A sex-symbol, crime-solving vicar? It's a new world for PBS


You really don't expect many sex symbols on PBS' "Masterpiece." The "Downton Abbey" guys kept their shirts on ... and their undershirts ... and their topcoats ... and ...

But now comes "Grantchester," opening its season on Easter Sunday. It has a hot young hunk, plus an older hunk and some pretty good mysteries. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

The PBS mysteries
aren't usually into sex symbols, you know. Few people have lusted
over Miss Marple or Horace Rumpole or Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter
Wimsey.

But now comes the
grand exception. “Grantchester” links two generations of hero
hunks.

There's James
Norton, 30, whom “Masterpiece” producer Rebecca Eaton has
proclaimed as “gorgeous.” And Robson Green, 51. He's been a PBS
leading man, from “Reckless” to “Touching Evil” and “Wire
in the Blood” ... but doing a swimming scene alongside Norton was
imposing.

“I was in the gym
six days a week, three times a day ... Competing with that is
amazing,” Green said.

The “that” is
Norton, who is 6-foot-1, with wavy hair and a statue-worthy torso
... a fact that he discusses sheepishly. “This new time (has) a lot
of attention to the male physique,” he said.

Norton stars as a
crimesolving vicar in 1950s England ... and insists he's the one who
was starstruck over Green, who plays his friend, a cop. “I grew up
knowing 'Robson & Jerome' and all his TV shows.”

“Robson &
Jerome”? For Green – a miner's son who often plays strong-silent
types, that was a detour.

In an episode of a
British series, Green and Jerome Flynn were playing soldiers who sang
“Unchained Melody.” Young record producer Simon Cowell – yes,
later the infamous “American Idol” Simon – kept trying to sign
them; they kept trying to ignore him.

“I kept calling,
once a day, twice a day, 10 times a day,” Cowell wrote in “I
Don't Mean to Be Rude, But ...” (Broadway Books, 2003). “I just
went mental. I wouldn't give up.”

Eventually, Green
did. He and Flynn recorded the song; it was No. 1 in Britain for
seven weeks and No. 1 for all of 1995, selling 1.8 million records.
Two other singles -- “I Believe” and “Up On the Roof” --
reached No. 1; so did both of their albums.

And then, Cowell
wrote, they turned down a fortune -- $3 million apiece – for a
third album and ended their music careers. “Robson and Jerome were
a class act.”

For Norton, who was
10 at the time, they were memorable. It all came back to him when the
“Grantchester” characters had to climb to a crime scene on a
Cambridge roof.

Soon, Norton said,
actors and crew people were humming “Up On the Roof.” Green told
them to stop; they didn't. “I took this speaker system up and when
they called 'Cut,' I played 'Up On the Roof' up on the roof. And to
his credit, (when) everyone burst into song, Robson stood in the
middle of the roof, hands in the air, and sang the whole song and
danced. It was really cool.”

Neither man grew up
near show business. Green was near Newcastle, where his dad worked a
coal mine. He tried other things – boxing, air force, rock band,
draftsman – before being an actor. Norton – the son of teachers
-- was in North Yorkshire, in a hamlet even smaller than the
fictional Grantchester.

“It was totally
idyllic .... I could just roam the countryside,” he said. But “when
I was 13, I suddenly realized that there was a party going on in the
cities and I wasn't invited, and it got really frustrating.”

He went to a
Catholic boarding school and then to Cambridge. He was cast as
upper-crust types in many things – “Death Comes to Pemberly,”
TV versions of “War & Peace” and “Lady Chatterly's Lover”
-- but also played a vicious killer in “Happy Valley,” drawing
praise and fear.

One night at a rock
club, Norton said, he turned to talk. “There was a girl who was
sort of in between me and my friend. She was dancing and she looked
up in my face and just let out this huge scream.”

Fortunately, he's
back to playing a good guy now, a subject he understands. He wasn't
Catholic, but in school enjoyed long talks with a Benedictine monk;
his family wasn't particularly religious, but attended church
“because it was the moment every week when the village would
congregate.”

He saw how important
vicars can be ... even the ones who don't solve crimes.

-- “Grantchester,”
9 p.m. Sundays, PBS, for a six-week run

-- Opens its season
March 27; so does “Mr. Selfridge,” with a nine-week run at 10
p.m.

-- Both are under
the “Masterpiece” banner; check local listings

 

Her life has a pulsating heartbeat


The make-believe character we see on NBC's "Heartbeat" is bigger than life. She's blonde and beautiful, ready to perform a heart transplant, intimidate a donor and juggle two romances, an ex-husband and two kids. And the real-life doctor she's based on? Kathy Magliato is a forceful figure who's not that different from the person Melissa George plays on TV ... except for skipping the multiple romances. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

Today's life-lesson
is basic:

At a dinner party,
pay attention to what other people are saying. They might have
something interesting ... which might make you a TV producer.

At least, it worked
that way for NBC's new “Heartbeat.” At the home of Ron Meyer, who
ran the Universal movie studio for 20 years, a dinner guest was Dr.
Kathy Magliato; she described the time she had to perform surgery on
an airplane.

“I remember
driving away and thinking, 'That woman is a TV show,'” Amy
Brenneman said.

And Brenneman wanted
to make the show. She'd already produced “Judging Amy” (which she
starred in); her husband, Brad Silbering, has produced “Reign,”
the “Jane the Virgin” pilot and more. They would combine on this
one, with Jill Gordon as the show-runner.

Pioneers fascinate
Brenneman, whose mom was the third woman to be a judge in
Connecticut. Now here was one of the world's first female
cardiothoracic surgeons, complete with a strong personality.

“I do think
there's a time to be fierce as a surgeon,” Magliato said, “and a
time to be tough .... I think being an aggressive surgeon is
important when the chips are down.”

Still, she says, the
flip side is important. “There's also a time to be compassionate. I
think sometimes in medicine we miss that .... It's taken me a
lifetime to learn that balance.”

She grew up on a
farm, in the apple country of New York's Hudson Valley. There were no
medical people in the family, she said, so this idea was all her own.
“As cliche as this might sound, I honestly wanted to be a doctor so
I could help people.”

That would take a
while, including 17 years of college and residency. Along the way,
she assisted a key mentor. “I'm holding the human heart,”
Magliato said. “It's like walking on the moon .... I said to this
surgeon, 'Wait. Do you get to do this every day?'”

That mentor is very
similar to a “Heartbeat” character played by Don Hany. The
difference in the show is that the main character (Melissa George) is
still sort of in love with him ... and with the surgeon she's living
with (Dave Annable); she also has an ex-husband (Joshua Leonard)
who's a gay rock star.

Maglioto said her
own romance isn't nearly that complicated. “I asked my husband (Dr.
Nick Nissen, a liver-transplant surgeon) about a love triangle,”
she joked. “He just won't go for it. Kind of an old-school guy.”
But mostly, she said, the show is “pretty authentic, pretty true to
life.”

It was originally
called “Heartbreakers” and set for the fall schedule. Instead, it
had what George calls a “pregnant pause”; on Nov. 3, her
10-pound son was born.

The break was also
helpful for Annable. He and his wife (actress Odette Annable) had a
daughter Sept. 7, he said. “I was able to be home and be with my
family for three months ... I could never ask for anything more.”

It also gave
producers a chance to change the title (often) and hone the scripts.
Usually “you have infinite time to write a pilot and then all of a
sudden you're in production,” Annable said. “You're boom boom,
boom .... The quality sort of leaks off.”

But “Heartbeat”
had extra months to get ready. It could try to capture the
semi-chaotic life of someone a lot like Kathy Magliato.

-- “Heartbeat,”
8 p.m. Wednesdays, NBC, beginning March 23

-- Show debuts,
however, at 9 p.m. Tuesday, March 22, before moving to its regular
night

"The Passion" propels a passionate surge of live music events


One of the brightest spots of this TV season was Fox's live "Grease." A so-so musical was transformed into a vibrant TV event, with a few flaws and a lot of joy. That will be rerun on Easter Sunday, but first Fox tries another ambitious event -- "The Passion," live on Palm Sunday. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

The TV world has had
a sudden surge of live musical events.
This season has brought
“Grease” and “The Wiz” and now a Palm Sunday production of
“The Passion.” Next season has “Hairspray” and (not live)
“Dirty Dancing” and “Rocky Horror Show.”

The trend is all
very new ... or not. “I think it's a throwback to years gone by,”
said Tyler Perry, who will host Sunday's “Passion,” which will be
stuffed with pop stars and songs.

In its glory days,
Hollywood thrived on musicals; in its early days, TV tried live,
musical versions of everything from “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella”
to “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

The TV events,
however, were basic and confined; so was NBC's “Sound of Music,”
which started this revival. By comparison, Fox's “Grease” used
multiple locations, complete with an audience; its “Passion” will
do the same, sprawling across New Orleans.

The main stage will
be at Woldenberg Park, alongside the Mississippi River, said producer
Mark Bracco. Other scenes will range “from the French Quarter to
Jackson Square to Audubon Park.” And a procession, with a 20-foot
illuminated cross “will start outside of the Superdome and make its
way through all the iconic locations.”

Jacco Doornbo came
up with the idea nine years ago in his native Holland. He says he'd
just “learned that only 25 percent of the Dutch population was
still aware of what the story of Easter was about.”

That's far from the
New Orleans experience. “Growing up in church, (music) was there
every Sunday,” said Perry, 46. “We could hear it through the
walls, from all the churches in the neighborhood.”

Doornbos' plan was
to use biblical text, pop songs and modern dress. The annual event
has kept growing, he said; last year, it drew 46.2 per cent of Dutch
TV viewership.

Now producer Adam
Anders has worked on connecting English-language stars and songs. For
instance:

-- “My Love is
Your Love” will be sung by Trisha Yearwood, as Mary. It's “one of
my favorite Whitney (Houston) songs (and Yearwood is) one of the
greatest voices of all time,” he said.

-- When Judas (Chris
Daughtry) kisses Jesus (Jencarlos Canela, a telenovela star), the
song is “Demons,” by Imagine Dragons. “You would think it was
written for the scene,” Anders said. “Think of the lyrics: 'Don't
get too close/It's dark inside/It's where my demons hide/We are all
made of greed/This is my kingdom come.' It's incredible.”

-- Other pop stars
include Seal as Pilate, Prince Royce as Peter and Shane Harper as a
disciple. The cast also has Christian music stars Michael W. Smith
and Yolanda Adams and Internet star Gabriel Conte.

The story is almost
2,000 years old, but the sound will be modern. So will the look,
Bracco said. “It's cop cars pulling up and the police arresting
Jesus. And when Jesus is brought on stage for his trial, he's in the
orange jumpsuit.”

This will be rain or
shine, Doornbo said. “The fifth year (in Holland), it was stormy,
rainy .... It turned out to be great, even more emotional when it
rains.”

It will all work
out, Perry said. “This is New Orleans, which handles Mardi Gras
every year. I think they've got it covered.”

-- “The Passion,”
8-10 p.m. Sunday, Fox; live in Eastern time zones

Storming into chaos, they save cats and dogs and such


Some TV people strain hard to get you to like them; some don't have to strain at all. The "Animal Storm Squad" folks are good-hearted souls who are instantly likable. Smart and fit, they use their brains and energy to try to rescue animals after a storm. Their show debuts Friday (March 11) on NatGeo Wild. Here's the story I sent to papers:

 

By Mike Hughes

As wildfire ripped
through Northern California, lives and homes were endangered.

The “Valley Fire:
sprawled across 76,000 acres last September, killing four people and
destroying 1,281 homes. At the evacuation camp, Laura Kennedy was
sure she'd lost her home and more.

“There's a lot of
chaos ... and a lot of communication all around the camp of what's
existing, what's no longer existing,” she said. “I wasn't
expecting to find my cats again (or) they would be horribly burnt.”

And then, she said,
“I found these amazing people.”

Those are the people
in the new “Animal Storm Squad” cable series. While others focus
on people and property, they search for pets.

The public was still
barred from the fire area, but the squad – complete with
storm-chaser vehicle and medical expertise – was allowed back in.
It was surprised to find Kennedy's house had survived.

“We let her know
that her house was still standing,” said Karissa Hadden, the team's
founder, “and that we were there to look for her cats. And we set
up a couple traps.”

The traps worked;
the cats were rescued before being damaged by heat, hunger and
dehydration.

For Haddad, such
tasks are vital. “Her heart is bigger than anyone's I've ever
known,” said Erik Fox.

Also, her weatherman
is bigger than anyone else's. That's Fox, a former Army sergeant who
stands 6-foot-6, weighs 265 pounds and is shaken by the job's
extremes. “It can be bittersweet,” he said.

Haddad, 32, lives in
Whitney, a tiny town near a massive provincial park in central
Ontario. There, she has dogs, cats, hamsters and more, plus a husband
and a job as a veterinary assistant.

That's a job she
leaves often. Nine times in the past couple years, she's left for
10-14 days of animal rescues, through her group, Never Stop Saving.

“Thankfully, the
veterinarian that I work for is on my board of directors,” she
said. “So he fully supports this. He's been there with me to help
me get this off the ground.”

The idea started,
she said, after a tornado hit Moore, Okla., three years ago. A friend
had found five kittens that survived after their mom died.

“I made numerous
calls for hours, trying to find a safe place for these cats,” she
said. “Unfortunately, the next day three of the five kittens ended
up passing away. It just made me think that I never want that to
happen again to somebody's family.”

So she created the
squad, including people she'd met during previous storm-chasing.
There's:

-- Fox, who spent 14
years in the Army and became a storm-chaser for a Texas TV station;
he's also a weather expert. “I can look about 10 days out (and see)
where we need to be,” he said.

-- Dustin Feldman, a
lifelong animal guy. “To my mother, I always seemed to have a small
zoo,” he said. He later worked for large zoos (in Chicago and
Kenya) and started an adventure-travel business.

-- Leigh Ann
Bennett, a physician's assistant. She can patch up the people and
help with the animals, including finding temporary homes near Red
Cross shelters or beyond. “If it's a hurricane or a flood, there
are veterinarians' offices or even the local animal-control center,”
she said.

They urge more
preparation, including having emergency pet rations and medication.
“Microchip your pets .... That makes our job so much easier,”
Haddad said.

And people need help
too, Fox said. Experts “really want people to wear helmets. If ...
a tornado hits your house, it's really going to protect your head.”
Even a giant Army guy wears one.

-- “Animal Storm
Squad”

-- 10 p.m. Fridays,
NatGeo Wild; debuts March 11

 

Hasselhoff has a clever new show ... no, really, he does


Every now and then,
a TV show surprises you in a good way.

It was no surprise
that “People v. O.J. Simpson” (10 p.m. Tuesdays, FX) or “American
Crime” (concluding at 10 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, on ABC) are
terrific. They're from producers and networks that often do great
work.

But here's one you
don't expect: A David Hasselhoff show on AXS TV is lots of fun to
watch.

AXS is the network
that Mark Cuban started in 2001 as HDNet, switching its name four
years ago. It has lots of music shows, plus Dan Rather interviews and
more.

And Hasselhoff?
Well, you probably know him from huge successes -- “Knight Rider,”
“Bay Watch,” big popularity in Germany, where he did a rock
concert at the Berlin Wall when it fell – and huge failures,
including two divorces, a stalled career and bouts with alcoholism.

Wisely, however,
Hasselhoff knows how to mock himself. The clever “Hoff the Record”
pretends that he's had five divorces and bankruptcy. He tries to
rebuild his career in London, surrounded by people who may be even
more dense than this imaginary version of himself.

And yes, this
fictional Hoff is a dense dolt. Full of himself over past
accomplishments, he now wants more. He brought down the Berlin Wall,
he insists, and now he can bring down the Wailing Wall and the Great
Wall of China.

All of this is done
with a straight-faced, droll approach. This is witty material that
sneaks up on you, then surprises you with a neatly offbeat moment.
“Hoff the Record” debuts at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT) March 31 and
runs for six weeks. It's worth catching.