Sunday, 26 July 2015


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

Witnesses: Wednesday, Channel 4

The Javone Prince Show: Sunday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Shot through an endless drizzle, French thriller Witnesses (Les Temoins) is so irredeemably gloomy it make the average UK cop drama look like a DayGlo bouncy castle pumped with laughing gas.

And that's quite reassuring. So often typecast as sex-fuelled paragons of ineffable cool and glamour, it's good to know that our Gallic cousins are just as miserable as the rest of us.

But is it any better than the average UK cop drama? On the basis of episode one, I'm not entirely sure. By acquiring this six-part series, Channel 4 are obviously hoping to repeat the success of their last French import, The Returned. But that was a stylish and unusual supernatural drama with a compelling central hook. Witnesses is far more generic.

It's certainly atmospheric. The rain-spattered coastal setting is glumly arresting, and the climactic scene involving a suspended trolley car had an unnerving, almost dreamlike quality that one doesn't often see on British television.

Also, despite its clichéd cop show trappings, the mystery at the heart of Witnesses is pleasingly bleak and perverse: three seemingly random corpses are removed from their graves and posed in a show home, like a macabre facsimile of the perfect family. Pourquoi? 

What is their connection with the enigmatic former police chief who – and this is odd behaviour, you must admit – keeps a framed photograph of the car crash that killed his wife? And why does the woolly-hatted female protagonist insist on entering patently threatening crime scenes on her own, armed only with a torch? Has she never seen The Killing?

It all adds up to a mildly intriguing riddle, but whether it will eventually pay off is anyone's guess. The heavy-handed fairytale symbolism of a big bad wolf and a little girl in a red duffel coat suggests, worryingly, that the writers have po-faced pretensions which aren't as clever as they think. It's early days, but already I'm beginning to suspect that, for all its surface sophistication, Witnesses may turn out to be a rather daft affair.

It would be nice, in an ideal world, to report that The Javone Prince Show launched a bright new star into the comedy firmament last week. But the world is far from ideal, hence why it gets the painfully uninspired sketch shows it deserves.

A young black comic and actor, Prince is a fairly charming character whose eagerness to please almost makes up for the weakness of his material. But no amount of charm can rescue this tired ragbag of second-hand observations about “the black experience” in Britain today. 

A series of sketches about the way some white people behave anxiously and patronisingly around black people was never developed beyond the very basic point it was making. But that didn't stop Prince and his writers from hammering it into the ground.

They also seem to believe that the spectacle of a plummy-voiced white chap speaking street slang/jive talk is fundamentally hilarious. Why else would they steal this already limited joke from Armstrong and Miller?

Berating this good-natured and well-intentioned show gives me no pleasure, but there is just no getting around its objective mediocrity. It's a failure on practically every level.

Saturday, 18 July 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 18th July 2015.

The Outcast: Sunday, BBC One

Inside The Ku Klux Klan: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

An expensive-looking holiday in other people's misery, The Outcast is a hazy, haunted post-war period drama that never connects on an emotional level.

Its failure to communicate is, I suppose, entirely in keeping with its themes of repression and mute isolation. But that's a charitable view: The Outcast is about damaged people incapable of expressing themselves, but that's no excuse for such slow, alienating, bone-dry execution. What's the point of a story that fails to engage?

Our protagonist is Lewis, a damaged soul from an upper middle-class family immersed in tragedy. Lewis' happy childhood was obliterated by the death of his beloved mother, who drowned before his eyes. Traumatised, his inability to explain what happened to his remote war veteran father triggered an endless downward spiral.

Packed off to boarding school, he retreated further into himself, his deep emotional trauma undiagnosed and misunderstood by everyone around him. As the narrative skipped forward like a series of depressing diary entries, we observed this scarred child of the seen-but-not-heard generation morph into an angry young man with a disastrous diet of medication: self-harm, alcohol, arson and sleeping with a woman who resembles his stepmother. Freud ahoy.

This, clearly, is a well-intentioned story about the tragic consequences of a “pre-enlightened” age when the concept of bereavement counselling was the stuff of a madman's dream. A potentially interesting subject, but writer Sadie Jones fails to make us care about Lewis as we should.

He's automatically sympathetic by dint of his circumstances, but we never get beyond his troubled surface. He's outwardly numb, so that's partially by design. But as Jones subjects him to misery after misery, he feels more like a maltreated marionette than a three-dimensional character. Jones uses him to make a point, meaning that – contrary to her intentions – the endless indignities heaped upon him become borderline comical.

It's formally quite bold in that it relies as much on silence and imagery as dialogue – Lewis' inner turmoil is signified by a sound effect of blood raging noisily through his skull. But The Outcast is hobbled by its self-conscious solemnity.

As the likes of Jon Ronson and Louis Theroux have shown, one of the best ways of understanding – and undermining – crazy extremists is by humanising them. That is, to show them going about their everyday, often hapless business in such a way that they no longer feel threatening. When fear becomes pity, a monster is robbed of its power. That's the idea anyway.

Did Inside The Ku Klux Klan succeed along these idealogical lines? A documentary following a Missouri chapter of this notorious racist movement, it certainly confirmed what we already know - that racists are sad, angry, deluded, insular, paranoid, dysfunctional human beings desperately lashing out at an imagined foe to blame for their unhappiness. But if we already know this, what purpose did it serve?

If you ignore racism it won't go away, that's not what I'm suggesting. Racists aren't like bees - I really can't stress that enough. Bigotry of all kinds should always be exposed and challenged. I just don't think another documentary about a tragic bunch of ignorant rednecks is particularly useful.

The programme made the important point that, despite their threadbare currency and easily mockable foolishness, the Klan are still guilty of appalling acts of violence. We can't laugh them into obsolescence. That wasn't the programme's intention, but unlike Ronson and Theroux at their best, it basically amounted to a despairing, common sense sigh in the face of immovable bigotry.

Saturday, 11 July 2015


A Song For Jenny: Sunday, BBC One

The Autistic Gardener: Wednesday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Julie Nicholson, a Church of England vicar, lost her 24-year-old daughter Jenny in the 7/7 London bombings. Jenny was one of 52 people killed that day. Though it focused on the Nicholsons alone, one-off drama A Song For Jenny was a sincere tribute to each of those victims and the 52 families who will forever mourn their loss.

Scheduled to commemorate the 10th anniversary of this senseless attack, the film followed Julie (Emily Watson) through every harrowing stage of her ordeal.

As with most dramatisations of real-life tragedies, the early scenes were suffused with a weighty sense of impending horror. Julie received a concerned call from her other daughter as soon as news broke of an unexplained tube explosion in London. Initial confusion gave way to mounting panic as Jenny proved unreachable by phone. All the family could do was wait and watch as the reports grew graver. Then came the inevitable, devastating news.

Numbed by shock and grief, Julie's London odyssey unfurled as a literal manifestation of, in her own words, Jenny's stages of the cross. It was a painful, almost masochistic form of catharsis. The scene in which she delivered the last rites over Jenny's remains was unbearably sad. Yet she found no comfort in her faith; God couldn't fill such a vast, unyielding void. Though it wasn't mentioned on screen, Julie is no longer a priest.

Nevertheless, this was ultimately a story of cautious hope and renewed faith - not in a higher being, but in humanity. After Julie, dazed and alone, viewed her daughter's body in London, a taxi driver insisted on taking her back to Reading with no charge. This simple act of human kindness took on enormous significance as part of her gradual journey towards some kind of peace. Despite her anger and hatred towards the bombers, eventually she refused to let those emotions overwhelm her love for Jenny.

A sensitive, intelligent actress capable of exuding anguish while remaining outwardly still, Watson was ideally cast as Julie. Her dignified performance was supported by a thoughtful screenplay from playwright Frank McGuinness. A fine, valuable, compassionate film.

The aptly named Alan Gardner is an award-winning garden designer. With his affable demeanour, neon red hair, rock tattoos and nail varnish – he looks like a psychedelic Ken Dodd - he's an unusually colourful addition to TV's never-ending roster of green-fingered artisans. He's also autistic.

In The Autistic Gardener, he assembles a team of horticultural enthusiasts from various points on the autism spectrum as they set about transforming various neglected gardens into imaginatively sculpted wonderlands. Mercifully bereft of patronising sentimentality, it's a good-natured and responsible series in which people with autism unassumingly raise awareness of their condition while exercising their creative abilities.

They build their confidence and gain a sense of achievement, their 'employers' get a groovy new garden to play with, and we enjoy the whole undemanding process while chortling at Gardner's self-aware narration, in which he cheekily mocks the clichéd conventions of the TV makeover genre. Everyone's a winner, baby.

With supposedly well-meaning yet problematic shows such as The Undateables, Channel 4 is often guilty of treating people with disabilities as outsider novelties. The Autistic Gardener treats them as equals. So hats off to all concerned. When was the last time Alan Titchmarsh reaffirmed your faith in human nature?

Saturday, 4 July 2015


Odyssey: Sunday, BBC Two

Arena: Nicolas Roeg… It's About Time: Sunday, BBC Four

Not Safe For Work: Tuesday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Having spied Channel 4's success with Homeland, BBC Two is presumably hoping to grab some of that US import thriller action with Odyssey. But on the evidence of its opening double-bill, this 13-part series is possibly too sprawling, laboured and muddled to capture a comparable audience.

Set in the US and Africa, it tries to tackle all the major geopolitical issues of the day – war, terrorism, corporate corruption, grass-roots protest, media hysteria and the financial crisis – in pursuit of a supposedly grand statement about the interconnectedness of our global catastrophe.

Unfortunately, these noble ambitions are scuppered by an uneven patchwork narrative involving a drab homeland conspiracy and a Mali-based strand in which Anna Friel's
US army officer makes a dangerous trek across the desert. This latter strand is far more engaging and suspenseful than anything else in Odyssey; it flags drastically whenever Friel isn't on screen.

Her impressive performance is matched by Omar Ghazaoui as the Malian teenager who becomes her unlikely ally. Mercifully free of mawkishness, their relationship is the only interesting aspect of the show.

To carry off something on this scale requires depth, focus and precision; Odyssey is a hectic splurge. One might charitably defend its approach as an intentional attempt at reflecting the complexity of the issues at hand. But really it's just sloppy story-telling. While I'm glad that American TV dramas are gradually trying to explore geopolitics in a relatively thoughtful way, Odyssey' is less than the sum of its parts.

It's surprising to learn that, during its 40 years on air, cerebral arts strand Arena has never crossed paths with visionary British film director Nicolas Roeg. After all, they're a perfect match. But not only was Nicolas Roeg... It's About Time his first Arena profile, it was also the first time he's participated in a documentary about his work.

A suitably elliptical tribute to his unique vision, it was more interested in exploring Roeg's thematic obsessions than providing standard biographical details. Famed for his non-linear narratives and emphasis on psychological displacement, it wove thoughtful analysis of his films – including obvious touchstones such as Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth – with quietly revealing, twinkly pronouncements from the man himself.

It was, in typical Arena style, an attempt to capture the spirit of the artist. While newcomers to Roeg's work may have preferred a more conventional approach, that woud've missed the point of this masterful impressionist. And at least it didn't ruin the ending of Don't Look Now.

More bleak than funny, comedy-drama Not Safe For Work is nevertheless an intriguing howl of anguish about a dysfunctional bunch of misfits working at a moribund immigration department.

Hitherto best known for her role as deadpan hedonist Vod in student comedy Fresh Meat, the excellent Zawe Ashton stars as a recently divorced civil servant who reluctantly relocates to Northampton from London due to budget cuts.

She's dismayed to discover that her new manager is a former underling who only got the job after pretending to be a devout Muslim. A befuddled, work-shy, drug-guzzling mess, Danny's inspirational motto is “work hard or go home.” He's also played, not as a wacky grotesque, but as a pathetically vulnerable soul by another highly promising young actor, Sacha Dhawan.

Seemingly written from a place of genuine pain and offbeat compassion, Not Safe For Work is full of bracing, downbeat promise.