Sunday, 23 June 2013

TV PREVIEW: Eye Spy; Don't Call Me Crazy

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 22nd June 2013.

Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm

Monday, BBC3, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

In Channel 4's new hidden camera show EYE SPY, Stephen Fry sets a number of staged scenarios upon unsuspecting members of the great British public ™.

His stated aim is to restore our faith in human nature, as selfless, stout-hearted citizens do the right thing in times of need. In episode one alone, we witness diners standing up to an outrageously racist waiter, watch passer's-by help a teenager in a wheelchair up a flight of stairs, and marvel at humankind's innate ability to avoid cycling off with bicycles which don't belong to them.

Like an elaborate Beadle prank with a civic duty twist, its an entirely pointless experiment in which the notion that some people are prone to helpful intervention, while others aren't, is held up as astonishing insight. Insufferably condescending and pleased with itself – Fry, who narrates like a cosily omniscient God, presumptuously refers to the viewer as “you” and “we” throughout – it's a heavily padded, repetitious jumble of shallow positivity and censorious tutting.

For a programme purporting to celebrate human nature, it takes a notably dim view of its audience's intelligence: it even goes out of its way to point out that the actor playing the racist waiter isn't actually prejudiced in real life. Were they worried that pitchfork-wielding viewers might accost him in the street?

Aside from its tacit suggestion that the people of Manchester are less bothered by racism than their London counterparts – if that wasn't the intention, that's how it comes across – Eye Spy's nadir is an experiment involving young children resisting the urge to eat a marshmallow. This is used, with stunning lack of tact, as an analogue for the London riots of 2011. “See? Britain isn't all about smash, grab, gimme gimme!” chortles Fry, as if he's somehow solved the complex issue of disaffected class revolt with a wave of his pampered hand.

Incidentally, the supposedly life-affirming Eye Spy is produced by Objective, who, despite having many fine programmes to their name, also delivered the notorious Kookyville, a truly hateful comedy pilot in which ordinary members of the public were held up to ridicule and the audience roundly insulted. We shattered few who witnessed it will never forget, Objective. Never.

Far more sensitive and sympathetic is DON'T CALL ME CRAZY, a three-part observational documentary focusing on patients and staff at Manchester's McGuinness Unit. One of Britain's largest teenage mental health units, it's home to troubled kids with a variety of debilitating issues, ranging from eating disorders to self-harm.

Poignant but never cloying, it's a candid study of fragile young lives: as one staff-member puts it, adolescence is a form of madness at the best of times. The recurring visual motif of depressed patients slumped in corridors may linger for some time.

Sunday, 9 June 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 8th June 2013.

Sunday, Channel 4, 9pm

Monday to Wednesday, Channel 4, 10pm

Sunday, STV, 8pm

Their first foreign-language acquisition in over 20 years, THE RETURNED is clearly Channel 4's attempt to hijack the runaway success of BBC4's European drama bandwagon.

The subtitled likes of Spiral, Wallander, Arne Dahl, The Bridge, and, most notably, The Killing have all attracted dedicated cults in the last few years, and I suspect this French supernatural drama – a critically-acclaimed smash at home under its original title, Les Revenants – will reap similar awards. Having dipped a cautious toe in the pool with the inferior US remake of The Killing, this is Channel 4 fully and belatedly embracing one of the biggest TV trends of our time. And it looks like they've chosen wisely.

Loosely based on a 2004 film of the same name, it focuses on the residents of a picturesque Alpine town as they come to terms with the mystifying return of locals who died years ago (one suspects Dominic Mitchell, author of BBC3's recent zombie drama In the Flesh, is a fan). Outwardly normal in appearance – no rotting flesh or cannibalistic urges here – they haven't aged a day since they died, and have no memory of time passing.

Each episode nominally focuses on one particular character, with the first revolving around Camille, a young girl whose school bus crashes into a mountain dam. The opening scenes, in which she clambers from the ravine and wanders home through the twilight, recall the striking introduction to Twin Peaks: indeed, there's a vaguely Lynchian feel to this painterly study of a remote community torn apart by grief and mystery.

Despite the fantastical premise, the action unfolds at a leisurely, underplayed pace. Its quietude merely adds to the pervading atmosphere of disquieting intensity. With a sonorous score by Glasgow post-rock band Mogwai, it's a captivating moan of arthouse horror. That's right, on Channel 4, the home of Embarrassing Bodies and Big Fat Strictly Dole-Scum Hoarders. Well I never.

Mostly set at night, it takes place against an unnervingly sparse world of lamplight, underpasses and stark apartment blocks, redolent in mood of Let The Right One In. Aside from Camille – whose divorced parents greet her return with a believable embrace of stunned rapture – we're also introduced to a dazed returnee in search of his fiancee, and a creepy little boy whose mute demeanor and inscrutable smile are more frightening than most 18-rated horror films. He's like a “cursed” painting come to life.

If we're to trust the garlands it received upon its initial transmission in France, then The Returned may be one of the most striking TV dramas of the year. Channel 4 doubtless regard it as a gamble – their decision to broadcast the ad-breaks in French smacks of nervous gimmickry – but I don't doubt its addictive cult appeal. Baffling in the best possible sense, its haunting mystique is inescapable.

Given my pathological aversion to cocksure young people and their hats, I could never abide E4 youth drama Skins. But its creator, Bryan Elsley, has pleasantly surprised me with his latest venture, DATES. A series of half-hour dramas focusing on characters struggling through first dates, it's an almost unremittingly bleak treatise on various human foibles. But don't let that put you off: bleak is good.

Essentially a series of standalone two-hander plays – although at least one character crops up in a later episode – it's the sort of “experimental” piece one used to associate with Channel 4 in its halcyon days. Although episode one shows that Elsley hasn't lost his knack for creating profoundly irritating characters, there's something cruelly captivating about chippy everyman Will Mellor's awkward encounter with Oona Chaplin's aggressively unlikeable bully. Although one wonders why, wounded pride aside, Mellor's character would put up with her exhausting unpleasantness, I do admire Elsley's refusal to soften the blows.

Having watched the first three episodes – mousy Sheridan Smith's queasy date with Neil Maskell's gruff city trader is similarly unyielding – it seems that Elsley is attempting to say something meaningful about the guises we adopt at our most vulnerable and desperate. It's an unedifying portrait of human nature at somewhere near its worst: a cynical blast of rotten candour. Whether Elsley and his fellow writers actually like their characters is a moot point, but I can't deny the claustrophobic, voyeuristic impact of these superbly performed chamber pieces.

David Suchet's ambitious goal of starring in an adaptation of every single Hercule Poirot novel and short story nears fruition with AGATHA CHRISTIE'S POIROT: ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER, which begins ITV's final leg of the long-running franchise. Widely regarded as the weakest Poirot novel – published in 1972, it was Christie's final dalliance with the character – it inevitably fails to pass muster in TV form.

Zoe Wannamaker returns as feted crime author – and Christie simulacrum – Ariadne Oliver, as she seeks the Belgian detective's assistance in solving the apparent double suicide of a happily married couple. Suchet, as always, is impeccable, but one can't shake the feeling that this underwhelming entry is merely a box-ticking exercise in fulfilling a legacy.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Book review: GOD SAVE THE KINKS by Rob Jovanovic

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 8th June 2013.

God Save The Kinks
by Rob Jovanovic
Aurum, 336pp, £20

In the foreword to his thoroughly researched biography of one of Britain’s greatest bands, author Rob Jovanovic argues that, despite their lofty reputation, The Kinks remained curiously under-appreciated for much of their career.

Never as hip as their enduring peers The Rolling Stones and The Who, they were always a square peg, even during their first flush of chart-topping fame in the 1960s.

Led by enigmatic contrarian Ray Davies, they famously pilloried Swinging London in Dedicated Follower of Fashion, harked back to music hall following an opening streak of pioneering proto-punk/metal hits, and retreated into more parochial musical pastures just as their rivals were tuning in and freaking out. A decade later, when they were being embraced by the New Wave bands they influenced, they did the naffest thing imaginable and became unlikely stadium rock stars in the US.

But, as God Save The Kinks makes clear, it’s that very refusal to play the game, that single-minded, unfashionable vision played out over 40 years of fluctuating fortunes, that made the band so special. Years before Pulp prevailed with a similar shtick, The Kinks were the original misfit underdogs: fey eccentrics with a savage bite. Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1990s emergence of Britpop, just as The Kinks – with typical rotten timing – fell apart, that their importance was finally recognised.

The most overtly English of all the British Invasion bands, their acute character portraits of class strife and urban malaise were an obvious influence on the likes of Blur’s Damon Albarn. Suddenly, Ray was the godfather of Britpop.

In the years since, The Kinks have been canonised via the usual flurry of documentaries, lovingly rendered reissues, and music magazine features. As evinced by his touching appearance at the Olympics closing ceremony – a symbolic event which bookends Jovanovic’s account – Ray has attained National Treasure status, a position he’d doubtless profess to hate, but probably secretly enjoys.

However, their critical resurgence also means that several fine books have already been written about them. The problem Jovanovic faces is whether he can inject fresh insight into a narrative which will obviously be familiar to anyone interested in buying his book in the first place.

Their little known tale can now be told,” he claims, somewhat disingenuously, “in the words of those who were there.” Unfortunately, the words of the leading players, notoriously inimical siblings Ray and Dave Davies, have been culled from pre-existing interviews and the pages of their respective memoirs (he quotes huge swathes from Dave’s in particular). Nevertheless, he’s obviously immersed himself in the archive, and pilfers from it wisely.

While their often violent love/hate relationship understandably takes centre stage, Jovanovic makes sure to give other key members their due. The often unfairly overlooked bassist and founder member Pete Quaife, who died in 2010, is given satisfying prominence via a revealing interview with his brother.

Elsewhere, in-depth interviews with various engineers, journalists, photographers and musical collaborators provide an often dispiriting illustration of what it was like to work with the band. Tales of Ray’s egocentric petulance make for exhausting reading.

Yet one also discovers renewed appreciation for his dazzling talent, and the enormous pressure he was under during the manic 1960s and self-indulgent 1970s. Here was a sensitive young man blessed with genius yet cursed with restless ambition, who endured terrible nervous breakdowns and at least one suicide attempt. Despite these darker depths, Jovanovic provides a shaded portrait: a complex character, Ray can switch from wicked prima donna to self-deprecating charmer in the space of a paragraph.

Dave also comes across as a sensitive soul, whose exasperation at Ray’s undermining behaviour is mirrored by an obvious desire for his approval. Truth be told, his constant whining palls after a while: then again if you were stuck in a band with a sibling who once threatened to cancel a tour because someone spilled his backgammon set on the floor, you’d be whining too. “Dave,” sniffs Ray at one point, “I’m a genius, a perfectionist.” Sighs Dave wearily, “No you’re not, you’re an arsehole.”

A tragicomic epic of triumph and dysfunction, this is a highly readable account of a unique career. Although a self-confessed worshipper, Jovanovic never fawns over his subject, writing instead with a clear eye for detail and context. Despite a few niggling factual errors, it’s a fine retelling of a very British legend.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

TV PREVIEW: The Americans; Les Dawson: An Audience That Never Was; Love & Marriage; Queen's Coronation 60th Anniversary

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 1st June 2013.

Today, STV, 10pm

Today, STV, 8:30pm

Wednesday, STV, 9pm

BBC/STV, times and channels vary

Paul Whitelaw

It's clear that ITV have spent much of their time of late gazing enviously at the success of their rivals, before pilfering their strategies for themselves. So, after the success of the BBC's Mrs Brown's Boys, they unleashe an unabashedly old-school sitcom too in the shape of Vicious. And now, with US drama THE AMERICANS, they're obviously hoping to emulate the ratings bonanza reaped by Channel 4's Homeland.

But will they succeed? The pilot episode is certainly quite promising, as it introduces a pair of KGB agents working undercover as a married American couple in the suburbs of early 1980s Washington. Their cover is so deep, even their kids don't know the truth.

Played by British actor Matthew Rhys (so that's a British actor playing a Russian playing an American) and the feline Keri Russell, they're intriguing protagonists, working as they do against the usual Cold War stereotype of the villainous Russki. Her loyalty to the Motherland is sturdier than a hammer and sickle, whereas he entertains treasonous thoughts of defecting and settling down in this sunny nation of affluent capitalist pig-dogs. Both trained assassins, this leads to some rather fraught confrontations in the kitchen.

Although the opening chase sequence, with its 1980s fog and neon scored to the thumping blare of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk suggests The Americans is some sort of cheesy pastiche, it then switches tone, rather jarringly, into a relatively serious drama with darkly comic undertones. Mercifully, it dispenses with the clunky ironic foreshadowing so common to period dramas set in the recent past, and never sniggers at 1980s fashions and mores. It opts instead for an understated evocation of the era. Nevertheless, it doesn't yet feel like it's decided what it wants to be: the use of Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight over a supposedly dramatic scene towards the end comes across as inadvertently camp and comic.

But the ever-watchable Rhys is an interesting presence, as he goofs off with the kids while privately wrestling with his conscience. Their double life is rather brazenly symbolised by the presence of a kidnapped KGB agent in their garage, with the decision of what to do with him forming much of the episode's dramatic spine. The question of whether their secret will be uncovered is heightened by the introduction of their new neighbour, who - wouldn't you know it? - happens to be an FBI agent specialising in Counter Intelligence.

Although it takes a while to shift into gear, The Americans gradually exerts a grip once we learn more about these character's backgrounds (cue flashbacks in which they speak in heavily eggs-scented English). But one does wonder if, like Homeland, the storyline can be sustained over more than one season. The threat of dark secrets being exposed is all well and good, but it tends to lose dramatic impact if exploited for too long.

ITV's bold new experimental phase continues with what sounds like one of the maddest programmes in the entire history of television. In LES DAWSON: AN AUDIENCE THAT NEVER WAS, the late, great comedian is reanimated as, it says here, a "staggeringly realistic" 3-D hologram performing in front of a celebrity audience. Preview copies of this remarkable happening were unavailable at the time of writing, but one fears that digital Dawson will be a unnerving creation marred by the uncanny valley effect. But I can't wait to see how this pans out, as it sounds like an almost avant-garde venture. And let's face it, we'll all enjoy ourselves immensely if it turns out to be a disastrous folly.

ITV return to more traditional territory with the cuddly comedy-drama LOVE AND MARRIAGE, in which - and steel yourselves here, because this sounds like an outright parody - Alison Steadman stars as a retired lollipop lady and matriarch called Pauline Paradise. The sort of whimsical confection where nary a scene goes by without chortling musical accompaniment, its "hook" is the device of having the various members of the extended Paradise clan speak directly to the audience from their sofas, much like those old Prudential adverts. Other than that it's nothing you haven't seen before: family strife presented as an ultimately positive cavalcade of blunders and hugs.

The 60th anniversary of the Queen's Coronation is celebrated with a few programmes this week, with The BBC, as is its loyal wont, rolling out the largest amount of bunting. Their first tribute is by far the most enticing, as it's the actual archive footage of THE CORONATION OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II from 1953 shown in its entirety on BBC Parliament. Famously responsible for a huge spike in the sale of television sets - and therefore the instigator for telly's first golden age - it's been scheduled to follow the exact times of the original broadcast, meaning it begins at 10:20am and finishes just after 5pm.

On Monday on BBC1 at 9pm, David Dimbleby presents THE PEOPLE'S CORONATION, in which he talks to some of those who celebrated and took part in the event. It's obviously a very personal trip for Dave, seeing as his father, Richard, was one of the BBC's commentators during the Coronation.

Finally, ITV presents CORONATION YEAR IN COLOUR at 5:30pm on Sunday, in which archive footage - much of it amateur home movies - tells the story of everyday Britain in 1953. See, and I got through all of that without once making a snide anti-royalist jibe. I have matured.