This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th March 2015.
Banished: Thursday, BBC Two
Pompidou: Sunday, BBC Two
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.