This year, eyes and TV sets around the world will be focused on London, the capital of what is really a small island between the North Atlantic and the North Sea, also known as the United Kingdom.  London is in England, one of four countries that make up the UK…the others being Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.     What is it about London that makes it such a fascinating city?

Well, for one, unlike many European cities, London is seriously multicultural.  VERY multicultural.  And I’m not talking tourists.  I’m talking residents.  All races, religions, socioeconomic levels are on view throughout most parts of London.  Yes, in some of the swankier sections (Knightsbridge, Mayfair to name two), most of the people have more than their fair share of  Pound Sterling in their pockets.  But, London is a mammoth, vast city with section upon section of diverse areas.  Take Kensington…which borders ritzy area Knightsbridge and is not far from the also ritzy Chelsea.  Kensington has more Indian restaurants than British restaurants it seems.  The Indian dish Chicken tikka masala, not fish and chips, is even London’s honorary national meal. When we think British, we think Protestant and white.  In the countryside, maybe…but not in London.

Let’s move on to London’s fascinating history.  Unlike our cities in this country, London has recorded history dating back thousands of years.  Yes…thousands.  From the Romans who founded the city as Londinium to the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors, every corner of London bears some history worth repeating.  The formally-walled “City of London” is the present-day financial center of the capital and is one of the 32 boroughs of London.  There are still places within The City, or Square Mile, as it is sometimes called, where you can see some of the London Wall, first built around The City by the Romans.  Just to the east of The City lies Whitechapel, the former stomping grounds of that vicious deviant Jack the Ripper, who killed at least five prostitutes in the late 1880s.  And on the other side of the River Thames (which throughout much of history, was wider than the present-day river running through London today), there is the George Inn in Southwark…a pub that can date it’s history back to the 17th Century.  Yes, that’s right…the 1600s.  No, the George we see today is not the exact same one from the 1600s, but there has been a pub on that site for almost 400 years!  That’s a lot of pints!

Lastly, let’s look at London’s cultural side.  Most major cities can boast opera houses and a smattering of theaters and maybe one or two concert venues.  But, London is the HOME of the stage production…with its West End surpassing our Broadway in both longevity, history and profitability.  Many famed Broadway productions began as West End productions…and many acclaimed actors and actresses got their start on the London stage.

As the Summer Olympics approach (the opening ceremonies are on July 27), we thought everyone might want to get into a LONDON frame of mind to prepare.  Here are some movies that might fit the bill:

Feature Films
  • 28 Days Later
  • 84 Charing Cross Road
  • Alfie (1966)
  • The Bank Job
  • Being Julia (historical)
  • Blow-Up
  • Bridget Jones’s Diary**
  • Children of Men
  • Closer
  • Croupier
  • Dial M For Murder (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Dirty Pretty Things
  • An Education
  • Finding Neverland
  • A Fish Called Wanda
  • Frenzy**
  • From Hell (historical London)
  • Gaslight (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Happy Go Lucky
  • Hobson’s Choice (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Incendiary
  • Indiscreet
  • The King’s Speech (historical London)
  • The Ladykillers (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Last Chance Harvey**
  • Love Actually**
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (not ENTIRELY set in London but features a climatic scene at the Royal Albert Hall in London)
  • Match Point**
  • Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (historical London)
  • Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont
  • My Fair Lady (historical London) (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Notting Hill**
  • Patriot Games
  • Possession
  • Pygmalion (set in London, shot on a set)
  • The Queen**
  • Scoop
  • Shakespeare in Love (historical London)
  • Sherlock Holmes (historical London)
  • Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (historical London)
  • Sliding Doors
  • Stage Fright
  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (historical London)
  • That Hamilton Woman (set in London, shot on a set)
  • Vera Drake
  • Waterloo Bridge (set in London, shot on a set) (historical London)
  • Wimbledon**
  • The Winslow Boy (historical London)
  • Witness for the Prosecution (set in London, shot on a set)
  • The World is Not Enough (not ENTIRELY set in London but features a fantastic boat chase on the River Thames)
  • You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
**MUST sees to get a good pre-Olympics feel of London

Television series

Above Suspicion
Absolutely Fabulous
Affairs of the Heart
As Time Goes By
Berkeley Square
Bleak House (2005)
Bless Me, Father
Bramwell
City of Vice
The Commander
The Complete Black Books
Coupling
The Duchess of Duke Street
Dutch Girls
A Fine Romance
Good Neighbors
The Hour
The House of Eliott
Hustle
Kavanagh Q. C.
The Last Detective
Law and Order UK
Manhunt
MI:5
Minder
Mr. Bean
Murder Investigation Team
Murphy’s Law
New Street Law
Prime Suspect
Poldark
The Prisoner
Rumpole of the Bailey
Secret Diary of a Call Girl
Sensitive Skin
Sherlock Holmes
State of Play (2003)
The Sweeney
Touching Evil
The Tudors
The Vice
Upstairs, Downstairs
Whitechapel
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I love movies and television.  And I love the ins and the outs of Hollywood (OK – honestly I love it mostly so I can make fun of it, but still…).  And usually when the two come together (meaning movies or TV shows ABOUT Hollywood), it rarely works.  I mean there are hits…like The Player, Sunset Boulevard, or The Bad and the Beautiful.  But, mostly there are misses.  And then there are the movies that are set in the world of Hollywood but are more about other storylines and not really entirely focused on the movie business, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Hugo, Extras (well, that’s not HOLLYWOOD, per se, since it’s set in London, but it’s still a TV show about the movie/TV industry). 

Episodes, like Extras, is a joint television presentation between Showtime and the BBC (Extraswas between HBO and the BBC).  And the cast is British/American too.  The two main characters, TV screenwriters from London who move to Hollywood to “re-do” their hit UK show there, are British (Tamsin Greig as Beverly and Stephen Mangan as Sean).  But, the “actor” who gets the part in the American version of the show is played by VERY-American actor Matt LeBlanc, best known for the iconic Joey on the iconic sitcom Friends.  Because LeBlanc is the complete opposite of the character in the British version of the show, the entire show has to be re-worked to cater to LeBlanc’s younger, more attractive character.  This, naturally, causes tension between Beverly and Sean since they know they have “sold out” for success and money. 
The writing is rapier sharp…in all the right places.  The humor is dark and sarcastic but super witty.  The “Hollywood” characters have just the right tone of dishonesty/falseness.  And the relationship between Beverly and Sean has just the right amount of homesickness, selfishness and pride.  If you know anything at all about the goings-on of Hollywood, you will love this show.  Even if you do not know about or even enjoy the “Hollywood” scene, I’m still thinking you will love it. 
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Recently, I ventured to Scotland for “holiday” (as the Brits call their vacations), armed with my iPad, loaded with an Ian Rankin mystery.  Rankin, a Scot, is best known for his Inspector Rebus series, set in the gritty underbelly of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. I’ve read quite a few Rankin books, both from his lengthy John Rebus series and his standalone thrillers, and have always been mystified at what drives an author to set story after story in the same town (there are 19 Rebus books in the series, which the author ended in 2007).

Once in the historic city, I began to see what inspired Rankin to write Rebus in Edinburgh for 20 years (his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987).   Edinburgh, like any major city, is chaotic and cluttered and dirty and crowded and on and on.  But, UNLIKE most major cities (especially the ones on THIS side of the pond), Edinburgh is filled with a captivating and fascinating history around every corner.  And, because of its hilly, winding streets and dark gray buildings (the porous stone has absorbed years of soot and dirt), not to mention the pretty regular mist and/or fog that hangs over the atmosphere, Edinburgh lends itself perfectly to the criminal element.  This is not to say I encountered any nefarious sorts in Edinburgh (hardly! — unless you count men in kilts nefarious) but I can understand why Rankin’s Rebus feels so at home here…fighting crime in a city from another time…feeling almost like another world.  So, if you want to visit Edinburgh, you can either hop a plane at O’Hare or you can pick up a John Rebus mystery by Ian Rankin.  Both give off the same eerie effect, but one will be MUCH easier on your wallet (whether in British Pounds or dollars!).

Oh, and Rebus is also available as a TV series on DVD: the first set with John Hannah as Rebus and the three more sets with Ken Stott as the Edinburgh inspector.

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Wickham scores again…this time with a fun, highly biting commentary on the social strata in England.  Not unlike my favorite author Edith Wharton (who wrote about society in early 1900s New York), Wickham here uses her fine writing skills to make sweeping and also pointed gestures about the differences and familiarities between the middle and upper classes.  Not that I would compare Wickham’s writing or plots to Wharton, but Wickham’s finger is definitely on the pulse of what makes society both tick and falter here.  The story takes us to a fine manor house in English Countryside (but not far enough out maybe).  Caroline and Patrick, the manor house, nouveau riche owners, invite several couples over for a weekend-long tennis party, including a stuffy man and his new rich wife and then former neighbors from their old “poorer” neighborhood out on the outskirts of London.  What transpires is funny, sad but most of all a I’m sure pseudo-realistic view of what goes on behind closed doors of those large stately homes.  LOTS of fun to read and educational as well for those interesting in climbing to social ladder!

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One of the better novels I have read in a while…this one makes you laugh, cry and long for your friends.  Rayner, a Brit, weaves a compelling tale filled with sudden loss, friendship, gradual loss, sexual identity and all sorts of relationships.  The main characters are the storytellers here…Karen who experiences sudden loss right at the beginning of the book, Anna, who is Karen’s friend and is in the midst of a doomed relationship with a man with dependency problems, and Lou who enters Karen and Anna’s lives through sad happenstance and who is dealing with her own private identity battles.  All of these characters on their own would make compelling fiction, but all three of them create a vivid and dynamic tale that not only holds the reader’s interest, but inspires them as well.  An excellent novel!

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Knowing I’m always in the market for a good mystery, especially a good British one, I recently got a recommendation to read the Ruth Galloway series from Elly Griffiths.  And what I discovered is a fantastic new writer who weaves an excellent British mystery with an archaeological spin. Set in the eastern English county of Norfolk, Ruth is an archeologist who gets called in by the local authorities to check the age of a skeleton that was found. This find leads to Ruth getting emerged in a missing person’s case and a whole web of mystery and murder. I VERY MUCH liked the chemistry between Ruth and the inspector who works with her…Nelson. And a surprise at the end of the book means that their relationship is only beginning.  Nelson is the kind of “man-you-love-to-hate…” meaning he’s gruff and harsh, with a sweet side and a heart of gold.  And Ruth herself is a refreshing female mystery character, who is less amateur sleuth and more “right place, right time” gal.  She never ASKS to be involved in the police investigation…it just sort of happens.  And Ruth is full of spunk and vitality, though she’s more than her fair share of self-effacing. I will read more from Griffiths and look forward to where she leads Ruth and Nelson next!

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One of the best beginnings of a mystery (historical or otherwise) I’ve read in a long while.  I was just literally fixated for the first 100 pages.  After that, we gets a little too convoluted with less-than-necessary characters and too many plotlines that pop up and lead nowhere.  But, it is a must read for those first chapters!  The story revolves around nurse Bess Crawford who is working the frontlines during WWI when she stumbles upon a body that was not shot, but rather had its neck broken.  On her way to report this, she faints and succumbs to the Spanish flu, an epidemic that taking almost as many lives as the war. Once she is better, she finds out that the only people who know of this “mysterious” body are dead, most likely having been killed. Bess is a fabulously feisty character who is almost as good of an amateur sleuth as she is a nurse.  A mother and son writing team work under the pseudonym Charles Todd and their writing is highly vivid and strong and the way they create the mounting suspense leaves the reader craving more.  I could not put this one down.  I will continue to read this Bess Crawford series for sure!

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A new London crime detective takes to the big city streets with a vengeance.  There is a little political intrigue mixed up with the murders John Carlyle is investigating…the case involves a former Cambridge University club filled with future politicos who are being killed off one by one years later. Carlyle is a believable London inspector who fights crime with a passion, though the writing could be a little better and the book does have its fair share of cliches.  Not the best British mystery (by a long shot) but far from the worst.  Definitely something for British mystery lovers to try. 

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Set in 1920 London, this mystery intertwines the horrors of World War I in a web of war survivors, murders, romance, social customs and history. Recovering from the trauma of both serving in the war and losing a wife and child, Laurence Bartram receives news of the suicide death of a classmate, Captain John Emmett. Feeling compassion for the family, Laurence comes to the aid of his sister to discover the why of the suicide and bequests to unknown individuals in his will. Laurence falls hopelessly in love with the sister, Mary. The investigation becomes one of can’t stop reading intrigue when it is discovered that Captain Emmett was a member of a firing squad for the execution of a British sergeant for desertion during the war.
Aiding Laurence in this investigation is good friend Charles. Charles knows everything and everyone and he steals every scene where he is placed and provides many light moments amid the darkness. The author does not spare the reader from the sad awfulness of World War I. This war destroyed a generation with over 1.6 million British men wounded, 662,000 men killed and 140,000 men reported missing in action. The novel’s core focuses on the psychological trauma of the survivors, shell shock, and vividly awakens the reader to current copings with the post traumatic stress disorder of contemporary military veterans.
This mystery has a lot to offer. While discovering the history of post World War I Britain, the reader can savor the puzzle of who, what and why.

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