torsdag 18 maj 2017

A novel about a touching friendship. Oh, and some schoolgirls

Even though I cheated and read the novel in Swedish - a Swedish paperback was available for borrowing - I'm still a bit chuffed that I managed to make my way through all 500-plus pages of Tana French's The Secret Place in comparatively short time. It was, admittedly, not that difficult a read. The setting itself lends glamour - St Kilda's, a high-class Irish boarding school for girls.

As many Swedish book bloggers have testified, crime stories (or any stories, really) set in a school or university environment have a charm of their own which is hard to describe. (Swedish-speakers may want to check out this "If you liked The Secret History you'll love..." list, for instance.) Though some books in this genre are steeped in academe, others are decidedly not, and the school/university setting merely serves as a backdrop. Yet, it adds instant atmosphere. I'm slightly puzzled about my own fondness for academy yarns: yes, I can see the appeal of university, but school? It's not as if I'd ever want to go back to my own school days. A crucial aspect of these mostly-crime-novels, though, is that the school or university in question is always tradition-heavy and upmarket: not to put too fine a point on it, posh. So we get seemingly idyllic, leafy surroundings while being sternly told that these surroundings hide all kinds of sinister goings-on. It's a classic having-your-cake-and-eating-it scenario: while we are to draw the conclusion that we shouldn't judge an institution by its pretty façade, we wouldn't really want to do without the pretty façade in question in the story being told.

The Secret Place goes easy on the academe: The Likeness, also by French, was closer to The Secret History formula than this tale of moderately study-motivated teenagers. Still, there are points in common between The Likeness and The Secret Place, especially the theme of a close-knit group of friends where a threat to or perceived betrayal of the friendship eventually triggers a murder. This time, it's four girls in their early teens who share an especially intense bond. A year after a teenage boy, who was rumoured to be interested in one of the girls, was killed on St Kilda's premises, another member of the gang - the self-possessed Holly - brings a photo she has found on the school notice board where the pupils are encouraged to unload their secrets to the police. The photo shows the murdered boy and bears the inscription "I know who killed him". There are two separate mysteries, then: who killed the boy, Chris Harper, and who put the photo on the notice board? Holly's set, as well as a rivalling gang of girls led by the school bitch, are in the frame.

Though the schoolgirls are well-described, I found myself, surprisingly, more caught up in another plot thread: that of the two coppers on the case. Holly makes contact with a policeman working in the Cold Cases unit with whom she's had dealings before when she was a child witness: the unapologetically social-climbing Stephen Moran. Stephen brings the new evidence to the inspector in charge of the Chris Harper case, Antoinette Conway (who is only ever called Conway), hoping this will be his way to get a foot in the door of the Murder Squad. Conway lets him work on the case as second-in-command on sufferance, on the clear understanding that one misstep will land him right back to Cold Cases. First, I wanted Stephen not to let Conway down so he could continue working on the case (as one of the teenage protagonists might phrase it: well, duh). Then I wanted him not to let her down, full stop. In spite of reluctance from both sides, a rapport grows between them - Stephen, who's dreamt of a classy, cultured male working partner who could help him forget his own social insecurities, is surprised at how well he gels with a chippy female inspector from a similar modest background. Stephen is the narrator of half of the story - the other half, describing what really happened the months leading up to Chris Harper's death, is sandwiched in in alternating chapters - and I found myself looking forward to the cop bits, and hoping that Stephen's ambition wouldn't lead him astray and tempt him to leave what is obviously his ideal work mate in the lurch. I suspect that we're not necessarily supposed to want the cops to uncover the murderer, seeing as the culprit is most likely a mere girl who was only fifteen at the time of the killing. Well, tough. I was all in favour of Stephen and Conway getting their chit; careers and a potentially beautiful friendship are at stake here.

It's not as if the schoolgirl part is uninteresting, and I for one was convinced by the girls' teenage mind set. If I ever brave another Tana French novel, however, it will probably be in hope of seeing more of the Conway-Moran duo.

torsdag 11 maj 2017

Eurovision: Ballads, ballads everywhere, and scarcely a tune to hum

Here we go, then. I confess I haven't really been able to fire up my usual interest in Eurovision - neither the Swedish heats nor the European competition - this time around. I hope that it's a passing thing and not a sign I'm getting too old to enjoy what used to be a sure-fire mood lifter for the winter and spring months, when there's usually precious little else happening on the TV front. Perhaps one reason for my comparative lack of interest is the songs themselves: there are few really bad ones, but on the other hand there are few that really make an impression. Swedish TV scrapped its traditional panel programme reviewing of the Eurovision songs this year, which meant I had to catch up on them on Youtube. I started out optimistically, but after about the tenth competent but unmemorable power ballad I began to feel bored. Call me old-fashioned, but a good pop tune in my view really should have a hummable chorus. I still know the tune of the chorus of "Rise Like a Phoenix", which goes to show there was more to Conchita than that beard.

Still, I've managed to find a few contenders I quite liked the sound of. Caveat one: some of these I have not heard live yet, and they may sound better on video. Caveat two: 42 songs are a lot: I may have missed some really obvious star number in the power ballad flood.

United Kingdom: Maybe it's because this was the first Eurovision song I heard (excepting the serviceable but bland Swedish one), maybe it's my britophilia, maybe it's the just-about-applicable-to-villain-situation message ("I'll never give up on you" - attagirl). Anyway, I believe this is my favourite among the ballads. I know it's too late to ease diplomatic relations by giving the UK points - unlike last year - and the bewildering half-rhymes would be more understandable from a country where English is not the first language. Nevertheless, this is a good tune. Let's cut the limeys some slack this year.

The Netherlands: Speaking of pep talks, here are three babes in the wood (enchanted?) singing a tremendously supportive song. If the girls manage to sing in harmony as well live as they do on video (update: they did) this should be worth listening to.

France: Gosh, it's a beautiful language, isn't it? I can forgive a little English in the chorus. Moreover, the video was shot in Paris, and made me dance around a bit. Much depends on how well the singer does live, but if she delivers, this is a sweet swinger of a song.

Cyprus: Finally, a hummable chorus! The song is written by a Swedish Eurovision pro, and it shows. The number may not be as polished as Russian Sergey's "You're the Only One" last year, which was in the same genre, but it will serve.

Switzerland and Estonia are two maybes: in Switzerland's case, though I did get tired of the number before the video was through, it was professionally done and sung, plus I was intrigued as to where Apollo - the name of the song - fitted into the whole thing. Ever since I got Apollo (Apollon?) as the Greek god I most resembled on a Facebook test, I've had a particular sympathy for the Olympos straight guy. Not everyone can be Hermes-like and mischievous. In Estonia's case, we get a duet - which makes for a nice change - a classic Eurovision sound and references, albeit somewhat confusing, to Romeo and Juliet. But again, the song outstays its welcome somewhat.

So there we are: not that bad, when you come to think of it. I have no idea who could win this year, and it may very well be none of the above. The boy from Australia (yes, they're back) is a real looker and sings well, but let's be honest: the song is a snooze. Then again, I didn't see last year's winner coming, either.  

onsdag 26 april 2017

No capes!

It's funny, considering my many ultra-nerdy interests, that few things leave me as stone cold as superheroes. Occasionally I wonder whether I may be a little hard on this genre out of sheer ignorance. Look at all the articulate geeks on Youtube whose theories on Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and yes, even Harry Potter I'm happy to get into. They're intelligent, and at the same time genuinely interested in who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. Am I missing something?

It is just possible: after all, when I grew up, superhero fare was a far cry from the high-budget CGI-ed blockbusters of today. I think I saw two of the Superman films, plus some episodes of the old Batman TV series which even Caped Crusader fans consider a joke. It's only reasonable to assume that more thought went into recent superhero films than the one where Superman goes back in time one day by reversing the turning of Planet Earth (even as a kid, I thought that a bit rum). At least a slice of those multi-million budgets must have gone into scripts and storyboarding, especially considering all the fans out there who will be only too adept at finding holes in the plot. And if it's possible to make fairy-tale characters complex (which it is), then it should be possible to add complexity to just about anything, including superheroes, right?

Yes, maybe, but I still can't bring myself to give this genre another try. Perhaps the concept of a heightened version of the brawny hero with boy-scout morals who sticks it to the baddies, receives adulation from the crowds, sees the world in black and white - because in his case it is - and never has to bother his thick head about nuances, or about anything really, is just too appalling for a lover of brainy villains to ever get behind, no matter how much thought or money they throw at it. Heroes are, for the most part, a pain. Superheroes are a superpain. Then it's just so silly. Secret identity? Those outfits? Edna in The Incredibles (one of my least favourite Pixar films for a reason) strongly advises her superhero clients not to wear capes, which invariably get in the way and suck you into aeroplane engines etc. ("no capes!"). Hey, why not scrap the whole ridiculous gym one-piece look while you're at it?

Given my superhero scepticism, I wasn't too thrilled to learn that Doctor Who would be flirting with the genre in the 2016 Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Still, as it's the only new Who available to us poor Swedes at the moment while the Brits are enjoying a brand new series, I eventually and reluctantly invested in the DVD. It turns out that it's quite nice: they can say what they like, Steven Moffat knows how to turn out a zingy script, and Peter Capaldi is as always a superb Doctor. What puzzled me, though, is that Moffat doesn't seem to know much more about superheroes than I do. The story's protagonist Grant, who is accidentally turned into a superhero by the Doctor then enjoined not to use his powers (give it up, already! Special powers will always out), bears a marked resemblance to the old-style Superman of my childhood days. He can fly. He has superstrength. His everyday persona wears glasses as a camouflage and yearns for a female reporter, who has a bit of a thing for the superhero (called The Ghost) and doesn't twig that he and her supportive male nanny are one and the same person. There's also some rather lame jokes about X-ray vision. If even I can pick up on these references, then they're pretty darn obvious, and also somewhat long in the tooth. I just don't quite get why Moffat wanted to do a superhero story in the first place if he's not more into the genre than this. Having said that, the romance between Grant and the female reporter Lucy is sweet, especially when she acknowledges that it's Grant the nanny she truly loves, not the glamorous Ghost. The enemy aliens are acting under the cover of a Big Scary Corporation, which is in no way unoriginal but makes for some pleasingly eerie ultra-modern office set pieces, and there's a bit of a twist at the beginning concerning who the mastermind behind the alien plot is, or rather who it isn't. A doubtful line or two from the Doctor which displays a rather simplistic view of world politics is set off by other lines that work better ("It's a good plan. I like it. Why doesn't our side ever have plans like this?" he says approvingly about the evil alien plot).

The Doctor is always the Doctor, or at least I hope so. I'm not looking forward to the end of the Moffat era - The Doctor Who episodes penned by his successor Chris Chibnall are not among my favourites - and it saddens me no end that we're to lose Capaldi as well after series ten. To be fair, though, three series are about the average for a Doctor actor, so he's not jumping ship indecently early. All Doctors I've seen since I started watching the series back in Eccleston's day have been great, so in this instance one just has to trust the casting director.

Superheroes, though. What do those bright female reporters actually see in them?

onsdag 12 april 2017

Page-turners and making a formula work

I have previously whined - here, for instance - when encountering popular fiction that didn't manage to make something of even the most promising page-turning recipes. In view of this, it's only fair to note when I have had the good luck to come across two novels in a row which actually pull off the tried-and-trusted popular formulas they're making use of. When I say they use formulas, I don't mean they're formulaic in the negative sense of the word; rather that you will probably have encountered novels with a similar set-up, but it doesn't matter one jot. One reason plots like these are used so often they sometimes form a whole genre of their own is that they can work extremely well, but only in the hands of authors who know how to handle them.

To start with the slightly more prestigious one, I had a good time with Carol Goodman's The Night Villa. It's not the first novel by Goodman that I've read and enjoyed; you could almost say that you can't put a Goodman down. However, her books have proved strangely blog-resistant, which does not have to be a bad thing at all. If I'd felt terribly annoyed with several aspects of one or several of her books, I could have filled a post about them in no time. As it is, what can I say? It's good, solid, atmospheric, well-written entertainment, often with an added pinch of learning worn lightly.

Goodman's speciality is the surprisingly tricky genre of the past-and-present mystery/romance. What distinguishes this genre is that there are two plots, one which takes place in the present day, and one in the past, either within living memory or in historical times. In the past, there are mostly one or several mysteries to be discovered by the protagonists in the present-day plot, who meanwhile have their own problems - often of a romantic nature - to deal with as well. The two-plots-in-one structure might seem the perfect vehicle for historical tales, but as a matter of fact I often find myself more interested in the modern-day plot when reading novels like these. Goodman's books are no exception. Maybe it's because her modern-day heroines (it's always a she, and I can't say I miss a masculine outlook) are so likeably flawed, while the female protagonist in the past story tends to be someone the modern heroine finds altogether admirable and wants to champion - which in contrary readers like myself prompts the reaction "hang on, she's not as great as all that". The heroine in the past often has a female enemy - there's a distinct "women beware women" feel, especially as the modern-day heroine usually runs into at least one female character who is spectacularly rude to her for little reason - but it has happened more than once that I've sort of seen the female enemy's point. But this doesn't matter much as the attractive settings with an academic and/or cultural flavour and the well-crafted prose suck you in.

In The Night Villa, most of the plot takes place around an excavation in Italy, where scrolls have come to light which tell a story about the goings-on at the eponymous villa at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Characters from the academic world - check. Classical myths playing a part in the story - check. Likeable, flustered heroine with a problematic past - check. Historical female character in need of championing (Iusta, a roman freedwoman unjustly hauled back into slavery by her former mistress) - check. Some whodunnit elements and more than one potential love interest for the heroine - check. Goodman readers will recognise many of the ingredients, but also appreciate the way they're used here. It's not my favourite of her books - I think that would be Arcadia Falls - but it's definitely a good read.

The plot used by Lauren Willig in The Other Daughter is even more familiar: it's the "impostor in high society" story with shades of Cinderella. In the 1920s, Rachel Woodley returns from a governessing post in France to the English village where she grew up, only to learn that her mother has already died of influenza. Matters are made worse when Rachel discovers that far from being dead as she thought, her long-lost father is very much alive. Moreover, he turns out to be an earl who married an heiress and produced two children, among them another daughter, who have enjoyed every privilege which Rachel has had to do without. With the help of the well-born gossip columnist Simon Montford, Rachel passes herself off as a Bright Young Thing in order to get closer to her father and his family and then to... well, she doesn't know exactly.

The best-handled part of the story is the convincing way in which Rachel's feelings towards her parents are described: she wants to hate her father badly but can't quite manage it. It's also reliably enjoyable to see her playing at being a rakish society girl while trying to suppress her no-nonsense governess instincts. But while it's a welcome variation of the formula that her father's family is not hateful (with the exception of his wife) and that Rachel never really comes close to wreaking any revenge on them, it does raise the question what the real purpose with her charade is. The plot is set up as The Count of Monte Christo light, but when it turns out that Simon's motives aren't that dastardly either, I did feel a little cheated. Still, it saved me from feeling guilty about not being too keen on Simon. Here's a man who manages to smuggle a penniless girl into high(ish) society, provides her with the werewithal in terms of frocks and such, is once referred to as her "evil genius" and talks about them having a "business arrangement" (and the synonym of that would be... a deal!). I ought to approve, right? But I was always hard on aristocratic lounge-lizards, and Simon's drawling so-called witticisms and brushings-off of invisible specks of dust got my goat. And then it turns out he doesn't have some immensely clever master plan, so I'm off the hook - I don't have to like him after all.

So there you are, two lightish reads which I had no trouble getting through in spite of a lack of fanciable villains. Is it spoilerish to say that last bit? If so, consider that I might just be too picky. I'm not saying there aren't any villains at all...

onsdag 29 mars 2017

Why I won't be missing The Halcyon after all

I had got to episode six of ITV's new period drama The Halcyon when I learned that it had been axed after only one series, and I can't say I was surprised. Though it did pick up during the last two episodes, in the end this series took far too long to get off the ground. I've seen far worse costume dramas, but I've also seen better, and I've certainly seen more exciting ones.

The first episode of The Halcyon left me feeling hopeful that it could amount to something: if not the new Downton, then at least the new Mr Selfridge. And something you could say about the series was that its creators plainly cared about the characters. They were nice: maybe even a little too nice. Mr Garland the manager is a good man who looks after hotel owners and staff alike, though he sometimes uses vaguely questionable methods in doing so. His daughter Emma is a heroine born and bred - efficient, fair-minded, brave and, just as it happens, very pretty. The porter is nice; the switchboard operator is nice; the Indian bartender Adil who falls in love with the youngest Hamilton brother is the kind of dishy, devoted boyfriend I would have wished for Thomas in Downton; the cynical-on-the-surface (though not that cynical) American journalist Joe O'Hara has a heart of gold; the earthy jazz singer Betsey Day is a sweetheart, and to do the show credit her romance with the touchingly protective band leader Sonny is far more convincing than Downton Rose's dalliance with Jack Ross. Even Lady Hamilton is not so bad after all. All in all, the characters are such good eggs it's hard to get some real drama-fuelling conflict going.

In a way, The Halcyon's problem was the opposite of Poldark's. Poldark had sketchy characters but plenty of plot. The Halcyon had promising characters but little plot to go with it. The fact that the series was set in a hotel was something rarely used to dramatic advantage: we saw surprisingly little of the guests. Then there was the World War Two setting, and the usual peddling of the Bravery during the Blitz cliché. Storylines included Emma influencing O'Hara to stay on in Britain and report on how fantastically courageous everyone was instead of taking a dream job back home. One thing that decided him was meeting the flying crew of Emma's other love interest, the young Lord Hamilton aka Freddie; great chaps, who were so not going to bomb towns and civilians to smithereens themselves a little later on in the war. When Emma risked her life during a bombing attack by staying with a corpse because she had promised the corpse's daughter, I'd had my fill of wartime heroism; I sorely missed the nuances of Foyle's War, which always remembered that human nature during wartime remains the same as during peacetime (thankfully from a drama perspective).

And then there was the villain, or rather the lack of one. All right, so we had a villain reveal, but not until episode six, which in a run of eight episodes was far, far too late. What's more, he wasn't up to much. I can see how it must have looked good on paper - the amoral spy lurking behind an always genial exterior - but the problem was, we only got the genial exterior, and no hint of steel beneath. The scene where the villain showed his true colours by blackmailing Adil should have been full of smooth menace, but wasn't; there was a disappointing lack of villain purring. Not much more character development was forthcoming afterwards either: this was the kind of bad guy who gets himself killed in the series finale for being a nuisance.

I know I can't complain about there being any lack of costume dramas, but what with the somewhat underplotted shows set in the Forties and Fifties which we've had lately - Grantchester, The Collection, The Crown, The Halcyon - I find myself longing for both more costume and more drama, not to mention a decent stab at a costume-drama villain. I suspect that there's some kind of notion that it's unsophisticated to include a villain in a drama, but a villain needn't be a boo-hissable pantomime character (not that I think I would even boo a pantomime villain if I saw one - King Rat sounds promising). A villain can be complex, as long as he or she poses a threat to one or several of the main characters and reveals something about the darker sides of human nature. Other genres - such as, ahem, fairy-tale-inspired fantasy - get this. The next crew who aspires to create a costume drama to rival Downton should too.

torsdag 16 mars 2017

The art of character-pinching: serial numbers on or off?

I know I've already gushed about the first part of James Benmore's Dodger trilogy, but it's worth noting that the two follow-up volumes - Dodger of the Dials and Dodger of the Revolution - are equally first-rate. True, they're not so chock-full of references to other Dickens novels and characters, but there are a few. Noah Claypole resurfaces in Dodger of the Dials (though disappointingly it is never made clear that it is he, not Oliver Twist, who is responsible for Fagin's fate) as well as Oliver himself as a young man, who turns out to be convincingly priggish and likeable at the same time. In Dodger of the Revolution, which I've recently finished reading, we're introduced to the grandson of the Defarges in A Tale of Two Cities (who's a chip off the old block) and the son of Rigaud in Little Dorrit (who, luckily for Dodger, isn't).

What especially impressed me was the continuing charm of the central character, who feels true to Dickens's original throughout. It would have been easy to go down the predictable route of making Jack Dawkins aka The Artful Dodger into a sort of class warrior, what with him having reason to find himself in Paris during the June uprising of 1848 and everything. However, when Dodger is - in spite of himself - carried away by revolutionary ardour, it's because of the festive feel at the beginning of the revolt, before the actual fighting starts. His good humour remains: while there's fellow-feeling with the hard-up masses of Paris, he can't really bring himself to hate those better off than them or himself (though pinching their valuables is obviously not a problem). Dodger's mission in Paris is to steal a valuable document on behalf of a brother and sister which proves their claim to legitimacy and an aristocratic estate, but while these siblings are snooty enough to have anyone in Dodger's position casting a side glance in the general direction of the nearest lamp post, he actually sees the point of his employers and quite likes them. I have a feeling this trilogy hasn't done as well as it deserves sales-wise (I only found the first volume by a fluke), which is a pity: I think I'm going to miss the Artful.

Benmore's sure touch is the more noteworthy since it's especially difficult to get another author's characters right if you keep their name and setting, giving yourself little leeway to do your own thing with them. If you stray too far from the original, fans like myself will complain and wonder - as I have done more times than I can count - why you didn't simply invent your own character with some traits in common with a figure from a well-loved classic. If, on the other hand, you don't put any kind of new spin on your material, you risk what I call character congealitis, where all the reader gets is a tired retread of a series of traits and mannerisms displayed by the original character, though seldom as well done as the first time around.

On balance, then, it seems less risky to do what I believe is called "filing off the serial numbers", though if wiki sources are anything to go by the expression is mostly used when writers of fan fiction change characters' names etc. for copyright reasons. The practice has its non-copyright-related advantages as well, though. If you pinch a character, or several - hey, why stop at one? - from another author and change the names, you can suddenly do what you like with the raw material. It doesn't have to stop with the name, the setting or the general context: you can experiment with changing a few of the personality traits as well and see what happens. Is the original character's essence still there, or has the non-serial-numbered copy morphed into something else entirely? And does it matter, as long as the result is a success?

Filing the serial numbers off has its own perils, though. Kate Saunders included some characters from David Copperfield in her Victorian crime story The Secret of Wishtide, but under other names. She wasn't sneaky about it - she made the characters' origins clear in her acknowledgements. Still, their inclusion irked me strangely, though I've always wanted to see more in the prequel/sequel/retelling genre relating to Dickens. Moreover, I've loved other books by Saunders (Wild Young Bohemians especially) and was glad to see her writing fiction for adults again. However, truth be told, the Copperfield copies were so close to the originals that I didn't see much point in giving them other names at all, though it does allow the author to imagine another (not necessarily better) fate for them than in Dickens's novel. There was also a slightly didactic "look how women were treated in Victorian times" feel to the story, even if the heroine (entirely Saunders's own creation) was not the judgemental kind. While I understand how Dickens's telling of the Little Em'ly story could get anyone's blood up, I didn't feel that Saunders added anything new to my understanding of her, Steerforth, his mother or Rosa Dartle who are the borrowed characters in question. I think what it amounts to is that if you do file off the serial numbers, you should do something with the freedom this brings you. Either that or I'm just miffed that Uriah didn't make an appearance.

torsdag 2 mars 2017

Poldark series 2: Is it George, or me, or the whole series?

I feel bad about George Warleggan. I was so enthusiastic about him when first making his acquaintance: he was hot, he was brainy, he was a banker, he had slender hands perfect for coin-weighing, and his enemy Ross Poldark was so irritating it made siding with George even easier. I really thought, once I'd seen the last of Downton's Thomas (except for a possible film which shows no sign of materialising anytime soon), that Gorgeous George might prove to be my consolation and be promoted to the position of prime villain crush.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. When I finally got round to watching series two of Poldark, I found myself oddly unimpressed by George. I didn't dislike him, and I certainly didn't switch sides and start rooting for the increasingly awful Ross. I just didn't feel anything for him. What makes it worse, instead of being disappointed, I was relieved: it made a nice change to be able to view a villain's setbacks without feeling as if someone had my heart in their hand and was slowly squeezing it. So why this cooling of my affections?

All right, maybe one doesn't need three days to guess the name of the reason why. But even if the post of my new prime villain crush is already resoundingly taken, I should be able to appreciate other bad guys and judge them by their own merits, not hold them up to some dizzyingly high master-villain standards which they were never designed to meet. George still looks a perfect banker peach, and Ross still needs to be taught a lesson by someone. Am I as fickle as Carmen not to become more engaged in the fight? Or could the fault lie with George himself?

Of course it must. I do believe the lessening appeal of George illustrates some wider problems with the second series of Poldark. It wasn't necessarily worse than the first one - though it started really weakly, before shaping up mid-way - it just didn't develop. Poldark never looked set to become the new Brideshead Revisited, but in the first series the storytelling zest made you forgive (up to a point) the fairly basic setup and characterisation. However, when a drama makes it to the second series, you expect layers to be added and new insights into the main characters to be revealed. This did not happen here. True, Francis toughens up quite inexplicably from one day to the next, but still remains as convinced of his own supposed inferiority to Ross as everyone else. As for the rest, they act exactly in the same way as in the first series, and if anything lose rather than gain in complexity. New characters are sometimes so threadbare as to be reduced to one characteristic or function. George's sidekick Tankard is weaselly. The intended fiancé of Doctor Enys's new love interest - a spoiled heiress - is a buffoon. John Nettles as Penvenen, the uncle of said heiress, has little else to do but to twinkle avuncularly. And the main characters? Demelza loves Ross, but is jealous of Elizabeth. Elizabeth, too, loves Ross. Francis admires Ross above anything. Enys is Ross's best friend. George envies Ross, which is why he spends his time doing little else than plotting his downfall...

See where I'm going with this? For the most part, the other characters are simply feeds to Ross, who isn't even close to deserving this much attention - in fact, he's a jerk, and not a particularly bright one. Yet never is it hinted that this darling of the Cornwall mining community may not live up to all the hype. I watched in disbelief as he was acquitted of all wrongdoing after overseeing the plundering of the Warleggans' wrecked ship, and not even having the grace to be sorry about it afterwards. His argument that he was helping the impoverished ought not to have carried much weight, seeing as it was not his own riches he was distributing: it's easy to be generous with someone else's money. (Incidentally, no-one spared a single thought on the crew or passengers until the ship had been stripped of every single item of value, so Ross's claim that his hordes first helped the shipwrecked and neatly stacked everything valuable on the shore was a bare-faced lie.) But, apparently, we are supposed to see the acquittal as the victory of justice. Ross continues to do no wrong in the eyes of his friends, family and employees - his losing a life or two in a preventable mining accident is not something likely to spark a Germinal uprising. Not until he commits an obviously reprehensible act and caddishly shies away from the consequences (according to an article I read, he actually behaved even worse in the novel and previous adaptation: it's still not pretty, though) does he get some stick, mainly from the furious Demelza. But, here's where the non-brightness comes in: Ross doesn't have the sense to feel or at least feign remorse - he just doesn't seem to grasp that he's done anything blameworthy. Maybe this is what happens when, for too long, everyone you know keeps telling you how wonderful you are.

The series could really have done with a genuinely Ross-sceptic voice, but sadly, George too thinks he's something to write home about, otherwise he wouldn't envy him. It's a pity that George's enmity towards Ross comes across more as childish petulance than burning hatred, because he does have some legitimate reasons for being miffed with the unshaved wonder. Not so much reason, though, as to make his monomaniac persecution plans credible. (Trying to make Tankard "debauch" Demelza? Hardly villain plot of the year.) Though I liked the mysteriousness of George's motives at first, by now - because we're already on the second series, dash it - we really ought to have had the explanatory why-I-hate-Ross villain rant. Nor was I convinced for a minute that George really loves Elizabeth. (And I don't think it's too much to ask that he should make a decent fist of the Wounded Villain Heart scenario - Thomas could do it in his sleep.) At the end of the day, George's problem is that he's a glorified function character, mainly there to create trouble for Ross. No-one appears to have given any serious thought about what makes him tick, because he's not deemed to be interesting enough.

In spite of all this, I did at least partly enjoy Poldark series two. The story moves along at a fair lick, and there are some Ross-unrelated scenes that are quite touching, such as a heart-to-heart between Francis and Demelza, and Verity's relief when her stepson turns out to be a friendly cove who takes the trouble to bring the sulky stepdaughter around as well. Plus, as I've mentioned, it's restful once in a while to watch something where you don't care overmuch what will happen. But I'd be lying if I said I was wildly excited by the prospect of series three.