Seymour of Jane, and Timothy Spall on Acorn DVD

Timothy Spall in The Syndicate. BBC

Timothy Spall in The Syndicate. BBC

Kieran Kinsella

The Syndicate Series 1

The Syndicate, Series One is the pick of Acorn Media’s late April DVD releases. The show is a fascinating character study involving the mundane staff members of a humdrum low-end British supermarket. In the normal course of events, there is nothing particularly intriguing about this group but that all changes when they win the national lottery. When millions of pounds are involved, personal relationships, work rivalries and previously undetected misdeeds suddenly become a lot more important. While the show doesn’t exactly portray the lottery as a bad thing, let’s just say that Kay Mellor’s scripts show us that every silver lining has a massive dark cloud attached to it.

The cast for The Syndicate is top notch and the biggest star among the talented ensemble is Harry Potter actor Timothy Spall. He plays the store manager Bob. He is one of those blokes you see quietly sipping a beer every night at the local pub. Inoffensive but kind of dull. Matthew McNulty and Matthew Lewis play jack-the-lad brothers whose financial missteps drive them to commit a foolish act on the eve of the group’s lottery win. The effervescent Denise (Lorraine Bruce) and the secretive Leanne (Joanna Page) complete the winning quintet.

The Syndicate isn’t silly enough to call a dramedy but it does contain plenty of humor, some of it ironic, much of it dark. With its character driven narrative it is a little bit like Jimmy McGovern’s The Street although it isn’t nearly as depressing as that show. Writer Kay Mellor is someone who can hold her own against McGovern, Paul Abbott and the best contemporary British TV writers and The Syndicate is her best work yet. It is utterly perplexing that BBC America never picked this show up by their oversight needn’t be yours as you can buy the 270 minute, 2 disc set for just $39.99 as of 30 April. (Reviews continued below)

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Long before Jane Seymour started making cheesy jewelry commercials, she was doing her best to prove that Britain could produce actresses every bit as glamorous as Hollywood’s finest. Acorn Media’s April 30 release of The Scarlet Pimpernel features Jane at the peak of her powers as the magnificent Marguerite St. Just. Like most of her aristocratic contemporaries, St.Just is on a collision course with 18th century France’s most fearsome femme – Madame Guillotine. The Scarlet Pimpernel (Anthony Andrews) is the one man who stands between the woman and the blade.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is based upon novels written by Baroness Orczy that recall the events of Robespierre’s so-called Reign of Terror. As a member of the nobility, the Baroness obviously had a more sympathetic view of wig wearing, cake eating, badly made-up, French tyrants than most modern commentators. Politics aside though, the Pimpernel is a jolly good yarn. Anthony Andrews is a match for Seymour as the title character although I must admit I still prefer Sid James’ portrayal of the same man in Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head. The support cast is overflowing with young actors who have since gone on to become big stars. Sir Ian McKellen (Lord of the Rings) plays the conniving Chauvelin while Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes is perfectly cast as the pompous Prince Regent. Dennis Lill – whose over acting helped make The Survivors into a cult classic – puts in a relatively restrained performance as Countess de Tournay.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of those made-for-TV dramas that has the look and the feel of a movie. It is swashbuckling stuff that Errol Flynn would be proud of and for Jane Seymour alone it is probably worth the $29.99 cover price. (Continued below)

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries: Complete Collection

Acorn Media’s April line up has a certain symmetry to it as we’re confronted with the nouveau riche in The Syndicate, a clash of classes in The Scarlet Pimpernel and finally a healthy does of the British aristocracy in The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. This series was a smash hit on both the BBC and PBS Masterpiece back in the 70s and Acorn’s 16 hour, 6 disc set includes all five of the three-hour long dramas that helped launch the career of actor Ian Carmichael.

The title character is something of a cad. He is a womanizer, foodie, cricket player, aristocrat and part-time sleuth whose specialty is murder mysteries. Like Sherlock, he is someone who seems to solve mysteries because he has the intellectual capacity to do so rather than because he feels some moral obligation to right wrongs. Some of Wimsey’s cases are fanciful adventures involving gems and years old mysteries while other cases are rather more hard hitting such as Clouds of Witness in which his brother in law is killed.

As fans of PBS Masterpiece and Acorn Media are well aware, quality British TV stands the test of time. The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries are just as durable as Poldark, I Claudius and other BBC classics from that era. It will appeal to fans of Father Brown and P G Wodehouse while the Downton Abbey crowd may like the characters and the setting. Like many detective shows, the Wimsey mysteries are held together by a strong performance from the lead man. Ian Carmiachel passed away in 2010, but the DVD set includes an interesting and fairly lengthy interview with the Yorkshireman. His onscreen counterparts are pretyy good too and include Christoper Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small) and Peter Bowles (To The Manor Born). On the other hand, Paul Darrow (Blake’s Seven) is in it but he’s rather better in this than he was in the stage version of MacBeth. This box set also hits stores on 30 April and costs $59.99.