Saturday, 30 August 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 30th August 2014.

Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Fans of Doctor Who are notoriously critical. I should know, I've been one since I was two. But in all that time I've never witnessed the kind of mass approval that Peter Capaldi enjoyed when news of his casting was announced. Even before he'd set foot in the TARDIS, fans were already confident that his Doctor would be one of the best. Had we set our hopes too high?

Of course we hadn't. Would I have opened this review with a rhetorical question if we had? Don't answer that. His performance in head writer Steven Moffat's Deep Breath was nothing short of immaculate.

It's traditional that every Doctor must first go through a period of post-regenerative instability before gradually settling into their new persona. Moffat and Capaldi handled this process with the utmost assurance.

Despite never doubting his prowess as an actor, I had mild concerns that Capaldi – famously a life-long Doctor Who fan – might approach the part self-consciously. But there isn't a trace of fussy detail to be found in his portrayal. Instead, he's utterly, organically commanding as he flips with ease between acerbic eccentricity and a Tom Baker-esque sense of brooding alien danger.

Much has been made of the game-changing 'darkness' of this new Doctor – a claim which blindly overlooks the depths of his incomparable predecessor, Matt Smith – and while he's certainly a fiercer, more morally ambiguous proposition, he may be one of the funniest iterations yet.

Fans of The Thick Of It will already be familiar with Capaldi's razor-sharp talent as a comic actor; his perfectly timed delivery of vituperative rants is a rare gift. Moffat, himself a sardonic Scotsman, is clearly in his element with Doctor # 12. The scene in which he realised with glee that he was gruffly, uncompromisingly Scottish was genuinely very funny; it's no coincidence that, after an unsure start, the episode kicked into gear at this point (I'm all for a measured pace, but its 75-minute running time contained some obvious padding).

Capaldi aside, Deep Breath also benefited from Moffat's concerted efforts to embellish the character of companion Clara. Little more than a one-dimensional plot device last year, she was finally given the chance to show some mettle as she came to terms with this abrasive incarnation of her old/young friend. Jenna Coleman is a personable actress, previously ill-served by flimsy material, but her spiky chemistry with Capaldi bodes well: Moffat has obviously been listening to some constructive criticism.

It could've easily backfired, but his framing of Clara as a surrogate viewer in need of assurance that this mercurial Doctor could be trusted was skilfully handled. The poignant cameo from Matt Smith didn't undermine Capaldi's début, it bolstered it by grafting an element of charming vulnerability to this outwardly cocksure anti-hero.

That said, Moffat's niggling flaws were still in evidence. A middle-aged family man, his adolescent obsession with flirting is embarrassing, and once again he blatantly regurgitated past ideas to the point of self-parody. I don't mind him reviving the clockwork droids from The Girl in the Fireplace – the Doctor's inability to remember them fed into the theme of him shakily reconnecting with his past – but the conceit of outwitting them by holding your breath was far too redolent of his senses-sensitive foes, The Weeping Angels and The Silence.

But I'm nitpicking. Flaws and all, Deep Breath was an exemplary introduction to a promising new era. 

Saturday, 23 August 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 23rd August 2014.

The Kate Bush Story: Running Up That Hill: Friday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

In keeping with her status as an elusive living legend, Kate Bush was satisfyingly absent from her own documentary tribute last night. Having largely shunned media attention for the last 20 years, during which she's released just two albums of original material, seeing her pop up on BBC Four to cheerfully pick over her life and career would've rather dented her mystique.

Instead, her only contributions to The Kate Bush Story: Running Up That Hill came via archive footage and, of course, examples of her unique artistry. Believe me, I don't use such terms promiscuously. Unique, original, iconoclastic, maverick: these adjectives are oft overused and abused. I creep upon the word 'genius' as one might approach a hammer-wielding Boris Johnston. But how else to describe an artist who sounds like no one else before or, blatant imitators aside, since?

As correctly pointed out by Elton John, who was just one of many celebrity fans queuing up to sing her praises, Kate Bush is hardly your average million-selling art-pop songwriter. “They're not normal songs,” he said, almost in awe, like a craftsman examining a bizarrely imaginative sculpture with envious admiration.

Elsewhere, author Neil Gaiman described her work, lovingly, as “book music”, a point proven quite literally (no pun intended) by the likes of Wuthering Heights and the James Joyce-influenced The Sensual World. Steve Coogan, a Byron quote never far from his lips, cut to the chase by stating, “Liking her makes you feel a bit clever.”

Delivered by non-musicians, both quotes were rather telling. As evinced by his self-mocking turns in The Trip et al, Coogan is entirely aware of his own pretentiousness and elitist tendencies. Perhaps more than any other contributor – in a roster including Peter Gabriel, John Lydon, Brett Anderson of Suede, and popular Kate Bush tribute act Tori Amos – his comments tapped into Bush's singular appeal: yes, she's literate and arty, but her eccentric sense of humour – that controlled yet natural 'madness' – is what elevates her above mere po-faced experimentalism.

It's a pity, then, that the programme occasionally veered into Pseud's Corner territory. I welcomed the lack of patronising narration – replaced instead by the occasional explanatory caption – and I don't doubt the sincerity of her gushing apostles. But one could easily picture Bush chortling along at home, both flattered and amused by such blanket fealty. Presumably aware of this, the director pointedly closed with a gently ribald quote from Coogan to puncture the often church-like drift of the preceding 60 minutes.

Nevertheless, the level of insight from our esteemed talking heads was, at its best, of a higher standard than your average hagiography. The worshipful tone was a bit much at times, but we should all be thankful for the dearth of clueless hack comedians spluttering, “Babooshka? What were all that about?!”

Yes, the borderline comedic aspects of her early, flailing, leotard-clad persona were fleetingly acknowledged, albeit placed fairly in the context of a young and exceptionally talented prodigy in the grip of wild expression. In any case, the point was neatly made that an artist as – that word again – unique as Bush was a gift for impressionists. Such is the small, amusing price you pay for daring to be different.

Given the circumstances, it was a classy, affectionate tribute to an admirably private subject.

Sunday, 17 August 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 16th August 2014.

Boomers: Friday, BBC One

Almost Royal: Sunday, E4

Paul Whitelaw

I magnanimously welcome the idea of a sitcom aimed at older viewers, but I'd prefer a funnier example than the lacklustre Boomers. Set in a quiet seaside town inhabited by pensionable baby boomers, it contains nary an original bone in its body.

The setting for this first episode was a funeral, which in more capable hands can be a fecund source of black comedy and pathos. Unfortunately, such pleasures are beyond the reach of writer Richard Pinto, whose most notable credit to date is the bland Citizen Khan.

I can't argue with the quality of Boomers' all-star cast – including Alison Steadman, Stephanie Beacham, Russ Abbot and Phil Jackson – but I can easily take issue with Pinto's second-hand script. Unforgivably light on gags, whenever it does attempt a funny line, e.g. Paula Wilcox saying of the deceased, “Most of my memories of Jean are mainly power walking-based,” they come across as self-consciously sculpted and clumsy.

Pinto also made the schoolboy error of building up a character before he arrived on screen, with inevitably anticlimactic results. That character is Mick, an ageing lothario played by Nigel Planer who was the subject of every conversation within the first ten minutes. The subtext was: wait 'til you get a load of this guy, viewers. Someone even described him as “a real character”.

Of course, when Mick finally arrived he was a mid-life crisis stereotype with – God help us from this knackered cliché – a much younger eastern European wife. Does Pinto really think this is an original, funny character? Even the dire Little Britain based some sketches around an older British man with a mail order bride, and that was nearly ten years ago.

Still, at least Mick's wife gave the ever-reliable James Smith, alias Glenn from The Thick of It, a chance to perform his repressed bumbler shtick. It was the only mildly amusing highlight.

The problem with Boomers is it's gentle to a fault. Low-key character pieces of this kind require the wit and observational depth of an Alan Bennett or Victoria Wood. Pinto has all the right pieces in place, but he lacks the inspiration to crank them into life.

The cast are as solid as you'd expect, but they provide the only hint of sparkle on an otherwise dull and unremarkable trinket.

Funnier by far is Almost Royal, a Borat-style comedy in which comedians Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart pose as aristocratic British siblings on a mission to bamboozle America. But whereas Sacha Baron Cohen was partially concerned with exposing the prejudices of those he encountered, there's no real point being made here. Free of malice, it's simply an excuse for a welter of daft gags delivered by two nimble comic actors.

While it gently exploits America's love of all things British, no one is made to look foolish. The pleasure comes from watching real people indulge the sublimely naïve Georgie and Poppy Carlton with a mixture of confused politeness and amusement.

The admirably straight-faced Gamble and Hoggart never miss a chance to misunderstand or question their patient hosts. I particularly liked Georgie innocently asking a car dealer, “Where does this car go?” and later, while observing production on daytime soap The Bold and The Beautiful, saying to one of its stars, “Is this set in a different world?”.

It's a neat, breezy twist on the innocents abroad formula.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 9th August 2014.

In the Club: Tuesday, BBC One

Siblings: Thursday, BBC Three

Paul Whitelaw

Even without seeing her name in the credits, loyal TV hounds would've recognised In the Club as the work of Kay Mellor. From Band of Gold to Fat Friends and The Syndicate, her signature style runs as follows: assemble a group of predominantly female characters in an enclosed environment – a red-light district, a slimming club etc. - and trace their various ups and downs.

You could probably suggest any group setting to Mellor – a sewage farm, a terrorist cell, a UKIP sex cult – and she'd conjure a bittersweet ensemble drama around it. Not that she's a hack by any means. Her formula could easily come across as cynical were it not for her obvious gifts as a dramatist.

As evinced by episode one of this engaging drama, she has a knack for creating empathetic characters struggling with dire and unusual circumstances. That's more or less the essence of all drama, but Mellor harnesses it skilfully (for the most part: more on this later).

Her protagonists in this case are a group of pregnant women from different walks of life who come together via their weekly antenatal class. They include Katherine Parkinson as Kim, a gay woman carrying the child of a man who artificially inseminated her partner 15 years ago (a surprise twist revealed that Kim was actually impregnated by more traditional, furtive means), and Rosie, a bullied teenage girl who's been hiding her pregnancy from her widowed dad.

After seeking motherly advice via Kim's pregnancy blog, Rosie burst into the class having gone into labour. Despite her trauma, she gave birth to a healthy baby as kindly Kim leant support. So far, so acceptably dramatic.

Unfortunately, Mellor – who also directs – spiralled into inadvertent camp during a climactic, winsomely-scored montage in which Rosie's dad crashed his van as his daughter nurtured her newborn in hospital. Have this poor family not suffered enough? Apparently not, reckons Mellor. Despite its obvious sincerity, her writing is often clumsily schematic.

I also wasn't entirely convinced by the central thread of Diane's secretly unemployed, debt-ridden husband, Rick, deciding on a whim to rob a bank. Desperate men are often driven to extreme measures, but posing as a bomb-toting bank robber to buy your children pizza stretched credulity.

It's fortunate, then, that Rick is portrayed by the excellent Will Mellor (no relation), who radiates everyman pathos without ever overdoing it. The scene in which he begged, with shades of Boys from the Blackstuff, for work on a building site was particularly touching. Likewise, his sincere, almost tearful apologies to the terrified bank teller were affectingly played.

It's frustrating, as these smaller moments have far more emotional impact than La Mellor's more melodramatic flourishes. Nevertheless, I'll be back for more. Daft, cloying overindulgences aside, she's a propulsive storyteller.

Similarly promising is Siblings, a sharp new sitcom about a dysfunctional brother and sister duo. Fresh Meat writer Keith Akushie takes a gilded leaf from Seinfeld's book by miring his characters in selfishness and idiocy. 

Like George Costanza, Hannah, played by Fresh Meat star Charlotte Ritchie, puts Herculean effort into her lazy self-interest, while oblivious Dan is more of an overbearing, bumblingly needy type: imagine a slightly nicer cousin of Jez from Peep Show.

These obvious influences mesh rather nicely. This first episode, as predictable though some of it was, suggested Akushie has a neat grasp of escalating farce, and the two leads fill their roles with just the right amount of warped likeability. Their flailing misfortune may grow on you.