Saturday, 27 September 2014


This article was originally published in The Courier on 27th September 2014.

The Driver: Tuesday, BBC One

Downton Abbey: Sunday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Stories about innocent men thrown to the slaughter are to the thriller genre what improbable mishaps are to the world of trouser-dropping farce. Remove these hardy perennials from either genre and both would collapse like a careless round of Buckaroo. Hitchcock famously revisited the wrong man theme on several occasions, thus cementing it as a sturdy template upon which future generations of screenwriters could hammer their own dents.

So it's unfair to criticise three-part crime drama The Driver for cleaving to a well-worn theme. Writer Danny Brocklehurst has every right to chuck another fictional everyman – in this case, David Morrissey's put-upon taxi driver, Vince – onto the bonfire for our nail-biting edification. He's simply carrying on a popular storytelling tradition. No, the most important thing is that he takes this malleable putty and moulds it into surprising shapes. And that's where episode one came unstuck.

Unless you've never witnessed a drama before in your life, Vince's story unfolded much as expected. A decent man who'd had enough of his dreary suburban existence and thankless occupation – Brocklehurst made sure to heap as many foul indignities upon him as possible – Vince was in desperate need of some excitement. Practically ignored at home, he demanded some respect and a renewed sense of purpose. Enter his old mate Colin (Ian Hart). A career criminal just out of jail, Colin offered Vince the chance to opt out of the rat race, and score big to boot, by becoming the personal driver/courier for his boss.

Of course, Colin's boss is a gangster. Not only that, he's a gangster played by Colm Meaney and nicknamed 'The Horse'. You'd have to be, not so much naïve, as thunderingly stupid to think that working for a self-made stereotype with an animal-themed alias was going to be a bed of roses.

When Vince eventually discovered Colin's violent true colours during a brutal kidnapping, his shock was matched only by a few million viewers blaring, “Well what did you expect?!”

Yes, good men are often driven to desperate measures in dire times of need. Terminally ill Walter White becoming a criminal kingpin in Breaking Bad to provide for his family is a grippingly nuanced exploration of this theme. By comparison, a despondent cabbie getting involved with some wrong 'uns to pay off the mortgage lacks a certain dramatic heft.

It's frustrating, as having peeked ahead I can report that The Driver improves in part two, as Vince's predicament gains more emotional depth. It's just unfortunate that this rather thin opener, regardless of the typically fine performances from its leads, did practically nothing that we hadn't seen before. There are only so many stories, but there are infinite ways of telling them.

I'll let you into a trade secret: reviewing Downton Abbey is pointless. Its inherent flaws and obvious appeal are so self-evident and so widely documented, at this stage it would be like trying to offer an original critique of breathing.

It's simply there, still, an unchanging formula dutifully poured into a decorously-carved goblet at yearly intervals. Lord Grantham grumbles exposition at breakfast, Dame Maggie purses sculpted bon mots over luncheon, Carson booms his wry instructions like a rich tea biscuit awaiting the King's own urn. It's unique in TV history in that it became a parody of itself almost instantaneously.

It exists if you want it, like the current touring version of Level 42. Who honestly cares?

Friday, 26 September 2014


Cilla: Monday, STV

Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

The sound of minds being blown rippled across the land last Monday when ITV revealed that Cilla Black was friends with The Beatles. That Cilla has neglected to mention this fact at any point during her 50 year career is testament to her humility.

Joking aside – that's what that was – Cilla is a surprisingly engaging and energised dramatisation of the singer's early days. Written by Britain's very own biopic potentate Jeff Pope, whose previous credits include Fred West drama Appropriate Adult and the Oscar-nominated Philomena, it stars Sheridan Smith on knockout form as the young Priscilla White. Appropriately tough, cheeky, naive and endearing, she bravely contends with a false chipmunk overbite and oddly ill-fitting wig to deliver an affecting central performance.

And just in case you missed the blaring on-screen credit, she also does all her own singing. The real Cilla often gets a lot of stick for her singing voice – often from people who only know her as a TV presenter – but truthfully she had a powerful, if occasionally wayward, voice in her prime.

So why substitute her singing with Smith's? It's presumably because an actor miming to old recordings seldom looks convincing, so seeing as Smith can sing, the decision to use her vocals provides a satisfying realism. Another reason is that, in episode one at least, Cilla is depicted, not as a melodramatic balladeer, but as a raving rock 'n' soul belter, a period in her musical career which was never documented on tape. Smith could hardly have mimed to recordings which don't exist.

The production also benefits from an obviously large budget, with early 1960s working-class Liverpool impressively realised in all its dusty post-war glory. Cilla often recounts her hard scrabble origins with a kind of rose-tinted nostalgia, but Pope wisely tempers those sentiments with pointed references to sectarianism and an overall resistance to schmaltz.

Despite being endorsed by Cilla herself, it doesn't always depict her in a sympathetic light. Yes, she's the lovable girl next door, but she also betrays a career-minded ruthlessness and, in later episodes, a diva-esque sense of selfish entitlement. She may be ITV royalty, but this account of her life is thankfully no whitewash.

While it inevitably hits some of the usual biopic beats – there were a few awkward moments of “Hello, I'm George Harrison of The Beatles” exposition – Pope doesn't present it as a standard rags-to-riches saga. Instead he focuses on the touching romance between Cilla and budding impresario Bobby Willis. It's as much his story as hers, and Aneurin Barnard manfully overcomes his dyed-blonde resemblance to a live-action Thunderbirds puppet to deliver an exceptionally sympathetic performance. It helps that she and Smith share a charming chemistry.

Destined to be regarded as a classic, the latest episode of Doctor Who was a quite beautiful piece of television. Based around the idea of what the Doctor gets up to while alone in the TARDIS – answer: wraps himself in existential musings on the nature of fear - it combined genuinely creepy psychological horror with a strong emotional kick which, in a small yet significant way, added to Doctor Who's ongoing lore.

Witty and ambitious in the best Steven Moffat style, it was all the more impressive for being entirely ambiguous yet dramatically satisfying. The moment where the Doctor, Clara and young Danny/Rupert Pink encountered an erect entity lurking beneath the bedclothes - Freudian imagery on primetime Saturday night! - was arguably one of the most disturbing scenes in Doctor Who history.

Bolstered by canny, atmospheric direction from Douglas Mackinnon and an exemplary performance from Peter Capaldi, this thrillingly claustrophobic yarn was a reminder that Doctor Who is often more effective when delivered on an intimate scale.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6th September 2014.

Chasing Shadows: Thursday, STV

Educating the East End: Thursday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

I often worry about the fear-caked world of ITV drama, where murderers and sex offenders are only an episodic crime spree away from being apprehended by miserable anti-heroes. Whenever it isn't wallowing in the wake of scaremongering tabloid headlines, it's paying forelock-tugging tribute to the past via Downton Abbey. That can't be healthy.

Its latest carnival of horror is Chasing Shadows, a crime thriller so generic it seems to have taken Charlie Brooker's gloriously silly A Touch of Cloth at face value.

Seriously in danger of being banged up by the cliché squad, it's a woefully derivative bore in which Reece Shearsmith plays our tired old friend, the maverick cop who gets results through unorthodox means. Writer Rob Williams should be awarded some kind of medal for devising a character so utterly lacking in originality.

All the boxes are dutifully ticked: he's eccentric, (literally) buttoned-up, maddeningly antisocial, yet utterly devoted to solving the case with his computer-like genius. It's as if Williams sat down at his desk and thought, “To hell with it, I'll just rip off House and Sherlock. No one will notice or care.”

That staggering lack of imagination courses through Chasing Shadows like a virus. Assigned to a Missing Persons unit, Shearsmith's DS Stone butts heads with his new colleagues – Alex Kingston's mumsy Hattersley and Noel Clarke's bloke in a suit - while racing in pursuit of a serial killer. In case we hadn't quite got to grips with this complex creation, Clarke's character actually described him as someone who “marches to the beat of his own drum.”

It's a sorry state of affairs when the only unexpected wrinkle in this character's make-up is the presence of his supportive, loving partner. Williams clearly thinks he's being exceptionally clever here. "He's not lonely after all! Didn't expect that, did you?!" Well, no. I also don't expect to be killed by a falling piano tomorrow, and nor do I welcome the prospect.

Meanwhile, fans of laboured visual metaphors will have enjoyed the running conceit of the mismatched Stone and Hattersley literally travelling side-by-side in separate vehicles. I'm not entirely convinced that Williams wrote Chasing Shadows in the conventional sense. It feels more like the result of feeding basic information through an automated software package.

It's disappointing, as the justly lauded Shearsmith usually displays more discernment than this. His recent turn in true-life crime drama The Widower suggested that one of our finest comic actors was broadening his palette in an interesting way. And while he does what he can with the role – his darting, uptight little walk is a nice touch – there's little he can do with such lacklustre material.

Financial rewards aside, I can only assume he accepted this hopeless gig by letting his real-life fascination with serial killers cloud his judgement.

London's Frederick Bremer School is the setting for Educating the East End, which has the unenviable task of following the all-conquering Educating Yorkshire. Can it capture our hearts in quite the same way?

Episode one suggested that, with this talented production team in charge, you could place cameras in any secondary school in the UK and find an absorbing mass of drama, humour and pathos.

Its latest star is English teacher Mr Bispham, who struggled to imbue his boisterous pupils with the wonders of Shakespeare while on a stressful two-year placement. Avuncular yet sensitive, his lack of teacher training caused some toe-curling gaffes. It was a textbook example of romantic idealism versus the practical realities of teaching. But in a twist typical of this heart-warming series, he eventually triumphed with the touching support of his pupils.

Granted, like all documentaries of this nature, these real-life narratives are condensed into neat little arcs with convenient happy endings. The lives of some of the pupils at Frederick Bremer are obviously far more complicated than 60 minutes of populist entertainment will allow. But I can forgive the Educating franchise its contrivances.

The welcome antithesis of the cynical point-and-laugh exploitation that blights so much of Channel 4's factual output, it's clear that everyone involved in the project is fundamentally benign in their intentions. With the education system continually under fire, this exemplary series is, quite heroically, a compassionate political statement on its battered behalf.