Friday, 10 September 2010

TV: Blackpool


Another one of those mid-2000s TV series that I missed at the time, probably due to being away at university, Blackpool is a crime drama with a difference. Ripley Holden (David Morrisey) is a thuggish, ambitious amusement arcade owner whose plans to build a Vegas-style casino hotel are jeopardised when a young man is found dead in his arcade. Enter DI Peter Carlisle (David Tennant) who takes an instant dislike to Holden and an equally instant liking to Mrs Holden (Sarah Parish) and watch as Holden's little world starts to unravel. Blackpool is a fairly standard BBC mini-series with a small cast of complex characters and a compulsive mystery, or would be were it not for the musical interludes.

Now, Blackpool isn't strictly a musical series, in the way that, say, Glee is, but the music is more significant than remaining quietly and unobtrusively in the soundtrack like every other show that uses pop music. In Blackpool, dramatic and emotional highlights are translated through Captain Subtext's Truth Helmet* into neatly choreographed song-and-dance routines performed by the characters under the original pop song. Not as slick as if performing original covers, the musical numbers provide some realish surrealism to the drama. The actors' voices provide an extra layer to the music, especially when it is a male singing along with a female-fronted band or vice versa. The cast's voices vary in musical quality (Tennant has a distinctive, husky singing voice while Morrissey's more shouty voice is usually on-key and always in keeping with the character of Ripley Holden) and everyone gives their all. Most memorable is the manly hate tango between Davids Tennant and Morrissey to "These Boots are Made For Walking."

The characterisation is complex, but none of the main characters are exactly lovable - and yet I still found myself caring for them. As the series goes on, Ripley Holden, who starts off as an entirely unsympathetic person, softens and we get to see the heart behind all the bluster and rage. Natalie Holden is the peacemaker of the family, a quiet pillar of the community (she volunteers with the Samaritans) but never really appreciated. When a handsome young detective comes along investigating her husband's part in a murder, it's clear from a mile off where the story will go. The conflict between Natalie doing the right thing, as she has done all her life, or thinking of herself for once starts off well enough, but in the end she comes across as a bit dithery. When all comes to a head, there is too much "I did this for me," or "What about me?" from all sides to really feel any sympathy.

DI Carlisle is a determined man, whether it is to prove that Ripley committed the murder and bring him down, or to get Natalie. When we first meet him, his is the obvious "side" to take because he is Ripley's enemy and Ripley is highly unpleasant. But as Ripley becomes a little more sympathetic, Carlisle's single-mindedness becomes more personal than based on evidence, and he turns to increasingly manipulative and desperate measures to get his nemesis and rival put away.

When it comes to Natalie, he seems to be the antithesis of Ripley. Peter Carlisle is interested in her, wants her to be valued and appreciated as herself, and besides, Ripley has apparently slept with half of the women in Blackpool - that's how much their marriage vows are worth! Carlisle really loves Natalie. And then you remember that he had decided that she was his before they even met, on the strength of a photo. His anger at Natalie when she tells him she can't leave Ripley after all, while perhaps realistic and understandable, shows that maybe his motives aren't so altruistic and noble as we're led to believe. Like Edward Cullen of Twilight, Peter Carlisle is more a creepy stalker who is lucky enough to have his feelings reciprocated, than a romantic forbidden lover. (That being said, in real life - at least in my experience - creepy stalkers don't tend to be David Tennant.)
By the way, take note of how many times Carlisle is shown eating. Especially in the first three or four episodes, he gets through an incredible number of chips, ice creams, doughnuts, etc. etc. Special note goes to the ice cream he sings into during the song, "The Gambler." You know he's unhappy when he refuses a doughnut.

Although the murder mystery is a bit thin and simple, when compared to most crime dramas, there are enough twists and turns, lies and more lies to keep the story going over six one-hour episodes and still keep you hooked. Yet in a way the murder is really a plot point to get the characters into place for the relationships to unfold and unravel. As well as the love triangle of Ripley, Natalie and DI Carlisle, there are family tensions. Ripley's twenty-year-old daughter Shyanne is engaged to a man her father's age, moreover one who knew him in an unhappy past he'd thought he'd put behind him. And seventeen-year-old Danny Holden is a troubled but likable youth with secrets of his own, who is just looking for his father's approval. The answer to the murder mystery itself is not the grand twist ending that many mysteries require, but with only a handful of suspects it's inevitable that the right one would be at least guessed at during the six-hour duration, before being dismissed. But that's okay. That's not what Blackpool is really about. It is more than simply a crime drama or whodunnit. Instead, Blackpool is a character story, a relationship drama. And of course a musical.



*thank you to Steven Moffat's Coupling

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