Saturday, 30 May 2015


A version of this review was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30th May 2015.

SunTrap: Wednesday, BBC One

When Pop Ruled My Life: The Fans' Story: Friday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Very occasionally a sitcom comes along that's so unremittingly poor, it seems inconceivable that it ever reached our screens at all. SunTrap is one such turkey.

Here's what we're lumbered with. Kayvan Novak stars as Woody, a smooth, wise-cracking undercover journalist who flees to a Spanish island after exposing an establishment scandal back home. There he shacks up with a roguish ex-colleague (Bradley Walsh), with whom he shares a supposedly sparkling odd couple relationship. Dismal escapades ensue.

Common sense dictates that SunTrap was written by humans, but it feels more like the result of an alien study into the earthling concept of humour. It's superficially bright and breezy, yet oddly robotic. The actors deliver self-consciously “funny” performances, as if desperately trying to compensate for the mediocre script. Every tortuous line sounds like an off-key cover version of an actual joke, e.g. “Something smelled fishy at the vets. But it was a vets, so it could've been fish.”

Even as a deliberately corny gag, that doesn't work. The whole sorry enterprise clunks and groans like a knackered laughing policeman, dying a death before your very eyes.

The executives who commissioned this? They have no business being anywhere near comedy. I'm not exaggerating for comic effect. This isn't ha-ha-hilarious comic hyperbole. These clueless execs - W1A is barely exaggerated - don't have a slack-jawed clue. Register your protest by never tuning into insulting crap like this. Bother them on Twitter. Irk them on Facebook. Don't let them off the hook. Fight the power.

This misbegotten drivel is obviously intended as a mainstream vehicle for the versatile Novak, hence why Woody is a master of disguise. But the sight of him flailing through his armoury of accents – Russian, Scottish, outrageous French – recalls one of those sad, later Peter Sellers films. Funny voices are no substitute for solid material.

Despite being a timid, uncertain actor when divested of his disguises, Novak deserves better. As does Jack Dee, who turned up in a thankless cameo. How was he roped into this? Presumably by accident and with immense regret.

It doesn't help that Woody, far from being a charming scamp, is a searing pain in the rump. Like SunTrap as a whole, he's undeservedly pleased with himself. Continually it mistakes “talking quickly” for witty repartee, while forgetting that silly, threadbare plots only work when supported by clever gags. Of the two main female characters, one is a monstrous battleaxe, the other a blandly glamorous moll. In terms of gender politics, it makes On the Buses look like His Girl Friday.

Even the scenery looks embarrassed. How much money was wasted on this shite? That BBC One have buried it in a graveyard slot speaks volumes.

Whenever TV turns its gaze towards avid fans and collectors of pop culture, they're usually treated as figures of fun to be sniggered at. Thankfully, When Pop Ruled My Life: The Fans' Story took a more affectionate tone.

A documentary hosted, without a hint of cynicism, by the music journalist Kate Mossman, it was an elegant and sometimes bitter-sweet celebration of the ongoing relationship between pop fans and their idols.

Original Beatlemaniacs, teenage One Direction fans, a former Boy George lookalike and a snowy-haired rocker with a shed full of Iron Maiden treasures, all were treated equally. Though separated by taste and generations, they were united in a common understanding of what it means to care so deeply about an artist.

Mossman, whose teenage diaries devoted to Queen drummer Roger Taylor formed a charming through-line, clearly empathised. She also spoke to objects of fandom such as Les McKeown of The Bay City Rollers, a former teen-scream idol whose gratitude towards his loyal fans felt hearteningly genuine.

Hero worship cuts both ways. Here, for once, was a tender tribute to that complex mutual dependency.

Saturday, 23 May 2015


This article was originally published in The Courier on 23rd May 2015.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Sunday, BBC One

1864: Saturday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Based on the acclaimed fantasy novel by Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an intriguing curio. With its generous budget, redoubtable cast of character actors and pseudo-Grimm production design, it's like a trad BBC period drama hijacked by the wild imaginings of Terry Gilliam.

I applaud its ambition. But does it work? I'm not entirely convinced, at least not yet.

I haven't read the book, as I have an incurable blind-spot when it comes to printed fiction, but I'm aware that it's a dense, digressive tome crammed with footnotes. So I don't envy Doctor Who writer Peter Harness in adapting such an unwieldy work for the screen.

He's been tasked with condensing masses of material into accessible 60 minute chunks, hence why episode one felt oddly disjointed. Like a muddled conjuring trick, the focus shifted constantly. A character who drove the plot in act one later disappeared. Hapless co-protagonist Jonathan Strange wasn't introduced until halfway through, and appeared only fitfully after that. The sudden, and rather silly, arrival of Marc Warren as a demonic Billy Idol with the voice of John Hurt felt like one jolt of whimsy too many.

It's frustrating, as the premise and world are arresting: set in 19th century England during the Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic wars, it posits an alternative history where magic actually existed. No one had practised the craft for 300 years, until serious-minded artisan Mr Norrell – a wonderfully discomfited performance from Eddie Marsan – revealed his God-like skills to an impotent guild of “theoretical magicians”.

An instant sensation, he was whisked from Yorkshire to London, where, much to his chagrin, he was regarded, not as a rarefied craftsman, but as an amusing novelty. That is, until he offered to revive the dead wife of a prominent politician...

Meanwhile, a straggle-haired street magician (Paul “Dennis Pennis” Kaye on OTT form) mumbled ominous prophecies about the emergence of two magicians, one of whom will use his powers for good, the other for evil. A breathless set-up, but it got there in the end.

Harness worked hard to slot these pieces into place, and eventually the themes of snobbery, hypocrisy, morality, greed and art vs commerce had more or less coalesced.

Despite my reservations, there's a lot here to admire. The cast, including the ever-reliable Vincent Franklin as a camp, solicitous Norrell groupie, are superb, Harness' dialogue is droll, and Norrell's occasional displays of magic – e.g. the striking scene in which he brought York Minster's statues to life – are achieved using an eerily effective combination of CG and stop-motion animation.

So far it casts an uneven spell, but the potential is there.

Meanwhile, over in 19th century Denmark, magic is thin on the ground in 1864.

A self-consciously epic saga about the Danish/Prussian war, it's well-acted, beautifully shot, and full of noble intentions. But the central storyline involving two war-bound brothers in love with the same woman is familiar to the point of self-parody, and the device of using scenes set in the present day – in which a troubled teenage girl learns about the war from an elderly, faded aristocrat – is clumsy and patronising.

And how's this for a piece of awkward, laughable exposition?

MAN #1: “I forget your name, remind me.”

MAN #2: “Bismarck. Otto von Bismarck.”

Ouch. I swear I'm still deaf from my internal Q.I. buzzer.

Saturday, 9 May 2015


This article was originally published in The Courier on 9th May 2015.

No Offence: Tuesday, Channel 4

The C Word: Sunday, BBC One

I've always been puzzled by the lofty reputation of writer Paul Abbott. Apart from solid thriller State Of Play, what work of note has he actually done?

His major successes include the decent if unremarkable Clocking Off and the truly dire knockabout panto Shameless, which did more to promote the offensive stereotype of the so-called underclass as a bunch of hedonistic, work-shy scroungers than a dozen Katy Hopkins columns. That wasn't Abbott's intention, but what an own goal.

That's why I wanted to enjoy his latest venture, No Offence. I wanted him to prove me wrong. Alas, this muddled cop show is another dud. Ostensibly a gritty, compassionate drama fused with jolts of black comedy, it feels like two shows pulling in wildly different directions. It takes a steady gaze to combine such disparate elements, but Abbott's approach is fatally unfocused.

With various characters to introduce and plot strands to establish, opening episodes are notoriously tricky. But shouldn't a writer of Abbott's stature and experience be able to pull that off? Apparently not. Episode one of No Offence was a mess, in which supposedly comic scenes jarred awkwardly with a self-consciously dark storyline about a serial killer targeting women with Down's Syndrome. I'm sure he thinks he's being daringly transgressive – conscientious, even – but the whole thing smacks of trying too hard.

Even the title, No Offence, raises hackles. It's a phrase beloved by idiots who think they're blowing minds by being witlessly rude. This tiresome attitude is encapsulated by Joanna Scanlan's straight-talking DI. Abbott wants us to admire this formidable matriarch. We're supposed to laugh at her refreshing lack of political correctness. But she's so irritating and unfunny, not even Scanlan's considerable gifts can make her bearable.

I've been a fan of this fine comic actress/writer for many years – her work on The Thick Of It and Getting On was exemplary – but No Offence squanders the starring role she deserves. Way to go, Abbott.

Its failings are frustrating, as Elaine Cassidy's flawed, humane DC – gradually revealed as the heart of the show – is potentially an engaging protagonist. Abbott admirers claim he's good at writing believable female characters. While Scanlan's role suggests otherwise – she comes across as a condescending male fantasy of a tough, salty woman – Cassidy's character feels like an actual human being.

If it settles down and loses that laboured need to prove itself – God help us from that hokey Wild West score – then No Offence may well be more than a formulaic cop show with delusions of edge. Is Abbott capable of making that change? I doubt it.

Dame Sheridan Smith – come on, it's only a matter of time – continued her unstoppable winning streak with The C Word, a sensitive adaptation of the book and blog by journalist Lisa Lynch. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 28, Lynch – who died in 2013 - wrote about her ordeal with admirable frankness and humour. 

This unflinching standalone drama captured that spirit, as it reeled through her step-by-step guide to the everyday anguish of dealing with cancer.

Refreshingly bereft of schmaltz, it fulfilled its goal of challenging the well-meaning yet unhelpfully sentimental way in which cancer is usually discussed in public. Bolstered by entirely convincing, dignified performances from Smith and the underrated Paul Nicholls as Lynch's quietly supportive husband/carer, it was a tender triumph.

Sunday, 3 May 2015


A version of this article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 2nd May 2015.

The Game: Thursday, BBC Two

Peter Kay's Car Share: Wednesday and Thursday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Union strikes and power-cuts. Soviet spies and government traitors. A dingy, orange-brown Britain choking to death on the thick sting of Capstan smoke. The Game sometimes feels like an unlikely Peter Kay routine: “The Cold War, eh? What were all that about?”

Set in 1972, this six-part thriller is mired in a kind of perverse nostalgia for an age when paranoid East/West enmity threatened to spill over into all-out nuclear annihilation. Those were the days, my friend.

Yet despite being shamelessly derivative – it wouldn't exist without the work of John le Carre and Tomas Alfredson's 2011 film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  – The Game has just enough character of its own to deflect accusations of irrelevance. At least so far.

Written by Toby Whithouse (Being Human; Doctor Who), its sardonic sense of humour is a saving grace. Steeped in neo-noir trappings and an ominously jazzy John Barry-esque score, The Game blends knowingly fond pastiche – the nasty chief villain is defined by his unerring ability to peel apples sinisterly – with violent severity. It's also handsomely, gloomily stylised without drawing too much attention to its handsome, gloomy style. That's a tricky balancing act, but Whithouse at his best is an assured purveyor of black comic drama.

Our idiosyncratic team of MI5 anti-heroes are headed by a world-weary chief codenamed 'Daddy' – Brian Cox in careworn teddy bear mode - which none too subtly heightens the notion of them as a dysfunctional family.

Chief among them is a Bowie-boned young agent whose carapace of ruthless, almost catatonic efficiency masks an impulsive broken heart, a terribly nice wire-tapper who is so socially inept he keeps a list of possible conversation topics in his pocket, and, via a wonderfully arch performance from Paul Ritter, a barely-closeted establishment kingpin cruelly domineered by his monstrous mother. They're typical Whithouse creations – flawed, odd and intriguing.

The saga began with a defecting KGB officer informing MI5 of a potentially devastating Soviet plot. What this involves remains unclear, but already the body-count is rising. Throw in the usual paranoid spy themes of strained loyalty and creeping mistrust, and the potential is there for a compelling yarn told at a suitably deliberate pace.

In a way, I don't blame Whithouse for indulging himself in this familiar milieu. As a petrified child of the Cold War myself, I admit to being similarly obsessed with the era and its chilly accoutrements. Doom-caked BBC classics such as Edge Of Darkness and Threads are part of our collective DNA. With good reason, they still haunt our dreams.

Plus there's no reason why a talented dramatist shouldn't be allowed to play a brand new game using the Tinker, Tailor toy box. I remain cautiously optimistic.

Peter Kay's last sitcom was the best-forgotten Max and Paddy's Road to Nowhere in 2004. Since then he's coasted along on an increasingly flimsy raft of good-will, his best years seemingly behind him. Hence why Peter Kay's Car Share is such a pleasant surprise.

A low-key sitcom in the claustrophobic mould of The Royle Family and Rob Brydon's Marion & Geoff, it's set almost entirely within the confines of a car belonging to assistant supermarket manager John (Kay) as he drives to and from work with employee Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, a revelation).

The company car share scheme has thrown these two together. John is an affable curmudgeon, Kayleigh a naïve chatterbox. The pleasure derives from watching their relationship gradually blossom from initial reluctance to comfortable co-dependence. While their arc, complete with will-they-won't-they romance undercurrent, is predictable, Kay and Gibson share sweetly convincing and often very funny chemistry.

After years of cynical laziness, Kay has remembered what he's good at – broad-appeal observational comedy fused with subtlety, detail, warmth and pathos. Granted, the spilled urine gag in episode one was hammered into the ground, and the incongruous musical fantasy sequences are pure padding.

But his ability to weave revealing threads of backstory into John and Kayleigh's conversation is impressive, as is his use of the car stereo – which spews forth an acutely-observed parody of banal commercial radio plus a “timeless” roster of semi-obscure hits, while triggering and commenting upon the surface duologue.

That all of this is achieved using two characters who barely depart from a confined space is testament to the effort that Kay and his co-writers – Gibson included – have put into this show. It's an impressive piece of writing, beautifully performed.

Against all odds, Car Share is a thoroughly charming affair that returns Kay to his oft-overlooked character comedy roots. I was wrong to write him off, and I'm delighted about that.