This Christmas will be a very different one for all of us, whether it’s navigating the whole – who will I spend the festive period with – conundrum or the absence of office parties and messy nights out with friends.
For those of us fortunate enough to have some time off it should give us much-needed space to recharge our batteries. Whether that involves taking your work laptop off the kitchen table and putting it away in a cupboard or it’s a welcome reprieve from the pandemic commute and workplace, we’ll all hopefully be able to spend some quality time with our bubble.
Part of that will no doubt include taking in some TV and movies. But what to do once you’ve watched Elf and Home Alone? We thought we’d share some of our box set and music recommendations with you for that time over the holidays when watching Sister Act for the 129th time just isn’t going to do it for you!
Some will be obvious; some won’t be particularly Christmassy but hopefully you’ll find something to entertain you as we all enjoy a socially responsible festive period.
Emily in Paris
There was a possibly a brief power surge in the City of Lights when Parisians tuned in to explore the hype about Emily in Paris. Netflix’s latest comedy-drama tells the story of an ambitious American woman sent on assignment to Paris. The plot is hardly ground-breaking; girl moves to a new city in a new country. The girl doesn’t speak the language, know the cultural cues or anyone or anything about Paris really. Girl meets straight-talking bosses, intriguing neighbours who cook for her, colleagues who ridicule her and there’s a silver fox on every Rue. But she’s set on showing the French her own style of ‘insta-marketing’ dressed in her own version of chic with predicted consequences.
With Emily’s very American can-do attitude, the contrasts between her and her new neighbours could hardly be more chasm-like or uncomfortable, for all parties concerned. Where Emily sees persistent optimism, the locals see arrogance, where she sees quirky experimental looks, they see garish overstatement. Think Serena van der Woodsen meets, Carrie, meets Blair Waldorf set amongst the winding cobbles of the Rue St Martin. And if those are not names, you’re familiar with, then lucky you, that’s two more series for your binge-watching pleasure.
Referencing the Devil Wears Prada in its title, Emily in Paris is a light-hearted take on the many ‘American in Paris’ narratives that have spanned our screens. Our character’s firefighting skills know no bounds as she navigates her new city and an abundance of romantic and professional hurdles. And, despite the cutting remarks of her hilariously dry boss Sylvie and the advances of every French male in the plot, Emily begins to triumph in her professional endeavours and to win over her colleagues…. well, maybe not Sylvie.
Patricia Field worked closely with lead Lily Collins to portray the quirky style of the inimitable Emily. As only this accomplished stylist can do, Field artfully blends and experiments with designer and vintage pieces that no mere mortal dare combine. The result has whiffs of Carrie’s quirkiness and a hint of Blair’s designer-polish but with Emily’s twist. It’s a journey through texture and colour that Sylvie (and most of the French) would deride, but we just can’t help watching.
Created by Darren Star of Sex and the City fame, it has sparked controversy amidst its light-hearted tones. Many a French critic and viewer aren’t really buying this take on French life and style. Who can blame them; the show indeed portrays French people as antiquated, sexist, disloyal and lazy. As for Emily – is she sexually liberated or promiscuous, materialistic or Sartorialist, arrogant or optimistic? The jury is out, and relationship-wise, the moral compass is in overdrive. She kisses men she shouldn’t and makes bold promises, all in a hail of shimmer and Chanel. But she doesn’t suffer misogynists, and she knows what she wants. She may not be the most subtle ‘grammer on the Seine, but her intentions are (mostly) sincere.
Emily could definitely learn some understated sophistication from her new city, and she could also work on its social subtleties. Still, despite her repeated faux pas, it’s compelling viewing. Ultimately Emily in Paris is light-hearted fun with a serving of Chanel-clad female empowerment. It’s a homage to Serena and Carrie and to all those who avidly devoured their wardrobes first time around. It’s our very own “Sexe et travail en Ville” for 2020. At a time when many of us dream of different climes in far off lands, it’s a chance to wander the streets of Paris by proxy. Many French people admit that Carrie deserves a spot in style history, they may or may not be as convinced by Emily, but (according to firm Nielsen) in early October the sartorial comedy was one of the top ten most-streamed shows. So maybe she’s more cause célèbre than La Plouc!
Emily in Paris is available on Netflix now.
Launched with huge fanfare partly due to it being a BBC / HBO collaboration and partly due to Lena Dunham directing the first episode, Industry takes us into a fictitious City of London Bank called Pierpoint and Co immersing us in the lives of a group of graduate trainees who have a limited period of time to convince the firm that they are worthy of permanent hire.
Boasting a cast of largely unknown actors this disparate group of interns will do anything to secure their position at Pierpoint and quickly adapt to a corporate culture where it’s all about looking after number one and the belief that it’s perfectly legitimate to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve your goals. Consequently, with one notable exception, whenever these apprentice bankers’ Machiavellian plans come unstuck I, for one, am left pleased that their hubris has been thwarted.
While it’s very much an ensemble show the central intern character and the one whom most plot lines revolve around is Harper Stern played by US newcomer Myha’la Herrold. She plays an American graduate from a lesser-known US university whose resume and qualifications might not be all they appear? Herrold owns the screen putting in a great performance conveying an innocence and naivety which however masks a game plan as ruthless as any of her peers.
Other characters reference that Essex meets Eton dynamic which has always characterized the City trading floors, but this time with a 21st century twist. While Robert, played by Harry Lawtey, could have stepped straight off the Central Line from Loughton, Gus played by David Jonsson is a black, gay Old Etonian. Industry works best when it’s playing with these stereotypes. A further example being Harpers flat mate, Yasmin played by Marisa Abela, a culturally conservative girl next door to her family and colleagues, total party girl behind closed doors. Interestingly the only lazy stereotyping centres around more peripheral characters, the Irishman with a drink problem and the Scot with a heroin habit, tropes I kind of hoped we’d left back in the 1990s.
And Industry, written by former bankers Mickey Down and Konrad Kay does have a certain 90s feel to it. The workplace culture is one where blatant bullying, systemic sexism and not so casual racism is all pervasive. It’s also a world where next level work-related cocaine consumption and colleague related copulation is commonplace. I’ve no doubt that these behaviours continue to exist despite the advent of whistleblowers, improved internal compliance and a much-needed cultural shift. However, I’d suggest the writers may have used a certain artistic license to juxtapose the unfortunately acceptable conduct of the 90s onto 2020 to make the City seem a lot edgier than it currently is?
These reservations aside, the show accurately captures the world of investment banking, the febrile atmosphere, the flashing computer screens which highlight the numbers which determine an employee’s worth to the company, the greed is good mentality and the self centred and self-serving personas that bankers don to insulate them from the mores and morals they leave at the front door.
You won’t necessarily like any of these characters but you will find yourself immersed in their scheming and sexual shenanigans. If you’re taking a well deserved festive break from your own industry, this Industry is definitely one worth finding out about.
Little Fires Everywhere
Our next choice is short, but thought-provoking miniseries Little Fires Everywhere, an American drama based on Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestseller of the same name.
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington (who were also executive producers) this melodrama about the intertwined fates of two families, is an exploration of racial prejudice, socioeconomic and gender politics. Set in the late 1990s in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights against a soundtrack of Alanis Morissette and Lauryn Hill, it traces the lives of two women from vastly opposing worlds, drawn together and pulled apart by their desires, fears and misconceptions of one another.
Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) lives in the picture-perfect world of affluent suburbia as a mother of four and wife to a successful lawyer disguising her dictatorial tendencies under a veil of good intentions. And, with a resilient attitude reminiscent of one Elle Woods, she channels the frustrations of an unfulfilled career, between a part-time role at a local paper, managing her family’s extra property and micro-managing every minutia of their lives. Elena is an unequivocal type – A personality; multitasking her way through a life scented by her freshly baked goods. Witherspoon deftly portrays this discontented over-achiever, as she pushes her children to reach their potential at all emotional costs.
Artist Mia’s life, (played by Washington) by contrast, is much more fluid yet deeply unsettled as she drifts from place to place with her long-suffering daughter Pearl in tow. It’s an existence that Mia justifies under the guise of artistic aims, and Pearl graciously accepts; her intense love for her mother rendering it tolerable.
The protagonists’ paths cross when Mia rents Elena’s house, setting a chain of events in unstoppable motion. In Elena, Mia recognises unspoken repression and her desire for an alternative ending, and through it, the two women forge a connection. Mia often speaks before thinking, stumbling over patronising proposals that can make for uncomfortable viewing. It’s a complicated relationship with a subplot that amplifies their differences, their sense of identity and views on motherhood. The show is a continuous dance of well-intentioned missteps and misinterpretations from both sides that leads to a path of resentment and competition with devastating consequences.
The series is short as boxsets go, it’s many twists and subplots indeed leave little fires everywhere as the characters’ relationships ebb and flow. But during its brief run, it touches on a variety of themes, from racial, gender and social inequality, to teen relationships, adoption and the depths of maternal love. There are many great performances from Joshua Jackson as Elena’s long-suffering husband and Lexi Underwood as Pearl. Megan Scott also shines as Izzy Richardson, Elena’s perplexed daughter. But the most commanding, thought-provoking moments are between Witherspoon and Washington.
Ultimately, Little Fires Everywhere asks us, the audience to face our prejudices and the quick-fire assumptions we make about each other daily. Though set in the past, it’s message is pertinent in the face of BLM. As we collectively face the challenges of this pandemic, it is a stark reminder to think before we act and to be kinder to one another.
Little Fires Everywhere is available now on Amazon Prime.
“Re-choired” House Gospel Choir (Island Records)
The House Gospel Choir are a Bethnal Green based community collective who have been making soulful house music imbued with a spiritual ethos for a number of years now. They are continuing in the tradition of so many of the original 80s and 90s house music artists and vocalists who came from a church or gospel background.
Re-interpreting house classics and performing them alongside their own compositions, they don’t hide their spirituality but this is joyful uplifting music for people of all and no religions. Having toured extensively over the last few years “Re-choired” is their much-anticipated debut album, one which captures all the vibrancy and feel-good vibes of one of their concerts.
Selecting some of their and their audiences favourite tunes, the HGC have brought in US house royalty Todd Terry and DJ Spen to collaborate on a highly polished album where the message is in the music.
It opens with “My Zulu”, the first Todd Terry collab, which sets the tone with its beats, rolling piano and soulful vocals, before we continue into the first classic, a re-interpretation of the 2012 Candi Staton dance floor anthem “Hallelujah Anyway”.
It’s not all four to the floor however as track four sees the Choir take the Disclosure / Sam Smith hit “Latch” transforming it into a slowed down, pared down acoustic version where the sheer longing and poignancy of the ethereal vocals left me quite emotional tbh. It’s accompanied by two further acoustic tracks, one of the HGCs own compositions entitled “Salvation” and a beautifully haunting re-working of the 1997 Peven Everett garage classic “Gabriel”
The second Todd Terry collab “Everything is Love” sees East London meet New York and church meet club with driving bass and synchronized strings the backdrop which showcases the Choirs vocals to full effect on a track which for me could join the albums existing old school classics to become a future one.
The following track “I Don’t Know What You Come to Do” shifts genres again with Baltimore house legend DJ Spen and the HGC collaborating to produce a slice of pure 70s inspired disco, all handclaps, horns, hi-hats and heavenly vocals. An absolute joy.
Other tracks include re-workings of the Crystal Wates cut “Gypsy Woman” and Barbara Tuckers 2005 anthem “Most Precious Blood” while the album closes with us back on that 90s garage tip with the House Gospel Choirs own composition “Battle”.
Whether you’re looking for some joyful uplifting sounds to help you and your bubble celebrate Christmas or just looking for something to transport you from these dark days to the kitchen dancefloor, Re-choired is required listening.
The Queen’s Gambit
One of the triumphs of recent months is Netflix’s coming-of-age period drama The Queen’s Gambit. Based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same title, the story charts the rise and rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon. Set in ’50s America, we are transported across decades and international destinations in pursuit of the protagonist’s championship checkmate. While this seemingly sedate game appears an unlikely candidate for an enthralling show, with its twisting narrative, tension-filled moves, controversial themes and stunning sets; just like the game, success is in the details. And the timely release of a pastime that we can pursue in the time of Covid only adds to its appeal.
Brilliant nine-year-old Beth Harmon is suddenly rendered an orphan after a devastating car crash, and residency in her new home comes with neglect and an unhealthy dose of daily tranquilisers. This pharmaceutical serving provides a welcome escape from the cruelty and monotony that pervades but a chance meeting with the janitor in the establishment’s dark basement reveals the real key to Beth’s future and her salvation, in the form of a chequered board game.
Anya-Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth is magnetic; she is simultaneously vulnerable yet commanding, and each wide-eyed gesture reflects the consequences of one small move, both socially and competitively. As she progresses through tournaments, she shatters her male opponents’ misconceptions delivering devastating blows in the face of gender discrimination.
With its accomplished cast, there are many notable performances, but Marielle Heller stands out as Alma Wheatly, Beth’s adoptive mother. Heller skilfully demonstrates the complexities of relationships as Alma is simultaneously mother, mentor, manager and fellow addict.
Uli Hanisch’s exceptional production design evokes the bright aesthetic of the era with geometric walls that both depict the confines of Beth’s early life and the board game that holds the key to her freedom. As we travel from Vegas to Moscow and beyond, it’s a visual feast of pattern, texture and saturated hues. Just as the lines on the walls mirror Beth’s situation, the checks on her clothes reflect the safe and familiar repetition of the board. Costume designer Gabriele Binder artfully explores Beth’s journey from anxious teen to an authoritative competitor taking inspiration from the classic silhouettes of ’50’s Hepburn through tothe seismic shift of the ’60s as worn by Edie Sedgewick.
The Queen’s Gambit is a triumph for Netflix becoming one of the most-watched scripted mini-series. The chessboard’s monochrome aesthetics reflect the opposing forces and contradictions in Beth’s personality; she challenges our perceptions as we observe the world of high functioning addiction, gender inequality and the self-sabotaging behaviours of an obsessive perfectionist. Ultimately the series reveals the immense psychological strength required for this deceptively high-octane game.
Expect stunning costumes and performances, expect ceiling visions a’ la American Beauty; though more queen takes pawn than petals at dawn. Expect riveting tournaments and a protagonist taking control of her destiny against a backdrop of stunning interiors. And, like the thousands of viewers gripped by this unlikely hit, expect to be quietly contemplating your next move – the purchase of your very own chess set.
The Queen’s Gambit is available on Netflix now.
The Shadow Over Innsmouth (BBC Radio 4)
BBC Radio 4 podcast “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is the third and apparently final series in a trilogy based on the supernatural writings of occult novelist H.P Lovecraft. Like it’s two predecessors “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Whisperer in Darkness” which were released in 2018 and 2019 respectively “”The Shadow over Innsmouth” hit the airwaves just ahead of the Christmas season to tap into our love of some festive fear.
Originally written in 1931, it, like the previous instalments of this trilogy has been adapted for a 21st century audience by Julian Simpson while losing none of its original gothic atmosphere. Consequently, with this binging recommendation you are getting three for the price of one as you really need to work your way through the previous two series to understand the third. However, with each episode running to approximately thirty minutes they are the ideal length for a concentrated binge.
The three series are presented as if they were a true crime podcast which adds to the fear factor as the listener is left with the impression that what they are listening to is fact and not fiction. This podcast within a podcast is called “The Mystery Machine” and we follow its hosts, investigators Matthew Heawood and Kennedy Fisher as they are drawn into the world of the supernatural and a conspiracy whose tentacles reach beyond borders and ensnare all strata of society.
While the device of fictional “true crime” podcast may seem clunky, Lovecraft’s stories translate seamlessly to this modern-day genre. What also makes that transition seamless is the quality of the acting with Barnaby Kay and Jana Carpenter as Heawood and Fisher playing their roles so convincingly. That’s further added to by a chilling and compelling story arc woven across all three series which mirrors the highly addictive true-crime style of meshing high drama with the mundane day to day investigative process.
If anything, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and its companions benefit from their audio format where so much is left to the listeners imagination and where the spectre of the supernatural is ratcheted up even further by an all-enveloping, eerily claustrophobic soundscape. Best listened to on headphones, there is an unnerving texture to the overall sound quality where ambient noise and messages from some disconnected time and place crackle with deeply disquieting distortion. It’s an ambience that makes even the most normal of sounds like footsteps on gravel assume abnormal connotations.
In this third series we delve deeper into who Kennedy Fisher really is and what her true motivations are, as for much of the series she is sequestered in a small seaside town in the USA, while Heawood is following leads in the ancient city of Mosul where it’s ancient antiquities and philosophies sit cheek by jowl with its present-day turmoil.
This final instalment of the trilogy brings together the supernatural strands which have weaved their way throughout the two previous seasons culminating in a spine-tingling denouement which is well worth the journey. Someone once said that our greatest fears are caused by our imagination. The Shadow Over Innsmouth and its companion series are proof positive of that.
The Undoing ( HBO / Sky Atlantic )
Adapted by David E Kelley of Big Little Lies fame from a 2014 novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz , The Undoing reunites him with Nicole Kidman. She is joined by Hugh Grant in playing the lead roles of Grace and Joathan Fraser. The Frasers live in New Yorks Upper East Side where she works as a therapist and he a pediatric oncologist. Happily married with one son Henry, who attends an elite local private school, their life seems idyllic.
That idyll is thrown into disarray by the appearance of Elena Alves whose older son attend the same school as Henry but as a scholarship student. Hailing from a poor neighbourhood and with a second infant son, Alves brings him to a school auction committee meeting hosted by Fraser and her wealthy friends. Alves breastfeeds him in their presence attracting hostility from the super privileged attendees.
However, it’s a superficial reason which masks a deeper hostility based on someone of her social status, beauty and relative youth encroaching on their rareified and cocooned world. Intrigued and perhaps infatuated by Elena, Grace endeavours to befriend her and a complex relationship commences, one that lies somewhere between friendship and undisguised sexual tension.
That tension culminates at a school fundraising event which both the Frasers and Elena attend. The following morning Elena is found murdered in her art studio and Jonathan Fraser has disappeared. What’s the connection between these two events? Is it a co-incidence or a sign of something deeper and darker? As the NYPD search for the missing physician and Grace Fraser becomes the subject of their intense scrutiny, no-one is above suspicion.
Hugh Grant is at his best here, playing Jonathan Fraser with reptilian charm and delivering a hugely nuanced performance where we never quite know who the real Jonathan is. Devoted family man, humanitarian and dedicated doctor, ageing lothario or sociopath with homicidal tendencies?
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser as aloof and vulnerable in equal parts. Is her icy detachment a prerequisite of her therapist vocation or a sign that she is incapable of real emotion or empathy? Devoted mother and wife or dysfunctional and damaged, capable of committing unspeakable acts?
They are supported by a hugely talented cast including movie royalty Donald Sutherland who plays Graces father and Douglas Hodge, a mainstay of 1990s British TV drama, playing a down at heel New York lawyer. And of course, New York itself plays a central role. Oscar winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle captures the city in all its breathtaking winter beauty.
Of course, here at Boyfriend we are always on fashion watch, and just as Grace Frasers sense of self is defined by her career it’s equally defined by her wardrobe. Costume designer Signe Seijlund gives the character a signature look that can only be described as uber boho luxe. Utilizing pieces from Maxmara, Etro, Givenchy, and the UKs very own Roksanda, Seijlund interposes them with her own stunning creations including some quite fabulous coats.
Above all else this is a gripping psychological thriller which taps into that primal fear of how well do we really know anyone, even those we are closest to? Keeping us guessing right into the final episode, if you are thinking of doing some box set binging over the festive period, we’d recommend you include The Undoing.
As the goalposts continue to change on Christmas restrictions, it’s an unsettling time. Will we or will we not see our families after countless months of separation? Not quite the Christmas we envisaged. But we can still deck the halls; we can still pull crackers and adorn ridiculous crowns as we stuff ourselves with turkey or nut roast depending on preferences.
In the face of this not-so-traditional Christmas, it seems to us the best thing to do is put the world outside on pause and settle into some escapism. There’s no chance of FOMO, (especially if you are in tiers 3 or 4!) so pour yourself another drink, curl up on the sofa, switch on your screens – and enjoy!