Saturday, 31 May 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 31st May 2014.

Harry & Paul's History of the 2's: Sunday, BBC Two

50 Years of BBC2 Comedy: Saturday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Ever since it first popped into being, BBC Two has enjoyed a deserved reputation as a champion of edgy, innovative, subversive comedy. So it was only fitting that last weekend, in honour of its 50th anniversary, it aired a standalone comedy which, quite without mercy, directly undermined the channel itself.

It probably wasn’t deliberate, but Harry & Paul’s History of the 2’s felt like a scathing lampoon of the celebratory clip show which aired just the night before. Not only that, it openly criticised Two’s decline from “highbrow” bastion of the arts to the confused, identity-free mess that it is today. It was alternative comedy in the truest sense.

Devised by Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson – who themselves owe Two an enormous debt – it was an irreverent spoof of every predictably compiled arts documentary you’ve ever rolled your eyes at. Linked by a gloriously unhinged performance from Enfield as Simon Schama – the deserted TV Centre backdrop added an unexpected note of poignancy – it attacked practically every sacred cow in Two’s illustrious history.

While some of the sketches felt undercooked and obvious, the unflinching highlights made up for the duds. As they grow older and grumpier, Enfield and Whitehouse have developed an admirable tendency to criticise their comedy peers. Targets included the sainted Pythons’ shameless milking of their own legacy, and the tired, formulaic ubiquity of comedy panel shows. This last sketch was a master-class in savage satire, as it laid waste to the phoned-in shtick of Paul Merton, Alan Davies, Russell Howard et al.

Lest they be accused of high-minded bitterness, they also included digs at their own shortcomings. A Boys from the Blackstuff spoof morphed into a self-deprecating critique of the duo’s reliance on crowd-pleasing catchphrases, while they openly acknowledged that – far from being the work of ground-breaking alternative comedians – Enfield’s sketch shows were essentially as traditional as Dick Emery.

Enfield and Whitehouse have form in this genre. Smashie & Nicey: End of an Era is one of the greatest, yet curiously underrated, spoof documentaries ever made. And sure enough, their careful attention to detail was in abundant evidence throughout. Parodies of everything from The Ascent of Man to The Young Ones used the correct film and video stock: the very best parodies always take time to accurately mimic their source material.

Indeed, this was a programme aimed at an audience steeped in TV history, and as such it was heroically refreshing. Even when the jokes fell flat, I never lost the sense that this was something created by people with huge respect for the medium, and a healthy disrespect for its failings. That deft combination of wry affection and outright mockery is a hallmark of Enfield, Whitehouse and Higson’s work.

This may not rank among their finest work, but it was still a bold, delightful, gag-packed assault on the very art of TV itself.

The real, straight-faced deal, 50 Years of BBC2 Comedy was the usual confection of over-familiar clips and platitudinous talking heads. But it did serve as a reminder that, despite Harry and Paul’s irreverence, Two has produced some of the best comedy ever made.

A welcoming playpen for uncompromising oddballs such as Spike Milligan, The League of Gentlemen and Chris Morris, it’s made an invaluable contribution to popular culture. These days it broadcasts The Great British Bake-Off. What price progress?

Saturday, 24 May 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 24th May 2014.

From There to Here: Thursday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

If he has any sense, then Philip Glenister has no doubt long since accepted his professional destiny of playing taciturn, dry-witted men from Manchester. But typecasting isn’t necessarily a curse: never out of work, Glenister is the go-to guy for roles which require a certain amount of gruff, vinegary charm.

He delivered yet another variation on his usual shtick in From There to Here, in which he plays Daniel, a happily married businessman whose life is sent into tailspin following the IRA’s attack on central Manchester in 1996. Using a real-life event such as this to trigger fictional drama could easily come across as insensitive, but writer Peter Bowker obviously has a great deal of affection for the city.

It’s a tale of transformation, both physically and emotionally. Manchester underwent major redevelopment following the bombing: the notion of a city and nation being on the cusp of seismic change is one of Bowker’s underlying themes. Not that he explored it with much subtlety. Daniel’s father and son are depicted as capitalist caricatures, whose money-grabbing avarice are emblematic of the Thatcher/Major era that, in theory at least, is about to be undermined by the initial optimism of the New Labour years.

Set against the galvanising backdrop of Euro ’96, From There to Here is full of characters in search of meaning and stability. When the bomb went off, Daniel was trying in vain to reconcile his domineering father and black sheep brother. Following the blast, he had a chance encounter with Joanne, a female cleaner (Glenister’s Life on Mars co-star Liz White) who lives in the working-class area in which he spent the first few years of his life.

It transpired that Daniel was adopted when he was five, which has left him with the nagging feeling that he doesn’t truly belong anywhere. When he drove Joanne home, he impetuously decided to pose as a single man in need of companionship. Could this be the life he was destined to live all along?

Despite the fact that Daniel was effectively trying to start an extramarital affair, he still came across as fairly sympathetic. Glenister always tends to play outwardly confident characters with an underlying layer of vulnerability.

There was scope here for some thoughtful ruminations on the nature of identity, but Bowker undermined its promise with blatantly on-the-nose dialogue. Was it really necessary to have characters spelling out their inner thoughts and motivations with such clarity? Bowker is usually a safe pair of hands, but here he displayed an unfortunate disinclination to let the audience work things out for themselves.

We know he wants to make a point about how lives can change in an instant, and how a brush with death will put things in perspective, because Daniel and co kept reminding us. 

Furthermore, the attempts at creating tension in the last few minutes just didn’t work at all. Even a football novice such as myself knows that England were knocked out following their penalty shoot-out against Germany, and there’s just no way that Daniel was killed in the bomb blast at his brother’s club. Or is that really the last we’ve seen of the star of TV’s latest Philip Glenister vehicle? I’m all for suspending disbelief, but you can’t mount a cliff-hanger on such an unlikely proposition.

In any case, what the hell was he doing with the bomb in his lap? Had he suddenly developed a death wish? It made not a jot of sense. 

Laboured and unconvincing, From There to Here is a hefty disappointment.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

TV Review: DEREK

This article was originally published in The Courier on 17th May 2014.

Derek: Wednesday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Before we talk about Derek, some historical context is required. Only when familiar with the evolution of Ricky Gervais’ extraordinary paean to kindness and innocence can we truly get to grips with its myriad complexities.

It’s 2002. Following the initial success of The Office, Gervais starred in an ensemble stand-up show at the Edinburgh Fringe. He introduced a character called Derek Noakes. The mannerisms were already in place: the shuffling gait, jutting jaw and forehead-flattened hair were all recognisable as the Derek we know and love today.

The important difference is that this iteration of Derek wasn’t a wise, holy fool deserving of respect. He was a figure of fun, a lonely, deluded man with learning difficulties who existed purely as a vessel for cheap “shock” humour. We were being invited to laugh at an able-bodied comedian brazenly performing a cruel playground caricature.

Gervais frequently broke character to cackle at his own outrageousness, clearly thrilled by the buzz of getting away with it. That was the “point” of Derek: an act of childish mockery from someone who should know better.

As the years went by, Gervais would occasionally slip into Derek during his stand-up act as a way of deriding those he deemed beneath him, namely “sad” autograph hunters and Britain’s Got Talent fans. Weirdly, autograph hunting and BGT are two of the “favouritest” things of Derek from the heart-warming Channel 4 sitcom.

Gervais then got in trouble for repeatedly using the word “mong” on Twitter and on stage (he described Susan Boyle as such; the newer, nicer Derek is a big fan of Boyle). Despite being widely recognised as a disablist insult, Gervais denied any knowledge of this. As far as he was concerned, it was just a harmless way of describing the comical face-pulling he’s so fond of. And yet his Boyle routine blatantly contradicts this claim: he obviously knew what it meant.

Stung by the backlash, he hastily revived Derek for an embarrassingly mawkish, heavy-handed comedy-drama about an elderly care home. We’re now expected to accept him as an inspirational figure whose unwavering kindness is a lesson to us all. And yet Derek, which resembles an inept pantomime written by an earnest teenager, constantly undermines this simplistic message.

Kindly Derek wrestles an elderly resident to the floor; a woman is mocked for being overweight; alcoholism is debilitating yet hilarious; OAP sex is repulsive; older people should be listened to, just as long as they’re given as few lines as possible; it’s perfectly acceptable for a care home assistant to have sex with her boyfriend on the premises.

What a fascinating, jaw-dropping mess. Nothing about it makes sense. And yet some have fallen for it. Viewers who cared little for the choice highlights of his earlier work now regard Gervais as a saintly purveyor of valuable life lessons. His cynical volte-face worked. Maybe he’s a genius after all.

The latest episode featured a visit to the zoo. Its whimsical celebration of the animal kingdom would’ve had Attenborough reaching for an air rifle. Meanwhile, Hannah’s mission to conceive ended in disappointment. Cue Derek: “I wanted to ‘old it… I never knows what to say, so I just hugs. And that sort of says it all.”

I don’t think Gervais is a bad person. He’s doubtless convinced himself that Derek is a sincere plea from the heart. The reality is it’s one of the most addictively incompetent works ever produced by a major comedian. I loves it, me.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 10th May 2014.

In The Flesh: Sunday, BBC Three

When Corden Met Barlow: Monday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

When In the Flesh first appeared last year, it initially looked like just another rotting passenger on the never-ending zombie bandwagon. For those of us suffering from undead fatigue, it didn't look promising. But a few minutes spent in its company revealed that, far from being a standard zombie horror show, it was in fact a surprisingly intelligent, bleak and sensitive drama about prejudice and adolescent alienation.

The premise is simple but effective: in the aftermath of a zombie uprising, the undead have been cured of their ailment and reintegrated into society. Unfortunately, trying to start a new life in a world you've only recently terrorised and chewed upon is fraught with difficulties.

First of all, you have to come to terms with the fact that you're basically a sentient cadaver. Secondly, your sincere pleas for forgiveness aren't readily accepted by those who regard you as an unholy menace. It wasn't particularly subtle, but the irony of humans being as rabid in their bigotry as zombies are in their quest for flesh was effectively delivered.

Indeed, the first series, which ran for just three episodes, seemed to explore its premise fully. Framed through the milky eyes of Kieren, a rehabilitated young zombie in a downtrodden northern village, it was a compact piece that could've easily stood alone. So is a second series really necessary?

The only dangling thread from last year was the background presence of the Undead Liberation Army, an extremist group of cured zombies who want to militantly reclaim their rotting souls. Sure enough, they lunged to the fore as the saga resumed.

The overall tone was as before: unlike most zombie dramas, In the Flesh depicts a world of kitchen sink apocalypse – 28 Days Later via Coronation Street. But it introduced a few new wrinkles in the form of a careerist politician who arrived in Roarton – all fictional northern villages should have faintly terrifying names – to further her vendetta against sufferers of “Partially Deceased Syndrome”, and a charismatic disciple of the so-called Undead Prophet who failed to attract Kieren to the cause. Meanwhile, Kenneth Cranham's bible-thumping, zombie-hating preacher gets madder – and closer to cardiac arrest – by the second.

At this stage it's too early to judge whether In the Flesh has anything to add to its established themes. The first episode was mildly intriguing, but it did feel at times like an aimless, uncertain sequel.

Similarly, what was the point of When Corden Met Barlow? An extended puff piece in thrall to tax-avoiding millionaire Gary Barlow, it was the uncritical story of a great survivor, the comeback kid. The narrative arc was that, having once been considered something of a joke, the former Take That dynamo is now a beloved national treasure. It was proof that if you repeat a falsehood often enough, it eventually becomes true.

To be fair, this contrived road trip, in which avowed fan James Corden took Barlow on a cheery road trip down memory lane, was affable enough in its entirely undemanding way. Corden has calmed down a lot since his initial burst of post-fame arrogance and ubiquity, and I can't deny that Barlow seems like a nice guy. Of course, being a nice guy is an integral part of the Gary Barlow package, but I doubt anyone could fake that level of amiability over such a sustained period of time. It would be exhausting.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

TV Review: PREY

This article was originally published in The Courier on 3rd May 2014.

Prey: Monday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

John Simm has spent most of his acting career bruised, battered and thoroughly harrowed. Prey was no exception. Basically a brutal British remake of The Fugitive, this propulsive thriller finds Simm in the browbeaten role of Marcus Farrow, a Manchester copper wrongly accused of murdering his ex-wife and son.

Pursued by a female colleague whose own personal issues – she appears to be stalking an ex – may be distorting her judgement, he spent most of episode one in an understandable state of distress.

The jittery opening sequence was a pocket master-class in ensnaring our attention: waking up in the back of a crashed police van with a ballpoint pen sticking out of his chest (a nice, grisly detail), Farrow sprang into action and rescued the survivors from the oil-soaked vehicle. Straight away it was clear that, despite his prison fatigues, this was an inherently decent, resourceful man. But once he was free, he spied his chance and fled the scene. Unfortunately, he fled straight into the path of a passing vehicle. Did that stop him in his tracks? Not a chance. He just picked himself up and hobbled over the horizon. Cue credits.

It was – absolutely no pun intended – an arresting introduction, and typical of writer Chris Lunt's commitment to maintaining intensity at all cost. As the action flashed back to three days earlier, when Farrow was a free man, the pace never slackened.

Relentlessly overcast dramas can often be unwittingly funny - there's a thin line between intense seriousness and inadvertent comedy – but Prey was saved by intelligent writing, taut direction and understated performances from a stellar cast of reliable character actors. It wasn't even hampered by the fact that three of the principals, namely Rosie Cavaliero, Benedict Wong and Adrian Edmondson, are generally better known for comedy.

It did, however, confirm that Craig Parkinson is forever destined to play dodgy characters. As soon as he cropped up as Farrow's best friend, anyone familiar with TV drama must've narrowed their eyes in suspicion. Sure enough, it transpired that his character is somehow involved in the plot to destroy Farrow. Of course he is.

His presence also highlighted unavoidable similarities with Line of Duty, in which he also starred. It was entirely coincidental, but Lunt must've kicked himself when he watched that: you wait ages for one addictive conspiracy thriller involving an upturned prison van and an incarcerated police officer, and two come along at once.

Nevertheless, Prey worked effectively on its own terms. It may cover well-trodden territory – it's an Hitchcockian 'wrong man' thriller in modern apparel – but it's utterly committed to the cause.

The supporting cast are excellent, but this is Simm's show all the way. Three scenes in particular were testament to his acting prowess. The first, where he angrily confronted his ex-wife about her new partner, was painfully convincing. The second, in which he was informed of the death of his son, was almost unbearable. As the camera clung mercilessly to his grief-stricken face, his pitiful, muttered “oh” was more devastating than any amount of fireworks. And his untrammelled fury when he was first accused of murdering his family was a powerful example of an actor dredging raw emotion from the depths of their soul.

Suffice to say, it's not the sort of thing one normally expects from ITV at 9pm. Thank goodness for that.