Tuesday, 31 December 2013


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


If there's one thing the bitterest of enemies can secretly agree on, it's this: Hogmanay is the coldest time of the year.

Supposedly a time for celebration, in which we bid farewell to the year departed and anoint the head of the days anew, in reality it's a hollow festival of unnatural optimism and desperate, drunken delusion during which we're expected to sup from a goblet of universal harmony with people we'd quite happily avoid in our normal daily lives.

That probably sounds needlessly misanthropic and excessive. But let me assure you, I'm not being contrary for the sake of it. This isn't an affected blast of “bah humbug” rebellion. I've genuinely never enjoyed Hogmanay, and I know I'm not alone. Every year I recognise kindred spirits in the haunted stares of fellow unwitting revellers, as we wander the streets like lost survivors of nuclear Armageddon. We want the nightmare to be over. We want to go home. We want our lives back.

So let's raise a glass to those of us who shudder at the prospect of a miserable party followed by an endless, frostbitten walk home at 2AM when taxis are rarer and marginally less expensive than the lost riches of Atlantis.

It's nothing to do with getting older. I've always felt this way. My dislike of Hogmanay took root in childhood, when it beheld a monstrous significance as the official end of Christmas – that magical, wondrous time! - and the looming harbinger of school-based drudgery. Adolescence and adulthood merely confirmed it as a period of weird, desolate limbo, where Christmas had vanished for another year, yet people still sank themselves into oblivion to avoid facing up to the future.

Now, I enjoy a drink as much as the next man, but I've always been fiercely opposed to the oppressive bulwark of enforced fun. And at no time of year is that regime more in force than at Hogmanay. Shouldn't we have fun on our own terms, at our own pace and leisure? Isn't that what fun is all about? Why should we be expected to gather at midnight on January 31st to toast the fact that we've survived life on Earth for another year?

Rather than fill me with joy and optimism for the future, it's a melancholy reminder that life is short. And how are you spending it, this rare, precious gift of existence? Standing outside a packed pub on a freezing winter night, trying to avoid conversation with well-meaning strangers and wishing you were somewhere else.

To which you might reasonably respond: cheer up, you miserable sod! And you'd be right. I suppose. But I'm actually quite happy in my alienated state at this time of year. After all, it's only one annual night of brutal endurance. We anti-Hogmanay types will never enjoy it. But we'll get over it. We'll be fine.

Happy new year!

Saturday, 28 December 2013

TV Review: The Tractate Middoth/M.R. James: Ghost Writer/Death Comes to Pemberley/Raised By Wolves

This article was originally published in The Courier on 28th December 2013.


The Tractate Middoth/M.R. James: Ghost Writer: Christmas Day, BBC2

Death Comes to Pemberley: Boxing Day and Friday, BBC1

Raised By Wolves: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

In theory at least, there are few more qualified to revive the BBC's distinguished tradition of ghost stories at Christmas than that suave champion of the macabre, Mark Gatiss. From his blackly comic work with the League of Gentlemen to his numerous contributions to Doctor Who, Sherlock and BBC4's archive vaults of horror, Gatiss is TV's foremost exponent of cobwebbed chills and candlelit bumps in the night.

So why did his directorial début, The Tractate Middoth, disappoint?

An adaptation of a short story by one of his heroes, M.R. James, it carefully arranged all the right elements – a Jamesian sense of atmosphere and place combined with the kind of enjoyably ripe performances so beloved of Gatiss – but failed to deliver any shocks or substance.

Stripped of James' celebrated gift for evocative, descriptive language, this tale of a young academic searching for a lost will buried in an ancient Hebrew text felt frustratingly slight. Despite Gatiss' attempts to build upon the classically disquieting mood he established at the start, it simply wasn't enough to compensate for its anticlimactic denouement. It was all tease and no release.

Openly influenced by the BBC's classic James adaptations of the 1970s – I'll bet you Gatiss has studied every frame of those films - The Tractate Middoth is unlikely to be remembered in the same fevered breath. Sometimes fans, no matter how talented and sincere, simply aren't the best people to adapt their idol's work.

More satisfying by far was the lovingly curated documentary, M.R. James: Ghost Writer. Gatiss was securely in his element here, bicycling through the grave English countryside in a dapper three-piece suit, in pursuit of the fecund father of the modern ghost story.

Despite the nightmarish visions conjured in his work, James was a genial gent whose only demons lay in the gruesome medieval tracts he studied while at Cambridge: he's still regarded as one of the greatest scholars in his field. A devout Anglican and confirmed bachelor, he didn't even seem to be troubled by his repressed homosexuality. Instead he delighted in platonic relationships with the young gentlemen of Cambridge's wonderfully named Chit Chat Club, for whom his enthralling tales were originally written and performed (the tactile economy of his writing was brought to life via beguiling readings from an actor).

Referring to his subject throughout as "Monty", Gatiss rather sweetly approached him as a dear old friend with whom he shared much in common. Monty, I suspect, would've been flattered and charmed.

Being almost completely unfamiliar with Pride and Prejudice, I was absolutely baffled by Death Comes to Pemberley. While I applaud its refusal to pander to the casual viewer, this hectic adaptation of P.D. James' unofficial sequel to Austen's novel unfolded wildly before my eyes like a sherry-induced fever dream. It was like struggling through Rocky IV without having seen the first three. I'd imagine.

Co-written by Times columnist Caitlin Moran, Raised By Wolves is a semi-autobiographical sitcom about an unorthodox single-parent family living on a Wolverhampton council estate.

Mercifully devoid of insulting working-class clichés, it nevertheless tried far too hard to establish its goofy, whimsical credentials. Over-reliant on laboured pop culture references in lieu of actual jokes it struggled to match the strength of its thematic sibling, My Mad Fat Teenage Diary

The actress playing Moran managed to inject some innocent charm into a borderline tiresome character, but this limp comedy won't survive on scatty good nature alone. 

Saturday, 21 December 2013


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st December 2013.

The Great Train Robbery: Wednesday and Thursday, BBC1

The Call Centre Christmas: Tuesday, BBC3

Paul Whitelaw

After being dramatised in Phil Collins vehicle Buster and more recently in Jeff Pope's ITV series Mrs Biggs, is there anything left to say about The Great Train Robbery of 1963? Written by Chris “Broadchurch” Chibnall – a man better known to Doctor Who fans as the show's most desperately mediocre writer – the BBC's two-part dramatisation of this notorious crime was hobbled by a general feeling of redundancy.

Episode two, which focused on the less familiar efforts of the Flying Squad to bring the robbers to justice, was, admittedly, marginally more revealing. Yet despite being competently executed and reliably anchored by Jim Broadbent as shrewd copper Tommy Butler, it was, beneath the agreeable period trappings, little more than a pedestrian police procedural: Heartbeat with hair on its chest.

Chibnall's attempts to draw comparisons between the methodical endeavours of Butler and unflappable criminal mastermind Bruce Reynolds were rather pat and cursory (he's not a writer of any great depth or nuance). The unconvincingly fictionalised scene towards the end in which the two men confronted each other to quietly share their philosophies just stopped short of Reynolds espousing that hoary old cliché, “You know, despite being on opposing sides, you and I are very much alike.”

But at least Chibnall resisted the temptation to romanticise Reynolds and his gang. Rather than being portrayed as lovably naughty geezers, they instead came across as a rather inept bunch of thugs – their propensity for violence thankfully wasn't ignored – who pulled off the heist more by lucky accident than design.

Reynolds in particular was depicted as a slightly desperate fantasist, who fooled himself into justifying his actions as an heroic attack against the establishment. His choice of apparel during the robbery was, apparently, an army uniform: he may have seen himself as a capable general overseeing a mission run with military precision, but, as Chibnall dryly observed, in reality his army career amounted to four days of National Service before going AWOL.

Reynolds' half-baked idealism was further undermined by the over-familiar yet commendably unflinching re-enactment of the robbery itself. Without recourse to melodramatic flourishes, director Julian Jarrold captured how terrifying the experience was for the train guards, drivers and tellers. The lives of driver Jack Mills and his young colleague, David Whitby, were ruined by Reynolds and his cosh-wielding gang, and it's to Chibnall's credit that he didn't shy away from this uglier side of the story.

Nevertheless, this was still a production which, while adequately diverting in its undemanding way, didn't really need to exist. Though Chibnall can't be be blamed for failing to shed new light on such an overexposed case, one wonders why he bothered to tackle it in the first place. Still, if the likes of this and Broadchurch keep him busy and away from Doctor Who, then we should thank heaven for humongous mercies.

An uncompromising advocate of “morale-boosting” sing-songs, it's little wonder that call centre CEO Nev Wilshire is a big fan of Christmas. The Call Centre Christmas caught up with the overbearingly genial Nev, whose often inappropriately hands-on approach to team leading turned him into a reality TV star this year. Yet compared to 2013's other documentary smash, Educating Yorkshire, Nev's star vehicle feels awfully drab and inconsequential. The vaguely unsettling novelty of his bumptious personality can only go so far before it palls.

Saturday, 14 December 2013


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

Lucan: Wednesday, STV

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine: Saturday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Despite its reputation as one of the most notorious mysteries of our age, the bizarre case of homicidal Freddie Mercury lookalike Lord Lucan had never been adapted for the screen prior to Jeff Pope's two-part drama, Lucan. That's possibly due to its lack of a neat, concrete ending: after bludgeoning his children's nanny to death in 1974, the man nicknamed “Lucky” by his aristocratic peers simply vanished into the ether, never to be found.

So while part two apparently provides a theory as to how Lucan evaded capture, episode one focused on the details leading up to the murder.

Pope, a writer/producer renowned for non-sensationalist factual dramas such as Appropriate Adult and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, delved into a decadent, fenced-off world populated by overgrown children drunk on a diet of arrogant entitlement.

At its centre lay the poisonous John Aspinall (Christopher Eccleston, sporting a distractingly mannered posh accent), a corrupt gambling club owner and moral supremacist whose skewed take on Darwinism – nature must yield to the strongest alpha male – was, according to Pope, a key influence on Lucan's decision to bump off his estranged wife in order to gain custody of their children.

In stark contrast to Aspinall's dominant personality, Lucan, as portrayed by Rory Kinnear, came across as an empty carapace and gullible fool with no discernible charm or charisma. Curiously, this goes against everything we've been told about Lucan: that he was a flamboyant character with sparkle to spare. The only mildly flamboyant aspect of Kinnear's performance was his luxuriant moustache, through which he muttered his lines like a quietly seething vampire.

Though I've no doubt that the decision to portray him as a cold-eyed fish paralysed with upper-class reserve was deliberate - Pope always carefully avoids glamorising his subjects - it did rather undermine the notion that he was driven to murder due to an all-consuming love of his children. Kinnear's inert, understated Lucan doesn't seem capable of committing a crime of passion.

But was paternal love actually his abiding motivation? Pope also suggested that this inveterate gambler, a man who'd been indulged his entire life, simply couldn't bear to lose. Just in case you missed this suggestion, Pope made sure that Aspinall/Eccleston spelled it out during several over-egged soliloquies.

Despite a sluggish start and some extraneous scenes set in the present day – it feels dramatically unnecessary to include author John Pearson, upon whose book the series is based, as a linking device – Lucan succeeds if only to satisfy our morbid curiosity about the case.

And yet the actual murder itself wasn't depicted gratuitously: that's not Pope's style. A recurring theme throughout his work is the chilling banality of evil, so although Lucan is characterised as a dispassionate bore, at least one doesn't feel the remotest tingle of titillation while watching this frosty account of his pathetic saga.

A documentary narrated by the subject themselves is usually a recipe for self-serving disaster. But Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine, in which the estimable scientist looked back over his remarkable life, avoided hagiography thanks to an overriding flavour of commendable candour and charming self-awareness.

Hawking, who was told he only had two years to live when diagnosed with motor neurone disease in the 1960s, emerged from this humbling, tasteful film as an extraordinarily indefatigable character whose lust for knowledge and experience is informed by an acute awareness of life's transience.

Saturday, 7 December 2013


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

The Bible: Saturday, Five

Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves: Monday, BBC4

Paul Whitelaw

I'm not a religious man, but after sitting through the unbearable opening chapter of The Bible, even I was moved to question what kind of vengeful deity would unleash such horror on His creations. Utterly atrocious in every way, this multimillion dollar turkey is undeniably awe-inspiring: it requires an almost heroic kind of blundering ineptitude to reduce The Big Book of Books to an incoherent, turgid mess.

Our hero in this case is Mark Burnett, an LA-based producer hitherto best known for overseeing such reality TV titans as Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice (and Shark Tank). Who better to spread God's word on Earth?

Burnett's version of the Bible is a loud, artless, empty spectacle riddled with laughable performances and stilted dialogue. While I appreciate that the barnstorming, sinner-smiting Old Testament doesn't exactly lend itself to subtlety, the chap playing Abraham – to take just one example from a uniformly dismal cast – gave a rafter-rattling performance that even Brian Blessed would condemn for being “a bit much”.

Whether you're a believer or not, shouldn't these parables, which have touched and inspired people for millennia, be depicted with a tad more depth and dignity? Burnett's Bible is so one-dimensional, it's impossible to invest in it on an emotional or philosophical level. It's just a bunch of hirsute ciphers bellowing at CGI skies.

Now, I know the Bible isn't supposed to be taken literally – I'm not an idiot – but the inherent danger with dramatisations of the Old Testament, especially one as clumsy as this, is that it can come across as a camp explosion of melodramatic nonsense: Cecil B. DeMille without the restraint.

Lot's wife being turned into an unconvincingly-rendered pillar of salt was a particular comic highlight, especially when accompanied by the straight-faced narrator explaining what just happened as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The depiction of sinful Sodom looked more like a gaggle of Levellers fans storming the bogs at Glastonbury, although I must admit I wasn't expecting the violent ninja battle which broke out in the middle of it (this must be what the opening caption was referring to when it promised to honour the spirit of the Bible).

And who among us knew that God speaks, not with a commanding stentorian roar, but with a camp, supercilious drawl, like a drowsy Kevin Spacey? Even more alarming is the actor playing Satan's suspiciously close physical resemblance to Obama. Burnett, who once produced a reality show starring Sarah Palin, says it's just a coincidence. That's at least one commandment broken right there.

God made a more low-key appearance in Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves, a sensitive three-part Swedish drama about young men devastated by the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

Benjamin, a dutiful Jehovah's Witness, gradually came to terms with his conflicted faith and sexuality amid the nurturing embrace of Stockholm's gay subculture. Similarly liberated was his first boyfriend, Rasmus, a disenfranchised small-town boy given a powerful new sense of identity. Inevitably, these happy scenes were tempered by tragedy in the shape of unflinching flash-forwards to Rasmus dying in hospital, as Benjamin, helpless, sat by his side.

A heartfelt slice of character-driven social history, Don't Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves – the title comes from a nurse's sternly pragmatic advice regarding disinfection – is marred slightly by its heavy-handed symbolism: the flashbacks to young Rasmus being told about the magical qualities of the white elk – a creature prized for being different, beautiful and unique – were particularly awkward. Fortunately, its earnestly poetic excesses are grounded in poignant reality by the understated performances from the two leads.