Sunday, 28 February 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 27th February 2016.

The Night Manager: Sunday, BBC One

Storyville: The Black Panthers: Sunday, BBC Four

Like a bar of luxury soap sliding inexorably down a bidet bowl, The Night Manager is a slick and slow affair.

Adapted and updated from John La Carre's 1993 novel of the same name, it's an inertly glossy thriller starring Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine, a former British soldier on a covert mission to destroy billionaire arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie fulfilling his Bond villain fantasies).

When we first met Pine, a charming cove, English “to the core”, he was working as the night manager at a luxury Cairo hotel while the Arab Spring raged outside. As dutifully dedicated to the welfare of his guests as he is to Queen and country, he found himself acting as gallant protector to the glamorous mistress of the hotel's corrupt owner.

Presumably on account of his approachable cheekbones – even allowing for standard spy thriller intrigue, character motivation is sketchy - she chose to show him some documents containing conspicuous evidence of an arms deal involving Roper.

Shortly after sharing this explosive information with the British embassy, he found himself in bed with the woman, despite there being no chemistry between them whatsoever. Lonely nights in Cairo, I suppose. Seeing as she spoke entirely in flirtatious riddles consumed with fatalistic portent, it was hardly surprising when she wound up dead.

The action, and I use that word advisedly, then span forward four years to find Pine working in a remote Alpine hotel, where his inexplicably grief-stricken flashbacks were rudely interrupted by the arrival of Roper.

Laurie appears to be enjoying himself playing “the worst man in the world”, but by the time he and his amusingly unpleasant henchman (Tom Hollander) turned up, it was too late. Even the presence of the perpetually pregnant Olivia Colman as a cardigan-clad spy with an indeterminate northern accent can't inject any life into such a soulless confection.

A good thriller poses intriguing questions which keep us watching in the hope of surprising, satisfactory answers. Yet despite the theoretically high stakes on offer, I see no reason why we should care about the players, let alone the outcome, of this dreary game of cat and mouse.

A gripping and propulsive feature-length documentary, Storyville: The Black Panthers strove to reclaim the oft-misunderstood story of the African-American revolutionary party who boldly took on the establishment in the late '60s and '70s.

Set against a tense backdrop of police brutality and racism, it traced the rise and fall of a militant black movement borne of righteous frustration. Despite their gun-toting image – an edgily symbolic pose, at least initially - their fundamental goal was the dismantlement of a system that actively suppressed equal rights in housing, healthcare and education for, not only African-Americans, but any victim of poverty. 

One of their most successful initiatives was a free breakfast programme for children. No wonder they were branded as terrorists by the FBI; for a while at least they were a galvanising force to be reckoned with.

But as soon as they became a respectable folk hero force within the black community, the government made damn sure that their civil liberties went out the window. Victims of incessant raids, arrests and, in one horrifying instance, cold-blooded assassination, their radical socialist manifesto didn't stand a chance in Nixon's America.

When their steadfast vow to defend themselves by any means necessary was put to the test, the body count rose, the party started to split, and the revolution was put on indefinite hold.

Despite the sizzling funk vibrancy of his stylistic approach, director Stanley Nelson refrained from romanticising the Panthers disproportionately. The rock 'n' soul power of their media-savvy image – dark glasses, berets, afros and leather jackets – remains ineffably cool, but that's hardly the most important facet of their legacy.

Nelson focused instead on insightful contributions from several former Panthers, who related their story with a fluctuating mix of pride, humour, anger and sadness. He also gained access to FBI documents laying bare their insidious campaign to divide and destroy a party already riven with contradictions.

The result was a sympathetic yet unsentimental study of a political awakening destroyed by ideological differences, personal demons and the insurmountable might of The Man (an enemy embodied by the wizened toddler scowl of crackpot FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover).

The film's underlying sense of tragedy and wasted potential was compounded by an unspoken yet powerfully tacit, sobering truth: the struggles at its core are still relevant today.

The radicalism of the Panthers is dead, possibly forever, even though we live in a world where the odds are more stacked against The People than ever before. Fight the power, pay the consequences. 

Monday, 22 February 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 20th February 2016.

One Child: Wednesday, BBC Two

The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On: Monday, BBC One

You've got to hand it to BBC Two. To celebrate Chinese New Year last week it launched a new drama criticising China's controversial one-child policy and its attendant issues of social inequality and state corruption. As far as party-pooping goes, that's pretty explosive.

A solemnly compassionate piece, One Child follows Mei, an adopted Chinese-British student meeting her blood relatives for the first time under strained circumstances.

Raised in relative affluence by a loving British couple, Mei's life was complicated suddenly when a Chinese journalist got in touch with an urgent message: a brother she never knew existed is languishing on death row after being framed for murder. For reasons unclear, her desperate birth mother needs Mei to visit China in a bid to rescue him.

But what can she do? When she met her mother in a cramped apartment, the poor woman was so ashamed she couldn't meet Mei's gaze. It was an awkward, overwhelming encounter. Mei became even more upset when she discovered that her mother assumed that, as a rich westerner, she'd have powerful government connections. Is that all she was wanted for? Only after meeting her incarcerated brother – a fresh-faced beacon of indisputable innocence – did she feel compelled to stay and fight.

His government-funded lawyer was useless, as were the British consulate. Their only hope arrived in the form of a campaigning social justice group, whose very existence is anathema to Chinese state control. Mei is entering a minefield.

If One Child occasionally delivers its message with a sweeping heavy hand, its inherent compassion is undeniable. The plight of Mei's brother still functions quite effectively as a blunt metaphor for the way the poorest members of society, whether in China or elsewhere, are treated as expendable by their ruthless ruling classes.

Its portrayal of an anguished mother forced to abandon her child was elevated by a quietly affecting scene in which she and Mei overcame their language barrier to pore through a box of modest family mementoes.

Katie Leung delivers a dignified performance as the dazed and confused Mei, while Elizabeth Perkins and TV stalwart Donald Sumpter are wholly believable as concerned parents trying their best to support their child.

Though it sometimes falters under the weight of its well-meaning intentions, One Child is at least more ambitious and politically sensitive than most mainstream dramas. That must count for something.

It's fair to say that when Stephen Fry's series about bipolar disorder was broadcast in 2006, it played an important role in developing awareness of the condition. Certain stigmas still exist with regards to mental illness – such attitudes can't be eradicated overnight – but Fry's insightful study did encourage a sympathetic discourse that continues to this day.

In The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On, he caught up with some of the participants from the previous programme. For the likes of Cordelia, her situation had worsened; she now has breast cancer. There were no condescendingly sentimental nods to her “brave” battle, just a lingering sense of sorrowful injustice.

Cautious glimmers of hope were provided by two young people who'd used their experiences to raise awareness and help others. The overriding message – that bipolar is incurable, but there are ways of coping with it – was helpful in its honesty.

Although he discussed his second suicide attempt from a few years ago, and was filmed in frank conversation with his psychiatrist, Fry wisely took a back seat to allow these people to tell their stories. Once again, a valuable piece of public service television.

Saturday, 13 February 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 13th February 2016.

Happy Valley: Tuesday, BBC One

Annabel's Nightclub: A String of Naked Light Bulbs: Saturday, BBC Four

If it's not too late, can we install Sally Wainwright as the new Doctor Who show-runner?

One of TV's finest dramatists, the writer/director behind multi-award-winning crime drama Happy Valley would be a better replacement for Steven Moffat than new boss Chris Chibnall, the journeyman writer who scored a fluke hit with series one of Broadchurch, before destroying that good will with its dreadful, superfluous sequel.

It's an apt comparison. After all, Broadchurch and Happy Valley both gripped the nation a few years ago. They each felt like self-contained pieces in no need of a sequel. In the case of Broadchurch, that was agonisingly true. But when Happy Valley returned last week, it was immediately clear that Wainwright wasn't treading water.

The grimly compelling saga of tough, compassionate police sergeant Catherine Cawood and her murderous nemesis, Tommy Lee Royce, is far from over. Unlike Chibnall's mess, this follow-up feels necessary.

The opening episode was a master-class in assured plotting and smooth exposition as Wainwright reintroduced Catherine and co, plus some promising new characters.

Set eighteen months after the traumatic events of series one, it found Catherine (the magnificently deadpan Sarah Lancashire) trying to get back to normal while Royce languished for life in prison. Inevitably, her peace didn't last longer than a blackly comic prologue involving acid-addled sheep rustlers, which climaxed with her discovering a decomposing human corpse in a garage.

This, it transpired, was what remained of Royce's alcoholic mother. There was no love lost between Catherine and the deceased, hence why she's now a suspect. That family haunts her, even in death.

Meanwhile, Wainwright skilfully established a new sub-plot involving a married senior police officer (Kevin Doyle, alias Molesley from Downton) trying to extricate himself from an affair with a woman (the always impressive Amelia Bullmore) who refuses to go quietly. Prediction: this mire of blackmail won't end well.

We also met the unsettling, birdlike presence of Shirley Henderson as a woman seemingly infatuated with Royce, who in the versatile hands of War & Peace heartthrob™ James Norton continues his reign as TV's most convincing psychopath. A shaven-headed knot of pent-up fury, his simmering intensity is far more frightening than the kind of swivel-eyed scenery-chewing one normally associates with characters of this type.

Wainwright's sensitive underlying themes of grief, trauma, family dysfunction and women being abused in an aggressively male-dominated world continue to elevate Happy Valley far beyond its cop show peers.

Why does it reside in the upper echelons? Because of its dry wit, sharp dialogue, strong performances from a host of interesting actors and the way it fuses understated, character-driven realism with taut thriller conventions. Any budding screenwriter would benefit from studying Wainwright's impeccable work here.

Apparently the only nightclub the Queen has ever visited, the forbiddingly sophisticated Annabel's in London has been a discreet haven for the filthy rich and famous for over 50 years.

Its utter fabulousness was celebrated in Annabel's Nightclub: A String of Naked Light Bulbs, an unquestioningly affectionate documentary seemingly aimed at the kind of cosseted toffs who'd consider it a badge of honour to frequent such a rankly elitist dungeon.

Still, I did chuckle at some of the colourful anecdotes peppered throughout this glistening tribute. The one about a roaringly drunk John Wayne causing borderline actionable mayhem was topped only by the one about Shirley Bassey being banned for life after kicking the maître d' up the backside.

As a forelock-tugging outsider, I found it impossible to feel the same warmth towards Annabel's as its staff and regulars – far easier to summon rancorous disdain – but despite my better judgement I can't deny that there's something vaguely charming about a ridiculous fantasy world where the five-star bathrooms once contained ticker tape machines spewing stock market info.

That's despite the fact that Annabel's 53-year-old guest list must surely include some of the worst human beings to ever draw breath. Viva le revolution. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6th February 2016.

Camila's Kids Company: The Inside Story: Wednesday, BBC One

World War Three: Inside The War Room: Wednesday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

When, following highly publicised allegations of severe financial mismanagement, controversial charity Kids Company was forced into closure in August 2015, thousands of vulnerable people were left without a safety net.

Formerly one of Britain's most successful charities, for years it succeeded in transforming the lives of disadvantaged children. But now, having become totally reliant on its support, they were suddenly plunged into chaos and uncertainty.

So who was to blame for this catastrophic collapse? In Camila's Kids Company: The Inside Story, flamboyant founder Camila Batmanghelijh refused to accept any personal responsibility. Instead she blamed “a collective madness that the media, the politicians engaged in.” Her only regret was that she hadn't raised enough money.

Despite mounting pressure, she remained blindly defiant throughout this eye-opening documentary, in which director Lynn Alleway gained intimate access to the final days of a crumbling empire. Hired as a trusted confidante – she'd already made a film about Kids Company in 2005 – Alleway's role, at least as far as Batmanghelijh was concerned, was to fairly portray the truth behind the headlines. 

It was a chance for Batmanghelijh to answer her critics. In a way, she succeeded.

I've no doubt that her altruistic intentions were fundamentally sincere. And yet she emerged from Alleway's profile as a stubbornly foolish, romantic idealist whose desire to help children in need far outweighed her interest in the pragmatic details of running a major charity. Kids Company had become her own personal fiefdom.

Whenever she sought to portray herself as a victim – which was often - she unwittingly worked against her cause by cloaking herself in arrogant denial about her many errors of judgement. All she cared about was saving her staff and beneficiaries, and to hang with everything else. She lived inside a bubble of bloody-minded, well-meaning naivety

The media, according to Batmanghelijh, targeted Kids Company because it doesn't believe that disadvantaged children deserve a chance in life. Does she really believe that the media, for all its egregious faults, would go out of its way to destroy a charity for the sheer hell of it? Her delusion is rampant.

Little could she have known that, during the course of filming, Alleway would gradually expose her failings and challenge her behaviour. Though broadly sympathetic, the director couldn't ignore her growing realisation that this clucking mother hen really had sabotaged her company through gross negligence. Kudos to Alleway for refusing to kowtow to her disingenuous bleatings.

Despite vague glimmers of hope, the film wound down with a regretful sigh. Batmanghelijh's reputation was in ruins. Her staff were unemployed, tainted by association. The people she'd sought to help were left frightened and adrift. 

And God only knows how this mess will affect the reputation of the UK's charity sector in general. What a shocking, tragic legacy.

Even the long-overdue resignation of shady BBC exec and Kids Company trustee Alan Yentob – who declined to participate in the programme directly – couldn't blot out the sad, lasting impression of a noble enterprise hobbled by hubris.

Ian, you are edging us further and further towards Armageddon!” exclaimed the otherwise unflappable Sir Christopher Meyer, former British Ambassador to the US, in World War Three: Inside The War Room.

A sombre simulation of the ultimate nightmare scenario – a “hot war” with Russia – it featured Mayhew and a round-table phalanx of leading British military and diplomatic figures wrestling with whether to retaliate in the hypothetical event of nuclear escalation in Russia.

Though it strove for verisimilitude via fake news reports and dramatisations, the central discussion failed to ignite, even with the fate of the world at its feet. Their ultimate decision not to strike back felt perversely anticlimactic, even if it did suggest that sane minds might prevail when doomsday comes a-calling. Oh, and in case you were wondering, it was all Putin's fault. 

Monday, 1 February 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30th January 2016

The Real Marigold Hotel: Tuesday, BBC Two

Children Saved from the Nazis: The Story of Sir Nicholas Winton: Wednesday, BBC One

The Day Hitler Died: Sunday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

A comfortably middle-class take on I'm A Celebrity, The Real Marigold Hotel is an easygoing travelogue in which a group of well-known senior citizens arrive in India to test its reputation as an ideal retirement destination.

There is no competitive element and everyone, from Sylvester McCoy to Miriam Margoyles, Wayne Sleep and Jan Leeming, gets on. On television in this day and age? How novel.

It's inspired by – but not officially based on, as an amusingly defensive caption was legally obliged to state – the dreary Brit-flick starring Maggie Smith, Judi Dench et al. It therefore conjures uncomfortable echoes of Empire by depicting India as a colourful playground for rich white westerners. But it also, in its polite British way, confronts the injustice of India's caste system and its rank extremes of wealth and poverty.

This was particularly evident when our cuddly grey-hairs met – in McCoy's unimpressed words - “some Maharajah”. His regal wife tried to justify the disparity between her riches and the suffering outside as part of the Karmic cycle of life. You keep telling yourself that, your Maj. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Despite their anger – and I'm sure they feel just as righteous about Britain's own shameful equality gap - the team had nothing but praise for the warmth and generosity of their Indian hosts. Mrs Maharajah aside, no one came out of this badly.

Disgusting cynic that I am, I was looking forward to making merry fun of Wayne Sleep for his woolly spiritual quest, until he revealed that he'd been musing on mortality after recently recovering from prostate cancer. His desire to reconnect with his latent religiosity was entirely sincere.

Meanwhile, Margoyles proved reliably eccentric as she vented her obsession with base bodily functions, spoke of her total lack of interest in house work, and struggled with her “scorn for the upper classes”. Inevitably, she was favoured in the edit above everyone else (the likes of Roy “Catchphrase” Walker and singer Patti Boulaye barely featured at all).

However, my favourite moment had nothing to do with social injustice, spiritual awakenings or flatulent actresses. It was when McCoy's avuncular mask slipped briefly after a local innocently asked what Doctor Who was. “It's a television programme that's been running for 50 years,” he mumbled pointedly. Simmer down, Sylv, the Doctor clearly hasn't conquered Jaipur yet. The locals have more pressing things to think about.

A moving tribute to an unsung British hero, Children Saved from the Nazis: The Story of Sir Nicholas Winton showed how an unassuming London stockbroker took it upon himself to rescue over 600 Czechoslovakian children on the eve of WWII. The definition of humility, Winton's selfless act would've remained secret had his wife not stumbled across the truth 50 years later while rummaging through their attic. It was a reminder that life-affirming triumphs can often flourish in the tide of abject horror.

Der Führer's death aside, there wasn't a trace of light amid the darkness in The Day Hitler Died. Although the dismal details of his final days in a bunker beneath war-torn Berlin are widely known, this rigorous documentary had a fascinating ace up its sleeve: previously unseen archive footage, filmed for the Nuremberg Trials, of Hitler's bunker-dwelling cohorts confirming his death.

The most morbidly compelling contribution came from the soldier tasked with standing guard over Hitler's funeral pyre as Russian bombardment raged overhead. When this personification of evil was finally reduced to ash, the young man gave a Nazi salute and retreated. A miasma of insanity, right to the end.