Saturday, 25 January 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 25th January 2014.

The Musketeers: Sunday, BBC1

The Naked Rambler: Tuesday, BBC1

Paul Whitelaw

One of the most frequently adapted adventure yarns in all of popular fiction, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers is an indelible cultural fixture, familiar to millions. Even if you've never read the original series of novels, you'll have enjoyed the swashbuckling escapades of these dashing, flashing blades via memorable film versions from the likes of Beatles director Richard Lester, or even the fondly-recalled '80s French cartoon, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds (that jaunty theme song still haunts me to this day).

So do we really need another adaptation? Seasoned screenwriter Adrian Hodges (Primeval; Survivors) certainly thinks so. Brimming with brio and an infectious sense of fun, episode one of 10-part saga The Musketeers suggested he may be onto something. 

Though all the familiar elements are in place – galloping horses, deftly staged duels, lashings of hearty laughter and poisonous plotting – they're leavened with welcome hints of darkness and depth. An unabashedly loose adaptation of Dumas' source material – Hodges has grafted his own storyline to the original characters and 17th century setting – it may be witty, handsome, sharp and breathless, but it never strays into outright camp or knowing self-parody. 

Peter Capaldi wisely resists the temptation to ham it up as arch villain Cardinal Richelieu, delivering instead a quietly watchful and weary performance as a man whose merciless thirst for power has seemingly eroded his soul. Granted, the sulphuric spectre of Malcolm Tucker was unavoidable during any scene involving Richelieu's duplicitous political machinations; his smooth haranguing of the foppish King Louis briefly conjured the pleasing notion of Richelieu as one of Tucker's Blackadder-esque ancestors. But Capaldi can't help being associated with such an overpowering role; in any case, the association merely adds to the enjoyment.

Our nominal hero, D'Artagnan, played here by some pouting indie rock star hunk, is overshadowed, not only by Richelieu, but by brooding Musketeer Athos, who in the charismatic hands of Tom Burke is a far more interesting presence. Boasting the saturnine countenance of a troubled '70s illusionist, Burke's Athos is a demon-wrestling hero locked in private mourning for his lost lady love. Far from dead, her identity was eventually revealed as Milady de Winter, Richelieu's raven-haired, scheming sidekick. I suspect this intriguing, jagged triangle, rather than the cow-eyed travails of D'Artagnan, will drive the drama in weeks to come.  

Despite its 9pm, Sunday night slot, The Musketeers is a Saturday evening family show in all but name. Save for a few heaving bosoms, phallic pistols and fleeting references to prostitution, there's nothing here to frighten the foals. Hodges knows his audience, and skewers it with aplomb. Delivered with just the right amount of seriousness and levity, his kinetic adaptation feels neither self-important nor annoyingly glib. There's potential here, a palpable promise. 

Is Stephen Gough, otherwise known as The Naked Rambler, a harmless eccentric or a tragic nuisance? The answer, according to this vexed documentary, lies somewhere in between. The hapless definition of a rebel without a cause/clue,  Gough can't explain why he's effectively ruined his life by stalking the nation unclothed. "There's a bigger thing at stake," he mumbled. "I'm not sure what that is."

Having spent the last seven years in prison due to his stubborn, confused, self-defeating principles, Gough trekked over 400 miles to visit his family, including the teenage children who've grown up in his absence. They could've visited him in jail if his insistence on remaining naked hadn't restricted his visiting rights. I wanted to shake him, but only if he'd put some clothes on. A severely lost soul searching for some sort of meaning, Gough, it transpires, comes from a family of seekers. His flummoxed old mum, a shrunken sigh in human form, said she didn't know why they'd turned out that way. "It seems a useless way of living your life."

I'm all for sticking it to The Man, but Gough came across as a rather sad and laughable character. A tackle-flashing attention-seeker, his search for truth has turned him into a novelty, a footnote, a pointless joke. I can only wish him well.

Saturday, 18 January 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 18th January 2014.

Hostages: Saturday, Channel 4

House of Fools: Tuesday, BBC2

Paul Whitelaw

Readers, I'm stunned. And not a little impressed. Channel 4's latest US import, Hostages, established itself as a steaming pile of horse manure within its first five minutes. That must be some kind of record.

Instantly notable for its dreadful quotidian dialogue – everyone speaks entirely in clunky exposition – this nonsensical thriller began with a mind-blowingly stupid sequence in which a stubble-jawed FBI agent declared his maverick credentials by taking control of a siege situation and shooting a hostage.

Huh? But wait! Our man, our brilliant, brilliant man, had in fact correctly surmised that a cunning armed robber had swapped clothes with a bank employee in a bid to escape. How could he be sure? The ersatz hostage's boots didn't match his business suit. It was one helluva risk, but he's just that kinda guy.

Resembling a constipated David Schwimmer, this wayward genius confirmed his unorthodox approach to law enforcement by invading the home of the President's personal physician (Toni Collette, a fine actress cast adrift) and ordering her to kill him during an imminent bout of surgery. Failure to comply will result in the assassination of her charmless family. So far, so high concept.

It's not necessarily a bad central conceit – 24 managed to wangle eight seasons from such enjoyable daftness – but Hostages squanders its potential by being so catastrophically laughable.

I particularly enjoyed the highly conspicuous albino operative who's supposedly a master of disguise, and the rogue FBI agents creeping stealthily through Collette's garden. Cue stirrings from the family pooch. “I got the dog,” whispered Agent # 1 solemnly, like Jack Bauer staking out a pet shop. Mercifully, the dog was spared. These guys aren't all bad.

This can't be happening,” sobbed Collette, with understandable conviction. By the time she revealed, during a supposedly high-stakes sequence, that her security password was “Ringo Starr”, I was convinced the sense-addled writers had orchestrated the whole thing as some sort of desperate cry for help.

Like Michael Haneke's Funny Games hijacked by the Chuckle Brothers, Hostages heaves with all the idiocy and emptiness we've come to expect from its executive producer, Hollywood schlockmeister Jerry Bruckheimer.

What's behind the kidnapper's plan? Who cares? Will they end up forming an unexpected bond with Colette's family? Inevitably! And so it goes on. “Sometimes you have to do a bad thing for a good reason,” explained Agent Schwimmer, helpfully. Inadvertent hilarity aside, what's Hostages' excuse?

Channel 4 are obviously banking on this being an addictive replacement for the ailing Homeland. Fat chance. When the novelty value of its awfulness subsides, viewers will abandon this trussed-up turkey in droves.

By cheerful contrast, Vic and Bob's delightfully daft sitcom House of Fools deserves to be a hit. Continuing proof that, when given the opportunity, they're capable of devising relatively accessible mainstream entertainment while compromising none of their unique comic voice, it's delivered with all the infectiously self-indulgent gusto for which they're so beloved.

Finally free from the over-egged constraints of Shooting Stars, the pair seem energised by the chance to throw everything they've got – absurd characters, winningly contrived groaners, crude silliness, wordplay, sight gags, puppetry, songs and slapstick - at the traditional sitcom format (everything, from the saucy 1970s theme tune to the beige living room set, suggests Reg Varney and Yootha Joyce in a cracked hall of mirrors).

An admittedly mixed barrage of gags wisely tethered to the sketchiest of plots – Bob's thwarted mission to watch Conan the Barbarian on TV with his new girlfriend – episode one was a knockabout, charming pleasure. Never mind Mrs Brown's Boys, this is how I like my old-fashioned entertainment.

It's heartening to note that, even after all this time, these peerless clowns still take such delight in making people laugh by entertaining themselves.

Sunday, 12 January 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 11th January 2013.

The 7:39: Monday and Tuesday, BBC1

Secrets of the Living Dolls: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

A Ray Davies song in waiting, David Morrissey's Carl was your typical commuter: an unremarkable middle-aged businessman sleepwalking through his drably unchanging routine. Grey of suit and beard – even his facial hair looked tired – he had the unassuming demeanour of a melancholy bear, a gentle soul both lost and harmless. 

Which was just as well, as his behaviour in romantic drama The 7.39 could easily have come across as sad and creepy: a stalker in sheep's clothing.

Instead he emerged as a likeable, if foolish, character whose whirlwind affair with Sally, a younger woman and fellow unsatisfied commuter played by Sheridan Smith, tore at the heart of this affecting little two-part saga.

Despite raking over very familiar territory – the concept of thwarted drifters gaining a new lease of life from a fleeting romance has informed everything from Brief Encounter to Lost in Translation – it was saved by mature, sensitive writing from David Nicholls and sweetly underplayed performances from Morrissey, Smith and, in her stock role of unfairly maltreated spouse, Olivia Colman.

Nicholls toyed with our allegiances by sketching each of his principal characters in a sympathetic light. Even Sally's fiancée, an overbearing fitness buffoon played by a suitably dense-looking Sean Maguire, was essentially well-meaning. This triggered an interesting subversion of the usual demands of romantic fiction, where we root for the starry-eyed lovebirds and hope they stay together at the end. Instead I found myself hoping their flirting would lead nowhere, and that Carl would see sense and return to the bosom of his lovely wife and kids.

It's testament to the quiet depth and pull of Nicholls' writing that I was actually angling for two hours of drama during which nothing remotely dramatic or untoward happened. It was like a Bizarro EastEnders: I didn't want anything bad to happen to these nice, ordinary people. She may be renowned for her extreme sobbing skills, but I doubt even the most sadistic viewer actually yearned to witness the inevitable tear-sodden scene of Colman discovering her husband's infidelity.

While it never added up to anything more meaningful than “the grass isn't always greener”, The 7.39 engaged with its themes in an entirely believable and unpretentious way. Buoyed by Nicholls' ear for natural-sounding dialogue and the informal strength of his cast, it was a touching study of human frailty and the runaway madness of the heart.

Despite being produced by the geniuses responsible for such dire point-and-gawp travesties such as the Big Fat Gypsy franchise and The Man With the 10-Stone Testicles, Secrets of the Living Dolls was a surprisingly inoffensive documentary about yet another subculture that most of us have never heard of.

The subjects in this case were a selection of men who enjoy transforming themselves into women via skin-tight rubber masks and flesh suits. Why? The only vague reasons given ranged from mere escapism to the need to feel young, attractive and special. Whether they gained any sexual satisfaction from their largely secret pursuit remained curiously unclear. 

Despite fleeting references to the anatomical accuracy of the suits, it was if the director, stricken by an unforeseen rash of prudishness, had little interest in exploring this phenomenon beyond its most superficial layer.

Instead we were simply presented with a group of harmless hobbyists whose only demand was for society to judge them kindly. And that was that. It was as bland and impassive as the sex-doll masks worn by the men, and while one could arguably applaud the programme's essentially neutral, non-judgemental approach – I never got the impression that anyone was being mocked – it isn't merely enough to present an unusual subset of society without any kind of deeper insight.

Cuh, what do you think of that then?” is hardly the most profound authorial comment. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014


A version of this article was originally published in The Courier on 4th January 2013.

Sherlock: New Year's Day, BBC1

Birds of a Feather: Thursday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Take a cursory glance at this year's festive schedules and you'd be forgiven for thinking that British television is ruled by just two writer/producers: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Following the inescapable dominance of Doctor Who's 50th anniversary celebrations and Gatiss' supernatural visitations on BBC2 on Christmas Day, the duo continued their monopoly with the eagerly awaited return of Sherlock.

Tasked with providing a satisfying explanation for the sociopathic sleuth's faked suicide at the end of series two, they cheekily confounded expectations by conjuring more than one outcome. Galloping out of the trap, the giddy pre-credits sequence declared that Sherlock survived his fall using a bungee rope, a latex mask, Moriarty's corpse and none other than obfuscating mind man Derren Brown.

Colour me complacent, but this struck me as a perfectly acceptable and amusing explanation. It was a silly, fun, audacious illusion. Job done.

Except it wasn't. Sherlock, after all, isn't so much a drama as a theatrical confidence trick, where things are rarely as they seem. A playful piece of misdirection, this absurd version of events was quickly revealed as a harmless gag at the audience's expense, later superseded by a more “plausible” flashback involving air bags, a doppelganger corpse from the hospital morgue, a colluding network of homeless assistants, and the fiendish trick of placing a squash ball under Sherlock's armpit to briefly stop his pulse.

But even that was undermined by one more hint of ambiguity. Gatiss, who wrote the episode, clearly had no intention of supplying a definitive explanation, which wouldn't matter so much had the entire episode not been devoted to teasing out the riddle.

Bloated with self-referential gags about the colourful fan theories surrounding the suicide stunt, this wasn't another exciting 21st century adventure for Sherlock Holmes, but a heavily meta-textual commentary on the hit TV show Sherlock itself. It was as if Moffat and Gatiss were more interested in causing a stir on Twitter than writing a coherent piece of entertainment.

Resembling a self-indulgent, overextended Comic Relief sketch, it allowed scant room for any other business. The barely sketched sub-plot involving a terrorist cell operating from the London Underground was little more than flimsy groundwork for the remainder of the series.

But at least the odd couple double-act of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman continue to shine as Holmes and Watson. Cumberbatch's comic flair tumbled forth during a farcical scene in which he reintroduced himself to Watson in the guise of a French waiter. Watson's understandable reaction – a stunned conflagration of confusion, relief, sadness and fury – was impressively realised in Freeman's typically grounded, believable style.

Almost entirely by virtue of his thoughtful performance, he's the sole point of emotional depth in Sherlock's otherwise glib and heightened universe.

The engaging chemistry of its stars aside, I've never been convinced by the often disproportionate praise this series receives. Clever and entertaining though it often is, it's far too throwaway to ever be considered a classic. Blighted by one-dimensional characters – does anybody really care about the bland Molly's unrequited love for Sherlock? – and an alienating swagger of undeserved self-satisfaction, its audacity, while fitfully admirable, often comes across as mere superficial flash: a talented show-off with a desperate need to impress.

I admire Sherlock in many ways, but I could never love it.

Possibly the least anticipated comeback in sitcom history, the inexplicable return of Birds of a Feather was even bleaker than I'd anticipated.

Groaning under the weight of laboured, tired, embarrassing dialogue – yes, the computer game console Wii does sound a bit like a colloquialism for urine, doesn't it? - it's like watching a pathetic gaggle of ghosts going through the motions of haunting a long-abandoned manor. Pauline Quirke deserves better. So do we.

The reason for its sorry revival is a mystery that would leave even Sherlock dumbfounded.