Wednesday, 30 September 2015

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO and MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 September 2015.


Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Midwinter of the Spirit: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Those moments when we shout at the television, not in anger but with thrilled surprise, are a rare and precious commodity. Breaking Bad is one of the few recent shows I can think of where audacious twists caused me to grin and gasp with pleasure.

So, Steven Moffat, the brains behind the last five years of Doctor Who, deserves bounteous plaudits for pulling off that feat in – how's this for chutzpah? - the first five minutes of the latest series.

On a war-torn alien wasteland, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tried to rescue a boy trapped within a quagmire of killer hand mines (literally hands with an eye embedded in the palm). The, if you must, OMG moment came when the boy revealed his name: Davros.

Cut to the Doctor looking horrified. Cue opening credits. Bang! That's how to kick-start a series. Thankfully, the rest of the episode lived up to its fan-baiting intro.

In terms of scope and intensity, it felt more like the first part of a series finale than a series opener. Dramatic stakes were ramped skywards as the Doctor wrestled with the moral dilemma of whether to save Davros – essentially the 'Would you kill baby Hitler?' conundrum on an intergalactic scale – while intimating that, for reasons yet unknown, his Time Lord days are numbered.

Meanwhile, his other arch-enemy, Missy/The Master (a wonderfully bananas turn from Michelle Gomez), formed an unlikely alliance with Clara (Jenna Coleman, competent as always) in a bid to rescue him from Davros' clutches in the Dalek city on Skaro. The arresting conceit of the devious Time Lord/Lady seeking to assist the Doctor, however ambiguously, is something we haven't seen in Doctor Who since the saturnine reign of Roger Delgado in the 1970s.

Some critics have complained that the episode, titled The Magician's Apprentice, was far too continuity-heavy for the casual viewer, but I'd argue that all the essential information and backstory they needed – Davros is the creator of the Daleks and, well, that's it really – was clearly explained within.

It was inward-looking in the sense that it's essentially an exploration of the complex relationship between the Doctor and one of his oldest, deadliest enemies, but it was hardly a self-indulgent odyssey aimed squarely at hardcore fans. On the contrary, there was plenty here for children, those most important viewers of all, to enjoy. 

They must have surely been delighted by the spectacle of millions of Daleks buzzing around their spectacular home turf, plus the creepy presence of Davros, his snake-shifting henchman Colony Saarf, and the supremely entertaining hat-stand villainy of Missy.

As for the Doctor himself, Capaldi achieved the impossible feat of nailing an extended comic set-piece that, in theory, should've been excruciating.

As it turned out, a shades-wearing Doctor rocking out on electric guitar atop an armoured tank while delivering bad jokes was actually very enjoyable. As great though David Tennant could be in the role, just imagine him hamming the life out of that scene. You'd cringe yourself a hernia. It's a mark of Capaldi's authority that he can nail this 'wacky' business without making a fool of himself.

Though still spiky, the acerbic, antisocial misanthrope who replaced Matt Smith last year has gradually softened to reveal more warmth and charm, a development neatly illustrated by that sweet little moment when, upon meeting up with Clara again, he strummed a few bars of Roy Orbison's Oh, Pretty Woman on his guitar. He's almost, almost cuddly now. I don't see that as a cop-out, but rather an organic evolution of his character.

The best and boldest season opener since The Impossible Astronaut back in 2011, The Magician's Apprentice suggests that Moffat, who must be nearing the end of his tenure on the show, is attempting to shake up the formula somewhat. Doctor Who has survived, off and on, for over 50 years due to its willingness to change and adapt like the ancient Time Lord himself. As ever, I hope he succeeds in his fiendish goal.

From the writer behind notorious Halloween “hoax” Ghostwatch, Midwinter of the Spirit is an enjoyably creepy supernatural drama starring Anna Maxwell Martin as a village vicar with an unusual sideline: she's a trained exorcist.

When a man is found crucified in the woods, the police request her assistance. Meanwhile, she becomes “infected” by the evil spirit of a dead sex offender and animal-torturing sadist. It's like The Vicar of Dibley gone drastically awry.

By treating this subject matter in a fairly low-key way, its scares become more potent. This aura of authenticity may be due in part to the advisory involvement of an actual CoE exorcist. Yes, such people really do exist. By the power of Christ, what a strange world we live in.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

TV Review: THIS IS ENGLAND '90

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19 September 2015.



This Is England '90: Sunday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

The biggest shock of the TV week? An archive cameo from Scottish soap Take The High Road. Its cardboard charms cropped up briefly in This Is England '90, the third and presumably final TV sequel to Shane Meadows' BAFTA-winning 2006 coming-of-age classic.

The background presence of STV's stinging riposte to Dallas was sweetly indicative of Meadows' offbeat attention to period detail. As everyone surely knows by now, this is the continuing saga of a group of working-class Midlands pals growing up in 1980s Britain. The latest chapter catches up with Beaky, Choo-Choo, Fliegel and the gang as they stumble into adulthood in the Madchester era.

True to form, it began with a craftily assembled, scene-setting montage of period news footage. The music used on the soundtrack this time was There She Goes by The Las. Why, I ask you, what could possibly be the connection between that song title, the poll tax riots, escalating unemployment, homelessness, drug abuse, mad cow disease and Thatcher's ignominious exit after eleven years in power? As an amusing piece of blunt satire, it worked a treat.

We then lurched into a charmingly lackadaisical episode that touched upon the growing sense of nostalgia one feels in your early twenties – sweetly symbolised here by the Proustian tang of school dinner chips – and the awkward transition into 'settling down' when you've barely grown up yourself.

Lol and Woody (Vicky McClure and Joe Gilgun, whose droll comic timing is second to none) are now living together and raising Lol's daughter. Woody's bizarrely boring yet well-meaning parents are, without being broad caricatures, beamed in from a universe far less grounded than the one inhabited by their son.

Meadows' ability to shift seamlessly from low-key character comedy to drama and pathos in the space of a single scene was encapsulated by these stand-out moments of domestic absurdity. While This Is England '86 was rightly criticised for its jarring leaps from knockabout farce to harrowing scenes of sexual violence, thankfully he hasn't repeated that clumsy error since.

Despite being the original film's protagonist, young Shaun's role in the overarching Woody/Lol narrative remains fairly inessential. Nevertheless, as played by Thomas Turgoose, who these days resembles a forlorn potato, Shaun is TV's most convincing teenager by far: the hurt and confusion on his face speak volumes about the anxieties of wading through that awkward age.

Rarely do you come across such unaffected performances and authentic-sounding, semi-improvised dialogue in British TV drama. Meadows' work harks back to the days when the likes of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach cropped up in the schedules to present powerful slices of social-realism hewn from genuine warmth and compassion. He actually makes us care about these characters as if they were – gosh! - real human beings.

Granted, as enjoyable though it was the episode did contain a few self-conscious “Hey everyone! It's 1990!” howlers. And I wish Meadows' would ditch his unnecessary penchant for slow-motion, sad piano montages. He doesn't need to labour the point, we know how we're supposed to feel in those moments.

Still, at least the inevitable scene of the gang taking drugs and grooving to The Stone Roses was dispensed with early. In any case, the Madchester disco sub-plot was worth it for Woody's throwaway reference to indie dance-floor classic “Idiot's Gold”.

Anyone familiar with Meadows' work knows that it won't be long before these light-hearted japes give way to tragedy. The monstrous ghost of Lol's abusive father, Mick, still haunts this world; it's only a matter of time before his pervasive evil causes another explosion. And what of Combo (Stephen Graham), who's still in prison for making it look as though he, not Lol, murdered Mick? His redemption isn't yet complete.

However it unfolds, I'm cautiously confident that we're in for a satisfying conclusion to one of the best British dramas of recent years. We'll miss it when it's gone.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

TV Review: DOCTOR FOSTER and LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 September 2015.


Doctor Foster: Wednesday, BBC One

Lady Chatterley's Lover: Sunday, BBC One

An agonisingly slow and implausible confection, Doctor Foster is a rare misfire from Suranne Jones. This fine actress usually chooses her projects wisely, but she's hopelessly adrift in this bone-dry drama about a GP who begins to suspect that her husband, Simon, is having an affair.

The brunt of episode one – God only knows how they'll stretch this out to five hours – was preoccupied with Foster floundering in a mire of paranoid anxiety, after she discovered a stray blonde hair on Simon's scarf. Most people wouldn't regard this as incriminating evidence of extra-marital misdeeds, but for some inexplicable reason Foster leapt instantly to that conclusion.

We were initially given no evidence to suggest that Simon was the philandering type, so Foster's behaviour – checking his phone, following him from work and even asking a patient to spy on him in exchange for sleeping pills – felt borderline deranged.

The idea behind this was obvious. We were supposed to feel as panicked, confused and compelled as she was. But the conceit backfired. You simply can't relate to a protagonist whose actions don't ring true. The tension evaporates.

It didn't matter that she was eventually proved right – there would be no story otherwise - as by that point she'd been established as weirdly unsympathetic. Hats off, then, to writer Mike Bartlett for managing the seemingly impossible feat of penning a drama about infidelity in which the wronged spouse comes across as a tiresome nuisance. He also proved that it's possible to be terminally dull and absurdly melodramatic all at once. That's quite an achievement.

I get the point he's trying to make: Foster's problems drive her towards the kind of self-destructive irrationality that she warns her hypochondriac patients about. Even a respectable, sensible GP can exploit their privilege and unravel in times of personal crisis. Should we ever fully trust these supposed pillars of society?

There's a potentially interesting story to be told here, but Bartlett botches it by forcing Foster into increasingly unlikely corners. Even allowing for her rattled mental state, the scene in which she threatened a patient's abusive boyfriend was preposterous. Maddening and enervating, the Doctor Foster “experience” is like churning through a very boring fever dream.

Having never read DH Lawrence's infamous book, I couldn't tell you if Lady Chatterley's Lover was a faithful adaptation or not. However, I feel I can state with some confidence that, notwithstanding a strong, elegant performance from apple-cheeked Holliday Grainger as Lady C, it resembled a live-action Mills & Boon novella with delusions of grandeur.

Its central theme of scandalous love and lust across the class divide in Edwardian England was blatantly present and correct. Subtlety wasn't invited to this particular party. Yet at no point did the rebellious relationship between the sexually frustrated Chatterley and chippy gamekeeper Mellors feel remotely organic or convincing.

As played by a bemused-looking Richard Madden, Mellors came across as a stridently humourless northern stereotype whose thrusting nipples strived in vain to compensate for a total lack of charisma.

I kept thinking how much more effective this production might have been with, say, Poldark's Aidan Turner filling Mellor's britches. The role as written was rather thankless, so Madden wasn't entirely to blame. But an actor of Turner's smouldering calibre could, perhaps, have made it work.

As it stood, this po-faced, inadvertently comical drama was, for a supposedly erotic drama, curiously cold and neutered. I know enough about the novel to appreciate its purpose as a transgressive, challenging work of art. Shorn of its deliberate shock value - sex and profanity were thin on the ground here - it seemed pointless.

It's the first offering from BBC One's new Sunday night slate of classic 20th century literary adaptations. Things can only get better from here, right?


Saturday, 5 September 2015

TV review: CRADLE TO GRAVE and DANNY AND THE HUMAN ZOO

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 5 September 2015.


Cradle To Grave: Thursday, BBC Two

Danny and The Human Zoo: Monday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Innit typical? You wait ages for an autobiographical account of a popular entertainer growing up in 1970s Britain, then two come along at once.

Barrelling out in front, Cradle To Grave is a serial adaptation of Danny Baker's hilarious memoir Going To Sea In A Sieve. One of our greatest radio broadcasters, for years he's regaled fans with picaresque anecdotes from his whiz-bang youth, many of them revolving around his father, Fred.

Better known as Spud, this atom-powered character was a docker by trade Regardless of size, quantity and dubious provenance, everything that passed through Millwall Docks was fair game as far as Spud and his workmates were concerned. An incorrigible wheeler-dealer, he made Del Boy look like a rank amateur.

Spud, played with an uncertain South London accent by Peter Kay, is the star of the show. Danny and the rest of the Baker brood barely registered in episode one, as we plunged pell-mell into Spud's chaotic world of scams and fiddles.

Funny, charming stuff, but its energy was slightly exhausting. Kinetically edited like a cockney Goodfellas, it was overloaded with dizzying incident. It's as if Baker and co-writer Jeff Pope (Cilla; Philomena) were afraid of pausing for breath. They needn't have worried; these wonderful stories don't require the hard sell. Thankfully, it settles down next week to allow more room for nuance.

A genuinely warm, cheering comedy, this Polaroid-tinted labour of love is suffused with all the wit, warmth and attention to detail you'd expect from Baker.

By curious coincidence, Lenny Henry named his barely disguised alter ego Danny in self-penned biopic Danny and The Human Zoo. That wasn't the only curious thing about this uneven story of a working-class boy from a first generation Jamaican family breaking into the predominately white showbiz world of the 1970s.

Lenny has described it as “a fantasy memoir” due to certain fictionalised elements. So, while the details of his family situation were essentially true – as a teenager, he really did discover that the man who raised him wasn't his biological father – this version of his early forays into comedy felt like retroactive wish fulfilment.

To his eternal regret, Lenny appeared on The Black & White Minstrel Show after winning New Faces in 1975. However, unlike Danny he didn't rebel against its offensive outdatedness by appearing on stage naked daubed in tribal markings. I understand why he felt compelled to rewrite history; it must've been cathartic. But the honest truth – that he was young, na├»ve and eager to please – is less heroic, more complex, and therefore more interesting.

The film was more assured when dealing with Danny's relationship with his parents (touchingly played by Cecilia Noble and Lenny himself), his search for an authentic identity, and the racism he encountered almost daily. It didn't ignore the painful fact that he had to make self-mocking jokes to win audiences over. “You may have seen some of these impressions before, but not in colour!” ran his catchphrase, pointedly repeated throughout the film with needling discomfort.

Despite its awkward mix of fact and fiction, plus newcomer Kascion Franklin's inability to convincingly impersonate Lenny impersonating Frank Spencer et al, it did succeed as a unflinching record of the bigoted attitudes that once festered on the surface of British society.

Things are different these days, of course. Now they fester more subtly. Plus ca change, Len.