Saturday, 2 December 2017

TV Review: HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT + EMPLOYABLE ME

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


HOW TO BUILD A ROBOT: Wednesday, Channel 4

EMPLOYABLE ME: Monday, BBC Two


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

TV Review: LABOUR: THE SUMMER THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING + THE SEARCH FOR A MIRACLE CURE

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

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

LABOUR: THE SUMMER THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING: Monday, BBC Two

THE SEARCH FOR A MIRACLE CURE: Thursday, Channel 4


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

TV Review: LOVE, LIES AND RECORDS + HOWARDS' END

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


LOVE, LIES AND RECORDS: Thursday, BBC One

HOWARDS’ END: Sunday, BBC One


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.

Monday, 13 November 2017

RYDER CUP GALA CONCERT review

This article was originally published in The Scotsman in 2014.


Ryder Cup Gala Concert, SSE Hydro, Glasgow

* *

Presumably united by their shared passion for golf, a conveyor belt of stars launched the Ryder Cup tournament at Gleneagles with this slick display of corporate professionalism. Held in Glasgow's vast Hydro, and overseen by the creative director behind the 2012 Olympics closing ceremony, it was never in any danger of being mistaken for a thrilling rock 'n' roll show.

Rather, it was a politely ordered carnival aimed at golf's chief demographic: white, middle-class, middle-aged sport fans. Only one name on the bill defied those narrow parameters, more of whom later.

With a proud nod towards Scotland's eventful year so far, the first half was waterlogged with homegrown acts. Playing before a curiously sparse crowd – the auditorium didn't fill up until after the interval – the zygote likes of Twin Atlantic and Nina Nesbitt didn't stand a chance. But at least they set the evening's pattern: play a couple of potential crowd-pleasers, then exit quickly.

Dundee's Danny Wilson went one better by reforming after 25 years solely to perform their greatest hit, Mary's Prayer. Unless they're planning a comeback, I'll wager that's the briefest reunion in pop history.

Old pros Eddi Reader and Midge Ure – without whom no mainstream Scottish hootenanny is complete – took no risks with, respectively, a patriotic ode to Scotland and a full-throated Vienna. The latter received the first ovation of a very long night, the crowd presumably astounded that a man resembling Mr Burns from The Simpsons could still sing with such gusto.

Billed as a celebration of Scottish music and culture, the pre-finale highlights came, not from the pop sphere, but via spirited readings from Scottish Opera stars Andrew McTaggart and Nadine Livingston. The less said about host Des Clarke's woeful deep fried heroin hack material, the better.

He was replaced in part two by the more personable James Nesbitt, Edith Bowman and Fred MacAulay, who grabbed the crowd's attention by introducing the US and European golf teams (plus their wives/partners) to the stage. I felt like a tired, bored six-year-old at a wedding.

Two hours later, during which the likes of Texas dutifully phoned it in, the evening finally caught fire with a joyous set from disco/funk legend Nile Rodgers. Le Freak and Good Times were like a gift of golden tickets at the end of an interminable visit to a textile factory. 

An unlikely instance of genius transcending its beige surroundings.


Saturday, 11 November 2017

TV Review: DETECTORISTS + MOTHERLAND

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


DETECTORISTS: Wednesday, BBC Four

MOTHERLAND: Tuesday, BBC Two


When DETECTORISTS rambles off forever in a few weeks time, it’ll be like saying goodbye to dear old friends.

Fans of this beloved cult sitcom will understand my bittersweet conflict when it returned for a third and final series last week. Lovely to have it back, but I don’t want it to end.

Mackenzie Crook, who writes, directs and co-stars, should be applauded for creating a charming little fictional universe which, for all its underlying melancholy, offers sun-dappled respite from the escalating madness of our brutal world.

If you’ve somehow committed the baffling error of never having watched it, a swift precis. Laconic Andy (Crook) and fastidious Lance (Toby Jones) are best friends and metal detector enthusiasts based in picturesque rural Essex. The defining image of the series is the pair of them gently trawling a large field in search of life-changing treasure. They never give up.


The pace is leisurely and comforting. The character-driven humour is droll, humane and prickled with glimmers of absurdity (Andy and Lance’s buffoonish rivals resemble Simon and Garfunkel). Our endearing duo chat about their quietly complicated lives while detecting or over a pint in the local pub. A winning cast of mildly eccentric supporting characters mill around them amiably.

On the soundtrack, haunting English folk music awakens aeons of ghosts from this green and pleasant land (the latest episode even paid explicit homage to M.R. James’ classic ghost story Whistle And I’ll Come to You).


That, in essence, is all there is to it. And yet Crook, without strain or pretension, conjures a bewitching spell from this simple template. Detectorists is gentle but never bland, poignant but never saccharine. Lance, Andy and co are fully-rounded, funny characters. It’s been a pleasure spending time with them.

The final hurdle is a solar energy farm being built on their beloved terrain. Their shell-shocked expressions when they heard the news spoke volumes. It was as if they’d been bereaved. That field is an escape hatch, an oasis of calm and enrichment. What will they do without it?

Crook, I suspect, knows we feel the same way about his unique creation.

A new sitcom from Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Graham Linehan and his wife Helen, MOTHERLAND is the cold metropolitan yin to Detectorists’ warm bucolic yang. It’s ruthlessly engineered to make parenthood look like an unbearable waking nightmare, especially if you’re comfortably middle-class and white.


I’m all for downbeat comedy when done well, but Motherland is so clinically intent on exploring this subject without a shred of sentiment, it ends up coming across as faintly depressing. Outnumbered, which covered similar territory, was never sentimental either, but it was full of wit and charm. Motherland is a migraine.

Linehan, Horgan and Walsh have all written good, sharp, funny sitcoms in the past – their collective credits include Father Ted, The IT Crowd, Pulling, Catastrophe and the underrated Dead Boss – but this joint effort is surprisingly dull and unlikeable.

It revolves around an aggravating central performance from Anna Maxwell-Martin – an actor whose work I’ve enjoyed elsewhere - as Julia, a permanently stressed and angry mother of two young children. You don’t always have to sympathise with sitcom characters to find them funny, but Julia’s clenched cynicism and intense exhaustion are exhausting to watch.

Episode one lumbered her with that hoary old sitcom standby, the disastrous children’s birthday party. A tiresome volume of awkwardness ensued. There’s something quite self-satisfied about the way in which Motherland digs viewers in the ribs with its pedestrian first-world observations. It’s like eavesdropping on a group of parents moaning about their fundamentally privileged lives. The smugness is unbearable.

That wouldn’t matter so much if the gag-rate was higher, but Motherland is unforgivably sparse on that front.

The only enjoyable aspect is the deadpan performance by Diane Morgan (aka Screen Wipe’s Philomena Cunk) as Julia’s best friend. She provides a few wry smiles. It's a chilly disappointment otherwise.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

TV Review: BLUE PLANET II + LOUIS THEROUX: TALKING TO ANOREXIA

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


BLUE PLANET II: Sunday, BBC One

LOUIS THEROUX: TALKING TO ANOREXIA: Sunday, BBC Two


Immense awe and tremendous wonder were the order of the day in BLUE PLANET II, the long-awaited sequel to David Attenborough’s multi-award-winning natural history milestone. 

Filmed over four years and 125 global expeditions, this undersea epic began by introducing us to “creatures beyond our imagination”.

That was no idle boast – Attenborough isn’t one for hyperbole – as highlights included: surprisingly intelligent fish who can use tools and who’ve worked out how to calculate the trajectory of doomed seabirds; a vast army of nocturnal mobula rays feasting on glowing plankton; bizarre sea cucumbers stuffing themselves senseless; and a female fish changing sex to challenge a male for control of his subaquatic harem.

Inevitably, it wasn’t all mind-boggling fun and games. Ever since we became aware of global warming, Attenborough’s programmes have struck an increasingly sombre note. A female walrus desperately searching for some melting shore space to protect her infant was the programme’s most lasting, tragic image.


Festooned with typically stunning, innovative footage and a sensitive soundtrack from Hans Zimmer – not to mention Sir Dave’s comfortingly authoritative tones – this was another glistening example of why the BBC, for all its faults, should be cherished and preserved.

As if to cement that point, on the very same evening they broadcast LOUIS THEROUX: TALKING TO ANOREXIA, in which the nation’s favourite gentle interlocutor visited a London hospital specialising in care for inpatients with eating disorders.

He met vulnerable young women who are forced to adhere to strictly supervised meal schedules. For obvious reasons, toilets are locked during mealtimes and for half an hour afterwards. They also receive therapy and lessons preparing them for living healthily in the outside world. One of them likened it to prison. The recovery process is long, difficult and prone to failure.


Anorexia is a mental illness with the highest fatality rate of any psychological disorder. Its causes are complex and vary from patient to patient, although all of the women featured in the programme spoke of a debilitating lack of self-worth. For most of them, Anorexia is an extreme way of coping with anxiety and stress via obsessive-compulsive self-control.

The potentially long-lasting toll of this illness was encapsulated by a single woman in her sixties who’s been wrestling with Anorexia for most of her life. She told Theroux that she was scared of adult responsibilities and didn’t want to grow up. If she eats she feels like a failure. “I don’t feel I deserve,” she admitted.

Theroux doesn’t like to leave us feeling totally bereft, hence his visit to a young woman who, with support from her tired parents, seemed to be improving.

But as is so often the case with his programmes, one came away with a greater understanding of a complicated issue while at the same time wondering if the people he met will ever escape from their nightmarish condition. Life rarely provides neat, happy resolutions.


Cynics may carp about Theroux’s tried and tested “sad face” formula, but that says more about them than the programmes he makes. He always treats his contributors - the most important component of every Theroux report – with sensitivity and respect. His documentaries are about troubled people, never the man himself. He asks sensible questions, listens without judgement and gives voice to those who are rarely heard within mainstream society.

This film, which successfully raised awareness of a devastating mental illness, was a particularly valuable example of his craft. He’ll be as feted as Attenborough one day.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

TV Review: GUNPOWDER + THE END OF THE F***ING WORLD

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28 October 2017.


GUNPOWDER: Saturday, BBC One

THE END OF THE F***KING WORLD: Tuesday, Channel 4


It’s a scene we’ve witnessed a thousand times before.

A group of villains descend upon a house and demand entry. Before they can get in – they have to bark threats through a locked front door first – the inhabitants shoo their illegal refugees into various secret hiding places.

The villains search the house but find nothing. However, just as they’re about to leave, the leader of the gang notices that something isn’t quite right. He taps some walls to reveal a suspiciously hollow sound.

Cut to the terrified faces of the refugees hiding within. One of them makes a conspicuous sound, thus confirming the bad guy’s suspicions. Curses! Our heroes have been exposed!

That GUNPOWDER, a new retelling of the Guy Fawkes saga, began with a 15-minute staging of this hackneyed scenario didn’t bode well. This unintentionally Python-esque drama is a compendium of clich├ęs.

Classic groaners under review included: the condemned prisoner eloquently refusing to renounce their supposed sins; dastardly noblemen skulking deferentially around a boorish monarch; a wise mentor (bonus points here for casting Peter Mullan) warning his hot-headed young charge that violent revenge is inadvisable; and Mark Gatiss turning up, as he must do by law in productions of this kind, as a serpentine hunchbacked villain.


Gatiss does deserve his position as the go-to guy for these roles, he never disappoints. I couldn’t fault the cast at all, in fact. Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, who also co-produces, broods sufficiently as the Gunpowder Plot leader, and Liv Tyler pulls off an acceptable English accent. However, a cameo from the great comic actor Kevin Eldon exacerbated the aura of straight-faced spoof.

The suitably grey, grubby, reeking production design was quite impressive. It also didn’t stint on the gruesome violence. There was, I must admit, something perversely pleasing about the BBC scheduling a grim period drama full of torture on a Saturday night after Strictly Come Dancing.


But the script by Ronan Bennett, while not outright bad exactly, was fatally mired in genre tropes. Bennett is an acclaimed Irish playwright whose work for TV includes the excellent Top Boy. This, however, is not his finest hour. Perhaps he’s too close to the material.

During The Troubles, he was convicted of murdering a policeman and plotting to cause explosions. Both convictions were eventually overturned, but it’s not unreasonable to view Gunpowder as his way of explaining why an angry young man might commit acts of violence under an oppressive regime.

Potentially fascinating territory, clumsily traversed.

A new black comedy about two dysfunctional teenagers, THE END OF THE F***KING WORLD wears its quirky darkness on its sleeve. However, that’s what quirkily dark teenagers do, so the tone feels fitting. It’s an intriguing show, funny, cruel, deadpan and sensitive. I admire its uncompromising vision. It’s honest, it has soul. It’s awash with romantic ‘50s pop.


James isn’t just quirky, he’s an actual psychopath. A suburban English Dexter. Or is he? Alyssa is an abrasive antisocial outcast suffering secret sorrow. She’s drawn to his weirdness. He sees her as his first potential murder victim. They’re a lost, vulnerable duo.

Despite the extreme subject matter, it’s a morbidly engaging meditation on how it feels to be a bright, difficult, alienated teenager from a boring town perpetually bathed in flat early evening sunlight. The two young leads strike just the right balance between sad, awkward innocence and blunt cynicism.

This British Badlands is an unconventional love story worthy of your time.