Monday, 28 December 2015

TV Review: WE'RE DOOMED! THE DAD'S ARMY STORY and FROM ANDY PANDY TO ZEBEDEE: THE GOLDEN AGE OF CHILDREN'S TV

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26th December 2015.


We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story: Tuesday, BBC Two

From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children's TV: Monday, BBC Four

Paul Whitelaw

The BBC, especially at Christmas, is entitled to wallow nostalgically in its own legacy. Last week it even wallowed twice with barely a hint of self-congratulation. On the contrary, We're Doomed! The Dad's Army Story depicted certain BBC executives as the myopic villains of the piece.

An affectionate comedy-drama about the troubled origins of the much-loved wartime sitcom, it showed how writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft (who also produced) struggled to convince their overlords – particularly BBC One Controller Paul Fox, perhaps unfairly portrayed by Keith Allen as formidably humourless – that a comedy about the Home Guard could work. With WWII still in living memory, might it be deemed insensitive?

It's laughable to think that a sitcom as benign as Dad's Army could ever be thought of as tasteless, but it was clearly a real concern in 1967.

So, while the story hit familiar behind-the-scenes beats – writers search for a great idea, slave over scripts and shape their vision, are forced into compromise by unsympathetic bosses before being proved all along that they were right – it was told in such a breezy, charming, witty way, it never felt redundant.

Packed with touching detail, good gags – I loved the fleeting references to Jon Pertwee and Trevor Eve - a nice sense of bright, smoky '60s period, and winning performances from an adroitly chosen cast of fine character actors – John Sessions' total transformation into the endearingly temperamental Arthur Lowe was miraculous – it was a refreshingly warm antidote to the BBC's notorious, and hopefully extinct, glut of dubious tears-of-a-clown biopics.

Despite its relatively brief running time, writer Stephen Russell managed to add depth to most of the principle players. The pathos of the frail Arnold Ridley, the flinty insecurity of Arthur Lowe, and the core dramatic struggle of Perry, a frustrated actor who desperately wanted a part in the show until he realised that writing was his calling, were handled with commendable sensitivity.

A poignant highlight was the scene of Perry shedding tears as his ageing comedy hero Bud Flanagan (Roy Hudd, who else?) recorded the Dad's Army theme song in one avuncular take. And yes, it ended with a “You Have Been Watching” roll call. Delightful stuff.

Another nostalgic labour of love, From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children's TV celebrated the pioneering origins and reign of the BBC's generation-shaping children's output from the '50s to the early '90s.

Despite some curious narrative leaps – forgiveable, perhaps, given the 60 minute running time – this was a tender cut above most archival clip shows. It scoured the vaults with an evident sense of craft and care. It also made a point of explaining how innovative and important the likes of Play School, Vision On and, for all its dryly middle-class faults, Blue Peter were in educating and entertaining children. 

And kudos for devoting time to the inadvertently nightmarish spectre of Noseybonk from Jigsaw; truly The Child Catcher of '80s TV.

On a cheerier note, the sight and sound of eminent talking heads such as Johnny Ball, Bernard Cribbins and the man who injected some rare jazz/soul groove into kid's TV, Derek Griffiths, was enough to inspire a Proustian rush. You know you're watching a decent documentary about popular entertainment when it's inhabited by relevant, knowledgeable contributors, rather than fatuous modern comedians.

As former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis observed only half-jokingly, a channel entirely devoted to Cribbins' soothing presence could cure the world's ills. Now that really would be public service broadcasting.

I also challenge anyone to refute that the ambient voice of Oliver Postgate is the voice of God Himself. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

TV Review: LUTHER + LOVE YOU TO DEATH: A YEAR OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19th December 2015.


Luther: Tuesday, BBC One

Love You To Death: A Year of Domestic Violence: Wednesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

There was a moment in the latest episode of Luther so perfect in its knowing heavy-handedness, I suspect that writer Neil Cross has been waiting to use it ever since he created this uniquely ludicrous series.

As we reconvened with TV's most dysfunctional maverick cop, he was living in a remote cottage on a much-needed leave of absence. The location of his hideaway? On the edge of a precipitous cliff. That's right, he's literally living on the edge. In case you didn't pick up on this hilariously blatant visual metaphor, Cross even had a character point it out. That one moment encapsulated the tongue-in-cheek absurdity of this bombastic thriller.

After being told that Alice, his psychotic paramour, wasn't dead after all, Luther (Idris Elba) returned to London to find out the truth. This involved a series of, even by his standards, insanely reckless set-pieces. Only Luther would breeze into a pub full of armed criminals and, while staring down the barrel of a gun, defuse the situation with insouciant amusement rather than chair-tossing aggression. King of the barely calculated risk, he makes Jack Bauer look like an over-cautious pen-pusher.

Later he barged into a building rigged with explosives and emerged, via an air duct, without a scratch. Luther, played by Elba with a fascinatingly unfathomable, charismatic eccentricity/wooden sincerity (possibly both), is basically an indestructible superhero living in a heightened universe of grotesque, violent fantasy. The back-in-business scene of him putting on his familiar grey overcoat was the “Hell yeah!” equivalent of Tony Stark climbing into his Iron Man costume.

Typically, his latest nemesis is no mere murderer. No, he's a grandiloquent serial killer with a penchant for cannibal erotica. I wouldn't expect anything less.

Some have argued that Luther wallows irresponsibly in OTT violence, but surely that's the point? We're not supposed to take it seriously. Cross is fully aware of all the cop show tropes and clich├ęs, hence why he has such fun with them. It's why Luther is far more entertaining than most UK detective dramas. It is, like the man himself, a brazenly confident, self-amused barnstormer.

Sadly, thanks to Elba's rising international profile, it's only back for two episodes this time. I hope he always finds time in his schedule to return to this preposterous role.

Mindless escapism is all very well, but we should never ignore the reality of unflinching documentaries such as Love You To Death: A Year of Domestic Violence. A sad, humane, compassionate film, it shed light on the shocking issue of fatal violence against women.

In 2013 alone, 86 women were murdered either by their partner or ex-partner. The programme honoured them all by listing their names and the circumstances of their deaths. Its point was clear: these were human beings, not mere newspaper headlines.

Some of the women received more attention via emotional testimonies from their friends and families. These accounts were necessarily blunt and upsetting. Shying away from the violent details of such crimes would rob them of their awful truth.

A heavy sense of tragic inevitability permeated each of these stories. It was a sobering litany of oppressive, violent, mentally ill men terrorising women behind closed doors. Meanwhile, their loved ones were left behind to grieve and pick up the pieces.

Without doubt one of the most important pieces of television I've seen in some time.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO and PREY

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12th December 2015.


Doctor Who: Saturday, BBC One

Prey: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

Farewell then, Clara Oswald, I'm sure I speak for many when I say you were definitely a companion in the hit sci-fi series Doctor Who. Please don't come back.

A fortnight after she was killed off, Clara returned in this year's series finale. Head writer Steven Moffat just couldn't let her lie, thus undoing the impact of her demise. But at least he only revived her to give her tangled story an absolutely final happy ending. Didn't he?

Having essentially become a surrogate Doctor after all that time spent with him, she whizzed off in her American diner-shaped TARDIS to have intergalactic adventures with a female companion of her own. In a bittersweet twist – one that explicitly mirrored/subverted the tragic demise of Donna Noble - the Doctor, after spending 5 billion hellish years trying to reverse Clara's death, had all his memories of her erased.

This, in its vaguely underwhelming way, was actually one of the nicest, most poetic send-offs a companion has ever had. It's just a shame it was wasted on Clara.

Had she been a more engaging character, her exit would've carried greater emotional weight. Instead it came across as merely clever. A neat conjuring trick. Moffat the technician. Unlike most previous companions, Clara was a bland non-event. Introduced as little more than a mysterious plot device during the Matt Smith era, she never developed a personality beyond Moffat's standard quipping, sassy auto-bot setting

I didn't dislike her. How could I? It was impossible to feel any strong emotions about such a thin, inoffensive character. She was pretty. Her clothes were nice. Clara Oswald, a life.

It wasn't Jenna Coleman's fault, she's a competent actress. But even the greatest board-treader would struggle with such an unfocused role. It didn't help that she was paired with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, two of the most magnetically charismatic actors to ever fill the Time Lord's boots. She didn't stand a chance.

So why did Moffat keep her around for so long? Possibly because he was determined to fix a character who simply didn't work. He wanted to make her seem important in the grand scheme of DW lore because he regretted having created such an insubstantial character. But she never came alive.

Still, at least we can look forward to a new companion next year, one who will hopefully prove worthy of Peter Capaldi's magnificent central performance. He commands the screen with total assurance.

The unevenness of the finale – which, though beautifully directed and full of interesting ideas, didn't quite cohere - was frustrating given that this series was one of the best in years.

Capaldi's electrifying anti-war speech from the Zygon adventure was the most powerfully direct political statement in DW history, while the extraordinary episode in which the Doctor found himself trapped within an hallucinatory Kafka-esque nightmare has rightly been hailed as an all-time classic.

It was a reminder that, when inspired, Moffat is one of DW's greatest ever writers. If, as rumoured, the next series is his last, I hope he exits on the high note he deserves.

Series one of Prey starred John Simm as man wrongly accused of a terrible crime. The loosely connected second series finds his old Life On Mars mucker Philip Glenister in a similar predicament. Last year, Ashes to Ashes' Keeley Hawes found herself wrongly accused and framed in Line Of Duty 2. Is that entire cast suffering from a paranoid persecution complex? Do they have something to tell us?

As a prison guard blackmailed into allowing a female inmate to escape, Glenister plays his standard role with practised hangdog aplomb. I'm a sucker for a Wrong Man scenario, and Prey riffs on the theme quite assuredly. It's a pot-boiler, but competently brewed.

However, the real star of this reasonably diverting thriller is Rosie Cavaliero as the engagingly cynical, humanely downbeat detective on his trail. I suspect we'll be seeing a lot more of this fine character actress in future.