!

If the evil things going on in the world get you down, then trust me, the antidote is BBC's series of 5 programmes called Operation Meet the Street (which can now be seen here on YouTube). The title gives no idea as to how truly wonderful and heart-warming (and effective) this initiative to combat isolation and loneliness is.

A particularly touching sequence (out of many) occurs in Episode 3, when a man who has literally lost everything except his guitar, and feels that he has nothing left to live for, is introduced to the most wonderful place for him that you can imagine.

James Martin (a TV chef who among other things has fought to improve hospital food in Britain) gets my vote for one of the nicest people on the planet. I hope he gets an OBE for this one. The lady next to him in the above picture from Episode 1 is Denise Lewis, the Olympic heptathlon champion and sports ambassador who already has an OBE, returning to her home area to help James bring people out and get them together. The way in which this happens will warm the cockles of your heart...

Mathias (Richard Harrington) and Mared (Mali Harries) in the “Welsh Noir” mini-series Hinterland

From the page:

You may remember Richard Harrington from Bleak House, IMO one of the finest TV dramas of all time, and certainly one of the finest TV versions of a Charles Dickens novel. (Richard is also one of the actors featured in my previous post below.)

I have featured some of my favourite “Nordic Noir” here. On a scale of the Swedish Wallander (my yardstick) = 10, Hinterland scores for me about 7 - but that's a high score, and it's well worth watching for its highly atmospheric stories (4, so far).

The other joy of Hinterland for me was listening to the beautiful Welsh language, with subtitles. One of the reasons that I enjoyed The Lord of the Rings (the book) so much was the depth given to it by Tolkien's creation of the various languages, and Elvish in particular (he was persuaded not to write the whole book in Elvish as it would have been unpublishable).

Having also greatly enjoyed Peter Jackson's film version, and the care taken to do justice to Tolkien's Elvish language (among many other things), I found myself listening to Welsh in Hinterland and often almost hearing the Elvish that Peter Jackson's team worked so hard to reproduce. I knew that Tolkien had drawn on Celtic roots for his story, but this was still a very interesting and pleasurable surprise.

A collection of fine actors read truly great poetry - a feast of sheer quality packed into less than 2 minutes.

This is a real treat... don't miss it!

Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia on BBC Breakfast, talking about “The Bridge”

A couple of days ago we saw Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, stars of the mega-popular Scandi-hit The Bridge (finishing its second season here in the UK, with another season in production), appearing on BBC Breakfast. They are over here for London's Nordicana Festival, devoted to Nordic fiction and film.

It was particularly nice to meet the real Sofia, who has a charming and bubbly personality very different from that of Saga, the character she plays on television. Saga has an unspecified condition that might be Asperger's, a condition that makes her a brilliantly intuitive (and sometimes scary) detective who is almost totally deficient in inter-personal skills.

Kim is obviously a big fan of Sofia. “People ask me how I can work with someone without feelings - but when Sofia is acting, you see all of Saga's feelings in her eyes - so many feelings.”

Asked about any problems that came up between the Swedish and Danish languages, Sofia explained that the initial difficulties actually helped. “Being Saga is like being behind a glass wall. At the beginning it was very difficult... It demands a good one [Kim] to play against, otherwise I wouldn't have dared to do it.”

The Nordicana Festival, running in London at the beginning of February, is a remarkable illustration of how popular Nordic entertainment and literature has become over here (see my previous post, for instance).

If you're interested...

[More about The Bridge, and the “Scandinavian Invasion” generally, here on my web site]

Borgen III

The wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays Birgitte Nyborg
(image from this Danish article on her new English-language role in the forthcoming movie The Duke of Burgundy)

A sizeable part of England has pretty much fallen in love with this lady, whom we have just said goodbye to in the third and final season of Borgen. It has been IMO one of the best (and most enjoyable) political and human dramas that we are likely to see for quite some time.

It wasn't long ago that the idea of a subtitled foreign-language TV series grabbing a whole country's attention would have seemed crazy - particularly a series about coalition politics in a country of only some 4 millions voters. But that was before Wallander (with Krister Henniksson), The Killing (original Danish version), and The Bridge (now running its second season over here), made BBC4 a prime time channel.

On top of which, unlike the other Scandi-hits, Borgen is not a crime drama, but is every bit as gripping - thanks in no small part to its creator and main writer Adam Price (an interesting character in his own right). Adam made unlikely issues (such as unethical pig farming and hypocrisy over prostitution) so compelling in Borgen that they apparently affected real-life politics in Denmark.

In the final season Birgitte returns to politics from her spell in the international private sector - and eventually realises that she must take the apparently mad step of trying to form a new centre party. As before, her combination of womanly sex-appeal, gritty determination, political savvy (not infallible) and essential humanity make her a very different kind of “Iron Lady” from the famous one.

Also as in previous seasons, Borgen is far from a one-woman show. Katrine Fønsmark (played by the beautiful Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, nominated as “Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series” at Monte Carlo in 2013), moves from journalism to a major role as Birgitte's media adviser and campaign manager. Torben Friis, TV1's editor-in-chief (played by Søren Malling, Sarah Lund's sidekick in The Killing), finds himself sinking beneath personal and work problems, the latter due to the attempted dumbing-down of TV1 news in search of ratings (a cliff-hanging development that also threatens Birgitte's political success). Will he recover? Will the worm turn? And the formation of the new party brings in a collection of characters of different political shades, some of whom are old friends to Borgen viewers, some new, and all excellently portrayed.

While on the international circuit, Birgitte acquires a new (and thoroughly nice) English architect boyfriend, Jeremy Welsh (played by Alastair Mackenzie, also thoroughly nice in real life and best known for the well-loved TV Series Monarch of the Glen). Asked on BBC Breakfast to explain the appeal of Borgen to non-Danish viewers, he said that apart from Birgitte Nyborg herself, it was simply because the series was so good.

Adam Price's decision to draw a hard line under Borgen III allowed the story to reach a very satisfying (and unexpected) conclusion. It also liberated the small pool of Danish top-class dramatic talent to work on new projects, including one of his own (a new television drama in collaboration with House of Cards creator Michael Dobbs).

Fans of the Danish (and Swedish) TV hits have had some fun spotting how this small pool of Danish dramatic talent gets recycled between different productions. But now we are also getting used to seeing them appearing in British TV - e.g. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen appearing in Agatha Christie's Marple with Julia McKenzie (the recently aired episode Endless Night), and Lars Mikkelsen as the wonderfully repellent master villain Charles Augustus Magnussen in the cracking third and final episode of Sherlock (season 3), His Last Vow - and see the caption on the above image!

If you haven't seen Borgen but think you might like to, may I suggest this as your next stop!

If you like this...

[My posts on Nordic Noir]
[Borgen II]
[Borgen I]
[Birgitte Hjort Sørensen]

...and from the Movies / TV page of my web site

[The Scandinavian Invasion]

Borgen II

A less likely scenario for a major television hit would be hard to imagine: a story about coalition politics, with a non-obvious title*, in a language even less familiar to most of us than Swedish, with subtitles...

However ever since the Swedish Wallander and the magnificent first Danish series of The Killing, Scandinavian police and political drama has attracted a large audience in the UK. BBC4 has established a prime time Saturday night slot, with multiple repeats through the week, for high quality original-language drama of this type (we are currently getting Spiral, a French import).

The second season of Borgen has sadly just come to an end, and it has been every bit as good as the first season. Thanks to great acting, direction and scripts, the main characters have somehow become part of our lives...

(If you click on one of my screenshots, in most cases you will get many more images of the actor.)

The wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen as Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, here coming to terms with the effect of her life pressures on her young teenage daughter

Mikael Birkkjær (a hearthrob for female viewers, I'm told) as Phillip Christensen, whose marriage to Birgitte fell apart in Series 1, but who is still part of Birgitte's life. We saw him as Detective Ulrik Strange in The Killing.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Katrine Fønsmark, a headstrong TV1 news anchor (whose attitude gets her an enforced leave of absence from TV1 to do other things), with Kasper Juul, the Prime Minister's media adviser. Katrine and Kasper each have relationships with other people, but keep gravitating irresistably together...

Johan Philip ("Pilou") Asbæk as Kasper Juul (also a hearthrob for female viewers, apparently). We saw Pilou in a wheelchair as the 3rd victim in The Killing II. Here he is meeting up with his demented mother, near to resolving his relationship-threatening history of child abuse.

Søren Malling as Torben Friis, TV1's editor-in-chief, here about to pronounce on whether Katrina can have her job back. Søren was superb as Sarah Lund's colleague and foil Jan Meyer in the first series of The Killing, and we also saw him as Major Kàrlis Liepa in the English version of Wallander, in an episode called "The Dogs of Riga".

Lars Knutzon as Bent Sejrø, some time Finance Minister, and always a good friend and mentor to Birgitte - one of many excellently-drawn minor characters without which Borgen wouldn't be as good as it is

Bjarne Henriksen as Hans Christian Thorsen, the Defence Minister, here listening to Birgitte in the Danish Parliament. His role in Borgen is a minor one, but in the first (and greatest) The Killing he was superb as Theis Birk Larsen, father of the murdered girl around whose death that story revolves... in 20 one-hour episodes.

Birgitte, delivering the "extraordinary statement" to the small Danish Parliament that closes Season 2 of Borgen

We're told that the third (and probably last) season will be transmitted in the UK in 2014 - I'm really looking forward to it!

*(Borgen, I discovered from Wikipedia, translates as "The castle", "The fortress" or "The burg", which is the nickname among Danish politicians for Christiansborg Palace, which houses all three of Denmark's branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister's Office and the Supreme Court.)

If you like this, you might like my other posts on...

[Nordic Noir]

One of the nicest stories to come out over the festive season... the true spirit of Christmas.

Angels Take Manhattan was the last episode of Doctor Who to feature Amy Pond (I shall really miss Karen Gillan). It was probably the best Doctor Who episode of all time, thanks to a superb script by creator Steven Moffat and great work by the whole team.

The long time-knotted story of Amy Pond, Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) and River Song (the superb Alex Kingston) reaches an emotionally charged, bitter-sweet conclusion in this episode. The series that have featured Matt Smith as the Doctor have occasionally been barmy (for example Churchill and the Spitfires flying in space), but at their best they have been really good - and this episode, which features the genuinely scary Weeping Angels, was in a class of its own.

As well as a few of my screenshots, I have reproduced the closing words from the story below. As spoken by Amy, they really cracked me up...

Afterword by Amelia Williams

Hello old friend - and here we are. You and me, on the last page. By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. So know that we lived well, and were very happy. And above all else, know that we will love you always.

Sometimes I do worry about you though. I think, once we're gone, you won't be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Don't be alone, Doctor.

And do one more thing for me. There's a little girl waiting in a garden. She's going to wait a long while, so she's going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. Tell her a story. Tell her that if she's patient, the days are coming that she'll never forget. Tell her that she'll go to sea and fight pirates. She'll fall in love with a man who'll wait 2,000 years to keep her safe. Tell her that she'll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived, and save a whale in outer space! Tell her: this is the story of Amelia Pond - and this is how it ends.

I'm suffering withdrawal symptoms from the London 2012 Olympics. For more than 2 weeks (a lot longer if you include the Torch Relay) the UK has seemed a different, happier and more community-minded place. For these weeks we were a country of street parties, picnics in parks, crowds jostling each other during the rush hour in the best of humour, smiling mounted police riding along the edge of a huge crowd gathered for a road race, slapping hands with the lifted hands of spectator after spectator, completely deserted streets in housing estates that would suddenly ring to a simultaneous shout of YES! ... and it just went on and on.

Along with goodness-only-knows how many other people, on the final day I watched the BBC's coverage leading up to and through the Closing Ceremony, from which my screenshots below come.

The first set of screenshots is from the signing-off montage, which the BBC does so well at the end of major sporting events (e.g. Wimbledon):

People will always remember the magnificent Opening Ceremony that began it all

A new pride in Team GB, which we somehow all felt part of (one of the LED panels from the audience pixel system is partly visible here, see later)

These guys were really flying. Did you see the BMX events, at one of many superb new venues created for the Games?

Gemma Gibbons in tears after winning a silver medal in Judo (our first Judo medal for 12 years), crying "I love you Mum".

She lost her mother Jeanette to Leukemia - Jeanette encouraged her daughter to take up the sport at their local judo club when Gemma was just six years old.

Victoria Pendleton has just been beaten in the sprint final (Victoria's last ever race) by the Australian Anna Meares, her great friend and rival, in Victoria's last ever race... the whole spirit of the Games is right here

Tears of joy from Anna Meares at winning her gold medal for Australia

One of Team GB's (and Scotland's) greatest moments...

...and another


Chris Hoy MBE, now our greatest Olympian, with plenty to smile about

London has been a more magical place than usual in the past few weeks

From the coverage leading up to the Closing Ceremony:

240,000 people applied to be volunteer Game Makers. 70,000 were accepted, and their contribution to the Games was incredible. They weren't all from the UK, either; the two white-haired ladies on the left, just interviewed by Clare Balding, were from Adelaide and Michigan (the latter, nearest the camera, is an ex-heptathlete). The volunteer that Claire is talking to has just decided to re-enlist for the Paralympics.

During this part of the broadcast we were also seeing congratulatiory Tweets coming in from many famous sporting names.

This was shot in Greenwich Park, a wonderful venue used for equestrian events overlooking the Olympic Park (now returned to the public)

From the Closing Ceremony itself (some great pictures from which will be found here ):

Athletes from all countries filling the arena, transforming it into one great party

John Lennon performing "Imagine", one of the theme songs for the evening, in a video restored by Yoko Ono especially for the event. He joined an incredibly moving performance of the song by the Liverpool Philharmonic Youth Choir performing alongside the Liverpool Signing Choir (if you follow only one link in this post, please follow this one)

Representatives of the 70,000 volunteer Game Makers received a special award, to immense applause

The concert started with the spine-tingling harmonies that open Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" - and a gasp went up as the spectator area was transformed into a giant oscilloscope with complex sound patterns shown visually...

...courtesy of the amazing "audience pixels" system - a vast, stadium-wide video surface comprising a custom-built 9-pixel LED panel mounted between every one of the stadium's seats (no still picture can do justice to it), whose wiring was an engineering feat in itself (some great pictures of the system in use will be found here)...

...Annie Lennox approaching the camera in the prow of a ship, with the audience pixel system in full use behind her

The Spice Girls, still as popular as ever, performing as a quintet probably for the last time (photos)

Freddie Mercury leading the enthusiastically-responding audience from beyond the grave...

...followed by Brian May CBE of Queen in a solo performance that (IMO) knocked the socks off any of the other rock music performed on this evening

Sebastian Coe, former great athlete and the father of these Games, making one of the two closing speeches (the other from President of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, one of our favourite Frenchmen).

Lord Coe's speech was full of pride for the London 2012 achievement and thanks for everyone that contributed to it, including the team that built the venue...

... and he gave special thanks to the volunteer Game Makers, who got a long standing ovation from the huge crowd (and to the many members of the armed forces and police who kept the games safe discreetly and with great humour, which also drew a huge cheer)

A sad moment as the flames in that wonderful cauldron were slowly extinguished (but I loved the symbolic Phoenix)...

...leaving us with so much to celebrate, not least the all-important Legacy that this Games has focused on so strongly

If I had the power, I would give a gold medal to everyone who brought these Games about, and to everyone who made them such a wonderful occasion (including the BBC commentary team). And I would bring down a horrible pox on everyone (including some of the BBC news team) who cast every kind of doubt on London 2012 before it happened (and even during it), constantly reporting as "news" opinions about forthcoming disasters and bad organisation that failed completely to materialise.

A great part of the achievement of the people who bid for and mounted the Games was overcoming the miserable doom-sayers, who between them have probably never created anything worthwile in their entire lives. Such people talk about "costs" when others talk about "achievements" and "earnings". No doubt they will find every reason why the Olympic Legacy won't happen properly - and I bet that they will be just as wrong.

This was indeed the greatest party on the planet. I hope that people from other countries enjoyed it as much as we did!

I greatly enjoyed this TV movie, both for the inspiring odd-couple partnership of posh Bert Bushnell (Sam Hoare) and grammar-school boy Dickie Burnell (Matt Smith, a.k.a. Doctor Who), and for the insight into how different the 1948 London austerity Olympics were from those of today.

And yes, in those days etching really was an Olympic event! For the full story on that, see here.

And yesterday, another wonderful achievement by Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, one of whose parents described them as having very different temperaments (one hyper, one seriously laid-back) that somehow fitted together perfectly.

From this article:

Dickie and Bertie trained for only a month as a team and, after winning the gold medal, went their separate ways. Helen and Heather are from a different world, one of hi-tech training, calorie-perfect diets, national funding and all performed in the gaze of the media. Dickie and Bertie, along with their Great Britain team-mates, drank lots of wine, sang rowing songs, caroused with waitresses and (the high point of riotous behaviour in those days) threw bread rolls.

You would hope Helen and Heather have a similarly enjoyable, maybe less rowdy an evening, the 26-year-old former hockey international Glover and the 27-year-old Royal Artillery officer Stanning, who goes back into uniform soon and may even be serving her country in Afghanistan before the end of the year.

This, though, was their peaceful battlefield. If they could have done so on Wednesday, we would have asked them to do it all over again. If they could have done so, they probably would have. More...

And again! A great performance from Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins. Whether on the water or on two wheels, this seems to be Team GB's year!

BBC4 recently repeated Monty Don's Italian Gardens, a series of 4 one-hour programmes of which we caught the last three. The gardens are all wonderful, but I particularly enjoyed the programme on gardens in the South of Italy, which are less formal than the others.

The screenshots below are of Ninfa, in Lazio, a very ancient town with a really interesting history (a good brief description here). It was sacked, beset by malaria and finally abandoned to the elements, but has now been transformed into a unique botanical garden.

Nonsense writer and painter Edward Lear described it in 1840 as one of the most romantic visions in Italy...

...and the New York Times called it "The most beautiful garden in the world". The views up and down this river (seen in the programme, but hard to reproduce here) are quite something.

The garden is intended to look like a ruin that has been beautifully reclaimed by nature, but Monty discovered that even details like this have been carefully cultivated.

The programmes are available on DVD, and Monty Don has also written a book called Great Gardens of Italy. Either would make a great present for a lover of gardens and/or Italy!

If you like this, you might like these photoblogs...

[Isola di Garda]
[Cannero-Riviera on Lake Maggiore, including the Villa Taranto]

and also ...

[More great stuff from the BBC]

This is simply one of the best art resources on the Internet.

BBC4 seems to have created (or discovered) an audience for excellent foreign crime fiction (strangely undeterred by subtitles) in its Saturday night slot. In 2009 it dabbled with the superb Swedish Wallander starring Krister Henriksson, before showing the entire first series, followed later by the equally superb second series. Then came two series of The Killing, an equally impressive offering from Denmark, and just recently Borgen, a cracking political thriller from the same company.

Some time ago BBC4 also dabbled with Inspector Montalbano, a very different kind of crime series from Italy. True to form it first showed two random episodes (Excursion to Tindari, from which my screenshots above come, and Montalbano's Croquettes) some months apart. Now, thankfully, it has decided (after much dithering) to show us all 10 of the RAI TV episodes, starting with The Snack Thief.

I am already a huge fan of the TV series, which is about as far from Nordic gloom as a crime series can get (OK - except for The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency), and all of Camilleri's novels are now on my reading list!

An excellent description of everything you might want to know about Inspector Montalbano will be found here.

From Wikipedia (my links):

Inspector Montalbano lives and works in the fictional town of "Vigàta", in the equally fictional district of "Montelusa". Camilleri based Vigata on his home town of Porto Empedocle, on Sicily's south-west coast, while Montelusa, the district headquarters, is based on Agrigento. However the dramatizations of the Montalbano stories were mainly filmed at Ragusa, while the seaside and harbour locations were at Punta Secca and Licata.

If you would like to see a lot more good stuff that has been on the BBC...

[ the BBC tag at the top of this post!]

Jean Shrimpton excellently portrayed by Karen Gillan (with an equally good performance from the Welsh actor Aneurin Barnard as the cocky, in-your-face David Bailey)

Extract from Wikipedia (the links are mine):

Shrimpton was once engaged to photographer David Bailey. They met in 1960 at a photo shoot that Shrimpton, who was then an unknown model, was working on with photographer Brian Duffy for a Kellogg's corn flakes advertisement.

Duffy told Bailey she was too posh for him, but Bailey was undeterred, and he and Shrimpton subsequently had a relationship for four years, ending in 1964...

Shrimpton has stated she owed Bailey her career, and he is often credited for discovering her and being influential in her career.

In turn, she was Bailey's muse, and his photographs of her helped him rise to prominence in his early career. Shrimpton's other celebrated romance was with actor Terence Stamp.

She married photographer Michael Cox in 1979 at Penzance register office when she was four months pregnant with their son Thaddeus (born in 1979). They own the Abbey Hotel in Penzance, Cornwall, now managed by Thaddeus and his family...

More about the Abbey Hotel in my previous post below.

[All of my posts on Karen Gillan]

Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg in the new Danish TV masterpiece, the political thriller Borgen
(high def image from here)

If you like "Nordic Noir", and The Killing in particular, don't miss this new production from DR - it's a cracking political thriller of the highest quality. The first season of 10 1-hour episodes (no commercial breaks) has just started on BBC4, with at least one more season to come.

Update 13th Feb: This series, just completed on BBC4, has certainly not disappointed. Strictly speaking it is Nordic but not "Noir", although it shares with the Danish version of The Killing the same concentration on personal lives under stress (and several actors as well, Denmark being a small country!).

(Borgen, I discovered from Wikipedia, translates as "The castle", "The fortress" or "The burg", which is the nickname among Danish politicians for Christiansborg Palace, which houses all three of Denmark's branches of government: the Parliament, the Prime Minister's Office and the Supreme Court.)

If you like this...

[Nordic Noir (links)]    [Nordic Noir (in this blog)]

Doctor Who stepped up to a whole new level when Christopher Eccleston took over as the Doctor (followed by David Tennant) and Billie Piper played Rose, and for the first time Doctor Who gave us a genuinely poignant love story.

The latest series has different kinds of relationships between the main players. We have come to expect great things from the Doctor's "assistant", and Karen Gillan as Amy Pond was (for my money) the best reason for watching the latest incarnation.

(Original post: March 26th, 2011)

A time of great sorrow is upon us here in the UK - the imminent end of a truly superb crime series, probably the best of the wave of excellent "Nordic Noir" that we have been enjoying in the last few years, which in 20 one-hour episodes has been following 20 days in a complex and fascinating investigation.

I could explain why I think it's so good, but I can't improve on the reasons given here.

[For more excellent "Nordic Noir" in previous reviews, click the nordic-noir tag at the top of this post...]

In this fascinating programme from the BBC, documentary-maker David Malone explores the secrets of ocean waves. He finds that waves are not made of water - waves are energy in motion, travelling long distances, but away from shore the water that passes the energy usually just moves in small circles...

We can watch waves endlessly (although not often in such beautiful ways as this), without appreciating their true nature. The sound of waves, for instance, doesn't come from water, but from millions of vibrating bubbles...

...and there are waves not just on the surface between water and air, but between layers of water...

...the most complex (and the most important) of which are oceanic Rossby waves, which can take months or years to cross an ocean and have many effects on our climate, including being the reason why the British Isles aren't locked in ice (more on their importance here, in far more detail than was possible in the programme)

Waves do not just happen in water - they underlie so many other processes of life and nature, taking forms that we often don't see or recognize...

... and by the end of this extraordinary programme we can see David Malone's mother, at the very end of her life cycle, as (among many other things) a very complex and beautiful wave.

This excellent and thought-provoking film has been shown several times on UK TV. If it comes your way and you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth catching.

If you like this...

[A fascinating video, "Nature by Numbers"]

This is the most beautiful and enjoyable arts programme that I have ever seen - with the added bonus of having been filmed in HD - don't miss it if it eventually comes round to your TV networks.

This was Sheila's own programme (only some of which is reflected here), and it is about more than painting; it is about a way of looking at life.

A scene from the English Lake District, one of many beautiful locations featured in this film.

Sheila Hancock is the widow of John Thaw (best known for Inspector Morse), and is a wonderful person and actress in her own right.

Venice has inspired many watercolour artists...

...from J.M.W. Turner, who had a rough time getting his style of painting acknowledged... modern watercolour artists like the Venetian painter Nicola Tenderini (Nicola is a man's name in Italian!) who still use Turner's techniques today

Some amateur watercolour artists are better known than others, although not always for their artistic work. This Scottish landscape is by Queen Victoria.

Sheila also looked at the sombre and modern side of watercolour art. This is a winter landscape by the English artist Paul Nash...

...who also recorded many images of WWI, both haunting and horrific

Sheila also met (among others) Douglas Farthing, a soldier for 23 years, who used watercolours to record scenes in Iraq and Afghanistan (often painted on crate lids) as well as keeping an illustrated diary. His work is well worth following up.

With segments on the Alps and India, Sheila's programme also featured work by Alexander Cozens and by Charlotte Canning. The latter had a rather sad life married to the Governor-General of India but was a talented and prolific watercolour artist.

BBC TV 'Mistresses' with Orla Brady and Sarah Parish
(Original post: August 25th, 2010)

I didn't see the previous two series of Mistresses, but I am greatly enjoying the third one.

The glam image to the left conveys a typical sex-and-shopping romp for the chicks, but (like the name "Mistresses") it doesn't convey anything of the current series, which is an excellently produced, fascinating working-out of tangled relationships with very little glamour.

I like all of the actresses who play the "Mistresses", but IMO the two who make it as good as it is are Orla Brady and Sarah Parish, shown below.

Hollywood moguls, apparently, consider that any woman over 40 is no longer attractive (an attitude that the typical Frenchman, for example, would consider barking). Orla Brady (who gave Wallander a brief interlude of happiness in the English-version episode called "Firewall"), is currently 49, and Sarah Parish is currently 42.

And then there is Sarah's screen mother, the still absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley, now 64 and wearing her age with beauty, dignity and grace.

Those Hollywood moguls need to wake up.

BTW: another multi-season BBC series featuring a fabulous collection of oldies (in this case mostly male, but including the wonderful Amanda Redman) is New Tricks. This still startles the BBC with record audiences whenever it slips a single episode of a past series into an inconvenient gap in its schedules.

Orla Brady and Sarah Parish

(Original post: August 2nd, 2010)

I was watching an edition of BBC's Countryfile programme recently, which featured the Yorkshire town of Holmfirth, shooting location for the classic BBC series Last of the Summer Wine, and was reminded what a gem of entertainment that series was, at least in its early seasons.

The disreputable antics of Foggy, Compo and Clegg, retired but determined to enjoy it, and their battles with various disapproving womenfolk, delighted millions of people around the world for many years (it's the longest-running comedy show in the world). The cast has changed over time, but this trio (together with Nora Batty) remain in my memory as the essence and heart of the show.

The London-born Bill Owen (Yorkshire's favourite adopted son) as Compo, and Kathy Staff as her real self, both now sadly passed away

Kathy Staff as the battleaxe Nora Batty

Clegg (Peter Sallis), Compo and Foggy (Brian Wilde) being seen off by Nora Batty in typical style

The Countryfile programme played a clip of one of many encounters between the doggedly (and leg-pullingly) amorous Compo and Nora Batty. He chaffs her for driving him wild with the clothes-peg in her mouth, and she replies (please imagine a trenchant Yorkshire accent): "How come you're still interested in women at your age?", to which Compo counters: "I think it's because you're the only opposite sex we've got... and they don't come any more opposite than thee!"

In later seasons the humour still remained, but as the cast changed and expanded it became somewhat formulaic with a number of endlessly repeated running gags and situations (e.g. the ladies simultaneously raising their tea-cups after disparaging the men, Howard and Marina hiding from Howard's wife). I still love the originals. It's time to get hold of those DVDs...

It baffles some environmentalists that many people (by no means all of them living in the U.S.A.) feel no connection between their use of electric appliances and the size of their electricity bills (and still less any connection to their effect on the world around us).

It's not really surprising. If I ruled the world (happily for both me and you, this is not the case) then I would decree that every everyone should ride one of those generator bikes connected to a 100W light bulb for about 10 minutes, generating enough electricity to keep the bulb well lit. If you have done this yourself, or pedalled on one of those fancy exercise bikes that monitor the power you are generating, you will know that generating 100W isn't particularly difficult, but you will certainly feel the work involved after 10 minutes - and that's the important thing.

Now imagine hooking up 7 of those bulbs, and trying again (this time to generate 700W). You would actually be trying to generate nearly 1 horsepower, which (unless you were a horse) you would probably find somewhat difficult!

100W is a good number to have in mind, since you can feel it with your leg muscles. You can roast a chicken in a couple of hours with a 100W light bulb if you place the light bulb and the chicken in a well-insulated box. Since you probably don't want to roast a chicken with a light bulb, you can replace it with a 20W low-energy bulb that doesn't waste 80W on heat (and your electricity bills). There are still an awful lot of old-fashioned light bulbs burning on this planet...

The Open University and the BBC's Bang Goes The Theory took this idea of connecting people to the power of their appliances a lot further. They built a "Human Power Station" that had enough generator bikes (over 80) to power a typical house. They hooked it up to a purpose-built studio house, installed a normal family in the house, and told the family to carry out their normal daily routines. The family knew this was an experiment, but had no idea what the experiment actually was.

The film "The Human Power Station" shows the result, as the family used various appliances throughout the day. The whole film is no longer available on-line, but if you click the above image you can still see the clip of what happened when the father used the 8 KW electric power shower (equivalent to 80 100W light bulbs).

(My apologies on behalf of the idiot who mis-titled the video clip "The Human Power Shower", instead of "The Human Power Station")

The film was effective and entertaining, even if you didn't need to watch the whole hour to get the idea.

Since watching it I do things like switching off our super-fast (3,000W) kettle as soon as it boils, without waiting another 20 seconds or so for the automatic cut-out. This is because I have a mental image of 3,000W being equivalent to 150 low-energy light bulbs, which would illuminate a good part of the large apartment block in which we live.

Food for thought, anyway...

If you like this...

[How much electricity does my stuff use?]

From my web site:

[The Negawatt Revolution]
[The Smart Grid]

(Original post: July 7th, 2010)

This hour-long documentary from the BBC marks the inauguration of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, arguably the most advanced engines in the world today.

A turbofan engine (top half of graphic) is simple (hence reliable) in concept, but its engineering is about as far from simple as you can get.

Most of the thrust actually comes from propellers - fan blades - which are mounted inside an outer enclosure. The fan blades are driven by a turbojet engine, around which flows the cold air from the fan.

This engine has 20 fan blades, which together pump over a ton of air each second. Each one costs about the same as a typical family car, and has to exert a force equivalent to lifting 13 double-decker buses.

When fitted inside their shroud, the blades have an end-clearance of less than 1mm.

Each blade is precision-made from a 3-layer titanium sandwich, in a secret process that involves inflating the blade to get this super-strong structure.

Each blade is then tapped with a mallet and its exact natural resonance electronically measured. The order in which the blades are fitted around the shaft depends on matching these resonances for perfect balance.

This is where the business happens. The hot air from the combustion chamber, compressed by the blades towards the front of the turbojet, hits 96 turbine blades, which have to operate in a "fairly harsh environment". At maximum thrust they turn at 10,000 RPM, moving at 800 MPH, surrounded by a temperature of 1700 degrees - which is 300 degrees above the melting point of the alloy.

Each turbine blade feels a force of some 18 tons. Normal metal is crystalline in nature - under a microscope it is reminiscent of a granite kitchen worktop - and isn't strong enough for this task. Rolls-Royce has developed a process, the non-secret parts of which are shown in this film, for casting each blade as a single super-high-strength crystal.

The "fir tree" base of one blade, which will be machined to 7 microns - and keep that tolerance after being stretched by 18 tons of force.

The upper part of the blade, showing the cooling channels that stop the alloy melting, by removing enough heat to boil twenty kettles in each second.

The prototype engine has to pass two years of tests before it is certified. One of these is pumping 30,000 gallons per hour of water through the engine, during which it must work normally.

(Twin engined aircraft crossing the Atlantic have to be certified for ETOPS, which officially stands for Extended Twin OPerationS. Unofficially, although the film doesn't say this, it stands for "Engines Turning Or Passengers Swimming". An ETOPS-certified aircraft must have ultra-reliable engines, and be able to fly perfectly well on only one engine.)

The most spectacular test destroys a very expensive engine. A fan blade is detached by an explosive charge with the engine running at full thrust, resulting in a force of unbelievable magnitude...

...and an eye-blink later, the engine is ruined but everything has been contained within the super-tough outer shell.

While the technology is truly awesome, the documentary also focuses on the people that make it all happen. Rolls-Royce cars are now made by BMW, but the aero-engine business is still the old Rolls-Royce. From people who deal with logistics to people who carry out precision machining, from metallurgy specialists to people who check and test every aspect of every process, these are folk for whom mistakes are simply not an option.

Even what looks like a very large call-centre turns out to be a room-full of specialists monitoring, 24/7 in real time, the performance of engines powering hundreds of aircraft flying all over the world.

The style of the documentary occasionally set my teeth on edge, but the content is well worth watching.

If you liked this, the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine is featured here:

[Florida's least-known major attraction: Fantasy of Flight]

and if you would like to explore the world from your PC:

[My "Flight Simulator" page]

This is an extraordinarily interesting series of 15-minute radio programmes, available here online.

I caught this first episode and I was struck by a conversation that takes place towards the end.

Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, opens up some themes discussed in the programmes:

1. Should [ancient objects and relics] be here [in the British Museum] anyway?

2. Where do things from the past belong now?

3. Should everything be exhibited where it was originally made?

He asks the Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif about how she felt about seeing so many Egyptian antiquities so far from home, and this was the reply:

When I heard that, I thought about how isolated so many of us (many people in America, and many cultural enclaves in other countries) have become from the rest of the world, and how much better it would be for all of us if this great lady had her wish.

[More on life improvement]

(Original post: September 11th, 2009 - updated again July 28th 2014)

One of the best things I have seen on TV for a long time is the original Swedish version of Henning Mankell's Inspector Wallander, starring Krister Henriksson and Johanna Sallstrom (Johanna later died tragically), which has been running on BBC4. The BBC (for reasons best known to themselves) have suspended the series after 10 episodes, deciding to show the remaining 3 episodes of this series over the Christmas period (actually as of October 2009 they are starting again with the entire 13 episodes).

The cinematography, atmosphere, acting and stories have all been really first class. A good English language version of 3 episodes starring Kenneth Branagh introduced Wallander to many English viewers who (like me) had never heard of him, but the original Swedish version is even better.

Wallander has some of the melancholy of Inspector Morse (Kenneth Branagh was dubbed "Inspector Norse"), but he is not the "prima donna" of John Thaw's classic interpretation of Morse. Krister Henriksson plays Wallander as a serious cop, well able to work with colleagues (including his screen daughter Linda) who are real people with real problems. The sometimes tedious conventions of English and American TV detective shows are refreshingly missing in Wallander. The events in the stories are often quite brutal, but are counterbalanced by the natural beauty of the area, the realistic and absorbing personal relationships, and the quietness of the professional police operations.

The Inspector Wallander web site, intended for English-speaking fans, is an excellent source of information on the series. Among other things you can find out about the second Swedish series, and get advice on a logical reading order for the translated books.

I am actually not a great fan of the books, especially the early ones. Kenneth Branagh's version of Wallander is drawn from these books, whereas the Krister Hendriksson version is based on specially-written stories for the series, when Wallander is much older and more experienced.

The second series of Wallander starring Krister Henriksson is, unusually for a sequel, every bit as good as the first. Wallander's daughter is no longer with him (for reasons not dwelt on), but a new recruit, played excellently by Nina Zanjani, provides a new non-sexual relationship with Wallander which is part of the enormous appeal of this series.

The third (and definitely final) series is not quite as enjoyable as the second, due to Wallander's character succumbing slowly to Alzheimer's as his career draws to its inevitable end, but is of unmissable quality. His daughter Linda returns, this time married and played most capably by Charlotta Jonsson. Krister Hendriksson's acting, however, is in a class of its own.

In 2014, Britain is totally hooked on the superb standard of Nordic Noir and Borgen. Krister Hendriksson's Wallander was where it all began.

If you like this...

[My Movies/TV page]

(Original post: August 10th, 2009)

For me, one of life's little gems is a BBC Radio 4 programme, Desert Island Discs. Still running today, it was first broadcast on 29 January 1942 and is surely the longest-running music programme in the history of radio.

Its simple format, in the hands of an expert and 'sympathique' presenter, delivers 43 minutes of fascinating conversation with a really interesting guest, together with eight musical selections, a choice of book and a single luxury to be taken to the hypothetical island. The last guest I listened to (Nicky Haslam) had, among other things, been a real cowboy on his own ranch, the man in charge of layout on Vogue magazine, a good friend of Bryan Ferry, and an acquaintance of Cole Porter. I learnt from him that Maria Callas (one of his favourite singers) got her inspiration to become an opera singer from listening to Deanna Durbin singing "Springtime Will Be A Little Late This Year" by Frank Loesser.

This list of past episodes is a treasure trove of interesting stuff on people and their choices, and makes me wish that I could have listened to every one of them. Until recently, some pesky "rights issues" meant that although you could hear the episodes on-line they could only be listened to live - you couldn't listen to them after transmission on iPlayer. Now it seems that you can. Also, if you can receive digital TV broadcasts in or from the UK, these digital stations include radio as well as TV and you can set up a timed recording as for any other programme.

If you are awake on a Sunday morning at 11:15 (local British time), go here if you would like to listen to a true radio gem. For other times of transmission, to listen on iPlayer or to check on upcoming programmes, go here.

["By A Sleepy Lagoon" (Eric Coates) - the Desert Island Discs theme music]
[Radio 4 home page]
[Listen to Radio 4 Live]

Just two of many extraordinary images taken from the Cassini spacecraft. I have added a red arrow to the first image to point to a tiny speck - our own planet Earth.

It's mind-boggling to think that these images were transmitted successfully to several infinitely more tiny dishes on that tiny speck, taking up to 90 minutes at the speed of light to get there, and that we (tinier still) are somewhere on that tiny speck looking at them... and that some of us, working together, were capable of this great achievement.

In this really interesting slide show, Carl Murray, a member of the Cassini Imaging Team from Queen Mary College London, takes us on a tour of Saturn, its arcs and moons - including Titan, which appears to have geological features similar to Earth's.

[More on the Cassini mission]
[Some more of my space exploration favourites]

From the page:

Immortalised as toothy, gauche games mistress, Gossage ("Call me Sausage") in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), former journalist [Joyce] Grenfell invaded over 20 often-unexceptional British films, creating moments of treasurable idiocy.

She is wonderfully exasperated with Alastair Sim's further postponement of their wedding ("I've been home three weeks and I've had a bath") in Laughter in Paradise (1951), is all fringe and jangling beads as the hotel proprietress in Genevieve (1953), was several times hilariously love-lorn Policewoman (later Sergeant) Ruby Gates in the St Trinian's series.

As a celebrated monologuist, gently caricaturing the middle classes, she showed wider emotional range than films ever explored. Appeared in many revues, as well as her own inimitable one-woman shows, which she wrote and with which she toured extensively. She was living proof that you could be a sharp satirist without - miraculously - descending to malice; she is as English as glee-singing and much more fun. She was awarded an OBE in 1946.

I recently bought the Joyce Grenfell BBC Collection DVD set, and was reminded of what a lovely person and talented lady she was. The 2-disc DVD set (click the image for links) has her wonderful broadcasts from 1964 and 1972. They include all her comic favourites (e.g. "George... don't do that!") but also some very poignant portraits of self-sacrifice and emotional suffering.

[More on Joyce Grenfell]

Julia Bradbury (the daughter of a steel-industry father from Derbyshire and a Greek mother, and a right nice lass) has become one of my favourite people after I watched BBC Four's series Wainwright Walks, set in the English Lake District - now available on DVD.

I love the Lakeland Fells and Alfred Wainwright's superb hand-drawn and hand-written guides to them, and Julia clearly does too.

The two series of half-hour programmes take you on ten of Wainwright's best fell walks, through some of the most beautiful wild scenery in the world. The names of the fells convey something of their unique character: Haystacks (where Wainwright's ashes are scattered), Blencathra, Castle Crag, Scafell Pike, Helvellyn, and in the second series Catbells, Crinkle Crags & Bowfell, Helm Crag, High Street and Pillar.

Each programme includes a short sequence of superb aerial photography, taken from a helicopter, providing (literally) an overview of the route to be followed. This footage is a wonderful supplement to Wainwright's guides, and is almost worth the price of the DVDs by itself (and is taken on clear days, even when the actual walks encounter Lakeland's famously changeable weather).

The ground-based photography of the actual walks ("walk" being a term that occasionally includes serious scrambling, but excludes rock climbing needing a rope) is equally superb - the next best thing to being there. Even though you know that camera-men are present, the sense of solitude that Wainwright valued so highly is beautifully conveyed.

Along the way Julia meets various locals, some of whom knew Wainwright personally, all of whom add greatly to the interest of the walks. On some sections she is (very sensibly) accompanied by an expert guide.

Whether you are planning a trip to the Lakeland Fells or would just like to experience them from your armchair, I can't recommend these DVDs enough. They will give you five hours of real pleasure.

[My photoblog of a trip to the English Lakes, September 2008]