Thursday, 10 January 2019

Outlander, Poldark and Angel Mountain

A number of people have recommended that we take a look at Outlander on Netflix -- on the basis that it might give a pointer to what Netflix is currently looking for in the way of dramas.  So we took a look the other evening -- and it really is a very strange drama.  It involves a time-warp, in which the heroine (Clare) is miraculously transported back from the twentieth century to the Scottish Highlands at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion.

What on earth is its genre?  Nobody seems to know -- and maybe that is why it has intrigued viewers and garnered a sizeable and faithful audience.  Accidentally, when we thought we were embarking on the series with the very first episode, we ended up looking at the first episode of Series 3 -- and we were very confused.  Right at the outset, there was a prolonged and very bloody recreation of the Battle of Culloden in 1746, with a great deal of very explicit and graphic violence and blood everywhere.  Two stories were going on in parallel, with much cutting from the one to the other.  But there was no contact at all between Claire and Jamie, the heroine and the hero.  She was getting on with an unhappy life with her husband (and having a baby) in America in 1948, and he spent most of the time behaving like a feral zombie, deeply traumatised by events during and after Culloden.

This is about the Outlander franchise:

So what is Outlander?  Science fiction?  Fantasy?  Adventure?  Romance?  Costume drama?  Soap opera? Historical time-travel fiction?  A modern drama with a historical quirk, all about women's rights and female empowerment?  From the very explicit sex scenes, it might even be seen as soft porn -- and the graphic violence verged on the pornographic too.  It's well written and well acted, with a very strong female lead -- but one expects at any moment that Dr Who might suddenly turn up, or maybe just a spaceship containing strange aliens.  In its own peculiar way, it seems just as wacky as "Game of Thrones."  It does not have dragons and magical monsters yet -- but you never know.......  Still to come, Claire and Jamie get involved with piracy and the slave plantations of the West Indies and South Carolina, and then become pioneers in the land of the Cherokees.  Then in the 1970's, daughter Brianna goes through the stones and gets transported off to somewhere or other.  This all appears to be getting very messy, and one wonders what focus the story might still have after being turned into a rambling family saga with multiple locations across space and time.  Time will tell, as they say........

Series 5 and 6 have now been commissioned, with 12 episodes in each series.  Series 4 is just starting on Netflix, and thus far 55 episodes have been made.  It begins to look like a semi-permanent fixture on streaming TV -- bearing comparison with Downton Abbey, the Crown and Game of Thrones.

And how about Poldark?  Four series down, and one more to go.  There have been 35 episodes so far.  Produced by the BBC and written by Debbie Horsfield from the Winston Graham novels, it has become a staple part of the TV diet since 2015, and the BBC promotes it heavily as one of its most popular dramas -- but its move from winter to summer scheduling has led some to conclude that its popularity has been substantially lower than the BBC had hoped.

Right now we have "Les Miserables" on the BBC, adapted by Andrew Davies from Victor Hugo's mammoth novel  -- and turning out to be every bit as miserable as the title implies -- with lashings of graphic violence and hardly any humour. Thankfully, no songs. 

A new "Pride and Prejudice" series produced by Mammoth Screen for ITV, for transmission in 2020?

And Jane Austen's last (unfinished) novel, Sanditon, has been adapted by Andrew Davies for a new series for ITV, with filming starting this spring.

And plenty more.......

So where might "Angel Mountain" fit in this great scheme of things?  Well, there is clearly an insatiable demand for costume drama both on mainstream TV  (especially BBC and ITV) and on the streaming channels including Netflix, Sky and Amazon.  I think the story has a lot going for it, with a powerful and charismatic female lead and a narrative that delves into the deepest recesses of the human psyche.  The period (Regency / Victorian)  is an exciting one too -- overlapping with the period in which the Jane Austen novels are set, and with Dickens and Wilkie Collins too.  Not to mention Victor Hugo.  One problem is that the 8 Angel Mountain novels are set in Wales, and Welsh stories are not exactly fashionable.  But that might be a useful point when it comes to USPs.......

The life story of Martha Morgan is both exciting and coherent, and for extra spice we have the supernatural element provided in particular by the ravens as the spirits of the mountain, by Martha's own premonitions, and by the activities of Joseph Harries.  Then we have a host of wildly eccentric characters, including Wilmot Gwynne, John Wesley Jumbie, Grandpa Isaac, Shemi Jenkins and Beau Brummell.  And eccentric traditions too -- including the game of Cnapan, the Mari Lwyd, Plygain and Ceffyl Pren.  And strange events that really did happen, including the French Invasion of 1797 and the Rebecca Riots around 1840.  Martha gets involved in everything -- and always gets into trouble, and always has to be rescued.  By comparison, the adventures of Jane Austen's heroines do not register on the scale.

But perhaps the USP that might register most strongly with commissioning editors and production companies is the good humour that runs through the series.  Terrible things happen to Martha and to others who feature in the stories, but the prevailing mood is ultimately positive.  Martha bounces back from every misfortune -- sustained by the love of her family and friends, whom she comes to see as her angels. She has several passionate love affairs during her life -- but it would be true to say that this is not a straight line (or even wobbly line) love story involving one man and one woman, but a story of unbreakable bonds of love between Martha and those who surround her.

Angels are maybe not all that fashionable, but the angels in this saga are all fallen, and all grubby, with damaged wings and many other imperfections.

Enough to make a TV drama series entirely bankable and ultimately popular enough to keep going for 32 episodes?  I reckon so.........

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