Saturday, 28 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28 November 2015.

Capital: Tuesday, BBC One

Arena: Night and Day: Sunday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Like a sinister live-action Pigeon Street, Capital unfolds on a single London street populated by residents from various economic and ethnic backgrounds. Modern Britain in microcosm.

One morning they each receive a mysterious postcard through their letterboxes, bearing the stark legend: “We Want What You Have.” The sender of this subtly threatening missive had yet to be revealed by the end of episode one of this intriguing new drama, but whoever they are it's probably safe to assume that they're making a vigilante stand against rocketing property prices in the area.

Adapted by leading TV dramatist Peter Bowker from the best-selling novel by John Lanchester, Capital makes no bones about its satirical intent. Yes, it's occasionally heavy-handed – the closing montage of our miserable protagonists scored to Hark! The Herald Angels Sing! was straight out of an EastEnders Christmas special – but that's surely intentional.

Credulity may have been stretched by the closing shot of “We Want What You Have” daubed in enormous letters along the length of the street, but only if we approach Capital as an earnest piece of social realism. It's not. It's a tragicomic polemic.

That layer of discomfiting humour is typified by Detectorists co-stars Toby Jones and Rachael Stirling as an investment banker and his spendthrift wife. Owners of a multimillion pound property that would've once been home to lower middle-class families, their unhappy, sterile existence is a nightmare vision of success. Their children are just another accessory, an achievement on a par with their house extension.

Upon being informed that he'd received less than half of his promised £1m bonus, a furious Jones delivered the key, soul-shrivelling line: “What use is £30,000 to anybody?!”

Neighbours include Gemma Jones as an elderly widow with a terminal illness who's witnessed decades of change first-hand, a Zimbabwean refugee living under a false identity, a Polish builder tasked with building dream homes for his employers, and a Muslim family with two adult sons, one righteously devout, the other more measured in his beliefs.

However it pans out, it's refreshing to see a primetime TV drama tackling immigration, greed and social inequality in a witty, thoughtful, timely manner. Despite being set in a city where, unlike anywhere else in recession-hobbled Britain, property prices continue to soar, its themes strike a chord nationwide.

A harbinger of quality, that bobbing neon Arena bottle scored to Eno's Another Green Day is the most weirdly moving ident in British television history. Arena: Night and Day paid suitably esoteric tribute to its record-breaking 40-year reign as our greatest arts strand.

Introduced by John Lloyd as “an evocation” of its irreverent, witty spirit, this new film was a beautifully edited, dawn-to-dusk archive mosaic starring such diverse luminaries as Orson Welles, Poly Sytrene, Francis Bacon, Tony Hancock, Kendo Nagasaki, Gerald Scarfe, Yoko Ono, Mel Brooks, Sister Wendy and Elvis Presley's personal cook.

Its diversity was illustrated via highlights such as a massed ukulele recital at a George Formby convention in Blackpool, Andy Warhol and William Burroughs schmoozing at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, a politely baffled Mick Jagger being introduced to every single member of a Moroccan drumming troupe, and Jeffrey Bernard avoiding deadlines while boozing with Tom Baker in Soho.

A mere best-of compilation wouldn't have done justice to Arena's unconventional vision. This charming celebration was the perfect birthday gift.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21 November 2015.

Storyville: Orion – The Man Who Would Be King: Monday, BBC Four

The Coroner: Monday to Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Among the many offbeat footnotes from the Elvis Presley saga, the little-known tale of Jimmy Ellis is one of the saddest.

Two years after The King's death in 1977, Ellis appeared in the mysterious guise of Orion, an uncanny Elvis soundalike in a tacky Lone Ranger mask who managed to convince some gullible fans that he was the genuine article. And so the urban myth that Elvis faked his death was born.

That was hardly Ellis' intention. On the contrary, he wanted to be taken seriously as an artist in his own right. And yet he was unable to escape from Elvis' shadow. His remarkable vocal resemblance was a curse.

After several unsuccessful years in the business, he was desperate to achieve stardom, and so allowed himself to become compromised by a gimmick foisted upon him by opportunistic music biz sharks: a Faustian pact in the dark heart of Nashville.

Although he enjoyed a brief flurry of cult novelty fame in the early '80s, by the end of his life he was making a meagre living performing in high schools, still wearing that ridiculous mask. A forgotten man, in 1996 he was shot dead during a botched pawnshop robbery. His story, in its way, is as tragic as the rise and fall of Elvis himself.

Thankfully, the extraordinary documentary, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, finally afforded him the dignity he was never granted in life. Despite the bizarre truth-is-stranger-than-fiction nature of the tale, this was a sensitive, sympathetic account of a troubled man in search of his own identity. An adopted child, he never really knew who he was.

One wonders if he ever truly appreciated the irony of trying to make his name using the unmistakeable vocal style of one of the word's most famous singers. The film couldn't clarify whether he consciously aped Elvis' sound, or whether it was simply a strange coincidence. But it did present Ellis as a mass of contradictions.

Friends insist he would've been a star had Elvis never lived. But surely he wouldn't have sounded like that were it not for the existence of Elvis?

He was a hapless pawn, exploited by the unscrupulous owner of Sun Records (yes, he was actually signed to Elvis' original label). Contractually obliged to wear the mask in public, he was embarrassed by the whole Orion charade. Yet still he went along with it in the hope of finding fame. Sadly, it ruined his credibility.

During an audio interview recorded towards the end of his life, he recalled how people always told him that he'd never become a star by sounding like Elvis. “It didn't do Elvis any harm,” was his stock reply. The twisted logic of that statement encapsulates the mind-boggling weirdness of the whole sad story. He even recorded a song called I'm Not Trying To Be Like Elvis while sounding exactly like Elvis.

Director Jeanie Finlay, who also made the similarly fantastic The Great Hip Hop Hoax, treated Ellis with the compassion he deserves. Steeped in a vivid atmosphere of Deep South melancholy, it's one of the best pop culture documentaries I've seen in some time.

A new daytime drama, The Coroner stars Claire Goose as the titular cadaver-poker and crime-solver. Based in a picturesque Devonshire coastal town, squint and you could mistake it for Broadchurch on the cheap.

Goose and Matt Bardock as her ex-partner turned local police sergeant are fine, but the supporting cast overact wildly in that uniquely daytime drama way. A serviceable pot-boiler, but nothing more.

Monday, 16 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th November 2015.

London Spy: Monday, BBC Two

Josh: Wednesday, BBC Three

Paul Whitelaw

A few years ago Ben Whishaw starred in Criminal Justice, a gripping BBC drama about a young man trapped in a waking nightmare after being wrongly accused of murder. Last week he starred in London Spy, a gripping BBC drama about a young man trapped in, well, you get the picture.

It's easy to see why Whishaw, a fine, interesting actor, gets cast in such roles. His ability to project boyish, vulnerable charm makes him an ideal candidate for torture of this kind. The scrawny sod, he's innately sympathetic.

In London Spy he plays Danny, a lonely gay romantic on a path of self-destruction. Early one morning by the Thames, after a solitary night of hedonism, he has a chance encounter with Alex, a fellow lost soul.

In typical romantic fiction style, they couldn't be more different. Danny is garrulous and indie-kid scruffy, while Alex is an inscrutable model of Savile Row elegance with the face of a sad-eyed camel. After a faltering start, they eventually embark upon an intense eight-month relationship.

Socially maladroit Alex claims to be a virgin, so Danny – who has a complex sexual past – takes care of that. They fall madly in love. It's all rather touching, and hardly what you'd expect from a drama titled London Spy. We're all expecting some sort of thriller twist, of course, but the slow-burning build created an unexpected, disarming mood.

Then one day Alex mysteriously disappears. Danny is heartbroken. Under curious circumstances, he eventually manages to enter Alex's apartment, where he's shocked – as you would be – to discover a secret attic full of bondage gear drugs, sex toys... and Alex's corpse squeezed inside a trunk.

Suddenly, and quite brilliantly, a sensitive love story has transformed into a bizarre, dark conspiracy thriller. Naturally, Danny is suspect number one, but how can he answer questions about a partner who'd apparently lied to him all along? It's a classic Hitchcockian 'Wrong Man' premise, made all the more effective for taking its time to establish character first.

Handsomely shot, thoughtfully written and superbly performed – Jim Broadbent, without a hint of “old queen” cliché, is wonderful as Danny's wealthy saviour/mentor – London Spy is one of the boldest dramas of the year so far. Despite playing along with standard spy conventions, it's emotionally richer and more offbeat than yer average thriller.

Writer Tom Rob Smith is the partner of Ben Stephenson, the Controller of BBC Drama Commissioning. Normally that would set off the nepotism klaxon to cacophonous levels, but in this case it's clearly been commissioned on its own merits. No, really. It's excellent.

By contrast, Josh, a new sitcom vehicle for comedian Josh Widdicombe, is entirely standard stuff. Based around three flatmates in their early thirties, plus their know-it-all landlord (Jack Dee, clocking in), its humour is almost exclusively based around tired, overdone pop culture puns and references: vaguely amusing pub banter at best.

It's also cursed by a particular kind of 21st century comedy performance style that's like Kryptonite to myself and anyone else who's latched onto it. It's basically an irksome marriage of Alan Partridge emphasis, Martin Freeman awkwardness and Bill Nighy vagueness, which around 80% of British comic actors under 40 have appropriated in the last decade. 

Widdicombe is particularly guilty. He sounds like a helium-addled Partridge with lockjaw.

Still, nice use of Big Maybelle's version of 96 Tears over the end credits. I'll give them that.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 7th November 2015.

Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You: Wednesday, BBC Two

Joanna Lumley: Elvis and Me: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Last week, to my delight, I was reminded that The Beatles' return to England following their first US tour was covered live on Grandstand. Such was its import as a major world event, even the BBC's flagship sport show was forced to interrupt its cricket coverage and treat it with due reverence.

Alas, that grainy archive footage was one of the few surprises in episode one of Dominic Sandbrook: Let Us Entertain You, a new series in which the noted historian examines how, following the post-war decline of Britain's industrial, economic and political influence, it gained a potent new superpower as the world's greatest exporter of popular culture.

The likes of James Bond, Agatha Christie, Doctor Who, The Beatles and Harry Potter have all become symbols of Britain's vaunted position as purveyors of beloved escapist entertainment. Only a madman would reject this inarguable statement of fact, but it wasn't Sandbrook's central thesis I took issue with.

A recurring problem with documentaries of this nature is that anyone interested in watching them will already be quite knowledgeable about the territory they cover. Sure enough, swathes of Sandbrook's narrative felt awfully predictable.

He also has a habit of stating the bleedin' obvious. Quoth our learned guide, “The '60s only swung for a tiny minority.” You don't say? And here was me thinking Dundee city centre was once our shaggy equivalent of Haight-Ashbury.

A stout defender of the British Empire, it's hardly surprising that Sandbrook argued in favour of Victorian values being at the heart of every world-shaking explosion since. He was almost visibly vibrating with pleasure when paying tribute to the “cultural uplift and commercial self-interest” that made Britain great again. It was most unseemly.

Yes, popular culture has always been driven by commerce, but Sandbrook seems to revel in that fact above all else.

It was essentially an extended tribute to post-war commercial entrepreneurs such as J. Arthur Rank, Brian Epstein, Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Charles Saatchi, whose marketing nous was a pivotal factor in the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher. They were all drawn from the same cloth, he argued.

That's a rather simplistic view. He's been given four episodes to analyse this subject, you'd expect more nuance.

Describing Britain's vast cultural contribution to the world in purely commercial terms is, of course, anathema to groovy non-bread-heads. This is art, not product. It belongs to us, not The Man. I dare say Sandbrook, who seems like an affable soul with a genuine interest in popular culture, has some sympathy for this dangerously idealistic viewpoint. But that didn't stop him from coming across as the sort of point-missing, number-crunching dullard who values record sales over artistic merit.

For an Elvis fan such as myself, there was an alarming moment near the start of Joanna Lumley: Elvis and Me in which the actress teetered on the verge of regurgitating the tired fallacy that Elvis' post-army career was worthless. Thankfully, it soon became clear that rebellious teen idol '50s Elvis was simply her favourite model, hence why it was the focus of this heartfelt travelogue in which she travelled to Memphis to meet those who knew and loved him.

For once it wasn't simply a case of attaching a famous face to a subject they know little about. Lumley's deep affection for the young, smouldering King was abundantly obvious.

That it was entirely non-critical didn't matter, as it wasn't intended as a sweeping Sandbrook-ian essay on Elvis' cultural significance. Rather, it was a charming tribute to a malleable idol from an eternally smitten fan. 

Monday, 2 November 2015


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 31 October 2015.

Jekyll and Hyde: Sunday, STV

Detectorists: Thursday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

Ever since Doctor Who reasserted its position as the reigning champ of weekend family viewing, ITV has made a few, almost grudging, attempts at establishing a suitable rival.

Time-hopping dinosaur romp Primeval was their most successful effort, but even its biggest fans would concede that it never troubled Doctor Who in terms of capturing the wider imagination. And the less said about Demons – which only shell-shocked TV critics and around 50% of those who made it choose to remember anyway – the better.

So it's perhaps surprising that it's taken them this long to enlist the talents of Fast Show alumnus Charlie Higson, a critically acclaimed, best-selling author whose success with the Young James Bond novels has secured his reputation as a gifted purveyor of intelligent children's fiction. On the basis of episode one, Jekyll and Hyde already feels like ITV's first serious challenger to Doctor Who's crown.

However, it's not without its flaws. An unofficial sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic exploration of a vexing split personality disorder, it follows Jekyll's grandson, Robert, as he gradually unearths his poisoned family lineage.

Raised by a family in Ceylon – hence his impeccable upper-class English accent – he's introduced as a kindly colonial physician capable of superhuman feats of strength when emotionally piqued. He's basically a 1930s Hulk, and Higson doesn't stint on the comparisons. With its canted angles, stylised action sequences and somewhat campy feel, the show is framed as a live-action comic book.

That heightened-reality approach ensures that its flashes of violence and horror don't feel inappropriate for a family audience. Children can differentiate between this world and ours. Granted, the sight of a dog-hybrid 'Harbinger' – Higson's Jekyll universe if full of bizarre creatures - was unsettling for even a man as robust and fearless as myself, but God forbid I should represent the psyche of the average child.

More troubling, perhaps, was the fiery death of Robert's adoptive Indian family, murdered at the hands of an intriguingly sadistic villain in British military uniform. Then again, I doubt many children were conscious of its significance as an historical metaphor. They were probably just perturbed by the spectacle of some kindly people being incinerated by a greasy Englishman with an evil moustache. So that's okay.

Though peppered with clunky exposition – hopefully that will subside after this attention-grabbing scene-setter – this was a decent introduction.

The charismatic Tom Bateman handles his twin roles impressively: a Colin Firth-esque bumbler in Jekyll repose, a lascivious demon in two-fisted Hyde mode. From Frederic March to Jerry Lewis, Jekyll/Hyde tales rely upon acting versatility. Higson's reinvention shows promise, but Bateman is selling it so far.

There's something deeply heartening about the deserved success of writer/director/actor Mackenzie Crook's award-winning sleeper hit Detectorists. Maybe it's because no one ever expected Gareth from The Office to come up with a sitcom of such depth, wit and sensitivity.

It makes Derek, the saccharine dogs dinner served up by his former employer, Ricky Gervais, look even worse by comparison.

A low-key sitcom about two charmingly co-dependent metal detectorists - the other played by the great Toby Jones - when it returned last week I instantly eased back into its rural rhythms. Space precludes me from writing more, but I urge you to befriend this wonderful show. It's one of the best British comedies of the last ten years.