Saturday, 27 June 2015


Black Work: Sunday, STV

The Bank: Tuesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Now firmly established as TV's foremost leading lady, Sheridan Smith can take her pick from the finest showroom vehicles. So one wonders what she saw in Black Work, which so far feels only marginally more distinguished than any number of pot-boiling crime dramas.

Perhaps all will become clear in the remaining episodes. Smith's instincts are usually worth trusting, so I'm willing to give it a chance.

She stars as Jo, a Yorkshire policewoman who finds herself trapped in a quagmire of guilt and suspicion when her detective husband, Ryan, is murdered. Prior to his demise, she and Ryan had grown apart, apparently due to his lengthy absences from home. Jo had even contemplated an affair with a colleague, although it seems their relationship developed no further than weekly meetings in a swimming pool car park.

But Ryan was harbouring a much darker secret. Turns out he wasn't teaching cop cadets in London for the last three years. Instead he was working undercover in pursuit of gun-runners. Killed in the line of duty, apparently his heroic efforts had finally toppled them. But why are the police acting so suspiciously regarding the details of his murder? And what of these whispers about rogue behaviour during his time undercover? There's only one thing for it: PC Jo must mount her own investigation.

A grieving, guilty wife exploring her dead husband's covert double life is an interesting premise, and so far Black Work succeeds in the traditional thriller sense of not knowing who to trust - although Jo and Ryan's superiors, played by Douglas Henshall and Geraldine James, could only be shiftier if they had handlebar moustaches to twirl.

With her tear-sodden face to the fore, Smith is typically convincing, as are the actors playing her children – the youngest is that unnaturally natural little girl from Our Zoo, which was also written by Black Work's Matt Charman. But I can't shake the nagging suspicion that it's just a middling, mechanical drama with an unusually strong cast. We'll see.

One of Black Work's nominal themes is our growing mistrust of the police. But they're probably still a notch above bankers, whose reputation currently flounders at an all-time low.

Cue The Bank, a new documentary series which, by following the staff at a high street branch of RBS-owned NatWest, aims to spotlight the human face of this maligned industry. But why? Though customers often vent their frustration at these footsoldiers, no one actually blames them for the financial crash. They didn't start the fire.

Sure enough, the staff are a sympathetic bunch doing their best under trying circumstances. Unlike their unaccountable paymasters, they haven't received a bonus in years.

They're also burdened with the hopeless task of rebuilding trust and reaching customer service targets. This seems to involve asking if customers are “extremely satisfied”, even if they return dissatisfied at a later date.

Though no one in the programme was judged unfairly, a serious lapse of taste occurred in the soundtrack department. The use of a whimsical jazz score was horribly at odds with the seriousness of the subject matter. It was more suited to a frothy doc about cat shampooing, not one involving people struggling with debt.

And call me a pie-eyed idealist if you will, but I'd much rather watch an uncompromising profile of the rapacious banking overlords responsible for destroying millions of lives. That will be with us soon, I'm sure.

Sunday, 21 June 2015


Humans: Sunday, Channel 4

Prized Apart: Saturday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Set in a parallel present where lifelike synthetic humans are as commonplace as iPads, sci-fi drama Humans takes the bold – some might say foolhardy - step of exploring territory that many great writers have traversed before.

Yet while the questions it poses are familiar – is artificial intelligence capable of feeling? Do we have the right to create it? Are we in danger of being usurped by the technology we're increasingly reliant upon? - it handles them with care and, in terms of world-building, precise attention to detail. 

And while it's too early to say if Humans will add up to much, at least its influences are openly acknowledged in a rather playful way.

It began with a harassed husband and father purchasing an android servant – known colloquially as synths – to help around the home. His wife, Laura, is a busy lawyer beset with mid-life malaise (none of the humans in Humans are happy). She's grown distant from her family, a problem compounded – despite her husband's contrary intentions – by the arrival of Anita, a strikingly beautiful synth whose eerily perfect countenance sets Laura on edge.

A sly wrinkle on the notion of a spouse feeling threatened by a partner's interest in a younger model – a theme echoed by the sub-plot involving a detective and the hunky synth who cares for his sick wife - this dysfunctional domestic setting is a master-stroke. It grounds an essentially fantastical premise in plausible reality. Though we automatically feel sympathy for Anita – after all, she's only following pre-programmed orders – we regard her with suspicion when viewed through Laura's eyes.

Sure enough, Laura has reason to be paranoid. It gradually transpires that Anita belongs to a rogue group of synths who have somehow developed independent thoughts and feelings. She's merely pretending to be subservient. But why?

Meanwhile, her fellow sentient synths are on the run from scientists fearful of their advanced state. This conspiracy thriller element coexists smoothly with the claustrophobic unease of the suburbanite scenes and an intriguing strand involving a widowed scientist (William Hurt) and his malfunctioning synth/surrogate son.

A droll sense of humour also ensures that Humans never feels pompous, even when confronting its hefty moral quandaries head-on. With its chilly aesthetic and dry spurts of satire, it occasionally resembles one of the better Black Mirror episodes. I particularly like the way our world, with no cosmetic alterations at all, is depicted as a bland, cold, chrome and glass wasteland.

But Humans wouldn't work if it was wholly cynical. It succeeds in asking us to sympathise with Laura and invest in Hurt's Geppetto/Pinocchio plight. Plus the horrifying pathos of robots cursed with living souls haunts the show throughout; the scenes depicting a sentient synth sold into prostitution make their point with unsparing yet compassionate intensity.

Regardless of noble intentions, the whole enterprise would capsize completely were it not for an utterly convincing performance from Gemma Chan as Anita. Mercifully free of the body-popping tics which often blight actors playing robots, her subtly precise, blandly benign demeanour is unsettling and – given what we know of her true nature – ineffably sad.

By sheer coincidence, Prized Apart marks the first instance of a quiz show devised and fronted by robots. A conceptually flawed bore, it sends members of the public on a Moroccan quest to win £100,000 via harness-enhanced stunts. Meanwhile, their loved ones back home in the studio provide half-hearted commentary in a sterile hangar commandeered by chief Auton Emma Watson.

None of it makes sense. The location segments don't gel with the stilted studio diversions – they're clearly not happening simultaneously - and there's never any sense of genuine peril, triumph or momentum. Imagine I'm A Celebrity... without the celebrities. Or Bake Off without the baking. Or life without meaning. That still doesn't come close to the echoing pointlessness of Prized Apart.

Sunday, 14 June 2015


Stonemouth: Monday, BBC One

The Interceptor: Wednesday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Hi, is that Peter Mullan's agent? I've got a part he might be interested in; a gruff Scottish hard man who – what? He'll do it? Great!”

Fine actor though he is, Mullan could growl and scowl through his role in Stonemouth in a state of deep somnambulance. Given the thinness of his material in this case, I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

Based on a novel by Iain Banks, it's a lacklustre neo-noir yarn in which a young man, Stewart, returns to an Aberdeenshire coastal town to investigate the supposed suicide of his best friend, Cal.

A charismatic rebel, Cal was the son of a local drugs kingpin (Mullan, natch) and the brother of Stewart's estranged paramour, Ellie. An unwelcome presence in Stonemouth, Stewart was literally run out of town two years prior after humiliating Ellie on the eve of their nuptials. Consumed with guilt and regret, he's desperate to make amends by reconnecting with Ellie and avenging Cal's death.

God knows I'm not asking for sympathy, but I almost bored myself rigid writing that brief synopsis. Stonemouth is hackneyed beyond belief. Transposing an archetypal Western/film noir storyline to contemporary Scotland can't disguise its tired familiarity. On the contrary, it merely draws attention to its clichéd, self-conscious failings.

Stewart's semi-hard-boiled narration, a staple of the genre, isn't lyrical enough to excuse its function as a clumsy source of exposition. Indeed, the dialogue as a whole is awkwardly mannered and glib. What may have looked witty in print, sounds hopelessly unnatural when spoken aloud.

Surveying the new décor of his former local, Stewart opined, “I prefer the comforting ambience of the masonic conspiracy.” Later Ellie's sister declared, “My apparent lack of remorse isn't a coping mechanism.” Yuk. That's not dialogue, it's typing with fists.

Despite the dead-weight he's carrying, English actor Christian Cook – replete with passable Scots brogue - does a decent job as Stewart. Though too handsome to convince as a lovelorn everyman, he has a certain droll charm. And Mullan, well, Mullan hits his mark with practised professionalism.

While certain dryly comic moments work quite well – e.g. rival kingpin Gary Lewis's inept efforts to assure Stewart that he had nothing to do with Cal's demise – Stonemouth is fatally soulless, flat and cheap-looking. Not so much a hotbed of turmoil, more a knackered mattress of sin.

But it's a mind-blowing trip into the wild unknown compared to The Interceptor. This brazenly hackneyed thriller follows – hell yeah – an acutely observant, maverick customs agent recruited by an off-grid squad of law-enforcers intent on targeting powerful white collar drug magnates.

As a child, our brooding hero witnessed his dad being killed by a drug-addled wrong 'un. Yep, it's personal. Make no mistake, this man is on a righteous moral crusade. Scores must be settled. Brows must be furrowed.

He knows it's untouchable Mr Big, that bespoke criminal in his so-called suit and tie, and not your addict scrabbling on the street who is responsible for devastating everyday crimes. Damn right he does. It's a valid target, but his aim is scatter-shot. He's too emotional, just too damn close to the case.

In the unlikely event that any of these nuanced character motives went over your head, a Scottish boss with the truculent demeanour of an errant Beechgrove gardener was helpfully on hand to spell it out in bluntly literal detail.

I've no idea how a dramatist can write tosh like this and not feel hideously embarrassed. I hope the cheque was worth it. If, like me, you've never wondered what a Richard Madeley take on The Wire would be like, then The Interceptor refuses to honour that indifference.

With his casual, star-making charisma, lead actor O-T Fagbenle imbues this arrant pablum with far more class than it deserves. At least it's never boring, but only in the sense that it doesn't sit still: a desperate magician trying to disguise his hack-work with slick patter and an aggressive frilly shirt.

Its cynical professionalism almost makes me hanker for the student-level blandness of Stonemouth. Almost.  

Sunday, 7 June 2015


This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 7th June 2015.

The Syndicate: Tuesday, BBC One

Vicious: Monday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

What would you do if you won millions on the lottery? Like most good ideas, the premise behind writer/director Kay Mellor's The Syndicate is so simple, it's a wonder no one has thought of it before.

So far she's exploted two hit series from this universal fantasy, each starring a different cast of characters. Theoretically, it's a flexible, fecund format. But I'm not convinced that series three will continue her winning streak (I swear that's the only laboured lottery-themed metaphor in this review).

My problem lies not with the storyline – the staff at a stately home suddenly becoming richer than their employers is a strong idea – but with Mellor's treatment of certain characters. She can usually be relied upon to write about “ordinary” people without condescension, but I'm troubled by the presence of Lenny Henry as Godfrey the gardener, a kind of fantasy “idiot savant” in the Rain Man mould.

Are we to take it that Godfrey is placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum, hence why he's an obsessive mathematical theorist prone to sudden fits of rage? Well, I ask you, isn't that a dubious stereotype? It doesn't help that Henry plays him with a permanent expression of wounded surprise, as if befuddled by his character. Who can blame him?

I'm not sure what Mellor is playing at here, especially during those uncomfortable scenes where Godfrey basically lusts after Amy, the pretty teenage maid. Now, I trust Mellor to prove me wrong, but so far she's come perilously close to portraying Amy as a sexually precocious brat just asking for trouble. Sure enough, she was apparently abducted at the end of episode one, possibly by her aggressive ex.

Bizarrely, this instinctively felt like the kind of knee-jerk moral judgement you'd find in a cheap slasher film: flaunt your sexuality, and you're mincemeat. And please, Mellor, spare us a hackneyed storyline involving poor, innocent Godfrey being falsely accused of abducting Amy. You're better than that.

Misgivings aside, I did enjoy certain aspects of the episode. Winningly, the upstairs-downstairs setting suggests a cynical, contemporary subversion of Downton Abbey. Mellor even made the comparison explicit, when the ailing Lord of the manor complained about a visiting American contingent: “They only come because they imagine they're in an episode of bloody Downton Abbey!

And who plays his charmingly ruffled Lordship? Why, none other than stately period drama stalwart Anthony Andrews. His presence is another neatly self-referential touch; I hope the rest of the series builds upon its flashes of promise.

Is it too late to hope the same of Vicious? This defiantly camp, old-fashioned sitcom divides opinion, but for all its faults I enjoyed series one. All it needed was some fine tuning.

But even with the best will in the world – and lord knows I want Vicious to be better than it is – last week's return was a disappointment. Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi are still an impeccably timed hoot as a fondly caustic gay couple, but without their sterling efforts Vicious would sink like a stone.

In a semi-amusing attempt to undermine criticism, this week it cheekily drew attention to the creaky contrivances of its own plot. But that kind of post-modernism only works with strong gags to support it.

Shameless, flawed and slick, Vicious makes not a jot of sense, and that's to its credit. But I wish it was funnier, if only to piss off those who foolishly believe that mirthless, single-camera sitcoms have usurped this classic form.