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Monday, 29 November 1999 19:00
Reviewed by Mark Glass
The month's batch of TV series on DVD release includes a BBC bonanza of new treats, at least new to this reviewer. Long before he became something of an icon on HBO's edgy western, Deadwood, Ian McShane enjoyed about six years of renown in the U.K. as the roguishly engaging antique dealer, Lovejoy

The series was based on a character featured in novels by Jonathan Gash, but the TV incarnation added some fine supporting players for its 10-episode debut in 1986. The First Season release includes an informative recent interview with McShane on adapting the novels to a new medium. Based in an East Anglian village, Lovejoy isn't always honest, but he only scams the deserving, and spends more time foiling the nefarious plans of others. Despite his brilliance and pure love of antiquities, he's always broke, or close to it. The light-hearted machinations of Lovejoy and his cohorts (particularly Dudley Sutton and Phyllis Logan) mix a delightful blend of humor and charm into the suspense of each caper.

Those who liked Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz will be pleased to see the star and co-writer of those cult hits, Simon Pegg in a sketch comedy show called Big Train. He was one of five regulars; his cohort from the two movies, Nick Frost, appears briefly in a couple of segments. This two-disc release covers two six-episode seasons from 1998-2002, plus several bonuses, including deleted scenes. Less wacky than Monty Python or Kids in the Hall, but sporadically very hip and funny. Though made for The Isles, most of the jokes and references work well enough on this side of the Atlantic, too.

Of more recent vintage is the seven episode first season of Jennifer Saunders' new sitcom, Clatterford. Though she's best known here for Absolutely Fabulous, the tone here is quite gentler. The titular small village houses an endearingly eccentric group of ladies preoccupied with their guild and assorted personal issues. This easygoing series is closer to the mood of Waking Ned Devine than the shrill booze-laden histrionics of Edina and Patsy. Saunders and former partners Joanna Lumley and Dawn French appear in supporting roles. Sue Johnston anchors the cast as the most sensible member of the community. All the episodes are at least amusing; a couple, flat-out hilarious.

In 1989, the BBC convinced an ex-Python to replicate the famous journey of Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, resulting in the delightful six-hour documentary, Michael Palin Around the World in 80 Days. He plotted a course close to that of the fictional bastion of British determination, limiting himself to the closest analogs to late 19th Century transportation - no air travel. Though his "Passepartout" was a five-member film crew rather than a valet, he approached his destinations and their denizens with humility, humor and grace, making him an ideal guide and travel companion for the armchair set. He and the locations combine for a travelogue that richly deserved its several awards, if not more.

On the home front, the second season of Kyra Sedgwick's terrific L.A. cop show, The Closer, hits the shelves just in time to prepare, or refresh your memory, for its third season on TNT. As the disarmingly insightful Southern Belle heading the city's high-profile crime task force, Sedgwick's character had to win over the crusty veterans on the force in the first season, and overcome other problems and rivalries in the second...besides the killers to be caught. Mostly, she's created a sexy, yet Columbo-like persona that is a delight to watch. The DVD extras shine some light on all the cast members in a way the show's fans should enjoy.

Finally, for vintage sitcoms, check the (long overdue for home release) first season of Welcome Back, Kotter, and the second of F-Troop. Gabe Kaplan and his Sweathogs became an instant hit, and launched John Travolta's career. The jokes and pace seem a bit dated (not badly, considering how TV and films have loosened up in the 32 years since its debut), but Vinnie, Horshack, Juan Epstein and Freddy are still characters you'll enjoy watching. The bond between Gabe and his patience-of-a-saint wife (Marcia Strassman) in their opening and closing joke segments is timeless. Bonuses include clips from the original screen tests. Additionally, present-day reminiscences by the Kotters and Sweathogs (minus Travolta, alas) will also be a treat for their fans - especially since most of them haven't basked in the spotlight lately. Strassman wins my unofficial "who aged the best?" competition in a cakewalk.

F-Troop's second year in the Old West is its first in color. That does even more for the dazzling blue of Ranger Jane's eyes than for the cavalry uniforms. Their antics are still goofy, but ramped up a bit with guest stars like Paul Lynde, Harvey Korman (earning his spurs eight years before playing Hedley Lamarr in Blazing Saddles), Julie Newmar, Vincent Price and even Milton Berle. With or without them, O'Rourke and Agarn's get-rich schemes with the Hekawes and Ken Berry's genius for pratfalls will still bring some laughs.

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