Meet Dustin Hoffman, ex-con and crossword setter

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

TV REVIEW:YOU’D HAVE BET good money on Luck(Sky Atlantic, Sunday) being must-watch TV. The horse-racing drama has some serious pedigree – and not just because it’s the latest HBO blockbuster.

Written by David Milch, it’s hot on the heels of his HBO success Deadwood– though he has been writing for decades, as far back as one of my all-time favourites, Hill Street Blues; it’s directed by Michael Mann ( Heat, Public Enemies), so you know it’s going to be up-close and visceral; and it has a roll-call of starry actors, including Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte.

But if you had bet big you’d have lost – and, yes, I’m sure there’s a cool, inside-track betting term for that, but, as I could hardly understand a word anyone was saying in the first episode of Luck, I don’t know it.

The plot, as far as I could gather, centres on Hoffman’s Ace, an ex-con, Don-like figure who won a horse, an Irish thoroughbred called a Pint of Plain – a product-placement opportunity if ever there was one – in a bet and has a grand plan to take over a small Californian racetrack and turn it into a casino. Or maybe not.

It’s difficult to say what is going on at any given minute in what felt like a long, slow hour. There was Nolte, looking all grisly and beaten up, rambling around the stables or sitting reciting what may have been poetry to his horse. And a key character, plotwise, seems to be a fiery trainer (John Ortiz), but his heavily accented mumblings make it impossible to figure out just what he’s so angry about.

A side plot involves a quartet of surly, humourless gamblers: racetrack regulars taking a punt on an accumulator bet. It’s a sure sign how far they have failed to engage the viewer that when (spoiler alert: look away now if you haven’t recorded the episode for later viewing) they win the $2 million bet at the end of the first episode it is hard to care less.

You can hear most of what Hoffman says – though it’s not much – although the stylised and downright weird dialogue sounds like a Crosaire clue: “How long my time in Siberia,” or, “No icing error, this.”

Lucklooks fantastic, though, particularly the racing scenes, which are powerful and terrifying, the camera being right among the horses. And the Irish actor Kerry Condon – one of only two females in this macho world – is all open faced and uncomplicated, and makes the most of her role as an Irish jockey.

Luckseems so intent on capturing the closed world of horse racing, with its language and references and rules, that it forgets to let the viewer in.

IT’S DIFFICULT TO WATCH the first episode of Upstairs Downstairs(BBC1, Sunday) without wishing that at some point they’d all hop in the car for a weekend away in a great big country house, say Downton Abbey,where there’ll be colourful characters, daft though highly enjoyable yarns, and a lot of fun to be had.

Because Upstairs Downstairshas got very serious. Eileen Atkins, who played Lady Hallam in the last series, is gone, so there is no quipping dowager – well, her ashes are here, in an urn placed ceremoniously on the mantelpiece, but there’s not many laughs in that. And there are no soap-opera-type niggles between them below stairs and the toffs above. Instead the second series of the revived drama has decided to be a very good-looking historical piece, ditching nearly all other fripperies.

It’s now 1938, Europe is on the brink of war and Lord Hallam (Ed Stoppard) is in the thick of political intrigue, warning anyone who’ll listen that Hitler is not to be trusted until he’s finally sent to Munich to try to avert the war. Meanwhile, Lady Hallam (Keeley Hawes) has returned to Eaton Place with her second child and a script loaded with stilted dialogue: “Go and kiss your children goodnight, Hallam. They are your future.”

Alex Kingston, as Hallam’s aunt Dr Blanche Mottershead, is a new arrival, and she’s set up as the counterpoint to pampered Lady Hallam: she smokes cigars and has a profession, and there are hints of an adventurous backstory that, with luck, will be revealed, because right now she looks like she’s wandered in from an entirely different series. There’s little interaction between those upstairs and down, which (apart from the clue being in the title) was a huge part of the fun of the original series – and it’s a much-reduced staff anyway.

Jean Marsh, the link with the original series from the 1970s and a star of last year’s remake, is gone, and the only characters in the kitchen with any dramatic potential, if you discount the buff-looking chauffer who’s given to walking around in his oily vest, are the head butler, Pritchard (Adrian Scarborough), revealed to have been a Quaker pacifist during the first World War, and the busy, blustery cook, Mrs Thackeray (Anne Reid). It’s classy drama, though – even if it’s now in the shadow of the megahit Downton Abbey– and the sets and costumes are gorgeous.

LESS THAN A HANDFUL of episodes in, and RTÉ’s newly made-over and heavily promoted arts show has been shunted to an unattractively later slot on Thursday nights – and here’s the real ignominy – to make way for The Mentalist,a glossy ho-hum US crime procedural. The Worksmay come across like an arty Nationwide, but it has to gaze enviably on that programme’s attractive, permanent teatime slot. Obviously, you can’t mess with the broad sweep of Nationwideviewers in the way you can with arty types. Meanwhile, Imeall(TG4, Thursday) continues to deliver, in its low-key, low-budget but sure-footed and informed way, an overview of the arts scene countrywide. And it’s mostly in English, like this week’s intimate chat between its reporter (and Irish Timescontributor) Una Mullally and Rodrigo Y Gabriela, who talked about their new Cuban-influenced tour; and Sinéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s conversation with Corban Walker, whose exhibition is coming back to the RHA from the Venice Biennale.

“Does your work leave viewers cold?” she asked the artist as they stood in front of his highly conceptual, downright chilly-looking stainless-steel piece – a question most interviewers would be nervous of asking an artist. He was unfazed. “Raw, uncomfortable, yeah, cold,” he said.

Get stuck into . . .

The Shore(BBC1, tomorrow). Terry George’s Oscar-nominated short, set in Northern Ireland, stars Ciarán Hinds (right) and Conleth Hill as two friends, meeting after 25 years, whose lives have taken very different paths.