Sunday, 27 April 2014


The Guess List: Saturday, BBC One

Amazing Greys: Saturday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

It's testament to the versatility of Rob Brydon that he can concurrently star in BBC Two's The Trip to Italy with Steve Coogan, which behind all the crowd-pleasing impersonations is a relatively introspective project, and appear as the host of a shiny-floored Saturday night game show on BBC One. Almost unique among his peers, he straddles both worlds with ease.

Co-produced by the man himself, The Guess List is basically just an excuse for him to muck about with an unusually high calibre of celebrity guest. When was the last time you saw Simon Callow, let alone Jennifer Saunders, on a quiz show? It's presumably due to Brydon's standing in the industry that he can command such stellar talent.

The actual quiz format – basically a straightforward fusion of Family Fortunes and Blankety Blank – takes a back seat to Brydon's genial joshing with the panellists and contestants. And that's why, despite its populist front, The Guess List finds itself in a post-watershed slot.

While I'm sure he's more than capable of fronting a family-friendly light entertainment show, the default nature of his wit – that winning barrage of barbed insults softened with a butter-wouldn't-melt veneer – is slightly too dark for the Doctor Who and Strictly audience. 

While hardly shocking, his quips about autopsies and caesareans wouldn't sit comfortably at 7pm. This is a man, lest we forget, who was responsible for Marion and Geoff and Human Remains, two of the bleakest TV comedies of the last fifteen years. That contrast between the affable mainstream entertainer and the cult character comedian with a penchant for darkness creates an interesting tension.

Ultimately, however, The Guess List is good, silly, harmless fun. As a quiz show host, Brydon has learned from the best. His aghast looks to camera are pure Brucie – he even threw in a brief impersonation, which were otherwise sparingly used – and his occasional gags at the expense of “Mrs Brydon” would've delighted Les Dawson. As host of Would I Lie to You? he often intrudes to the detriment of the game, whereas here the whole point is his cheeky dominance of the format.

It helps that his guests happily throw themselves into the spirit of the show. Callow was an endearing tumult of good-natured mirth as he endured countless barbs about his age. And even James Corden – who's obviously learned a few valuable lessons in humility – was content to let his old Gavin & Stacey colleague hog the spotlight. 

If your tolerance for Brydon is limited, then The Guess List will quickly outstay its welcome. But if, like me, you're a fan of his work, then it's just another welcome excuse to spend time in his company.

ITV's new Saturday night rival, Amazing Greys, is by comparison a turgid bore. Together at last, Paddy McGuinness and Angela Rippon pit various young pretenders against a team of older experts. The point is presumably to show that - hey! - old people can achieve things too. How enlightening.

Interminably padded – just five tedious rounds were played over the space of an hour – it's an inherently patronising misfire that encourages a kind of cloying faux-rivalry between the generations. It also begs the unanswerable question: why is Paddy McGuinness? You could drive yourself mad pondering that one.


This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 26th August 2014.

Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This: Monday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

In the unlikely event that I should ever appear on Mastermind, I suspect my specialist subject would be 'TV Biopics About Dead Comedians'. That's hardly the most impressive claim, but you work with what you have.

BBC Four has famously mined this seam for all it's worth in the last few years, more often than not with dubious results. For every incisive drama about the likes of Kenny Everett and Kenneth Williams Рfamous, funny Kens have been served well - they've produced half a dozen hackneyed biopics seemingly hell-bent on reducing the subject in question to the laziest set of tears-of-a-clown clich̩s. I've seen 'em all, and admired very few.

So I wasn't expecting much from Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This. He may be one of our most beloved comics, but the grisly details of his personal life – alcoholism, infidelity, domestic violence – suggested that this would be just another tawdry wallow in showbiz misery. How wrong I was. What I hadn't banked on – and this was foolish in retrospect – was that this prestigious production was written by Simon Nye, a seasoned comedy writer whose respect for the Gods of his craft couldn't be more obvious.

Unlike most dramas of its kind, this one actually went out of its way to remind us that the tragic Pagliacci in question was a very funny person. The re-staging of classic comedy routines almost always fall painfully flat in biopics, but in the careful hands of Nye and David Threfall – who delivered an uncanny performance as Cooper, rubbery latex face and all – they really came alive. It was an affectionate tribute to the craft and toil of mirth-making itself; very few dramas in my experience have explored the idea of comedy as a serious business with such scrutiny and understanding.

Cooper came across as an artist who knew exactly what he was doing at all times. Like all performers, he could be anxious, self-involved and demanding. But you have to admire the amount of effort he devoted to looking like an inept, befuddled fool on stage. The irony, of course, is that in private he was a mess. 

All of the care and attention he lavished on his studiously ramshackle act was absent from his dealings with the women in his life. But Nye and Threfall, both of whom have clearly studied Cooper in some detail, understood that behind his maddening frailties, this was ultimately a lovable man. He was obsessed with comedy, but ill-suited to reality.

The way he treated his wife and mistress – both portrayed with dignity by, respectively, Amanda Redman and Helen McCrory – was unforgivable. Without going into graphic detail, Nye didn't shy away from the fact that Cooper could be physically abusive when drunk. But he never came across as a monster. Rather, he was a lost and rather hopeless alcoholic who craved adoration on his own unreasonable terms. 

I didn't think any less of Cooper after watching this sensitive, witty, nuanced drama. On the contrary, I came away from it with a renewed respect for his genius, and a sort of weary, hesitant sympathy for him as a tortured human being.

Everyone involved should be applauded for creating that rare beast: an angst-ridden biopic about a comedian that succeeded in celebrating his art while seeking to understand his personal demons. Without question, it was one of the best dramas of it's kind I've ever seen. 

Friday, 18 April 2014


The Crimson Field: Sunday, BBC One

The Trip to Italy: Friday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

If the Sunday evening gulf left by Call the Midwife is proving difficult, then The Crimson Field should help to ease the pain. Similarly mired in suffering, it's a death-infested medical drama set in an army field hospital during World War One. While I wouldn't go so far as calling these shows subversive, it's somewhat pleasing that BBC One's traditionally cosy period drama slot is now the reserve of determinedly miserable bedpan horror stories.

Our plucky heroines are a trio of mismatched voluntary nurses. They're a carefully selected study in contrasts: one plays by the rules, the other is a brusquely perceptive rebel, and the third is a golly gosh posh girl who's frightfully eager to please.

As played by Oona Chaplin, the taciturn maverick is the only truly interesting character. Immediately at odds with the stereotypically stern matron, she's a novel protagonist – certainly for dramas of this nature – in that's she's not immediately sympathetic. 

“I didn't come here to make friends,” she snapped, like a prototypical reality TV star. Indeed, she didn't bond with anyone other than the possibly psychotic dying soldier who physically attacked her and demanded that she save his life. When she refused to beg for mercy, he crumbled in confusion. How convenient. There was an intriguing suggestion that she doesn't really care if she lives or dies, which given her circumstances is probably an ideal state of mind.

As with most Great War dramas, The Crimson Field makes a blunt point about the mercenary madness of governing officers. We were treated to a visit from a straight-faced General Melchett type who was practically frothing at the mouth at the prospect of getting wounded men back in the firing line.

“If they can walk and shoot then back up they go,” he barked, his medals for cruelty glistening by gaslight. Not content with sending a clearly traumatised young man to war, he then accused the patients of faking venereal disease. Thank heavens, then, for the kindly hospital chief played by Kevin Doyle, otherwise known as that nice Mr Molesley from Downton Abbey. He's like a beacon of decency in a quagmire of carnage.

The late arrival of Suranne Jones as a strikingly modern Sister – she has a bob and rides a motorbike – suggested an impending storm of friction, and there's obviously something afoot with the quietly bitter Sister whose position she's usurped.

Written by former EastEnders scribe Sarah Phelps, it's a slick and assured drama. While it was hardly free of cliché, episode one was more or less a textbook example of how to establish an ongoing drama. And hats off to Phelps for including a plot strand about graphically depicted dismembered toes and the incineration of amputated limbs. It was admirable in that it would be insulting to shy away from the visceral realities of World War One. I'm sure we've got a lot more discomfort to come.

One of the most purely pleasurable shows I've seen in quite some time, The Trip to Italy reunites Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as barely fictionalised versions of themselves on a culinary road trip through gorgeous scenery. Mostly free from the animosity that characterised series one, their enjoyment of each other's company is contagious. Spending half an hour with them each week is a grin-inducing treat.

Sunday, 6 April 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 5th April 2014.

New Worlds: Tuesday, Channel 4

Alexander Armstrong's Real Ripping Yarns: Thursday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Six years ago, Channel 4 aired a semi-fictionalised drama about the English Civil War called The Devil's Whore. Despite boasting a cast including Michael Fassbender, John Simm, Dominic West, Peter Capaldi and Andrea Riseborough, it was a distinctly average affair.

Perhaps it's the circle of one I move in, but I don't recall much clamour for a sequel. And yet here it is, in the guise of New Worlds, galloping over the horizon on a wave of public apathy. Television is often accused of being a doggedly predictable medium, but it doesn't half surprise and confound sometimes.

Set 20 years after the unmemorable events of The Devil's Whore, it flits between an unstable 17th century England and settler-dominated Massachusetts. Writer Peter Flannery, best known for Our Friends in the North, seems to be groping towards a valid point about the hypocrisy of Britons railing against royal oppression at home while subjugating an entire race of people abroad. He's aided in this regard by shots of Native Americans being slaughtered in meaningful slow-motion. Subtle, it is not.

Back in rural Oxfordshire, former Cromwell acolyte Angela Fanshawe – now played by Eve Best, rather than Andrea Riseborough – presides over an idyllic retreat of twee, gown-clad maidens. This safe refuge for ethereal Timotei models was inevitably invaded by the bloodied chaos of the outside world. As in The Devil's Whore, Flannery revels in presenting a lurid, violent world rife with heavy symbolism.

Although speckled with ostensibly dramatic incident – Angela's daughter being kidnapped at gunpoint; James Cosmo falling to his death against an unconvincing CG backdrop – it suffers from the same problem as its forebear: it's hard to invest in these thinly drawn characters, as they feel more like pieces being moved around on a flame-engulfed chessboard. It's handsomely shot, but pretty pictures count for nothing when used to mask such turgid storytelling. New Worlds isn't so much a drama as a lavish historical pop-up book; a bewigged chore in search of meaning.

Accompanied by a welcome repeat run of Michael Palin and Terry Jones' post-Python classic, Alexander Armstrong's Real Ripping Yarns delved into the square-jawed world of Boy's Own adventures. Much like the series itself, it was mired in a sort of appalled affection for this archaic terrain of absurd Victorian values.

Armstrong, our genial guide, could barely disguise his admiration for an era when boys were trusted with dangerous poisons and explosives, although his excruciating dip into an ice-cold bath – once thought of as a catch-all cure for male ailments – left one in no doubt about the madness of the era's teachings.

Palin and a curiously marginalised Jones were on hand to discuss their love/hate relationship with the literature of their youth. Palin is often lazily categorised as a frightfully nice and placid chap, but it was clear that a spur of righteous anger underpinned his satirical recollections of a childhood spent in the public school system. It's hard to be truly fond of an epoch steeped in racism and bullying conformity.

Nevertheless, I had to marvel at the deranged metal contraptions used to stave off adolescent sexual urges; “self-pollution” was the wonderfully chaste description. And the letters pages of the day were a font of inadvertent comedy. Full of blunt editorial answers shorn from the context of the letters themselves, they were a master-class in straight-faced surrealism. No wonder Palin and Jones were taking notes.