Blu-ray Review: Sullivan’s Travels

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Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, William Demarest
Director: Preston Sturges
Rating: 10/10

Paving the way for the likes of John Huston, Billy Wilder and Orson Welles, Preston Sturges was the first of Hollywood’s writer-directors – or “hyphenates”, as they’re known. He was also an unsurpassed comic genius. Sullivan’s Travels (1941) is a satire upon what we think of as a relatively recent phenomenon – the need of certain Hollywood celebs to be taken Very, Very Seriously. John L. Sullivan is a pampered young film director who has hitherto specialized in musicals and light comedies with titles such as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft. His ambition, though, is to helm a weighty state-of-the-nation drama, which will “realize the potentialities of film as the sociological and artistic medium it is” and be “a true canvas of humanity.” (“But with a little sex,” says the studio head hopefully.)

sullivans-travels 2In order to discover just what conditions are like beyond the Hollywood bubble, Sullivan decides to dress up as a tramp and go out into the world with ten cents in his pocket. (“Isn’t it overdoing it a bit, sir? Why break their hearts?” his manservant asks of one particularly ragged disguise.) The studio makes a farce out of the whole endeavour by turning it into three-ring publicity circus, but this doesn’t stop Sullivan from having a few adventures and encountering on the road a failed actress (Veronica Lake) who becomes his guide to how the other half live.

Wonderful though they are, Sturges’ films tend to have their rough edges, and Sullivan’s Travels is no exception. As the lead, big, sturdy Joe McCrea doesn’t exactly exude great comic timing (although he makes a good fist of the various ailments and allergies that seem to besiege Sullivan almost as soon as he steps outdoors, his body telling him what his mind doesn’t want to hear, that he should stay where he belongs). And there are parts of the movie that now feel dated and crudely handled – the Dickensian montages, the occasional lurches into melodrama, the sentimental ending with its platitudes about the consoling power of laughter.

But you’re inclined to swallow all of this without complaint because the good bits are so sullivans-travels 3outstanding. Watching a Preston Sturges film is less like the ordinary experience of watching a movie than it is like listening to a classic album. The set-pieces are so inventively choreographed, the verbal wit so dazzling, the slapstick so joyful, you simply sit there in astonishment and awe, and the experience remains just as fresh and exhilarating no matter how many times you go back. On top of that, Sullivan’s Travels has the allure of allowing you a peek behind the curtain of Hollywood in the early ’40s. And then there’s Veronica Lake. Her character may only be known as “The Girl”, but she’s far from anonymous – funny, loyal and worldly-wise, this is a role that actresses today would give their eye teeth for and that modern women can relate to without having to wince and make allowances.

As for this HD transfer, the early two-shot interiors are quite soft and grainy, but the exteriors (for instance, the scene around Sullivan’s pool, or the documentary-style footage as Sullivan and The Girl board a freight train along with a seething crowd of hobos) have a new depth and airiness. Throughout, the picture is very clean, with no scrapes or scratches. The audio is natural-sounding and shorn of crackle (an important consideration when so much of the fun comes from the fizzing dialogue).

Deep breath. Now for the extras. As well as a commentary by Terry Jones, you get Preston Sturges: The Rise and Fall of an American Dreamer – a vintage but hugely informative 1 hour, 15 minute documentary, with interviews with friends, family and co-workers including Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton (the stars of what is arguably Sturges’ funniest film, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). The documentary explores the cosmopolitan and privileged upbringing Sturges received at the hands of his wealthy and Bohemian mother (who gave celebrated dancer Isadora Duncan the long, dangly scarf that broke her neck when it got entangled in the rear axle of her sports car). It goes on chart his rise to playwright and highly paid screenwriter and finally to director, and then the burst of energy that saw him produce a stream of comedy classics, while also carrying on affairs and holding court at all hours at the ruinously expensive restaurant he owned. What happened afterwards makes for sad viewing: a string of four flops in a row effectively put paid to Sturges’ career as he lost both his comedic touch and control of his spiralling budgets (there are some clips of his little-seen later movies here, and they do look dodgy). A steep decline followed, and the man who had brought a new sophistication to the screwball comedy left Hollywood with his tail between his legs.

There’s also a 21 minute talking head piece with film critic Kevin Jackson, who points out that Sullivan’s Travels is almost like an encyclopedia of comedic techniques and film genres (too much so for its own good, some might claim). Finally, a 45-minute visual essay provides an introduction (in alphabetical order) to the repertory of scene-stealing character actors who added so much to the flavour of Sturges’ films, including several vaudevillians and a dentist turned boxer known as the Fighting Dentist (he could knock your teeth out and then put them back in again!). With an HD transfer that breathes new life into a beloved film and a great array of goodies, all told this is an unmissable release for fans of Sturges – and if you’re not a fan of this scintillating director, you should be.

DVD Review: Generation War

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Starring: Volker Bruch, Tom Schilling
Director: Philipp Kadelbach
Rating: 10/10

If you didn’t see this cracking German-made three-parter when it was shown on BBC2, you can now catch up with it on DVD or Blu-ray. Spanning the years 1941 to 1945, it concerns five young Berliners caught up in the turmoil of WWII. Two of them (Wilhelm and Charlotte) are fresh-faced Fascists eager to serve the Fatherland on the Eastern Front, but Wilhelm’s sensitive younger brother Friedhelm is a disgruntled observer of all this mass triumphalism, while glamour girl Greta has a Jewish boyfriend, Viktor, and listens to racially impure American jazz. But it doesn’t matter whether they’re pro or anti the war effort. There are some nasty surprises in store for all of them.

The broad shape of their learning curve can readily be imagined (Hitler – very bad; Russian winters – also very bad; peasant shacks – don’t burn them down unless you want their occupants to take up arms against you), but it’s individualized through story arcs laced with dramatic ironies. So Greta becomes the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi. Wilhelm’s enthusiasm for the cause is dampened by having to do the Reich’s dirty work, while Friedhelm, who has always thought that the war is pointless, discovers that he has a knack for survival on the battlefield. Viktor finds himself among Polish partisans who are just as cruelly antisemitic as the Nazis, and Charlotte (a nurse) is assigned to a field hospital where they play loud music to pacify the patients (or perhaps to drown out the screaming) because there isn’t enough morphine to go round.

Each of the feature-length episodes is packed full of what feel like vivid and authentic snapshots of the madness of war – a suicidal Friedhelm lighting a cigarette at night to draw enemy fire and then getting beaten up for it afterwards by his unit, while Wilhelm skulks nearby; clearing a forest of landmines by marching a group of peasants into it at gunpoint. And there throughout, giving the show its narrative spine, is the situation on the Eastern Front, at first hopeful as the German forces march on Moscow, making huge territorial gains, and then increasingly desperate as they are pushed further and further back by an enemy that seems to proliferate like an army of angry green ants. Shot with handheld cameras that lurch in the actors’ faces, these scenes of street-by- street fighting through towns reduced to rubble have the same jittery excitement as those in Saving Private Ryan, but with an extra dimension of moral jeopardy and soul-sapping savageness.

Director Philipp Kadelbach and his production team do wonders with a budget that was presumably only a fraction of what Spielberg had to play with. The show makes no excuses for the characters, who, it suggests, opened up a Pandora’s box of evils that still plague the world today. All of the performances are beautifully nuanced, but you have to single out the actors playing the two brothers. As Wilhelm and Friedhelm, Volker Bruch (potential future Bond baddie?) and Tom Schilling (a Teutonic James McAvoy) could hardly be bettered for hollow-cheeked charisma and haunted attractiveness. Compelling and totally convincing, Generation War is a massive achievement up there with the very best of recent German cinema and TV.

Blu-ray Review: The Pit and the Pendulum

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Starring: Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: 7/10

Having already brought us The Fall of the House of Usher (1960), Arrow now turn their attention to the second in Roger Corman’s famous seven-movie Poe cycle. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is where Corman’s take on Poe really gets into gear. It’s in every way a bigger, bolder film than its predecessor, right from the title sequence which segues from psychedelic abstracts of running paint to an impressive establishing shot of the lofty, sea-mist wreathed castle where the grisly action is to take place.

Screenwriter Richard Matheson stretches Poe’s short but suggestive tale into a warped and convoluted psychodrama. Learning that his beloved sister Elizabeth is dead, a young Englishman (John Kerr, fresh from starring in South Pacific and looking uncomfortable swapping a lei for a lace ruff) comes to find out what happened. But he gets little by way of sense from Elizabeth’s babblingly neurotic widower, Don Medina (Vincent Price), except a vague story that she succumbed to the malign atmosphere of the gloomy old castle, which is kitted out with an elaborate torture chamber that belonged to Don Medina’s father, a notorious inquisitor who obviously brought his work home with him. Don Medina (who is paranoid that he might have committed his wife to a premature burial) is thrown into further paroxysms of guilt when Elizabeth apparently returns from the grave to tinkle the harpsichord at night.

In terms of raw chills, The Pit and the Pendulum seems fairly tame today, but it makes up for it with an involved storyline and some pretty out there Freudian subtexts. Matheson throws a whole psychology textbook of mental illnesses at the story, with sadism, childhood trauma and schizophrenia all battling for elbow room in Don Medina’s pounding head. It’s enormous fun watching Price going through his paces in what is basically the damsel in distress role (he even faints at one point, which must have been alarming for the actors who had to catch him). Barbara Steele also makes a huge impression in a small but telling cameo. There are several intense set-pieces (especially the sequence where they go down to the crypt to exhume Elizabeth – watch Price’s face as they lift the lid of the coffin), and you get some nice optical effects in the exciting finale (although when the pendulum appears, it might seem a bit small and weedy for modern tastes. The much more substantial apparatus in Stuart Gordon’s 1991 adaptation of the tale must surely have given Corman a bad case of pendulum envy).

Maybe the dark Spanish Gothic look doesn’t help, but the HD transfer is just a little less crisp and vibrant than that of Usher, and it retains a few scratches from the negative. The Blu-ray comes with meaty commentaries from the director and heavyweight film critic Tim Lucas. Otherwise, the highlight of the extras is a glossy and informative 43-minute “making of” featurette. Barbara Steele gives us her own unique vantage point on things, colourfully summing up Vincent Price as “like an ancient soul who grew up on cobbled streets in the rain” and Corman as “like a kind of Buddhist wandering through the set.” From Corman himself you learn all kinds of interesting technical stuff – for instance, how they cannibalized flats from Usher and added others to give The Pit and the Pendulum a bigger look. (For overviews of Corman’s Poe cycle, see the excellent extras on Usher.)

There’s also a 50-minute TV show of Price narrating various Poe tales, shot in vintage ’70s blurryvision which might put some viewers off, but it’s a fine showcase for the actor’s talents and a treat for Poe fans.

Blu-ray Review: Two Moon Junction

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Starring: Sherilyn Fenn, Richard Tyson, Louise Fletcher, Burl Ives
Director: Zalman King
Rating: 8/10

After co-scripting the scandalous 9½ Weeks (1986), Zalman King made a career out of two-moon-junction 5directing steamy erotic dramas which became increasingly over the top as time went on, culminating in the ludicrous Wild Orchid (1989), the film that killed off Mickey Rourke’s career. But it all got off to a promising start with Two Moon Junction (1988). Sherilyn Fenn – just before she became the talk of Tinseltown for her performances as Audrey in Twin Peaks – plays April, a Southern heiress who returns home from college, due to wed the scion of an equally well-to-do family and lead a perfect life. However, as the wedding day nears she gets cold feet and instead finds herself inexplicably drawn to a wild, glibly womanizing, muscle-bound carny hand named Perry (Richard Tyson).

two-moon-junction 4Allegedly, Sherilyn Fenn was rather embarrassed to have the movie on her CV, but she needn’t have been. Looking at it now on Blu-ray, it’s a very beautiful film. King directs with a real feel for this sort of material, and the viewer’s eye is caressed with a stream of soft-focus fashion-plate imagery. Seen in high-def, moments such as the close-up of Fenn’s face in the shower, with beads of water quivering on her cheek, look good enough to rip out and hang up on your wall. There’s a heady Douglas Sirk-meets-Fellini vibe to the culture clash of leisured upper crust and manic carnival folk (tennis flannels, magnolia and Spanish moss on the one hand, fever dream-ish funfair scenes lit with strings of coloured light-bulbs on the other), and this istwo-moon-junction 6 underscored by costumes and styling which reference the ’50s. Fenn slots into this retro aesthetic like it was tailor-made for her, delivering an Old Hollywood-style star turn (albeit with full frontal nudity) as the introverted rich girl who takes a walk on the wrong side of the tracks and embarks on a sexual and social awakening, only to end up torn between duty to her high-achieving family and the cravings of the flesh.

two-moon-junction-cap 2The movie is also sensitive to a feminist agenda. It’s not that Perry is so irresistible (“You’re beyond social redemption,” April snaps at him at one point, fed up by his feckless and inconsiderate behaviour), it’s that he doesn’t take crap from anyone, and this speaks to her own need for self-determination. Elsewhere, the importance of the female gaze is acknowledged in an early scene where April spies through a peep-hole on some men showering, and by the fact that Perry spends a lot of time with his shirt off. (Although there are limits. There’s only one moon on view at Two Moon Junction, the location of the lovers’ big sex scene, because Perry keeps his jeans firmly up throughout. These were still the days when real men made love with their trousers on.)

Even Perry, a character you expect to grate, comes across as more vulnerable and two-moon-junction-cap 1appealing than anticipated, winning you over with a scene where he buries his dog (murdered by another carny hand) on a spot of farmland, but then faces the humiliation of being forced to dig it up again by the local sheriff (an affably sinister Burl Ives) sent to lean on him by April’s controlling gran (the never less than excellent Louise Fletcher). All in all, then, Two Moon Junction is far less cheesy and far more well-crafted than its reputation would suggest, and it’s worn far better than many more high profile movies of the ’80s.

The gauziness of some of the visuals means that this HD transfer isn’t the last word in sharpness, but it’s strongly atmospheric: the colours are dewily bright and vibrant, and there’s an impressive depth of field which brings the mise-en-scene to vivid life.

Blu-ray Review: Theatre of Blood

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Starring: Vincent Price, Diana Rigg, Ian Hendry
Director: Douglas Hickox
Rating: 10/10

As his daughter Victoria explains in one of the extras on this Blu-ray, Theatre of Blood (1973) marked the end of an era for Vincent Price in several significant ways: it saw his marriage fall apart and the beginning of his relationship with British actress Coral Browne (whom he fries to death with a hair dryer in the movie) and also concluded a twenty-year period in which Price was the undisputed face of American horror – he was never again to be so employable.

It’s one of the earliest and best examples of a horror film made for people knowledgeable about horror and cinema. Price is cast as Edward Lionheart, a vengeful actor working his way through a bunch of critics who have tormented him with bad reviews, slaying them in fittingly theatrical ways drawn from the works of his beloved Bard. (“Only he could have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare,” one of them bitterly complains after receiving a Merchant of Venice-style pound of flesh in a box.) It’s a role that plays knowingly upon Price’s public persona and a certain kind of audience ambivalence towards him – the fondness touched with condescension of fans who had grown up with and were on the verge of growing out of this horror icon of yesteryear. (There are sly hints that the critics might have a point about Lionheart: even the fair-minded police inspector investigating the case can only manage a lukewarm “a very vigorous actor” by way of qualified praise.) And all this is amplified by the fact the critics hounding Lionheart are played by well-regarded British thesps (Michael Hordern, Harry Andrews, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Lowe, etc) who enjoyed a sort of standing that eluded the B-movie star.

With its plethora of over-the-top disguises, its bitchy, tongue-in-cheek dialogue and its highly contrived deaths, Theatre of Blood might seem like just another piece of fluff, but it’s animated by deadly serious forces. The unsung Douglas Hickox (who spent most of his career working in TV) directs with a keen feeling for the eerie and nightmarish, evoking a milieu of oppressive ’70s seediness and decay enlivened with touches of psychedelia. The art direction is also a triumph – there’s an especially good jump scare where Price comes shooting down through a trapdoor in a mask and primitive face paint as Achilles in Troilus and Cressida, and Diana Rigg sporting a moustache as Lionheart’s cross-dressing stage manager adds a note of unique oddness. And one shouldn’t overlook the extremely literate script by war hero and former SAS officer Anthony Greville-Bell, which not only mines Shakespeare for apt quotations and suitably grisly deaths (highlight, Robert Morley being force-fed poodle pie in an homage to Titus Andronicus), but also heightens the drama with Shakespearean motifs of a more subtle kind. So Lionheart washing up among the tramps of the Isle of Dogs recalls Prospero’s fate in The Tempest, and his relationship with his devoted daughter has touching echoes of Lear and Cordelia.

And then there’s Price, who shows that he can do Shakespeare, most memorably in a scene where he recites Julius Caesar to his gang of admiring dossers in a burnt-out theatre. We also learn that he can’t do a Scottish accent, and we get to see him dolled up with a perm and glammy threads. And somewhere in this dizzying array of masks a sense of the real man emerges. Maybe it’s something to do with seeing him on gritty ’70s film stock as opposed to lush ’50s and ’60s Cinemascope, but it’s hard to think of another movie where you’re quite so aware of Price’s remarkable physical presence: his daunting size, his huge vitality, his saurian features offset by the charming sparkle in his eye. It’s a performance not only of great gusto, but also of great conviction and a kind of battered dignity, one brimming over with a sense of pathos and regret.

It doesn’t matter, then, that the plotting of some of the deaths is a bit slipshod, or that some of the supporting roles seem decidedly underwritten, or that Price couldn’t do a Scottish accent. Theatre of Blood belongs to a special category of movie where criticism is irrelevant and you just want to treasure it and watch it again and again.

The HD transfer retains a bit of grain in the darker scenes, but it’s nicely detailed, with rich shadows, natural colours, and only a few tiny scratches – and the fiery conclusion looks glorious. The only slight niggle is that the sound is a little boxy.

As well as the interview with Victoria Price already mentioned, the extras include an entertaining audio commentary with the League of Gentlemen and several other featurettes. There are personal reminiscences from film historian David Del Valle, who talks about what an all round gent Price was (a view echoed by everyone). No rose-tinted spectacles, however, in the recollections of actress Madeline Smith, who paints a dismal picture of Ian Hendry drinking too much, Douglas Hickox being curt and shouty and a hard taskmasker, and all the elderly actors getting tired and grouchy, and also complains indignantly about how they actually burned down a real theatre for the grand finale – it’s mind-boggling to think that such a sharp and intelligent woman was stuck with a career playing totty in stuff such as Up Pompeii and Anyone for Sex?

And don’t skip the 15-minute chat with extrovert music maestro Michael J. Lewis, who dresses for the occasion in a ten gallon hat with a hot-pink rosette and a matching silk shirt. He explains that the composer is the “tail-end Charlie” who has to fix the film and supply what’s missing, and goes on to reveal that the slushy tune playing while Arthur Lowe has his head cut off was a Dr Kildare parody. He also tells an intriguing anecdote about how he persuaded his pal, the novelist Anthony Burgess, to write lyrics for the film’s two themes and then got Diana Rigg (who surprised him by turning up in a Range Rover) to record them, but they were never released. Let’s hope they turn up on YouTube some day.

Blu-ray Review: The Piano

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Starring: Holly Hunter, Sam Neill, Harvey Keitel
Director: Jane Campion
Rating: 9/10

Over twenty years on, The Piano (1993) stands as a turning point in the history of costume drama, breathing new life into a stuffy genre by demonstrating how sumptuous spectacle could be offset with quirky vignettes, elliptical storytelling and unbuttoned, informal performances. Even its perception that the past is a place that had a serious problem with mud is something that has been wholeheartedly embraced ever since – just think of the BBC’s swampy recent adaptation of Jamaica Inn.

In addition, the film gave Holly Hunter the role of her career as Ada, the rebellious mute woman married off against her will to a New Zealand landowner (Sam Neill) as a kind of 19th century mail order bride, and stranded in a squalid outpost of the bush along with her Mini-Me of a daughter and her beloved piano, the only outlet for her inner yearnings, until an uncouth neighbour (played with unselfish gentleness by Harvey Keitel) teaches her how to make sweet music of a different kind. As a performance, it’s a technical marvel, not least because Hunter actually plays the piano for real on screen, but she also brings an extraordinary grace and frosty radiance to this determined and uncompromising character.

In a fascinating hour long interview, recorded circa 2003, that comes with the Blu-ray, Jane Campion suggests that Ada’s muteness is comment on the powerlessness of women in the face of controlling Victorian masculinity. But you could just as well claim the opposite. Arguably there’s even a touch of The Taming of the Shrew about it: the huge, unwieldy piano can be seen as the embodiment of an almost manic intransigence and narcissism on Ada’s part, her determination to speak only if she can speak in ultimatums, and it takes falling in love to teach her that dialogue has a value too.

Campion also talks about the film’s long maturation over several years and drafts, her own doubts and insecurities as a director, how helpful Keitel was in leading rehearsals, how they scoured New Zealand far and wide for locations with the appropriate mood, and just why it was important to have so much mud. The various themes running through the movie are unpicked, and we get glimpses of original storyboards and scripts. On top of that, there’s a 15-minute “making of” dating from the time of the movie’s release, with behind-the-scenes footage and an interview clip of a fresh-faced Holly Hunter talking about how she came up with Ada’s unique form of sign language.

The HD transfer is a little soft but the the delicate quality of the light in many of the exteriors (especially all those salmon pink sunsets against which the piano is framed) come across beautifully, and the lovely score by Michael Nyman strikes cleanly through the speakers.

DVD Review: New Worlds

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Starring: Freya Mavor, Jamie Dornan, Joe Demspie
Director: Charles Martin
Rating: 8/10

Heretofore the tendency in movies and TV has been to treat King Charles II kindly, as a jovial comedy toff (Rupert Everett spouting witticisms in drag in Stage Beauty springs to mind). This sumptuous four-parter, recently shown on Channel 4, presents a darker view of the Merry Monarch, as portrayed by Jeremy Northam with what is surely the sneer of the year.

Yes, if you thought the thing about Charles II was that he didn’t hold a grudge, think again. Here’s he’s shown relentlessly pursuing the last of the regicides who slew his father and stamping out any remnants of radical idealism among the common folk. Exactly what happened to these notions of liberty and the people who propagated them is the theme of New Worlds.

It’s unusual, daring even, for a TV drama to take an abstract idea as its subject, and perhaps for that reason screenwriters Peter Flannery and Martine Brant have wrapped it all up in what you’d have to say is a plot and a half, involving daring-do by moonlight, separated lovers, shipwrecks, sojourns among native American tribes and a whole brace of grisly executions. Embracing both sides of the Atlantic, the story concerns Beth (Freya Mavor), a sheltered aristo who falls in with the Robin Hood-like Abe (Jamie Dornan, to be seen next year in Fifty Shades of Grey), who happens to be the son of one of the aforementioned regicides. Through him, she comes to see that England is suffering under the yoke of tyranny. Meanwhile, in the New World, things are arguably even worse, under the sway of cheerless, beady-eyed Puritans who aren’t happy unless they’re grabbing land from the natives or accusing someone of adultery. Here decent, kind-hearted Ned (Joe Dempsie) struggles to come to terms with the predations of his father, one of the worst land-grabbers, while also harbouring a passion for gun-toting frontierswoman Hope (Alice Englert).

Joe Dempsie, who was so funny and engaging in Skins all those years ago, still appears to be struggling to make an impression in more conventionally heroic roles, but he is more than made up for by Jamie Dornan and Freya Mavor, who both manage to make their characters seem very dashing indeed – and this despite the fact that, thanks to their recklessness, a bloody swathe is cut through the older cast members by the end of episode two. Mavor, in particular, completely dominates the screen with her ethereal beauty and her wonderfully flouncy performance; you can’t take your eyes off her, whether she’s skipping around a stately home in a gorgeous gown or slumped outside a teepee with braids in her hair and a tattoo on her shoulder.

And that’s saying something, as there is plenty of other eye candy to look at in this lavish production which evokes both the old and new worlds surprisingly convincingly, despite being shot mainly in Britain on a tight budget. It’s just a shame that it’s available on DVD only, as it cries out for HD. With its ambitious scope and its fiendishly tangled story arcs, New Worlds inevitably has the occasional hurried transition and clunky plot beat, but as an introduction to an overlooked period of history, as a richly coloured, full-blooded romance and as a showcase for some fine young acting talent, it’s hard to beat.

The box set comes with four brief but jolly featurettes, which contains lively footage of the actors chatting about their parts on set and behind the scenes, interviews with various production design bods, and an insight into the digital wizardry that turned modern-day Bristol harbour into 17th century Boston.