It may be that BBC Worldwide is marketing Kingdom (2007-09), a dramedy starring actor Stephen Fry, specifically to fans of the better and longer-lasting Doc Martin (2004-present). There's a superficial resemblance: Doc Martin (Martin Clunes) is the respected physician of an eccentric, seaside Cornish community that everyone brings their health and other personal problems to; while Peter Kingdom (Fry) is the respected solicitor of an eccentric seaside Norfolk community similarly besieged by residents, this time with legal issues. Like Doc Martin's Cornish setting, Kingdom's location filming (in picturesque Swaffham) attracted an army of tourists. The major difference though is that Martin is (hilariously) abrasive and misanthropic, while Peter Kingdom is exceedingly kind, thoughtful, and humanistic. That Fry is nearly six-feet five-inches tall and pushing 300 pounds also suggests something of a gentle giant to Doc Martin's petulant child-man.
And like Doc Martin, the eccentricities of Kingdom's continuing characters is a bit overemphatic. Doc Martin gradually fleshed out its regulars into believable, sometimes endearing characters but, at least based on these six Season One episodes, Kingdom is less successful in this regard and it's more predictable overall.
Nonetheless, Kingdom still entertains and Fry, as almost always, is fun to watch. The six hour-broadcast (i.e., about 45 minutes without commercials) episodes are presented on two single-sided, dual-layered discs. The show is in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, however something appears to have gone terribly wrong along the way. The video transfer is a headache-inducing mess. Static shots look okay but whenever there's any camera movement, such as hand-held shots and especially horizontal panning, the image becomes extremely blurred and ghost-like. On big monitors especially these shots look truly terrible.
Articulate, educated Peter Kingdom plies his trade in Market Shipborough with devoted legal secretary Gloria Millington (Celia Imrie), the mother of a teenage boy and a recent widow; and Lyle Anderson (Karl Davies) a green trainee solicitor with equal parts of ambition and ineptitude.
As the series begins Peter is mourning the apparent suicide-by-drowning of his half-brother, Simon. Throughout this first series, Peter tries to make sense of it all, but gradually uncovers scraps of information suggesting that there may be more to Simon's death than meets the eye. At the same time Peter's mentally unstable half-sister, Beatrice (Hermione Norris), appears on Peter's doorstep, having left rehab and looking to stay with her brother indefinitely, much to Gloria's consternation as Beatrice soon turns the practice upside-down with her self-destructive behavior.
Other continuing characters include Peter's wise Aunt Auriel (Phyllida Law, Emma Thompson's mother), who has retired to a luxurious country estate/retirement home (and whose function is similar to Martin's two aunts on Doc Martin); and Sidney (Tony Slattery), a profoundly smelly local constantly suing various developers and local councilmen.
Part lightweight mystery series, with Peter's investigations leading to mostly unsurprising twists, part family comedy-drama, Kingdom is worth watching mainly for Stephen Fry, whose basic decency and humanism as Peter Kingdom is the heart of the show. He's unfailingly polite and his faith and humanity, as opposed to Doc Martin's cynicism and short-temperedness, is rather refreshing in these cynical times. Where Gloria can't stand Beatrice and Lyle has no faith in Peter's latest apparently guilty client, Peter Kingdom responds with endless patience and understanding, a legal Dr. Red Beard.
The biggest and most justified complaint levied against Kingdom is the characterization of Beatrice, who instead of engendering sympathy and/or laughs is merely intensely annoying. She spends most of this series of episodes upending Gloria's filing system and carrying on a decidedly one-sided love affair with a artist/gigolo clearly taking advantage of her.
Flamboyantly played like a young Siân Phillips by Hermione Norris, whom she somewhat resembles, the big problem with the character is the inauthenticity of her mental illness. The writers seem more interested in the character as provocateur (especially in terms of Beatrice's sexual promiscuousness) than as a realistically unpredictable, sometimes exasperating mentally ill sibling in need of a lot of attention and care.
Where Doc Martin often finds himself the reluctant, short-tempered mediator in local disputes having little or nothing to do with his skills as a physician, Peter Kingdom likewise finds himself having to sort through personal issues and problems of his neighbors, clients, family and employees. But where Doc Martin's medical matters are better integrated and often interesting, the legal aspects of Kingdom's stories are underemphasized and a bit deus ex machina when they're worked into the plot.
Video & Audio
As described above, while Kingdom is appropriately presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, something went wrong during the mastering process as all six episodes look quite terrible whenever there is any significant camera movement, which is much of the time. How this happened is unknown as is whether the BBC and distributor Warner Home Video will offer replacement copies down the road, though I wouldn't count on it. I managed to still get through the series, so it's marginally watchable but it is a major distraction. The Dolby Digital Stereo fares much better, and the two DVD9s include optional English SDH subtitles.
The lone supplement is an okay behind-the-scenes featurette.
Mild but entertaining, in widescreen with good audio but a problematic video presentation, Kingdom - Season One is a mixed bag that I'd recommend were it not for the video presentation. As such you'd best Rent It first.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.