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Karaoke is a really excellent television drama that is best appreciated with as little prior knowledge about its content as possible. Spread over four episodes, this is a leisurely paced affair initially but the time that Potter and director Renny Rye devoted to fully fleshing out the introductory stages of the various interconnected sub-narratives that the show is built around is ultimately appreciated in the end. By the time that said sub-narrative strands finally come together, we're armed with the knowledge needed to fully understand and appreciate the completely unexpected revelations that pour forth during the run up to the show's dramatically compelling, powerful and moving final episode. As the final credits roll, we're left marvelling at Potter's ability to cram so many original and startling twists and turns into what amounts to just four days in the life of Daniel Feeld.
Karaoke is also an impressively multilayered text: in following the activities of Feeld and those who he interacts with, we have to focus on three distinct planes of representation: the show's own diegetic real plane, the fictional plane of the Karaoke film project's content and a disquieting third plane where the gap between reality and fiction becomes momentarily blurred. Linda Langer (Keeley Hawes of Ashes to Ashes) is the model-turned-actress who plays Sandra's corresponding number in the Karaoke film project and she acts as a physical bridge that links the planes of reality and fiction in a tangible way. But when events from the film seemingly start to play out in Feeld's day-to-day life, we're left wondering whether he is suffering from paranoid delusions or simply encountering a bizarre series of extreme coincidences. All is cleverly and satisfactorily revealed and explained come the show's denouement. Potter's signature use of popular songs in decidedly postmodern but interesting and affecting ways acts as a further pleasing point of engagement here too.
When Karaoke's three planes of representation bump against each other or elements and occurrences seemingly cross from one plane to the other, a really effective sense of slippage and disorientation arises. At these key moments a tangible feeling of dread is prompted by the presence of a simple but ominous piano riff on the show's soundtrack. The experience is comparable to that encountered when watching similarly multilayered shows: Karaoke features a few dizzy moments that bring to mind the disorientating set-pieces found in David Cronenberg's eXistenZ and Michel Deville's La Lectrice. In order to set in place the show's key enigmas and intrigues, Potter offers up some necessarily vague and baffling events early on in the proceedings. For example, the first few narrative flips between Feeld's real world experiences and the fictional events taking place within the Karaoke film project occur without us knowing that two distinct worlds are being represented simultaneously. Thankfully the exceptional acting talent assembled here effortlessly manages to keep us interested until things become much clearer. You can't go far wrong with old school talent like Albert Finney and Julie Christie and (then) new school talent like Richard E. Grant and Anna Chancellor on board.
The quality of the show's acting and its richly drawn characters undoubtedly plays a big part in making Karaoke the quite unique viewing experience that it is. The acting on display here is generally excellent but the passion and emotional depth that Albert Finney infuses Feeld with results in him stealing the show. Finney's work here and in other British TV dramas from the 1990s (Cold Lazarus, The Green Man and A Rather English Marriage) would secure his status as a national treasure. Feeld is a brash and cynical but wholly sympathetic working class Brit who has managed to make a success of his life. He enjoys pouring scorn on born-privileged blue bloods like Balmer and his wife (Julie Christie) but when he encounters Sandra Sollars he is reminded that the social mobility that he has enjoyed is not the norm and he's visibly moved by Sandra and her broken mother's (Alison Steadman of Abigail's Party) plight. As is often the case with Potter's lead characters, it would seem that a certain amount of Potter's own biography and personal experiences found their way into the character of Daniel Feeld.
The show's representations of its working class characters are almost worked to the point of caricature. All seemingly connected -- in one way or another -- to a seedy criminal underworld, most of these characters are portrayed in an almost Dickensian way. Hywel Bennett (Endless Night) plays the show's slimy and devious criminal antagonist, Arthur 'Pig' Mailion, like he's a cross between Oliver Twist's Bill Sikes and David Copperfield's Uriah Heep. Professor Henry Higgins would have undoubtedly passed Eliza Doolittle over in favour of the more challenging Sandra Sollars if their paths had ever crossed. Funny man Roy Hudd offers a gentle and slightly humorous point of contrast as Feeld's genuinely caring agent, Ben Baglin. The somewhat nervy Baglin employs spoonerisms when talking and he is often heard muttering phrases like "hucking fell". Baglin's mischievous mother (Liz Smith of The Royle Family and Sir Henry at Rawlinson End) is a decidedly eccentric old dear. All in all Karaoke is a highly original and unpredictable show that succeeds in its efforts to emotionally involve its audience.
Presented in an anamorphic encoding that has an aspect ratio that appears to be slightly wider than 1.66:1 at times, Karaoke looks pretty good. The show's picture and sound quality are both fine.
Cold Lazarus's most original narrative conceit -- Daniel Feeld's cryogenically preserved head being experimented on in a future time -- once again allows Potter to set up two distinct planes of representation within a single show. Representations of fragments of Feeld's memories take us back to the twentieth century and allow us to learn more about the events that shaped his life. We see episodes from his working class childhood, his first meeting with the love of his life, his success at university, etc. We also see bits and pieces from the four days that made up Karaoke's narrative and some events that occurred after Karaoke's narrative ended. At some points, Porlock's team manages to uncover memories that Feeld had buried deep inside his subconscious mind and these memories are deeply traumatic, tragic and upsetting. Albert Finney turns in another really quite superb and thoroughly sympathetic performance here. The more we learn about Feeld's past, the more we understand about his actions and attitude in Karaoke and, as a consequence, our affection for the character just keeps on growing.
But that's only half of this show's quite unique story. Cold Lazarus is also an excellent Sci Fi show and Potter's second plane of representation here is a bleak looking future world. In the year 2368 the UK is a bombed out wreck that hasn't existed as an independent political entity for over two hundred years. Those British citizens who possess a marketable skill or talent work for the American business corporations that control the planet. The rest of the atomized populace lose themselves any way they can: Masdon's corporation supplies mind altering pharmaceuticals while Siltz's corporation supplies crass TV shows and virtual reality experiences. Inter-corporation rivalry and hi-tech industrial espionage is rife (check out the Snoop Kestrel and Snoop Blackbird devices) and each corporation has its own armed militia that seemingly carry almost as much power and authority as the British police.
Potter resorts to using caricature-like types when presenting his capitalist figureheads here: Masdon and Siltz are both thoroughly vile creatures. Foul-mouthed, hedonistic, spiteful, avaricious, morally deficient and completely uncaring doesn't begin to describe these two quite despicable antagonists. Diane Ladd supplies a completely appropriate scenery-chewing performance that brings to mind her turn in Wild at Heart. Henry Goodman plays Siltz as if he's a Goodfellas-like gangster who has risen to the top of the media world. The insurgent RONs are determined to bring these capitalists down in order to force the British people to wake up and start thinking for themselves again. Consequently, anybody suspected of being a RON is liable to be subjected to psychological torture methods that are akin to those found in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Porlock's team -- and Daniel Feeld's head -- find themselves caught somewhere in the middle of this titanic struggle. Christopher Gunning's beautiful music -- performed by the London Symphony Orchestra -- underscores the show's dramatic set pieces perfectly.
In terms of production design and special effects, British television's forays into Sci Fi have traditionally been overshadowed by bigger-budgeted US shows. With Cold Lazarus, the BBC and Channel 4 really did Potter proud. Good miniatures and model work are used to represent the mushroom-shaped buildings that Masdon's scientists and other employees work in and effective CGI work is used to represent the sleeker, taller and more futuristic -- but still somewhat mushroom-shaped -- buildings that Siltz and his wealthy associates occupy while visiting the UK. The show's costume designs are pretty good too: the British police force's seemingly samurai outfit-influenced uniforms look really good. The giant living video screen that Feeld's memories are projected onto works a treat too. Porlock's team's research lab and its attendant scientific equipment -- including the device that houses Feeld's head -- all look the part, as do the hover pods that the scientists travel in when moving between home and work and the armoured assault vehicles that are used by the British police.
Unfolding over four episodes, Cold Lazarus has much in common with Karaoke at a textual level. It's a well-cast and well-acted show: in addition to the star turns by Finney, Ladd and Goodman there is good work from the rest of the show's players too. Frances de la Tour is perhaps still best known for her long-running role as the demure Miss Jones in the superior Brit situation comedy Rising Damp, so it's great to have her flexing her acting talents in a more serious show here. Strong-willed and blunt-talking, de la Tour's Emma Porlock isn't afraid to stand her ground when negotiating with Masdon and Siltz. Ciaran Hinds also makes a strong impression as Porlock's brooding deputy, the mysterious Fyodor Glazunov. The rest of Porlock's multi-cultural team are played by less well-known faces but they all acquit themselves well. As with Karaoke, Potter and director Renny Rye take their time setting up the show's characters and the grand machinations that will envelop them. As such, there are some necessarily vague and leisurely paced sequences present during Cold Lazarus's early stages. But fear not, the show's intriguing narrative soon finds itself hurtling towards an exciting and explosive denouement that is just as compelling as -- and even more moving and emotionally involving than -- Karaoke's touching finale.
Cold Lazarus is presented flat with an aspect ratio of roughly 1.66:1. For a flat encoding, this is a pretty good presentation: picture and sound quality are both fine.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cold Lazarus rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.