Mammals and The English

Why is James Corden so popular? was a question I kept asking myself throughout Mammals (Amazon). On the one hand, mercifully short episodes and only six of them. On the other, James Corden has the wit and charisma of a white van man down the pub. I dunno. Was it at least an interesting premise? No. Was it a good story? Also no. Any minute now, and he’ll be talking about the footie.

Reviewers have been coy about the content, so spoilers ahoy, but basically the idea that Corden discovers his French-for-some-reason wife’s infidelity and obsessively stalks her. We get flashbacks (because of course we do) that fill in some of the improbable background (which is all somewhat reminiscent of those Woody Allen films in which the balding nerd writes scripts for himself in which beautiful women fall for him. Corden didn’t write this, but still). There’s some kind of nonsense about whales and Tom Jones, but it doesn’t add up to anything. And then it ends, or doesn’t, with a Big Reveal that totally doesn’t play fair with the audience, and a smell of desperation (please commission a second series, Amazon, please).

Talking of flashbacks brings me to The English (BBC) a six-part Western definitely not in the vein of Lonesome Dove and more like your revisionist-revisionist (or even, fittingly, spaghetti) Westerns. Unlike Unforgiven, this isn’t all rain and mud but instead the eye-popping colours of the (Spanish) prairie, beautifully photographed throughout. Still, there’s horrible brutality, lawlessness and disease. There are also a great number of British and Irish actors, along with a strong native American cast. There are slight hints of White Man’s Indian in the portrayal of the main character, Eli Whipp (Chaske Spencer). His, um, nobility and stoicism, for example.

As to the story, it’s largely incoherent, the kind of thing you can’t second-screen along to (oops). There’s a kind of fog-of-war thing going on, and there’s another Big Reveal that doesn’t exactly play fair with the audience because we’ve traded plot development for non-linearity. This is not a Stranger Rides into Town narrative, it’s the other one. It’s the go-somewhere-do-something narrative. Except the filmmakers are so in love with a particular location, its horizontal light and its rocks and its colours, that they don’t really go anywhere much.

If the story is a deck of cards, they shuffle it a lot. A lot of confusion for me between the end of Episode 2 and Episode 3, where I’ve completely missed the point of the end of 2, so I’ve spent 3 wondering what that point was. Back and forth we go in time: there are (sometimes?) titles on the screen, which I guess provide this information, though if you’re me you are only occasionally looking up. It would help if you could hear what the actors are saying, but there is a lot of mumbling in heavy accents. And then sometimes the screen is nearly black with fashionable darkness.

So, good photography, apart from the dark bits, good cast, apart from the mumbling, interesting musical choices, brutality, criminality, disease, all that. It implies a lot more than it shows in terms of brutality and violence, which is a relief for the most part. There are some horror elements, however, and some disturbing visuals. Maybe more than I noticed because I only occasionally look at the TV? Anyway, there are some look-away moments you might want to look away from.

Watchable enough, and obviously interested in this very brief period of history between the anarchic opening up of ungoverned territory and the mythologising of it in wild west shows and early films. Bread and circuses.

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