mon 27/05/2024

Felix and Murdo, Channel 4/ Ben Hur, Channel 5 | reviews, news & interviews

Felix and Murdo, Channel 4/ Ben Hur, Channel 5

Felix and Murdo, Channel 4/ Ben Hur, Channel 5

New Armstrong and Miller vehicle mixes comic nuggets with fatuous flatulence

Alexander Armstrong (left) and Ben Miller dress up for some Edwardian shenanigans

I love the idea of Armstrong & Miller. Alexander Armstrong has his odious toff routine off to a tee, the clubbable rotter who'll cheat at golf, get you to pay for all the whisky sours in the clubhouse, and then shag your wife. Alongside, Ben Miller exists in a cloud of brainy abstraction, convinced that his serial bungling failures are merely the prelude to roaring success.

Yet, just as their own series offer nuggets of mini-genius lying around on a carpet of dross, so this new offering (penned by Simon Nye) sizzled with a potential which one despaired of them ever attaining. Miller plays Felix, an eccentric Edwardian banker who invents futuristic gadgets on the side. For instance, he has devised the very first ATM machine, where you order a sum of money down an antique telephone and it's placed in a tray for your collection by a grubby urchin squeezed inside the machine.

This was billed as a one-off, and I wouldn't put money on seeing a full series

Armstrong plays Murdo, a supercilious aristocrat with a string of extravagant dynastic forenames who fancies himself as both ladykiller and man of action and adventure. He's wildly smitten with Felix's sister and banking partner Winnie (played with blonde zestiness by Georgia King), but his chat-up lines leave much to be desired and little to the imagination. "I'd like to leave a big deposit in your strong-box," he leers. "How like a man to mistake lewd euphemism for proper conversation," she ripostes.  

There were some good gags about the upcoming 1908 Olympic Games - "I see the cost of the Olympics has soared to 12 guineas," remarked Murdo - and indeed the main storyline was Murdo's ridiculous effort to compete in the Olympic javelin competition, which he hoped would make him even more irresistible to women. But it had been considered obligatory to jam in a few gratuitous jokes about anal sex and masturbation, and Felix's expletive-strewn battle with his future parents-in-law over his reluctance to marry their daughter Fanny (tee hee) became increasingly foolish. This was billed as a one-off, and I wouldn't put money on seeing a full series.

Very weird of Channel 5 to show the mini-series Ben Hur in one huge, three and a half hour chunk. It felt a bit like "blimey, we've forgotten to schedule anything for Wednesday". This was a German/Canadian co-production shot in Morocco (made by the perpetrators of The Pillars of the Earth), and featured the kind of ill-matched cast typical of the long-distance potboiler.

Despite being made way back in 1959, William Wyler's colossal movie version will always be the Hur by which all others are judged - even the posters with the title seemingly carved out of the side of the Matterhorn will never be surpassed - and this one was never going to compete on set-piece firepower or thespian wattage.

The two leads were pretty weedy for a start. As Judah Ben-Hur, Joseph Morgan (pictured above in chariot) wouldn't have looked out of place onstage with Westlife, but never fully shouldered the burden of taking on the entire Roman empire, becoming an instant expert at chariot racing and pausing to give the poor, bloodied Christ a hand as bestial Roman soldiers lashed him towards Calvary. He wore the permanent look of a man who has had to make too many 5am starts and was just going where they pointed him.

Stephen Campbell Moore played his arch-enemy and betrayer Messala with petulant passive aggression, never man enough to fully embrace his inner megalomaniac and pausing frequently to whinge about his unpleasant father Marcellus. Mind you, his dad (played by James Faulkner) was truly, deeply callous and cynical, so it was a shame that although he was poisoned by his concubine at the end, we didn't actually see him writhing in terminal agony.

There was light relief from Ray Winstone, who brought some wheezy geezerishness to Quintus Arrius, the Roman admiral who ended up passing on his title and his fortune to Judah (henceforth Sextus Arrius). Then there was Marc Warren, untrustworthy leader of the People's Front of Judea (or whatever), trying to force his attentions on Judah's girlfriend Esther. Particularly smirk-evoking was Hugh Bonneville as Pontius Pilate (pictured above). He made an unpromising entrance, struggling podgily to climb onto a horse, and having arrived in Jerusalem he proceeded to play Pilate as the sneaky, chippy David Brent of first-century Judea. How very different from the home life of the liberal, enlightened, health-and-safety-conscious Earl of Grantham.   

There were some good gags about the upcoming 1908 Olympic Games. 'I see the cost of the Olympics has soared to 12 guineas,' remarked Murdo

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I actually thoroughly enjoyed it. Messala was a fascinating, sad mix of the insecure and the meglomaniac, Ben Hur was a decent guy done wrong, who goes all the way to bitter revenge and back again; the politics and morals of Rome under Tiberius were as seedy as we saw in "Rome"; the whole Jesus thing was neatly and decently handled; and the chariot race finale seemed far more realistic than the bombastic Hollywood affair, and every bit as nail-biting. The music didn't drown out the acting (again, unlike Hollywood), and the scenery felt solidly realistic all the way through.

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