Saturday, 28 June 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 28th June 2014.

Beauty Queen or Bust: Thursday, Channel 4

Meet the Mormons: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Channel 4 rightly gets a bad rap for the more down-market end of its factual slate – My Big Fat Undateable Dole Cheat etc. - but it's still capable of producing the occasional gem. Last Thursday, in a moment of rare generosity, it aired two worthwhile documentaries about troubled young people from vastly different worlds.

The first, Beauty Queen or Bust, was a surprisingly touching account of three hopefuls vying for the Miss England crown. Most films about beauty pageantry tend to focus on the weirder, chintzier aspects, but this new series is more concerned with the hopes and aspirations of girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. For once, it was a programme which sought to sympathise with benefit claimants, rather than demonise them.

Formerly a blazing hub of industry, the Black Country is now one of the most deprived areas in the UK. For Diamond, Natalie and Sammy-Jo, a chance to compete in the Miss England competition offered a tantalising means of escape. Otherwise, what can a poor girl do?

Beauty Queen contestants are usually derided for their aspirational platitudes, but when the likes of Diamond expressed a need to better herself and give hope to others, she was clearly speaking from the heart. The contrast between her public persona – loud, boozy, aggressive – and her private, sensitive, insecure self was quite striking.

Having been expelled from school without any qualifications, she didn't feel as though she'd ever amount to anything. But the judges at the Miss Black Country heats were impressed by her natural elegance and obvious sincerity. Diamond just wanted to feel proud of herself for once. Happily, she succeeded.

This was a positive portrait of working-class women struggling to make something of themselves in a world where the odds are stacked against them. Their dole-funded plight was contrasted with the relative comfort of Ruby, a pageant veteran with a wardrobe full of expensive frocks. The other girls had to pay for their dresses in instalments.

Ruby has been gainfully employed for years, and believes she'd easily find another job if suddenly made redundant. “A lot of the younger generation do just sit back and wait for something to happen,” she opined. Ruby, it is safe to assume, has never walked a mile in their high-heeled shoes.

With its curious rituals and beliefs, it's easy to snigger at the Mormon faith. Yet despite a few wry nods in the direction of their temptation-cessation underwear, Meet the Mormons didn't come to mock. Rather, it was concerned with the difficult realities of life for young missionaries.

It followed Josh, aka Elder Field, as he trained to become an 'Ambassador of God' in Leeds. Barred from seeing his friends and family for the entirety of his two-year mission, Josh was understandably lonely and upset. Director Lynn Alleway offered to give him a hug, but even that was disallowed.

Despite being given unprecedented access to this notoriously secretive church, Alleway was frustrated by the constant hovering presence of a watchful PR man and Josh's limpet-like missionary partner, who swooped in whenever he risked a moment of candour. It was like living in an amenity-free prison where freedom of expression and privacy are punishable offences.

Out on the streets of Leeds, Josh tried to stay positive while facing door-to-door indifference. I don't begrudge anyone their faith, but this was a rather sad study of fruitless indoctrination.  

Saturday, 21 June 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st June 2014.

The Auction House:Tuesday, Channel 4

The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins:Tuesday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

I don't know about you, but there's nothing I enjoy more after a hard day's work than sitting back with a light-hearted documentary about harassed millionaires.

A three-part series, The Auction House is your standard observational fare; a wry glimpse into a world most of us have never visited – in this case, an antique-packed auction house catering to London's wealthy elite – where a host of “colourful” characters go about their business against an incessant backdrop of Danny Elfman-esque music.

Honestly, what is it with the whimsical music in these documentaries? It's like being beaten senseless by Johnny Depp dressed as a raggedy clown.

Full of super-rich people buying things they don't need, Lots Road auction house is owned by a balding tumult of rudeness known as Roger Ross. The staff were admirably frank in their open dislike of this brusque multimillionaire, who's obviously supposed to be The Auction House's breakout star. But unlike, say, Mr Mitchell from Educating Yorkshire, Roger isn't a magnetic presence. He's a charmless businessman, a chore to be around.

His customers were only slightly more compelling. Regular visitors Michael and Craig live in a house crammed with antiques and Old Master paintings. Resembling a pair of carelessly shaved Wookies, they plied their wares in the hope of buying a new set of teeth for dentally-challenged Michael.

Meanwhile, glamorous older lady Lily was looking to decorate her new home, a seven bedroom mansion set in its own park. At Lots Road she had her eye on a three-foot bronze vagina. No home should be without one. She didn't actually like it, she just wanted to own an expensive-looking piece of art. She eventually opted for a graffiti-covered table instead.

The idle whims of the foolishly rich aren't especially interesting, nor are the bickering internal politics of the auction house itself. It's a bum deal.

Very occasionally, a documentary comes along which tells a story so bizarre and arresting, it's a wonder it isn't more commonly known. The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins was one such film.

A tragic saga of 1960s idealism gone sour, it chronicled a NASA-funded experiment into communication with dolphins. Visionary scientist John Lilly believed if humans could find a common language with these intelligent creatures, then they could eventually communicate with extraterrestrials.

His young assistant, Margaret, went one step further: she hatched an ambitious plan to teach a dolphin to speak English. Based in a customised Caribbean house/laboratory, she lived around the clock with a dolphin named Peter. Their bond was so close, she thought nothing of helping him to relieve his sexual urges in order to focus on the lessons at hand. She described it as a precious, gentle process, from which she gained no gratification herself.

This troubling development was compounded by the revelation that Lilly injected the dolphins with LSD, in the hope of communing with them further. Understandably concerned, NASA eventually pulled the plug. When the dolphins were shipped back to America, they were housed in cramped, miserable, excrement-filled tanks.

Depressed and missing Margaret – was he in love with her? - Peter effectively committed suicide by deliberately neglecting to breathe. Margaret still talks of him with immense fondness.

Despite the sex, drugs and questionable morals, this wasn't a salacious film. Rather, it was a sad account of well-meaning humans infringing on the welfare of animals. It was quite extraordinary. 

Saturday, 14 June 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 14th June 2014.

David Beckham Into the Unknown: Monday, BBC One

Street Kid World Cup: Tuesday and Wednesday, BBC Three

Paul Whitelaw

For the last 22 years, David Beckham has fulfilled a clearly defined professional role. His job was to play football and pose in his underwear for vast sums of money. A simple, straightforward vocation, and one he maintained with admirable professionalism.

No one expected him to be amusing or interesting in real life, which is why he never disappointed when required to open his mouth. Like most top athletes, he was dull, dependable and uncomplicated.

Unfortunately, these attributes are more problematic when the athlete in question is required to front a TV show. In David Beckham Into the Unknown, his crushing lack of charisma created a central void of no escape. For 90 tedious minutes, this unexceptional ball-dribbler scuppered his chances of forging a second career as an Alan Whicker/Michael Palin-style travelogue presenter.

He probably won't lose sleep over this squandered opportunity, as I doubt it was high on his list of priorities. But you have to question the logic of commissioning the programme in the first place. Who thought this was a good idea?

Beckham evidently enjoyed his trip down the Amazon, and who are we to begrudge him the experience? But in order for a travelogue to work successfully, the presenter must be capable of providing insight into the culture they're investigating. Beckham was far too wrapped up in banal self-analysis: “Why did I have to come all this way to be able to think?” I dunno, but at least it's a start.

Director Anthony Mandler attempted to inject some depth into proceedings with the recurring theme of Beckham's global celebrity. Although quick to point out that he always had time for the fans, the multimillionaire superstar frequently expressed frustration at being recognised wherever he went. This trip, he argued, was an attempt to become anonymous for the first time in years. When he eventually encountered a group of Brazilians who didn't know who he was, he claimed to be delighted. Well, good for you, David. Remind me why I should care again?

That may sound harsh, but it's hard to feel much sympathy for a celebrity who tries to escape the limelight via a feature-length documentary about themselves. Complete with cameos from his adoring wife and children, this was an extended PR exercise for the powerhouse Beckham brand. He's obviously a decent soul, so objecting to his presence would be like smacking a one-eyed teddy bear. But the Beckhams are no fools: this was just another example of their canny knack for remaining in the public eye.

None of which would matter if the end product was entertaining. But much like Ewan MacGregor's bike-bound forays into similar territory, it was just a jolly boy's outing filmed and edited to a professional standard. Enjoy your retirement, David. Please don't make any more TV programmes, there's a good lad.

Ironically, Street Kid World Cup was the sort of endeavour that Beckham would doubtless praise to the hilt. A two-part documentary, it followed a team of footballing teenage girls from London, all of whom had been raised in care.

They’d been chosen to represent England in Brazil, as part of the Street Child World Cup. Having never played football together prior to training, they faced a serious uphill struggle. The journey was even harder due to the sheer weight of emotional baggage they carried.

It was a heartening glimpse into the lives of vulnerable children for whom sport offers an invaluable lifeline. 

Saturday, 7 June 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 7th June 2014.

Happy Valley: Tuesday, BBC One

Amber: Tuesday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

The time: May 2015. The place: London’s Royal Festival Hall. A noted luminary of stage and screen takes to the podium to make an announcement: “And the BAFTA for Best Drama Series goes to… Happy Valley!” Let’s face it, the bets are off. It’s a foregone conclusion.

This exceptional series, which ended last week, felt like a much-needed assault on the complacency of most mainstream TV drama. Relentlessly dark and unflinching, it’s hardly the sort of thing one normally associates with BBC One at 9pm. That’s why it was so refreshing. An intelligent adult drama, it combined social realist grit with the propulsive drive of a fine-tuned thriller. Hyperbole be damned: it was British TV at its best.

Writer Sally Wainwright has a proven track record with the likes of Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey, but here she surpassed herself with a tense, gripping triumph of impressive depth and assurance. Compassionate yet unsentimental, her scripts for Happy Valley were a master-class in story-telling and character development.

Despite a dramatic storyline involving kidnap and murder, it felt grounded in the real world. Its scenes of trauma and violence would’ve been stripped of their impact if Wainwright had treated Happy Valley as just another cop show full of gratuitous thrills. Instead she delivered an entirely believable, thoughtful treatise on nature vs nurture and the complex ties between parents and their children. That she did so while keeping viewers on the edge of their seats is testament to her prowess.    

She was aided considerably by faultless performances from all concerned. Sarah Lancashire is rightly considered one of our finest actresses, but her powerful performance as Sergeant Catherine Cawood was her strongest work to date. Despite her tough, sardonic exterior, Catherine was no idealised hero. She was a flawed, convincing, three-dimensional character: a sympathetic woman trapped in a world of conniving, violent men.

Here was a matriarch trying to do the best for her family under inordinately trying circumstances. Consumed with grief and anguish, her gradual descent into depression felt unbearably real in Lancashire’s sensitive hands. Nuanced female protagonists are still a relative rarity on TV, so Wainwright and Lancashire should be applauded for bringing Catherine so vividly to life. 

But it wasn’t simply Lancashire’s show. Steve Pemberton, who’s normally associated with darkly comic roles, was perfect as the pathetic worm whose desperate, selfish actions set the whole terrible ordeal in motion. And James Norton proved genuinely unsettling as a dangerous psychopath who was so much more than a one-note villain. Even the little lad who played Catherine’s troubled grandson held his own: he delivered one of the most affecting child performances I’ve seen in some time.

What a pleasure it is to heap such praise on a classy home-grown jewel.

Sadly, Amber couldn’t compete. Covering broadly similar territory to Happy Valley, it’s a four-part Irish drama about a missing teenage girl. Yet despite the emotive subject matter, it suffered from thin characterisation and rather stiff, quotidian execution.

With its muted tone, steely greys and overcast skies, it’s obviously indebted to Scandinavian dramas such as The Killing. Much like series one of that modern classic, it focused on the post-traumatic fall-out of the family concerned. But it's a curiously flat and empty experience.