Monday, 19 June 2017

TV Review: POLDARK + FEARLESS + THE LOCH

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 June 2017.


POLDARK: Sunday, BBC One

FEARLESS: Monday, STV

THE LOCH: Sunday, STV


Were it not for POLDARK, Britain would be lost without its desperate fix of brow-clenched, bosom-heaving, stubble-jutting 18th century stoics galloping urgently atop rugged coastlines.

Occasional viewers of this, if you will, handsomely mounted melodrama needn’t worry about picking up the storyline, as nothing ever changes in Poldark’s world of tricorn brouhaha.

Ross broods, Demelza frets, Warleggan smirks. Rinse and repeat. Watching Poldark is like leafing through a yellowed Georgian volume of relationship advice columns; mildly diverting, but of no lasting interest.

It might sound odd to describe a drama steeped in death and betrayal as comfort viewing incarnate, but that’s precisely what it is. A slick cake of antique soap. Howard’s Way in mud-caked britches. Take a Break by candlelight.

Which is fine, up to a point. God knows we all need some escapism in this sense-forsaken cesspit of a world (Corbyn should’ve campaigned on that slogan). But this adaptation of the Poldark saga, for all its solidly professional drive, lacks the heightened dynamism of truly great escapist entertainment.


I used to quite admire its knowing sense of straight-faced camp, but even that seems to have dissipated. Without that saving grace, that enemy of blandness, Poldark is little more than a slightly above average Sunday evening time-passer.

Still, Mammoth Screen, the prolific production company behind Poldark, deserve their reputation as fine purveyors of prestigious period dramas. Parade’s End, Victoria, Endeavour and their macabre Agatha Christie adaptations all testify to that.

However, their newest venture is an atypically contemporary thriller steeped in millennial anxiety; catnip for fans of jittery camera-work, steel-blue lens filters and clandestine meetings in multi-storey car parks, but unfamiliar territory for this team.

Has their detour paid off? Well, you certainly can’t fault FEARLESS for scrimping on Big Topical Issues. Starring Helen McCrory as Emma Banville, a successful human rights lawyer famed for taking on particularly difficult cases, it takes in state surveillance, police corruption, tabloid hysteria and Syrian refugees. Bingo!


Chain-smoking Banville’s latest client is a convicted paedophile and murderer who claims his confession was coerced. She believes him, but the case is hardly cut and dry. 

Her reputation as a maverick liberal trouble-maker is an inconvenient barrier to exposing powerful establishment cover-ups, plus she’s haunted by some unspecified childhood trauma, as protagonists in dramas of this nature tend to be.

For Emma Banville, this will be The Toughest Case Of Her Life.

For all its heavy-handed dialogue, clichéd beats and ropey performances – Sam Swainsbury as the possibly innocent man and comedian John Bishop as Banville’s husband are glaringly poor – Fearless gets by so far on the intrigue of its central mystery plus strong work from McCrory. But the jury’s still out on Mammoth’s shaky foray into 21st century turmoil.

Curling! Murder! Christian fundamentalism! The aged jowls of John Sessions and Callum Gilhooley! 

You won’t find a more accurate or sobering portrayal of post-Brexit, post-Nessie Scotland than THE LOCH, a fairly enjoyable formulaic crime drama which, unlike Fearless, doesn’t take itself too seriously. 


The recent triumphant return of Twin Peaks reminds me that David Lynch basically invented the oft-copied template of dark, offbeat TV thrillers based in hauntingly beautiful, remote communities.

While The Loch is no Twin Peaks – needless to say, no one involved in this shameless Broadchurch and Happy Valley rip-off is a visionary genius - if only for its wry blend of forensic gore and pretty pictures, it’s a welcome Sunday rival for mouldy old Poldark.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

TV Review: ACKLEY BRIDGE + THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 June 2017.


ACKLEY BRIDGE: Wednesday, Channel 4

THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD: Friday, BBC Four


If, by the time you read this, the Conservatives are still in power, cheer yourself up by picturing a typical Daily Mail reader being appalled by ACKLEY BRIDGE. You have to seek small comforts wherever you can find them.

This new pre-watershed comedy-drama from Channel 4 depicts the merging of two hitherto segregated comprehensive schools in a Yorkshire mill town. An uneasy marriage of white and Asian communities ensues, although the mild tension between the two factions is based more on mutual unfamiliarity than actual prejudice.

Kids are used to multiculturalism, it doesn’t bother them, but they do love their established cliques.

The sympathetic, irreverent tone was set by an opening scene in which two teenage girls, one white, one Asian, drank cider and quoted Einstein while sat on a sofa discarded in a skip. These kids are mouthy yet bright and for the most part likeable. Their teachers are young and progressive, but with problems of their own. 

Ackley Bridge has more in common with the modern academy from Channel 4's own heart-warming and tacitly political documentary hit Educating Yorkshire than the bland melodrama of Waterloo Road.

So far the dominant storyline involves those aforementioned girls, best friends since childhood, suddenly finding themselves caught between groups from different cultural backgrounds. The white girl struggles with her drug-addicted mother, while her friend attempts to placate the judgemental gossip of her female Muslim peers.

No one is presented as a villain. It feels like an honest exploration of contemporary playground drama.

The white lad who espouses dubious UKIP doggerel is portrayed as eloquent yet confused. An aggressive cameo from his father suggested that this ambiguous lad is a disenfranchised victim of prejudice he’s picked up at home – prejudice he doesn’t fully understand.


Given its state-of-the-nation themes, Ackley Bridge could all too easily descend into well-meaning earnestness. Thankfully, it’s rescued by an astutely balanced lightness of touch which doesn’t undermine its essential sincerity.

Early days, of course, but I feel cautiously optimistic that Channel 4 have produced a thoughtful, accessible mainstream drama that should appeal to its potentially core audience of open-minded teenagers and adults.

If, into the bargain, it upsets the most awful people in the country, that can only be a good thing.

Conservatives still haven’t forgiven the ‘60s counterculture for impregnating western society with its filthy Marxist Commie creed of peace, love and equality.

That original hippie protest movement fomented a vigorous mistrust of powerful elites and a growing awareness of environmental issues. It encouraged people to question the motives of politicians, the police and the media, to expand their horizons and support social change.

They may have failed to overthrow capitalism and put an end to war, but those stoned idealists triggered a cultural revolution of incalculable influence on subsequent generations. Not bad for a bunch of flower-munching longhairs.

In the excellent two-part documentary THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD, an eloquent throng of ageing American radicals reflected on the Age of Aquarius with a candid mixture of nostalgia and regret.


They reminded us that, despite its egalitarian optimism, hippie ideology was underpinned with anger and anarchy. Critics dismissed them as naïve dreamers, but these tie-dyed kids were deadly serious.

Their heady stew of radical politics, rock music, eastern philosophy, organic living and hallucinogens did, for one brief, exciting moment, feel like the gateway to a better tomorrow.

It couldn’t last, of course, at least not in the form of a mass movement. Drug problems, internal hypocrisy, commercialisation and brutal government crackdowns quickly saw to that.

Yet as long as freedom of expression and alternative viewpoints are permitted in the mainstream, their legacy endures.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

TV Review: BROKEN + THE HANDMAID'S TALE

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 June 2017.


BROKEN: Tuesday, BBC One

THE HANDMAID’S TALE: Sunday, Channel 4


The mere idea of rugged Sean Bean playing a troubled Catholic priest in a grey northern town sounds like a parody of Jimmy McGovern’s morally righteous social realist oeuvre.

Add Anna Friel – who, like Bean, has worked with McGovern before - as a working-class single mum struggling to support three children, and you’d be forgiven – nay, absolved – for assuming that his latest drama, BROKEN, is a perfunctory self-tribute to the man who brought us the peerless likes of Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street.

Well, you’d be wrong. And yes, I’m aware you’re being corrected for making an assumption I’ve just conjured on your behalf, but no one ever said life was fair. If McGovern has taught us anything, it’s that.

This poetic series is the raw, compassionate, heart-wrenching apotheosis of everything one of our greatest - and angriest - dramatists has been wrestling with on television over the last 30 years.

Bean plays Michael, a tireless Good Samaritan whose private demons and loneliness mirror the solitary anguish of the locals who turn to him in times of dire need. We’re all broken in one way or another, but we rarely have the courage to admit it. Softly-spoken Father Michael is there to listen and advise without judgement.


A damaged hero for our Godforsaken times, Michael acts as an emblem of much-needed kindness in an increasingly selfish, heartless society; he’s basically everything Gervais tried and spectacularly failed to achieve with Derek.

Michael may be a somewhat idealised figure, but he’s rendered utterly convincing by McGovern’s nuanced writing and Bean’s tender, understated performance.

Friel also excels as a woman so desperate for money to feed her family, she makes the terrible mistake of leaving her mother lying dead in bed for three days in order to collect her pension.

McGovern has a seemingly never-ending capacity for wringing tension and pathos from his stock conceit of forcing desperate characters into ill-advised courses of action. They’re tragic victims of circumstance, and always depicted as three-dimensional beings.


The trials of Father Michael and his flock allow the lapsed-Catholic writer to explore his recurring themes of guilt and atonement, but they also provide a vehicle for an attack on the injustice of poverty and the failure of every Tory government to protect the most vulnerable members of society. The real broken Britain.

Though often accused of didacticism – usually by ghouls who lack his humanity - McGovern always anchors his polemic in rich, riveting character drama leavened by dry humour.

On the eve of a pivotal General Election, a politically-charged McGovern psalm espousing decency and tolerance is exactly what we need.

Still, if you think the Dystopian present is frightening, it’s, well, it’s only slightly less nightmarish than our old friend the Dystopian future.

A serialised adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood, THE HANDMAID’S TALE envisions a near-future in which a totalitarian Christian government rules the United States with a puritanical fist.


Catastrophic environmental contamination has forced the few remaining fertile women into the sexual servitude of the ruling elite (represented here by Joseph Fiennes and his jutting beard).

This bleak premise is given a suitably nervy, suffocating treatment in an intriguing, visually striking drama starring Elisabeth Moss (aka Peggy from Mad Men) as a subjugated handmaid whose inner monologue reveals an undimmed spirit.

It’s a slow-burning, but potentially rewarding, commendably depressing and timely assault on misogyny, fascism and religious fundamentalism.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine Donald Trump sexually harassing a woman forever.

Monday, 22 May 2017

TV Review: THREE GIRLS + A TIME TO LIVE + KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 20 May 2017.


THREE GIRLS: Tuesday to Thursday, BBC One

A TIME TO LIVE: Wednesday, BBC Two

KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER: Thursday, BBC One
  

Unflinching, furious, despairing, THREE GIRLS told the horrifying true story of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring. 

Over several years, a group of men, most of them British Pakistanis, groomed and raped vulnerable working-class schoolgirls. The local police failed to thoroughly investigate their crimes, allegedly due to fears of appearing racist.

This outstanding drama, shown over three consecutive nights, was a damning indictment of a systematic failure to protect abused children.

Based on extensive research, interviews and public accounts, it focused on three of the victims – their names changed for obvious reasons – as well as the whistleblowing NHS sexual health worker (Maxine Peake) and the sympathetic senior police officer (Lesley Sharp) who treated them with the respect they deserved.

Their ordeal didn’t end with the abuse; the trauma continued when they struggled to defend themselves in court.

Their abusers exploited the fact that working-class kids with chaotic lives tend to be ignored and mistrusted by the authorities. As Peake’s character angrily observed, these girls were repeatedly “raped, beaten, not believed.”

She embodied the sense of righteous compassion which coursed through writer Nicole Taylor’s sensitive screenplay. Her sterling work was bolstered by a superb cast, including three extraordinary young actresses who never appeared to be acting at all. The raw power of Three Girls was largely drawn from their entirely natural performances.


Peake and Sharp were typically great – their belief in this material was palpable – but special mention must go to Paul Kaye as the father of one of the victims. His quietly devastating performance proved just how far he’s come since his Dennis Pennis days.

Inevitably, this scandal played into the hands of Britain’s thriving bigot community. Taylor tackled that unfortunate side-effect while reminding us that the crown prosecutor who brought the case to trial was a British Pakistani.

The BBC should be applauded for devoting three hours of primetime to such uncomfortable territory. 

It’s a drama to be spoken of in the same vital breath as Cathy Come Home.

How would you cope if you were given a terminal diagnosis? Would you rail against the cruel injustice of it all, or would you choose to make the most of the limited time you had left?

These difficult questions formed the basis of A TIME TO LIVE, the latest film from one of TV’s finest documentarians, Sue Bourne.


 If you’re familiar with Bourne’s work - and you should be – then you’ll appreciate her talent for gently coaxing candid, eloquent testimonies from particularly vulnerable people. No one is ever exploited in a Bourne documentary, she earns their trust without manipulation.

This tender essay was characteristically honest and moving.

Being of sound, if jaded, mind, I assumed that EastEnders spin-off KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER would be even less appetising than the dreary soap it sprang from.


Well, imagine my vaguely pleasant surprise when it turned out to be a stylish, intriguing drama wreathed in shades of Nordic Noir (the Danish director numbers Borgen among his credits).

We’re definitely not in Albert Square any more.

Written by Matthew Graham of Life on Mars repute (we won't mention Bonekickers), it follows the Moons as they relocate to a conspicuously lyrical Irish coastal village in pursuit of Kat’s long-lost son. A somewhat unsettling, edgy aura dominates; Ballykissangel with a hint of Royston Vasey.

It’s unexpectedly entertaining, and works because familiarity with EastEnders isn’t necessary. Despite the Moon connection, it exists in a different universe.

Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie are such likeable performers, they were always too good for EastEnders. This is the vehicle they deserve.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

TV Review: BABS + DOCTOR WHO + BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON

BABS: Sunday, BBC One

DOCTOR WHO: Saturday, BBC One

BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON: Friday, BBC Four
  
Why are we supposed to love Barbara Windsor again? She was always a popular member of the Carry On troupe, but at some point during the last 30 years we were suddenly expected to agree that she’s a redoubtable national treasure. Based on what exactly? 

An endearing comic performer in her youth, Windsor’s limitations as a dramatic actress were mercilessly exposed in EastEnders. Even in a soap renowned for its conspicuous lack of Thespian heavyweights, her stiff, shrill performance stood out as particularly poor.

She’s the living definition of a particular kind of British celebrity famed more for being “a survivor” than their actual body of work.

A BBC drama based on her life was inevitable. The only surprising thing about Tony Jordan’s BABS, a corn-stuffed hagiography which fully subscribed to her self-styled myth, was that it’s taken this long to be made.

Jordan is a former head writer on EastEnders and a close friend of Windsor’s. He’s therefore spectacularly ill-suited to the task of writing an honest, unbiased version of her story. Windsor’s involvement in the project – she even made a cameo appearance – confirmed that this was nothing more than a glossy PR exercise.

So here it was, the authorised, boring saga of the little cockney sparra who loved and lost, but made it through the rain. A full house for biopic bingo fans, it was more sentimental than a pie-eyed pearly queen.

Windsor has suffered heartbreak and setbacks. We all have. Her story probably pales in comparison to anything you could offer from your own family history. Fame doesn’t make you automatically fascinating.

Samantha Spiro, an old hand at playing Dame Babs on stage and screen, did her best with the awkwardly theatrical device of flashing back through Windsor’s life via conversations with ghosts from her past, her absent father in particular. Jaime Winstone, as the younger Windsor, didn’t disgrace herself either.

Zoe Wannamaker was far more interesting in her subtly eye-catching supporting role as unorthodox theatre director Joan Littlewood. She made me wish I was watching a biopic about her instead.

The renewed fortunes of DOCTOR WHO continued with yet another fine episode, this one written by award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett of Dr Foster renown and guest-starring David Suchet as a sinister, yet ultimately tragic, landlord.

An effectively creepy “haunted house” yarn involving alien woodlice, an ingeniously realised wood-hewn zombie and – most impressively of all – a supporting cast of generic Young Adults whose deaths I didn’t long for, it confirmed the wisdom of outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat’s return to a more traditional form of storytelling.

Just four weeks in, and already it’s the best, most consistently entertaining series since Matt Smith’s debut.

It doesn’t matter that everyone has probably twigged who’s inside the Doctor’s vault, as the more or less inevitable reveal is clearly less important than the impact it’ll have on the Twelfth Doctor’s imminent demise.

As much as I’ll miss the wonderful Capaldi – and his likeable new companion, Bill, if she is indeed leaving as reported – I can’t wait to see what’s in store over the next eight weeks. Doctor Who has rekindled its mojo.

Do yourself a favour and watch BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON via iPlayer. It’s a particularly charming BBC Four music documentary featuring enthusiastic analysis of this short-lived innovator’s unique approach to rock and roll. It’s why you pay your licence fee.

Face facts, Ed Sheeran, no one will curate a tribute like this about you in 50 years time.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

TV Review: LINE OF DUTY + BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6 May 2017.


LINE OF DUTY: Sunday, BBC One

BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY: Wednesday, BBC Four


Jed Mercurio is a crafty swine. I swear he must write LINE OF DUTY while cackling up his sleeve, like a cruel child who can’t resist incinerating ants with an elaborate rig of magnifying glasses.

The latest series of his incomparably entertaining cop drama climaxed with the blatant suggestion that gruffly lovable police chief Ted Hastings might somehow be involved with the overarching thread of deeply sordid establishment corruption.

Mercurio timed this twist to perfection, as Hastings – played by the excellent Irish actor Adrian Dunbar – has gradually secured his place in the pantheon of much-loved fictional TV sleuths.

A no-nonsense copper in the old-school mould, his paternal decency and dogged determination has transformed him into a kind of wish-fulfilment folk hero. It’s comforting to believe that reliable policemen such as Hastings still exist – if, indeed, they ever did – to protect us from the evil deeds of all-powerful elites.

Hastings curtly undermining a smug suspect by calling them “fella” or gently referring to a young female murder victim as “that wee girl” - he's no more sexist than your affable, well-meaning dad - has become a source of national pride, as well as a fun-for-all-the-family drinking game. What’s not to love about the man?  

Well, this blanket adoration has clearly become too cosy as far as Mercurio is concerned. He’s occasionally dropped hints that Hastings might not be as trustworthy as he seems, but that’s always felt like the kind of red herring misdirection he’s so fond of.


When the dodgy senior police officer – played with a dodgy English accent by Scottish actor Paul Higgins - attempted to frame Hastings in the penultimate episode, we didn’t believe it for a second. He was obviously trying to divert attention from himself. Turns out there may be some truth to his accusation after all.

Despite knowing that two more series have been commissioned, I actually wouldn’t mind if Mercurio left us with the tantalising fear that Hastings was behind everything from the start. That might seem like a cheap trick – it probably is – but it would still work as a sly summation of the show’s cynical, paranoid message. No one can be trusted.

As for the rest of this year’s storyline, it unfolded – somewhat disappointingly – more or less as expected. Roz murdered Tim, but not as part of any grand involvement with Balaclava Man/Men.

The main buzz from Roz’s weary confession came from imagining that her oily lawyer, played by Patrick Baladi, was Neil from The Office failing hilariously after training as a lawyer post-sacking from Wernham-Hogg.

I hope, when they make the final series, the ultimate twist is that Hastings is one of the few trusted ‘70s/’80s establishment figures who wasn’t a wrong ‘un. Now that would be subversive, fella.

Space precludes me from rewarding BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY with the detailed praise it deserves, so I urge you to watch this fascinating documentary on iPlayer.


As the world teeters on the brink once again, it whisked us back to a simpler, gentler time when nuclear Armageddon first became a harrowing reality. Our first atomic bomb was invented, tried and tested by men – now dapper, aged and charming – who still lived in fear of post-war German retaliation.

If they could've foreseen Brexit, we'd all be dead by now.

Despite the literally devastating subject matter, the programme managed to scrape some dark, dry humour from our typically parochial flirtation with the apocalypse. They almost destroyed Dorking during test runs. 

Almost restores your faith in hapless British ingenuity, doesn’t it? 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

TV Review: LITTLE BOY BLUE + THE BOSS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 29 April 2017.


LITTLE BOY BLUE: Monday, STV

THE BOSS: Monday to Friday, BBC One


On 22 August 2007, 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead in Liverpool while walking home from football practice. A motive for his murder has never been fully established, but it’s thought he was caught in the crossfire between rival teenage gangs. Another senseless victim of gun crime. Another tragic headline.

While the rest of us shake our heads in sympathy and get on with our lives, the families of victims such as Rhys are given no such luxury. Their unimaginable grief and anger can never truly dissipate.

Enter acclaimed writer/producer Jeff Pope, whose four-part drama LITTLE BOY BLUE offers an unflinching glimpse into the living hell of a devastated family.

Made with the full co-operation of Rhys’ parents, Melanie and Steve, it follows them through the aftermath of their son’s murder. It also sheds light on the police investigation led by a sympathetic DS, and the actions of those responsible for Rhys’ death (including a teenager bullied into hiding the gun).

Though necessarily harrowing, Little Boy Blue isn’t overcooked or manipulative. That’s not Pope’s style. His factual dramas are renowned for their sensitivity and basis in extensive research.


Even when dealing with characters as notorious as Ronnie Biggs, Karen Matthews, Peter Sutcliffe, Myra Hindley, Fred West and Cilla Black, Pope always manages to tackle potentially offensive subject matter in a responsible way.

True to form, Little Boy Blue is refracted through an understated prism of journalistic rigour and compassion. Its power emerges from the realistic detail of such heart-wrenching scenes as Melanie and Steve visiting Rhys’ dead body in hospital, where Melanie was gently yet firmly threatened with arrest if she touched her son. He was still regarded as evidence of an unsolved crime.

Explicit mention is made of the police’s tarnished reputation, hence why the innate decency and determination of DS Dave Kelly is quietly heartening. He’s not an idealised hero, just a good man doing his best to ensure that an ordinary family finds justice. He’s just about enough to restore your faith in the police and human nature.

Stephen Graham and Sinead Keenan deliver note-perfect, realistic performances as DS Kelly and Melanie Jones, neither straining for emotional fireworks in their respective roles. They’re entirely convincing.


So what do we learn from dramas such as Little Boy Blue? Why do they exist? More than mere voyeurism, they dig beneath the headlines and force us to put ourselves in the shoes of everyday victims of violent crime. The Jones family could be any of us.

Without resorting to mawkish sentiment, Little Boy Blue reminds us that humanity endures in a world awash with horror.

But hey, at least we’ll always have the meaningless respite of generic daytime quiz shows.

Hosted by the affable Susan Calman, THE BOSS won’t cause sleepless nights for the makers of afternoon trivia behemoths Pointless and The Chase. It’s too blandly derivative to threaten their unassailable cults.


I won’t bore you with explaining the rules, as I’d quite like you to read the rest of this review. Suffice to say, it’s a tension-free compendium of standard quiz rounds – number games, word puzzles, quick-fire trivia etc. – fatally undone by the easiness of the questions. Pointless and The Chase succeed because the questions are well-chosen and occasionally quite esoteric, especially when it comes to popular culture.

There’s just no fun in watching a quiz boasting brain-teasers which wouldn’t challenge even the most bog-standard, pie-eyed pub team.