Saturday, 18 March 2017

TV Review: SMILE! THE NATION'S FAMILY ALBUM + MEET THE LORDS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 18 March 2017.


SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM: Thursday, BBC Four

MEET THE LORDS: Monday, BBC Two


In People Take Pictures of Each Other, the closing track from The Kinks’ classic Village Green Preservation Society album, Ray Davies strikes a typically ambiguous pose on the subject of sentimental family snapshots.

People take pictures of the summer/Just in case someone thought they had missed it/Just to prove that they really existed.”

The makers of SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM missed a trick by neglecting to include Davies’ elegy on the soundtrack, as it neatly encapsulates the bittersweet theme of this warm, poignant documentary.

An engaging piece of social history viewed through the lens of ordinary British families, it examined our deep emotional need – our anxious desperation, some might argue – to freeze treasured memories in time. From cradle to grave, we document our lives as a way of creating narratives which, while not necessarily false as such, tend to favour happier moments.


Contributors included a couple who’ve amassed 20,000 images of their lives together over the last fifty years, plus a proud father who snapped a portrait of his son every day from the moment he was born until his 21st birthday. Having attracted 6.5 million views on YouTube, they’ve vowed to continue their obsessive project by each taking a daily selfie for the rest of their lives.

Despite its celebratory surface, the programme couldn’t disguise the nagging undercurrent of sadness one sometimes gets from revisiting more innocent, carefree times. That Proustian rush of nostalgia is a double-edged sword.

There’s something uniquely evocative about the sunshine captured in faded Polaroid snapshots, especially when it beams upon loved ones who’ve since passed away. These images trigger powerful memories, which often help families to deal with personal loss.


My only issue with this otherwise charming programme was its unquestioningly positive assessment of our modern digital age, in which amateur photographers seemingly never stop sharing fragments of their lives online.

While the immediacy of smartphone technology has its benefits, it stops people from living in the moment – put down your phones and absorb your surroundings! - while encouraging tedious narcissists to wallow in the mistaken belief that every detail of their existence is profoundly interesting.

What’s the point of a life defined, not by experience and memory, but by the number of ‘likes’ it received on Instagram and FaceBook?

As Davies’ warbled presciently in 1968: “Don’t show me no more, please…”

The final episode of MEET THE LORDS, an observational documentary offering unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to our hallowed gravy train of unelected peers, reminded me that Black Rod has the sweetest gig in Westminster.


He’s only really called into service – and I use that term loosely – during the state opening of Parliament. So what does this liquorice-legged layabout do for the rest of the year?

If the aim of this series was to cement the dispiriting image of Britain as an absurd nation governed by privileged clowns in liveried robes – they look like desiccated Time Lords - then it was an unqualified success. 

The failure of the House to reform itself from within was laughably exposed when the outgoing Lord Speaker abandoned her investigation into outrageous expenses claims, as she felt her findings would cause an embarrassing scandal. This is a woman who, during her five years in office, spent £4,000 of taxpayers’ money on flowers for her office.

Strange, isn’t it, that these inveterate scroungers – Britain’s worst by far – are never held to account in the benefits-bashing pages of The Daily Mail?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

TV Review: MUTINY + HOW'D YOU GET SO RICH?

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11 March 2017.


MUTINY: Monday, Channel 4

HOW’D YOU GET SO RICH?: Monday, Channel 4


If Top Gear has taught us anything – and I hope for all our sakes it hasn’t - it’s that a certain type of man enjoys nothing more than indulging in utterly pointless masculine endeavours. MUTINY, a seasick documentary series in which nine ordinary blokes follow in the oar-strokes of Captain Bligh, is further proof of that.

The mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789 is one of the most notorious incidents in British maritime history. Together with a small band of loyal sailors, Bligh was abandoned in a tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific, but miraculously managed to survive a treacherous 4,000 mile voyage to safety.

238 years later, because Channel 4 have some airtime to fill, a group of strangers climbed aboard a purpose-built replica of Bligh’s escape vessel to mimic his epic ordeal.

Their combined skills include carpentry, medicine and dire banter. I’m no historian, but I daresay that when Bligh’s starving crew defecated over the side of his boat, their indignity wasn’t accompanied by hoots of laughter.

Should you wish to join in with this adventure at home, then drink a cup of salt water every time the words “mate”, “lads” and “boys” are uttered. You’ll be dangerously dehydrated and delirious within minutes.

Their leader is bearded Action Man/sober Captain Haddock Ant Middleton, a burly ex-soldier who could eat Bear Grylls for breakfast. Ant never feels more alive than when he’s scaling a volcano for six hours in search of coconuts, while urgently documenting his alpha-maleness down a camera lens.


Programmes such as this would be nothing without conflict, hence the involvement of crewmember Chris, a rebellious Liverpudlian who doesn’t take kindly to orders. He spent the first few days behaving like a petulant, foolhardy child, then complained when his captain and teammates treated him accordingly.

His ultimate ambition is to sail the world solo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mutiny ends with him stealing the boat and doing just that. 

Chris would be a nightmare to deal with while filming an ostensibly dramatic documentary about the indomitable spirit of human endurance. That’s why I have grudging respect for him. He makes a mockery of the whole thing, which, for all his immaturity, seems entirely reasonable.

I really don’t give two hoots about this futile exercise in false peril and macho camaraderie. Shiver me timbers, it’s dull.

In HOW’D YOU GET SO RICH?, comedian Katherine Ryan gently poked the underbelly of four disparate millionaires.

The nice couple who founded Poundland were disappointingly normal and content – the notion that money actually does buy you happiness is the last thing most of us want to hear – but Ryan’s surface of detached irony couldn’t disguise her conflicted sympathy for one Danny Lambo, a self-described playboy leading a sad, lonely, aimless existence.


The next time you gaze despondently at your bank balance, spare a thought for Lambo – short for Lamborghini - who derives scant pleasure from judging vanity-funded beauty contests and filming inept music videos. When he inevitably makes a film about his life, he’ll probably cast himself. Matt Berry would be a better fit.

Ryan’s Hollywood encounter with a cosmetically-preserved septuagenarian plastic surgeon seemed to suggest that money can buy eternal youth. So why does Donald Trump look like a heaving colostomy bag?

Just one of many questions Ryan failed to address in this glib, if tacitly judgemental, holiday in other people’s immense wealth.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

TV Review: THE REPLACEMENT + BROADCHURCH + PRIME SUSPECT 1973

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4 March 2017.


THE REPLACEMENT: Tuesday, BBC One

BROADCHURCH: Monday, STV

PRIME SUSPECT 1973: Thursday, STV


Never trust overbearingly friendly, helpful people. That’s the important public service message behind THE REPLACEMENT, an uncomfortably gripping psychological thriller about a successful Glasgow architect gradually being usurped by the mentally unstable woman hired to cover her maternity leave.

When Ellen (Morven Christie) becomes pregnant, she initially welcomes the ultra-capable and seemingly empathetic Paula (Vicky McClure) to the fold. Paula is a doting mother, or so she claims, but her interest in Ellen’s pregnancy is acutely inappropriate. She tries to not-so-subtly undermine her colleague with physically invasive behaviour and passive-aggressive advice.

Ellen gradually develops a dislike for her. She becomes suspicious of her motives. But is she merely in the grip of hormone-addled paranoia? Of course not. We’ve all seen Rosemary’s Baby.

Aside from a climactic death scene – which naturally sends Ellen into labour - writer/director Joe Ahearne avoids overt thriller flourishes in favour of a more insidious approach. It’s very effective.

Christie and McClure are both excellent, the latter in particular. She succeeds in portraying Paula’s manipulative clamour while appearing outwardly pleasant and self-effacing. A plausible monster.

The end, at last, is in sight for BROADCHURCH, the Cluedo-like whodunit that squandered the buzz of its first impressive, attention-grabbing series. Can this third and final outing atone for the redundant mess of series two?


Well, this new case involving a traumatised victim of sexual assault is sensitively handled and more or less divorced from the original storyline. So far at least, it’s a respectable piece of drama, seemingly based on careful research into rape crisis management. Well I never.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but I hope it proves that writer Chris Chibnall – the journeyman tasked with ruling Doctor Who after the great Steven Moffat retires at Christmas – isn’t merely a hack who once caught lightning in a bottle.

Flushed with the success of Endeavour, ITV have taken the cynical – sorry, natural – step of producing a prequel to another one of their much-loved crime dramas.

Awash with rain and wistful recordings by Joe Cocker and Cat Stevens, PRIME SUSPECT 1973 charts the nascent career of Jane Tennison, originally played by Helen Mirren, as a young police constable entering a world mired in violence and murder.


Blandly earnest, she's nowhere near as interesting as the older Tennison, which is possibly why her creator Lynda La Plante left the project during pre-production. Even allowing for her youth, there's nothing to suggest that she's the same character. Why, it's almost as if ITV didn't have the nerve to launch a '70s-set cop show without tying it to the safety net of an established "brand".

However, it does a decent job of capturing the brown-upholstered fog of early 1970s Britain, without too much reliance on the self-conscious period signifiers common to other dramas of its type. There’s not a single spacehopper to be found.

While the twin discomforts of institutionalised sexism and police brutality are both present and politically incorrect, they don’t feel overcooked. Writer Glen Laker has a fairly convincing feel for the period.

Indeed, the sombre approach of the original Prime Suspect is successfully carried over into this surprisingly diverting piece of anti-nostalgia. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

TV Review: SS-GB + INSIDE NO. 9

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 25 February 2017.


SS-GB: Sunday, BBC One

INSIDE NO. 9: Tuesday, BBC Two


In the twisted annals of alternative history, one theoretical question dominates: what if the Nazis had won World War II?

This nightmare scenario has inspired such notable works of counterfactual fiction as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and that episode of Star Trek with Joan Collins.

It also forms the basis of SS-GB, a 1978 novel by Len Deighton. Set in a parallel 1941, after Germany won the Battle of Britain, it depicts occupied London as a forbidding maze of summary executions and a growing Resistance movement. Scotland Yard still exists, albeit as an adjunct to the SS.

So far, so intriguing. Unfortunately, SS-GB squanders the potential of its ‘what-if?’ scenario by focusing on a conventional murder mystery. Alternative history thrives on plausibly imaginative details, but aside from the impressive spectacle of a bomb-torn Buckingham Palace, episode one didn’t depict this world in a particularly rich or compelling way.

While strong on smoky atmosphere, the narrative burned far too slowly.


Deighton’s novel has been dragged to the screen by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the writers behind every Bond film starring Daniel Craig. If, like me, you regard those films as moderately entertaining at best, then your expectations for SS-GB will have been lowered accordingly. Even so, I expected more.

The only truly interesting facet so far is our intriguingly compromised hero, DS Douglas Archer (Sam Riley), a lawman who’s earned the trust of his Nazi overlords while secretly praying for their eventual destruction.

Despite Riley’s youthful appearance, he seems older than his years, thanks largely to his raspy channelling of the late John Hurt (possibly as a nod to Hurt’s performance in 1984). 

Affecting the distinctive brogue of another actor could’ve backfired embarrassingly, but Riley’s charismatic, committed performance transcends mere plagiarism. He makes the most of his ambiguous role.


Authors have always returned to the concept of an Axis victory because it could so easily have happened. It’s a frighteningly plausible piece of skewed reality. Fascism remains a threat to this day – just look at the White House. By rights, SS-GB should tap into those fears in a powerful, queasy way.

Instead, it merely dresses them up in lugubriously stylised noir-ish threads: Peaky Blinders meets ‘Allo ‘Allo with a riding crop up its rectum.

It didn’t stir into action until the third-act arrival of a clich├ęd yet arrestingly unpleasant SS officer with whom Archer must form an uneasy alliance. But even the threat of a bomb at Archer’s son’s school couldn’t quicken the pulse of this thin, murky, wasted opportunity. 

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith packed more tension into 30 minutes of INSIDE NO. 9 than SS-GB managed in an hour.

When four men arguing over a restaurant bill feels more high-stakes than a Nazi occupation of Britain, you know you’re in the presence of ingenious writers.


Every episode of their justly celebrated anthology series is different, but the latest was typical in the way it continually subverted expectations, even when you thought the final twist had already been revealed.

However, on this occasion I wish they actually had settled on the cunning revelation that the whole argument was an elaborate scam at the expense of wealthy businessman Philip Glenister. The final twist – having rumbled their plot, Glenister becomes their accomplice – was too sudden and felt unnecessary.  

Still, this otherwise entertaining episode proved once again that Pemberton and Shearsmith operate within the highest echelons of television writing. 

No one else manages to combine character-driven black comedy and tightly-woven drama with as much finesse; I hope they’re given carte blanche to create this magnificent series for as long as their fiendish brains will allow.

Monday, 20 February 2017

TV Review: TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK + ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME

This article was first published in The Dundee Courier on 18 February 2017.


TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK: Saturday, BBC Two

ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME: Tuesday, BBC Two


Human beings are frighteningly vulnerable. Even the sharpest minds among us can be assaulted without warning by the cruel lottery of fate. Two programmes last week shone defiant glimmers of hope into mortality’s glowering visage.

They focused on robust and somewhat eccentric characters who dealt with serious illness – one fatal, the other life-threatening – with humour, pragmatism and a healthy lack of sentiment.

The phenomenally successful fantasy author Terry Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s in 2015. He’d lived with the degenerative disease for eight years, during which he continued to write until he was no longer able.

His final project was a memoir recorded with the assistance of his PA. Pratchett never lived long enough to complete it.

Enter TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK, a charming tribute which sought to tell the story of his life in fittingly irreverent fashion.

Wearing the guise of a mischievous narrator, actor Paul Kaye, aka the prankster formerly known as Dennis Pennis, rescued the Discworld creator from the philosophical clutches of Death (coincidentally the most popular character from Pratchett’s novels).

Armed with trademark wizard’s beard, black fedora and nasal rhoticism – the result of a childhood accident which, in Pratchett’s words, left him sounding like “David Bellamy with his hand caught in an electric fire” – Kaye’s affectionate impersonation would, one presumes, have delighted the man who inspired it.


He led us through a prolific life and cynical/compassionate worldview forged by a childhood in which Pratchett was told he’d never amount to anything, hence why his distinctive form of satire was driven by an angry intolerance of hypocrisy, snobbery and injustice. An indelible streak of “I told you so” remained with him until the end.

But if Pratchett could be cantankerous, an essential sense of decency was his abiding characteristic. He never lost his amused yet sincere fascination with the human condition, even when he was eventually felled by the kind of unjust act of fate he always railed against.    

Andrew Marr is a kindred spirit. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, the respected political journalist refused to kowtow to self-pity – which he describes as “the most nauseating human quality of all” – in a way Pratchett would’ve appreciated.

Despite clinging to the celebrity-fronted “personal journey” blueprint so beloved of modern television, ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME was, thanks to the wryly no-nonsense nature of its star, refreshingly free of stage-managed catharsis. Marr’s journalistic eye ensured that he never became the whole story. 


 Through the prism of his own experience, he examined the available recovery options and various neurological effects of the biggest cause of disability in Britain (the inclusion of a post-stroke Marr interviewing former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t accidental).

“I’m nothing special,” he insisted, as he met stroke survivors who made him look relatively lucky.

Marr believes two years of excessive work caused his stroke, but he appears to be working as prolifically as ever. Slowing down just isn’t an option for this intensely driven broadcaster, who cites painting as one his few sources of solace. In one revealing moment, he expressed regret that he never attended art school. A fear of failure sent him on a different course.

Yet despite his candour, Marr’s Celtic stoicism remained admirably intact.

“I know the BBC has a special contract where I have to burst into tears at one point,” he smiled, “but I can’t do it. I come from Dundee.”

Saturday, 11 February 2017

TV Review: THE MOORSIDE + ROOTS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11 February 2017.


THE MOORSIDE: Tuesday, BBC One

ROOTS: Wednesday, BBC Four


When nine-year-old Shannon Matthews went missing in 2008, the media descended upon her Yorkshire council estate.

Her mother, Karen Matthews, wasn’t as conveniently middle-class as the parents of Madelaine McCann, but the nation donated its sympathies anyway. We’re magnanimous like that.

As we now know, Karen abducted her own daughter in cahoots with a male relative. Inspired by the financial rewards surrounding the discovery of Maddie, they hid terrified Shannon with the intention of eventually ‘finding’ her and enjoying their payday.

When the truth was revealed, the usual suspects had a field day. An unmarried, uneducated working-class mother on benefits who exploited her own child for media attention and scrounging remuneration? Typical!

Well no. Obviously. This was hardly a typical case, as THE MOORSIDE made clear.


 Produced by the team behind acclaimed factual dramas about the likes of Fred West and Myra Hindley, this sensitive – if occasionally didactic – drama seized upon this story to critique our dismally polarised society.

It focused on the compassionate grass-roots search for Shannon organised by neighbour Julie Bushby (Sheridan Smith), a fellow single mother who sympathised with the trauma that Karen was supposedly going through.

It’s the story of a so-called underclass fighting for its right to be respected as a close-knit community who, abandoned and demonised by the media and ruling elite, sought to prove themselves as dignified human beings.

Their betrayal by Karen Matthews – who made fools of them all – may have proved a point to morons who’ve never expressed a nuanced thought in their lives, but The Moorside illustrates how basic human decency, however misplaced, is more important than knee-jerk generalisations.


Karen’s actions were unforgivably cruel, and The Moorside doesn’t try to excuse them. But it also portrays her as a pitiful person whose weakness wasn’t formed in a vacuum.

Smith is typically excellent, but Gemma Whelan as Karen is quite outstanding. Yes, she occasionally mugs too comically when caught in the glare of her deceit, but her performance is gut-wrenching in episode two.

I hope Katie Hopkins is forced to watch it endlessly, Clockwork Orange-style.

Based on author Alex Haley’s semi-fictionalised account of his family history, the classic 1977 miniseries ROOTS played a landmark role in confronting a mass audience with the horrors of slavery.


 It remains one of the key texts in the teaching of African-American history and western civilisation’s shameful legacy of racist tyranny. You only have to look at Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants to appreciate its ongoing relevance.  

Which is why, for once, a remake doesn’t feel redundant. Like the oral histories upon which it was based, Haley’s epic saga demands to be retold.

It’s reasonable to assume that many, if not most, younger viewers will be unfamiliar with the ‘70s original, so this new adaptation will be their introduction to the dramatic story of defiant Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte and his descendants.     

It isn’t a remake so much as a retelling mounted with modern production values.


While faithful to the source material, it sometimes deviates to significant effect. It’s more explicitly violent in ways I’m sure the original – which was hardly a walk in the park - would’ve depicted had such visceral imagery been permitted on ‘70s television.

Bolstered by impressive performances from English actor Malachi Kirby as Kunta, Scotland’s own Tony Curran as a sadistic plantation overseer, and the estimable Forest Whitaker as an unsentimentally drawn yet pathos-riddled ‘court jester’, this well-made adaptation is powerful, moving and unflinching.      

Monday, 6 February 2017

TV Review: FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE + TRACEY ULLMAN'S SHOW

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4 February 2017.

https://www.thecourier.co.uk/category/lifestyle/entertainment/tv-film/

FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE: Saturday, BBC Two

TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW: Friday, BBC One
  

The late artist Francis Bacon has always struck me as the sort of boozy raconteur who’d be entertaining company until one drink over his tolerance level transformed him into the kind of monstrous bore for whom swift exits were built.

That’s raging alcoholics for you, especially those possessed of talent, brains and an infinite capacity for self-loathing.

While the stark documentary FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE did little to disabuse me of this view, it did succeed in humanising a man whose riotous legend was at odds with the lost soul who flailed in its shadow.

Although I’m sometimes guilty of it myself, I’m suspicious of our tendency to lionise unhappy geniuses. I’d rather they found peace during their lifetime than suffer the indignity of antiseptic experts pontificating over their tragic legacy. But Bacon wouldn’t have painted his masterpieces without that tortured drive. A chicken, egg and Bacon sandwich.


 As with most introspective artists, it’s impossible to judge their work without examining their private lives. Bacon enjoyed publicity, hence the smattering of archive interviews included here. I would’ve preferred to watch those interviews in full than listen to talking heads pontificate on his behalf.

Bacon’s extraordinary paintings were shocking, spiteful, furious, horrific. They possessed a visceral ugliness which, depending on one’s taste for the morbid, could seem rather beautiful in a certain sensitive light.

I’ve seen Ricky Gervais’ Derek, so I know what it’s like to gaze into the abyss. Bacon’s work is but a light aperitif.


A homosexual whose work screamed against the abusive tyranny of his upbringing and dysfunctional adult relationships, Bacon’s propensity for masochism and black humour was hardly surprising.  

This lonely demon-bohemian with the puffy cherub face and Tony Curtis quiff would, I hope, have chuckled at this grubby canvas of essay-quoting critics and old friends, now greying eccentrics, who somehow survived all that after-hours drinking and existential jousting.

A final joke before closing time.

Tracey Ullman is a talented show-off whose undoubted artistry and intelligence ceases to be entertaining when allowed to roam unfettered.

Her old US sketch show – which famously begat The Simpsons – was proof of her tendency towards overbearing self-indulgence, and the first series of TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW, her UK comeback vehicle for the BBC, confirmed it.


A frustrating talent, she’s always seemed tantalisingly capable of creating great work. A handful of sketches in series one did at least suggest a depth of ambition beyond the usual confines of mainstream British comedy, even when they fell short of their potential.

Every spotty sketch show deserves a second chance, especially one starring a comedian capable of uncanny impressions of Judi Dench and Clare Balding, but it’s still nothing more than a generic compendium of, at best, mildly amusing spoofs.

These are the jokes, folks. Dench exploits her status as a beloved national treasure to cause mayhem (quite funny the first time; tiresome when repeated ad nauseam). Balding is manically ubiquitous. Nicola Sturgeon is a Bond-style supervillain. And so on. It’s terribly weak, strained sauce.

I quite liked Angela Merkel’s tearfully melodramatic musical number about being ostracised by her old EU chums, but finding anything to enjoy in this show is like clutching at straws.