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.

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