Saturday, 30 November 2013


A version of this article was originally published in The Courier on 30th November 2013.

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor: Saturday, BBC1

Paul Whitelaw

Months of speculation and brouhaha – whohaha? - climaxed last weekend with the grand unveiling of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary special. Did it deliver? Simulcast to a record-breaking 94 countries around the world, and with a domestic audience of over 10 million viewers, it was always going to struggle against such overwhelming expectations.

But never mind the hype. What's more important is that it triumphed as both an entertaining celebration of Doctor Who's legacy and a significant addition to its ongoing lore. That's quite an achievement. It wasn't perfect, of course: the first half suffered from flabby pacing, the shape-shifting Zygon and Elizabeth I sub-plot - although amusing - felt like padding, and Billie Piper's cameo was superfluous.

But it came together beautifully once the three Doctors – Matt Smith, David Tennant and battle-scarred “War Doctor” John Hurt - joined forces, and current companion Clara was at last given something important to do rather rather than act as a mere plot device

Writer Steven Moffat wisely focused on telling a witty, clever and inventive yarn rather than falling back on sentimental self-indulgence. Despite the self-mocking gags and affectionate nods – using the original opening titles was a lovely touch, as was the climactic tribute to every former Doctor – the special was primarily concerned with pushing things forward.

Like Moffat's celebrated season five finale, The Big Bang, it told an epic story on a relatively intimate scale. Impressively realised scenes of the hitherto off-screen war between the Time Lords and Daleks mingled with emotionally charged moments in which the Doctors wrestled with their decision to commit genocide in order to save the universe. What other show could effortlessly blend such weighty themes with gags about Derren Brown and screwdriver envy?

A seminal event in he Doctor's life, the Time War has underpinned the show since it returned in 2005: guilt, remorse, self-loathing and loneliness have been key components of the character for the last eight Earth years.

So it was incredibly bold of Moffat to reboot the series, without in any way contradicting established continuity, by allowing the Doctor a life-affirming reprieve: no longer the destroyer of the Time Lords, he instead became their saviour by gathering the combined genius of his thirteen incarnations to freeze his home planet in suspended animation (simply writing this synopsis reminds me of why I love Doctor Who).

His quest to find Gallifrey will presumably drive Peter Capaldi's eagerly anticipated tenure in the TARDIS: I know I wasn't alone in being thrilled by the unexpected glimpse of his eyes in The Day of the Doctor.

While it's frustrating that stubborn party pooper Christopher Eccleston declined to take part, the sparkling chemistry between the three Doctors easily compensated for his absence. Hurt exuded husky pathos and wry disdain, Tennant slipped back into the role as if he'd never been away, and Smith proved once again that he's the most naturally charismatic Doctor since the great Tom Baker, whose touching cameo as – well, who, exactly? - fondly embraced the past while prodding our hero towards his future.

Was the episode impenetrable to those expecting a straightforward birthday bash? Possibly. But Doctor Who, confident in its position as one of the world's biggest and best TV shows, can afford to baffle casual viewers from time to time. This was a special occasion, a glorious blow-out, a heartfelt gift to millions of fans from a brilliant writer who loves and understands the show completely.

As shape-shifting alien Noddy Holder once sang: here's to the future, we've only just begun.

Saturday, 23 November 2013


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

An Adventure in Space and Time: Thursday, BBC2

Storyville – Blackfish: The Whale That Killed: Thursday, BBC4

Paul Whitelaw

As deranged though it may sound to Doctor Who agnostics – amazingly, such people still exist - I'm not ashamed to admit that, by the end of An Adventure in Space and Time, my eyes were prickled moist. An emotional experience for life-long fans such as myself, this beautifully realised drama about the programme's troubled origins paid heartfelt tribute to the pioneers who set it in motion.

Anchored by a sensitive performance from David Bradley as original Doctor William Hartnell, it was clearly a labour of love for all concerned, including writer/producer and Doctor Who acolyte Mark Gatiss – as a dramatist, it's the best thing he's written – and director Terry McDonough. The latter's lovingly framed, almost magical shots of dear, departed Television Centre – fittingly, this was the last drama to be filmed there before it closed earlier this year – spoke volumes about the alchemy of creative endeavour.

Accessible and authoritative, it offered an astute blend of acceptably broad strokes and fan-pleasing attention to detail. I suspect that, even for viewers who've never watched Doctor Who in their lives, Gatiss' touching tale of an ailing character actor given a late, fleeting lease of life would've struck a tender chord.

Bolstered by extraordinarily accurate production design – the original TARDIS console room looked stunning – An Adventure in Space in Time was, at heart, a traditional story about a gang of “misfits” triumphing against the blinkered establishment.

Waris Hussein and the heroically dedicated Verity Lambert (an assured performance from Call the Midwife star Jessica Raine) were, respectively, the BBC's first Indian director and female producer. Both surmounted prejudice and obstruction to create something bold, new and experimental, despite being banished to a cramped studio with a budget of around ninepence. I'm no knee-jerk patriot, but somewhere in there lies the proud and decent essence of Britishness.

Although tempered with affectionate humour and the grit and pathos of Bradley's performance – Hartnell's irascibility wasn't ignored – the celebratory mood peaked with a fleeting cameo from current incumbent Matt Smith. As the outgoing first Doctor shared an understanding glance with the outgoing eleventh, the far-reaching scale of Hartnell and co's achievement was encapsulated in one wordless flash of magical symbolism.

Sentimental and self-indulgent? Oh yes. But if you can't indulge yourself on your 50th birthday, when can you? As much as I'm looking forward to the anniversary special starring Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt, it'll have to work hard to trump this charming love letter.

A deeply angering yet essential documentary, Storyville – Blackfish: The Whale That Killed exposed the appalling mistreatment of killer whales at SeaWorld marine parks.

In 2010 an orca called Tilikum killed an experienced trainer. SeaWorld tried to blame the victim, conveniently ignoring the fact that Tilikum had killed on two previous occasions. With candid assistance from sincerely repentant former trainers, the film showed how these intelligent, sociable creatures were driven to violence and despair after being kept in inhumane conditions for almost their entire lives. It's hardly a coincidence that no human has ever been killed by an orca in the wild.

A necessarily distressing experience, this powerful document should, by rights, be instrumental in obliterating our outdated view of animals as entertainment. If you missed it, then I urge you to watch it on iPlayer. Rarely have I witnessed such a compassionate, comprehensive attack on the amoral deeds of corporate self-interest.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 16th November 2013.

The Sound of Musicals: Tuesday, Channel 4

Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain – Poirot's Last Case: Wednesday, STV

Being Poirot: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Billed as a rare peek behind the curtain of that business we call show, The Sound of Musicals was basically an extended piece of free publicity for director Sam Mendes' West End musical production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A pedestrian documentary hitting every predictable beat – rehearsals, setbacks, first night nerves – it struggled to make a convincing case for why we should care about the fortunes of a £10 million musical. Or maybe that's just me.

A scene depicting crazed theatre-goers queuing overnight to buy tickets for smash hit musical The Book of Mormon suggested I wasn't the target audience. The only thing I'd ever queue overnight for would be tins of uncontaminated spam in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, and even then only at a push. But these people live for West End theatre, so they'll presumably lap this series up.

It's mildly frustrating, as there was an interesting documentary about the vicissitudes of life as a child actor struggling to break free from repetitive sequences of Mendes looking like a stressed Kenny Rogers and set designers worrying about the logistically troublesome glass elevator prop (initially a rickety death-trap, the actors inside would've been safer diving with sharks in a cage made from ham).

The ruthlessness with which kids were thrown aside during rehearsals when they were deemed unsuitable was eye opening. Tom, a sweet little lad with no previous stage experience, was in the running for the pivotal role of Charlie, before being replaced by a precocious young veteran. It's a cut-throat business. Likewise, the boy originally cast as Augustus Gloop was dismissed when his voice broke. “He had a great moment in the sun,” said Mendes, “and then he got too old.” You heartless monster!

This selfishly pubescent Gloop was replaced by Jenson, an exuberant child who'd always dreamed of being a West End star. “He loves all that stuff,” deadpanned his heating engineer dad. Jenson, to his credit, was a natural; the programme's only truly affecting moment was when dad proudly announced that the experience had brought him closer to his son. That bond was worth more than a million golden tickets.

The great David Suchet made television history last week when, after 25 years, he completed his career ambition of starring in an adaptation of every Hercule Poirot story ever written. Agatha Christie's Poirot: Curtain – Poirot's Last Case marked a fitting farewell to Suchet's definitive portrayal of the incomparable Belgian detective.

The appropriately meticulous detail of his performance has always been a delight. It would be easy to slip into caricature – especially after having played the character for so long - and present Poirot as a vainglorious buffoon. But, as illustrated by Being Poirot, a documentary in which the affable actor bid fond adieu to his beloved alter ego, Suchet never compromised the integrity of the character.

Having studied Christie's books in forensic detail, he brought Poirot's endearing essence to life without condescension or derision. No other actor has ever captured so effectively the charm, warmth and righteous humanity behind the moustachioed super-sleuth's fastidious veneer. There was no madness to his method, only painstaking dedication.

Suchet's remarkable performance and record-breaking achievement will, without a hint of hyperbole, live on in TV immortality. His final glance to camera in Curtain – a moment of self-indulgence perfectly allowable under the circumstances – said it all: au revoir, mon ami, we shall meet again.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 9th November 2013.

Pressure Pad: Monday to Friday, BBC1

Fresh Meat: Monday, Channel 4

Whether crooning Colgate covers of West End standards or flashing his derrière at any stolen opportunity, John Barrowman is a man for whom the word “irrepressible” is merely a springboard to hitherto uncharted levels of alarming buoyancy.

I understand why he annoys people, but in my own personal catalogue of borderline irritating TV personalities he rests firmly in the 'Harmless' section. He's a natural, capable host, as evinced by his stewardship of new daytime quiz show Pressure Pad. Granted, within the first ten minutes of Monday's episode he'd already slipped back into his Glasgow accent for a cheap laugh, a crime so heinous it should result in instant extradition from the motherland. I'm looking at you too, Lulu.

Otherwise, this American-twanged light entertainment Braveheart unleashed his practised arsenal of lame jokes, cheeky chit-chat and a laugh like a balloon-loaded machine gun, as he gently prodded two teams towards a cash prize of £3,000.

Presented from within a purple/blue set, like a bruised nightclub, it's a basic general knowledge quiz in which contestants compete via the titular pressure pad, I.e. a circular glass stage upon which various rounds and multiple choices appear. A ticking clock adds an element of mild peril, but that's about it.

While it will never challenge Pointless as the wryly addictive king of daytime quizzes, it's a perfectly adequate distraction of a weekday afternoon. But its hook just isn't strong enough to make it stand out from the throng. No matter how many times Barrowman urgently refers to the pressure pad as if it's some sort of fiendish gimmick, even he can't disguise the fact that it's just some people answering pub quiz questions while scampering across a podium.

Plus, the distorted robot voice which announces each round just reminds you that you're not watching The Cube. That's right, Pressure Pad isn't as thrilling or inventive as mind-blowing Schofield fantasia The Cube.

Incidentally, one of the categories in the very first round was Doctor Who, while later a winning answer was actor/comedian and noted Doctor Who scribe Mark Gatiss. Is Barrowman compiling the questions himself? Also, he really needs to work on his catchphrase. “If you can't take the pressure, stay off the pressure pad!” Really, man, is that the best you can do?

So where to now for the enjoyable, if inconsistent, Fresh Meat? This comedy-drama about a misfit gang of house-sharing students returned last week for a third series of coming-of-age awkwardness. No longer freshers, the house-mates may be in their second year of university, but their experience so far seems to have done little to abate their insecurities. So much for character development.

Episode one was very much business as usual, as blundering posh buffoon JP (comedian Jack Whitehall, perfectly cast) continued his fruitless search for “hotties” via invitations to his dry slope skiing club – in reality a freezing hot tub in the back garden – while Kingsley and Josie resumed their on-off relationship. Although realistically handled, this latter plot strand constantly threatens to capsize Fresh Meat at any moment: as with Ross and Rachel in Friends, there's only so much mileage one can eke from this set-up before viewers grow impatient.

Nevertheless, it's still funny, well-observed, nicely performed – especially by Whitehall and Zawe Ashton as dissolute rebel Vod - and full of sharp lines (none of which I can quote in a family newspaper). For anyone who ever grew painfully – isn't that all of us? - then Fresh Meat continues to resonate.

Saturday, 2 November 2013


Here's a link to my Guardian Your Next Box Set Review of Ghostwatch and The Stone Tape.

This article was originally published in The Guardian on 24th October 2013.


This article was originally published in The Courier on 2nd November 2013.

The Escape Artist: Tuesday, BBC1

Bedlam: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

There was a scene near the start of The Escape Artist, a lurid new thriller starring David Tennant as a hotshot barrister, in which our man carefully explained the basics of his profession to a group of inquisitive schoolchildren.

Rarely have I witnessed such a patronising piece of exposition in a drama designed for adults; did writer David Wolstencroft, the creator of Spooks, really assume us ignorant of what a barrister does? Given the sheer preponderance of legal dramas on film and television over the years, I think even the most inattentive viewer must've got the gist of it by now.

That aside, it's an enjoyable penny dreadful in which dynamic barrister Will Burton's belief that everyone deserves a defence came back to haunt him like an army of knife-wielding ghosts. Even when defending some right rum coves, the man nicknamed “The Escape Artist” is renowned for having never lost a case. Recently crowned number one in the What Barrister industry magazine – much to the chagrin of number two, played by Sophie Okenodo - he was almost unbearably successful.

Indeed, Burton was initially depicted as so content in his career and home life – he and loving wife Ashley Jensen enjoyed nothing more than sharing a candlelit bath in their idyllic country cottage – it was simply a matter of waiting for that happiness to be obliterated.

Burton's latest case saw him defending Liam Foyle, a creepy young man charged with brutally murdering a woman. The evidence against Foyle was overwhelming. He kept an aviary in his living room, for heaven's sake, the sort of “quirk” no self-respecting fictional serial killer should be without. It's also the sort of detail leered over by the tabloids, who Wolstencroft, with a faint whiff of hypocrisy, chastised for sensationalising and prejudicing such trials. He's right, they do. But isn't he also gaining capital from exploiting our fascination with serial killers? It's a moral maze, it really is.

In any case, despite Burton's moral qualms about taking on the case, he triumphed once again, almost despite himself, and got Foyle off on a technicality. Inevitably, the action then lurched into Cape Fear territory, as Foyle – Toby Kebbell giving it the full smirking, well-spoken, hair-trigger psychopath treatment – began stalking Burton's brood.

Why? Presumably because Burton wouldn't shake his hand at the close of the trial. They're awfully touchy, serial killers.

The scene in which Foyle appeared at the cottage window while Jensen took yet another relaxing bath was, while predictable, an entertaining jolt. But what followed was a classic piece of horror illogic. After calling the police and confirming the identity of their unwanted visitor, the family travelled back to London. Perhaps they'd be safer there. But no, the following weekend mother and child travelled back to the cottage without protection. Call me a snivelling coward if you will, but I doubt I'd be so lax in that situation.

However, the action soared towards a genuinely shocking crescendo. Burton, running late, arrived at the cottage to discover his wife brutally slain and his petrified child hiding in a trunk. Although some form of disaster was to be expected, killing off a high-profile actress such as Jensen in episode one was a particularly effective twist (Wolstencroft has previous form, of course: Spooks was notorious for killing off major characters with little fanfare).

Tennant, a fine actor, is particularly adept at projecting haunted trauma. The remaining episodes will doubtless allow him plenty of scope to impress.

In the end, the ambitious Okenodo took the rearrested Foyle's case – of course she did, that's how drama works – thus paving the way for an inevitable torrent of moral anguish and ghost train thrills.

A surprisingly sensitive study of mental illness, observational documentary series Bedlam – so titled after the notorious former name of what is now the South London and Maudsley psychiatric institution – opened with a visit to a specialist anxiety unit treating some of Britain's most extreme OCD cases.

The focus rested largely on James, a young man whose life had been capsized by his terror of soiling himself in public. At his worst he spent up to seven hours a day in the bathroom, frantically washing and showering. The candour of the contributions from James and his tired, caring mother were particularly affecting.

Thankfully, this was no pruriently voyeuristic look at a “crazy” ailment – we have more than enough of those on TV already - but rather a poignant and ultimately hopeful portrait of troubled, vulnerable human beings.