Events, Reviews

Back to the Future – The Musical


Like most Mancunians, I feel there’s a lot to love about my city, but even I was surprised when it was announced that the world premiere of Back to the FutureThe Musical would open at Manchester’s Opera House. I grew up in the 80s and this is one of my all-time favourite films, so I was bowled over when my wife and daughters bought me tickets to the show for Christmas.

Before delving into the detail, let me say this: You’ve probably watched the film on VHS or TV or DVD dozens of times, but if you’re an 80s kid like me (I’m the same age as Marty McFly), sitting in the theatre watching this incredible spectacle unfold, you’ll be transported right back to the first time that you saw the film in the cinema, in the pre-multiplex era. Yes, it’s like you and the rest of the audience are in a collective time machine – the show is THAT good, and I’m pretty sure that there will be a few jaws well and truly dropped. This is entertainment on an epic scale, and I’m still buzzing the day after the show.

Of course, the key to a good adaptation – usually a book to film, but in this case film to stage – is some well-written source material featuring great characters that tell an engrossing story, and in that regard, you’d struggle to beat the Back to the Future screenplay. It helps that the film’s original writers, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, have also written the musical. Original composer Alan Silvestri is on board with lyrics by American songwriter Glen Ballard.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 35 years, Back to the Future tells the story of teenager Marty McFly who, in 1985, travels back in time to 1955 in a time machine built by his scientist friend, Doc Brown. The problem is that when he gets there, Marty interacts with his mum and dad before they meet, and in doing so, the Doc tells him that he’s messed with the space-time continuum and that he and his siblings might be erased from history! Together, they hatch a plan to make sure his parents meet and to send Marty back to the future.


The stage show is a faithful adaptation of the film, so you don’t have to worry about your childhood being spoiled. Yes, there are subtle changes here and there – there’s no Einstein the dog, Doc doesn’t do a shady deal with Libyan terrorists, Darth Vader doesn’t threaten to melt George’s brain – but the nuts and bolts of the story arc are intact, and the script covers the familiar beats of Marty’s trip to 1955 and his return to 1985. Iconic songs ‘The Power of Love’, ‘Johnny B.Goode’ and ‘Back in Time’ are bolstered by an enjoyable collection of musical numbers whose crafty lyrics play with some of the familiar classic dialogue from the film – “Hello – Is Anybody Home?” performed by Marty and his parents being an early highlight. The new songs, along with some well-placed subtle changes, gags, physical set pieces and dance routines, keep the show zipping along at a cracking pace.

There’s a lot to love about this musical, but I’m going to pick out some highlights. First off, I’ve already said that it’s a faithful adaptation of the film, and it’s great to hear the terrific cast working their way through the classic dialogue. If you’re a fan of the film and I mention just a few choice soundbites, then you’ll get the idea. “Hello? Anybody home? Think, McFly!”, “Don’t be so gullible, McFly”, “You built a time machine out of a DeLorean?” “He’s a peeping Tom!” and of course “1.21 gigawatts!”

Whilst we’re on the subject of the cast, they were all terrific. Marty (Olly Dobson), George (Hugh Coles) and Lorraine (Rosanna Hyland) looked like they’d just stepped straight off the screen. I was gobsmacked when I found out that Olly Dobson was English. Sure, any half-decent actor can do a passable American accent, but when he delivers his lines, you will believe that you’re watching Michael J.Fox up on the stage. The inflection that he put in his delivery was uncanny and the subtle touches like the constant scratching of his hair and neck add to the authenticity. Tony Award-winning actor Roger Bart was brilliant as the eccentric Doc Brown, Aidan Cutler suitably menacing as Biff Tannen and Cedric Neal, playing the parts of both Goldie Wilson and Marvin Berry, showed that he is a first-class singer as well as actor.

But for me, the aforementioned Hugh Coles as George McFly was the best of the lot. Not only did he nail the voice of Marty’s insecure father, but he also played the part to perfection physically, right down to the goofy laugh and awkward mannerisms, using every inch of his wiry frame to become George McFly.

Finally, there’s the DeLorean car. It’s a key part of the film that’s just as important as most of the cast members. Well, don’t worry because it features heavily in a production design that’s as good as any stage set that I’ve seen. I was so engrossed in the story that I wasn’t even thinking about when it would first appear and then BAM! – it spins onto the stage and out steps Doc Brown. An absolutely incredible moment that’s only a taster of things to come. Marty’s trips to the past and back to the future feature an exhilarating mix of the car moving on stage plus back projection and lighting that at times make you feel like you’re in a ride at a Disney theme park. I don’t want to give the end away, but all I’ll say is: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!” Doc Brown’s workshop is one of the many beautifully rendered sets, the flux capacitor features in all its glory and one of the scenes deserves a special mention. By the use of moving sets, we get to see the Doc climbing the tower and struggling to reconnect the cable as Marty simultaneously drives the DeLorean to hit its mark! How the hell did they do that? Well, it’s a brilliant set-piece, and you’ll just have to see the show to find out how they pulled it off.

Back to the Future – The Musical is a stunning success on every level. The familiar story is brought to life on stage by a superb ensemble cast and some dazzling special effects. Put simply, this is the best stage show that I’ve had the pleasure to experience, and we’ve already booked another set of tickets. Believe me, the show is THAT good. I’m so pleased that I got to see the musical on its opening run in my home city, but I’m equally delighted that the show will be moving to London’s West End because it’s an experience that should be seen by as many people as possible. Hopefully, it will also move onto Broadway and other theatres throughout the world, but before then, don’t miss it at the Manchester Opera House until 17th May.

Rob Campbell is the author of the Wardens of the Black Heart trilogy (Monkey Arkwright, Black Hearts Rising and The Well of Tears). It’s a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as Stand By Me and The Goonies or the TV series Stranger Things, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.


Book Review – Confessions by Jaume Cabré

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Ever since I first read The Shadow of the Wind 15 years ago, I have kept an eye out for similar works. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s epic, which spins a fantastical tale of a family bookshop in Barcelona and the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books, captured my imagination like few other books before or since, so I’ve always been hopeful that lightning could strike twice with another translated book.

All of which leads me to Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, a monster of a book translated into English from its native Catalan, in 2014, by Mara Faye Lethem. Whilst family secrets stand at the heart of the narrative, plus the fact that it too is set in Barcelona, that’s where the similarities with The Shadow of the Wind end. It’s a read that is both engrossing and exhausting, so let me tell you a bit about it.

Adrià Ardevol, a professor and expert in linguistics, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Determined to write his life story as his memory collapses around him, Adrià hands over a stack of papers to his lifelong friend, Bernat. But making sense out of the jumbled notes won’t be an easy task for Bernat because whilst Adrià had been writing a paper on the nature of evil, he then decided to write his memoirs on the back of the same sheets. Adrià’s story is framed as a letter to his love, Sara, but includes his memories of a complicated relationship with his parents, the history of his friendship with Bernat, his time studying in Germany and perhaps most significantly, the blood-stained history of a valuable violin that came into his father’s possession.

If this sounds like a complicated set-up for the story, then prepare for your mind to be well and truly boggled. Whilst the overall progression of Adrià’s story is linear, the information is sometimes presented in a random order that perhaps represents the crumbling and increasingly fragmented nature of his memory. But this non-chronological sequence pales into insignificance when compared to the author’s bold stylistic choice to interweave the history of the Lorenzo Storioni violin into Adria’s memoir.

As a reader, I am sometimes annoyed when the point-of-view character changes within a paragraph or a chapter, and I often obsesses about how character A can know this or that about character B, but I quickly had to put aside any such prejudice when reading Confessions. It’s clearly a conscious choice on Jaume Cabré’s part, and whilst the author has admitted in interviews that he sees his part as a narrator who knows the entire story and will tell the reader everything he knows at the appropriate point, the approach works well given his main protagonist’s state of mind. To give you an idea of the narrative flow, we might have two characters talking and by the end of the sentence, we are witnessing the actions of another set of characters hundreds of years before. Yes, you read that right: by the end of the sentence. Not a new chapter or a new paragraph separated by three little asterisks and a couple of carriage returns, but the same sentence! In this way, for example, we see the narrative flow from a Nazi Doctor at Auschwitz to a Spanish Inquisitor some 500 years before.

Whilst the main focus is on Adrià, Sara and Bernat, we are presented with a huge cast of characters that incorporates Adrià’s parents and teachers; his one-time girlfriend, Laura; the family maid, Little Lola; and the employees in the family antique shop. We also follow the story of Nazi doctors at Auschwitz and their attempts to evade justice (and in one case to atone for his sins) after the war, an eighteenth-century fugitive who sells the wood that is eventually used to make the violin; plus various monks and members of the Spanish inquisition.

I could go on but hopefully this will give you an idea of the scale and breadth of the novel. It took me about 25 hours to read in Kindle format, and I notice that the hardback edition is 1000 pages long! The big question is: was it worth my time and effort? I’d have to answer a resounding: YES! Whilst it was certainly a challenging read, there are so many aspects of this book that I loved.

Adrià’s story is written for his love, Sara, but I also enjoyed reading about his relationship with Bernat – a true friend in every sense of the word. The two meet as youngsters at violin classes, and we get to find out how their lives progress. I think both the love story and friendship aspects of the book are well written and carry an emotional gravity that makes this such a compelling and touching story. But just as important as Sara and Bernat is the history of the Storioni violin. The instrument is as much a character in this book as any of the human protagonists. We learn about events before, during and after its manufacture, starting in the middle-ages. It witnesses the horror of Auschwitz, the battle for its ownership during the fallout from World War II, and we discover how Adrià’s father came to own it. The violin plays a significant part in Adrià’s life, but it is not the only thing that he inherits from his father (who has his own murky past). With it comes an obsession with owning objects and obtaining precious manuscripts, and anybody who has a love of collecting books or records will understand the excitement of acquisition that the author describes so well.

Whilst the violin is the main MacGuffin, it is not the only one. There is some humour in the form of two toy soldiers (Black Eagle and Sheriff Carson) that Adrià plays with as a child, and they stay with him throughout his life, contributing little fragments to the story. I also appreciated the use of the scrap of cloth that appears several times throughout the novel and the revelation of its heart-wrenching significance adds to the humanity of the tale. I love the fact that the author chooses to highlight the significance of mementoes in people’s lives, how objects can both hold and subsequently trigger our memories, and given the fact that Adrià is so cruelly affected by Alzheimer’s, the approach fits the subject matter perfectly, adding an additional emotional layer to what is already a complex story.

Confessions is not a book for either the faint-hearted or the easily distracted. It requires patience and a willingness to just “go with the flow”, but once you become accustomed to Jaume Cabré’s unique writing style, your efforts will be rewarded in spades. The author never loses sight of the human drama at the heart of the narrative, and he brilliantly balances the revelations with moments of humour and genuine emotion. This is unlike any book I have ever read, and I’m glad that I made the effort. It has a strong emotional core and it’s themes, including what it says about the lengths that we’ll go to in order to satisfy our material needs, will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Rob Campbell is the author of the Wardens of the Black Heart trilogy (Monkey Arkwright, Black Hearts Rising and The Well of Tears). It’s a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as Stand By Me and The Goonies or the TV series Stranger Things, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.


Reviews, Writing

Blog Tour Report – Part 2 – Reviewing the Reviews

Blog Tour Part 2

This is the second part of my Monkey Arkwright blog tour report. In part 1, I analysed the reasons for taking part in a blog tour, how I selected a tour host and what happened before and during the tour. You can read part 1 of my report here.

In this part, I will be taking a look at what the reviewers said about Monkey Arkwright; reviewing the reviews, so to speak.

It may seem an obvious goal, but the two areas where I want my writing to shine is in the execution of the plot and bringing the characters to life. So, it was immensely satisfying for me to see that these two themes cropped up constantly across the reviews. Let’s start the review of reviews by seeing what Jasmine, from Jazzy Book Reviews, said:-

Monkey Arkwright is one of those books where you’re not sure what to expect, but once you start, you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole filled with mystery, intrigue, and some strangely fascinating supernatural elements. I rather enjoyed this book, and I now can’t wait to get my hands on the second book in the series.

That’s a great start. Funnily enough, the analogy of a rabbit hole also cropped up in the review on Trails of Tales:-

The action-adventure in this book has been shaped with the essence of a treasure hunt which makes it more exciting to follow Monkey and Lorna down their rabbit hole.

It seems that Jessica Belmont was equally gripped:-

The mystery is well-developed. I fell right into the story and didn’t want to leave. Rob Campbell is a fantastic writer who is able to suck his readers in and keep them in.


It seemed that the plot was good enough to drag the readers in. But so much for the plot, what about the characters? It doesn’t matter how well a story is plotted, if the landscape is populated with two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, the book is going to fall flat. But it seemed that my characters were doing well in the reviews too. Writing on Jazzy Book Reviews, Jasmine said:-

I also really liked Frank. Even with his past, he was a great guy, and he seemed like he genuinely cared for both Lorna and Monkey. George (aka Goofy) and his gang were just plain awful. I disliked all of them very much.

If I’ve got readers liking the good guys and disliking the bad guys then I must be doing something right as a writer. Meanwhile, when analysing the environment in which Lorna and Monkey find themselves, ReasReads made an interesting observation:-

I say again, I do not trust these adults and it meant that I was doubting everything they told Lorna and Monkey about Gooch (the ‘bad’ guy).

I also enjoyed the fact that Jane Hunt Writer had this to say about my cast:-

The characters in this book are complex and quirky, adding to their appeal.

The work that I put into the emotional side of Lorna’s journey isn’t lost on readers either. Leelynn (SometimesLeelynnReads) said:-

This book was interesting for a YA mystery novel. Nothing to take lightly, since one of the book’s main characters has to learn how to deal with the grief that comes with a parent of dying of cancer .…. But yeah, that part broke my heart from the beginning I will have to say, and stuck with me while I was reading this novel.


Reading through the reviews, I also enjoyed seeing some of the reviewers explain why it was that they think that my story worked. ReasReads stated that:-

The reason this story works is because the whole way through the book I was second guessing what was going on and what side were the good/bad guys.

Writing on Cheryl M-M’s Book Blog, Cheryl noted that:-

It’s interesting how Campbell lets the reader wonder and debate the validity of the premise along with the characters. Is it luck or bad luck?

An element that isn’t specifically about the plot or the characters is atmosphere. Whether it’s spooky, creeping with dread, nostalgic or displaying the hallmarks of some specific genre, it’s nice to find that you are conjuring some imagery in the mind of the reader. In this respect, it was pleasing to read the following from Mai on Mai’s Musings:-

There was something about the writing style of this book, and the story itself, that put me in mind of the old black and white film noir genre.

Whilst Cheryl on Cheryl M-M’s Book Blog wrote that:-

It has the strange appealing kind of charm associated with stories of such ilk as Stand by Me, perhaps because it has an aura of nostalgia, especially at the beginning of the book.


Returning to the plot, how did the reviewers feel about the way the various plot strands were resolved? Fellow writer Jane Hunt felt that:-

The plot is detailed and fits together nicely, it is layered without appearing convoluted and is resolved well.

Writing on Radzy Writes and Reviews, Radzy said:-

I was gripped, and remained on the edge of my seat until things began wrapping up into a satisfying, well executed ending.

But I didn’t write this as a standalone book, it’s part of a trilogy, so I was pleased to see some comments like the following from Cheryl on Cheryl M-M’s Book Blog:-

I think this has the potential to be a really good series, especially the combination of Monkey and Lorna, their friendship, the secret societies battling against each other to acquire the strange powerful objects.

Jane Hunt seems of a similar mind, describing Monkey Arkwright as:-

An engaging, original mystery with wonderfully individual characters and interesting potential for further stories.


Now a short section that is basically an excuse to list some enormously pleasing comments from the various reviewers:-

For a first-person novel, this is effortless, and gives a wonderful sense of realism. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Campbell knows what he’s doing, and has presented us with a story that will be loved by readers of all ages.

Radzy Writes and Reviews

The plot is nicely paced, and there’s enough mystery to keep even the savviest readers guessing as they flip through the pages.

Jazzy Book Reviews

Monkey Arkwright is a fun mystery featuring two quirky characters that had me entertained from beginning to end. I absolutely loved the characters.

Jessica Belmont


I’m going to finish off with a comment from Mai on Mai’s Musings:-

Although the book does take a slightly darker turn from around the halfway point ….. it somehow retains a feel of innocence and the old school adventure stories I grew up with. I think as the series progresses it has the potential to develop into something more sinister.

Well, hold that thought Mai, because things do get decidedly darker and more sinister in the second book, Black Hearts Rising.

Thanks once again to all the bloggers who were kind enough to review Monkey Arkwright. There are links to the full reviews on my Reviews tab.


Album Review: Mountain – The Cold Stares


Listening to some of the tracks on The Cold Stares’ latest album, Mountain, it makes sense that you’re listening to a duo. In fact, some of the haunting man-and-a-guitar tracks are so sparse that it might convince you that you’re listening to a solo bluesman. But on most of the songs here, when the band are cranking out material that wouldn’t seem out of place in the early 90s grunge scene, you’ll swear that there must be a least five members. You’d be wrong. The Cold Stares comprise singer/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins – and that’s it.

Released last year, this would have been right near the top of my end-of-year list. It runs to fifteen tracks, and although your favourites may change from one play to the next, there is no filler here. The songs alternative between the sparse arrangements of dark blues numbers with meatier fayre. Lyrically, the album is an intoxicating fusion of biblical references and Southern mythology. On “Friend of Mine” Tapp howls “Oh, Lord, bless my soul / been standing on the levee since I was six years old”, which, lyrically at least, is the album in a microcosm. There are references to the “Mississippi at my hips,” preachers, muddy water, and the characters that populate these songs often call out to Jesus or God for inspiration in some form or another.

The sparser numbers draw you in to the unfolding tale, where the characters feel real, such as on “The River”, a murder ballad in which Tapp deftly sketches out the grim story of how a Chevrolet came to be sunken at the bottom of a river. “Killing machine” kicks off with the lyric “Another man dead, I didn’t want to kill” before taking us through the protagonist’s thoughts like a haunting movie reel. Best of the slow songs is the title track that closes this collection – an atmospheric meditation about those lost finding their way, played out against a soundscape of acoustic and slide guitar. But if it’s monsters riffs you’re after, or huge slabs of guitar backed by percussive bombast, you won’t be disappointed because the album has all of this in spades. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Gone (Not Dead)”, “Cold Black Water” and “Two Keys and a Good Book” are just a few of the songs that will have you tapping your feet and reaching for that air guitar.

Mountain straddles the worlds of dark acoustic folk and modern electrified hard rock, fusing some blistering riffs with a captivating lyrical theme to produce a powerful listening experience. Although religious imagery abounds, it’s never preachy, and when you read that Chris Tapp is a cancer survivor, who has battled through years of treatment, some of the biblical references make sense. Maybe he found comfort in religion, maybe he was always religious, or maybe I’m simply reading too much into it. Once thing is for sure, whatever the reasons, Mountain is a superb piece of lyrically astute blues-rock that you’ll want to listen to time and again.

Finally, in researching this article, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Mountain is a crowdfunded album, one of the aims of which is to cover the costs of the forthcoming WAYS album! Before its appearance as a 12-track album, WAYS will first be released as a series of 4-track EPs, starting with the acoustic-based “white” EP this June. The promise of new music so hot-on-the-heels of Mountain is fantastic news for fans of The Cold Stares, and I definitely count myself in that number after listening to this fabulous album.


Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.



TV Review – Chernobyl


Chernobyl is a 5-part drama series produced by HBO/Sky TV. It tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in April 1986. The series shows us how the disaster occurred, its immediate and long-term effects on the lives of many, the heroic efforts of the Soviet people in preventing a disaster from becoming something far worse, and the search to uncover the truth as to how it was allowed to happen at all. We view events through the eyes of three main protagonists: Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) – the scientist given the twin tasks of dealing with the consequences of the disaster and investigating its causes. Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) – a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who accompanies Legasov to Chernobyl, and Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a fictional character created to represent the team of scientists who helped Legasov manage the situation.

After a brief flash-forward to the suicide of Legasov, we are given no time to get to know the characters as we are plunged straight into the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where a routine safety test goes wrong and the unthinkable happens: the core of reactor #4 explodes. All of the radiation measurements taken by plant employees in the immediate aftermath of the accident were reported at 3.6 roentgens, but it was soon acknowledged that this was the maximum reading possible on the devices at hand. “Not great, not terrible” is the verdict of at least two people, one of these being deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov steadfastly refuses to believe that he is dealing with anything but a failed test, ordering his team to pump in water to cool the reactor core. “There is no core,” his astounded engineers continually tell him. Later, when the true level of radiation is measured, it is revealed to be 15,000 roentgens every hour – or twice the level of radiation released by the bomb dropped in Hiroshima.

As the first episode progresses, we witness the efforts of the local firefighters to put out the initial fire, and of the plant engineers hopelessly trying to minimise any leak. We see the residents of Pripyat, a town specifically built to house the employees of Chernobyl, come out to watch as the fire at the plant blazes on the horizon. Meanwhile, the plant director and manager (Viktor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin) insist that everything is under control, joining Dyatlov in their unswerving faith in the Soviet system.

When the Soviet government meet to discuss the accident, it is generally agreed that everything is under control. Boris Shcherbina jokes that the reported radiation level is so low that Chernobyl would be a good place to go if anybody was due an X-ray. There are laughs around the table, and the meeting is quickly adjourned. However, Valery Legasov, patiently waiting his turn, voices his objection, pointing out that everything is far from OK. His arguments and obvious expertise are sufficient to convince General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to dispatch him to the disaster zone, Shcherbina tasked with overseeing the project.

Chernobyl is not an easy watch. There are scenes that are downright horrific, but it’s a story that deserves telling. For every brutal scene, there is an act of heroism, and in each case, you’ll find yourself asking whether you’d have been able to act in the same way. For the most part, these were ordinary people asked to deal with extraordinary circumstances. When three volunteers are required to don diving gear and swim in the radiated waters of the doomed plant to open a valve, meaning almost certain death, they ask why they should do it. Shcherbina’s response is, “If you don’t, millions will die.” Three men step forward. When a team of miners is approached to dig a tunnel through the concrete below the reactor, and excavate a space large enough to house the heat exchanger that is vital to preventing a catastrophic meltdown in the reactor core, they work for weeks in extreme conditions to get the job done. Later, when the worst-case scenario has been averted, teams of men work in 90-second bursts to run out onto the roof of the reactor so that they can shovel the highly-toxic pieces of the graphite, that once covered the reactor core, over the edge in preparation for sealing the leak.

The firefighters who first responded are seen recovering from their burns in the hospital. But what at first appears to be superficial damage turns out to be something far worse. Just as Legasov had explained to stoic Shcherbina, initial recovery is followed by severe blistering of the skin and unimaginable pain as the body’s organs decompose, with death arriving shortly afterwards. We see firefighters and plant workers alike suffering in this way, the makeup department sparing us nothing in depicting the true horrors of death by radiation. Their bodies are laid in what looked like metallic coffins (presumably lead-lined), and buried in a mass grave filled with concrete. Later in the series, the bodies of radiated animals, hunted down and shot by a group of soldiers, suffer the same fate, except without the coffins.

“You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to understand what happened at Chernobyl,” Legasov states in his opening remarks at the trial of those deemed responsible. The final episode makes for compelling television, as Legasov calmly lays out his findings, explaining for those assembled and the viewer alike, just how Chernobyl’s #4 reactor suffered such a catastrophic failure. The trial is intercut with scenes in the control room immediately before and after the accident. Earlier, we’d seen Dyatlov under pressure from the plant’s director to perform the safety test. Now, despite repeated warnings from his senior engineer, Dyatlov orders that the test be carried out, threatening his team with the sack if they fail to comply with his instructions. This scene, allied with Legasov’s analysis, makes sense of the chaotic scenes with which the series started. Near the end of the trial, Legasov points out the inherent flaw in the design of the Boron control rods that formed part of the system’s failsafe system, concluding that if human error was partly to blame, it was only one part of the chain that led to the disaster.

Whilst the whole production is superb, for me, the professional relationship that develops between Legasov and Shcherbina, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård superb in their respective roles, is most noteworthy. Shcherbina is initially sceptical of Legasov’s claims that they are dealing with a disaster on an unprecedented scale, but slowly comes to realise the truth in the scientist’s words. One of the most sobering scenes in the whole series occurs when Legasov is dismayed that Pripyat has not been evacuated, meaning that so many civilians remain in close proximity to the plant. “We’re staying here,” states Shcherbina, the implication being that if they were okay, then the general population would be as well. “Yes, but we’ll be dead in five years,” Legasov replies matter-of-factly. There is no response from Shcherbina, the look on his face telling the viewer everything about his feelings. Later in the scene, the politician receives a phone call informing him that the world now knows about the disaster. “They are afraid to let their kids outside. In Germany,” he says in astonishment as he looks out of the window to see Soviet kids passing by, ignorant to the fact that they are living next to a damaged reactor leaking radiation.

During a break in the trial, Shcherbina laments the fact that he is a nobody – a servant of the state sent to deal with the aftermath of an incident that no one believed was a big issue – “an inconsequential man who has stood next to those who matter” as he tells Legasov. Legasov responds by pointing out that he is just a scientist doing a job that any of his colleagues could have done. Whilst it was him they heard, it was actually Shcherbina who they listened to – the man who made the difference by supplying the almost impossible number of men and vast quantity of materials required for the clean-up operation.

Emily Watson is also excellent in her role as Ulana Khomyuk. As noted in the informative slideshow that closes the final episode, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional but was created to represent the team of scientists who assisted Legasov. It’s shocking to learn that some of these scientists were imprisoned and silenced for speaking out against the Soviet hierarchy’s official explanation of what happened.

Filmed in Lithuania, the production has mastered that concrete-under-grey-skies look that we associate with the Soviet-era. The producers also took the decision to film the actors using their normal voices, and whilst it may seem odd hearing a Scottish miner or a Yorkshire fireman, it is probably better than having the integrity of the series ruined by potential comedy attempts at Russian/Ukrainian accents. Series writer Craig Mazin also wrote the flawless script, and uses it to hammer home the point that in addition to the guilt of key individuals, it was the system that failed. Spend any time reading about the background of this production and you will note that pretty much everything that you are seeing on your screen – all those horrific images, the heroic deeds, the denial from those in charge of overseeing and running the plant – is as accurate as it can be, based on interviews with those who lived, and in most cases died, at Chernobyl. Yes, there are some fictionalised elements of the series, but as Mazin points out:

“We never changed anything to make it more dramatic than it was, to hype anything, to amp it up. For us, this is a story about truth. The last thing we wanted to do was fall into the same trap that liars fall into. This is very much a well-researched factual dramatic representation.”

Growing up in the 1980s, there was always the possibility of a nuclear war. Admittedly, this fear was distant and for most of the time, you could push it to the back of your mind. Chernobyl was the fear of a nuclear disaster made real. Not a war, or as a result of some surprise attack by a foreign power, but a terrible consequence of poor decisions made within a system. An oppressive political system where fear of others in the chain of command was enough to compel people to take the wrong actions, and a physical system designed so that there was no effective failsafe against such actions. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. I still have a vivid recollection of sitting in the college library, reading about it in the newspaper in the days following the incident, and its significance is one of the reasons why I chose it as a key point in the backstory of one of my characters in my fictional novel. Now it has a well-researched and brilliantly produced television series to honour those who suffered. Make no mistake, this is a landmark piece of television that demands viewing.





Album Review: Fever Breaks – Josh Ritter

Fever Breaks

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ritter’s music since his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away. That album unfolds like a richly detailed novel, with diverse themes ranging from scientific discovery, polar exploration, murder, and there’s even a love story song featuring an archaeologist and a mummy. Fever Breaks is his 5th album of the decade and his 10th overall, and once again, it makes for a compelling listen. Recorded in Nashville, the album was produced by fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, and here Ritter is backed by Isbell’s band – the 400 Unit.

Josh Ritter’s music has never been overtly political, but in this case there are a couple of tracks that address some pressing issues in the US. The album’s moody centrepiece, “The Torch Committee” has Ritter speaking his chilling words in an almost matter-of-fact manner. There’s talk of by-laws being breached, the process of law, names being crossed off a list and “the truth of rumours lately heard, that there come monsters in our midst”. Hiding behind the technicalities of the law, the narrator calls forth the “hungry mob and angry crowd” to root out “the root of every evil done” for the supposed good of the people “by means not meant for the light of day”. This is a dark song, the seriousness of the subject matter underlined by Amanda Shires’ haunting fiddle and a menacing guitar that broods in the background, waiting to be unleashed.

On “All Some Kind of Dream”, Ritter returns to the same theme, seeing “children in the holding pens” and “families ripped apart”. “For it seems that these are darker days, than any others that we’ve seen” he sings before wishing that it was all some kind of dream. The upbeat nature of the song belies its underlying core of a nightmare made real; the same kind of message in the style that Dylan was delivering more than fifty years ago.

“Silverblade” sees Ritter use his fingerpicked acoustic to good effect, recounting the tale of a woman who takes revenge on a man who forces himself on her. The story is framed in terms of a lord who owns a castle and the lady who catches his eye, but it is impossible not to read this as an allegory to recent stories related to the #MeToo movement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A couple of tracks benefit from the muscular backing provided by the 400 Unit. “Old Black Magic” sounds like it was dredged up from the bottom of a swamp: Ritter growling away about that “old black magic rolling in” whilst the music rises in the background – all gnarly guitars and moody keys. The anthemic “Losing Battles” features some trademark Ritter lyrics, words tumbling out at a fair old rate before you’ve even had a chance to digest what you’re hearing. “From the apple tree, I ripped a snake, It was a poison but I knew its worth. Kept it in a box of wood, Fed it all my sins and apples.” I’m not sure what all of that means – it probably includes a healthy dose of biblical imagery – but when you hear him singing with utter conviction, he makes you believe in something! On “A New Man”, he sings about a personal evolution, sounding not unlike a latter-day Springsteen, but the style is all his own and this is a track that builds beautifully both lyrically and musically throughout its running length.

Whilst I wouldn’t pick this as my favourite Josh Ritter album (let’s face it, it’s got stiff competition), Fever Breaks is another well-crafted piece of work. There are a couple of tracks that see a bit humdrum by his high standards, but most of the songs are strong, his trademark lyrics are used to full effect, and the fact that he’s recorded the album with Jason Isbell and his band give the album a subtle twist. It’s not markedly different from the sound of his other albums but it’s a welcome wrinkle on yet another fine album from one of the 21st century’s premier songwriters.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.




TV Review – The Bridge

The Bridge - close-up
The Bridge Trilogy (but there is a fourth series!)


Writing this review is difficult for two reasons. One: I’ve just watched the final episode of The Bridge series 4, and although we are in a golden age of television, I’m a little sad that I may never watch a show this good again. It’s a bold statement, but I’ll come back to this point later in the review. The second thing that makes this review difficult is how best to capture the show’s brilliance and excitement without spoiling it for potential viewers.

The Bridge is a Scandinavian drama that focuses on police departments from Copenhagen and Malmo as they collaborate on a series of murder investigations. It’s an indication of how good the concept and storyline are that it has been remade several times for US, British (as The Tunnel), German, Russian and Asian TV. However, having watched the original, I don’t think that I could bring myself to watch the others. This is not to disparage the remakes, as I’m sure that they are good shows that have their own strengths, but after watching four series of brilliant performances by the actors in the Swedish-Danish original, I’d be forever comparing with the original (and probably complaining about the remakes!)

Series One

The opening scenes of the first series explain the title of the show. The Øresund Bridge links the Swedish city of Malmö with the Danish capital, Copenhagen. When a body is found on the bridge – sliced in half at the waist and positioned so that each half lies on either side of the Sweden-Denmark border – both the Danish and Swedish police must be involved in the investigation. Saga Norén from the Malmo police department (played by Sofia Helin) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia) meet on the bridge when the body is discovered, and this is the start of both the investigation and an intriguing working relationship between the two.

Martin comes across as amiable, but it’s quickly clear that Saga is socially awkward. Her forthright conversation astounds Martin, particular when it comes to questions about his private life and Saga’s brutal assessment of the situation. Despite this awkward start, it works because Martin somehow gets Saga, eventually warming to her outwardly cold, yet unique personality. Saga is also supported by her boss, Hans. As the series progresses, it is clear that Hans is a father-figure for Saga, often willing to take her aside for a quiet chat or relax procedure in order to get the best out of his star detective, accommodating her social inadequacies. We are also introduced to John, the IT specialist with the Malmö police, whose job it is to track mobile calls and scan CCTV footage; Jair, the pathologist in Malmo, with whom Saga appears to share a good working relationship based on her willingness to learn more about the science of his job; and Lillian, the head of police in Copenhagen.

Working together, the Danish and Swedish teams make good progress on the case. The killer phones a local journalist, using him to spread the message that he, the killer, is trying to highlight various social problems. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that there is a more personal motive behind the crimes.

Like the three series that follow, series one of The Bridge is a superb piece of standalone television. It tells the story of a murder investigation from day one, right up to the shocking conclusion. The fascinating characters give the show a depth that is as good as any show that I’ve ever seen. Outstanding performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, and the unique chemistry that they bring to the screen, make this a must-watch.

When the series finishes, you’re left with the impression that you’ve just witnessed one of the best TV shows; that it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that the makers would do well to even get close to again. And then you watch the second series.

Series Two

As previously noted, the second series tells its own complete story, but the events of the previous series continue to shape what happens in the lives of Saga and Martin. Once again, we have a killer who seems hell-bent on proving a point. The police teams are fleshed out by Danish detective, Pernille, who becomes friendly with Martin, and Rasmus, a cocky young Swedish detective whose determination to succeed sees him prefer to act on impulse as opposed to following the rules. Both the new characters have significant roles as the series leads to a conclusion that is at once satisfying and devastating.

Series Three

So, that’s two series gone, and you start to experience the same feelings that you had at the end of the first. Surely, they’ve set the bar so high with the climax of series two that they should just stop. Well, my friends, gather in close for series three, because it’s a humdinger in which the events in Saga’s life that have been boiling away in the background start to affect her in significant ways. Naturally, there is another killer trying to get his message across via a series of bizarre killings and if watching Saga’s personal struggles as the police try to solve the latest crimes was all that series three offered, it would still have been a worthwhile endeavour. But that’s not all as we are introduced to The Bridge’s third major character: Henrik Sabroe.

Early in proceedings, Danish detective Henrik asks his boss, Lillian, if she will send him to Malmö to help the Swedish police crack the case. As you watch the early episodes, you’re going to be asking yourself a lot of questions as the pill-popping Henrik coolly talks to his wife before heading out into the Copenhagen night to meet other women. Once in Sweden, he asks Saga for help with an old case that he’s been working on, and as his backstory is slowly revealed over the first half of the series, it’s compelling television. For me, Thure Lindhardt’s performance as Henrik is one of the highlights of the series. He plays the role with a wonderful balance of aggression and humility, making the viewer totally buy into his story. He works well with Saga, encouraging her when she needs help but isn’t above poking fun at her – calling her “Wikipedia” when she quotes some fact at him. Also in this series, Hans and Lillian get their own story, and IT specialist John gets a nice little personal connection to the investigation.

Series Four

The final eight-episode series is every bit as good as what has gone before, and in some ways is a continuation of the previous series. As Saga helps the Danish police track down yet another killer with a grudge, the major story arcs are given a satisfying conclusion and if it feels like you’ve lived every minute of Saga’s trials and tribulations through all of the thirty-eight episodes, it’s hard not to have a lump in your throat for that final scene on the bridge. Her closing words are a stroke of genius from the show’s creator and writer, Hans Rosenfeldt.


I’ve specifically not talked about the plots and killers in too much detail so as to avoid any spoilers, but rest assured, in each case, there is a dazzling array of characters that will keep you guessing as the police come up against lots of dead ends and red herrings. One of the show’s many strengths is how characters are fed seamlessly into the mix, quickly engaging you in the plot of their daily lives whilst wondering how, and if, they are connected to the wider story that is unfolding. Things that may seem significant often peter out whilst the reverse is also true, so keep your eyes peeled!

Not only are the writing and performances top-notch, but the production team bring a lot of style to the show. For the most part, the show is filmed in the city at night, although there is the odd excursion into rural fringes. The camera shows us modern cityscapes that appear to be in the permanent grip of autumn, a beautiful combination of Scandinavian grim and cool. There are plenty of drone shots of the city from up above, including the majestic Øresund Bridge itself. Then there is the theme song, “Hollow Talk” by Danish band Choir of Young Believers. The theme sets the tone and follows the pre-credits sequence at the start of each episode. An instrumental section reappears at the end of the episode, rising to a crescendo as, more often than not, the characters make some startling discovery that makes us re-think what we’ve seen or become excited at what this means for the next episode.

In watching The Bridge, I’ve noticed that the police officers are portrayed as normal people, dealing with many problems that, at least some of the time, regular people will be able to empathise with. However, the killers are played out more like caricatures. Although the reasons for their killing sprees are grounded in reasonable grudges, the murders are exaggerated, and the murder scenes themselves often staged, presented as artistic tableaus with some message for the police to figure out. It’s another quirk that gives the show its unique look and feel.

No overview of The Bridge would be complete without making specific reference to Sofia Helin’s performance as Saga. This must feel like the role of a lifetime to the Swedish actress. She’s playing a character suffering from a chronic social issue, and more often than not, this is written across her face. She rarely smiles across the four series, often wearing a puzzled look or fixing her features in a permanent mask of confusion or concentration. I wonder if she often went home with a headache after filming. As her story arc progresses, she brings the required level of emotion to the role, making us believe in Saga’s problems. Whilst it’s just one of the many outstanding aspects of The Bridge, there’s no doubt that it’s her show.

So, let’s get to the nub of what may be a problem for many British viewers: this is a show presented in the native languages with English subtitles. I used to have the view that I couldn’t be bothered spending my time reading subtitles, but once I watched a few films, I found that it became an automatic process, and in some ways, enhanced the experience because you were constantly focussed on the plot and what the characters were saying. The fourth and final series of The Bridge was shown last year on the BBC – the reason that I’ve taken so long to get around to watching it was that I persuaded my wife – a previous subtitle-avoider – to give it a try. “Just watch a few episodes of the first series, and see what you think,” I’d said. Naturally, she was already hooked by the end of the first episode! For various reasons – nothing to do with lack of interest – we watched the first three series over the last twelve months or so, and so I was only in a position for the grand finale recently.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that if you only ever watch one subtitled film or TV series, make sure it’s the first episode of The Bridge. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be hooked.

Final Thoughts

At the start of this article, I made some comment about being sad that I may never watch a show this good again. Each series of The Bridge was consistently excellent, and whilst there are other shows that you can say this about, I’ve not seen one where the characters are so complex yet compelling, having you emotionally invested not only in the murder case but their lives as well. Totally different type of show but Game of Thrones, for example, is a show that I love: it is consistently good across its entire span of episodes, has stupendous production values but doesn’t have me feeling the same way about the characters that The Bridge does.

Again, a different show, but since 2001, I’ve always thought of Band of Brothers as the high watermark in television – a true story that got you to engage with the characters and also had the production values of a mega-budget film. The fact that I’ve mentioned The Bridge in the same breath as these other two excellent shows demonstrates how highly I rate it. Whisper it quietly, but series 1-4 of The Bridge, a subtitled Scandinavian police drama, may be the greatest TV series ever made.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.