Saturday, 26 July 2014


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

The Mill: Sunday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

In theory at least, The Mill is everything a factually-based period drama should be: a thoroughly researched, character-driven piece that resonates politically, culturally and emotionally with modern viewers. Given that it was Channel 4's most successful drama of 2013, some would argue it succeeds on those terms.

And yet, and yet... its fundamental failing is writer John Fay's heavy-handed eagerness to draw parallels between the oppressed plight of 19th century working class mill workers and the injustices endured by the poor and vulnerable in 2014. It's not that these shameful parallels shouldn't be highlighted – centuries of unbreakable government oppression is hardly a trifling matter – but that Fay makes his point with all the subtlety of a pitchfork crashing through a Westminster window.

I'm all for furious polemics aimed at the establishment, just as long as they don't descend into inadvertent farce. The Mill skirts dangerously close at times.

As we returned to Quarry Bank Mill in rural Cheshire, Fay wasted no time in reminding us of its brutality. Huddled urchins trudged through muddy puddles, their hob-nailed clogs offering scant protection from the elements, as a coughing girl warned of an incoming smallpox epidemic. But at least they have the support of each other, as we're reminded time and time again. Meanwhile, thin-lipped overseers - to whom the mere idea of human happiness is a damnable sin – cracked the whip and cow-towed to their privileged masters.

The problem I have with this particular mise en scene isn't that it's misleading, it's that it undermines genuine historical suffering by going for the jugular in a borderline comical fashion. Fay's intentions are entirely sincere, but a little finesse wouldn't go amiss. This opening episode was a shapeless, spluttering mouthpiece. It struggled as drama.

It's frustrating, as his talent for characterisation is obvious. Mill girl Esther – played with exceptional charm, cheek, grit and soul by Liverpudlian actress Kerrie Hayes – is one of TV's strongest female protagonists. It's just a pity she's sidelined by clumsily-written scenes in which Irish trade unionists bop us on the nose with Fay's central themes.

The English labourer did not cause the downturn,” he railed, “a banking crisis in America started it. So why should he suffer?!” Do you see, viewers? Do you see?

In case you missed the thrust of Fay's point, he juxtaposed this rabble-rousing speech with scenes of a girl giving birth to the entitled mill owner's child in full hot water and towels agony. And the world turns.

Again, it's frustrating. These scenes take place in reaction to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1843, a repulsive, far-reaching mandate placing the poor into 'deserving' and 'undeserving' categories. Iain Duncan-Smith probably has it stitched into his duvet. But you should never patronise your audience when delivering an important message.

Writing these words gives me no pleasure, as I'm constantly droning on about the urgent need for more politically aware, compassionate populist dramas. The Mill ticks all those boxes, albeit with a paste brush strapped to a cannonball.

In the seasoned hands of someone like Jimmy McGovern – with whom Fay has collaborated – this approach can work. It's also effective if the intent is scabrous, sledgehammer satire a la Lindsay Anderson. Unfortunately, The Mill never quite settles on the appropriate tone.

Saturday, 19 July 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 19th July 2014.

Nick & Margaret: Too Many Immigrants?: Tuesday and Wednesday, BBC One

The Great Big Romanian Invasion: Thursday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Few would argue that immigration is at the forefront of the news agenda. That's because organisations such as the BBC constantly push it there. They were banging this knackered drum again last week with two documentaries which sought to address the issue once and for all.

The first was Nick & Margaret: Too Many Immigrants?, a nauseatingly titled “social experiment” in which Alan Sugar's Apprentice sidekicks paired five sets of UK-born citizens with various immigrants to ascertain whether – ghastly rhetoric alert - they're a “gain or drain” on Britain.

I'm surely not alone in saying that no one is better qualified to tackle the complex subject of immigration than two wealthy white capitalists, one of whom lives in France and presents an afternoon quiz show.

Their baffling involvement aside, the programme's worst crime was its lazy, reductive, tiresome predictability. The British-born citizens coughed up the usual Daily Mail-fed opinions before coming to the conclusion that – hey! - these immigrants are actually a decent, hard-working lot after all. With minimum effort, it managed to patronise both participants and viewers in one fell swoop.

The answer to the teeth-grinding question posed in the title was always going to be a resounding “NO”. As pointed out by the qualified experts who popped up to deliver actual facts and evidence, Britain's housing problem and crime rates categorically can't be blamed on its immigrant population.

Cheap and manipulative thought it was, the programme at least had its heart in the right place in that it sought to present viewers with a positive view rather than irresponsible conjecture. If it broadened a few narrow minds in the process, then job done. Indeed, that aspect alone saved it from total redundancy.

Sadly, however, the likes of John – one of those paranoid bores who thinks British culture is under threat of extinction – will always exist. He graciously tipped his hat to the Filipino care worker with whom he was paired, but it was obvious he'd never change his mind on immigration. People like him are immune to reality.

The best participants by far, if only on account of their ludicrous views, were Ted and Margaret, a retired couple living in an ethnically diverse part of London. Paired with a Pakistani couple who run an adult education course for immigrants, they argued that such schools just encourage people to move into their area. Yeah, flippin' foreigners, coming over here and having the audacity to learn our language. They also felt that immigrants shouldn't have access to the NHS, an attitude almost heroic in its bone-headed lack of compassion.

Ted had the droning voice of a born complainer, while Margaret was wearily dumbstruck from years of ill-informed anxiety. Still, their eyes were opened by a visit to a local mosque. Ted was pleasantly surprised by how peaceful it was. “There's nothing sinister going on.” What was he expecting, a scene from The Wicker Man?

I particularly enjoyed the moment where Ted complained that, thanks to immigration, traditional suits and ties are a thing of the past. Cut to his new Pakistani acquaintance strolling alongside him wearing a traditional suit and tie. Ted was wearing neither. Beautiful.

Incidentally, I'm aware that by poking fun at the likes of Ted, I'm guilty of being as judgemental as he is. That's the manipulative power of television for you.

In The Great Big Romanian Invasion, journalist Tim Samuels, himself of Romanian extraction, looked behind those scaremongering media reports about millions of eastern Europeans swamping Britain.

Adopting a wry yet sympathetic tone, he joined Keith Vaz and reporters at Luton Airport on January 1st to greet an expected flood of new Romanian immigrants. Famously, only one turned up. A bemused pig farmer, he went from being a media darling to a hounded hate figure in the space of a week. Welcome to Britain, chum.

Saturday, 12 July 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 12th July 2014.

Common: Sunday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

This much you know: we live in a society where the working class are persistently demonised by our right-wing government and complicit portions of the media. If this were the 1970s – I've checked, it isn't – then our TV's would be crackling with hard-hitting plays angrily decrying this situation.

Unfortunately, we no longer have forums such as Play for Today in which compassionate dramatists can vent their concerns. Those days are gone.

So hats off to the BBC for allowing Jimmy McGovern (Cracker; Hillsborough; The Street) to hijack 90 minutes of prime-time with Common, in which he railed against the UK's disgraceful Joint Enterprise Law. One of the last remaining firebrands, McGovern is a fiercely moral polemicist who, at his best, projects his social conscience through the prism of accessible human drama.

Granted, his desire to make an angry point often gets the better of him, and there were moments in Common where his argument was rather bluntly stated. But I can forgive him his excesses when the overall results are as impressive and, yes, important as this. It was like being punched in the guts for 90 minutes, which is precisely what McGovern intended.

The protagonist was Johnjo, a teenager with no prior convictions who unwittingly became a getaway driver after a “friend” stabbed and killed an innocent bystander during an altercation. Completely innocent of any wrongdoing – he had no idea the other boys had agreed to confront a rival that night – he nevertheless fell victim to Joint Enterprise, whereby more than one person can be charged for the same offence.

Unflinchingly, McGovern plunged us into simultaneous nightmares, as we followed Johnjo's plight in tandem with that of the murdered boy's family. Special mention must go to Susan Lynch, who was extraordinary as a mother struggling with abject grief. The scene in which she viewed her son's corpse for the first time was harrowing yet entirely, horribly believable.

Despite his occasional lapses into tub-thumping, McGovern is an economical writer who taps into the human condition with devastating ease. The judicious use of silence in this scene – Lynch's screams were muted by sound-proof glass – made it all the more effective. As the murdered boy's estranged father, Daniel Mays' sad pudding face has rarely been put to better use.

A predictable ending is usually anathema to good drama, but not in this case. It was inevitable that Johnjo would eventually be sent down – a happy outcome would've undermined McGovern's point – but I was too busy empathising to care about it playing out as expected.

McGovern was more interested in making us care about these characters so we could care about the insanity of Joint Enterprise. Mission accomplished. When he eventually abandoned any attempts at subtlety with a mouthpiece rant from one of his characters, he'd earned the right to harangue.

Standing on the doorstep of Johnjo's family home, the mother of one of the accused screamed, “Do you know what this law is about, this Joint Enterprise? It's not about innocent or guilty, it's about getting working class scum off the streets! That's how they see our kids!” Point taken and welcomed, Jimmy.

Only on TV can you drag an issue from the headlines and present it to millions with such immediacy. He may be part of a dying breed, but McGovern still bristles with urgent life.

Saturday, 5 July 2014


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

The Honourable Woman: Thursday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Like a hand grenade exploding in a duck pond,The Shadow Line made a huge impact when it aired on BBC Two in 2011. While it never had a chance of becoming a mainstream hit – too violent, too off-kilter – this striking fusion of John Le Carre noir and Dennis Potter madness is rightly regarded as a modern cult classic.

Fans have waited three years to see what writer/director/producer Hugo Blick would come up with next. The answer is The Honourable Woman, a riveting political thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like The Shadow Line, it plants one foot firmly in the real world while existing in a heightened, disquieting reality. Both languid and lurid, this twisted aesthetic is Blick's distinctive calling card.

It's easy to see why American actress Maggie Gyllenhaal – sporting a convincing English accent - was attracted to this ambitious project. Her character, Nessa Stein, is an intricate gift. A powerful Anglo-Israeli businesswoman, Nessa has the surface appearance of a poised, charming, ethical idealist. But as made clear by her opening monologue, which unfolded over a brutal childhood flashback to her father's assassination, nothing is as it seems in this world.

Having inherited the family weapons business, she announced plans to drastically invert its modus operandi. Instead of procuring arms, it would now focus on laying broadband cables between Israel and the West Bank. By literally linking them together, she hoped to bring these bitter enemies one step closer to peace. Factor in her recent appointment to the House of Lords, and this decision naturally caused an explosive outbreak of controversy.

She'd offered the multimillion contract to a Palestinian businessman who, in an ostentatious flourish typical of Blick, was promptly assassinated with a lasso-loaded crossbow. Found hanged from a pole bearing Palestine's flag, the authorities were quick to deduce symbolic suicide. Anyone rolling their eyes at this unlikely turn of events should probably tune out now: dark, theatrical absurdity is at the heart of Blick's unique vision.

His penchant for droll black comedy is embodied by the character of Sir Hugh, a world-weary spy on the verge of retirement played by the impeccable Stephen Rea. Having worked with Blick on The Shadow Line, where he played a truly nightmarish villain, Rea is perfectly in tune with his acerbic dialogue. Resembling a crumpled mole sucking on a lozenge, he subtly steals his every scene.

Sir Hugh's lonely existence is mirrored by Nessa's private anguish: two powerful people with gnawing emptiness at their core. Traumatised after being kidnapped in Gaza alongside her brother's Palestinian nanny, Nessa now sleeps – when she can – in a cell-like antechamber hidden behind a bookcase. Thank you, Hugo Blick, for allowing me to write such an outlandish sentence.

A master of suspense, he closed this hugely promising opener with an elegantly-handled set-piece involving an ambushed theatre, a kidnapped child, a dramatic foot-chase, and an unexpected shooting. I can easily imagine him grinning as he wrote it.

Despite its weighty themes – it remains to be seen whether Blick has anything meaningful to say about the Middle East - The Honourable Woman is fundamentally a breathtaking thriller riddled with shocks and twists. Provocative entertainment for mature adults, how about that for a mind-blowing concept?

In a year full of unexpectedly impressive BBC dramas, the likes of Line of Duty and Happy Valley have a bold new contender.