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