Saturday, 13 January 2018


This article was originally published in The Courier on 13th January 2018.

KIRI: Wednesday, Channel 4

HARD SUN: Saturday, BBC One

Miriam is an experienced social worker who one day makes an error of judgement that leads to tragedy.

She arranges an unsupervised visit between foster child Kiri and her birth grandfather. While Miriam is gone, Kiri is apparently abducted by her ex-con father. A few days later, her body is found. The finger of blame points towards Miriam.

This is KIRI, a compelling new drama starring the great Sarah Lancashire. It’s written by Jack Thorne, author of the Yewtree-inspired National Treasure. Kiri is inspired by another explosive issue torn from the headlines, namely the unjust vilification of social workers.

Miriam becomes a convenient scapegoat. The media hounds her. The public turns against her. She’s thrown under the bus by her employers. She drowns herself in booze.

The murdered girl is black. Her adoptive parents are middle-class and white. This complicates matters even further. Within days of Kiri’s disappearance, yer actual John Humphrys is on Radio 4 chairing a debate on the ramifications of children being matched with families from different cultural backgrounds. Right-wing tabloids accuse social services of “ticking their lefty boxes”. It all feels depressingly real.

Thorne is fascinated by the ways in which the media manipulates, exploits and simplifies complex emotional issues. It constructs binary narratives blithely untroubled by shades of grey. It gorges on grief and enflames prejudices it helped to create in the first place.

Though his writing becomes slightly didactic when his passion and sincerity gets the better of him, for the most part he devises plausible scenarios, searching arguments and convincing characters. Miriam, with all her quirks and flaws, is a gift for Lancashire, who’s always at her best when suffering in a pool of anguish and gallows humour.

Thorne succeeds in his goal of humanising social workers. They are, after all, human. They sometimes make mistakes, but they also do a lot of good. You never read about that in the press, of course. Kiri shows what happens when social workers, who devote their professional lives to helping people, end up needing help themselves.

A nuanced polemic and compassionate character study, Kiri is a valuable piece of work.

“Nuance” isn’t in Neil Cross’ vocabulary. The Luther creator deals in heightened pulp fiction powered by graphic violence and a grim world view. He probably wrote Victorian Penny Dreadfuls in a previous life.

His obsessions reached some kind of crazed apogee in HARD SUN, a propulsive sci-fi conspiracy thriller which, like Luther, treads a fine line between entertaining largesse and outright nonsense.  

Blokey Jim Sturgess and the quietly charismatic Agyness Deyn are mismatched London coppers who discover that the Earth will be destroyed by an unspecified solar catastrophe in five years (yes, the Bowie song does appear). The governments of the world want to keep this rotten news under wraps, lest the human race goes bananas.

What’s more, Sturgess appears to be a dodgy copper up to his neck in all sorts of chicanery, while Deyn’s mentally ill son tried to kill her via stabbings and arson. She’s also secretly investigating Sturgess. What a carve up.

In typical Cross fashion, Hard Sun revels in audacious set-pieces and gore. In order to enjoy it you have to set your brain into the appropriate gear. Suspension of disbelief is key.

It is, by its very precarious nature, a show that could go either way, but episode one set things off in agreeably crackerjack style. I’m a sucker for paranoid dramas wreathed in apocalyptic futility, and Hard Sun doesn’t disappoint on that front.

Saturday, 6 January 2018


This article was originally published in the Dundee Courier on 6th January 2018.

McMAFIA: New Year’s Day and Tuesday, BBC One


DERRY GIRLS: Thursday, Channel 4

A monumental bore of global proportions, McMAFIA is a turgid crime drama which proves that it’s possible to surf a wave of hype while wearing concrete boots.

Two years ago, the BBC scored a direct hit with the similarly expensive The Night Manager. The only chance McMafia has of emulating that success is if millions of viewers suddenly develop an inexplicable urge to watch one-dimensional gangsters discussing investment funds and business mergers.

The non-fiction book it’s based on claims that organised crime accounts for roughly 15% of the world’s GDP. A potentially ripe source of drama, but McMafia fails to deliver on its promise. There are no characters to care about. It’s utterly soulless, a slowly meandering iceberg.

James Norton, an otherwise versatile actor, looks hopelessly lost in the underwritten central role of a successful British-born investment banker who can’t escape from his Russian family’s mafia connections. Like young Michael Corleone from The Godfather, he wants to stay legit, but they keep pulling him back in. That’s where comparisons with The Godfather end.

Norton wanders through an interminable procession of ham-fisted scenes stolen from countless other gangster dramas. The uninvolving narrative flits between Mumbai, London, Tel Aviv, Moscow - everyone’s talking ‘bout Pop Muzik! – in a doomed attempt to conjure a sense of epic scale. It makes most of Daniel Craig’s Bond films look exciting by comparison.

Slow-burning dramas only work when they’re fuelled by atmosphere, intrigue, tension and emotion, all of which are conspicuously absent from this frozen turkey.

Occasionally, a jolt of violent action will occur. These moments don’t succeed as shocking flashpoints breaking a spell of finely-tuned suspense, they’re just a cattle-prod used to keep us awake. McMafia is an empty bottle of expensive vodka. What a way to bring in the New Year.

Does Kay Mellor ever sleep? She seems to average at least two hit dramas per year. Her most recent series, Love, Lies and Records, ended just before Christmas. Now she’s back with GIRLFRIENDS, in which Phyllis Logan, Miranda Richardson and Zoe Wanamaker star as three life-long pals in their late fifties.

Mellor tackles her driving theme of age discrimination with typical compassion and humour. When Linda (Logan) loses her beloved husband in mysterious circumstances, she finds herself alone for the first time in 30 years. Gail (Wanamaker) is recently divorced, and no longer feels desirable. Sue (Richardson) is the glamorous features editor of a bridal magazine – she’s never been married – who fears growing old and dying alone.

They’ve been forced to feel irrelevant by a society that discards women when they reach a certain age. Older men are allowed the luxury of becoming distinguished. Older women become invisible. Girlfriends is a cry of anger and frustration in the covert guise of a populist drama. It’s far more important than McMafia.

So is DERRY GIRLS, a very funny, smart and charming new sitcom about a misfit gang of Catholic teenagers in the Troubles-torn Northern Ireland of the mid-1990s.

These kids aren’t defined by their bleak backdrop and religious upbringing, it’s just part of their everyday lives. They struggle with the same growing pains as everyone else. Adolescence is universal, regardless of theological or political context.

Written by Lisa McGee, this semi-autobiographical farce fizzes with cheerful profanities and affectionate observations. Her engaging characters are vividly performed by an excellent cast. The unforced period detail is commendably accurate. The tone – darkness swaddled in warmth - is perfectly pitched. Derry Girls is a delight.

Saturday, 30 December 2017


A version of this article was first published in the Dundee Courier on 30th December 2017.

DOCTOR WHO: Christmas Day, BBC One

LITTLE WOMEN: Boxing Day to Thursday, BBC One

ERIC, ERNIE & ME: Friday, BBC Four


A piece of television history occurred on Christmas Day when Peter Capaldi regenerated into Jodie Whittaker, the first woman to play the lead in DOCTOR WHO.

As epochal though that moment was – Whittaker’s brief burst of screen time was suitably tantalising - it didn’t overshadow the brunt of this enjoyable festive special, during which outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat gave Capaldi the emotional farewell he deserved.

Instead of signing off with an epic bang, Moffat marked the end of this era – the first twelve years of ‘Nu-Who’ basically - with a relatively low-key, character-driven hour in which the dying Doctor, having fought, loved and lost for thousands of years in an eternally evil-scarred universe, couldn’t go on any longer. He didn’t want to regenerate, he just wanted to quietly die in the Arctic tundra.

And not, as it turned out, for the first time. Moffat, who can’t resist sewing new fragments into Doctor Who’s vast ongoing tapestry, conjured a bittersweet storyline in which the Doctor’s original incarnation – David Bradley doing a pretty good job of replacing the late William Hartnell, despite the first Doctor’s political incorrectness being jarringly overplayed  – also tried to stave off his imminent regeneration. 

Here were two iterations of the same Time Lord separated by aeons, yet united by fear, confusion and weariness. Nothing says Christmas quite like a double dose of existential fatalism.

It wasn’t as depressing as that sounds, of course. Moffat juggled pathos and gags while building towards an uplifting final act in which both Doctors came to realise the importance of their place in the universe. They lived to fight another billion days.

The Twelfth Doctor’s turnaround was admittedly rather sudden – all it took was a group hug from his loyal companions – but in the context of a moving recreation of the Christmas Armistice of 1914, I’ll let that pass. Moffat’s heartfelt Christmas messages – death can never erase memories of loved ones, human beings are essentially kind – never came across as trite.

Moffat had his faults, as did Russell T. Davies before him, but this was a dignified last stand. He’ll always be one of the best and most ambitious writers Doctor Who has ever had.

One of the modern show’s most talented directors, Rachel Talalay did a typically beautiful job. I hope we’ll see more of her standout work during the Whittaker era.

Capaldi and Bradley were ably supported by the excellent Pearl Mackie in her final performance as companion Bill – oh if only she’d been paired with Capaldi from the start – and Mark Gatiss delivering a sensitive guest performance as a World War One Captain (and grandfather of classic Doctor Who stalwart Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) stoically facing down death.

This was a touching celebration of everything the Doctor and the hit TV series Doctor Who stands for. The Twelfth Doctor’s pre-regeneration speech, though grandly performed by the great Peter C, was a tad overlong but just about succeeded as both a meta and in-universe declaration of the selflessly heroic Time Lord’s core attributes.

If incoming showrunner Chris ‘Broadchurch’ Chibnall heeds Moffat’s checklist, then Doctor Who and Jodie Whittaker should be in safe hands. I remain cautiously optimistic.

The umpteenth adaptation of the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott, LITTLE WOMEN hopefully managed to introduce this immortal coming-of-age saga to a new generation.

After all, its themes are eternally relevant. Young women in the late 19th century share the same fundamental concerns as their modern counterparts. Attitudes may have evolved, but the human condition is unchanging.

Heidi Thomas, creator of Call the Midwife, captured the charm, wit and gender-political thrust of Alcott’s source material, while newcomer Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) shone brightly as proto-feminist Jo.

You’d have to be a total numbskull to botch this timeless celebration of female strength and charity. Thomas is not that numbskull.

Morecambe & Wise were always a gifted double act, but it wasn’t until the brilliant writer Eddie Braben refined their onscreen personae that they found a permanent place in the nation’s collective heart.

Eric was an innate comic genius. Ernie was the consummate foil. It was Braben, however, who lit the Eureka bulb of making them both funny in different ways. Inspired by Laurel and Hardy, these three wise men (including one Wiseman) struck cascading comedy gold.

Braben received his due in ERIC, ERNIE & ME, an affectionate drama starring Stephen Tompkinson as an inspired freelance writer who was eventually driven to extremes of nervous exhaustion by the crushing burden of creating an annual Christmas spectacular for millions of expectant viewers.

I’m automatically suspicious of tears-behind-the-laughter biopics, but this one had no truck with voyeuristic sensationalism. How could it? There’s no dirt to be found beneath the fingernails of this story, just sweat, toil and the nerve-straining demands of cheering people up for a living.

The boys themselves were the stars of ERIC & ERNIE’S HOME MOVIES, a truly heart-warming documentary boasting recently unearthed silent footage – most of it shot by Eric – of them enjoying their offstage lives in the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s.

One usually endures other people’s family mementoes with a polite smile while scanning for the exit, but watching these priceless documents in the intimate onscreen company of delighted friends and family members – most of whom had never seen them before either – was an honour.

I was glad when it ended, but only because the lump in my throat was becoming painful to the point of asphyxiation.

Morecambe and Wise were the beloved funny uncles we never knew in person.

This beautiful programme confirmed what we’ve always known. We loved them because they loved each other.

Friday, 29 December 2017

My Favourite Television Programmes... Ever!!

As every two-bit observational comic will tell you, men love making lists. It's one of those sweeping generalisations that happens to be broadly true. So here's an unbidden dead sea scroll of my favourite television programmes of all time.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that these are necessarily the best TV shows ever made - although most of them admittedly are - as it's an entirely subjective rundown of my own particular favourites.

Should future generations develop an inexplicable urge to find out what that obscure, forgotten TV critic once held up as the pinnacles of televisual excellence in the 20th and early 21st centuries, let this list provide them with empirical evidence. (I will almost certainly have made some glaring omissions).

So, in time-saving alphabetical order, here it is.  

Abigail’s Party
The Armando Iannucci Shows
Arrested Development
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet
Better Call Saul

Big Train
Brass Eye
Breaking Bad

The Comic Strip Presents…
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Day Today

The Dick Cavett Show
Doctor Who
The Elvis '68 Comeback Special
The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin
The Fast Show
Fawlty Towers
Getting On

Hancock’s Half Hour
Happy Valley
I’m Alan Partridge
In Bed With Chris Needham
The Incredibly Strange Film Show
Inside No. 9
The Killing
Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge

The Larry Sanders Show
Late Night with David Letterman/Late Show with David Letterman
The League of Gentlemen
Line of Duty
Mad Men
Marion & Geoff

The Monkees
Monty Python’s Flying Circus
The Morecambe & Wise Show
The Muppet Show
My So Called Life
The Naked Civil Servant

Not the Nine O’ Clock News
Nuts in May
The Office (UK)
Only Fools and Horses
Parks & Recreation

Peep Show
Pennies from Heaven
Prime Suspect
The Prisoner
Ready Steady Go!

The Royle Family
The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash
The Shadow Line
The Simpsons
The Singing Detective
Six Feet Under
Smashie & Nicey: End of an Era

The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer
Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em
Spitting Image
Steptoe & Son
Talking Heads

The Thick of It
Top of the Pops
The Twilight Zone
Twin Peaks

The Two Ronnies
Vic Reeves Big Night Out
The War Game
Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads?
Whose Line Is It Anyway?
The Wire
The Young Ones

So there you are and there you have it. Be seeing you.

Saturday, 2 December 2017


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 2nd December 2017.

HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT: Wednesday, Channel 4


One of the most disappointing aspects of modern life is the continuing absence of lifelike robots. It's 2017, shouldn't we have caught up with science-fiction by now?

Robots do exist, of course. They’ve become increasingly useful in the worlds of surgery, manufacturing and agriculture. But whenever they’re designed to resemble humans, they always fall prey to the notorious uncanny valley effect. That is, they look blankly unnerving and sinister. They freak us out (dude).

Not only that, we just don’t trust these sophisticated vessels of artificial intelligence, especially now that they’ve started taking our jobs. UKIP must detest them.

In HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT, inventor and puppeteer David McGoran embarked upon a mission to conquer these suspicions. He believes, quite rightly, that humans won’t fully embrace robots until they move and react just like us. He also believes he’s on the verge of creating that very thing: a robot we can relate to on an emotional level.

McGoran recently assembled a bohemian cabal of dancers, artists and engineers to help him create a robot that the general public can fall in love with. A sensitive soul with a poetic turn of phrase, he realised that human beings tend to respond positively to cute, malleable creatures. That’s why very few of us form meaningful relationships with kitchen appliances.

Following a series of false starts and crude prototypes, the team eventually designed a cuddly little Teletubby capable of interacting with people under its own painstakingly pre-programmed steam. This real-life Pixar character was then left on the streets of Bristol to discover the complexities of human intimacy. The results were heart-warming.

People actually responded to him, they picked him up and revealed simple truths about themselves. The experiment succeeded on both a technical and – yes – spiritual level.

By creating a tactile robot capable of relatively realistic interaction, McGoran may have disproved the notion that every human being is unique. After all, aren’t we all pre-programmed to carry out basic physical and emotional functions? The vast majority of us navigate our way through society in essentially the same way.

That may sound like a cold, cynical conclusion, but McGoran’s findings were actually quite uplifting. Autonomous robots could remind us that, despite our apparent differences, we’re all equal. We all belong to the same species. We’re all human.

David Tennant narrated this quietly profound documentary with exactly the same wryly emphatic inflections he used in Twenty Twelve and W1A, thus making it feel like a spoof at times. Thankfully, much like McGoran’s friendly robot, it was real.

My fluctuating faith in human nature was further restored by EMPLOYABLE ME, the valuable documentary series in which disabled job-seekers challenge the notion that employers welcome them without discrimination.

The latest series introduced us to Ryan and Andy. Ryan has a severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome. Until his stroke, Andy was the director of a massively successful business. They’d both suffered through hundreds of failed job applications.

Assisted by a specialist job-seeking project overseen by a psychologist, Ryan and Andy eventually found gainful employment. Ryan, a fish fanatic, was hired by an aquarium centre, while Andy was employed as a motivational speaker.

Without a trace of condescending sentiment, Employable Me empowers disabled people while combating casual prejudice.

Television, folks, it can sometimes be a force for good.

Saturday, 25 November 2017


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 25th November 2017.



When Theresa May called a snap election earlier this year, she did so under the wildly mistaken belief that Labour would be completely wiped out.

From her perspective, the tactic made sense. Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn was in turmoil. Their approval ratings were at an all-time low. Corbyn may have gained support from a new mass membership who’d signed up to push him into Number 10, but the Parliamentary Labour Party had no faith in him whatsoever.

They wanted him out. These idiotic Blairite back-stabbers, these self-serving enemies of traditional left-wing values, actually wanted their own party to lose an election. With tacitly gleeful precision, David Modell’s terrific documentary LABOUR: THE SUMMER THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING skewered the lunacy of this situation.

As we now know, the Tories failed to achieve their expected landslide victory. Corbyn defied a barrage of increasingly desperate media smear campaigns while riding a wave of evangelical public support and a sizeable increase in young voters. He may have lost the election by a relatively slim margin, but he transformed Labour into a credible opposition.

His opponents, like a smug upper-class villain in an episode of Columbo, fatally underestimated this scruffy interloper.

When four campaigning Labour MPs agreed to let Modell film them in action, little did they realise that he’d chronicle the destruction of their centrist ideals.

The only exception was Sarah Champion, a Corbyn supporter who was eventually forced to resign from the shadow cabinet when she made the blundering error of trying to present a nuanced argument about British Pakistani child sex traffickers in the toxically sensationalist Sun newspaper.

The other contributors, Stephen “Son of Neil” Kinnock, Ruth “Vote for me and I promise to get rid of him” Cadbury and Lucy “Oh my God!” Powell, weren’t remotely on board with Team Jezza. Framed through a prism of ironic hindsight, their blinkered hubris was a wonder to behold.

Modell’s camera lingered on the bemused face of Kinnock Jr on election night, as it dawned on him that Corbyn wasn’t going anywhere. It was hilarious.

However, the greatest scene by far – and I bet Modell couldn’t believe his luck when he caught it – involved a hapless Kinnock receiving tersely astute media lessons from his wife Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former Danish PM. In the space of two compelling minutes, she displayed more political savvy than her clueless husband has ever managed during his career. “Why are you doing this now?” she sighed, when Kinnock was about to waffle desperately on live TV. “You don’t know anything.”

Other highlights included Cadbury embarrassing herself in front of Labour volunteers and angry voters, plus Corbyn taking to the dry ice-shrouded stage of a Momentum rally as the crowd chanted his name to the tune of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes. He looked like an unassuming Social Studies teacher enduring a job-swap with Bono.

This subtly irreverent documentary exposed the blinkered arrogance of careerist politicians, the increasing impotency of tabloid scaremongering, and the joyous detonation of Theresa May’s “strong and stable” PR bunkum. Her disastrous campaign made Corbyn’s relative triumph taste even sweeter.

By sheer coincidence, Modell debuted another documentary last week. In THE SEARCH FOR A MIRACLE CURE he swapped politics for pioneering stem cell research.

Multiple Sclerosis has always been thought incurable, but a medical unit in Israel have recently developed a radical new medical treatment.

Modell followed MS patient Mark Lewis, the combative media lawyer who helped to destroy the News of the World, as he travelled to Israel for a potentially life-changing trial.

An excruciating scene of him receiving painful spinal injections was followed by the startling revelation that, just two hours later, he could achieve more mobility than he’d experienced in years. Sadly, the effects gradually wore off. The power of placebos? Lewis, who wasn’t used to being defeated, refused to accept the reality of his situation.

Those Israeli doctors haven’t discovered a cure for MS, but they have made promising steps towards stabilising its degenerative effects. Despite its pervading sadness, this nuanced film was dappled with hope. Hats off to David Modell.

Saturday, 18 November 2017


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



A Register Office is such an obvious setting for a TV show, it’s surprising that LOVE, LIES AND RECORDS is the first of its kind.

Written by that grand maven of humane ensemble dramas Kay Mellor (Fat Friends; The Syndicate; In the Club), it seizes upon the narrative potential of a world in which a fresh batch of supporting characters, each with various births, marriages and deaths to deal with, can be introduced every week.

It boasts a typically natural, likeable performance from Ashley Jensen as kindly Kate, a senior registrar at Leeds City Hall. When she’s promoted to Superintendent, a disgruntled colleague (Rebecca Front on bitterly tight-lipped form) threatens to blackmail her by exposing CCTV footage of Kate and a male colleague indulging in a drunken tryst at the office Christmas party.

If this secret is revealed, it will destroy Kate’s career and her relationship with her partner.

Her guilt was compounded when she witnessed the bond between a young married couple with a newly born baby. The bride had terminal cancer, and died just hours after the wedding, thus forcing Kate to confront the brevity of existence.

Meanwhile, she grew suspicious when a nervous young Slovenian woman arrived at the office to register her marriage to an Iranian man. Kate wrestled with her liberal conscience: was she wrong to suspect that this arrangement wasn’t all that it seemed?

What’s more, a male friend and colleague, who’s married with children, announced that he would henceforth be dressing as a woman. Mellor being Mellor, this was all handled with the utmost sensitivity.

She has a gift for devising empathetic, troubled characters while smoothly weaving multiple story strands into a satisfying thematic whole. The humour in her work is never forced, she has an ear for the way people actually speak. Combine that trait with Jensen, an actor who always sounds like an actual human being, and you’ve got the ingredients for yet another engaging character drama from the venerable house of Mellor.

E.M Forster’s HOWARDS’ END is reputedly one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. Having never read it, I’m in no position to debate its reputation. However, I have seen the garlanded Merchant Ivory film version and episode one of the BBC’s new vaporous adaptation, both of which bored me rigid.

A tiresome tale of two wealthy families, it strikes me as nothing more than a group of introspective bohemian intellectuals mithering on about love, art and what it means to be human. Yes, I know that could also serve as a description of practically every Woody Allen film ever made, but at least his characters tend to be interesting.

I just can’t engage at all with this wooden shower of pampered dullards. Writer Kenneth Lornegan (author of the overrated Manchester By The Sea) fails to establish any reason for caring about them. Granted, the actors manage to avoid the staid pitfalls of so many English period dramas by delivering their dialogue in a semi-naturalistic, overlapping style. But that’s a minor technical detail, and no substitute for compelling characterisation and narrative.

Its themes are still relevant, so it should theoretically work. Our protagonist is an independent young woman struggling to achieve respect within a rigid, sexist patriarchy. Societal hypocrisy and the hardship of transcending class barriers are also on the table. But Howards’ End examines these issues in a fatally dreary, distancing way.

Bring back Howards’ Way, I’d rather watch that instead.