Saturday, 20 July 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 20th July 2013.

Monday, BBC4, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC3, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

As an avid connoisseur of BBC4 biopics – that magical domain of dubious wigs, variable impersonations, straining budgets and questionable authenticity – I feel authorised to judge BURTON AND TAYLOR as one of their better efforts. While the casting of Dominic West and Helena Bonham-Carter, who bear scant physical resemblance to the legendary Dick and Liz, initially takes some getting used to, their commanding performances eventually ease any doubts.

Despite being a backstage melodrama of sorts, it largely avoids camp – which, given their famously volcanic on-off relationship, would've been the obvious, lazy route – in favour of a more melancholic tone. Set during the troubled production of their final professional collaboration, an early 1980s Broadway adaptation of Noel Coward's Private Lives (oh, the irony!), it finds Burton, aching and ageing, struggling with sobriety, while Taylor descends further into a spiral of substance abuse.

It blatantly suggests that Taylor organised the Broadway run simply as a means of spending time with the great love of her life. Burton, meanwhile, is portrayed as the consummate professional, eager to treat the play with respect, whereas his maddening and endearing ex-wife can't resist playing up to her adoring audience.

The great unwashed are portrayed in an amusingly unflattering light throughout: a pack of baying hyenas who've come, not to enjoy Coward's caustic wit, but another boisterous bout of 'The Dick and Liz Show' (which is, of course, what we're effectively watching ourselves).

While exploring the conflict between the art of “proper” acting and the trivial trappings of fame, Burton and Taylor is an ultimately rather sad study of a doomed, turbulent love affair.

Despite some heavy-handed moments, it's suffused with an effective sense of wistful regret. Key to its appeal are West and Bonham-Carter, who never slip into caricature. Granted, scenes of a drunk and maudlin Burton quoting Shakespeare soliloquies in the lonely dead of night skirt with kitsch (West resembles a despondent Michael Portillo), but one gets the impression that Burton probably did behave like this. He was An Actor, after all. And if Bonham-Carter's Taylor, with her diamonds, minks, and yapping pooches, feels at times like a parody of a film star, that's because she practically invented the cliché.

Both actors capture the yearning vulnerability and mutual adoration of their charismatic alter egos: despite being multimillionaire superstars, you're left with the impression of them as tragic, sympathetic lovers who couldn't live with or without each other. It's a surprisingly affecting drama.

Sadly, it's also the last hurrah for BBC4 drama, which was recently axed as part of the BBC's (COUGH) Delivering Quality First cost-saving initiative. But at least it bowed out with dignity.

Three-man sketch troupe Pappy's take another stab at TV glory with BADULTS, a tiresome flat-share sitcom that tries and fails to be a modern-day Goodies by way of The Young Ones (Or Filthy, Rich & Catflap: take your pick).

Despite being broad, silly and eager to please, the gags are uninspired and obvious, and the three of them seem to be playing the same noisy idiot character, albeit pitched at slightly different volumes. Its daffy spirit and intent are commendable, but no amount of good intentions can compensate for such weak material. 

Saturday, 6 July 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 6th July 2013.

Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

In years to come, when historians seek to ascertain the cause of Britain's slide into callous right-wing selfishness, they will surely point to NICK AND MARGARET: WE ALL PAY YOUR BENEFITS as an emblem of the rot.

Torn from the pages of the Daily Mail, this ill-conceived “social experiment” finds Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, silver-haired servants of multimillionaire Alan Sugar, pitting taxpayers against unemployment benefit claimants in order to gauge whether the latter deserve their money.

Just let that sink in for a moment. We're living through a recession, in a nation ruled by a shamelessly uncaring government, where the most vulnerable members of society are systematically demonised and punished. And here come two celebrities in a chauffeur-driven car passing judgement on the poor, in what is basically Wife Swap with a hint of social conscience. It's sickening.

It consists of this: four taxpayers – all of them hard-working, of course – visit claimants' homes and tut at their flat screen televisions. Never mind that flat screen televisions aren't a symbol of excessive wealth, but the predominant model owned by practically everyone in Britain. No, they're a sure sign that lazy scroungers are cheating the system.

Two of the hard-working taxpayers (HWT's) are so effortlessly patronising, they only heighten one's sympathy for the struggling claimants. Before meeting an unemployed single mother, one HWT says she won't be happy if her victim spends money on cigarettes and alcohol: cut to the woman smoking a fag while some beer cans rest in a nearby bin bag.

We know what's going on here. Television thrives on conflict, which is why this drivel is populated by the most reactionary HWT's imaginable. An unbearable scene in which a claimant is harangued for spending money on her kids makes, as far as the producers are concerned, great telly. But all it proves is that some people are horrendous. We're not only being encouraged to judge the claimants, but also those who look down on them. It's a programme designed to provoke and little else.

Granted, it dutifully points out that only a tiny percentage of the welfare budget is spent on unemployment, and I can't deny that, underneath its infuriating surface, it does attempt to challenge knee-jerk prejudices. But the execution is so insensitive, it buries whatever good intentions it has.

Inevitably, some of the HWT's soften their views over time, thus satisfying TV's need for enlightening emotional journeys. And maybe some viewers will follow suit when they're exposed to the depressing reality of unemployment. Does that justify its existence? Possibly. But it's disgraceful that we've reached a point where the BBC feels it necessary to point out that – Hey! - benefit claimants are people too. That they've imparted this message in such a dubious fashion merely compounds the misery.

Anyway, let's look forward to the sequel in which Nick and Margaret tackle the moral turpitude of bankers and politicians. That's coming soon, right?