Sunday, 30 November 2014

TV Review: REMEMBER ME

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 29th November 2014.

Remember Me: Sunday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Ideal viewing for these Godless winter evenings, Remember Me is a highly promising three-part ghost story made all the more effective by the casting of 'cuddly national treasure' Michael Palin in a central role. Given his involvement, the timeslot and channel, its ghoulish intensity could almost be described as subversive.

An underrated and underused dramatic actor, he's wonderful as Tom, an enigmatic, twinkly pensioner who's endured solitary exile in a gloomy terraced house for decades. Tom is what would emerge if Alan Bennett's typewriter ever became haunted.

Desperate to escape his mysterious curse, he eventually fled to an elderly care home, the presence of which makes Remember Me feel like an even more horrifying version of Ricky Gervais' Derek. The lead care-worker is even named Hannah, which I insist is no coincidence (it probably is).

A teenager living in a house where you can practically smell the damp – every character seems trapped in their own dark, cluttered space – Hannah became embroiled in Tom's mystery following the shocking death of his social worker, who was hurled from his window by powerful forces unknown.

Also on the case is a sympathetic detective (the quietly impressive Mark Addy), who's the sort of sad-sack cop who spends his evenings alone supping melancholy pints in the local Dog and Gizzard.

Indebted to classic British ghost stories such as M.R. James' Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, this atmospheric spook-show is a tightly woven knot of unease. Writer Gwyneth Hughes understands that horror tends to be more effective when rooted in a mundane, everyday environment. While picturesque Yorkshire towns have been the setting for countless Sunday night dramas over the years, here the effect is anything but cosy. What with this and Happy Valley, I'd be surprised if anyone ever visits there again.

Director Ashley Pearce masterfully exploits the underlying terror of Yorkshire's stunning rural landscape, where the drizzle pours incessantly from vast, oppressive, spectral clouds. It's an immensely confident production full of darkly beautiful imagery. That strange spectre of a veiled, bedraggled woman rising from a desolate beach will linger in the memory for quite some time.

Kudos too to the sound department, who really earn their keep with a wonderfully chilling soundtrack of bumps, groans, scuttles and drips. While jump scares, i.e. sudden loud noises, are often used as a cheap device in horror, here they worked in tandem with a carefully constructed atmosphere of compelling dread.

The claustrophobic scenes set in Tom's abandoned home were highly effective. A particularly nice touch was the sparing use of subliminal movement in his collection of antique photographs, the subtlety of which was blown asunder by the orgiastic, heart-stopping climax which managed to encompass every haunted house clich̩ Рcreepy attics, rocking chairs, slamming doors etc. - without slipping into outright parody.

Granted, even these scenes had their flaws. Hannah's visit to Tom's sepulchral abode was undermined by some textbook moments of dumb horror illogic. While characters in supernatural yarns obviously don't know the rules, some of her actions were downright daft. Who, while creeping around at night in a creaky house crammed with spooky old artefacts, would then decide to sit at a piano and play from some sheet music? Even Bobby Crush would resist that temptation.

Naturally, her impromptu performance of Scarborough Fair invited further ghostly creaks from upstairs. So thank God she had her torch to investigate them with. But it was too late. Her innocent recital of the haunting folk standard dragged her further into Tom's nightmare world.

You brought the song away in your heart,” he railed, “now you can never take it back!” Someone should warn Simon & Garfunkel.

Fleeting moments of silliness aside - moments which, in any case, are arguably part and parcel of the genre - Remember Me is clearly the most outstanding supernatural drama to grace our screens in years.

It's a supremely unsettling experience, and I for one applaud the BBC for their bold commitment to scaring the bejesus out of unsuspecting licence payers.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

TV Review: BROADMOOR and FRANKENSTEIN AND THE VAMPYRE: A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 8th November 2014.


Broadmoor: Wednesday, STV

Frankenstein and The Vampyre: A Dark and Stormy Night: Saturday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Given what we now know about Jimmy Savile, ITV's claim that Broadmoor has “unprecedented access” to the high security psychiatric hospital feels like an unfortunate boast.

Nevertheless, it's true that, for the first time in its 150 year history, this secretive institution has allowed a documentary crew to film within its walls. Home to notorious serial murderers such as Peter Sutcliffe and Kenneth Erskine – neither of whom chose to participate, much to the surprise of no one – Broadmoor tends to be viewed in the popular imagination as a terrifying cauldron of criminal violence.

While this sobering two-part series doesn't quite seek to reverse that reputation, it succeeds in presenting a more balanced, responsible and humane view of Broadmoor's patients. The abiding theme of episode one was encapsulated by Clinical Director Dr Amlan Basu, who observed that, despite their horrendous crimes, these men are also victims.

It's very easy to see somebody as either the perpetrator or the victim. It's much more difficult to understand that somebody might be both.” That the programme set out to do just that is hugely commendable.

We were introduced to patients, their identities concealed for obvious reasons, whose severe mental health disorders were the tragic by-product of childhoods scarred by repeated psychological and sexual abuse. One psychiatrist claimed, almost with a rueful smile, that he could easily identify future patients if he'd met them as children.

Eventually greenlit following five years of careful negotiation, Broadmoor is necessarily compromised at times. While the vigilant staff were candid to a point – for want of a quiet life, they rarely tell people where they work – certain subjects were firmly off limits. Forbidden from filming a restraint procedure on a patient who refused to return to his room, the crew were also banned from showing a reluctant patient being forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication.

But rather than harm the programme's integrity, these enforced omissions actually heightened its carefully handled tone of detached compassion. Images of self-inflicted scars on a suicidal patient's arms were all we needed to see. Anything more would've been gratuitous. Wisely, the ever-present threat of violence against staff was implicit.

Graced with sensitive narration from actor Eddie Marsan, Broadmoor is neither prurient nor exploitative. Uncomfortable, sad and challenging, it offers no easy answers. It's intelligent enough to realise that life is too brutal, too complicated, for that.

Part of a BBC season devoted to all things Gothic, Frankenstein and The Vampyre: A Dark and Stormy Night was a suitably melodramatic documentary recounting the unusual circumstances which led to Mary Shelley creating her horror masterpiece.

Literally the stuff of nightmares, Frankenstein came to her one evening during a sensual lakeside holiday in Geneva with her bohemian husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, randy old Lord Byron, and an aspiring yet hapless writer named Polidori.

High on wine and ether, as freak storms raged outside, this tempestuous group challenged each other to write a ghost story. The twist in the tale was that the little known Polidori, belittled as a joke by Byron in particular, eventually wrote the first published modern vampire story. His fiendish inspiration? None other than that aristocratic rake, Lord Byron himself. It was revenge of sorts.

With articulate contributions from talking heads such as Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood, this handsome reconstruction of a weird, dazzling summit was a late Halloween treat. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

TV Review: THE MISSING and INTRUDERS

A version of this article was originally published in The Courier on 1st November 2014.


The Missing: Tuesday, BBC One

Intruders: Monday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

There is something uniquely visceral about stories involving vanished loved ones. The thought of losing someone through unexplained circumstances is a terror we can all relate to. So much so, it doesn't bear thinking about.

Thank heavens, then, for fictional drama! Like an unflattering mirror, it reflects those fears from a safe, if queasy, distance. Two new shows explored this area last week, albeit in markedly different styles.

Promising eight-part thriller The Missing stars the excellent James Nesbitt on suitably fraught and haunted form as the father of an abducted child. Five year-old Oliver was snatched during a happy family holiday to France in 2006. While standing in a crowded pub showing World Cup coverage, Tony (Nesbitt) suddenly noticed that Oliver was missing. There one moment, gone the next.

This impressively handled sequence tracked Tony's rising panic as he frantically searched their holiday resort. Every parent's nightmare writ large.

From there we switched between 2006 and the present day, where Tony, burdened with guilt, has become a heavy-drinking loner obsessively trawling the town where Oliver was last seen. His refusal to let go had torn his marriage apart, forcing his ex into the arms of the (rather creepy) British police liaison officer responsible for Oliver's case.

This plot point struck a rather jarring note, as did the highly convenient twist of tracing Oliver's movements through a second-hand shop with meticulously thorough records of sale. What's more – and call me a heartless monster if you will – the cliff-hanger discovery of Oliver's drawing of jug-eared daddy on a basement wall was, I'm afraid, borderline comical.

There's nothing funny about the subject matter, of course, but the execution was slightly overcooked at times. With such a sensitive issue at its core, sibling writers Harry and Jack Williams – who up until now have a background in mediocre comedy - need to tread very carefully.

Fortunately, The Missing is carefully handled for the most part. Niggling missteps aside, it's an engrossing mystery with a powerful emotional kick. While it remains to be seen if they can sustain this story over eight hours, for now it contains enough dark hints and unanswered questions to maintain a hefty sense of intrigue.

Incidentally, aside from its self-evident basis in the Madeleine McCann case, The Missing may be partly inspired by a little-seen yet painfully affecting independent film from 2004 called Keane, featuring a tour de force performance from Damian Lewis. For connoisseurs of bleak art, it comes highly recommended.

Tentatively, I'll make a similar claim for Intruders. Not for the faint-hearted, it's a grisly conspiracy thriller rooted in horror and sci-fi in which John Simm – passable US accent and all – plays a former cop on the hunt for his missing wife.

That's the simplified synopsis. What Intruders is really about is anyone's guess at this stage, although the concept of reincarnation is obviously key to its mystery.

Written by X Files alumnus Glen Morgan and directed by Eduardo 'The Blair Witch Project' Sanchez, its chilly, disquieting atmosphere is occasionally punctured by blunt bursts of violence. I knew I was watching an unconventional drama when at one point it looked as though we were about to see a child being murdered in cold blood. NB: we weren't.

A hint of dark humour undermines Intruders' more portentous leanings, and the central conceit of a shadowy underground organisation visiting homes and murdering the inhabitants is fundamentally chilling. Let's just hope it doesn't descend into abject bloody nonsense, as these things often tend to.