Saturday, 23 January 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 23rd January 2016.

The Getaway Car: Saturday, BBC One

Phone Shop Idol: Tuesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

Is Dermot O'Leary being punished for crimes he committed in a former life? How else to explain the fate of this affable TV presenter, whose unassuming talents were wasted for years on The X Factor, and who now finds himself shackled to the knackered chassis of The Getaway Car? That's not a career, it's sustained abuse.

Dermot can't be blamed for this fatally ill-conceived game show. Like the loyal footsoldier he is, he's just following orders. Instead, blame the genius who thought that people driving slowly around a Mousetrap-style obstacle course was a recipe for riveting Saturday night viewing.

It's become a cliché to liken bad TV shows to something Alan Partridge might come up with, but this unhappy marriage of Top Gear and Total Wipeout really does feel like one of his pitches come to life. It even climaxes, if that's not too explosive a word, with contestants racing against The Stig, who these days resembles a tragic straggler at a long-defunct costume party.

For obvious reasons, the BBC aren't going to risk putting members of the public through a death-defying driving test, hence why The Getaway Car unfolds at such a laughably sluggish pace. The obstacle course is situated in sunny South Africa, presumably because basing it in drizzly Britain would add even more pathos to an already pathetic spectacle of non-entertainment.

The idea of people driving into a massive photograph of Roger Moore to win £10,000 might sound amusing on paper, but in practice it's ridiculous (and not in a good way). I'd rather watch an hour of Dermot hoovering his car seats.

As if to compound this patience-testing ordeal, most of the contestants in episode one were deeply annoying. There was no one to root for, unless you count our hapless host. His weak witticisms make Dave Lamb from Come Dine With Me sound like imperial Groucho Marx. 

Clearly, some of those half-hearted, fate-tempting quips – “This is car crash telly!” - were desperate cries for help. At one point he claimed “We're laughing here” with all the natural exuberance of a condemned prisoner. Someone, please, rescue him.

I encourage anyone who derives masochistic pleasure from watching bad television to experience at least ten minutes of this abject failure. A total waste of time, but at least you'll be able to state with solemn authority that, much like Don't Scare the Hare, it actually happened. We must keep these memories alive as a warning for future generations.

The annual Phone Idol competition, which aims to find Britain's best mobile phone salesperson, is apparently the industry equivalent of the Oscar, Pulitzer and Booker combined. Its rewards are potentially life-changing.

In Phone Shop Idol we met a former winner who was head-hunted by Sony. He now drives a company car filled with complimentary gadgets. He's living the dream.

Treating the ability to sell phones as if it's a rarefied craft may sound silly, but it's a respectable gig like any other. With its chummy narration and chortling Apprentice-style score, this thin series doesn't take the competition particularly seriously, but nor does it belittle the sincerity of the contestants. It's a modest celebration of nice, everyday folk taking pride in their work and doing it well.

It isn't of the slightest bit of interest to anyone – there are few things in life more tedious than the discussion of phone tariffs - but at least it doesn't sneer.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 16th January 2016.

Jericho: Thursday, STV

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands: Sunday, STV

Tracey Ullman's Show: Monday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

By virtue of its scant competition, Jericho has the distinction of being the best British western since Carry On Cowboy. I can think of no higher praise.

The setting is an 1870s Yorkshire Dales shanty town full of rough and tumble navvies toiling to construct a viaduct. All the standard frontier archetypes are here – handsome hero, stoic heroine, brothel madam with a heart of gold etc. - but they're written and performed with enough charm to keep tiredness at bay.

Though it sounds ridiculous in theory, series creator Steve Thompson (Sherlock; Doctor Who) has managed to transpose the dusty tropes of Wild West fiction to 19th century England without making a dang fool of himself. It works because he playfully acknowledges his obvious influences while avoiding outright pastiche. It's a brisk, broad, enjoyable production.

Not that it's perfect. Essentially a sanitised Deadwood by way of Little House on the Prairie, it all looks far too clean. This supposedly rough-hewn town reeks of IKEA-fresh timber. The costumes bear not a speck of grime. Jessica Raine's wig looks like a plastic Lego turban. No one ever swears.

Nevertheless, I can't deny the intriguing, novel promise of a drama in which an enigmatic African-American sheriff (the excellent Clarke Peters from The Wire) presides over a white community of working-class Victorian northerners. Loosely inspired by historical events, Jericho, in its wholly escapist way, is more ambitious than yer average period circus.

By contrast, turgid fantasy drama Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands is a hairy heap of grunting nonsense signifying zilch. A U-rated Game of Thrones, this supposedly child-friendly romp suffers from a flabby narrative and chronically dull, poorly defined characters. The glowering Beowulf himself resembles a dazed Neil Oliver wandering through a poorly policed battle re-enactment.

This charmless non-adventure fills the early evening slot recently vacated by the flawed yet far more likeable Jekyll & Hyde. A more natural home would be a mouldering ditch.

You get the slot you deserve. Despite being hyped as a triumphant return to our shores after 30 years working in America, Tracey Ullman's Show has been buried in a post-watershed graveyard trough. It's as if the BBC, having procured the ex-pat comedienne's services, forgot to provide her with a project worth returning for.

This painfully thin confection of half-baked sketches suffers from a flat, lifeless atmosphere that stifles whatever potential it may have had. Ullman's impersonations of Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are impeccable, but without strong material to support them they're little more than top-flight party tricks. 

The Dench skits are typical in that they take a very basic premise – Dame Jude exploits her National Treasure status to get away with bad behaviour – without bothering to build on it. A shrugging sense of “Will this do?” hangs over the whole sorry enterprise.

Her depiction of Angela Merkel as a boozy, thin-skinned brawler who's bought into her own beige sex symbol hype was mystifyingly weak. A potentially damning musical number attacking Tory cuts proved utterly toothless. A recurring sketch about a bemused woman returning home after 28 years in a Thai prison worked only as a comment on Ullman's long absence from British TV. It certainly wasn't funny.

She should cut her losses and buy a one-way ticket back to the States. Anything to escape from this misfire.

Sunday, 10 January 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 9th January 2016.

War and Peace: Sunday, BBC One

Deutschland '83: Sunday, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

The prospect of reading War and Peace is so notoriously daunting, its mythical reputation as an insurmountable literary Everest is probably more well-known than the contents of the book itself.

Most of us know the gist of Tolstoy's epic tome, thanks to endless references in popular culture. But have you actually read this gargantuan Napoleonic saga? I haven't. However, I've seen Woody Allen's hilarious parody, Love and Death, more often than I've seen my own reflection. Isn't that enough?

Even Andrew Davies, who adapts classic novels for breakfast, hadn't read it until the BBC asked him to write a six episode adaptation. Despite his trepidation, he eventually discovered that it wasn't an impenetrable chore after all, but a page-turner packed with romance, drama, action and satire. 

Of course, this will come as no surprise to anyone who's read it, but as we've established, no one ever has.

Davies is the ideal man for this ambitious task. He has a gift for condensing classic texts without sacrificing the essentials. His adaptations are accessible, but hardly dumbed down. The opening scene of this impressive production was a deft case in point. Set during a lavish drawing room ball, it introduced a banquet of characters without any fuss or confusion - unless you were playing familiar TV actor Bingo, in which case you probably missed most of the dialogue.

If a visiting alien were to switch on a TV at random, he'd be forgiven for thinking that the only working actors in Britain are Stephen Rea, Jim Broadbent, Tuppence Middleton, James Norton and Rebecca Front. They're all great, but must they appear in everything?

A refreshing presence among this plethora of ubiquitous faces was American actor Paul Dano as nebbishy hero Pierre. The illegitimate son of a wealthy nobleman, his liberal idealism is tested when he suddenly inherits a vast fortune. 

Played by Dano as a fretting, fumbling, bespectacled mouse caught in the sights of an oncoming lawnmower, Pierre contends with a scheming uncle – Rea, looking as always like a camel sucking a lozenge wryly – and an arranged bride (Middleton) who'd rather have his money than his milksop body. 

She's also having an incestuous relationship with her brother, a bizarre sub-plot which, according to Davies, is subtly implied in Tolstoy's novel. I'll take his word for that.

Despite his respect for his source materials, Davies is a mischievous adaptor. I can't be alone in detecting the ribald double-meaning of lines such as: “You need to let the old Count see you before he dies.” That's no accident, it's a cheeky Max Miller gag.

Director Tom Harper (This Is England '86; Peaky Blinders) also deserves credit for creating such a visually sumptuous, pacey treat. It doesn't drag in the slightest. A co-production with the Weinstein Group, no expense has been spared on striking costumes and palatial European locations. The grimly insane battle scenes, though presumably populated by just a few dozen extras, are a bold lesson in creative editing. Yes, the cast is over-familiar, but they fill their roles with aplomb. It's a stunning production oozing with charm, wit and class.

Old Tolstoy will be delighted by the boost in book sales.

Showing as part of Channel 4's admirable new commitment to foreign drama, Deutschland '83 is a Cold War thriller steeped in suitably pallid period detail. Unfortunately, it squanders an intriguing premise – a young East German solider is press-ganged into working undercover in the West – with a curiously superficial tone. It's so light and predictable, all potential tension is lost.

I'm usually a sucker for any '80s-based political drama stacked against the backdrop of nuclear annihilation, but even I must concede that Deutschland '83 is, at best, only mildly diverting.

A disappointment, but looking on the bright side there should hopefully be some gems in the rest of Channel 4's new overseas consignment. Onwards and upwards, as Brezhnev used to say.