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.

Saturday, 14 September 2013


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

Peaky Blinders: BBC2, Thursday

The Wipers Times: BBC2, Wednesday

Paul Whitelaw

Having enjoyed episodes two and three of gangster drama Peaky Blinders, I can assure the unconvinced that episode one was little more than an extended trailer for the main feature. So self-conscious was it in its desire to establish an over-stylised aesthetic – essentially an hallucinogenic, rock 'n' roll vision of industrial Birmingham in 1919 – that it forgot to introduce the actual story and characters in a compelling fashion.

Curiously undramatic for something that went out of its way to grab viewers by the throat, it was all flash and no trousers.

The deliberately anachronistic use on the soundtrack of The White Stripes and Nick Cave, whose doom-clanging Red Right Hand functions as a recurring leitmotif, did at least succeed in establishing the desired gangster gothic mood. Set in what looks like the furnace of hell itself, the soot-laden art direction also deserves credit.

But the episode struggled to settle on a comfortable tone, feeling at once like a determined effort to differentiate itself from US dramas such as Deadwood and Boardwalk Empire, to which it's inevitably been compared, and an inferior British cousin of those very shows.

The glacier-eyed Cillian Murphy plays Tommy, a damaged war veteran and leader of a local gang whose silly sobriquet derives from the gleaming razorblades sewn into their caps. After they came into possession of an arsenal of weapons, a barnstorming Belfast copper (Sam Neill) was tasked with recovering them under the orders of Churchill himself.

Chewing his lines like Van Morrison in a particularly foul mood, Neill effortlessly stole his scenes with a hammy performance perfectly in tune with Peaky Blinders' heightened atmosphere. Originally of Irish stock, his Belfast brogue, for which – I kid you not - he received tutelage from Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, is flawless.

Murphy, meanwhile, is the charismatic calm in the eye of the storm, although his character doesn't really come alive until later. A disappointingly weak link is the usually reliable Helen McCrory as the gang's matriarch. Her terrible accent, which takes a wild tour around the regions every time she opens her gob, is so distracting it's hard to focus on her performance.

While it's refreshing to see a British period drama hurling itself into broad, bold and violent territory, I fear this muddled episode may have put people off. But when it settles down this week, it finally combines its surface sense of the ridiculous with an involving narrative. It's worth sticking with.

Set just a few years earlier, The Wipers Times told the potentially fascinating true story of a satirical magazine written by British soldiers and distributed throughout the trenches during World War One.

Co-written, appropriately enough, by Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, it adopted a wry, witty tone befitting the subject matter. Quipping like a pair of benevolent Blackadders, the frightfully posh officers and mag editors played by Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt were an engaging duo. But the story itself, despite initial promise, petered out long before closing time.

The repetitive encounters between the Wipers team, who printed anonymously for obvious reasons, and an antagonistic officer were a leaden attempt to inject more drama into proceedings. While an effective way of illustrating the magazine's contents, the cutaway sketches used throughout also felt like padding.

Nevertheless, it was a partially effective attempt at blending a 'war is hell' message with an affectionate celebration of an irreverent crew of forgotten morale-boosters.


Father Figure
Wednesday, BBC1, 10:35pm
Written by and starring Irish comedian Jason Byrne, this aggravating family sitcom makes its obvious US antecedent, Home Improvement, look like a challenging piece of avant-garde theatre. Byrne leaves no cliché unturned: the hapless dad; the long-suffering wife; the interfering mother; the slobby best mate; the irritatingly over-confident moppet brats; the straight-laced Christian neighbours dutifully on hand to look aghast whenever Byrne falls over/breaks something. An awkward and predictable marriage of cartoon slapstick, tawdry sight-gags and cosy blandness, it finds itself buried in a graveyard slot for good reason.

Saturday, 7 September 2013


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

The Guilty: Thursday, STV

Pat & Cabbage: Thursday, STV

Through The Keyhole: Saturday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

An ITV thriller so leaden and generic they may as well have called it 'A Crime Done Happened', The Guilty is remarkable only in that it takes an emotive subject – the abduction and murder of a child – and reduces it to nothing. What should've been a powerful drama exploring thought-provoking themes of guilt, deception and parental responsibility is instead just another corny, forgettable cop show.

Tamsin Greig plays the detective in charge of the investigation, although she spends most of her time looking distracted and confused, as though she's just wandered into shot by mistake. But I doubt any actor could breathe life into such a bland, uninteresting role.

Set in middle-class suburbia, it takes a hoary old theme – what darkness lurks behind the veneer of seemingly civilised society? - and does nothing new with it. It also suffers in comparison to recent dramas such as Broadchurch and Top Of The Lake, which covered similar territory in a far more effective fashion. But it does at least provide, however inadvertently, a useful tip for aspiring crime writers: if you're going to employ a recurring flashback device, do make sure that it adds to, rather than detracts from, the central mystery. A schoolboy error.

ITV scored another misfire with Pat & Cabbage, a terminally mild sitcom in which Barbara Flynn, channelling her inner Terry Scott, looks permanently aghast at the “irrepressible” antics of Cherie Lunghi.

They're best friends looking for love, which naturally leads them into a tired series of inconsequential japes. Pat (Flynn) is sensible, Cabbage (Lunghi) isn't. Peter Davison plays A Nice Man. Cabbage, the scamp, encourages Pat to stalk the Nice Man. A nation wonders why Pat would put up with such an irritating presence in her life. And what kind of a nickname is 'Cabbage' anyway? Episode one yielded no explanation. They're probably saving that comic bombshell for a later episode.

Like every barely remembered pre-watershed 1980s sitcom rolled into one soporific bundle, Pat & Cabbage is clumsily contrived and completely uninspired.

The sad news of David Frost's death was compounded last week by the horrifying revival of his fondly remembered parlour game, Through The Keyhole. Not so much updated as grievously assaulted, it's now yet another inexcusable vehicle for the charmless Keith Lemon, alias comedian Leigh Francis, whose continuing success is one of the most baffling mysteries of our age.

A uniquely talentless chancer who's milked a career from attaching himself to celebrities and occasionally dropping his trousers, Francis brings to Through The Keyhole all of the witlessness for which he's renowned. Although the format is essentially unchanged – a panel of celebrities try to guess the identity of a fellow celeb by being shown around their home – its most glaring alteration is that, in lieu of Lloyd Grossman, Francis doubles as host and snooper. This cruel bid to maximise his screen time results in him rummaging through wardrobes and trying on clothes. It's truly desperate stuff.

Back in the studio, Francis engaged in drivelling banter with celebrated humorists Eamonn Holmes, Martine McCutcheon and someone by the name of Dave Berry. I've absolutely no idea who this man is, but ITV evidently regard him as a major talent, since he's been installed as a regular panellist.

Oh, ITV. What hast thou wrought?


Boom Town
Wednesday, BBC3, 10pm

Truly one of the direst, cheapest, most depressing sketch shows I've ever had the misfortune to witness, Boom Town is populated by useless non-professional actors whose various “quirks” - a hapless rapper, a boring trainspotter, a male witch – are paraded before our eyes as if they're funny in and of themselves. Staggering in its lack of effort and inspiration, this execrable dud is an insult, not only to viewers, but also to professional comedy writers and performers. You have been warned.