Saturday, 31 August 2013


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

Sunday, BBC1

Wednesday, Five

Paul Whitelaw

Seemingly inspired by the sad case of Joyce Vincent, a young woman whose decomposing corpse lay undiscovered in her flat for over two years – which in turn formed the basis of the documentary Dreams Of A LifeWHAT REMAINS continues TV's current vogue for spreading misery over Sunday nights. Not that I'm complaining: Tony Basgallop's four-part drama is admirably restrained and wholly compelling.

Blessed with a winningly oppressive atmosphere – the action rarely leaves the confines of a shabby block of London flats – it's a skilfully constructed whodunit in which a shady group of neighbours are each considered suspects in the apparent murder of a fellow tenant.

While our introduction to the victim, Melissa, smacked of cliché – a lonely, overweight woman eating chocolate solemnly is dubious dramatic shorthand – the otherwise effective opening sequence, in which she climbed into her attic after being disturbed by creaking floorboards, climaxed with the shocking discovery, some years later, of her remains.

Enter David Threlfall as Len, a dry-witted detective mere hours from retirement. Resembling a crushed cigarette, this lonely widower looks like he hasn't had a good night's sleep in 40 years. He's the sort of character who, in clumsier hands, could easily come across as hackneyed. But Basgallop and Threlfall – a fine actor, happily now free of the dismal Shameless – imbue him with subtlety and charm.

Central to the overriding theme of loneliness in an uncaring society, Len recognises a kindred spirit in Melissa, who was apparently barely acknowledged by her neighbours. Even in an age when we're supposedly more connected than ever, it's still possible for people to fall through the cracks. By depicting the police as disinterested in Melissa's case, Basgallop makes us root for Len, who's essentially a sympathetic civilian struggling to bring dignity to a stranger's tragic end. This underlying compassion lends What Remains a depth uncommon to your average murder mystery.

It's also elegantly directed by Coky Giedroyc (sister of Mel, fact fans), who builds suspense by shooting the house as though it's a cracked, gloomy prison, where danger lurks around every corner.

Which brings us, in a not-at-all-contrived fashion, to WENTWORTH PRISON, the enjoyably melodramatic reboot of Australian soap, Prisoner: Cell Block H. Although self-consciously in-your-face and over-stylised, it wisely retains the camp appeal of the original.

Introduced through the terrified eyes of first-time prisoner Bea – who suffers from a serious case of flashback-itis - Wentworth is home to the usual parade of female prison clichés: the stern governess, the kindly guard, the lesbian 'top dog' etc. But seeing as the original series partially fashioned those archetypes in the first place, that's forgiveable.

And at least it's never boring. The propulsive opener found time for a botched drug smuggling scam, an aggressive cell search, a violent confrontation between rival top dogs, and a bloody – in both literal and colloquial terms - climax in which Bea was wrongly implicated in the murder of a guard.

Of course, piling so much trauma on poor Bea over such a short space of time is very funny. That the makers obviously realise this themselves is why Wentworth Prison might be worth sticking with. It doesn't take itself too seriously, but nor does it feel like a smug post-modern spoof. It's fun.


Monday, BBC3, 9pm

This monumentally tedious reality show finds a group of young applicants battling it out for their dream job. The twist, such as it is, is that one of them is secretly employed by the company in question, and therefore able to report back to their bosses. It suffers from a fatal lack of tension, coming across instead as a comedy-free Apprentice clone. The manufactured conflict, upon which such shows thrive, fails to materialise between the applicants – an Essex Boy, a scatty Oxford graduate, a rampant egomaniac, a self-confessed manipulator, and a normal person – so, frankly, what's the point?

Saturday, 24 August 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 24th August 2013.

Saturday, BBC2

Sunday, Channel 4

Sunday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Over a month of gruelling misery came to a close last weekend, with the climactic instalments of three cheer-shy TV dramas. The first to disappear was TOP OF THE LAKE, writer/director Jane Campion's uneven journey into the blackened heart of a remote New Zealand community.

Anyone hoping for surprises would've been disappointed by its underwhelming conclusion. Admittedly more of a psychological thriller than a conventional whodunnit, it still felt inevitable that sleazy police chief Al was orchestrating a subterranean paedophile ring, and therefore the cause of Tui's pregnancy and disappearance. Horrifying subject matter, obviously. But Campion undermined the impact by playing her hand too early.

As the series progressed it became gradually more apparent that Tui's monstrous father, played by a rivet-gargling Peter Mullan, was a psychotic red herring. And anyone paying attention would've already sussed that he was Detective Robin's real father. Likewise, Al's undisguised corruption, children's scholarship scheme, immigrant-staffed café, and desperate need for Robin to “redeem” him, made it all too obvious who the culprit was.

Meanwhile, the sub-plot involving the commune for abused women went nowhere. Yes, that was the point – you won't find easy answers by escaping to paradise, especially when Hell is on your doorstep – but it felt too insubstantial to allow such ambiguities.

Instead, Campion's overriding theme of violent female exploitation found its most potent voice in Robin, played impeccably – wandering accent and all - by Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss. Alas, this often implausible and lethargic drama, as atmospheric though it undoubtedly was, rarely equalled Moss's intelligent, powerful, nuanced performance.

Also impressive in a similarly demanding role was Kerrie Hayes as Esther, the serially victimised cotton worker in THE MILL. Having been torn through, well, the mill during this engrossing series, the indomitable rebel finally found her vital sense of identity in a poignant, rabble-rousing climax.

Everything BBC1's terminally dull The Village should've been, this factually-inspired period piece may have flirted with melodrama and borderline comedy-bleakness, but it ultimately succeeded as a compassionate and convincing evisceration of British slave labour during the Industrial Revolution. Writer John Fay hopes to follow the inhabitants of Quarry Bank Mill through subsequent generations. Come on, Channel 4, you know what to do.

Finally, fleetingly, SOUTHCLIFFE, the best British TV drama of 2013. If you missed it, I urge you to immerse yourself in this sensitive and devastating account of the aftermath of
a spree killing in a fictional English market town. Miserable as sin? Yes. Gratuitously so? No. It's haunting, it lingers. I promise we'll have more fun next week.


Thursday, Sky1, 9:30pm

Not even the usually welcome presence of Barry Humphries can save this uninspired sitcom from erstwhile Inbetweeners Simon Bird and Joe Thomas. Together with co-writer/star Jonny Sweet, they play young men avoiding service, for various reasons, during the First World War. Apart from its dearth of decent jokes, it suffers from Bird and Thomas' fatal lack of range. Even if they were cast as flamboyant Colombian assassins, they'd still deliver the same student-sarcasm performance. Watching the Inbetweeners bicker witlessly in an Edwardian setting is about as enticing as a poisoned egg. 

Friday, 23 August 2013

Welcome To The View From My Television

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


Paul Whitelaw

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, their usual response is, “That must be fun!” followed quickly by, “But you must have to watch an awful lot of rubbish.” To which the dual-pronged answer is: “Yes. And no, not really.”

Despite what people who don't actually watch TV may tell you, its wealth and variety mean it's very easy to avoid drivel if you keep your eyes peeled.

Granted, one of the most glaring side-effects of our multi-channel age is there are more repeats on TV than ever before. But if this increase allows the dedicated channel-hopper swift access to old episodes of Bob's Full House, Cheers and The Sweeney, then it's hardly the crime of the century. If you love TV, then you'll always find the good stuff.

There's a downside, of course. Channel 4 and its pointless offshoots E4 and More4 – imagine two Andrew Ridgeleys flanking a past-his-prime George Michael – are now a knackered flotilla steered by endless repeats of Come Dine With Me. The tragic decline of C4 is a nagging bugbear of mine. If you also find yourself staring aghast at what it's become over the last decade, then I'm sure we'll get on famously.

I promised myself I'd remain positive during this article, but let's take a moment to clarify why C4, that former bastion of innovative and experimental television, currently represents everything that's wrong with British culture. Its recent glut of nasty, reactionary, benefits-bashing documentaries are little more than sneering government propaganda. In this time of deep recession and life-destroying cuts, they're howlingly irresponsible.

But they're indicative of a general malaise at C4, where leering 'body-shock' documentaries and point-and-laugh shows about travellers are deemed perfectly legitimate. It's only a matter of time before it abandons programming altogether, in favour of rolling 24-hour coverage of benefits claimants and gypsies being pelted with spoons.

And yet despite its otherwise tawdry demeanour, C4 still has one saving grace: drama. Recent highlights such as Complicit, The Mill, Southcliffe and mesmerising French import The Returned are among the best TV of 2013. The latter may have been a blatant attempt by C4 to jump on BBC4's European drama bandwagon, but who cares when the rewards were so gratifying? Wouldn't you rather it devoted more time to programmes of such quality and distinction, rather than yet another dismal Gordon Ramsay vehicle in which he pretends to care about the fortunes of a Dingwall tearoom? I know I would.

Meanwhile, ITV should be cautiously applauded for its efforts to rescue its tarnished reputation. It may still be home to the inexplicable Paddy McGuinness, but at least it's trying to improve its drama slate with the likes of Broadchurch. And regardless of what you thought of them, Vicious and The Job Lot signalled an encouraging new commitment to prime-time sitcom.

But what of the BBC? Although it increasingly resembles a desperate academic struggling to keep control of an endangered department, dear old BBC4 is still a reliable source of pleasure. Aside from showing the acclaimed likes of The Killing and The Bridge, it continues its noble pursuit of producing documentaries on absolutely any subject, no matter how arcane. BBC4 has always been secure in the knowledge that someone, somewhere will be interested in watching programmes about Jacobean armchairs, Lieutenant Pigeon, and Jonathan Meades declaiming adjectives in car parks.

Sadly, this relatively niche channel has been battered by budget cuts. As part of the government-induced Delivering Quality First cost-saving strategy – dwell on that irony all you like - BBC4 recently axed its successful sideline of showbiz biopics, although at least it bowed out with Burton and Taylor, one of its better efforts.

It's also unlikely that BBC4 has enough petty cash to produce more underrated gems such as quietly scathing NHS comedy Getting On. Big mainstream hitters such as Mrs Brown's Boys and Miranda are all very well (I suppose), but I hope the smaller, more distinctive shows don't fall through the the cracks.

As an unabashed comedy nerd, I'll doubtless be peppering these pages with deranged attacks on ubiquitous bête noires such as Jimmy Carr, Noel Fielding, Keith Lemon and practically every failed effort coughed up by BBC3. Please accept my apologies in advance. But I'll also be celebrating the superior likes of Peep Show, Fresh Meat, Outnumbered, Would I Lie To You?, Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle, It's Kevin, The Graham Norton Show, Parks and Recreation, and My Mad Fat Diary.

Attacking a dreadful piece of TV can be cathartic. A perverse pleasure is gained from casting an appalled eye over the likes of bewildering Saturday night game show I Love My Country, which provides a terrifying glimpse of what a totalitarian regime governed by Micky Flanagan might look like. But every Saturday in the Courier I'll always find time to highlight stuff you might enjoy. Life's tough enough without dwelling on the dregs.

Highlights over the next few months include the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, in which the outgoing Matt Smith is joined by John Hurt and previous incumbent David Tennant, and also Mark Gatiss' keenly anticipated drama about the origins of the show, An Adventure In Space In Time. Oh, and some Scottish-Italian bloke is taking Smith's place at Christmas, apparently.

Also coming soon are BBC1's Saturday evening family adventure Atlantis, BBC2's European acquisition Generation War, which has been described as a German Band Of Brothers, and, on dear old Channel 4, Shane Meadows' This Is England '90. They may not all succeed, but they'll all deserve scrutiny. TV is an eternally maddening, enriching and fascinating medium. Let's have at it.  

Saturday, 17 August 2013

TV Preview: TOP BOY

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 17th August 2013.

Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

Channel 4 is a frustrating beast. With its halcyon days at the vanguard of experimental, alternative, socially inclusive television long gone, it now spends most of its time sneering at the poor and gawping at misshapen testicles: the TV equivalent of a particularly objectionable Daily Mail columnist.

And yet as everything crumbles around it, C4's drama slate continues to impress. With the recent likes of Southcliffe, The Mill and, now, the second series of TOP BOY, it's the last bastion of quality in an otherwise devastated field. But even that has its downside: it makes virtually everything else on the channel look even worse by comparison.

In any case, Top Boy, an unflinching crime drama set on a fictional estate in Hackney, east London, is one of British TV's most distinctive dramas. While series one attracted inevitable comparisons with The Wire – both provide rounded portraits of street-level drug dealers in deprived urban areas – Top Boy deserves to be judged on its own merits.

Written by Hackney resident Ronan Bennett (The Hamburg Cell; Hidden), it's drawn from research into the lives of locals, which lends the characterisation, setting and slang-heavy dialogue a ring of authenticity. Plus, the performances from the predominantly young black cast are entirely free of affectation.

Now, I'm a white arts critic from Fife, so I've obviously no idea if Top Boy actually delivers an accurate portrayal of east London crime culture. But I'm convinced by the wealth of little side details – kids rapping awkwardly on an overpass, banter in the hair salon, the boy who mystifyingly talks with his hand covering his mouth – which feel like observations based on experience.

Ashley Walters stars as Dushane, whose goal of becoming 'Top Boy' – i.e. the drug dealing king of his estate – was grasped at the end of series one. However, his affluent lifestyle is threatened by a police investigation into the murder of a rival. Meanwhile, property developers are forcing local businesses from the area, as Dushane's gang set their sights on a cartel of Albanian criminals.

Charming, bright and quietly charismatic, Dushane's likeability masks an inner ruthlessness: like Tony Soprano, he's a screen 'villain' whose dichotomous personality deliberately wrong-foots the viewer and shakes them from complacency. Bennett makes us care about his plight, but never attempts to excuse his behaviour.

Preoccupied with themes of family loyalty, vulnerable children trapped in a violent environment, and the debilitating effects of greed on both a corporate and street level, Top Boy gets its points across without recourse to heavy-handed moralising. The political dimension is implicit, rather than confronted directly. And despite its brutal surface, it also benefits from a welcome jolt of humour: the banal reality of crime is often more ridiculous than scaremongering media reports would have you believe.

Refreshingly devoid of glamour, Top Boy is a tense, kinetic, utterly engrossing drama, fluidly directed by Jonathan van Tulleken and, as he skilfully weaves together several characters and storylines, impressively realised by Bennett. It's richly human drama.

And that, dear reader, is it. After over six years of watching TV and scribbling shapes for yer Scotsman, I've decided to move on to pastures new. But it's been a hoot and/or optional holler. Please don't talk about me when I'm gone.

Monday, 5 August 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 3rd August 2013.

Sunday and Monday, Channel 4, 9pm

Tuesday and Wednesday, Sky Atlantic, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

A senile old woman clutches to her chest a purse containing her own faeces. Her son, a damaged war veteran, is hunted through the woods and urinated on. The following morning, their sleepy market town is devastated by a random spate of shootings. Welcome to sunny SOUTHCLIFFE, a monumentally grim yet utterly engrossing and – dare I say it? - profound drama from Warp Films (This Is England) and writer Tony Grisoni (Red Riding).

Directed by US indie filmmaker Sean Durkin, it's an atmospheric piece wrapped in an overcast pall and characterised by static, locked-off shots, queasy slow zooms and a distinct lack of incidental score. Although part one burns rather too slowly for its own good – Durkin's stylistic approach initially feels cold and distancing – it subsequently exerts a powerful grip, as we find ourselves trapped within the tragic lives of these characters.

With obvious echoes of the Raoul Moat case, Southcliffe unfolds in a town with a strong Armed Forces presence, where machismo rules and emotions are suppressed. Grisoni explores the debilitating effects of war via Sean Harris' dead-eyed loner (an admittedly rather stereotypical character) and a conflicted young soldier (Joe Dempsie) just back from Afghanistan.

Reporting on the aftermath of the shootings, Rory Kinnear's cynical, embittered journalist – is there any other kind? - returns to his childhood home to confront, not only the grief, trauma and Little Englander hypocrisies of the locals, but his own unhappy past. He's also seeking neat explanations for an inexplicable event. Why, Grisoni asks, do these things happen? How do you make sense of the senseless?

His dialogue is spare, natural and convincing, and despite the harrowing subject matter, the violence isn't gratuitous: Durkin always places the killings off camera. Given that one of Grisoni's themes is media sensationalism of such tragedies, it's a wise and sensitive move.

The non-linear structure, in which the action frequently flashes back to show events from different perspectives, provides a sense of these characters being trapped in a vicious cycle. The daily reliability and innate Britishness of the shipping forecast is a recurring, gently sinister, motif. From the tortured couple played by Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson, to the self-destructive landlord played by Anatol Yusef, Grisoni tackles head on the various ways human beings deal with grief. The cast is uniformly outstanding, never once overplaying their roles.

If this all sounds unbearably sad, believe you me it is. But it never feels heavy-handed or worthy. This isn't a piece of pointless misery porn. It's a commendably sincere and sympathetic attempt to confront the unimaginable, while offering acute comment on the uglier side of British society. It's easy to be cynical and dismiss dramas of this nature as mere BAFTA bait. But Southcliffe is a major work, and quite easily the best British TV drama of the year so far.

Laughter time! In STEVE COOGAN: STAND UP DOWN UNDER, the comedian takes his one-man show through Australia and New Zealand, while grumbling backstage about faulty microphones and the tedium of touring. And that's about it. While it's certainly interesting witnessing Coogan as himself – as expected, he comes across as a neurotic and occasionally truculent perfectionist, but essentially likeable – the repetitive nature of this self-produced documentary tends to wear thin.