Monday, 27 April 2015

TV Review: SAFE HOUSE and W1A

This article was originally published in The Courier on 25th April 2015.

Safe House: Monday, STV

W1A: Thursday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Christopher Eccleston, that esteemed grand dame of heavyweight British drama, returned to our screens last week in four-part thriller Safe House. He plays Robert, a former police officer cautiously approaching a quiet new existence with his wife in the Lake District.

Despite blaming himself for the death of a female witness in his care, Robert misses his old life on the force. So when his former boss suggested that their remote lakeside home would make an ideal safe house, he spied a chance to redeem himself. Though initially reluctant, his wife soon capitulated when the story deemed it necessary.

Keen to prove he'd left the past behind, Robert burned old newspaper cuttings about his murdered witness in a heavily symbolic garden bonfire.

Within a convenient matter of days, they were harbouring a family on the run from a creepily bearded stalker in an army-style parka (the internationally recognised uniform of a wrong 'un). “You're completely safe,” Robert assured them. “No one knows you're here.”

He might as well have chucked them in the lake himself.

While it's inevitable that old weird beard will eventually track them down, that doesn't excuse Safe House's fatal lack of tension.

Its shortcomings were encapsulated by one particularly clumsy moment of false suspense. When the youngest member of the family disappeared at the safe house, his anxious mother went searching for him. Inevitably, he was just outside playing football with Robert, safe from the clutches of an antagonist we knew to be miles away at the time. So what was the point?

Some mild intrigue is provided by hints that the family patriarch, also a policeman, might be involved in shady dealings. What does his assailant want from him? Why does the missing teenage son keep ignoring dad's calls? And how the hell did our hirsute parka fiend discover this lad with an ease that's eluded the police?

So far I'm not convinced that the answers, when they come, will be worth the wait.

Calling to mind a slow-moving remake of Cape Fear, this first instalment lacked the instant punch of recent TV thrillers such as Happy Valley and The Missing. Decent use is made of its beautifully gloomy location, and Eccleston does what's required of him. Frown, mostly. But this lukewarm potboiler is too mechanically calculating, too rote by half.

A spoof documentary set in BBC Broadcasting House, W1A returned with a typically amusing one-hour special in which our hapless team of media buffoons welcomed Prince Charles (just about) and wrestled with the issue of whether their Wimbledon coverage is “too white”.

While it could never be mistaken for savage satire, John Morton's Twenty Twelve sequel takes impudent delight in poking fun at its paymaster. It presents an abundantly accurate vision of the BBC as a well-meaning yet hopelessly gaffe-prone behemoth governed by desperate execs who don't know what they're doing.

A particularly timely gag involved a weekly damage limitation meeting about Jeremy Clarkson. Meanwhile, the running thread of commissioning endless regurgitations of the same celebrity-fronted, populist tripe reached farcical heights, i.e. Wimbledon coverage “judged” by Alan Sugar and fused with Strictly Come Dancing. Obvious? Sure. But still valid.

Morton's deliberately clumsy, tautological dialogue often irritates – not in the way it's supposed to – and I'll always be irked by W1A's rather cosy, self-congratulatory air: “Look at us making fun of ourselves! What great sports we are!”

But it'll do. For now.

Sunday, 19 April 2015


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 18th April 2015.

Inside Harley Street: Monday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Do you ever get bored of the prostate, Roger?”

Vanessa Engle has a knack for probing questions. An incisive student of life's rich pageant, she's renowned for superior observational documentaries on subjects such as feminism, socialism and orthodox Jews. Exclusive subcultures and beleaguered ideologies are grist to her mill.

It was only a matter of time before she arrived in the privileged world of Harley Street, that famed square mile in central London offering private healthcare. With its winning combination of wry humour, social critique and underlying compassion, Inside Harley Street put her cheerfully impudent interviewing style to good use.

Inevitably, her recurring focus was on money. Doctors wouldn't be drawn on how much they earned; “a lot” seemed to cover it. As for their upper-crust patients, one old dame claimed to have no idea of how much she forked out. Another said money was no sacrifice, as she'd never sacrifice anything for anyone. True blue Britain at its best.

A commercial enterprise designed to generate revenue, the Harley Street estate has been privately owned for over 300 years by one of Britain's wealthiest broods, the Howard De Walden family. The company stance on euthanasia is typical of its strict regulations. Even if it were to become legal in the UK, it would never be allowed in Harley Street. Not a good advert for the brand, claimed a De Walden executive. Too much of a downer.

Their preferred image is one of exclusive, personalised care. Engle caught patients being warmly greeted by their GP's with “Hello darling!” hugs and kisses, as they exchanged idle chit-chat about expensive foreign holidays.

One GP – typical in that he began his career in the NHS – spoke of patients calling him at 2AM to have their blood pressure taken. “They may be feeling anxious after returning from the casino,” he said, semi-seriously. He then became defensive when Engle asked if this is why he became a doctor. “Yes,” he frowned, “I became a doctor to help people.”

I don't doubt that. However, a colleague later admitted that the help they provide isn't inherently 'better' than what you'd get for free on the NHS.

Not that all Harley Street patients are wealthy. Of particular interest were the ordinary Arab patients whose treatment is part-funded by their government, and the poor Russian child whose surgery was made possible by a charity telethon back home.

Then there was Derek, an Alzheimer's patient partaking in a free medical trial subsidised by drug manufacturers. Derek might be given useless placebos, but his wife reckoned it was worth the risk. Her quiet desperation spoke volumes.

Essentially a political filmmaker, Engle's point about social inequality and the rank unfairness of life was slyly delivered. “If everyone had access to private medicine we'd have a healthier population,” said one doctor bluntly. Yes, and if only the NHS provided free gold lollipops. Oh when will this dream come true?

Engle is a heartfelt polemicist, and a blatantly left-leaning one at that. As such, she's an open-goal for those bizarrely paranoid, misguided souls who accuse the BBC of being a red-fingered hotbed of socialist dogma. The truth of the matter is, she's an anomaly, a throwback almost. 

Right-wingers should be delighted that "lefty" documentary auteurs such as Engle barely exist in TV any more. I'm delighted that she does.

Sunday, 12 April 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11th April 2015.

Code Of A Killer: Monday, STV

A Slow Train Through Africa with Griff Rhys Jones: Friday, STV

Thunderbirds Are Go!: Saturday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

You've got to hand it to ITV. Reducing a remarkable true story to the level of a particularly plodding episode of DCI Banks takes a special kind of incompetence, hence why I'm almost in awe of vexing two-parter Code Of A Killer.

The world-changing discovery of DNA fingerprinting and its first use in a criminal investigation is a fascinating subject ripe for dramatisation. Yet in the workmanlike hands of writer Michael Crompton, it hits every standard beat with thudding predictability.

Fine actors both, even John Simm and David Threlfall can't save it. Simm plays pioneering geneticist Alec Jeffreys. With his Open University beard and turtle neck, he's depicted, as scientists always are on screen, as brilliant yet scatty; a dishevelled genius whose dedication to his work caused him to neglect his long-suffering wife. Fortunately, she's also on hand to provide subtext-free support during times of need. Behind every great man stands a feminine plank of exposition.

Meanwhile, Threlfall is saddled with a thankless role and unflattering hair-do as Detective David Baker, the quietly dedicated copper who enlisted Jeffreys' help in catching a suspected serial killer. A detective unencumbered with gimmicky tics or baggage should be refreshing, but Baker is a downbeat cipher. I accept that in reality policemen such as Baker are ostensibly unremarkable professionals, but a better writer could've brought him more effectively to life.

Buoyed only by an engaged performance from Simm, Code Of A Killer could be dismissed as merely disappointing were it not for the troubling issue of its tragic real-life origins. Episode one confronted us with two harrowing scenes of parents being informed of their daughters' brutal fates. Reliving their trauma in such a half-hearted context felt awfully tasteless.

ITV landed on safer ground with A Slow Train Through Africa with Griff Rhys Jones, their latest addition to the cosy celebrity travelogue pandemic. With his familiar chinny grin and chuckling bonhomie, Griff marshalled this formulaic enterprise with the utmost professionalism. That technically counts as praise if you're easily pleased by gently informative, competently shot tapestries of avuncular 1980s comedians in foreign climes.

The only bum notes were his awkward handling of the, to say the least, sensitive legacy of French imperialist rule in Africa – admittedly this was hardly the forum for incisive political analysis – and his quasi-ironic complaints about being ripped off by local traders. Why, in Marrakesh alone he must've withdrawn a whopping £40 from the production budget. Our hearts bled, Griff.

Don't let nostalgia cloud your memory: the original Thunderbirds series was boring. Only a knee-jerk purist would object to ITV's CGI revival, Thunderbirds Are Go!, on principle. Taken on its own amiable terms, this handsomely animated update ramps up the best elements of the original without sacrificing their charm. It's fun and respectful without being hamstrung by the past, which is all we should really ask for.

Aside from Brains, Lady Penelope and Parker – the latter still voiced by octogenarian David Graham in h'all 'is posh cockernee glory - the International Rescue team are as blandly interchangeable as ever, but one doesn't look to Thunderbirds for rich characterisation. Though slightly too relentless at times, the gung-ho pace and innocent sense of adventure compensates for its 1-D protagonists.

It's unfortunate, then, that ITV in their wisdom have opted to show the rest of the series at 8am on Saturday mornings. The fools, they could've had a weekend teatime hit on their hands.


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4th April 2015.

Coalition: Saturday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Difficult to believe now, but for a brief period in 2010 Nick Clegg was perceived, not as a pointless husk of a man, but as a straight-talking saviour whose promises of political reform and honesty felt genuinely viable.

Of course, anyone who bought into this hopeless fantasy now feels utterly foolish and betrayed. That bitter foreknowledge hung over Coalition like a toxic gas.

A feature-length dramatisation of the infamous week in May 2010 when a hung parliament forced the coalition government into being, it depicted the 11th hour Westminster negotiations as a kind of tragicomic farce in which an entire nation fell victim to the greed and ineptitude of its flailing political elite.

Yet despite these broad satirical leanings, it resisted the temptation to caricature its scheming protagonists. Instead, particularly with regards to Clegg and Gordon Brown, it offered a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of fundamentally sincere politicians brought down by naivety and hubris.

Writer James Graham reserved most of his ire for the Tories, who were portrayed throughout as cynically opportunistic. I particularly enjoyed the curdled depiction of George Osborne as a heavy-lidded, smirking henchman offering cold pragmatic advice to his anxious leader. Apparently based on extensive research, its portrayal of Cameron as a dazed politico forever on the verge of drowning was grimly plausible.

While commonly dismissed as a hapless patsy, the Clegg of Coalition was a morally conflicted and occasionally shrewd man whose flashes of remorse seemed genuine. However, Graham didn't let him off the hook for reneging on his flagship promises as soon as he got a whiff of power.

But it was Brown who emerged as the most intriguing character. The crumpled, socially awkward antithesis of his open-necked, chummy young rivals, the outgoing PM cut a tragic figure as he fruitlessly struggled to cling on to power. The scene in which he clumsily canvassed Clegg as they were about to lay a wreath on VE Day spoke volumes about his hopeless lack of perspective.

Shepherded by his long-suffering staff – including Mark Gattis playing Peter Mandelson in the inimitable style of Mark Gatiss – this gruff, bellowing teddy bear finally realised he was finished while scuttling through a secret Commons tunnel on his way to a make-or-break meeting with Clegg. I never thought I'd see the day where I actually felt sorry for Gordon Brown.

It was one of many arresting moments in which Graham's eye for detail reaped dividends. Brown obliviously squirting ketchup on his shirt basically summed the man up, and I'm convinced that casting an actor who neither looked nor sounded like the robotic Clegg was a satirical comment in itself.

Of particular note was the way in which the political old guard, including a wise, battle-weary Paddy Ashdown, were depicted almost as bastions of integrity. Unlike their Blairite descendants, at least they actually believed in something.

While Coalition didn't tell us much that we didn't already know, it was nevertheless a compelling drama which, despite being a matter of historical record, managed to sustain a degree of tension throughout. That's rather impressive.

Though it focused on the self-serving compromise and betrayal of supposed principles which brought this government to power, it was also written with a commendably human touch. Ironically, Clegg in particular was treated with the kind of fairness and honesty he singularly failed to deliver in reality. I hope he appreciates the courtesy.