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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Awesome Chat With BAFTA Winner Jonny Campbell of HBO's 'The Casual Vacancy'

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Being a huge fan of British television (including several programs that have never aired in the U.S.) generally and British scifi specifically made the chance to chat over the telephone with Jonny Campbell a tremendous treat. The related chance to run a review of the latest project of Campbell the day of its HBO premiere is a wonderful bonus.

One spoiler is that "Vacancy" awesomely makes occasional use of Campbell's talent for creative surreal scenes. A very creepy grim reaper and maggot-covered cheese are highlights.

Before turning his camera to the three-part television adaptation (which has aired in the U.K. and is premiering on HBO on April 29 2015) of the J.K. Rowling novel "The Casual Vacancy," Campbell devoted his proverbially considerable talents to a literal "who's who" of British scifi shows and other wonderfully quirky projects there. Although his stereotypical British modesty prevented him from acknowledging the honor, he won a BAFTA (which is a combination of the Emmys and the Oscars) for directing the uber-awesome British zombie dramedy "In the Flesh."

The wonderfully witty premise of "Flesh" was a that a teen boy zombie struggled to readjust following a "mainstreaming" program that was directed at his kind. This program easily aced the "one more" test when watching episodes. The Campbell interview prompted a belated purchase of the complete series DVD set.

Doctor Who 

The conversation began with discussing the "The Vampires of Venice" and the "Vincent and the Doctor" "Doctor Who" episodes that Campbell directed during the tenure of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor. Campbell shared that the challenges that he faced was finding a European location that would work for the respective 16th century Venice and 19th century France settings of those episodes.

Campbell also cited his admiration for the portrayal of the Doctor by Smith as a motive for signing on to direct the episodes. He added that he wanted to tell the Van Gogh story, which was a personal favorite of your reviewer from the Smith years.

A favorable mention of Smith predecessor David Tennant prompted a sincere agreement that all Whovians have their personal preferences.

Campbell further shared that he was not provided an indoctrination into "Who" lore when he came on board but stated "I had obviously grown up with Doctor Who." This led to mutual expressions of admiration for the portrayal of Tom Baker as The Doctor. Affirmative!

Ashes to Ashes

The insights that Campbell shared regarding directing four of the eight first series (my people call them seasons) episodes of "The Life on Mars" spin-off "Ashes to Ashes" included that he found the concept of "Ashes" main character Alex Drake striving to return from the '80s to her daughter in the 21st century more "moving" than the comparable quest of the childless Sam Tyler in "Mars."

Another intriguing aspect of "Ashes" that Campbell conveyed was that series finding great humor in the form of centering more on the irascible Gene Hunt than was so in "Mars." Mentioning the wonderful '80s soundtrack of "Ashes" further prompted remorse regarding Tivo overload leading to dumping the "Ashes" episodes before watching them a few years ago. (A future DVD purchase will remedy that lapse in judgment.)

A Casual Vacancy

Rowling's novel being in a pile of "to read" books and the opportunity to chat with Campbell beating the arrival of the review copy of "Vacancy" required Cliff Notes style cheating in reading the summary of the mini-series. That description concisely states in full: "The citizens of the small British town of Pagford fight for the spot on the parish council after Barry Fairbrother dies." This seems akin to describing "Moby Dick" as a whaling captain pursues a specific aquatic mammal.

Campbell agreed with the assessment that "Vacancy," which he politely and validly stressed was a drama, was similar to the classic Britcom "The Vicar of Dibley" in that it portrayed a small English community full of eccentric characters.

The follow-up response regarding this topic was that "Vacancy" was "more akin to a contemporary Dickens or Trollope" and that that was "what Jo (Rowling) intended to do." The reference to Dickens prompted inquiring regarding plans for a stage adaptation of "Vacancy" and learning that that would be a massive undertaking for reasons that included the story encompassing "the whole spectrum of society."

General familiarity with the practice of changing some material in British programming for American television and specific knowledge that separate British and American versions of Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels were released prompted asking Campbell if the HBO version of "Vacancy" differed from the one that aired in the U.K. He replied that the content was exactly the same but that the aspect ratio had been altered to adapt to television sets made for the American market.

This discussion regarding changes prompted Campbell to direct the conversation to the differences between the novel and the mini-series. His insightful comments on that topic included that "an adaptation is always going to have to make bold changes" and that the  "Vacancy" team would have ended up with "20 hours of television if we stayed completely true to the novel."

Campbell added that the challenges in making the mini-series included determining the central story. This led to his comment that "the experience of the (mini-series) story is different" than that of the novel.

The cited variations included differences regarding the focus on individual characters and "adapt[ing] the ending in ways that would provide" the aforementioned different experience. Related statements indicated that (executive producer) Rowling actively participated in making the mini-series and directly remarked that it "wouldn't be productive if she (Rowling) didn't let her (screen-writer Sarah Phelps) take charge of the adaptation."

The caveat that Campbell added to his comparison between the novel and the production was that his team recognized that they "must remain true to the characters and stay true to the story." He further shared that that did not prevent adding "a minor surreal element," including an added nightmare, to the story in the context of a fear of death plaguing a character.

Campbell, who was very cool regarding discussing this massive undertaking with someone who had not read the novel or watched his production, further clarified the vibe of "Vacancy" by stating that a reporter aptly described it as "100 years after Downton." This seems almost certain to make the cover of the DVD release of "Vacancy."

An even stronger sense that Campbell provided regarding the success of the project was that the ending moved Rowling to tears. Your reviewer was not so moved but still liked the outcome a great deal and shared the emotions of the characters at that time. One spoiler is that "Harry" turns out alright.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding anything mentioned in this post is strongly encouraged to email me. You can also connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.