Colin Hogg: Dark drama top of night's viewing

By Colin Hogg

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Campion's series so definably NZ it's slightly embarrassing it screens here on pay TV via Sky's UK channel.

 Mad Men  star Elisabeth Moss plays the story's lead character, the troubled police inspector. Photo / Supplied
Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss plays the story's lead character, the troubled police inspector. Photo / Supplied

Big, bleak, beautiful Central Otago is the star of Top of the Lake, the new Jane Campion-driven television series, which began here on UKTV on Monday night.

This dark drama is so good looking that with any luck it might open up a more country-gothic strand of tourism for the country - a world away from all that embarrassing Hobbit stuff.

Though there might be some embarrassment locally that a production so definably of New Zealand should screen here on pay TV via Sky's UK channel - a reminder that we lack both the large budgets and perhaps the courage required for involvement in such a major production, which comes with the backing of the BBC.

And Top of the Lake (8.30pm) is major - a six-part story of heft and grit which fits nicely on the heels of the wave of hit crime series like Wallander and The Killing and the icy exoticism of their Scandinavian settings and the shattered lives of the central characters.

Campion and her co-creatives make the Queenstown area our version of that - all mist, mountain and leaping highland and of course a lake that just begs a body to be found floating in it.

The body was duly delivered by that lake towards the end of last night's episode after a disturbingly off-hand murder committed by the drama's disturbingly off-hand bad guy, played to the seething hilt by Scotsman Peter Mullan, one of a trio of international actors who help make the story seem oddly real.

The others are Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss who plays the story's lead character, the usual lonely and troubled police inspector, and Holly Hunter as an unusual and edgy grey-haired guru leading a motley crew of troubled women who innocently set themselves up in the middle of a rural turf war. Top of The Lake is gripping and good-looking stuff, not breaking new territory perhaps, though the story's shadow lead character, a missing pregnant 12-year-old, takes things well into the shadows.

And there goes Monday nights.

Sticking with the theme of our great outdoors, though in less murderous sort of way, Country Calendar came back to TV One on Saturday (7pm) for its 47th year, seemingly quite deathless and undiminished.

It was fronted, last Saturday anyway, by Frank Torley, who's been at it so long he's our rural version of David Attenborough, though possibly slightly younger.

It hardly matters. What does matter is that, for reasons possibly more to do with nostalgia than anything else, Country Calendar is great local television.

Saturday's story, titled Sunny Side Up, was classic Country Calendar - about John Blakey, an organic free-range chicken farmer and his 5000 happy-looking feathered friends.

It was delightful stuff, filmed with an almost surreal touch under an endlessly blue sky.

It almost made me want to run off and be a chook farmer.

Or at least get up and cook an omelette.

- NZ Herald

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