Saturday, 22 February 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 22nd February 2014.

My Mad Fat Diary: Monday, E4

Edge of Heaven: Friday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

As the old saying goes, if you remember the 1990s that's because they only ended 14 years ago. It barely feels like the past at all. Also, I personally find it difficult to wax nostalgically about the decade of my teens and twenties, if only because doing so makes me feel horrifyingly old.

But that's one of the reasons why I enjoy the charming teen comedy-drama My Mad Fat Diary: despite being set during the Britpop era, it never wallows in cheap nostalgia. The soundtrack may be rammed full of hits by the likes of Black Grape and Oasis, but its evocation of those years is anything but mindless and celebratory. The unfussily realised period setting is all but incidental.

The focus rests instead on the growing pains of Rae, an overweight teenage girl suffering from severe depression and anxiety. Yet despite the sombre subject matter, it manages to find welcome jabs of lightness and humour amid the gloom. It's a delicate balancing act, skilfully exercised.

Based on the diaries of author Rae Earl, it's clearly dredged from a laudable well of sincerity. It also benefits from a sensitive, likeable, vanity-free performance from Scottish actress Sharon Rooney as Rae. A realistically flawed character, she may be sweet and sympathetic but she's hardly an idealised pathos machine. Her moments of surliness, usually directed towards her well-meaning mother, are an effective way of staving off sentimentality.

Like the short-lived yet much-loved teen drama My So Called Life, starring Clare Danes and produced in the actual 1990s, My Mad Fat Diary isn't interested in depicting a bowdlerised version of teenage life. It's laudably warts and all.

As series two commenced, Rae was seemingly happy at last. Head over heels in love with her boyfriend, her only pressing concern was losing her virginity before starting college. However, in a poignant twist typical of the show, it was eventually revealed that Rae was living in denial. The narrative device of an optimistic letter to her best friend, Tix, was, it transpired, a red herring. It was a manifestation of grief. Tix, who also suffered from mental health problems, had died, presumably by suicide. Still in a trough of despair, Rae nevertheless took the important step of realising she still has a long way to go in therapy.

Few shows of my recollection have handled mental illness in such a sensitive and believable way. That it's produced by the otherwise tactless Channel 4 makes it all the more remarkable.

If I was ever tasked with making a parody of a generic, awful British sitcom, chances are I'd come up with something along the lines of Edge of Heaven. Joyless hack-work, this bland, predictable, primary-coloured comedy dutifully encompasses every miserable sitcom cliché. The daffy granny! The sex-mad mum! The fiery foreigner! The wacky gay couple! The chirpy ukulele soundtrack! It's pitiful.

And what's the point of setting it in an '80s-themed bed and breakfast? Aside from a brief snippet of Madonna's Holiday (to signify that someone was going on holiday), it didn't even feature any '80s music. Are we supposed to find the sight of a Wham 'Choose Life' t-shirt inherently amusing?

And a quick note to the production team: far from being an inspired visual gag, the conical bra-shaped keys to the hotel's Madonna suite merely illustrated your ineptitude, as Madge didn't actually adopt that look until 1990. You fools.   

Saturday, 15 February 2014


This article was originally published in the Courier on 15th February 2014.

Babylon: Sunday, Channel 4

Line of Duty: Wednesday, BBC2

Given the current weight of controversy surrounding police misconduct and media chicanery, you'd think an incisive black comedy satirising the whole sorry mess was just begging to be made. Unfortunately, Babylon isn't it.

Billed as a comedy-drama, the pilot failed to make much impact as either. Although clearly not intended as a rib-tickling farce, the stabs at humour were curiously mannered and self-conscious.

A scene in which Metropolitan Police chiefs were confused by incoming reports of a shooting spree was particularly laboured. And James Nesbitt, as a beleaguered police chief, delivering a convoluted description of what would befall him if he erroneously issued a citywide lock-down felt like an awkward barrage of watered-down The Thick of It.

This is hard to forgive, seeing as Babylon was written by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, both of whom worked on Armando Iannucci's exemplary political satire. It was like a weak tribute to their own work. Creators of the excellent Peep Show, they also collaborated with Chris Morris on his thoughtful suicide bomber comedy Four Lions. Their CV speaks for itself.

And yet Babylon took tantalising elements from their previous efforts and squandered their potential. Poorly plotted and characterised, it was a tonally confused, boring mess.

Largely set in the Met's communications department, its tackling of PR, spin and corporate gobbledegook felt awfully rote and familiar. Lines such as “This is so far off the record even I don't know I'm saying it” were the stuff of half-hearted fan fiction.

Director Danny Boyle – yes, that one – did at least succeed in providing a surface sheen of energy to Babylon's hectic world of rolling news, camera phones and Twitter And the overall point about the police struggling to project an image of honesty and transparency in a world increasingly monitored by the media and a tech-savvy public was, while crushingly obvious, adequately delivered.

As a state-of-the-nation address, however, it was limp and underwhelming: a missed opportunity. Its depiction of the police may be fair – like any sprawling institution, it's populated by terrible idiots and well-meaning professionals – but Babylon rang hollow as comedy, character drama and social commentary.

By sheer coincidence, the ethical failings of the police were addressed in another TV highlight this week. But Line of Duty is a far more assured and enjoyable affair.

A satisfyingly self-contained story, series one of this dynamic thriller was hardly begging for a sequel. But on the evidence of episode one, series two promises to be just as compelling.

Once again based around a British police force anti-corruption unit, it introduced Keeley Hawes as an apparently conscientious officer suspected of involvement in the violent death of three colleagues and a mysterious witness.

As before, writer Jed Mercurio established an intriguing guessing game riddled with unexpected twists. The biggest shock of all, and one that left me grinning from its sheer audacity, was the cliffhanger death of Call the Midwife's Jessica Raine, who'd only just been introduced as a major new character.

Although I should've seen it coming – Mercurio pulled off the same trick in series one with Gina McKee's character – it still worked beautifully as a devilish bit of rug-pulling.

That barely controlled yet confident sense of anything-goes mania is what sets Line of Duty apart from the vast majority of UK cop shows. It shows Babylon how it's done.

Saturday, 8 February 2014


This article was originally published in the Courier on 8th February 2014.

Big Ballet: Thursday, Channel 4

Ja'mie: Private School Girl: Thursday, BBC3

Paul Whitelaw

On the face of it, Big Ballet is just another against-all-odds documentary in which a group of unlikely protagonists must overcome obstacles and defy prejudice to achieve a life-affirming goal. Choirmaster Gareth Malone has based his entire TV career peddling variations on this theme. We've been here countless times before.

And yet it gradually dawned on me while watching episode one that this wasn't really a show about a likeable troupe of overweight women who'd dreamed their whole lives of becoming professional ballet dancers. Either by accident or design, it is in fact a slyly subversive critique of the shallowness, bitchiness and body fascism which runs rampant throughout modern society. And all of it encapsulated within the pirouetting shape of just one man: Wayne Sleep.

Ostensibly hired as the show's standard-issue celebrity mentor figure, Sleep boldly flaunts convention by refusing to display even the merest whiff of sincerity or inspirational vigour. On the contrary, he seemed to find the very concept of overweight dancers hilarious. But then he obviously finds everything hilarious. He's just high on the joy of being Wayne Sleep.

With his dapper grey suit and close-cropped white hair, he's like a cackling gangland businessman toying with his lackeys. His powers of snide condescension are devastating. During the audition process, where over 200 ordinary men and women performed for his approval, he sniffed, “They're having a go, which is the main thing.” As empowering slogans go, that takes some beating.

Theoretically at least, the diminutive Sleep empathises with the women because he too was repeatedly told he'd never make it in ballet due to his physical shortcomings. But after watching this it was obviously because no one could stand being near him.

His bluntly unsentimental sidekick, prima ballerina Monica Loughman, was just as bad. Liqourice-thin and permanently scowling, she's an animated Disney villain come to wretched life. They were like a pair of sniggering children as the men – none of whom got through to the final 18 – auditioned in unflattering leotards. “They all look like they could do with not having beer for a year,” sneered Loughman. “I bet they'll have a drink after this!” quipped Sleep. The card.

Their nastiness aside, the programme itself is broadly sympathetic towards the plus-size dancers. Of course, this being Channel 4, it let itself down at times. The chortling use of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on the soundtrack felt like a needless dig in the ribs, as did the pointed references to the north, where the women – and by extension, the fat people – come from. Hiring that nice Olivia Colman as narrator may have been an attempt to soften the blow, but even she couldn't smooth out references to the dancers' “ginormous performance”.

Sleep and Loughman would doubtless regard the wanton unpleasantness of Australian comedian Chris Lilley's Ja'mie: Private School Girl as wholly admirable.

A frustrating artist, Lilley is a gifted actor who repeatedly undermines his talent with lazy, clumsy material. Basing a whole mock-doc series around Ja'mie, the insufferable rich bitch teenager he played previously in We Could Be Heroes and Summer Heights High, feels like an act of creative desperation.

Unlike some of his more rounded characters, Ja'mie is little more than a one-dimensional monster. Acutely well-observed, yes, but what's the point if she isn't actually funny? 

Like Ricky Gervais, his British counterpart in “ironic” offensiveness, Lilley is a one-trick pony in dire need of new ideas.    

Saturday, 1 February 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 1st February 2014.

Britain's Great War: Monday, BBC1

Outnumbered: Wednesday, BBC1

Paul Whitelaw

The problem with Jeremy Paxman, especially when removed from his natural Newsnight habitat, is that his fundamental settings - wry incredulity crossed with a unique shade of weary bombast - tend to overshadow and infect his every utterance.

Take Britain's Great War, a major new series in which he traces the vast impact of World War One on ordinary British citizens. Paxman's intentions are undoubtedly sincere, but his grave subject matter is frequently undermined by his absurd affectations.

It's impossible to take him seriously when, in full Chris Morris mode, he solemnly declares that "the clock was ticking to catastrophe" in the hours leading up to the declaration of war. His bellowed repetition of the word "doom" in time with the chimes of Big Ben is already one of the comedy highlights of the year. It also doesn't help that he obviously gains unseemly enjoyment from saying "war" with erotically charged zeal. He's a ridiculous figure.

His lack of self-awareness is frustrating, as he's capable of spinning an engaging historical yarn. While tactfully avoiding outright flippancy, his eye for colourful detail illuminated the programme throughout. 

Memorable images included appalled cabinet ministers bursting into tears at the prospect of a cataclysmic war, and, grimly, a distraught woman refusing to let go of her husband's hand as a train carried him off to war. She was dragged underneath it and killed. He also recounted the little-known tale of self-serving MP Horatio Bottomley, a theatrical opportunist who became rich and famous by staging rabble-rousing recruitment rallies in music halls throughout Britain. Fat, tweedy and grey, he resembled a capitalist villain from a Frank Capra fantasia.

While refuting the generally accepted, and rather patronising, assumption that Britain marched into war with Germany on a crashing wave of naive optimism, Paxman showed how Lord Kitchener's infamous and hugely effective recruitment campaign ("Your Country Needs YOU") cunningly manipulated men into signing their own death warrants. Triggered by a sense of patriotic duty, over 33,000 new recruits signed up on one fateful day alone. But that optimism, however falsely manufactured, eventually vanished once the nightmare horrors of modern warfare became unavoidable. One particularly poignant aside was the revelation that many postmen gave up their jobs during the war, as they could no longer stand the trauma of bearing such incessant bad news.

Notwithstanding our host's underlying absurdity - his inability to relate to actual human beings is hilarious - this dynamic essay was mercifully free of distracting gimmickry. One of the benefits of Paxman's no-nonsense approach is that he'd rather die than clown around in period garb a la Andrew Marr (adopting a comedy German accent while reading a satirical piece about the Kaiser was, admittedly, an unfortunate aberration). 

Blessed with evocative archive footage and photographs, Britain's Great War - the expensive tie-in book will doubtless be available soon - is, almost despite itself, an effective and enlightening history lesson.

It won't be as funny when the kids grow up! If you're an Outnumbered fan, then you'll doubtless recognise this oft-repeated prediction. Hell, I've repeated it myself. But I was happily proved wrong by the opening episode of its fifth and final series. While it makes sense to end it now, this gag-packed and sharply well-observed family sitcom has lost none of its endearing sparkle.

The kids may have matured almost beyond recognition - with his lumbering girth and booming baritone, Ben has completed his transformation into Tom Baker - but their defining idiosyncrasies remain. In any case, Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner have always been more than capable of anchoring proceedings with their deft comic timing. Spending a few more weeks in their company will be a pleasure.