Monday, July 27, 2015

My highly personal list of the best TV series of all time - part 2, the British Invasion

In this post I'm going to talk about my favourite British TV imports. I was first really introduced to British television by American public television in the 1970s. For many years PBS was the go to location for British television and in many ways it still is, the major American networks have over the years co-opted many British programs and given them American twists, almost always producing an inferior product, but PBS has remained true it's vision of providing the originals. Here in Canada the Knowledge Network is a good source for original British programming .

When trying to create my listing of my favourite British television shows I came up with a very long list and then agonized over cutting it down to workable top ten, there were some obviously incredible shows that didn't make the cut and I'm sure there will be howls of "How could he leave off Downton Abbey or The Office or Poldark or Upstairs Downstairs or Dr. Who ......." . The answer is simple, the list is, as the title states, My highly personal list . Please feel free to comment on your own choices but this is mine, so here are my top 10.

Monthy Python's Flying Circus 1968-74

It was a surprise to me, given the brilliance of British comedy, that so many of my selections were dramas. Monthy Python was simply brilliant, as with all comedy they missed on occasion but rarely and when they hit they were huge hits. The list of Python sketches that were legendary is just too long to cover, but must include "The Spanish Inquisition", "The Dead Parrot" and "The Argument". It was black comedy and satire at it's best and spawned a couple of great films and an ongoing musical, despite going off the air over 40 years ago it can still be enjoyed today, and that's incredible for comedy. Available on DVD.

The Sweeney - 1974-78

A ground breaking show The Sweeney was the first "gritty" police drama to air in England, starring John Thaw, who will show up again later on this list, the show portrayed London policing as a dog eat dog procedure. The show aired at a time when the police force it portrayed, London's "Flying Squad" were under siege for bribery and violence, just the type of actions the show featured. Almost 40 years later the show is still very watchable. Available on DVD

Fawlty Towers - 1975 & 1979

Twelve episodes, that's it, and yet Fawlty Towers is stamped indelibly in the minds of a whole generation. The show, all 12 episodes, was named by the British Film Institute as the best British television show of all time.......just think about that, all told it's just a shade over six hours of running time yet it was judged the best television series ever made in Britain. The show was written by, and stars, John Cleese and his real life wife at the time Connie Booth, along with Prunella Scales as Cleese's wife on the show with the absurd brilliance of Andrew Sachs as Manuel and portrays the life of running a hotel in the seaside town of Torquay. It's brilliant and if you haven't seen it I don't want to hear from you until you have. Available on DVD

Minder - 1979-94

How to describe Minder ? Well it's a comedy/drama set in the world of the London's small time criminals. It is ostensibly about an ex-con and former boxer who with limited employment options comes to work protection and odd jobs for a small time crook, con man and used car broker, but it's really just a chance to revel in George Cole's performance as Arthur Daley, the small time crook in question. Daley is one of the great characters in television history and watching him is always a great pleasure. Available on DVD.

Blackadder - 1983-89

Long before Mr. Bean Rowan Atkinson created the comic personas of Edmund Blackadder. The four seasons of Blackadder show four different main characters, descended from one another, in four different historical eras, the middle ages, the Elizabethan era, the Regency era of the late 19th century and WWI. Each "Blackadder" deals with social issues and while the first one is a bumbler the later Blackadder's are shrewd and cunning. The show sheds light on society in its' particular era but is mostly just a showcase for Atkinson and his comic foil played by Tony Robinson. Available on DVD.

Lovejoy - 1986-94 

Lovejoy was a six season, 71 episode, series based on the books by Johnathan Gash, a nom de plume of medical doctor John Grant. Lovejoy is the name of the main character, played brilliantly by Ian McShane, an antiques dealer with less than high ethical standards always one step away from either bankruptcy or the knick. The series taught me a bunch about antiques and the industry but as with most of the television I like was more about writing and acting. The books are more graphic in their portrayal of sex and violence, neither of which play much part in the tv show. Available on DVD.

Inspector Morse - 1987-2000 

British television does police procedurals much, much better than North American television, concentrating on procedure and characters more than special effects and shoot 'em up. There are man, many great British police procedurals but to my mind the Inspector Morse series, 33 two hour episodes based on the books by Colin Dexter, are in a class of their own. Morse is played by John Thaw and it's one of those roles that you can't imagine any one else playing, Thaw was a tremendous actor who left us much too soon at the age of 60. Morse is a difficult, sarcastic, hard drinking, condescending, anti-feminist curmudgeon but his flaws are what make him so watchable. Available on DVD.

Prime Suspect - 1991-2006

Okay so maybe Morse isn't in a class of his own, he probably shares the class with Jane Tennison, the star of the 7 mini series of Prime Suspect . Tennison is played by Helen Mirren and even within the vast scope of Dame Helen's career I think Tennison may be her greatest role. As with Morse the Prime Suspect series deals in great detail with the lead character's life and flaws and over the course of the 7 seasons, each between 3 1/2 and 5 hours in length the series deals with massive social issues like sexism, racism, paedophilia, prostitution, child abuse and alcohol addiction. Each of the seven series stands on its' own merits but I would advise watching Prime Suspect 1 first to get a fuller understanding of Tennison's character.Available on DVD

Cracker - 1993-95

Three seasons, nine cases, 25 episodes and 2 tacked on "specials" of Robbie Coltrane creating one of the most memorable characters in television history, Edward "Fitz" Fitzgerald a criminal psychologist who works with the Manchester Police. The series takes its' name from the term used to describe criminal psychologists, "crackers" as they crack cases. Fitz is the classic anti-hero, in his own words "I drink too much, I smoke too much, I gamble too much. I am too much", in addition he is foul mouthed, sarcastic in terrible physical condition and an overall train wreck but he's brilliant and unbelievably enjoyable to watch. The show deals with a wide array of issues, not the least being the human mind. Available on DVD.

Luther - 2010-13

With only 14 episodes spread over three seasons it's tough to call Luther a series but if Idris Elba never becomes James Bond he'll still have DVI John Luther to hang his hat on. Luther is a brilliant detective driven by his work, he's violent, anti-social and probably psychotic but boy is he fun to watch. Anyone with a distrust of the police should probably not watch this show as it, well let's just say it doesn't show them in a positive light. Season four has been confirmed so there will be more Luther in our lives. Available on DVD.

There were a number of series that just missed this list, notable A touch of Frost, Yes Minister, The Fall, House of Cards and The Avengers but I'll stand with these ten for now.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Wine Buys this Month

So it's scorching hot, by Vancouver standards, with daily highs consistently in the 25C+ range the past 6 weeks and dry as a bone by anyone's standards. Since May 1st Vancouver has had 17.5mm of recorded rainfall, to put that in perspective the average monthly rainfall for May & June are usually in the 60mm range for each month and July is around 40mm, so generally by mid July the rainfall for May, June & July would be in the 140mm range.

What this means for me is lots of salads and lots of grilled dinner. I generally prep a big bowl of Greek salad and another of coleslaw, undressed, keep them in the fridge and dress what we need at dinner, or I grill veggies after I've taken the protein off the Weber and let the protein rest. As for that protein it runs the usual course, fish (mostly tuna or salmon), pork (tenderloin or ribs) chicken and a bit of beef, but regardless the fact remains that grilled means bolder flavour and that means wines that will stand up to those flavours. For white wines that means Sauvignon Blanc and Rieslings, for reds the varietal doesn't matter as much as the balance . I am generally a huge fan of acidity in red wine but for the summer and the sweet, smoky flavour of food off the grill I tone it down and look for softer wines that won't duke it out with the robust grilled meats .

Anyway as you should know the BCLDB price changes happen generally on the last Sunday of the month and since stores are now open Sunday you can get there early and scope the deals. The other alternative is to check my blog a day or two afterwards, or a couple of weeks in today's case, for some of what I think are the better monthly price reductions. There are generally around 300 wines that are placed on sale each month, these are known as LTOs, limited time offerings, and come about by the agents for the wines choosing to release there price for a month to either stimulate a flagging brand, to capitalize on a hot brand or sometimes to introduce a product to wider audience. Often these reductions are in the $1 a bottle range and I generally don't test drive those ones but once you get up to $2 a bottle I may get interested. So given that it's hot and we want BBQ wines here are my picks for this month's wine buys, remember all prices will have 15% tax added on plus a 10 cent deposit so, for example, a wine that is on the shelf at $13.99 will ring up as $16.20.
Red Wine Bargains

Jackson Triggs Reserve Merlot Okanagan Valley, reduced $2 to $9.29 - stupidly cheap, for BC, solid entry level Merlot

Errazuriz Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Chile, reduced $2 to $11.29 - good entry level fruity Cab with some smoke & peppers, medium length

Jacob's Creek Reserve Barossa Shiraz Barossa Valley, Australia, reduced $2 to $12.79 - this wine used to retail for $20, it's not as good as their Coonawarra Cab but it's a helluva bang for the buck $14.80 all in

St. Hallet's Gamekeepers Reserve Barossa Valley, Australia, reduced $2 to $12.99 - this beauty is a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Touriga Nacional and has lots of sweet fruit and spice, great mouthfill

Red Rooster Merlot Okanagan Valley, reduced $2 to $13.69 - cooler climate BC Merlot with some nice chocolate and plum, some more Cancon

Yalumba Organic Shiraz - South Australia, reduced $2 to $13.99 - the rather generic South Australia appelation could give pause but this is a nice drinking soft Shiraz without the over the top fruit that many less expensive Aussie reds exhibit. I actually just had this with grilled grass fed striploin in the middle of writing this post and it was great.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Merlot Columbia Valley, Washington, reduced $2 to $15.39 - this is just really, really good Merlot it's got all those mocha, cherry, red fruit flavours we love in Merlot with a big velvet finish save this one and the next one for the steaks.

Graham Beck The Game Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon South Africa, reduced $2 to $16.29 - big, big Cab with a bit more Old World austerity than the other wines on this list it has a more tannic bite and a long finish with black fruits and menthol in the mix, crack it 20 minutes before dinner and have it with the leg of lamb.

White Wine Bargains

Inniskillin Okanagan Estate Riesling Okanagan Valley, reduced $2 to $9.29 - nice entry level Riesling it's fruit forward with enough acid to keep it fresh, finishes alittle short but at this price great for patio sipping or with spicy chicken
Santa Carolina Sauvignon Blanc Reserva Chile, reduced $2.20 to $10.09 - I like Chilean SB, it treads the line between the often overly assertive style of New Zealand and the blander California "Fume", this has hints of grapefruit and a nice finish at a great price

Sauvignon Blanc Sileni Cellar Selection Marlborough, New Zealand. reduced $2 to $13.29 - more on the tropical fruit/gooseberry end of the SB scale this is pretty textbook Marlborough for a good price. More assertive than the Santa Carolina it will be better with fatty fish like salmon

Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling Columbia Valley, Washington, reduced $2 to $13.29 - oh it's just so pretty, blended from a variety of Columbia Valley fruit this is lovely off dry Riesling, white peach and lime on the palate with a little wet stone and honey on the end, great with spicy grilled chicken .

Wild Goose Vineyards Gewurztraminer Okanagan Valley, $2 to $14.29 - Gewurztraminer, called "goo" in the trade is great with spicy food and Wild Goose's goo is made with 25 year old vines producing something with spice and roses and grapefruit rind, big mouthfill, a little off dry and a lot delicious.

Sandhill Pinot Gris "Hidden Terrace" Okanagan Valley, reduced $2 to $14.59 - I'm not a big fan of Pinot Gris but this single vineyard bottling for Sandhill is an exception, it's not flabby like so many examples but has a nice acidity and crisp apple/pear flavours .

Chateau St Jean Chardonnay Sonoma, California, reduced $2 to $17.29 - it's big ticket for the BBQ at $20 with tax in but it's still a chance to have a really good example of why California Chardonnay has been so popular for so long, full bodied with lots of apple, vanilla and toasty oak it embodies the Californian "buttery" style without becoming oak soup.

Wow, that was a lot longer than I thought it would be, and before you ask about Rosé there are none on sale, plus overall the selection is hideous.

These wines are on sale until July 25th, I'll try and post about next month's bargains a little earlier than 2 1/2 weeks into the four week cycle.

I'll leave you with a photo of me grilling the grass fed strip loins mentioned above.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

My highly personal list of the best television series of all time, part one - Gone too soon

On Friday morning, after my hell day documented in the previous post, I met with Uncle Donny for coffee. Theoretically the meeting was designed for us to go over my career options but you have to understand that was just the jumping off point for 75 minutes of free styling conversation on topics that vary from politics to real estate to food and restaurants, to pretty much anywhere. These conversations allow Don to voice his thoughts in the politically incorrect manner that he can't do in his professional life so I really feel they are cathartic and he should be paying me, but he did pick up the coffee so whatever.

Somewhere, somehow we wandered into television, it started with an Angel Martin reference which got us wondering where Rockford Files stands in the "greatest tv shows ever" rankings, here's a hint .........really high . We spent three or four minutes discussing our thoughts on this topic, mostly the various merits of Seinfeld vs Larry Sanders vs Sgt. Bilko vs the Friendly Giant but then somehow we were back talking about bandwidth, Vancouver real estate and the horrible choices we have to make at election time.

Long after the coffee session ended and I was back at home I began to wonder more about the best television shows of all time. I've had an interesting relationship with television, I grew up in small town in Eastern Ontario and until I left home for University at 18 I lived in a house with only one television and one television station, the local CBC affiliate . As a result I didn't watch much TV, other than Hockey Night in Canada, though as a young child Sunday night television with Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show was a sacrosanct event. Once I was in University there were really too many other distractions to watch much TV, though some shows I generally took the time to watch, like the above mentioned Rockford Files and then of course I spent a good portion of my adult years working at night. Still as with most adult North Americans in their fifties I have a long and enduring relationship with the tube.

Anyway I spent a couple of hours the past two days putting together a short list, that I realized actually wasn't that short, of what are my must see tv shows. Essentially this is a listing of the shows that I always tried to watch, that I really enjoyed when I did watch them and that I would love to own the entire series of, just to be able to watch when I wanted.

There is very little on television right now that fits into this category and since I don't subscribe to HBO my choices are further limited, there are a number of shows that friends of mine say I should be watching that I'm not such as Ray Donovan, Veep, True Detective and The Newsroom. Anyway over however long it takes me to go through this list I'm going to blog about television shows for awhile, though not exclusively television shows, I'll still try and spend some time writing about food, wine and life in general.

Today I'm going to talk about shows that never got the chance, shows that I found really, really good but that just didn't stick around very long either through lack of audience, cost of production or network mishandling.

Gone too Soon, in no particular order

Firefly - 2002, 14 episodes

Many, many articles have been written about the too soon demise of Firefly, Google it and over 8.6M results show up. It has a cult following that persists today despite having a run of only 14 episodes, the demand for closure was so great that in 2005 Universal Pictures produced the feature film Serenity to wrap up the plotline. In truth the Space Western set 500 years in the future was really, really watchable, it came from one of America's hottest commodities at the time Josh Whedon and was his first "non Buffy" project. Whedon has gone on to great things as have many of the cast. Available on DVD

Life - 2007-09, 32 episodes

This was my first introduction to Damien Lewis' work as an actor, the show was riveting to me and I was pissed off that it was cancelled . The show followed Lewis' character LAPD Detective Charlie Crews, Crews had been wrongfully imprisoned for murder and is released after 12 years, despite a huge financial settlement Crews returns to work as an LA detective. The show is loaded with conspiracy theories, zen philosophy and themes of loneliness, the effects of imprisonment and the speed of technology. Writing and acting was superb with the cast also featuring Adan Arkin, Sarah Shahi and Donal Logue. Available on DVD

Carnivale - 2003-05, 24 episodes

This show was just strange, set against the backdrop of the depression it revolves around two different storylines that eventually converge. One thread deals with a faith healer, who has real healing powers, in a traveling carnival while the other thread involves a fire and brimstone Methodist preacher. There is so much mysticism and good vs. evil going on it's hard to keep track and the show is over reaching in it's message but it was just so atmospheric and well written that I really, really liked it. Costs were huge, over $2M per episode and though it debuted with a huge audience it couldn't sustain it with overly complex plotting and dark themes. Available on DVD

Boomtown - 2002-03, 24 episodes

This show's failure was a mystery to me, it was a police procedural set in Los Angeles, had a great cast, including Donny Wahlberg, Mykelti Williamson and Neal McDonough was well written etc. but it never caught on. The show won a Peabody award among other acclaims but couldn't sustain and audience. Unavailable on DVD

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - 2006-07, 22 episodes

Sigh, just another example of how great acting and clever writing so easily fails in mainstream television. The "show within a show" about an LA based Saturday Night Live style program was maybe just too clever for its' own good, an Aaron Sorkin project with, not surprisingly, great acting and writing it didn't make it past season one, too smart and too expensive. Available on DVD

Sports Night - 1998-2000, 45 episodes

Another Aaron Sorkin series loosely based on real life, ESPN's Sportscenter,  Sports Night again featured great writing and acting, a cast that included Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Robert Guillaume and Felicity Huffman. Gassed after two season Sorkin had offers to take it to other networks but chose to keep his focus on The West Wing so Sports Night went away. Available on DVD but insanely expensive.

Brimstone 1998-99, 13 episodes

Oh I knew this one was doomed from the get go, it was just waaaay to dark for regular consumption but the play between John Glover, as the Devil, and Peter Horton as Ezekiel Stone was fabulous. Stone is a cop who plants evidence to get a conviction against his wife's rapist, who is then murdered, when Stone is killed in the line of duty he is sent to Hell but when 113 souls escape Stone is dispatched to bring them back. The carrot for Stone is if he brings back all the escapees he gets a second chance at life. Unavailable on DVD.

Rubicon 2010, 13 episodes

Honestly not as good as many on this list but had potential, it was a classic political conspiracy theory plotline with good writing and acting but it just moved too damn slowly to keep an audience, it was AMC's first miss, lasting only 13 episodes despite critical acclaim. Available on DVD

Millennium 1996-99, 67 episodes

Okay so it really probably wasn't "Gone too Soon", Millennium was dark, weird, unfocused and far too serious for it's own good but anytime I have the chance to have Lance Henriksen come into my living room for an hour a week I'm all over that shit. This was Chris Carter's vanity project rewarded to him for the success of X Files and it just wasn't good enough but still.......Lance Henriksen. Available on DVD.

Terriers 2010, 13 episodes

This one hurts the most, Terriers was simply brilliant, it was essentially a much grittier Rockford Files for the new age. Starring Donal Logue as a disgraced ex-cop and recovering alcoholic operating an unlicensed private investigation business it has humour, drama, real life issues and just great writing and acting. Somehow it was on FX and between the wrong network and the totally confusing name it just got lost in the cracks . Despite high critical acclaim and a rabid, though very small, fanbase it was a one & done. There have been innumerable rumours of a tv movie/mini series to wrap up the plot but it's been five years so I think it's time to admit it's not gonna happen. Unbelievably Terriers is not available on DVD .

So that took way too long, at some point I'll come back to this with a list of British imports you should have watched, and maybe can watch on DVD or streaming.