Tuesday, 31 December 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 31st January 2013.


If there's one thing the bitterest of enemies can secretly agree on, it's this: Hogmanay is the coldest time of the year.

Supposedly a time for celebration, in which we bid farewell to the year departed and anoint the head of the days anew, in reality it's a hollow festival of unnatural optimism and desperate, drunken delusion during which we're expected to sup from a goblet of universal harmony with people we'd quite happily avoid in our normal daily lives.

That probably sounds needlessly misanthropic and excessive. But let me assure you, I'm not being contrary for the sake of it. This isn't an affected blast of “bah humbug” rebellion. I've genuinely never enjoyed Hogmanay, and I know I'm not alone. Every year I recognise kindred spirits in the haunted stares of fellow unwitting revellers, as we wander the streets like lost survivors of nuclear Armageddon. We want the nightmare to be over. We want to go home. We want our lives back.

So let's raise a glass to those of us who shudder at the prospect of a miserable party followed by an endless, frostbitten walk home at 2AM when taxis are rarer and marginally less expensive than the lost riches of Atlantis.

It's nothing to do with getting older. I've always felt this way. My dislike of Hogmanay took root in childhood, when it beheld a monstrous significance as the official end of Christmas – that magical, wondrous time! - and the looming harbinger of school-based drudgery. Adolescence and adulthood merely confirmed it as a period of weird, desolate limbo, where Christmas had vanished for another year, yet people still sank themselves into oblivion to avoid facing up to the future.

Now, I enjoy a drink as much as the next man, but I've always been fiercely opposed to the oppressive bulwark of enforced fun. And at no time of year is that regime more in force than at Hogmanay. Shouldn't we have fun on our own terms, at our own pace and leisure? Isn't that what fun is all about? Why should we be expected to gather at midnight on January 31st to toast the fact that we've survived life on Earth for another year?

Rather than fill me with joy and optimism for the future, it's a melancholy reminder that life is short. And how are you spending it, this rare, precious gift of existence? Standing outside a packed pub on a freezing winter night, trying to avoid conversation with well-meaning strangers and wishing you were somewhere else.

To which you might reasonably respond: cheer up, you miserable sod! And you'd be right. I suppose. But I'm actually quite happy in my alienated state at this time of year. After all, it's only one annual night of brutal endurance. We anti-Hogmanay types will never enjoy it. But we'll get over it. We'll be fine.

Happy new year!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

TV Review: The Tractate Middoth/M.R. James: Ghost Writer/Death Comes to Pemberley/Raised By Wolves

This article was originally published in The Courier on 28th December 2013.


The Tractate Middoth/M.R. James: Ghost Writer: Christmas Day, BBC2

Death Comes to Pemberley: Boxing Day and Friday, BBC1

Raised By Wolves: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

In theory at least, there are few more qualified to revive the BBC's distinguished tradition of ghost stories at Christmas than that suave champion of the macabre, Mark Gatiss. From his blackly comic work with the League of Gentlemen to his numerous contributions to Doctor Who, Sherlock and BBC4's archive vaults of horror, Gatiss is TV's foremost exponent of cobwebbed chills and candlelit bumps in the night.

So why did his directorial début, The Tractate Middoth, disappoint?

An adaptation of a short story by one of his heroes, M.R. James, it carefully arranged all the right elements – a Jamesian sense of atmosphere and place combined with the kind of enjoyably ripe performances so beloved of Gatiss – but failed to deliver any shocks or substance.

Stripped of James' celebrated gift for evocative, descriptive language, this tale of a young academic searching for a lost will buried in an ancient Hebrew text felt frustratingly slight. Despite Gatiss' attempts to build upon the classically disquieting mood he established at the start, it simply wasn't enough to compensate for its anticlimactic denouement. It was all tease and no release.

Openly influenced by the BBC's classic James adaptations of the 1970s – I'll bet you Gatiss has studied every frame of those films - The Tractate Middoth is unlikely to be remembered in the same fevered breath. Sometimes fans, no matter how talented and sincere, simply aren't the best people to adapt their idol's work.

More satisfying by far was the lovingly curated documentary, M.R. James: Ghost Writer. Gatiss was securely in his element here, bicycling through the grave English countryside in a dapper three-piece suit, in pursuit of the fecund father of the modern ghost story.

Despite the nightmarish visions conjured in his work, James was a genial gent whose only demons lay in the gruesome medieval tracts he studied while at Cambridge: he's still regarded as one of the greatest scholars in his field. A devout Anglican and confirmed bachelor, he didn't even seem to be troubled by his repressed homosexuality. Instead he delighted in platonic relationships with the young gentlemen of Cambridge's wonderfully named Chit Chat Club, for whom his enthralling tales were originally written and performed (the tactile economy of his writing was brought to life via beguiling readings from an actor).

Referring to his subject throughout as "Monty", Gatiss rather sweetly approached him as a dear old friend with whom he shared much in common. Monty, I suspect, would've been flattered and charmed.

Being almost completely unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice, I was absolutely baffled by Death Comes to Pemberley. While I applaud its refusal to pander to the casual viewer, this hectic adaptation of P.D. James' unofficial sequel to Austen's novel unfolded wildly before my eyes like a sherry-induced fever dream. It was like struggling through Rocky IV without having seen the first three. I'd imagine.

Co-written by Times columnist Caitlin Moran, Raised By Wolves is a semi-autobiographical sitcom about an unorthodox single-parent family living on a Wolverhampton council estate.

Mercifully devoid of insulting working-class clichés, it nevertheless tried far too hard to establish its goofy, whimsical credentials. Over-reliant on laboured pop culture references in lieu of actual jokes it struggled to match the strength of its thematic sibling, My Mad Fat Teenage Diary

The actress playing Moran managed to inject some innocent charm into a borderline tiresome character, but this limp comedy won't survive on scatty good nature alone. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st December 2013.

The Great Train Robbery: Wednesday and Thursday, BBC1

The Call Centre Christmas: Tuesday, BBC3

Paul Whitelaw

After being dramatised in Phil Collins vehicle Buster and more recently in Jeff Pope's ITV series Mrs Biggs, is there anything left to say about The Great Train Robbery of 1963? Written by Chris “Broadchurch” Chibnall – a man better known to Doctor Who fans as the show's most desperately mediocre writer – the BBC's two-part dramatisation of this notorious crime was hobbled by a general feeling of redundancy.

Episode two, which focused on the less familiar efforts of the Flying Squad to bring the robbers to justice, was, admittedly, marginally more revealing. Yet despite being competently executed and reliably anchored by Jim Broadbent as shrewd copper Tommy Butler, it was, beneath the agreeable period trappings, little more than a pedestrian police procedural: Heartbeat with hair on its chest.

Chibnall's attempts to draw comparisons between the methodical endeavours of Butler and unflappable criminal mastermind Bruce Reynolds were rather pat and cursory (he's not a writer of any great depth or nuance). The unconvincingly fictionalised scene towards the end in which the two men confronted each other to quietly share their philosophies just stopped short of Reynolds espousing that hoary old cliché, “You know, despite being on opposing sides, you and I are very much alike.”

But at least Chibnall resisted the temptation to romanticise Reynolds and his gang. Rather than being portrayed as lovably naughty geezers, they instead came across as a rather inept bunch of thugs – their propensity for violence thankfully wasn't ignored – who pulled off the heist more by lucky accident than design.

Reynolds in particular was depicted as a slightly desperate fantasist, who fooled himself into justifying his actions as an heroic attack against the establishment. His choice of apparel during the robbery was, apparently, an army uniform: he may have seen himself as a capable general overseeing a mission run with military precision, but, as Chibnall dryly observed, in reality his army career amounted to four days of National Service before going AWOL.

Reynolds' half-baked idealism was further undermined by the over-familiar yet commendably unflinching re-enactment of the robbery itself. Without recourse to melodramatic flourishes, director Julian Jarrold captured how terrifying the experience was for the train guards, drivers and tellers. The lives of driver Jack Mills and his young colleague, David Whitby, were ruined by Reynolds and his cosh-wielding gang, and it's to Chibnall's credit that he didn't shy away from this uglier side of the story.

Nevertheless, this was still a production which, while adequately diverting in its undemanding way, didn't really need to exist. Though Chibnall can't be be blamed for failing to shed new light on such an overexposed case, one wonders why he bothered to tackle it in the first place. Still, if the likes of this and Broadchurch keep him busy and away from Doctor Who, then we should thank heaven for humongous mercies.

An uncompromising advocate of “morale-boosting” sing-songs, it's little wonder that call centre CEO Nev Wilshire is a big fan of Christmas. The Call Centre Christmas caught up with the overbearingly genial Nev, whose often inappropriately hands-on approach to team leading turned him into a reality TV star this year. Yet compared to 2013's other documentary smash, Educating Yorkshire, Nev's star vehicle feels awfully drab and inconsequential. The vaguely unsettling novelty of his bumptious personality can only go so far before it palls.

Saturday, 14 December 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 14th December 2013.

Lucan: Wednesday, STV

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine: Saturday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Despite its reputation as one of the most notorious mysteries of our age, the bizarre case of homicidal Freddie Mercury lookalike Lord Lucan had never been adapted for the screen prior to Jeff Pope's two-part drama, Lucan. That's possibly due to its lack of a neat, concrete ending: after bludgeoning his children's nanny to death in 1974, the man nicknamed “Lucky” by his aristocratic peers simply vanished into the ether, never to be found.

So while part two apparently provides a theory as to how Lucan evaded capture, episode one focused on the details leading up to the murder.

Pope, a writer/producer renowned for non-sensationalist factual dramas such as Appropriate Adult and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, delved into a decadent, fenced-off world populated by overgrown children drunk on a diet of arrogant entitlement.

At its centre lay the poisonous John Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston, sporting a distractingly mannered posh accent), a corrupt gambling club owner and moral supremacist whose skewed take on Darwinism – nature must yield to the strongest alpha male – was, according to Pope, a key influence on Lucan's decision to bump off his estranged wife in order to gain custody of their children.

In stark contrast to Aspinall's dominant personality, Lucan, as portrayed by Rory Kinnear, came across as an empty carapace and gullible fool with no discernible charm or charisma. Curiously, this goes against everything we've been told about Lucan: that he was a flamboyant character with sparkle to spare. The only mildly flamboyant aspect of Kinnear's performance was his luxuriant moustache, through which he muttered his lines like a quietly seething vampire.

Though I've no doubt that the decision to portray him as a cold-eyed fish paralysed with upper-class reserve was deliberate - Pope always carefully avoids glamorising his subjects - it did rather undermine the notion that he was driven to murder due to an all-consuming love of his children. Kinnear's inert, understated Lucan doesn't seem capable of committing a crime of passion.

But was paternal love actually his abiding motivation? Pope also suggested that this inveterate gambler, a man who'd been indulged his entire life, simply couldn't bear to lose. Just in case you missed this suggestion, Pope made sure that Aspinall/Eccleston spelled it out during several over-egged soliloquies.

Despite a sluggish start and some extraneous scenes set in the present day – it feels dramatically unnecessary to include author John Pearson, upon whose book the series is based, as a linking device – Lucan succeeds if only to satisfy our morbid curiosity about the case.

And yet the actual murder itself wasn't depicted gratuitously: that's not Pope's style. A recurring theme throughout his work is the chilling banality of evil, so although Lucan is characterised as a dispassionate bore, at least one doesn't feel the remotest tingle of titillation while watching this frosty account of his pathetic saga.

A documentary narrated by the subject themselves is usually a recipe for self-serving disaster. But Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine, in which the estimable scientist looked back over his remarkable life, avoided hagiography thanks to an overriding flavour of commendable candour and charming self-awareness.

Hawking, who was told he only had two years to live when diagnosed with motor neurone disease in the 1960s, emerged from this humbling, tasteful film as an extraordinarily indefatigable character whose lust for knowledge and experience is informed by an acute awareness of life's transience.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 7th December 2013.

The Bible: Saturday, Five

Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves: Monday, BBC4

Paul Whitelaw

I'm not a religious man, but after sitting through the unbearable opening chapter of The Bible, even I was moved to question what kind of vengeful deity would unleash such horror on His creations. Utterly atrocious in every way, this multimillion dollar turkey is undeniably awe-inspiring: it requires an almost heroic kind of blundering ineptitude to reduce The Big Book of Books to an incoherent, turgid mess.

Our hero in this case is Mark Burnett, an LA-based producer hitherto best known for overseeing such reality TV titans as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice (and Shark Tank). Who better to spread God's word on Earth?

Burnett's version of the Bible is a loud, artless, empty spectacle riddled with laughable performances and stilted dialogue. While I appreciate that the barnstorming, sinner-smiting Old Testament doesn't exactly lend itself to subtlety, the chap playing Abraham – to take just one example from a uniformly dismal cast – gave a rafter-rattling performance that even Brian Blessed would condemn for being “a bit much”.

Whether you're a believer or not, shouldn't these parables, which have touched and inspired people for millennia, be depicted with a tad more depth and dignity? Burnett's Bible is so one-dimensional, it's impossible to invest in it on an emotional or philosophical level. It's just a bunch of hirsute ciphers bellowing at CGI skies.

Now, I know the Bible isn't supposed to be taken literally – I'm not an idiot – but the inherent danger with dramatisations of the Old Testament, especially one as clumsy as this, is that it can come across as a camp explosion of melodramatic nonsense: Cecil B. DeMille without the restraint.

Lot's wife being turned into an unconvincingly-rendered pillar of salt was a particular comic highlight, especially when accompanied by the straight-faced narrator explaining what just happened as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The depiction of sinful Sodom looked more like a gaggle of Levellers fans storming the bogs at Glastonbury, although I must admit I wasn't expecting the violent ninja battle which broke out in the middle of it (this must be what the opening caption was referring to when it promised to honour the spirit of the Bible).

And who among us knew that God speaks, not with a commanding stentorian roar, but with a camp, supercilious drawl, like a drowsy Kevin Spacey? Even more alarming is the actor playing Satan's suspiciously close physical resemblance to Obama. Burnett, who once produced a reality show starring Sarah Palin, says it's just a coincidence. That's at least one commandment broken right there.

God made a more low-key appearance in Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, a sensitive three-part Swedish drama about young men devastated by the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

Benjamin, a dutiful Jehovah's Witness, gradually came to terms with his conflicted faith and sexuality amid the nurturing embrace of Stockholm's gay subculture. Similarly liberated was his first boyfriend, Rasmus, a disenfranchised small-town boy given a powerful new sense of identity. Inevitably, these happy scenes were tempered by tragedy in the shape of unflinching flash-forwards to Rasmus dying in hospital, as Benjamin, helpless, sat by his side.

A heartfelt slice of character-driven social history, Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves – the title comes from a nurse's sternly pragmatic advice regarding disinfection – is marred slightly by its heavy-handed symbolism: the flashbacks to young Rasmus being told about the magical qualities of the white elk – a creature prized for being different, beautiful and unique – were particularly awkward. Fortunately, its earnestly poetic excesses are grounded in poignant reality by the understated performances from the two leads. 

Saturday, 30 November 2013


A version of this article was originally published in The Courier on 30th November 2013.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor: Saturday, BBC1

Paul Whitelaw

Months of speculation and brouhaha – whohaha? - climaxed last weekend with the grand unveiling of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special. Did it deliver? Simulcast to a record-breaking 94 countries around the world, and with a domestic audience of over 10 million viewers, it was always going to struggle against such overwhelming expectations.

But never mind the hype. What's more important is that it triumphed as both an entertaining celebration of Doctor Who's legacy and a significant addition to its ongoing lore. That's quite an achievement. It wasn't perfect, of course: the first half suffered from flabby pacing, the shape-shifting Zygon and Elizabeth I sub-plot - although amusing - felt like padding, and Billie Piper's cameo was superfluous.

But it came together beautifully once the three Doctors – Matt Smith, David Tennant and battle-scarred “War Doctor” John Hurt - joined forces, and current companion Clara was at last given something important to do rather rather than act as a mere plot device

Writer Steven Moffat wisely focused on telling a witty, clever and inventive yarn rather than falling back on sentimental self-indulgence. Despite the self-mocking gags and affectionate nods – using the original opening titles was a lovely touch, as was the climactic tribute to every former Doctor – the special was primarily concerned with pushing things forward.

Like Moffat's celebrated season five finale, The Big Bang, it told an epic story on a relatively intimate scale. Impressively realised scenes of the hitherto off-screen war between the Time Lords and Daleks mingled with emotionally charged moments in which the Doctors wrestled with their decision to commit genocide in order to save the universe. What other show could effortlessly blend such weighty themes with gags about Derren Brown and screwdriver envy?

A seminal event in he Doctor's life, the Time War has underpinned the show since it returned in 2005: guilt, remorse, self-loathing and loneliness have been key components of the character for the last eight Earth years.

So it was incredibly bold of Moffat to reboot the series, without in any way contradicting established continuity, by allowing the Doctor a life-affirming reprieve: no longer the destroyer of the Time Lords, he instead became their saviour by gathering the combined genius of his thirteen incarnations to freeze his home planet in suspended animation (simply writing this synopsis reminds me of why I love Doctor Who).

His quest to find Gallifrey will presumably drive Peter Capaldi's eagerly anticipated tenure in the TARDIS: I know I wasn't alone in being thrilled by the unexpected glimpse of his eyes in The Day of the Doctor.

While it's frustrating that stubborn party pooper Christopher Eccleston declined to take part, the sparkling chemistry between the three Doctors easily compensated for his absence. Hurt exuded husky pathos and wry disdain, Tennant slipped back into the role as if he'd never been away, and Smith proved once again that he's the most naturally charismatic Doctor since the great Tom Baker, whose touching cameo as – well, who, exactly? - fondly embraced the past while prodding our hero towards his future.

Was the episode impenetrable to those expecting a straightforward birthday bash? Possibly. But Doctor Who, confident in its position as one of the world's biggest and best TV shows, can afford to baffle casual viewers from time to time. This was a special occasion, a glorious blow-out, a heartfelt gift to millions of fans from a brilliant writer who loves and understands the show completely.

As shape-shifting alien Noddy Holder once sang: here's to the future, we've only just begun.

Saturday, 23 November 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 23rd November 2013.

An Adventure in Space and Time: Thursday, BBC2

Storyville – Blackfish: The Whale That Killed: Thursday, BBC4

Paul Whitelaw

As deranged though it may sound to Doctor Who agnostics – amazingly, such people still exist - I'm not ashamed to admit that, by the end of An Adventure in Space and Time, my eyes were prickled moist. An emotional experience for life-long fans such as myself, this beautifully realised drama about the programme's troubled origins paid heartfelt tribute to the pioneers who set it in motion.

Anchored by a sensitive performance from David Bradley as original Doctor William Hartnell, it was clearly a labour of love for all concerned, including writer/producer and Doctor Who acolyte Mark Gatiss – as a dramatist, it's the best thing he's written – and director Terry McDonough. The latter's lovingly framed, almost magical shots of dear, departed Television Centre – fittingly, this was the last drama to be filmed there before it closed earlier this year – spoke volumes about the alchemy of creative endeavour.

Accessible and authoritative, it offered an astute blend of acceptably broad strokes and fan-pleasing attention to detail. I suspect that, even for viewers who've never watched Doctor Who in their lives, Gatiss' touching tale of an ailing character actor given a late, fleeting lease of life would've struck a tender chord.

Bolstered by extraordinarily accurate production design – the original TARDIS console room looked stunning – An Adventure in Space in Time was, at heart, a traditional story about a gang of “misfits” triumphing against the blinkered establishment.

Waris Hussein and the heroically dedicated Verity Lambert (an assured performance from Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine) were, respectively, the BBC's first Indian director and female producer. Both surmounted prejudice and obstruction to create something bold, new and experimental, despite being banished to a cramped studio with a budget of around ninepence. I'm no knee-jerk patriot, but somewhere in there lies the proud and decent essence of Britishness.

Although tempered with affectionate humour and the grit and pathos of Bradley's performance – Hartnell's irascibility wasn't ignored – the celebratory mood peaked with a fleeting cameo from current incumbent Matt Smith. As the outgoing first Doctor shared an understanding glance with the outgoing eleventh, the far-reaching scale of Hartnell and co's achievement was encapsulated in one wordless flash of magical symbolism.

Sentimental and self-indulgent? Oh yes. But if you can't indulge yourself on your 50th birthday, when can you? As much as I'm looking forward to the anniversary special starring Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt, it'll have to work hard to trump this charming love letter.

A deeply angering yet essential documentary, Storyville – Blackfish: The Whale That Killed exposed the appalling mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld marine parks.

In 2010 an orca called Tilikum killed an experienced trainer. SeaWorld tried to blame the victim, conveniently ignoring the fact that Tilikum had killed on two previous occasions. With candid assistance from sincerely repentant former trainers, the film showed how these intelligent, sociable creatures were driven to violence and despair after being kept in inhumane conditions for almost their entire lives. It's hardly a coincidence that no human has ever been killed by an orca in the wild.

A necessarily distressing experience, this powerful document should, by rights, be instrumental in obliterating our outdated view of animals as entertainment. If you missed it, then I urge you to watch it on iPlayer. Rarely have I witnessed such a compassionate, comprehensive attack on the amoral deeds of corporate self-interest.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 16th November 2013.

The Sound of Musicals: Tuesday, Channel 4

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain – Poirot's Last Case: Wednesday, STV

Being Poirot: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Billed as a rare peek behind the curtain of that business we call show, The Sound of Musicals was basically an extended piece of free publicity for director Sam Mendes' West End musical production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A pedestrian documentary hitting every predictable beat – rehearsals, setbacks, first night nerves – it struggled to make a convincing case for why we should care about the fortunes of a £10 million musical. Or maybe that's just me.

A scene depicting crazed theatre-goers queuing overnight to buy tickets for smash hit musical The Book of Mormon suggested I wasn't the target audience. The only thing I'd ever queue overnight for would be tins of uncontaminated spam in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and even then only at a push. But these people live for West End theatre, so they'll presumably lap this series up.

It's mildly frustrating, as there was an interesting documentary about the vicissitudes of life as a child actor struggling to break free from repetitive sequences of Mendes looking like a stressed Kenny Rogers and set designers worrying about the logistically troublesome glass elevator prop (initially a rickety death-trap, the actors inside would've been safer diving with sharks in a cage made from ham).

The ruthlessness with which kids were thrown aside during rehearsals when they were deemed unsuitable was eye opening. Tom, a sweet little lad with no previous stage experience, was in the running for the pivotal role of Charlie, before being replaced by a precocious young veteran. It's a cut-throat business. Likewise, the boy originally cast as Augustus Gloop was dismissed when his voice broke. “He had a great moment in the sun,” said Mendes, “and then he got too old.” You heartless monster!

This selfishly pubescent Gloop was replaced by Jenson, an exuberant child who'd always dreamed of being a West End star. “He loves all that stuff,” deadpanned his heating engineer dad. Jenson, to his credit, was a natural; the programme's only truly affecting moment was when dad proudly announced that the experience had brought him closer to his son. That bond was worth more than a million golden tickets.

The great David Suchet made television history last week when, after 25 years, he completed his career ambition of starring in an adaptation of every Hercule Poirot story ever written. Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain – Poirot's Last Case marked a fitting farewell to Suchet's definitive portrayal of the incomparable Belgian detective.

The appropriately meticulous detail of his performance has always been a delight. It would be easy to slip into caricature – especially after having played the character for so long - and present Poirot as a vainglorious buffoon. But, as illustrated by Being Poirot, a documentary in which the affable actor bid fond adieu to his beloved alter ego, Suchet never compromised the integrity of the character.

Having studied Christie's books in forensic detail, he brought Poirot's endearing essence to life without condescension or derision. No other actor has ever captured so effectively the charm, warmth and righteous humanity behind the moustachioed super-sleuth's fastidious veneer. There was no madness to his method, only painstaking dedication.

Suchet's remarkable performance and record-breaking achievement will, without a hint of hyperbole, live on in TV immortality. His final glance to camera in Curtain – a moment of self-indulgence perfectly allowable under the circumstances – said it all: au revoir, mon ami, we shall meet again.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 9th November 2013.


Pressure Pad: Monday to Friday, BBC1

Fresh Meat: Monday, Channel 4

Whether crooning Colgate covers of West End standards or flashing his derrière at any stolen opportunity, John Barrowman is a man for whom the word “irrepressible” is merely a springboard to hitherto uncharted levels of alarming buoyancy.

I understand why he annoys people, but in my own personal catalogue of borderline irritating TV personalities he rests firmly in the 'Harmless' section. He's a natural, capable host, as evinced by his stewardship of new daytime quiz show Pressure Pad. Granted, within the first ten minutes of Monday's episode he'd already slipped back into his Glasgow accent for a cheap laugh, a crime so heinous it should result in instant extradition from the motherland. I'm looking at you too, Lulu.

Otherwise, this American-twanged light entertainment Braveheart unleashed his practised arsenal of lame jokes, cheeky chit-chat and a laugh like a balloon-loaded machine gun, as he gently prodded two teams towards a cash prize of £3,000.

Presented from within a purple/blue set, like a bruised nightclub, it's a basic general knowledge quiz in which contestants compete via the titular pressure pad, I.e. a circular glass stage upon which various rounds and multiple choices appear. A ticking clock adds an element of mild peril, but that's about it.

While it will never challenge Pointless as the wryly addictive king of daytime quizzes, it's a perfectly adequate distraction of a weekday afternoon. But its hook just isn't strong enough to make it stand out from the throng. No matter how many times Barrowman urgently refers to the pressure pad as if it's some sort of fiendish gimmick, even he can't disguise the fact that it's just some people answering pub quiz questions while scampering across a podium.

Plus, the distorted robot voice which announces each round just reminds you that you're not watching The Cube. That's right, Pressure Pad isn't as thrilling or inventive as mind-blowing Schofield fantasia The Cube.

Incidentally, one of the categories in the very first round was Doctor Who, while later a winning answer was actor/comedian and noted Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss. Is Barrowman compiling the questions himself? Also, he really needs to work on his catchphrase. “If you can't take the pressure, stay off the pressure pad!” Really, man, is that the best you can do?

So where to now for the enjoyable, if inconsistent, Fresh Meat? This comedy-drama about a misfit gang of house-sharing students returned last week for a third series of coming-of-age awkwardness. No longer freshers, the house-mates may be in their second year of university, but their experience so far seems to have done little to abate their insecurities. So much for character development.

Episode one was very much business as usual, as blundering posh buffoon JP (comedian Jack Whitehall, perfectly cast) continued his fruitless search for “hotties” via invitations to his dry slope skiing club – in reality a freezing hot tub in the back garden – while Kingsley and Josie resumed their on-off relationship. Although realistically handled, this latter plot strand constantly threatens to capsize Fresh Meat at any moment: as with Ross and Rachel in Friends, there's only so much mileage one can eke from this set-up before viewers grow impatient.

Nevertheless, it's still funny, well-observed, nicely performed – especially by Whitehall and Zawe Ashton as dissolute rebel Vod - and full of sharp lines (none of which I can quote in a family newspaper). For anyone who ever grew painfully – isn't that all of us? - then Fresh Meat continues to resonate.

Saturday, 2 November 2013


Here's a link to my Guardian Your Next Box Set Review of Ghostwatch and The Stone Tape.


This article was originally published in The Guardian on 24th October 2013.


This article was originally published in The Courier on 2nd November 2013.


The Escape Artist: Tuesday, BBC1

Bedlam: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

There was a scene near the start of The Escape Artist, a lurid new thriller starring David Tennant as a hotshot barrister, in which our man carefully explained the basics of his profession to a group of inquisitive schoolchildren.

Rarely have I witnessed such a patronising piece of exposition in a drama designed for adults; did writer David Wolstencroft, the creator of Spooks, really assume us ignorant of what a barrister does? Given the sheer preponderance of legal dramas on film and television over the years, I think even the most inattentive viewer must've got the gist of it by now.

That aside, it's an enjoyable penny dreadful in which dynamic barrister Will Burton's belief that everyone deserves a defence came back to haunt him like an army of knife-wielding ghosts. Even when defending some right rum coves, the man nicknamed “The Escape Artist” is renowned for having never lost a case. Recently crowned number one in the What Barrister industry magazine – much to the chagrin of number two, played by Sophie Okenodo - he was almost unbearably successful.

Indeed, Burton was initially depicted as so content in his career and home life – he and loving wife Ashley Jensen enjoyed nothing more than sharing a candlelit bath in their idyllic country cottage – it was simply a matter of waiting for that happiness to be obliterated.

Burton's latest case saw him defending Liam Foyle, a creepy young man charged with brutally murdering a woman. The evidence against Foyle was overwhelming. He kept an aviary in his living room, for heaven's sake, the sort of “quirk” no self-respecting fictional serial killer should be without. It's also the sort of detail leered over by the tabloids, who Wolstencroft, with a faint whiff of hypocrisy, chastised for sensationalising and prejudicing such trials. He's right, they do. But isn't he also gaining capital from exploiting our fascination with serial killers? It's a moral maze, it really is.

In any case, despite Burton's moral qualms about taking on the case, he triumphed once again, almost despite himself, and got Foyle off on a technicality. Inevitably, the action then lurched into Cape Fear territory, as Foyle – Toby Kebbell giving it the full smirking, well-spoken, hair-trigger psychopath treatment – began stalking Burton's brood.

Why? Presumably because Burton wouldn't shake his hand at the close of the trial. They're awfully touchy, serial killers.

The scene in which Foyle appeared at the cottage window while Jensen took yet another relaxing bath was, while predictable, an entertaining jolt. But what followed was a classic piece of horror illogic. After calling the police and confirming the identity of their unwanted visitor, the family travelled back to London. Perhaps they'd be safer there. But no, the following weekend mother and child travelled back to the cottage without protection. Call me a snivelling coward if you will, but I doubt I'd be so lax in that situation.

However, the action soared towards a genuinely shocking crescendo. Burton, running late, arrived at the cottage to discover his wife brutally slain and his petrified child hiding in a trunk. Although some form of disaster was to be expected, killing off a high-profile actress such as Jensen in episode one was a particularly effective twist (Wolstencroft has previous form, of course: Spooks was notorious for killing off major characters with little fanfare).

Tennant, a fine actor, is particularly adept at projecting haunted trauma. The remaining episodes will doubtless allow him plenty of scope to impress.

In the end, the ambitious Okenodo took the rearrested Foyle's case – of course she did, that's how drama works – thus paving the way for an inevitable torrent of moral anguish and ghost train thrills.

A surprisingly sensitive study of mental illness, observational documentary series Bedlam – so titled after the notorious former name of what is now the South London and Maudsley psychiatric institution – opened with a visit to a specialist anxiety unit treating some of Britain's most extreme OCD cases.

The focus rested largely on James, a young man whose life had been capsized by his terror of soiling himself in public. At his worst he spent up to seven hours a day in the bathroom, frantically washing and showering. The candour of the contributions from James and his tired, caring mother were particularly affecting.

Thankfully, this was no pruriently voyeuristic look at a “crazy” ailment – we have more than enough of those on TV already - but rather a poignant and ultimately hopeful portrait of troubled, vulnerable human beings.

Saturday, 19 October 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 19th October 2013.

The One and Only Cilla Black: Wednesday, STV

Up All Night: The Nightclub Toilet: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Viewers watching with a scorecard were kept busy last week, when The One and Only Cilla Black dutifully encompassed everything you'd expect from a brassy tribute to this veteran entertainer. References to her friendship with The Beatles? Check. A faux-nostalgic return to her humble Liverpool roots? Check. Gushing pre-recorded tributes from celebrity chums who couldn't be bothered turning up? Check, check, check.

Hosted by her friend Paul O'Grady, it was officially a celebration of “our” Cilla's 50 years in the biz. But beneath the sycophancy – the studio audience were in raucous ovation mode throughout – it turned out to be an inadvertent chronicle of her decline.

The wealth of archive footage reminded us that Cilla was once a rather endearing personality. Her original appeal lay in her fun, giggly, girl-next-door charm; she was one of us on the inside, plucky, smart and unpretentious. It was as contrived as any other showbiz persona, but it worked: this tribute showed why she made such a smooth transition from pop star to TV royalty. She was good.

And yet it also showed that somewhere along the way she hardened into something far less likeable. Despite being the queen of Saturday night throughout the '80s and '90s, presiding over fondly-recalled behemoths such as Blind Date and Surprise Surprise, she developed a visible undercurrent of nastiness. Although handy with a waspish put-down, there was a tangible element of genuine disdain to the way she treated the harmless buffoons on Blind Date. For someone renowned as a gregarious people person, she doesn't seem to like them very much.

Pairing her with O'Grady provided an interesting study in contrasts. Like Cilla, he's an acerbic Scouser, and yet he tempers his barbs with the kind of innate warmth that she lost years ago. She couldn't even enjoy her own tribute without looking slightly bored and ungrateful, like the Queen at the launch of a planet named in her honour.

When she closed with an appallingly sentimental, warbled ditty about her working-class childhood, the audience rose to their feet as if they'd just witnessed Vera Lynn flattening Hitler. All I saw was the Cilla brand at its most transparently cynical. That's showbiz.

Brought to you by the sensitive artisans behind the Big Fat Gypsy franchise, Up All Night: The Nightclub Toilet was a similarly exploitative documentary in which, under the disingenuous guise of social anthropology, human beings were treated as objects of ridicule.

Filmed in a busy nightclub loo, it was little more than a witless parade of drunk people having staggeringly banal conversations. There was no drama, depth or comedy, just yawning tedium. Oh, they tried to justify its existence by paying lip service to the Nigerian toilet attendants who politely endured well-meaning customers while earning a pittance. But the tragedy of their situation – one man fled his homeland after losing his family in unspecified circumstances – is anathema to shallow, tawdry programmes such as this. It was too preoccupied with the supposed hilarity of drunken banter to say anything meaningful about the plight of immigrants.

And well done, Channel 4, on showing an overweight woman struggling in a toilet cubicle, mere seconds after she'd talked sincerely about her inferiority complex. Stay classy, always.

Saturday, 12 October 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 12th October 2013.


Masters of Sex: Tuesday, Channel 4

Breathless: Thursday, STV

Homeland: Sunday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

If we've learned anything from biopics about scientists, it's that the stuffy scientific community won't stand for anything remotely unorthodox. And so it was in 1950s factual drama Masters of Sex, in which Michael Sheen's Dr William Masters – the title is a pun, do you see? - ruffled the feathers of Beau Bridges' stock establishment spoilsport with his pioneering study into human sexuality.

"This study will never be seen as serious science, and you will be labelled a pervert!" fumed Bridges, following a rousing soliloquy from Sheen on the ground-breaking nature of his work. It was one of several explanatory declarations during this promising pilot, which occasionally fell into the biopic trap of being written with slightly too much ironic hindsight. Even if you've never heard of Masters, it's obvious that his study is of historical import, otherwise Michael Sheen wouldn't be playing him in a prestigious US drama. So whenever a character pooh-poohed his work, it felt as if the writer was leaning awkwardly out of the screen, smirking, “But we know different, don't we viewers?”

That nagging flaw aside, it was a solid introduction to a potentially engaging series. Sheen impresses as the brilliant, obsessive, irascible Masters, whose stoic demeanour while carrying out his research – at one point spying through a peep-hole, clipboard and stopwatch in hand, while a prostitute had sex with a client – was inherently amusing. Co-star Lizzy Caplan is warm and appealing as Virginia, the young assistant whose open and mature attitude towards sex stands in glaring contrast to the pervading conservatism of 1950s picket-fence America.

The fundamental bedrock of the series, the yin yang dynamic between these sex-studying mavericks could prove interesting. There will certainly be repercussions from Masters' casual announcement towards the end of the episode that he and a shell-shocked Virginia should sleep together to defuse “sexual transference” during their studies. The crafty beggar.

Another period medical drama, this time set in 1960s London, Breathless is a glossy bubble of soap in which caddish doctors and put-upon nurses wrestle with matters of the heart and groin. It's basically Emergency Ward 10 – there's a reference for the teenagers – crossed with a superficial gloss of Mad Men, at least in terms of fashion, smoking, drinking, and the inclusion of a sexy redhead in snug-fitting clothing.

Jack Davenport smirks his way through the plum role of womanising surgeon Dr Otto Powell – even his name cocks an arrogant eyebrow – who rules the roost in a rudely entitled world of class snobbery and female subjugation. Gleaming with righteous idealism, the young Jenny Agutter clone who arrived at the hospital in episode one will doubtless rock his immoral kingdom in weeks to come.

Despite the familiar territory, Breathless is executed with confidence and style, and the apparent focus on ongoing storylines rather than patient-of-the-week tedium suggests it could be worth sticking with.

When US thriller Homeland lurched into wild 24-style theatrics last year, many bemoaned its divergence from the relative restraint of series one. Personally, I didn't mind, since bonkers plot-lines such as Brody assassinating the Vice President by hacking into his pacemaker and triggering heart failure were highly entertaining.

But it was interesting to note the marked change of tone when it returned last week. Notwithstanding an enjoyably daft sequence in which a CIA agent single-handedly invaded a maximum security terrorist compound, it was focused more on character than action. Off her meds, under Senate investigation, and obsessed with clearing the fugitive Brody's name, Carrie's facial gymnastic were even wilder than usual. Meanwhile, Saul wrestled with his conscience in Mandy Patinkin's typically understated, world-weary style. It was all rather subdued and affectingly glum.

However, the temporary removal of Damian Lewis as Brody was a bold risk which didn't pay off, since it meant we had to spend more drama-sapping time with his dreary family. Still, hats off to the writers for attempting something different, although it remains to be seen whether they can sustain interest throughout another series.

Saturday, 5 October 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 5th October 2013.


Atlantis: Saturday, BBC1

The Ginge, The Geordie & The Geek: Sunday, BBC2

Paul Whitelaw

Resembling a bemused Lee Meade searching for the exit at Sea World, Jason, the chiselled hero at the centre of new family adventure drama Atlantis, is about as bloodless as they come. Granted, I'm sure we'd all be shaken if, while trying to find our missing father beneath the waves in a 21st century mini-sub, we were magically transported back to the shores of Ancient Greece. But the shock of the experience evidently drained poor Jason of all traces of personality.

It's fortunate, then, that this action-packed show rarely pauses to allow his blankness to dominate. Essentially a series of deftly-executed chase sequences, episode one introduced the basic premise – Jason discovers a hitherto suppressed connection to the fabled lost city, and must fulfil his destiny while shielding his identity from oppressive evil forces – with some degree of flair. Its breezy authority is hardly surprising, given that its makers already perfected the formula over five series of Merlin. Swap Arthurian Legend for Greek Mythology, and they're essentially the same show.

So while there was little here to excite adults – the Ancient Greeks, after all, invented the storytelling tropes we're all more than familiar with – there was plenty for young kids to enjoy. A flurry of two-headed dragons, snarling lions and an appearance from the Minotaur would certainly have held my pre-teen attention.

Scholars will doubtless baulk at its loose retelling of Greek myth – Pythagoras, a real historical figure, is one of Jason's sidekicks – but it's hardly aimed at them. I was mildly amused by its depiction of the traditionally muscle-bound Hercules, as played by the ever reliable Mark Addy, as an overweight, middle-aged, booze-soaked coward. And I had to smile at the utter shamelessness of divesting Jason of his clothes within the first five minutes. Quick, before the teens switch over to X Factor!

Put simply, Atlantis is a harmless bit of fun. Yes, the dialogue is wooden – Juliet Stevenson as a saucer-eyed oracle is little more than a helpful cauldron of exposition – and the bombastic orchestral score makes Murray Gold's work on Doctor Who sound like Philip Glass whistling in the bath. But I can't deny the appeal of a show in which, after being slain by our hero, the Minotaur briefly regenerated into a naked fat man – a surprise, I must admit – who clung on to life just long enough to impart a vital plot point.

I'm also quietly delighted by the fact that, despite its exotic Moroccan exteriors, most of this lavish romp was filmed inside a disused Tesco warehouse near Chepstow. You can't whack facts like that.

When Fast Show co-creator Charlie Higson recently bemoaned the lack of a successful mainstream sketch show on our screens, he couldn't have realised that one was potentially around the corner. A huge hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, comic trio The Ginge, The Geordie & The Geek, transferred their agreeable brand of silliness into a rapid-fire TV vehicle boasting a welcome variety of sketches.

More readily accessible than fellow Scottish sketch comedies Burnistoun and the peerless Limmy's Show!, its benign assault of incongruous whimsy resembles a family-friendly take on cult favourite Big Train. Broadcast pre-watershed, it may well become a playground smash. Seeing as my oracular predictions are usually the kiss of death, I apologise to the boys in advance.


Thursday, BBC1, 9pm
Oh dear. Set in Nottingham, this charmless comedy-drama is little more than an unbearable televised headache. Full of aggravating characters shouting at each other, it stars Stephen Tompkinson as a boring long-distance lorry driver going through a mid-life crisis triggered by his divorce. Such subject matter can, theoretically, be a fecund source of black comedy, but Truckers is merely bleak and embarrassing. Despite being peppered with sex, drugs and booze, it chugs doggedly down the middle of the road in a noxious cloud of unfunny dialogue and clanking pathos.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Saturday, 28 September 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 28th September 2013.

By Any Means: Sunday, BBC1

Downton Abbey: Sunday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Signs You're Watching a Dreadful TV Show # 408: its only enjoyable aspect is an appearance by Keith Allen. Evidently enjoying himself as a villainous tycoon, Allen brought a much-needed splash of pantomime colour to the otherwise lacklustre By Any Means.

Created by Tony Jordan in the mould of his own Hustle – it's basically a shameless rehash – this dismal comedy-drama follows the exploits of a maverick underground police unit tasked with catching criminals BY ANY MEANS necessary. This involves the implementation of various wacky stings, none of which are as witty or clever as froth such as this demands. Instead it comes across as a failed attempt to recreate the droll sheen of classic adventure romps such as The Persuaders.

Our heroes are a gang of hopeless caricatures – the wisecracking hunk, the sexy woman, the nerdy computer genius - who come across as insufferably pleased with themselves. The whole show drowns in a shower of its own glibness. The need to establish who they were and how they operated resulted in unsubtle exchanges such as: NERD: “Are we allowed to kill people?” HUNK: “No.” Replying “it's a grey area” whenever anyone asked if they were police was employed as a weak running gag throughout.

Despite its zippy pace, episode one was so colossally dull its only highlight other than Allen's performance was an unexpected cameo from human knitwear catalogue Martin Jarvis. Matters weren't helped by the supporting presence of Gina McKee, an actress whose restraint often borders on the comatose.

There's nothing wrong with a bit of escapism, but By Any Means is far too shallow for its own good. No amount of production swagger can disguise its tiredness. The How-We-Did-It flashback montage towards the end of the episode summed it all up: we were clearly supposed to marvel at the cleverness of their elaborate scheme to ensnare Allen's character, but instead it felt like a hack magician performing an underwhelming card trick.

Within the opening moments of the returning Downton Abbey, the house thronged with the news that Mrs O'Brien had taken employment elsewhere, thus swiftly taking care of Siobhan Finneran's decision to leave the show. Subtlety has never been Downton's strong point.

Now little more than an exposition generator, Lord Grantham spent most of the episode explaining to anyone who'd listen the legal complexities of managing the estate. Meanwhile, Lady Mary was deep in mourning for Matthew, purely, I believe, as an excuse for Michelle Dockery's inexpressiveness. That she's received TWO Emmy nominations for her monotonous performance is baffling, even if one takes into account America's almost endearing view of Downton as a serious, prestigious drama.

It isn't, of course. It's an elegantly tailored soap, enjoyable for what it is, but hardly Brideshead Mark II. I'd doubtless enjoy it more if A) its ungainly dialogue didn't sound like Esperanto fed through Google Translate, and B) if it wasn't a strained wail of masturbatory nostalgia from a spoon-obsessed Tory Baron.

Anyway, following a hug from Carson and a compassionate pep talk from the wise old Dowager Countess – during which she urged her grieving granddaughter to choose life, like Trainspotting's Renton in corset and frills – Lady Mary regained her former vigour (i.e. none whatsoever) and by episode's end she was negotiating with sheep-farmers like the best of them. And lo, the Emmy judges did smile.


Some Girls
Monday, BBC3, 10pm
As this likeable, nicely observed sitcom about four boy-obsessed teenage schoolgirls returns, they exploit the sudden death of a teacher to spend time with their dashing young grief counsellor. Bolstered by an excellent young cast, it's charmingly brusque.

House of Surrogates
Tuesday, BBC4, 9pm
This troubling documentary investigates a booming industry led by Dr Nayna Patel, a hugely controversial figure who runs a clinic occupied by poor Indian women who receive payment for acting as surrogates for childless couples from around the world.

Educating Yorkshire
Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm
In the latest instalment of this delightful documentary, the focus rests on kids hitting puberty as they choose the GCSE subjects which may well impact on their later lives. It also provides a poignant study of their sweetly supportive year leader, Mr Moses.

The Blacklist
Friday, Sky Living, 9pm
James Spader stars as one of the world's most wanted criminals in this enjoyable new US thriller. After giving himself up at FBI headquarters, he offers his help in tracking down terrorists, but only on his own ambiguous terms. Think Hannibal meets 24.

Saturday, 21 September 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st September 2013.

Orphan Black: Friday, BBC3

Educating Yorkshire: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

It's a question I'm sure we've all wrestled with: what would you do if you discovered you were just one of several identical clones? Would you be driven insane by the sheer existential horror of the discovery? Or would you, like Sarah, star of Anglo-Canadian sci-fi thriller Orphan Black, exploit it for your own ends?

Returning to her adopted New York, this insouciant English bohemian immediately bumped into her double, Beth, on a subway platform. The shock was compounded by Beth's subsequent suicide beneath an oncoming train. Spying a chance to literally begin a new life with her estranged daughter, Sarah wasted no time in stealing Beth's belongings and adopting her identity.

Naturally, the subterfuge didn't run smoothly. Beth, it transpired, was a rookie detective facing indictment for the accidental murder of a civilian. Fortunately, her partner, a permanently scowling cynic straight out of cop cliché central, was on hand to coach her replacement through the details of the case.

The scenes in which Sarah attempts to pass herself off as Beth are, while suspenseful, basically played for laughs. That Orphan Black has a knowing sense of its own absurdity is one of its saving graces. Slick and propulsive, it milks an intriguing central mystery – why do these clones exist, and who's responsible for bumping them off? - with helter skelter brio. But in chasing a self-consciously cool, cocky, sexy tone, it sacrifices emotional depth. It also suffers from some clunky dialogue and brazen exposition: thanks, Sarah, but you really don't need to read aloud from every piece of evidence you find.

Canadian actress Tatiana Maslaney copes admirably with a demanding multiple role, imbuing each clone – including snooty 'soccer mom' and hippy-geek versions of herself – with markedly different body language. Unfortunately, her English accent is shaky, and her brief yet ridiculous turn as a German clone, replete with red wig and 'Allo 'Allo overacting, comically undermined an ostensibly dramatic twist. 

It also doesn't help that Sarah's gay foster brother, who figures heavily as her partner in crime, is monumentally irritating. A haughty torrent of snide quippery, he comes across as a dislikeable bore, rather than the colourful catty funster he's presumably supposed to be.

Nevertheless, so far Orphan Black succeeds as an addictive slice of superficial hokum.

By treating its subjects with dignity and respect, the wholly benign Educating Yorkshire feels like a rare manifestation of modern-day Channel 4's deeply hidden conscience. A documentary observing life in an ordinary secondary school, it's a funny and poignant, but never saccharine, portrait of pupils and staff struggling against the odds.

The latest episode focused on two disruptive boys, whose exasperating behaviour threatened their future at the school. Typically, the programme sympathised with both sides, showing the vulnerability behind the troublemakers' noisy façades, as well as their teachers' determined efforts to help them as much as possible. Their fear of failing the children placed in their charge was palpable in its sincerity.

When teenage Tom's stepbrother died, his numbed grief quickly gave way to aggressive rebellion. Watching his collapse was troubling and sad. And yet despite dealing in such a sensitive area, the camera's gaze never felt prurient or intrusive. Educating Yorkshire is observational documentary-making at its best: life in the raw, captured with honesty, humour and compassion.


A Very British Murder
Monday, BBC4, 9pm
Playfully enthusiastic historian Lucy Worsley presents this new series examining Britain's fascination with murder. Skulking through the shadows of history, she tells the colourful and gruesome story of how newspapers began printing sensationalised murder reports in the early 19th century, much to the delight of a ravenous public.

The Wrong Mans
Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm
James Corden and Horrible Histories' Mathew Baynton write and star in this entertaining comedy thriller about a hapless duo unwittingly involved in a violent kidnapping plot. Their avowed goal of delivering a sitcom infused with twist-laden 24/Homeland-style drama seems to have paid off.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Friday, Channel 4, 8pm
This drama from Joss Whedon (Buffy The Vampire Slayer; Avengers Assemble) arrives in the UK on a wave of hype. Whether it delivers remains to be seen. It begins with the formation of a global law-enforcement agency in a world still coming to terms with the existence of aliens and superheroes.

The IT Crowd: The Last Byte
Friday, Channel 4, 9pm
Graham Linehan's patchy sitcom bids farewell with a fitfully amusing special, in which Roy and Jen become internet hate figures following an incident with a tramp and a diminutive barista. Moss, meanwhile, discovers the benefits of confidence-boosting trousers.