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Sins of the past

A trip back in time can make even the best actors turn to ham. Leave it to local Essie Davis to do nostalgia with panache.

There's a lot of period acting going on, and not all of it is good. Perhaps the director picks up a megaphone to create authenticity and all the normally restrained good actors lose their way. They find themselves amping up the volume and camping up the gestures with the introduction of every boa and cravat. The result is occasionally an unsatisfactory dialogue between P. T. Barnum and a gaggle of Mitford sisters.

As we wave a not particularly fond farewell to the missed opportunity that was Mr Selfridge (Seven, Monday, 8.40pm), there is much to regret. Jeremy Piven is better than this, isn't he? And Frances O'Connor gave better bustle and fan acting before she went retail. Faint, quaint and overblown, like a local community production of The Music Man, Mr Selfridge became increasingly difficult to watch as the writers wove in every cliché´ of the period - making sure Anna Pavlova and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle almost moved into the department store. Less theatricality and more genuine character would have made this otherwise fascinating material really sing.

Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (ABC1, Friday, 8.30pm) suffers from the same predictable period issues. Sé´ances, the temperance movement, fan dancing and silent movies - they just don't turn up in Law and Order. Essie Davis has settled upon a character who is a crowd pleaser for this audience. She's a good actress, and hasn't succumbed to the trap of grandiosity that might have murdered Piven's career. Davis' Miss Fisher is a thoroughly modern Phryne, hell-bent on frightening the horses and catching the murderer at the same time. She nearly makes me believe police work is possible without forensics or a mobile phone. Of course, she solves every single crime in co-operation and sexual frisson with the same copper. My, Melbourne was a small town in 1929. Too many supporting actors fall into Dad and Dave performances that can be hard to watch. Miriam Margolyes is allowed to act like a luvvy because she's Miriam Margolyes, and because Ruth Cracknell isn't here to play pretentious, particular Aunt Prudence.

Amid all the period shouting, a whispering World War I film, directed by Rachel Ward, made a refreshing change. A new perspective on this rather overcooked period makes

An Accidental Soldier (ABC1, Sunday, 8.30pm) something quite different. Pacifists are tarred with the same obvious brushes as sé´ances and French aviators of the period. So an intimate film, beautifully shot, that unfolds into a love story set on the Western Front in 1918 is a genuine surprise.

Unfortunately, I found the pace almost glacially slow, and the sex scenes between Harry and Colombe more creepy than erotic. In terms of cliché´, what lonely middle-aged French widow wouldn't welcome a hot young Perth baker in her barn? No wonder she hid him. If they knew, the whole village would want one.


Not a lot of whispering between Rupert and Frank in Power Games: The Packer-Murdoch Story (Nine, Sunday, 8.30pm). Patrick Brammall, Lachy Hulme, and Heather Mitchell as Lady Gretel Packer did well. The costume and design must have been a delight for anyone who lived through the period, but the sound of a shouting Packer bullying his staff into submission is simply deja vu. Howzat and Paper Giants weren't just period dramas but ripping yarns.

Meanwhile, a rather more modern drama concluded its second series in fine style, with some old-school techniques. Newsroom (Showcase, Monday, 5.30pm), much improved, but still cheesy, having cornered the market on self-righteous bright yellow American cheese, delivered an election, mended several broken romances and solved the employment situation of about a dozen people addicted to nitrous oxide, if the speed of their speech is any indication. Jeff Daniels, Emily Mortimer, Sam Waterston and the rest of the journalists of Sherwood Forest gave us hope and a lot to think about, while maintaining Aaron Sorkin's cracking pace. This isn't better than period drama, just very much faster. Like the closing seconds of a MasterChef cooking challenge, they manage to fit in so much, when all hope appears to be lost. And nobody is holding a fan, or frightening the horses.

Don't miss . . . 

Serangoon Road

ABC1, Sunday, 8.30pm

It's Singapore. Another period drama. The year is 1964 and Don Hany finds good reason to wield a pistol, topless.


SBS, Tuesday, 8.30pm

Raining cats and dogs and animal lovers. Can Jenny Brockie seek a loving solution for the 56,000 unwanted pets that go begging each year?

Key and Peele,

Comedy Channel, Wednesday, 8.30pm

Express from the United States - new episodes of the sketch comedy that is a cut above the average.