Saturday, 28 March 2015


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th March 2015.

Louis Theroux: By Reason Of Insanity: Sunday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

I've long been of the opinion that Louis Theroux is one of TV's finest interviewers. His gently probing style is often categorised as 'faux-naive', but that isn't very fair or accurate, especially these days.

While he certainly made his name as a seemingly callow investigator of strange sub-cultures and celebrities, he's since spent over ten years journeying through heavier terrain. Even in his early 'Weird Weekends' phase, his interviewing style was characterised by non-judgemental curiosity and disarming empathy. But that approach is arguably more effective when attached to deeper subject matter.

His latest project is a case in point. A two-part investigation into Ohio's maximum security State Psychiatric Hospital system, Louis Theroux: By Reason Of Insanity is typical of a tried and tested formula in which he visits traditionally closed-off institutions/environments and talks to the inhabitants. This is now his natural milieu, so much so that he's probably spent more of his adult life in the company of inmates, patients, guards and medical professionals than with his own family.

The patients he met on this occasion have been accused of committing serious crimes, some of them horrifically violent, while in the grip of severe mental illness. Judged to be Not Guilty By Reason Of Insanity, they've been detained for psychiatric treatment rather than penal rehabilitation. It's hoped that one day they'll be well enough to return to society as stable citizens. But when is a mentally ill patient ready for reintegration?

Typically, Theroux doesn't treat them as freakish novelties to be feared and peered at. Rather, he regards them for what they are – ill, vulnerable people.

While in the grip of schizophrenic delusions, Jonathan murdered his father. He reportedly stabbed him over 40 times. A symptom of his condition is a conspicuous lack of outward emotion, hence why he recounted his horrifying tale almost casually. Theroux noted that Jonathan's inability to project grief and remorse might be deemed shocking by 'normal society' and, if his case should ever go to trial, a judge and jury. An unassuming soul, Jonathan conceded that this might be the case. But what could he do? It was terribly sad.

Softly-spoken Corey was similarly lost. A young man suffering from paranoid delusions and suicidal fantasies, he once attacked a police officer in the hope of being shot dead. Initially Corey claimed he'd only struck the policeman gently with a poker, but Theroux's polite persistence eventually exposed the truth. After being shot twice in the legs, Corey was dismayed that he hadn't yet been killed. So he bludgeoned the man's skull.

I don't think he works for the police any more,” he said. “I feel awful about that.”

If I were to choose a textbook example of Theroux's skill as an interviewer, it would be that encounter with Corey. Direct yet sensitive, he patiently teases details from his subjects until they reveal an often more disturbing picture. But his digging never feels exploitative.

Even in areas as dark as this, there were moments of absurd humour. Elderly Judith seemed fairly sane until she claimed to be Jesus incarnate. “That didn't come up when we played cards,” deadpanned Theroux.

Meanwhile, on the verge of being released, an understandably anxious patient revealed that he once believed he was receiving psychic instructions – mainly to drive recklessly – from none other than Benjamin Netanyahu. You have to laugh, I suppose.

The unspoken yet readily apparent point hovering over this exercise was the stigma which still surrounds mental illness. While people such as those featured in the programme are receiving treatment from dedicated, trained professionals, politicians and certain portions of the mainstream media still have a long way to go with regards to how they're treated. One need only look at this week's dismaying coverage of the Germanwings Airbus tragedy as proof.

Necessarily inconclusive, this typically humane and nuanced report was Theroux at his thought-provoking best.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 21st March 2015.

You're Back In The Room: Saturday, STV

Ordinary Lies: Tuesday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

ITV's Saturday night schedules are haunted by the ghosts of countless dead ducks. Last week this shiny-floored miasma of shrill mediocrity was visited by a quacking flop to end them all.

An insurmountably flawed game show, You're Back In The Room features dignity-shy contestants working together to win a grand prize of £25,000. The high-concept twist? Their various challenges must be carried out while under hypnosis. Let hilarity commence!

Derren Brown aside, stage hypnosis is ill-reputed as a cheap, tawdry spectacle in which velveteen show-offs make pants-exposing patsies dance to Sex Bomb while barking like dogs. You're Back In The Room does little to dispel such preconceptions. Indeed, it embraces them.

But that's not really the problem. No, the honking flaw in its premise is the dubious competitive element. I'm the world's most painfully awkward human, but I dare say even I would abandon my self-respect to perform an abysmal James Brown impersonation on TV if thousands of pounds were on offer. The whole sorry enterprise is catnip for cynics.

Blandly Irish mind man Keith Barry, whose job it is to manipulate the contestants, immediately set alarm bells ringing when he demanded that sceptics ask themselves this: would the participants really do these “crazy, silly and outrageous” things and risk losing a big cash prize if they hadn't been hypnotised?

Well yes. Obviously. Come on, Keith, you're familiar with human nature and the demands of television, right? Seriously, I doubt the world of stage hypnosis will ever recover from this catastrophic own goal. Its integrity has been fatally compromised.

While I appreciate that hypnotic suggestion works on those susceptible to it, the confection laid before us is woefully unconvincing. In their supposedly triggered state, the contestants seem suspiciously self-conscious. It's like watching a bunch of amateur comedians improvising ineptly.

Round one summed up the rot. A potter's wheel skit, it was as if The Generation Game had been hijacked by wacky 1970s military scientists with a warehouse full of psychotropic drugs. Except nowhere near as much fun as that sounds.

This misfiring concoction is embarrassing, not because the contestants make fools of themselves – they don't, not really - but because everyone involved is trying desperately hard to conjure entertainment from an unworkable concept.

One of the safest pairs of hands in the business, Phillip Schofield can host such pap in his sleep. Possibly quite literally in this case. But you can tell his heart's not in it. He giggles along gamely, but even the studio audience, who can normally be relied upon to laugh uproariously at nothing whatsoever, sound like they'd rather be back in any other room than this.

A sub-Jimmy McGovern ensemble drama, Ordinary Lies is essentially a series of standalone plays following various car showroom employees as they struggle with their awful lives.

The overarching theme of guilt and deceit was introduced via the story of a disenchanted salesman – a decent straight performance from comedian Jason Manford – who, when faced with redundancy due to persistent lateness, concocted a terrible spur-of-the-moment lie: his wife had died. Playing on his colleague's sympathy, he manipulated the fantasy before inevitably being rumbled.

McGovern would've milked this uncomfortable premise for all it's worth, but writer Danny Brocklehurst delivered an unsatisfying, thinly developed morality play bereft of depth or surprise. It was all so... ordinary.

Sunday, 15 March 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th March 2015.

Poldark: Sunday, BBC One

Nurse: Tuesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

It's oddly satisfying, humbling even, that one of Britain's biggest ever TV exports concerns a man in a tricorn-hat struggling to revive his tin mine. A massive hit in its 1970s heyday, the BBC's first adaptation of Winston Graham's Poldark novels cemented forever our worldwide reputation as stalwart purveyors of high-end period drama.

It's therefore fitting that this grand tradition continues with the latest version, which – mark my soothsaying words – will be an enormous hit. Why? Because it ticks all the right boxes in brazenly confident style.

Self-evidently, no expense has been spared in bringing this savagely romantic world to life. Set in Cornwall in the late 18th century, it mercilessly exploits the area's rugged coastlines and vast, God-fearing skies. While it doesn't quite match the almost docudrama feel of Wolf Hall, it does boast a fairly authentic sense of candle-lit time and place. Visually, it's a resplendently photographed treat.

But pretty pictures are all for naught without a sturdy mainframe to support them. Fortunately, this epic saga is told in rip-roaring style. Though played deadly straight by a fine ensemble cast, it benefits in execution from a kind of sly knowingness.

Scenes of Poldark on horseback galloping dramatically along the coastline, or removing his shirt for no earthly reason, flirt outrageously with barnstorming camp. Casting Aidan Turner from Being Human as Poldark is a master-stroke. A charismatic, handsome actor, he broods and twinkles most effectively. Artfully stubbled and tousled of barnet, this saturnine hunk spends much of his screen-time glowering intensely as clouds gather ominously, yet somehow sexily, overhead. It's a star-making performance.

A charming scoundrel with a sturdy moral core, he's ably supported by a rich cast of characters including Phil Davis in unabashed scowling mode as a ruddy-faced manservant, and the late Warren Clarke in his final screen role as Poldark's scheming uncle. Though she doesn't come into her own until later episodes, newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson is suitably feral yet delicate as Poldark's vulnerable peasant ward.

Normally I'd criticise a drama for leaning on blunt exposition - I lost count of the number of times a variation on “Cornwall is changing, these are difficult times” was uttered in episode one – but here it forms part of a slightly heightened, charming sense of melodrama. Subtlety is grabbed by the seat of its britches and hurled into the crashing briny. In the rampant world of Poldark, understatement is as welcome as a bout of scurvy.

The bold antithesis of a staid Sunday night period drama, it's tremendous fun.

A tender new vehicle for Paul Whitehouse, Nurse is as low-key as Poldark is bombastic. Essentially a series of bittersweet character sketches linked by a loose yet effective through-line, it follows a community psychiatric nurse as she visits her patients, most of whom are played by the heroically versatile Whitehouse. 

Stand-out characters include a depressed ex-con struggling with agoraphobia, and a delightfully ingratiating Jewish OAP. Whitehouse is an extraordinary actor, yet his multiple turns never feel like egocentric grand-standing. He's fully invested in these three-dimensional characters.

Though often very funny, ultimately Nurse is a sensitive and humane study of issues surrounding mental health and community care. I can't recommend it enough.


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th March 2015.

Banished: Thursday, BBC Two

Pompidou: Sunday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

You'd have to be mad, foolish or both to challenge Jimmy McGovern's reputation as one of Britain's leading TV dramatists. Fuelled by anger, humour and compassion, his greatest hits include Cracker, The Lakes, Hillsborough and The Street. That's one helluva strike rate.

However, even writers of McGovern's stature can be scuppered by compromising circumstances. Banished is proof of that. Set in a late 18th century penal colony in New South Wales, it follows the arduous lives of British convicts and Royal Navy marines as they struggle to survive in this 'Godforsaken' land.

It's a typical McGovern piece in that it revolves around terrible moral dilemmas, miscarriages of justice and the powerful notion of doing the right thing under desperate circumstances. Indeed, the script is fairly solid and engaging. If you're a fan of the expletives 'whore' and 'scum' it's an absolute treat. But the problem lies in the way it's been transferred to screen.

Despite being set in a supposed hell-hole, it has the glossy look of an afternoon TV movie. The intrusive score sounds curiously synthetic and cheap. The actors are too groomed. The relatively grime-free camp looks like what it is, an outdoor set. It just doesn't feel lived in. Good direction and production design can disguise such fakery – just look at the authentically filthy Deadwood, for example – but it's difficult to fully invest in the reality of Banished.

Another glaring flaw is the prominent presence of Russell Tovey as upright convict James. Within his limits, Tovey is a perfectly competent, rather charming actor. But his inability to convincingly convey anger and intensity is a major stumbling block, especially in a brooding drama such as this. With his mannered contemporary inflections and sudden shifts into slurred, stilted rage, he sounds like Michael Caine channelling the wayward spirit of William Shatner.

It's frustrating, as the rest of the cast are fine. I was particularly impressed by Julian Rhind-Tutt playing against upper-class type as Tommy, a supposedly wronged, working class convict. Ewen Bremner is also rather interesting as a permanently aghast vicar wrestling with his morality. Imagine Edvard Munch's The Scream as played by Derek Nimmo. That, I assure you, is a compliment.

The intensely compelling scene in which, against his will, Reverend Spud was forced to hang Tommy for sleeping with fellow convict Elizabeth was classic McGovern. Pleasingly melodramatic, it climaxed with Tommy's life being spared at the last second when the Reverend's saintly wife screamed, “This is crucifixion!” Irresistible stuff.

While the prison hard-man – a Scot, naturally – and cruel Navy captain flirt dangerously close to pantomime villainy, McGovern is careful to ensure that characters such as the quietly humane sergeant and nominally lenient governor are sketched along more nuanced lines.

It's far from perfect, but Banished does have much to commend it. If McGovern can sustain the drama, then its faults may be less troublesome in the long run.

A daft visual comedy starring Matt Lucas as a penniless aristocrat, Pompidou is a mixed bag. Though aimed at a family audience, some of the more grotesque gags – e.g. Pompidou pulling organs from his butler's stomach – feel oddly out of place in this otherwise bright and colourful cartoon world.

While Laurel and Hardy, to whom the show is indebted, often employed similarly offbeat nightmare gags, the consistency of tone in Pompidou is far less assured.

Still, Lucas is a gifted clown and his latest venture is certainly quite funny and likeable. It just needs to settle on what it wants to be.

Sunday, 1 March 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th February 2015.

Indian Summers: Sunday, Channel 4

Reginald D. Hunter's Songs Of The South: Saturday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Thanks to a lifetime of constant disappointment, I admit I'm prone to making massive, unfair presumptions about things I haven't actually experienced for myself. That's why, before I'd even seen it, I rashly presumed that 1930s period piece Indian Summers would be a ponderous and starchy affair: a prissy Merchant/Ivory knock-off. Actually, it's rather engaging.

Hyped as Channel 4's most expensive ever drama, and scheduled up against JK Rowling's similarly class-focused The Casual Vacancy on BBC One, it can't afford to fail. On the evidence of its first two episodes – there are ten in total – it appears to be succeeding on its own intriguing, languid terms.

Granted, certain characters haven't quite clicked yet. Alice, the sister of smoothly chiselled Private Secretary Ralph, is presumably intended as the moral, tender heart of the series. So far this role has been defined by winsome glances and little else. And Dalal, who last week took a bullet during a botched assassination attempt on Ralph, feels rather limp for such a prominent character.

Ralph himself is more interesting, largely on account of his darker traits. A typical child of Empire in his patrician attitudes towards the Indian people he's been sent to govern – this week he was quick to dismiss Ghandi's peaceful nationalist cause as a terrorist movement – he nevertheless adores his adopted country. It would be all too easy to present these toodle-pip colonialists as outright villains. But the underlying political thrust of Indian Summers is more nuanced than that.

An effective note of intrigue was maintained throughout the episode when it transpired that Ralph had a prior relationship with his would-be assassin. Indian Summers is rather adept at teasing such mysteries.

Practically everyone in the show is nursing a secret of some sort. It remains to be seen whether their revelations are worth the wait, but I'm particularly intrigued by Julie Walters as the colourfully named Cynthia Coffin, a scheming, fag-smoking East End matriarch and charismatic hostess who appears to be ruling an entire subcontinent by pulling Ralph's strings. It's an interesting reversal of the class system back home, where a woman such as Cynthia would never be granted such authority. It's a ripe old role for Dame Julie, and she tackles it with enigmatic relish.

Production-wise, Indian Summers glistens with a sticky, inescapable heat. The chaste sex scenes may be gently torn from the pages of Mills & Boon, but the show isn't lacking in sun-kissed atmosphere. It's a promising saga.

The balminess continued in Reginald D. Hunter's Songs Of The South, a thoughtful three-part travelogue in which the droll African-American comic explores the origins of American popular music.

To a wonderful soundtrack of bluegrass and country, he began by travelling from Kentucky to Tennessee. The highlight was his detour into the uncomfortable realm of minstrelsy – white singers performing in blackface – where he encountered the argument that Stephen Foster's minstrel standards, which often sound offensive from a modern standpoint, were actually fairly liberal and progressive for the time.

Hunter gently dismissed this theory as a retrospective attempt to “lend dignity to a fiction created by a white man”, while concluding that minstrelsy is an important, albeit difficult, part of the American legacy and shouldn't be swept under the carpet.

An avuncular and sanguine guide, Hunter's almost poetic sincerity elevates this series beyond the bland triviality of most celebrity travelogues.