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It's not Vegas, baby -- it's 'Viva Blackpool'

October 24, 2005|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

In the six-part BBC America series "Viva Blackpool," David Morrissey plays Ripley Holden, a fledgling casino owner with visions of transforming his gray, seaside entertainment town of Blackpool into a glittering Vegas-by-the-sea. Ripley's all self-styled bombast, a B-level striver in a white suit and Elvis sideburns.

It's a nervy drama with a great, nervy lead; in Morrissey's hands, Ripley changes the tenor of a room in the way that James Gandolfini does as Tony Soprano.

BBC calls "Viva Blackpool," which begins tonight, part drama, part musical (song and dance numbers, karaoke style, sometimes midscene), part-thriller. While it is comprehensible as each of these, it is also a comedy, a dark one, much of it set around family, as on "The Sopranos." Ripley's wife, Natalie (Sarah Parish), is like Carmela Soprano, emotionally parched, trapped by her husband's horrible magnetism, and Ripley's teenage kids, Danny (Thomas Morrison) and Shayanne (Georgia Taylor), have A.J. and Meadow Sopranos' adolescent tendencies -- the churlishness, the naive snobbery, the mortal fears about what kind of man their father really is.

Ripley himself is living a lie, multiple lies, at home and at work. All the financing's in place, he thinks, the money men quiescent and the local politicians bought off, to transform his little gambling arcade into a hotel-casino luxury place. As Ripley puts it, giving away his character's hubris from the get-go, "banks, pension plans -- that's just gambling without the fun."

Set against the fading grandeur of a town with a vaudevillian history, "Viva Blackpool" brings its interlocking stories to a quick boil in six episodes that turn on the discovery of a body in Ripley's casino the morning after his opening-night party.

Soon, Danny is a suspect, as is Ripley, and Carlisle (David Tennant), the quirky Scottish detective investigating the case, is falling in love with Natalie. Deceptions build on deceptions, secrets bubble to the surface. Danny confesses to the murder, Natalie strays and Shayanne's age-inappropriate boyfriend, a former schoolmate of Ripley's, is beaten up on the street.

"There's nothing so bad that a little ska can't make better," Ripley tells him during a hospital visit.

It is the murder investigation that gives "Viva Blackpool" its engine but not its creative energy; this comes from Morrissey's performance, along with writer Peter Bowker's decision to blend in karaoke-style singing and dancing numbers midstory and to kick off each episode with his characters in song.

It's a risky move; Dennis Potter's "The Singing Detective" and "Pennies From Heaven" were celebrated, but "Cop Rock" was ridiculed. Here, you adapt to it right away; the show is so much fun anyway, and the music chosen -- Val Doonican's "Walk Tall," the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" -- conveys the rock 'n' roll spirit of a series that also uses a slot game called 3-2-1 Nudge to comment on plot.

"You can live a thousand lives in this town and still have room for a full English breakfast," Ripley tells a crowd in the end. By then, we've seen him do bushels' worth of immoral things but can still buy into the idea of his redemption. Yeah, he's a committer of crimes when the occasion suits. But how much can you hate a guy who struts the neon boardwalk of his hometown in a black shirt, red tie and cashmere topcoat singing along to Elvis Costello's "Brilliant Mistake"?


`Viva Blackpool'

Where: BBC America

When: 7 and 11 p.m.

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)

David Morrissey...Ripley Holden

Sarah Parish...Natalie Holden

David Tennant...DI Peter Carlisle

Thomas Morrison...Danny Holden

Georgia Taylor...Shyanne Holden

Executive producers: Sally Haynes, Laura Mackie, David Bernath. Directors: Julie-Anne Robinson Writer: Peter Bowker.

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