Tuesday, 27 October 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 24 October 2015.

Psychedelic Britannia: Friday, BBC Four

SAS: Who Dares Wins: Monday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

A kaleidoscopic tapestry of wonderful archive footage, seasoned talking heads and mind-blowing music, Psychedelic Britannia paid bewitching tribute to one of the most colourful periods in British pop history.

It chronicled those forward-thinking years between 1965 and 1970 when bands such as Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds and yer Beatles swapped their beat/blues roots for experiments in jazz, classical, the avant-garde, Indian drones and holy modal chanting. It was a time of studio experimentation and long, wiggy improvisations, where anything went and usually did.

It was also a time of drugs. Lots and lots of consciousness-expanding drugs. After all, that's how the genre got its name and most of its untrammelled vision.

One of many choice interviewees, Yes/Tomorrow's Steve Howe, aka the librarian ghost from Ghostbusters, said he once played his guitar for ten hours continuously while on acid. Time, alas, hasn't archived this marathon.

Soft Machine's Robert Wyatt claimed that one of the reasons they played endless jams at London's legendary UFO club was because they didn't allow any gaps for the crowd to boo. They were probably too zonked to care anyway.

Wyatt also revealed that he barely knows what a CV is. “I was too young to take any notice of that crap,” he chuckled. Wyatt was typical of the many young hairies who dropped out of conventional society to form a bohemian counter-culture steeped in a unique British fusion of pastoral Edwardian whimsy and cultural revolution. Within months it had infiltrated the mainstream.

Of course, not everyone from his generation was impressed by this new Arcadian Age. One of the programme's many great finds was a clip of a young mod at Alexandra Palace's 14 Hour Technicolour Dream. A BBC reporter asked him what he was expecting. “Sumfink better than this,” he sniffed. It was pure Quadrophenia.

I was always going to enjoy this beautifully assembled programme, as British psych is one of my favourite genres. But I was particularly impressed by the way it managed to gently mock its sillier excesses, while simultaneously treating it with respect. That's precisely the right approach, as the pie-eyed eccentricity of British psych is one of its defining and most charming characteristics.

Even the choice of narrator, Nigel Planer, alias Neil from The Young Ones, was inspired. His affectionately droll script correctly argued that this is when British pop found its first truly original voice.Only 60 minutes long, I can excuse its exclusion of the lesser-known, one-shot acts that gave British psychedelia much of its quirky identity. Only an hour, but it was quite a trip.

It's probably safe to assume that “Turn on, tune in, drop out” isn't part of the SAS handbook. But what does it take to join this rock hard military unit? SAS: Who Dares Wins attempts to explain by following a group of ex-Special Forces soldiers as they put 30 civilians through a recreation of the gruelling selection process that they once endured.

Despite the insight it affords into this grimly serious world, it's basically a generic boot camp show of the type we're all familiar with. It even finds the judges/trainers sitting around a table to decide which of the contestants/recruits should stay in the competition/process: The Great British Bloke Off. On that point, why aren't there any women involved?

Such mysteries aside, the programme does at least reveal that psychological strength is essentially more important than physical fitness in the SAS. Alpha males aren't necessarily welcome. And for the shallower among us, we can all get a kick from the fact that the chief instructor has clearly modelled himself on the classic bearded Action Man.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 October 2015.

River: Tuesday, BBC One

The Returned: Friday, More4

Paul Whitelaw

Just when you thought the hoary old cliché of the troubled detective with an extensive vinyl collection had been pummelled beyond repair, along comes River to show that there's life in the old dog yet.

The effectiveness of this new cop drama from Abi Morgan (The Hour) is enormously surprising, as from the moment I first heard about it I assumed the worst. After all, the very concept of a maverick cop named John River sounds ridiculous. 

It reminded me instinctively of Simon Day as John Actor in The Fast Show's Monkfish sketches (“John Actor is a tough, uncompromising inspector/doctor/vet...”).

However, putting aside the vast unlikelihood of the great Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard playing a character named John River, this is undoubtedly the most confident attempt yet at transplanting the existential angst of Nordic noir to British climes. Face facts, From Darkness.

The opening ten minutes alone offered some of the most arresting drama I've seen on TV all year. Scored to Tina Charles' disco classic I Love To Love, the sequence immediately established a warm, understated chemistry between the endearingly discomfited River and his more exuberant partner DS Stevenson (the always believable Nicola Walker, who also shines at the moment in ITV's above-par crime drama Unforgotten).

Their affectionate banter was punctured suddenly when River spotted a petty drug dealer. Chasing him on foot, our wheezy, ageing hero unwittingly drove the suspect to his death. The scene that followed seemed standard at first: River's weary chief (the wonderful Lesley Manville of Mike Leigh renown) arrived to chastise him for causing the young man's demise.

As Stevenson offered him support, the camera span around slowly to reveal a gaping wound on the back of her head. She'd been killed in action, and now exists only in grieving River's mind. It's a measure of how well this twist was handled that its invocation of another great comedy sketch – Chuffy, the imaginary sidekick from Armstrong & Miller – didn't make me laugh. It was so unforeseen, I admired its audacity.

It transpired that River is haunted by other ghosts, namely a murdered teenage girl whom he'd failed to rescue, and – there's no way of describing this without it sounding ridiculous – a 19th century serial killer (Eddie Marsan, another gifted Leigh veteran). They're voices in his head, a manifestation of his troubled psyche. Ghosts who assist him in solving problems. 

If his noggin wasn't already crowded enough, the episode ended with a bedtime visit from the innocent man he "murdered" at the top of the episode. It's quite a party in there.

Judged incorrectly, this swirling cavalcade of psychological eccentricity could easily descend into farce. But so far at least, River gets the tone just right. It's rather subversive and unusual in an intelligent, dry-witted way. Skarsgard inhabits the role of River with sad-eyed charm and intensity. For once, the old cop-with-a-difference cliché seems justified.

Bathed in shades of medicinal green and nocturnal red, it's also directed with a sharp eye for striking composition. Delightfully, this highly promising show confounded all my expectations.

One of my favourite dramas of recent years, The Returned made good on its title last week for a second series of French supernatural mystery. Despite its ambiguous finale, I actually felt quite satisfied with series one as a self-contained piece. Is another series necessary?

Steeped in glacial intrigue, the opening episode suggested that there's more to be gleaned from this everyday saga of a remote French town populated by photogenic zombies.

Granted, thanks to a two year transmission gap between series, it took me about half an hour to fully remember who the hell everyone was. But once the fog had cleared, I was cautiously hooked all over again.

God only knows if it'll ever make complete sense, but that's not really the point. It's a disquietingly atmospheric mood piece, an exercise in odd, beautiful Twin Peaks-esque style. I'm glad it's back, to linger in the memory like one of River's manifests.  

Saturday, 10 October 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 October 2015.

From Darkness: Sunday, BBC One

Unforgotten: Thursday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

You know you're watching a po-faced crime drama when the opening credits are scored to an ethereal ballad sung by a woman who sounds like a haunted Victorian doll. But the problems with From Darkness run deeper than that.

While it isn't bad exactly – no drama starring actors as great as Anne-Marie Duff and Johnny Harris could ever be truly bad – it contains nothing that we haven't seen a million times before. By the end of episode one my generic cop show bingo card was full.

A former police constable, Claire (Duff) left the force 16 years ago when a case she was working on was shut down. She'd drawn a connection between several missing prostitutes, but her superiors wouldn't listen (they never do). Traumatised by the experience, she essentially ran away – she's shown to be a keen runner, in case you missed that subtext – to the Western Isles of Scotland with her husband and daughter.

When the remains of two women are found in what was once the red light district that Claire was investigating, her former boss and lover (Harris) travels from Manchester to draw her back in. Naturally, she resists. But could this be her chance to vanquish her demons and find justice for the women she'd “failed”? Is the killer still at large?

If this all sounds familiar it's because a police chief trying to convince a retired cop to return to the fold to reopen an unsolved case is such an overused trope. It felt particularly tired here as it dominated most of the episode. We knew from the start that Claire would capitulate and start looking into the case, but it took far too long to get her to that point.

Crime dramas can work when taken at a leisurely pace, but only if the story is involving. Despite some solid work from Duff and Harris, From Darkness is just too rote to arouse interest.

Though it began with an almost identical set-up – the discovery of human remains on an abandoned urban site – Unforgotten is a far more effective thriller. Or rather, it has potential. As always with dramas of this nature, it may well turn to ash as it unfolds, but episode one established a strong, intriguing mystery with impressive efficiency.

A cold case investigation was the fulcrum around which several seemingly unrelated scenes revolved. What is the connection between these disparate characters? The vicar, the Alan Sugar-like businessman, the retired book keeper and the community worker, do they all have something to do with the murder of a young black man in 1976? It's like a Byzantine game of Cluedo.

Granted, while playing Cluedo one doesn't tend to, as Unforgotten does, address the argument that society has a responsibility to punish people for their crimes, no matter how long ago they took place. But you take my point.

Our chief detectors are nicely underplayed by Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, who feel more grounded and believable than most TV sleuths. It's perhaps unwise to gauge the quality of a production based on the strength of its cast, but the presence of actors such as Tom Courtenay, Bernard Hill, Gemma Jones, Trevor Eve and Ruth Sheen suggests that Unforgotten is a cut above.

You wouldn't normally see a roll call as stellar as that outside of a Mike Leigh film. This could be a keeper.