TV Binge-Watch: ‘Chernobyl’

Over the past few days, I have watched all five episodes of the HBO/Sky Atlantic mini-series, ‘Chernobyl’. When this appeared on my NOW TV streaming box, I recalled reading many good reviews, so really wanted to see it. Investing more than five hours in one series is potentially risky, but I am pleased to say it paid off.

For anyone who didn’t know, the Ukrainian site of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl suffered a catastrophic accident, on the 26th of April, 1986. There was an explosion that exposed the reactor core, resulting in a leak of radiation that spread far and wide across the Soviet Union, and up into northern Europe too. This serious drama examines what happened, what caused it, and how the authorities reacted to it. Also how so many brave people sacrificed their lives in the hope of containing it.

As dramas go, this is excellent. Helped by a real period feel, and locations that also seem to be very authentic, it never fails to convince, at any level. The mostly British cast brings a touch of class to the acting, backed up by the ever-reliable Stellan Skarsgard. Jared Harris takes the lead, with the wonderful British actresses Emily Watson and Jessie Buckley in significant roles. For the script, we have some use of actual official documents to go on, then a lot of supposition from the writers.

But this is not really about who did what, and why. It takes us into a nightmare world, that of the ultimate doomsday scenario. Incredibly brave fire-fighters and helicopter pilots who receive so high a dose of radiation, their lives are measured in moments, or days. The control room workers present at the time of the explosion, who may or may not have been negligent. It matters little, as they barely survive past the time when they are able to speculate on the poor engineering that caused the accident.

Being ‘our version’ of Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, much is made of KGB interference, and how suspicions and bureaucracy interfere in the attempts to discover the truth.

But you can forget all that. Just sit back, and watch some wonderful performances, disturbing set-piece events, special effects that feel real, and a tribute to the brave people and their families who tried to help. Be warned, excellent make-up reproduces the effects of burns and radiation poisoning in all too gruesome detail. Thousands of people are conscripted into the area to clear up after evacuation, and many are employed to just wander around killing domestic pets that present a radiation risk. This is a far from easy watch, but in a world where we are still heavily dependent on nuclear power, it is perhaps something that everyone should see.

One scene is stuck in my mind. When the firemen and helicopter pilots who were first on scene are all dead, the authorities seal their bodies inside welded lead coffins. They are then buried in a mass grave, as their families watch tearfully from the edge. Some hold photos of their loved ones, but one young woman has only her husband’s shoe in her hand. A cement mixer truck arrives, and begins to entomb the lead coffins in a sea of concrete as the relatives look on.

Powerful indeed, and deeply affecting.

TV shows as good as films

A controversial post possibly, discussing the fact that some TV shows are as good as films, and often far superior to many. I refer to TV series, not one-off presentations, or to be exact, long-running serials that demand a large slice of the viewer’s life, and a lot of attention. I have seen many that fit the bill, though these are without doubt some of my favourites. The description mini-series is often used as a term of derision, suggesting second rate, padded-out stodge, that could have been presented in half the time. I would hope that none of the following suggestions fall into this category. They are also well known (well, maybe not one of them) so no real surprises, or hard to find exotica then.

The Sopranos. Spanning eight years, and running to 86 episodes, this is a landmark of entertainment, from HBO. Each episode is crafted as well as, if not better than, any gangster film ever made. If you ever have the chance to watch every episode in order, over a four day period, then I suggest that you should take it. It may ostensibly be about the New Jersey Mafia, but it is a lot more than that. It has everything. Standout performances by all the cast, even the smallest bit players; a witty, often humourous, and sharp script, with great settings and set pieces. Tony Soprano, troubled by running his crew, wondering who will succeed the dying boss, Jackie Aprile, and pestered by his nagging wife, and spoilt-brat children, begins to have panic attacks. He cannot be seen to be weak, so reluctantly goes to see a psychiatrist (Lorraine Braco) who treats him, despite her fears about who this new patient really is. This relationship is the constant throughout the series, and the interplay between them is priceless. The cast list over the years, reads like a list of every actor you ever wanted to see, and the regulars, who you see in almost every episode, are a complete box of treats. Despite occasional forays into both extreme, and casual violence, scenes of drug abuse, and the domestic troubles of a dysfunctional family, this will have you hooked from episode one. Even the names of the characters are a complete masterstroke. Who could resist wanting to find out about Paulie Walnuts, Big Pussy Bonpensiero, or Joey Peeps? Not me, that’s for sure. Here is a typical scene, featuring many of the cast.

Shooting the Past. Running just over three hours, this BBC production from 1999, will not put such a strain on your time as The Sopranos. Shown on TV in three episodes, but made to cinema quality, this, in my opinion, is the real jewel in the crown of writer and director Stephen Poliakoff. The cast includes the cream of British acting talent, with Timothy Spall, Billie Whitelaw, and Lindsay Duncan taking lead roles, ably supported by Emilia Fox, Liam Cunningham, and many more. The story is also unusual, in fact unique. It concerns a Picture Library, holding one of the best collections ever assembled, over 10,000,000 photographs. The disparate band of workers run this library from memory and card indexes, having never modernised the operation. The building, and the collection it houses are then sold off to an American developer (Cunningham) who declares his intention to build a conference centre, and sell off the valuable pictures, destroying the rest. The staff really love their work, and treasure all the pictures in the collection. So, they set about trying to persuade the developer to change his mind. Using an apparently random series of pictures, they show him that Photography has the power to touch the hardest hearts. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece. One of my favourite things of all time. Here is one of many great scenes. Please try to watch the whole series, if you ever get the chance.

I, Claudius. Adapted from two novels by Robert Graves, this 1976 BBC serialisation, was considered to be one of the greatest things ever shown on television, at that time. Starring Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Sian Phillips, and George Baker, it runs for almost 11 hours, and was shown in 13 episodes on TV. It deals with the imagined history of Roman aristocracy, from the time of Augustus, through the reigns of Tiberius, and the crazed Caligula, until the death of Emperor Claudius himself. Told in  flashback, narrated by the elderly Claudius, it leaves out none of the double-dealing, murder, and political machinations, as the various characters struggle for power in Rome.  It was 1976, so the budget was not huge, the whole thing is filmed on studio sets, and as a result, lacks gloss and polish. It feels theatrical, and is nothing like a film in the way that you would expect to see it done today. Yet, it is completely spellbinding, and still remains one of the most important productions in British television history. Here is a taster, just to show how good it was.

Band of Brothers. Three years after ‘Saving Private Ryan’, along came this 2001 10-parter, courtesy of HBO in America. Following one company of the famous 101st Airborne, from D-Day until the end of the war, it is filmed in the familiar style of ‘Private Ryan’, with low saturation of colour, and hand-held camera work. The long running time, of almost 13 hours, gives adequate scope to develop the characters, and we see them from their initial training camp experiences, through all the trials of combat, and the horrors of war. There is also a great cast, led by Damian Lewis (an English actor playing an American, something he does a lot) and Scott Grimes. Even my old favourite, Dale Dye has a role, and also advised on military matters for the film-makers. This film covers many campaigns; as well as D-Day, there is the airborne assault into Holland, and the fighting in Germany itself, including the liberation of a concentration camp. The sheer scale allows the viewer to bond with the members of the company, and also to learn a lot about the history of this war as they do so. The cast give realistic portrayals of determined young men, thrown into hectic battles, showing great courage, and comradeship. Based on the book of the real events, this is a must see for any fan of war films. Here is the scene where the company are attacking the French town of Carentan. Superb.

The Killing. This is the original Danish crime thriller, not the dire American remake. It has two sequels, and each of the three deal with a different crime, in a multi-episode format, taking roughly one hour of screen time, to show the events of one day. Each of the three different stories was shown in 20 one-hour chunks, two at a time, on the excellent BBC4 TV channel. Fronted by the intense Sofie Grabol, as Sara Lund, the tiny, tenacious terrier of an investigator, sacrificing her relationships, and family life, to solve the mysteries, and find the killers. This type of programme is well-known to us all, and we are perhaps tired of long-running series, where familiar policemen, and their forensic colleagues, sift through evidence, to search for the truth. The cliches are all present; disobeying orders, pressure from higher up, and a difficult lead character, who does not relate to her partners. Trouble at home, too busy to see her boyfriend, and unsure about her future. It sounds so familiar, you may as well switch off now. Well don’t. This time, it’s better, darker, more realistic, and grips you from the first scene. Maybe it is the bleak North European locations, or the fact that the cast are all unfamiliar, Scandinavian actors. Scripts and plots are familiar also, but strangely, you just somehow know that they are better. There is attention to detail, no attempt to glamourise anything, and production values that would compare with any recent ‘big film’; think the original ‘Dragon Tattoo’ trilogy, but better.  Not only do you get to see the investigation into the crime, there are also equally good sub-plots, involving the political dealings and bureaucracy surrounding the events. A complete work in every way, made for the intelligent viewer. This clip is comprised of some stills, and the theme tune in the background.

Those are just some of the recommended titles that could consume a huge part of your life, if you ever decide to let them. I know there are many others missed out. I have not seen ‘The Wire’ yet, so could not comment on it, and I would like to have included another Danish series ‘Borgen’, but the post would run too long. And then there is ‘The Bridge’, a marvellous Swedish/Danish co-production, and not forgetting ‘Parades End’, British drama of the highest order. Another article about all those later, methinks…