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Friday 30 October 2020

Friday Favourites - October Edition: TV, Books and Podcasts

Girl wearing headphones reading a book. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Image by Andrea Piacquadio for Pexels
Welcome to this month's Friday Favourites, a round-up of TV, book and podcast recommendations. The October mix includes Elton John, the Barbarians TV show, Emily in Paris, an octopus, Barbara Amiel and Pam Hupp. Pam who? Read on.

TV Viewing

The Undoing (Sky, Now TV)

This is a very classy production starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.  The cast list has lots of "ACEs" after the production crew's names, and you can see why in the beautiful lighting and screenplay. It makes you realise how third rate a lot of the dramas are, nowadays, in terms of how they're filmed.

Aside from the brutal lack of chemistry between the husband and wife  (Kidman and Grant), and Kidman's resolutely frozen face, there's a lot to admire. I was gaping at the beauty of Kidman's clothes. The red cape! The dress she wore to the charity auction! It puts Emily in the shade  (from Emily in Paris, below).

It's also quite novel only having one episode a week. No bingeing! I think we're going to enjoy this.

Emily in Paris (Netflix)

The critics were very sniffy about it, and I saw an outraged Canadian expat in Paris whining about how the programme is based on stereotypes. Nonetheless, it went to the top of the Netflix charts, including in France. 

My message on this one is:  it's not Proust. Yes, there are stereotypes. But stereotypes wouldn't exist without a soupcon of truth. I love the French and their quirky ways . The fact they hung onto Minitel for so many years  (Google it). Their weird breakfasts - croissants dunked in bowls of hot chocolate. Johnny Halliday! Need I go on. But I love their commitment to French cinema and I'd much rather watch an angst-ridden French film than an American rom-com with the inevitably happy ending. 

Although there was criticism of how the French came out of the programme,  the Americans didn't fare much better. The deep pan pizza is Chicago's crowning culinary glory? And although Emily was wearing designer threads, she didn't look as stylish as her French boss Sylvie. 

We enjoyed Emily in Paris as a frothy confection. The perfect antidote to 2020.  Paris looked beautiful. I'm sure there will be a second series. A bit more bite would be nice.  Camille catching her "friend" Emily in bed with the chef, for example? More discussion around topics like sexist v sexy, which was a brief flash of intelligence. More please. 

Rita (Netflix)

If you want feel good TV with a bit of bite, then try Rita, a Danish series about the life of an unconventional and charismatic woman. In series 1, school teacher Rita is conducting a busy life love with three men: the head teacher, the mild mannered Rasmus;  the father of one of her pupils, and her childhood sweetheart Tom, who's now the father-in-law of her eldest son Ricco. It's all very complicated. Every episode has pathos, sadness and humour. The characters are wonderfully drawn, including the young teacher Hjordis who has her own follow-up series. Oh - and it's a rich seam - six seasons. Binge now. 

Read more: How the Danish hit went global - BBC 

Barbarians (Netflix)

If you loved The Last Kingdom and The Vikings, you'll find this worth a look,  although it's nowhere in their league.   It's a big budget drama from Germany with quite a few parallels to The Last Kingdom, including a similar story conceit where the hero starts off  with a different family and is stolen or given away to the "other side." In this case, we have a Roman centurion who started life as one of the Barbarians. He was given to the Romans in return for peace. Fast forward and the same Centurion is forced to wreak havoc on his family and friends from a few years ago. But is that his plan? 

My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)

I defy anyone to watch this gentle and bewitching documentary without shedding a tear. A film maker, Craig Foster, is struggling to make sense of his life.  He spends a year documenting the life of a wild common octopus.  They may look like alien life forms but the octopus is amazingly clever and adaptable. We see the little octopus literally building a wall around herself to protect from predators.  After accepting Foster into her grotto, she shows affection towards this strange being. The ending is heart breaking.

What I've Been Reading

Friends and Enemies by Barbara Amiel

I've long been fascinated by Amiel and her fourth husband, Conrad Black, the former proprietor of the Daily Telegraph and other publications owned by the Hollinger Group.

Black was imprisoned for fraud, plunging him and Amiel into millions of pounds of debt and ignominy. 

He was pardoned by Trump after spending three years in prison, following the publication of his positive book about the President. (Yes the Blacks are Republicans, but as a well adjusted Boomer I've able to read about conflicting views without throwing a tantrum). 

Before disaster struck, this gilded couple had mixed with the world's richest dynasties, royalty and politicians. Barbara, a journalist and newspaper columnist, was a latter day Marie Antoinette with a couture habit. Now in her 80s, Amiel doesn't come across as particularly likeable. There are hundreds of pages of bile when it comes to Conrad's trial and the lawyers and judge they had to deal with.  I never got over the fact the she freely admitted to punching and kicking a small dog that adored her, for no reason, even though she caused it internal bleeding and pain.  

Most intriguing was her account of how, in her early 50s, her life was turned upside down when she married Black. Suddenly a woman who'd lived in a fairly modest apartment and dined on Lean Cuisine was expected to host prestigious banquets for the great and good.

Living among the mega rich, the Blacks tried to keep up but it kept going wrong, as shown by the jewellery that Amiel bought.  

A guest at one of dinner parties peered at her emerald necklace and declared the jewels had been treated with oil and were the wrong colour. Cringe city. But very revealing, in exposing that that a lot of the "great and good", these supposed philanthropists, were in reality shallow snobs with petty rivalries and bad manners. If I'd been Amiel, I might have made a virtue out of wearing costume jewellery from an up and coming designer, rather than trying to compete with old school "patio jewellery". 

We Brits come out of it quite well.  Canada turned its back on its citizen Black because he had the audacity to accept a peerage. Most of their US and Canadian friends completely blanked them from the start. Elton John was the only friend who took Amiel out after the initial disgrace and gave her a trinket from Theo Fennell. A lot of the people listed by name as enemies by Amiel are still alive. I wonder what they're thinking now. 

Me by Elton John

Barbara Amiel praises Elton John in her memoir but she doesn't get a mention in his.  I am a big fan of Elton's but I resisted the book for several months, thinking it had all been revealed in various newspaper serialisations. But I succumbed, and I did enjoy it.  Elton is open, honest and down-to-earth. His memoir is rich in anecdotes and amusing tales involving celebrities and the royal family.  "I'm perfectly aware of how ridiculous my life is, and perfectly aware of what an arsehole I look like when I lose my temper over nothing," he writes.  "I go from nought to nuclear in seconds and then calm down just as quickly."  

He famously fell out with Princess Diana, Tina Turner and his mother, who comes across as overbearing, peevish and unpredictable. 

We'll be seeing Elton for the second time - Covid permitting - in Liverpool next November, his farewell tour having been curtailed this year.

Here he's pictured with Taron Egerton, who played him in the Elton biopic.

Playdate by Alex Dahl

This novel is about a young girl who goes for her first sleepover but doesn't return the next day. The story turned out to be very convoluted, and quite clever. It kept me feverishly turning pages to find out  what actually happened. 

Podcast Delights

No Place But The Water, BBC Radio 4 

A drama in nine fairly short episodes, I stuck with it after finding the first two episodes a bit irksome with whiney children's voices dominating. I was glad I stuck with it because things improved after episode three. The world has suddenly been turned into water;  houses crumbled and fell into the sea. There's no explanation of why this happened. A family have found a haven in a deserted hotel near a spooky wood.Fortuitously they have food in the cellar  (fast running out) but no toilet paper, which sounds familiar.  Then they see another boat, with a young boy and his mother on board. The kids' squeals and all the talk about seeing angels is tedious, but the ending makes sense.  I particularly enjoyed Grandad's laugh, but as usual, the father, Gil, formerly an English teacher, came across as fairly useless, which is the way men are often portrayed now by our PC BBC.

The Thing About Pam, Dateline NBC

This is the true story of an American woman, Pam Hupp, who brazened it out after a crime and nearly got away with it.  Russell Faria came home one evening two days after Christmas 2011 and found his wife of 12 years dead on the floor. Not long before her death, it transpires, his wife had made her friend Pam Hupp the recipient of her life insurance. You'd think this alone would interest the police, but no, they seemed to like Pam and were convinced Russ had killed his wife. Even after Pam closed down the trust, shortly before Faria's trial, that was supposed to give 50% of the life insurance policy to Russ's daughters. 

There are lots of flabbergasting twists and turns before Pam Hupp is finally convicted of the 2016 murdere of Louis Gumpenberger, the man she hired to implicate Russ Faria for the murder of his wife. Who killed Betsy Faria is still an unsolved mystery. 

Backlisted Podcast 

If you love old books, Backlisted is for you. Each episode features a guest (usually a writer) who has chosen a book they love and which they think deserves a wider audience. Though sponsored by the crowd-funding publisher Unbound, it isn’t about selling new product: it’s about how and why some books stand the test of time.

For Halloween the latest book is Beowulf. Some of my favourite books, Frost in May by Antonia White, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym  (which I featured here), and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens have been featured.

Hope you enjoyed this month's Friday Favourites. It's a monthly post published on the last Friday of the month.  Do share your latest recommendations in the comments.  I have a feeling we're going to be needing as many recommendations as we can get.

Sharing this post with Not Dresssed as Lamb, My Random Musings, Shelbee on the Edge and Lucy Bertoldi. 


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