Sunday, 15 October 2017

TV Review: LOUIS THEROUX: DARK STATES - HEROIN TOWN + SNOWFALL

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14 October 2017.


LOUIS THEROUX: DARK STATES – HEROIN TOWN: Sunday, BBC Two

SNOWFALL: Sunday, BBC Two


When you think of Sunday nights on BBC Two, you probably envision genteel arts documentaries or bittersweet Brenda Blethyn films. You don’t imagine a blizzard of Class A drugs exploding from your screen. Yet that’s what we got last Sabbath, with a heavy narcotic double-bill.

In LOUIS THEROUX: DARK STATES – HEROIN TOWN, our inquisitive interlocutor visited a depressed Appalachian industrial community where heroin use is rife. It’s an increasingly typical victim of, in Theroux’s sombre words, “the most deadly drug epidemic in US history.”

He met tragic addicts such as Curtilia, who spends more than $200 a day on her habit. She confessed to Theroux that her drug-dealing boyfriend, who hovered ominously in the background, was physically abusive. She was essentially his slave.

As Theroux watched her shoot up, he gently enquired, “There’s nothing I could say that would persuade you not to do that?” She shook her head with a weary smile.

Later he met her elderly great uncle. He loved Curtilia with all his heart. She loved him too, but she needed his money. He knew what she was using it for. She wept when this softly-spoken old man confessed to Theroux that he was enabling her demise. It was heart-breaking.


Theroux’s point was clear. Most of these addicts turned to heroin after becoming dependent on prescription painkillers wantonly prescribed by their doctors. Following a crackdown on this irresponsible practice, illegal drugs became their only way of numbing the pain. The multi-billion-dollar Big Pharma companies signed their death warrants.

To give us at least some comfort that decent professionals still exist, Theroux met a doctor who cares for recovering pregnant addicts. His work is vital, as one in ten babies born in this area are dependent on opiates.

He also followed a fire emergency team who were constantly tasked with reviving overdose victims, presumably because the local ambulance service couldn’t cope on its own with the sheer volume of critically ill addicts. The sympathetic agent he spoke to looked understandably tired.

This was a typically sad, humane, unflinching Theroux report. When it comes to presenting visions of unadulterated hopelessness, he has few peers.

Crack cocaine is the drug of choice in SNOWFALL, a new drama from Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton.


Set in South Central LA in 1983, it follows a black teenager as he shifts from soft low-level drug dealing to Devil’s Dandruff distribution. He’s the archetypal good kid getting in over his head. Naturally, his surname is Saint.

Dramas set in the recent past often have a tendency to overdo period details, but Snowfall boasts an authentic sense of time and place. There’s a nice selection of classic rap and soul on the soundtrack. You can feel the ghetto-blasting summer heat.

Comparisons with The Wire are inevitable, especially when TV critics insist on making them. But what can a poor boy do? Any new American crime drama involving drugs, troubled law enforcers and a prominent black cast is destined to be judged against that monumental classic. Snowfall is more generic and less Byzantine in its storytelling reach.

It also shows, initially at least, why people enjoy taking drugs, whereas The Wire was more concerned with the grim realities of addiction, poverty and crime. I’m sure Snowfall will tackle these issues eventually, but for now it feels like a slick facsimile of David Simon’s angry masterpiece.

Despite my nagging misgivings, it does show some promise. It’s well-made, the performances are fine, and even the clichés are acceptable if you don’t take it too seriously.

It also serves as a counterpoint to Theroux’s new series. Snowfall pinpoints a time when hard drugs were beginning to become more commonplace on the working-class streets of America.

34 years later, Theroux raked over the devastating legacy of that narcotic epidemic.

Monday, 9 October 2017

TV Review: THE LAST POST + PORRIDGE

This article was originally published in the Dundee Courier on 7th October 2017.


THE LAST POST: Sunday, BBC One

PORRIDGE: Friday, BBC One


History is an endless spin-wash of repeated mistakes, never to be learned from. That’s the sobering message at the heart of THE LAST POST. It’s a sound point, but I didn’t enjoy this new drama from Peter Moffat (Silk; Undercover; Criminal Justice) in the slightest.

Caked in sweat, violence and despair, it’s set in a British military police compound in Aden, Yemen, in 1965.

Aden was one of the oldest colonies in the British Empire. By the mid-1960s, it was a moribund anachronism, one of the final, desperate shreds of this shameful chapter in our great nation’s mission to civilise the world with politely armed oppression.

Potentially fascinating subject matter, but The Last Post is just another staidly prestigious production in which the usual stock cast of decent actors go through the motions while a writer hits you over the head with their political point. Yes, I get it, Peter. The torture of prisoners in Yemen really did resemble the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Let’s smack ourselves sore on the back for recognising that.

It’s such a boring shimmer of expensive waste. The excellent Jessica Raine does a good, committed drunk-act in a drama that no one will remember in six weeks time. The cinematographer might get a BAFTA. Earnest speeches will be made from the podium. Life marches on.

Last year’s unpromising pilot for a new series of the classic prison sitcom PORRIDGE was greeted with a shrug from most viewers and critics, hence the ensuing bafflement when the BBC announced that it had been picked up for a series.


The pilot wasn’t terrible, but it felt pointless. Although episode one of the new series was an improvement – it felt more comfortable in its own skin - there’s still no way of forgetting that you’re not watching Ronnie Barker and co delivering a masterpiece. It’s difficult to appreciate this Porridge on its own terms.

Of course, everyone involved in the production must be acutely aware of that. It’s written by the estimable Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, creators of the original, who couldn’t write a bad half hour of comedy if they tried. But I do wonder whether, in their heart of hearts, they’d rather be writing a brand new sitcom, rather than a tribute to one of their previous successes.

They haven’t altered the original formula at all, which works both for and against it.

Fletch’s grandson is a chip off the old recidivist block. That is, he’s exactly the same character, albeit played by someone else (Kevin Bishop). The younger Fletch is a cyber-criminal (how terribly modern) serving five years in a prison which just so happens to employ a tough, no-nonsense Scottish warder with a well-meaningly lenient sidekick. History repeating, once again.

Bishop has clearly studied Barker’s performance and delivers a likeable imitation. I don’t envy him having to step into such enormous shoes, but he doesn’t embarrass himself in the slightest. Clement and La Frenais still know how to write for Fletch. Again, however, that only serves to encourage comparisons with the original.

It’s a prison from which they can never escape.

This new Porridge is occasionally quite funny, but it’s essentially a competent facsimile of a superior work. It doesn’t really need to exist.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

TV Review: THE CHILD IN TIME + BAD MOVE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30 September 2017.


THE CHILD IN TIME: Sunday, BBC One

BAD MOVE: Wednesday, STV


It’s every parent’s nightmare. You’re in a busy public area with your young child. You turn your back on them for just a moment, but when you return they’ve vanished, never to be seen again.

That harrowing, plausible scenario was, of course, the spur for series one of The Missing, in which James Nesbitt played an obsessive father desperately searching for his abducted child. It’s also the premise of the relentlessly depressing 2004 film Keane, in which Damian Lewis plays an obsessive father desperately searching for his abducted child.

This emotive territory was raked over once again in THE CHILD IN TIME, a standalone drama in which Benedict Cumberbatch played, well, you get the idea. An adaptation of a 1987 novel by Ian McEwan, it technically predates both The Missing and Keane.

It also featured a strangely undercooked supernatural/metaphysical element which felt at odds with the otherwise realistic treatment of this subject matter. I’ve never read McEwan’s novel, but I’m assuming that the time travel subtext was treated with more depth and significance than it was in this condensed, compromised adaptation.


Likewise, the subplot involving Cumberbatch’s best friend (Stephen Campbell Moore) descending into a tragic childlike state presumably didn’t jar in the novel quite as much as it did here. It came across as a hysterically unsubtle illustration of one of the drama’s principle themes: the importance of allowing children to express themselves, and the dangers of denying them their innocence.

Despite these clunky drawbacks, the film still succeeded as a terribly sad rumination on the trauma of losing a child. It worked best when focusing on the overarching storyline of Cumberbatch and Kelly Macdonald struggling to move on with their lives. Its power emerged from its restraint.

The pregnant pauses and hesitant interplay between these excellent actors managed to evoke a tangible sense of anguish. Mere words could never hope to express such unbearable loss. When these grieving parents were given a happy ending of sorts, the sentiment felt earned.

A curate’s egg, undoubtedly, but The Child in Time packed a hefty emotional punch.

A suburban middle-aged couple moving to the countryside and enduring endless hapless fish-out-of-water misadventures is a terribly hackneyed sitcom premise, but BAD MOVE somehow manages to imbue it with charm and wit.


The key to its modest appeal is a droll script co-written by its star, the lugubrious Jack Dee playing – as always – the lugubrious Jack Dee, and the warm, understated chemistry he shares with his screen wife Kerry Godliman.

An appealing comic actor, Godliman was one of the very few performers to escape from Ricky Gervais’ abominable Derek with their dignity intact. That’s how good she is.

Despite being a pre-watershed ITV sitcom – usually a barren no-mans-land when it comes to quality comedy – Bad Move is underpinned with a layer of depressive, caustic melancholy which elevates it beyond its blander competitors. The characters feel real. The jokes aren’t cosy or obvious.

It captures the inherently bleak, frustrating, insular, unsettling reality of living in a rural community – I speak here from experience – without ever delving into self-consciously dark territory. It may involve whacked-out rock stars, escaped panthers and Josef Fritzl references, but it’s still good old-fashioned family fun.

Plus, it’s funny. It makes me chuckle. Yes, folks, actual chuckles.

I’m not making any great claims for Bad Move as a classic sitcom, but it's a nicely traditional piece of comedy, deftly written and performed. 

Sunday, 3 September 2017

TV Review: EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER

EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER: Thursday, Channel 4

FESTIVAL TALES: EDINBURGH AT 70: Saturday, BBC Two

STRIKE – THE CUCKOO’S CALLING: Sunday and Monday, BBC One


If there’s a more heart-warming show on TV than the award-winning ‘Educating…’ franchise, I’ve yet to find it. I probably couldn't cope if I did.

The latest iteration of this observational documentary series is EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER, which follows the usual winning formula of tracing everyday life in a secondary school full of dedicated teachers and pupils struggling with various sensitive issues.

Episode one focused on the subject of racial integration. Its quiet star was Rani, a Syrian refugee. Rani arrived in Manchester last year and found it hard to make friends. Gradually, with assistance from the staff, we saw him assimilating into this concrete microcosm of multicultural society.

Highlights included a nice wee white lad named Jack befriending Rani in the playground, an older Syrian boy serving as his benign protector, and the literally symbolic sight of him becoming fully integrated by joining a group of friends in that time-honoured ritual of drawing rude illustrations on a dusty van.

The theme of racial and religious sensitivity was starkly compounded by the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert, which occurred during the making of this series.

We witnessed emotional testimonies from pupils who were at the Manchester Arena that night, and followed the concerned staff as they tried to ensure that the tragedy didn’t inflame tensions among their pupils. Thankfully, it didn’t. Kids are generally better than that.

As trite as this may sound, Jack’s mum inviting Rani over for tea just days after the attack spoke volumes about the essential decency and resilience of ordinary human beings. By the end of the episode, the boys were proclaiming friendship for life.

In lesser hands, this carefully structured uplifting narrative could’ve come across as crassly contrived and manipulative. But the makers of ‘Educating…’ aren’t cynical in the slightest, their sincerity is palpable. That’s why it works so beautifully.

The Edinburgh Festival/Fringe is the world’s greatest arts hoedown. It turned 70 this year, but where did it come from? How did it grow into the sprawling behemoth we know and love today?

Jack Whitehall, just one of the countless comedians who made their name at the Fringe, found out in FESTIVAL TALES: EDINBURGH AT 70, a solid documentary celebrating its eventful story, frequent controversies and eclectic spirit.


It was the brainchild of Rudolf Bing, an Austrian Jew with a profound belief in the power of art to bring light in times of darkness. This, after all, was 1947. That he strove to encourage a global healing process in conservative post-war Edinburgh – a dour town without an opera house or gallery of modern art to its name - turned out to be an eccentric masterstroke.

With assistance from esteemed Fringe veterans such as Claire Bloom, Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, Whitehall roamed the venues, alleyways and toilets of Edinburgh, sainted, scented venues which have played host to everyone from Richard Burton and Maria Callas, to Jerry Sadowitz and Puppetry of the Penis.

I doubt that, as a reviewer, I'll ever go through the lonesome, stressful hell of attending the Fringe again. But this fond tribute did serve as a reminder of why it's such an important, freewheeling nightmare.

Former Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling wrote the Cormoran Strike mystery novels, for adults, using her Robert Galbraith pseudonym. STRIKE – THE CUCKOO’S CALLING is the first TV adaptation of this functional set of sleuth-driven dramas.


Like most police procedurals, it’s inoffensively adequate in its time-passing way. But, as a species, do we really need to witness another disheveled detective solving made-up crimes on a Sunday night? Strike is a boring character. Why should anyone care?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

TV Review: LEN GOODMAN'S PARTNERS IN RHYME + THE STATE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 August 2017.


LEN GOODMAN’S PARTNERS IN RHYME: Saturday, BBC One

THE STATE: Sunday to Thursday, Channel 4


I was saddened by the death of the great Bruce Forsyth recently. He was one of the finest talents in television history, the hoofing embodiment of light entertainment itself.

But I’m glad he didn’t hang around long enough to witness LEN GOODMAN’S PARTNERS IN RHYME, an atrocious new Saturday night game show in which his erstwhile Strictly colleague soiled the genre that Brucie helped to build.

Len’s corny rhymes are a popular, if minor, part of the winning Strictly formula. Basing an entire show around them is clearly a terrible idea, but that hasn’t stopped Radio 1 DJ Matt Edmondson, who devised this drivel, from doing just that.

The word ‘surreal’ is often misused, but how else to describe such an utterly bewildering misfire?

It announces its awfulness immediately. The opening theme song is a lethargic, unsettling rap from Len. It sounds like Hooky Street from Only Fools and Horses at half speed, the sort of sonic horror they tortured prisoners with in Guantanamo Bay.

It was followed by an introductory monologue delivered entirely in rhyme, in which Len claimed to have shared champagne with a Great Dane and a stew with a Shiatsu.


He then performed an awkward ‘street dance’ with a black contestant, while introducing a team of celebrity helpers including his old Strictly china Anton du Beke and Big Mo from EastEnders.

The contestants are shown a series of absurd images and have to guess the correct rhyme. It’s Catchphrase for idiots. These rhymes include: Anton Du Beke with a really long neck; a scotch egg with a broken leg; Jack Whitehall on a wrecking ball. Those are some of the better ones.

There’s also a Give Us a Clue-style round in which the celebs mime a rhyme (Tom Cruise looking for clues; Mel and Sue cleaning the loo etc.). At one point, ‘90s relic Mr Motivator turned up for no discernible reason.

The jaw-dropping weirdness is compounded by an unseen studio audience, who are audio-mixed so thinly and distantly, they sound like they’re responding sarcastically from another dimension.


This is the sort of show that people will dimly recall in years to come, while questioning whether it ever actually existed. Even while watching it unspool in front of you, it still doesn’t feel real. Naturally, it’s already been commissioned for a second series.

I’m a staunch defender of the BBC, but they don’t half make life difficult sometimes.

Len Goodman is an affable soul, but he’s no Bruce Forsyth. Brucie was such a gifted host, he could transform even the most unpromising format into entertaining TV gold. He wouldn’t have touched this garbage with a 50-foot bargepole.

Writer/director Peter Kosminsky is renowned for dramas based on controversial and complex subjects torn from the headlines. THE STATE was no exception.

Based on extensive research, it followed various young Brits as they travelled to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. Initially, their encampment felt like a friendly gap-year commune, albeit one based along extreme religious guidelines. Inevitably, the true horror of their decision gradually emerged.

This was, in typical Kosminsky style, a serious, unflinching, clear-eyed attempt to make sense of a disturbing contemporary issue. It offered compelling insight into the inner workings of ISIS from both male and female perspectives.

Only when we begin to understand why someone would wish to join a terrorist organisation such as this, can we begin to eradicate their reasons for doing so. The State won’t solve this problem overnight, but it’s a bold step in the right direction.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

TV Review: CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP + QUACKS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 19 August 2017.


CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP: Monday to Friday, Channel 4

QUACKS: Tuesday, BBC Two


Noel Edmonds is a phenomenon.

A modern-day sage, seer and alternative thinker, he’s the most misunderstood multimillionaire maverick genius since Howard Hughes.

He’s also a frustrated comedian trapped in the body of a leonine entrepreneur, never happier than when he’s prowling around a daft fantasy world that’s broadcast on television for the delight of several. Crinkly Bottom was Noel’s Shangri-La, his safe retreat from a cruel, uncaring society.

Alas, CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP, a semi-scripted comedy quiz show in which our host plays the owner of a bonkers department store, fails to scale the dizzying heights of that Blobby-bothered wonderland.

“It is a very, very simple game,” explains Noel. He’s not wrong, although it is at least a slight step up from his previous vehicle/cult recruitment process Deal or No Deal, which had no rules whatsoever.


Noel presents the contestants with a variety of actual products – it’s okay, Channel 4 are allowed to advertise – and they have to guess which of them retails at the cheapest price. The more correct guesses they make, the more money they win. The grand prize is £25,000. But if they get just one wrong, they lose everything. And that’s it.

Or rather, it would be were it not for the presence of a bunch of jobbing actors playing Noel’s wacky staff. Without them the show would last ten minutes. Not even Noel, who did an undeniably stellar job of milking tension from thin air in Deal or No Deal, could keep this flimsy conceit going on his own.


These characters, these refugees from a bad children’s show, allow Noel to do his patented “What’s going on? This is crazy!” hapless straight-man act whenever they interrupt him. Which is often.

He also does a lot of fake giggling at risqué gags, another one of his key talents.

It’s all very knowing, of course. No one, not even Noel, thinks this is a clever high-concept game show. It’s just a bit of self-consciously stupid fun.

Except it’s not. It’s neither funny nor involving, and doesn’t even succeed – as we’d all hoped – as a bewildering orgy of must-see Edmonds madness. It’s just boring.


The lack of studio audience gives it a dead-air atmosphere that no amount of desperate Noel corpsing can cover up. It drags on forever.

If Noel Edmonds want to host a bad quiz show in a pretend shop, he’s more than welcome to do so. But did he really need to film it? He doesn’t need the money, he could’ve staged this in the privacy of his own enormous home.

Then everybody would be happy. Then we’d all be winners, cosmically ordered for all eternity. Isn’t that what you want, Noel?

It’s a scene familiar from so many dark 19th century period dramas: a dashing surgeon performs a grisly yet pioneering operation before an astonished audience of scientific minds and gasping women. QUACKS, a new historical sitcom starring Rory Kinnear and written by James Wood of Rev renown, takes that scene and runs with it.


It’s broader and sillier than the understated Rev, but similarly witty. Wood has fun mocking the violence, ugliness, prejudice, propriety and repression of Victorian society, but never in a sneering way. The tone is rather jolly.

It also looks like an actual BBC period drama, albeit one in which a surgeon accidentally amputates a patient’s testicles and an arrogant doctor refuses to examine anyone.

It’s the best new British comedy of the year so far.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

TV Review: TRUST ME + PAUL O'GRADY'S HOLLYWOOD

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 August 2017.


TRUST ME: Tuesday, BBC One

PAUL O’GRADY’S HOLLYWOOD: Saturday, Channel 4


Jodie Whittaker, in case you haven’t heard, was recently announced as the first female Doctor in Doctor Who. This news passed without much fanfare or reaction, so don’t be concerned if you missed it.

In the new medical drama/psychological thriller TRUST ME, she plays a disgruntled NHS nurse who fakes her qualifications and poses as… a doctor. Nobody involved in this production, perhaps not even Whittaker herself, could’ve foreseen how jarring it is whenever she or anyone else refers to her job title in the show.

However, they might be pleased by the extra attention Trust Me will receive from millions of Doctor Who fans keen to see Whittaker in action before this year’s Christmas special. How does she move and talk? Will we pick up any hints of how she might play the Doctor?

The added interest is understandable, but of course we won’t.  She’s an actress, a perfectly good one, playing an entirely different role. In Trust Me she’s an ordinary human woman, albeit one who does an extraordinary thing.

And that’s the problem with this curious drama – the course she takes is so morally wrong and potentially catastrophic, it’s hard to believe that a diligent, decent nurse would ever do such a thing.


Writer Dan Sefton, who’s a qualified doctor, struggled to give her enough plausible motivation. She complains to her trust about gross negligence of patients on her ward. They don’t want to know, so they suspend her.

She’s understandably upset by this injustice, but would that really trigger the action she takes? She claims she’s doing it to build a better life for her daughter, but surely she must know that the girl will be better off without her mother in prison?

It’s not enough to say: people do crazy things in times of dire need. We need to believe in those crazy things. That’s why the intended suspense of whether she’ll be found out (and she will be) doesn’t work.

Whittaker is fine in this perplexing role, but the material is too unfocused to do her justice. I hope the Doctor Who team giver her something more substantial to work with.

Ever since cinema began, one of its primary goals has been to make audiences cry. That’s because people enjoy sobbing at sad, sentimental stories. It’s cathartic. 

In episode one of PAUL O’GRADY’S HOLLYWOOD, our jovially sardonic host – sitting, as per the rules of programmes about classic films, in an empty old-fashioned cinema – guided as through some of the greatest weepies ever made.


This being Saturday night on Channel 4, the tired and tested clip show format was out in force. That is: a torrent of brief film clips interrupted by famous talking heads telling us what they think.

In fairness, it did include some decent insight from film critics Richard Dyer and Jonathan Ross, psychologist Philippa Perry, and Celia Johnson’s daughter talking about her mother’s involvement in Brief Encounter. Jon Voight and Bernard Cribbins were also welcome as they actually starred in the films they were talking about (The Champ and The Railway Children respectively).

But has anyone of sound mind been seriously champing at the bit to hear Myleene Klass’ thoughts on Marley and Me? Or Richard E. Grant on Brief Encounter? Or some actress from Hollyoaks on anything?


Who are these programmes aimed at? Masochistic cineastes?