Saturday, 29 August 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 22 August 2015.

Sean Connery: In His Own Words: Tuesday, BBC Two

The Scandalous Lady W: Monday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Sean Connery is a dazzling human being. This much I learned from Sean Connery: In His Own Words, a cheekily titled hagiography in which the great man's own words were culled entirely from archive interviews.

Having retired several years ago, Connery, who turns 85 this week, clearly had no interest in contributing to this affectionate documentary. Fortunately, an awe-struck procession of celebrity friends and fans, including Jackie Stewart, Terry Gilliam, George Lucas and Robert Carlyle, were available to pay gushing man-crush tribute.

His absence at times made it feel like a eulogy. But his immense charisma hogged the limelight via several well-chosen clips of him in action, both as an actor and interviewee.

Arguably one of the greatest post-war screen stars, Connery's sheer presence is inarguable. He commanded attention without ever seeming to consciously steal a scene. Though often mocked for never dropping his Edinburgh accent regardless of his character's nationality, Connery at his best was always authentic. As Gilliam observed: “When you hire Sean Connery, you want Sean Connery to turn up.”

The programme looked beyond Bond to remind us of Connery's oft overlooked merits as an intelligent actor who, in the late 1960s and 1970s especially, defied typecasting with hard-hitting projects such as The Hill and The Offence. It also suggested that, despite his alpha-male image, the private Connery is a rather thoughtful and articulate, even gentle, soul with a commendable lack of vanity.

Clearly he adores his homeland. Rare extracts from a self-directed 1960s documentary about the decline of Scotland's shipyards indicated that, even while in the bosom of Hollywood, Connery never severed ties with his working-class roots. We were also reminded that he only made Diamonds Are Forever, his final official hurrah as Bond, on the condition that his gargantuan fee was ploughed into establishing the Scottish International Education Trust. Whatta guy.

Even I, a born cynic, was saluting Big Tam by the end of this deftly crafted celebration. If tomorrow he formed a dangerous cult, I'd probably join. Never underestimate the magnetic pull of twinkling charisma.

A prissy, mannered, standalone period drama,The Scandalous Lady W scored a worthwhile point in dreary style. Set in the late 18th century, it told the potentially interesting true story of Seymour, Lady Worsley, who took the scalding step of leaving her husband to elope with his best friend.

This was an era when a man's wife was thought of as his property; to leave him was akin to a field gaining sentience and declaring itself a village.

The madness of this attitude was tackled resolutely, but as a drama, for all its good intentions, The Scandalous Lady W was far too arid. It was a chamber piece in the most cloistered, stuffy sense: a procession of powdered wigs tilting dutifully at each other.

Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones fluttered and jutted her way through what should have been, by rights, a powerful feminist polemic. Instead it unfurled into stilted farce.

Laughable insult was added to harrowing injury once you clocked that the splendidly named Aneurin Barnard as Lady W's lover was, with his tousled mop and red frock coat, the absolute spitting image of Pete Doherty. What a waste.


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 29 August 2015.

Muslim Drag Queens: Monday, Channel 4

Educating Cardiff: Tuesday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Asif Quraishi is Britain's first out and proud Muslim drag queen. An inspirational figure, he uses his politically charged performances as part of his campaign for gay Asian – or “Gaysian” - rights. He frequently receives death threats, yet remains defiant.

Asif shone at the centre of Muslim Drag Queens, a sensitive documentary narrated by actor and gay rights activist Sir Ian McKellen.

Born to a conservative Asian family, Asif came out to his parents several years ago. His father still refuses to acknowledge his son's sexuality. However, the programme's spirit of cautious optimism was capped by the touching moment when Asif's mother joined him as he received recognition at Attitude magazine's Pride Awards bash. “He looks beautiful,” she smiled.

Inevitably, this positive spirit was diluted by tragic accounts of people committing suicide after coming out to their fiercely disapproving families. Despite the efforts of heroes like Asif, most Gaysian men continue to live in fear of ostracism and homophobic violence.

Then there was the pathos of lonely Imran. He's been using social media in the hope of finding love. So far he's discovered that many Gaysian men, some of them married, are only interested in meeting him in his female guise. That, reckons Imran, helps them to justify their deceit. He's also disappointed that most of them are only interested in casual sex. They're too scared to commit to a visible relationship.

Imran and Asif were, to say the least, incredibly brave to expose themselves in this way. Appearing on television is a defiant act in itself. Ideally, this valuable report will, at the very least, have given some hope to those gay Muslims who continue to suffer in silence.

Reader, a confession: I don't think I've ever watched an episode of Educating... without finding “something in my eye” at one point. It's pathetic. Sure enough, I had a mild ocular intrusion during episode one of its latest edition, Educating Cardiff.

The formula never fails: filmed using several fixed cameras, we follow the highs and lows of life in one of Britain's secondary schools. By examining this world of heroically dedicated teachers and potential-filled pupils, it's a riposte to those who argue that the education system is failing. It's essentially a love letter to the state school system; a covertly political project, in other words.

The new series takes place at Willows High School, which up until a few years ago was one of the worst-performing schools in Cardiff. But thanks to the efforts of head teacher Joy Ballard and her staff, its fortunes have gradually improved.

Our first visit was typically touching. It focused on two teenage girls with low self-esteem, who at first glance seemed to have little in common. One had a terrible attendance record, the other was a star pupil. But they were united by fear, of failure and fitting in; all they needed was a boost in confidence.

The star of the show was bright, bespectacled Jessica, affectionately described by one of her teachers as “a little bit quirky”. She knew she could never be one of the cool kids, but her stewardship of the school newspaper seemed to improve her social skills. “I'm scared,” she admitted, “But feigning confidence is the best way of gaining confidence.”

As usual, it was a quietly uplifting hour. One of the most commendable shows on television? Hell yeah.  

Saturday, 1 August 2015


This article was originally published in The Courier on Saturday 1st August 2015.

Agatha Christie's Partners In Crime: Sunday, BBC One

Life In Squares: Monday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Though never as popular as Poirot and Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford were fond favourites of their creator Agatha Christie. She first introduced these happily married sleuths in 1922 and returned to them sporadically throughout her career. Their final appearance was in the last novel published before her death in 1973.

The Tommy and Tuppence canon is slim, however, hence why it's rarely been adapted for television. So, seeing as Poirot and Marple have been milked dry, no wonder the BBC have turned to the Beresfords for one more squeeze of the udder.

The first thing you notice about Agatha Christie's Partners In Crime is how expensive it looks. That £6m budget is visible in every vintage car, costume and immaculately dressed location. But these glossy trimmings can't compensate for the second thing you notice: there is zero chemistry between David Walliams and Jessica Raine as Tommy and Tuppence.

Walliams has shown in the past that he's a decent dramatic actor, but he looks painfully ill at ease here. Then again, even the world's greatest Thesp might struggle with such a poorly written role.

By rights, we should regard Tommy as a charming idler who gradually overcomes his natural cowardice by plunging into danger alongside his intrepid wife. But he comes across in this adaptation as such a soggy bore, it's no wonder Tuppence looks so exasperated with him. Their adventures are supposed to be a thrilling escape from their aimless existence, not from their marriage. A few flashes of warmth aside, they don't even seem to like each other very much.

Raine fares better as Tuppence, whose thirst for adventure drives the plot. Ably assisted by a bevy of attractive hats, she plays her with a kind of prim seriousness that occasionally bubbles over into breathless enthusiasm. It's telling that the best scenes involve her investigating the case alone. But she's got no chance of injecting any spark into her scenes with Walliams.

Even moments which should play to his comic strengths – e.g. Tommy being propositioned by prostitutes – are played monotonously straight. It's as if he's deliberately acting against his natural instincts, to prove there's more to him than camp tomfoolery. All he's proved is there's less.

However, despite his flat performance, the show does work in places. It wisely obeys one of the cardinal comic-thriller rules, namely that the villains must be genuinely threatening. Indeed, Partners In Crime is surprisingly violent at times, but that just adds to the zippy sense of peril. If the villains weren't authentically nasty, then we wouldn't buy into the central conceit of two ordinary people being dangerously out of their depth.

It also clatters along in a busy riot of twists and clues, so much so that the plot almost doesn't matter. While that may irk Christie purists, it does at least result in a fairly enjoyable piece of Sunday night escapism. You'll barely remember a thing about it afterwards – Walliams looks lost during it – but it passes time agreeably enough. So that's £6m well spent, then.

A more modest affair, Life In Squares is an intriguing period drama about the Bloomsbury Set, that radical group of intellectuals who cocked a snook – and more besides – at the strictures of Victorian England.

It's an elegantly claustrophobic meditation on sex and art as intensely entwined bedfellows, as Virginia Woolf and her artist sister Vanessa fight to establish independence years ahead of their time. An intelligently written, subtly performed and beautifully photographed slow-burner with occasional flashes of fire.