Sunday, 26 October 2014

TV Review: THE APPRENTICE

This article was originally published in The Courier on 25th October 2014.


The Apprentice: Wednesday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Despite being in its tenth year, it's clear that most Apprentice candidates have never seen The Apprentice before in their lives. How else to explain their complete inability to learn from the blunders of previous hopefuls?

Or is it simply that anyone foolish enough to apply for The Apprentice in the first place is so tragically lacking in self-awareness, they can't appreciate it in the same way as the rest of us? They take it seriously. That's their tragedy.

Funnier than most actual sitcoms, The Apprentice is essentially a comedy, edited and manipulated for maximum farce. Though it may initially have maintained some thin pretence of having anything to do with serious business practice, the makers realised years ago that no one, apart from the grasping candidates themselves, viewed it as anything other than a cringe-inducing showcase for eminently mockable buffoons.

We watch it because, when viewed in light of these narcissistic bozos, it makes us feel better about ourselves as human beings. We're all idiotic in our own way, of course, but at least we're not as hopeless as these people.

Is it cruel? Not really. Unlike The X Factor, where those lined up for mockery are all too often harmless and vulnerable, The Apprentice carefully selects a group of risible fools who basically deserve to be mocked. They have no one to blame but themselves.

Take James, a stand-out character so far on account of his mouthy, arrogant, pea-brained pronouncements and uncanny resemblance to woman-fearing humour vacuum Dapper Laughs (if you don't know who that is, then I urge you to remain oblivious). James is a typical Apprentice contestant in that he does everything a competent candidate – and such anomalies do exist – shouldn't. Mistakenly overconfident, he never listens to instructions due to an aggressive belief in his own verbal diarrhoea.

Last week he committed the cardinal sin of, while pleading for his life in the boardroom, obsequiously comparing himself to Lord Sugar. James! Don't you know that this is one of Sugar's pet peeves? Evidently not. James is oblivious. Sugar eventually told him to shut up. “Definitely, Lord Sugar,” he replied. What a twit.

Of course, one of the show's most consistently comical participants is Sugar himself. The deference the candidates pay towards this brogue-faced millionaire barrow boy is hilarious, as are, for entirely the wrong reasons, the belligerent prune's own attempts at humour. His scripted quips get more excruciating by the year. I'm certain his writers are giving him any old gibberish for a backstage bet now. “Never mind Aloe Vera, looks like it's more of a case of goodbye Sarah.” I mean, I ask you.

As for the rest of the contestants, only a few stand out at this stage. Roisin is James' archetypal opposite in that she's clearly a capable contender, while Sarah Millican soundalike Katie appears to be this year's token 'nice one'. Whenever she talked about profits and margins during the most recent task, she sounded like a child consulting My First Business Kit from Mattel.

Elsewhere there's Daniel, who clearly thinks he's Don Draper. He looks more like Fred Flintstone summoned for court. Mark is a constipated Ben Affleck, or, if you prefer, a wrestler who's turned up at the wrong Christening, while Steven is already shaping up to be one of the most overbearingly delusional contestants in Apprentice history.

Even after ten years of unchanging formula, I do so love this ridiculous programme. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

TV Review: THE GREAT FIRE and GOTHAM

This article was originally published in The Courier on 18th October 2014.


The Great Fire: Thursday, STV

Gotham: Monday, Five

Paul Whitelaw

While trudging through the first half of The Great Fire last week, it struck me that the reason why no one has ever produced a drama about the Great Fire of London before is because the man who accidentally started it, baker Thomas Farriner, is an exceptionally dull protagonist.

Though I appreciate that every good disaster flick must first put all its characters in place before hurling them into chaos, most of episode one was bogged down with Farriner fretting over his terminated contract with the Royal Navy. Call me an impatient thrill-seeker if you like, but it was hardly the stuff of scintillating drama.

As played by Andrew Buchan, replete with anachronistic haircut, Farriner moped around his Pudding Lane bakery in the company of an entirely fictional sister-in-law – it appears that writer Tom Bradby, ITN's Political Editor no less, was moved to invent a sub-plot involving Farriner's dead brother in the hope of jazzing things up a bit. It didn't work. I know it's wrong, but I was desperate for the actual blaze to erupt so as to escape from this dreary storyline.

More interesting by far were the political shenanigans taking place in the court of Charles II (Jack Huston from Boardwalk Empire on suitably foppish form), where Lord Charles of the Dance expertly sold every brooding moment of ambiguous skulduggery.

Daniel Mays, too, is typically excellent as the King's forthright confidante, Samuel Pepys. Traditionally depicted as a bawdy, rather comical figure, this iteration of Pepys is more morally questionable. Though fundamentally decent and wise, his behaviour at times is deplorable. The scene in which he slept with a woman while her paid-off husband seethed in the next room was bizarrely arresting and uncomfortable.

Given his political background, it's hardly surprising that Bradby has opted to draw blatant parallels between the state of the nation in 1666 and Britain today. While I hesitate to describe it as subversive, The Great Fire is unusual for an ITV drama in that it openly critiques the injustice of a ruling elite of uncaring toffs living high on the hog while the poorest members of society are left to rot and burn. Rife with sectarianism and paranoid xenophobia, it's depressing to note how so little has changed over almost 400 years.

It's unfortunate, then, that Bradby's ambition is undermined by some terrible, clunking exposition and his rather bland depiction of the proletariat. His heart is in the right place, but he's obviously more excited by the vile machinations of the periwigged brigade.

Still, it's early days. Perhaps Buchan's Farriner will come into his own in later episodes. When his bakery finally went up in flames – at last! - we were treated to a suitably dramatic sequence in which he escaped from an attic window with his terrified daughters in tow. With a bit of morbid, harrowing luck, the nightmarish horror of the Great Fire will presumably be explored in due course.

In a busy week for urban hell-holes, Batman prequel Gotham proved that, in the hands of a hack, even the most intriguing premise can be squandered. An abject disappointment, this laughable drama has more in common with a stilted daytime soap than the smart, gritty, comic book noir that any reasonable person would expect.

It's well cast, and the production design is impressive, but the earnest dialogue is atrocious. Basically little more than a conventional, clich├ęd cop show, it's an unappetising turkey.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

TV Review: GRANTCHESTER

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 11th October 2014.


Grantchester: Monday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

If I may make so bold a generalisation, then for anyone starved of thrills since the demise of Tom Bosley's ecclesiastical crime thriller Father Dowling InvestigatesMurder She Wrote in a dog collar, no less – the arrival of Grantchester must've felt like manna from murder mystery Heaven.

Set in 1953 in the titular Cambridgeshire village, and written by James 'Son of Archbishop' Runcie, it follows a frustrated young vicar who gains a new lease of life when he becomes an amateur sleuth.

Operating a million country miles from his disturbing performance as Happy Valley's chief psychopath, the versatile James Norton plays Sidney Chambers as a handsome and progressive clergyman who, lest anyone doubt his modern credentials, enjoys whisky, jazz, cigarettes – note that all-important comma - and frolicking in lakes with frightfully nice young ladies.

This workaday existence is changed forever when the grieving mistress of a suicide case approaches him to cry murder. A depressed alcoholic lawyer, he'd told this poor woman that, once he'd left his wife, they would “live as we have never lived!” I mean, I ask you, are those the words of a suicidal man?

Gripped by this compelling evidence, Chambers' eyes widened. As the mistress explained, helpfully setting up the premise, who better to investigate a mystery than a pillar of the community who can go anywhere and ask any question? A romantic dreamer desperate for excitement, Chambers plunged into the case with schoolboy-ish enthusiasm, much to the short-tempered chagrin of lovable Police Inspector Geordie Keating.

Yes, it's come to this for the personable Robson Green, he's finally playing a character called Geordie. Has the man no self-respect? Would Ray Winstone accept the role of a character called Cockney Ardman in a six-part ITV crime drama? Yes, he almost definitely would if the money was right, but you take my point.

Anyway. Gimmick-led detective dramas are as old as Marconi's folly itself. There's nothing wrong with the concept, just how it's delivered. Grantchester is delivered professionally, smoothly, like a tray of Baileys to an elderly group of lunching ladies. It also provides dialogue, plotting and exposition as subtly as an anvil through a vestry window.

The shadow of the war hangs over this sleepy little village like a vast, heavy-handed subtext. The dead man's wife was a sad-eyed German given to quasi-poetic soliloquies. Chambers is a veteran himself, as was every other whisky-driven male character. That makes sense dramatically, historically, humanely. There's something to be explored there. More concerned with scenery and mood, Grantchester reduces it to a man staring solemnly over a cornfield.

Oh, I dare say we'll soon be treated to a scene in which someone challenges Chambers on why God allows such suffering. That'll pass for depth before the case at hand is solved.

This tolerable slice of sub-Agatha Christie is a pot-boiler, a page-turner, just another blood-stained slice of genteel comfort viewing, forever destined to gather dust on ITV3 in the afternoons and maybe, if it's lucky, be given away free with The Daily Mail. It's polished in the sense that dutifully tended silverware is polished, as robustly inoffensive as oatcakes, bell ringers and the face of Martin Jarvis. It's a big old tassled pouffe of nothing, but at least it rests your heels for an hour of a dark Monday evening.

I can't praise fainter than that.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

TV Review: PEAKY BLINDERS and 24 HOURS IN POLICE CUSTODY

This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 4th October 2014.


Peaky Blinders: Thursday, BBC Two

24 Hours in Police Custody: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Deliberately over-stylised and luridly violent, the first series of Peaky Blinders was an entertaining riot of period gangster mayhem. Granted, the dialogue was often rather clunky, but I found I was willing to overlook its flaws and go along for the ride. It was fun and propulsive, with just enough depth to justify its self-conscious swagger.

Can it keep that momentum going over a second series? On the evidence of last week's return, I'm not entirely certain. It may sound odd to describe a drama full of choreographed violence and cold-blooded murder as curiously muted, especially one which began with a pub being blown to pieces, but episode one felt rather hollow and lethargic. Critics immune to the charms of Peaky Blinders have always accused it of being mere style over substance, but in this case the accusations felt valid.

As we returned to 1920s Birmingham, which in the hands of writer Steven Knight is depicted as a hellish furnace at the lawless ends of the Earth, implacable gangster Thomas Shelby was firmly ensconced in his role as the city's leading crime kingpin. His plans for an expansion to London dominated proceedings, to the extent that it appeared to be the only major plot development. Knight spent too long putting his pieces in place at the expense of moving the action forward.

The lengthy, slow-motion scene in which Thomas assassinated someone on behalf of his Irish associates was pure padding, seemingly included because the director couldn't resist matching his eye-catching visuals to the music of Johnny Cash. While the show's anachronistic blues/country score is a vital part of its grungy western aesthetic, scenes such as this make it feel like an elongated music video. The clanking, igneous, soot-drenched production design is stunning, but it should never dominate as much as it did here.

Apparently sculpted entirely from glass, Cillian Murphy continues to thrive on pure charisma as Thomas, but I did find myself impatiently waiting for the much-publicised arrival of the great Tom Hardy. Alas, he was nowhere to be found in episode one, which simply added to the sense of anticlimax.

This stodgy curtain-opener was hopefully just a fleeting wobble, before it returns to form next week. Peaky Blinders is one of our most distinctive TV dramas, so it would be a shame if it ran out of gas so soon.

Produced by the team behind the justly lauded 24 Hours in A&E, 24 Hours in Police Custody is a similarly engrossing observational documentary following the Bedfordshire police force as they attempt to charge their suspects within hours of arrest.

Without an ounce of dubious contrivance, it succeeds in providing the police with the sort of positive publicity they're currently in dire need of. The officers involved came across as decent human beings doggedly in pursuit of justice. Episode one's unlikely star was DC Martin Hart, whose affable approach to interrogation was honed during his time spent working as a holiday rep. Here was an ordinary copper, simply doing his job to the best of his abilities.

His prolonged efforts to charge a man suspected of conspiracy to murder resulted in a simple yet effective hour of television, steeped in tension and humour. There was more drama in the minutiae of this process than you'd find in most scripted police procedurals. Thoughtful, enlightening stuff.