Saturday, 29 March 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 29th March 2014.

Mammon: Friday, More4

Inspector De Luca: Saturday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Home to cult hits such as The Killing and The Bridge, BBC Four is the crime-sodden kingdom of gloomy Nordic noir. So it's little wonder that their rivals have recently tried to grab some of that subtitled treasure for themselves. After all, these quality imports are relatively cheap to acquire, but very popular among discerning viewers. It's the sort of equation that TV executives drool over.

Channel 4 gambled wisely when they aired French supernatural drama The Returned, which turned out to be one of the TV highlights of 2013. Flushed with that success, they now give us Mammon, an intriguing Norwegian thriller about journalistic integrity versus corporate corruption.

Our hero is investigative journalist Peter Veras, who uncovers evidence of fraud involving Norway's elite. Unperturbed by the fact that one of the alleged fraudsters is his own brother – they hardly seemed close – he ploughed on with the story in spite of a police report claiming that no crimes had been committed.

But why did his brother resign? And if Peter really is such a hot-shot, why didn't he pick up on the screamingly obvious clues that brother dearest was about to commit suicide? He practically had “DEAD SOON” tattooed on his face. As the episode progressed, I began to suspect that, far from being a leading light of Norway's Fourth Estate, Peter Veras is in fact a blundering idiot.

He hadn't even verified the source of his story. No wonder he was so shaken when it turned out to be his own brother, who was presumably trying to bring down the system from within. That's possibly why he left behind a series of Treasure Hunt-style clues for Peter to chase, which resulted in him donning scuba diving gear and searching for something or other in a roadside lake.

The episode climaxed while he was out on this goose chase, when another millionaire embezzler crashed his car into the lake before shooting himself in the head. It was an unexpected turn of events, I'll grant you that, but it still felt like a ridiculously laboured attempt to create an explosive cliffhanger. That sort of nonsense is acceptable in a comic book thriller like 24, but Mammon appears to think of itself as more meaningful than that. Why else would it begin with a sombre quote from the Book of Revelation?

Its more wayward tendencies aside, this slow-burning and occasionally quite suspenseful drama does show some promise. With its weighty themes of guilt and morality – it's no coincidence that Peter's father is a priest – it may well add up to something quite substantial. I just hope Peter stops behaving like the Norwegian equivalent of a depressed Frank Spencer.

There was more high-powered corruption in BBC Four's latest foreign import, Inspector De Luca, only this time it involved the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Set in 1930s Italy on the eve of World War II, it squanders a potentially interesting period setting with a lugubrious pace and anaemic plotting. It's like watching an armchair age in slow motion. De Luca himself is your standard lonely detective: driven yet subdued, a haunted man apart. I'd quite happily never see this archetype again.

It's enough to make you long for a cop drama about a jovial detective who lives in a bouncy castle. Obviously I wouldn't like that either, but at least it would be different.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

TV Review: THE WIDOWER and W1A

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

The Widower: Monday, STV

W1A: Wednesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

As anyone who's ever watched Take Me Out will attest, ITV is no stranger to the banality of evil. But nowhere is this theme better expressed than in the work of their undisputed king of true-life crime, Jeff Pope, whose list of credits include highly acclaimed dramas about the likes of Myra Hindley, Peter Sutcliffe and Fred West.

Whether as a writer or producer, the defining characteristic of Pope's work is its sensitivity. They may be torn from the headlines, but there is nothing sensational, exploitative or tabloid-esque about his dramas. Few of us would deny that we have a morbid fascination with killers and psychopaths, but Pope always manages to satisfy that impulse without being disrespectful to their victims.

And so it was with his latest effort, The Widower, in which Reece Shearsmith stars as convicted murderer Malcolm Webster. In 1993, this outwardly unremarkable man killed his first wife, Claire, for her life insurance. Having succeeded in passing it off as a tragic car accident – in reality he poisoned her – he then attempted to do the same to his second wife. He was eventually convicted for his crimes in 2011, 17 years after Claire's death.

How did he get away with it for so long? Pope and Shearsmith – a superb actor better known for his darkly comic roles in The League of Gentlemen and Inside No. 9 – did an effective job of illustrating Webster's plausible nature. Superficially charming and sympathetic, he duped his wives with ease. It's clear that these women weren't stupid or naïve. Rather, they were the helpless victims of an arch manipulator.

The scene in which Webster convincingly performed grief-stricken tears in the mirror, before switching them off in a flash, was particularly chilling. But it also contained a trace of black, queasy comedy, of the type that Shearsmith is known for. Both he and Pope realise that even the most appalling events can have an undercurrent of bleak humour. That such moments never came across as distasteful is testament to their careful handling of the material.

If Shearsmith's performance at times felt ever-so-slightly theatrical, I took that as a deliberate choice on the actor's part. Webster, after all, was a man who was constantly performing. A congenital liar and dangerous fantasist, his entire existence was founded on duplicity. Shearsmith's embodiment of this murderous Walter Mitty is never less than mesmerising.

A strange story skilfully told, The Widower exerts an uncomfortable pull.

A sequel to the affable sitcom Twenty Twelve, W1A deposits Ian Fletcher, the former Head of Olympic Deliverance, into the bowels of the BBC as their newly installed Head of Values.

Anyone expecting a savage media satire would've been disappointed. But that's not really writer/director John Morton's style. He's more interested in poking sly fun at corporate gibberish and incompetency. Fine, just as long as it's funny.

But therein lies the problem: the jokes are far too obvious. The concept of Britain's Tastiest Village may be an accurate parody of bland, populist BBC output, but it's a cheap and easy gag.

Plus Morton's signature writing style, that tortured stew of deliberately clumsy language, has finally worn out its welcome. It no longer surprises or amuses, and narrator David Tennant always sounds like he's winking knowingly at the audience.

It's frustrating, as the rest of the cast are impeccable. But they can't do much with such underwhelming material.

Saturday, 15 March 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 15th March 2014.

Insane Fight Club: Tuesday, BBC One

EDL Girls: Don't Call Me Racist: Monday, BBC Three

Paul Whitelaw

Where would documentary film crews be without little-known subcultures? Were it not for these eccentric cabals of people doing unusual things, their work would dry up overnight. So BBC Scotland must've been delighted when they stumbled across the blood-caked soldiers of Glasgow's Insane Championship Wrestling league.

As their bright, likeable, articulate leader Mark admitted in Insane Fight Club, wrestling is pantomime for adults. “It's a drama, a comedy, a soap opera. It's performance art,” he said, between busy bouts of promoting gigs and writing storylines. Yet despite the cheerful fakery, the physical pain and gallons of blood are excruciatingly real. ICW takes the standard theatrics of professional wrestling and adds a gruesomely violent twist. Fights tend to spill out of venues and into the streets. One clip depicted a wrestler being bounced off the side of a passing bus.

The programme followed this tight-knit group of friends in the months leading up to their biggest fight night so far. Their usual stomping ground was the Garage nightclub in Glasgow. But Mark had his eyes on a bigger prize. The nearby ABC holds twice the usual ICW crowd, and Mark was hoping for a sold-out event. Their goal of turning professional and making a decent living out of wrestling obviously meant a lot to them. A colourful tag-team of self-supporting underdogs, you couldn't help rooting for them.

It gradually became apparent that wrestling presented a form of escape from life's mundane status quo. For the likes of star wrestler Grado – an affable, gregarious, overweight fool – it's a way of transforming yourself into a beloved folk superhero. No wonder the camera focused on him. 

With his camp, skin-tight leotards and bellowed catchphrase - “IT'S YERSEL!!” - he was a magnet for comedy, both planned and unintentional. The scene in which he encountered baffled celebrity hairdresser Nicky Clarke was one of the oddest mismatches I've seen on TV in a long time.

But there was an unexpected layer of poignancy lurking beneath the programme's extrovert veneer. The gang's mutual respect and affection was palpable, as was Mark's heartfelt ambition. Having raised his autistic son in a disadvantaged area of Glasgow, he wanted to do everything he could to improve their lives.

At one point, with tears in his eyes, he recalled his son worrying about not fitting in with the other children at nursery. Mark pointed to his own life as a wrestling promoter, and told him that it's okay to be different. He and his friends were all oddballs, and that's something to be proud of. It was a surprisingly moving moment.

While the programme at times felt like an extended promotional video for Mark's burgeoning business, I can't begrudge the gang any success that comes their way. There's something quite heroic in their dogged insanity.

An altogether more dispiriting community of outcasts could be found in EDL Girls: Don't Call Me Racist, in which female members of the notorious far-right movement stated their case.

Confused, angry and naïve – I'm not sure the girl who photographed herself dressed as Hitler really knew who he was – they were typical racists in that they couldn't sensibly articulate their arguments beyond half-baked complaints about a perceived cultural enemy. Their efforts to “protect” England from some non-existent invasion are utterly pointless

Sunday, 2 March 2014


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

Silk: Monday, BBC One

Jonathan Creek: Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

The problem with idealistic QC Martha Costello is that she's far too human and empathetic for her own good. If only she could somehow dispense with her feelings and carry out her job with the ruthless efficiency of a programmed assassin. Until then, she's doomed to wrestle with ethical dilemmas on a weekly basis at 9pm on BBC One.

That, in a nutshell, is the recurring theme of Silk, the diverting legal drama that returned last week for a third series. As played by Maxine Peake and written by former barrister Peter Moffat, Martha is certainly one of the more convincing lawyers to grace our screens. Her ability to balls things up almost as often as she gets things right makes her infinitely more sympathetic and believable than your standard maverick courtroom hero. I'm no legal expert, but Moffat's work always carries a persuasive ring of authenticity.

Her latest case was typical in that it found her getting emotionally involved to the detriment of her professional acumen. While the problem of a professional getting TOO DAMN CLOSE to a case is a terrible genre cliché, Silk tends to handle it with relative aplomb.

There's too much mothering and not enough lawyering,” frowned Clive, her Harrow/Oxford-educated paramour and colleague. You could hardly blame Martha for embracing her maternal instincts while defending the son of her own Head of Chambers. A vulnerable teenager with mental health issues, he'd accidentally killed a policeman while taking part in a protest march. What unfolded was a slickly executed rumination on police brutality, corruption and the compromised values of insular institutions.

Peake, who has a knack for delivering dramatic courtroom speeches without ever overselling them, was as solid and affecting as ever, while Neil Stuke, as morally ambiguous chief clerk Billy, handled his terminal cancer sub-plot with admirable restraint.

Although Silk is essentially a case-of-the-week courtroom drama – and therefore fairly forgettable in the grand scheme of things – it's realised with such skill that it rarely fails to engage. Plus this week's episode treated us to the sight of Peake dancing badly to Joy Division's Love Will Tear Us Apart. Beat that, Law & Order: UK.

Despite its layers of black comedy, whimsical mystery drama Jonathan Creek has always struck me as rather too cosy for comfort. I admire David Renwick as a writer, but I've never been taken with this particular creation. At its worst it's little more than Midsomer Murders with a self-aware sense of humour.

To give Renwick his due, the latest episode did feature an enjoyably sly dig at the success of Sherlock, an increasingly tricksy and self-regarding show that's usurped Jonathan Creek in the nation's affections. Creek, competently played as always by Alan Davies, was lumbered with an unwanted sidekick: a young, cocky David Tennant lookalike who constantly rattled off detailed yet entirely incorrect deductions a la Sherlock on a bad day. But it was Creek, of course, who solved the case.

Even so, Renwick's attempts to spice up the formula by showing us, a la Columbo, how the murder happened in the first act felt half-baked. The inherent pleasure of Columbo is in watching the faux-naive detective lure his quarry into a trap. But Creek has none of that character's endearing charm. He's just a dull middle-aged man solving crimes in his spare time.

While the episode hung together more coherently than some of the recent feature-length specials, tonally it didn't quite gel. The story of a mentally ill mother hanging herself after losing her baby and murdering an actress jarred rather harshly against the jokes about Piers Morgan and unsubtle Alien references. With the addition of a superfluous sub-plot involving Paula Wilcox and an urn of ashes, it all felt like something of a hodgepodge. 

I was more entertained by the notion that the moment where Creek was bitten by an angry theatre-goer was a cheeky nod to the real-life incident in which Davies bit a homeless man's ear. Do I deduce correctly?