Saturday, 19 March 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19th March 2016.

Houdini & Doyle: Sunday, STV

Inside Obama’s White House: Tuesday, BBC Two

Jo Brand’s Hell of a Walk for Sport Relief: Thursday, BBC One
A slapdash heap of clumsy old bunkum, Houdini & Doyle takes a dubious premise – what if legendary escapologist Harry Houdini and Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had been a crime-busting duo in Edwardian London? – and unravels hopelessly before your very eyes.

ITV obviously have no faith in this woebegone attempt to rip off BBC favourites Sherlock and Jonathan Creek, hence why they bunged episode one out at 10:15pm on a Sunday before relegating the rest of the series to their subscription channel ITV Encore. Even the cast, including a woefully miscast Stephen Mangan as Doyle, look embarrassed.

I detected genuine pain in Mangan’s voice when, after ploughing through 50 minutes of poorly-written drivel, he cried, “What the hell just happened?!” I’ve seen episodes of Scooby-Doo with more depth.

Houdini and Doyle, who share no chemistry whatsoever, are your “classic” odd couple. Houdini is a chirpy rationalist. Doyle believes in the spirit world. Assisted by a bland female police officer with an incongruous modern outlook, they investigate crimes with a supposedly supernatural bent.

The biggest mystery of all, one which even they could never solve, is how a drama which, at a push, could’ve succeeded as an agreeable piece of daft escapism has reached the screen in such a charmless, empty, ill-conceived state.

When even the most powerful man in the world can’t get what he wants, what chance does anyone have? That was the sobering message behind our introductory visit to Inside Obama’s White House, a riveting new series from documentary heavyweights Norma Percy and Brian Lapping.

It’s typical of their work in that it plunges viewers into the rapid torrents of recent political history via frank contributions from the people who were actually involved: history unfolding as insider drama. Although he only appeared via archive footage in episode one, an in-depth interview with Obama himself will feature later on.

By focusing on his first 100 days in office, when the powerful wave of optimism surrounding him was immediately punctured by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, it showed how, despite his obvious political nous, he never stood much of a chance of delivering on his nation-changing promises. Indeed, it seems nigh on impossible to achieve anything as President if the banks and the Senate are against you. 

And yet somehow, in the middle of this epic marathon of struggle and frustration, Obama seemed to remain impossibly cool and unflappable. That’s a legacy of sorts, I suppose.

He’s the sort of person who could pull off a grueling charity challenge without breaking a sweat, so maybe that’s something he can focus on when he exits the White House. Who wouldn’t support a fancy-dress fun run with Barack Obama?

If Jo Brand’s Hell of a Walk for Sport Relief taught us anything, it’s that the huddled masses are only too happy to come out in force for famous faces raising money for charity, even if that involves standing around and waving in the freezing winter rain.

Over seven days recently, Brand walked 135 miles from the Humber Bridge to Liverpool, partly as a way of encouraging other overweight, older women to keep fit.

But there was a compassionate political subtext to her ordeal, as she trudged across the once thriving industrial north to meet unemployed people from disadvantaged communities, whose straightforward generosity stood in stark contrast to the selfishness and greed of our egregious government overlords. 

A quietly subversive hour of television.

Sunday, 13 March 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12th March 2016.

Doctor Thorne: Sunday, STV

The Aliens: Tuesday, E4

Stop/Start: Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Paupers! Mourn ye not for the demise of Downton Abbey, for oleaginous Tory apologist Lord Julian Fellowes hath returned with another luxury bauble of frock-coated period drama! Let joy be unconfined.

An adaptation of a 19th century novel by Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne stars Tom Hollander, looking for all the world like a limited edition Victorian Lego man, as a kindly physician struggling to protect his sweet, penniless niece from a whirling community of money-obsessed snobs.

Fellowes, an awful snob himself, does at least ridicule their grasping aspirations; if he wasn't working from another writer's text, he'd almost certainly ask us to sympathise with them in some way. 

With its ludicrously heightened summer colour palette and near-impenetrable conversations involving the surnames of characters we hadn't met yet – Fellowes dumps exposition with all the finesse of a blunderbuss - the first half of episode one felt like a silly French & Saunders spoof of This Sort Of Thing.

But when the simple narrative eventually became clear – unbeknownst to anyone but Thorne, his niece is the heir to a fortune owned by Ian McShane's entertainingly crude Lord of the manor - it revealed itself to be a fairly diverting social satire elevated by a fine cast.

The Americans will love it, which is the main thing as far as ITV are concerned.  

An aggressively unfunny black comedy with ham-fisted allegorical pretensions, The Aliens
depicts a 21st century Britain identical to our own, except for the presence of humanoid beings from another planet who are forced to live in a fortified urban ghetto.

This vilified underclass are pejoratively known as “Morks” (geddit?) and, having presumably replaced travellers, immigrants and benefit claimants as society's knee-jerk victims of choice, fulfil the nasty human urge to blame someone else for our problems.

It's a premise more or less stolen from the superior South African sci-fi film District 9, but whereas that had something valuable to say about racism, The Aliens strikes a weirdly reactionary tone for a show that presumably hopes to promote an anti-prejudice message.

Its stained with sniggering homophobia and a general meanness of spirit which not even the likeable hang-dog presence of This Is England and Being Human star Michael Socha can alleviate.

He plays a border patrol guard whose bigotry will obviously be challenged following his discovery that – in a twist visible from space – he's half-alien. This pivotal plot point is typical of how poorly conceived the show is: he's somehow survived into his twenties without realising he's half-alien, despite the fact that he's the only member of his team who's physically incapacitated by the technology they use to keep aliens in their place.

Socha deserves better than this. So do we.   

Written by and starring Jack Docherty of Absolutely fame, Stop/Start is the latest promising pilot from  the Comedy Playhouse strand. It's a Glasgow-based post-modern sitcom in which three couples in varying states of dysfunction share their inner monologues via direct-to-camera asides.

Sharp, funny and refreshingly unsentimental – some of its brutally frank observations elicited gasps from the studio audience – it's that rare beast: a middle-class, middle-aged relationship comedy with obvious popular and critical appeal.

Its central device could potentially annoy, but Docherty and a great cast including John Thomson, Kerry Godliman and Nigel Havers sell it expertly. More please!

Saturday, 5 March 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 5th March 2016.

Churchill's Secret: Sunday, STV

Murder: Thursday, BBC Two

Broken Biscuits: Friday BBC One

Michael Gambon is an actor who's never been troubled by vanity. 30 years ago he gained TV immortality as the psoriasis-ridden centrepiece of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective. In Churchill's Secret he reaffirmed his prone position as Britain's leading bed-based Thespian. It was a finer performance than most actors manage in a vertical lifetime.

In 1953, during his final term as Prime Minister, Churchill suffered a life-threatening stroke which left him in no state to govern. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, the king was on his deathbed, leaving Britain without a leader.

Though he eventually recovered and lived for another 12 years, this standalone drama proved quite effective in examining the trials of an almost mythical symbol of indomitable spirit struggling with mortal decay. It was King Lear, basically, but with a vaguely happy ending.

A slurring mound of crumpled pathos, Gambon's Churchill was surrounded by his family – and by tacit extension, the nation - in a state of disarray. Having lived for decades in the Great Man's shadow, how would they cope without him? They needed him, were defined by him. But did he ever truly need them? Yes, as it turned out.

Chief among his bedside fretters was his loyal wife, Clemmie, played by Lindsay Duncan with her usual powdery steel and poise. Her determination to preserve his dignity was quite touching, but typical of the (very British) reserve which defined the production; unseemly displays of sentiment were kept under wraps.

While its avoidance of schmaltz was commendable – just think of how glutinous this story of undying love between a Great Man and his Rock could've been – its reserve worked against it in the end; while it's probably asking too much of a drama to teach us anything “new” about Churchill at this stage, this modest little chamber piece didn't say much of interest about him at all.

He was an irascible ox with a marshmallow centre? I suppose that counts as insight, of sorts.

It's a shame, as on the whole the script managed to avoid the usual biopic crime of grinding heavy-handedness. That is, apart from when it came to Romola Garai's no-nonsense northern nurse – no screen northerner has ever been shown to suffer nonsense knowingly – who wasn't so much a character as a fictional plot device against which Clemmie could deliver exposition and gradually unload her repressed emotions.

The subtext of Garai's nurse being a working-class, left-wing modern woman rebelling against Churchill's patriarchal empire was so half-hearted, they needn't have bothered.

It was a quietly admirable production in many ways, but like Churchill after a few too many brandies and cigars, it could only be approached at arm's length.

The disappointing follow-up to a BAFTA-winning single drama from 2013, Murder comprises three plays in which a small cast of actors explore different facets of a fictional murder case via monologues delivered straight to camera. This inventive approach worked the first time, but here the effect proved cold, mannered, alienating and pretentious. 

For a supposedly intense meditation on grief and trauma, it was curiously flat and underwhelming; an overcooked bore. The mystery involving the corpse of a man dragged from the River Tweed near Peebles wasn't sufficiently interesting, and for all his attempts at emotional complexity, writer Robert Jones failed to get under the skin of his tortured characters. An ambitious failure, sadly.

Writer/director Craig Cash (The Royle Family; Early Doors) employed a similar stylistic approach to more promising effect in Broken Biscuits, a sitcom pilot shown as part of the BBC's Comedy Playhouse strand.

Indebted to Alan Bennett's peerless Talking Heads, this compendium of gently overlapping vignettes was faultlessly delivered by a cast including Alison Steadman and Alun Armstrong as fussy B&B owners – Steadman's fixed grin was a particular highlight – plus Stephanie Cole and Timothy West as a gossipy couple obsessed with their smoke alarm. But the most intriguing segment involved a young doctor and his disabled brother, whose wry inner monologue only we were privvy to.

Infused with Cash's usual warmth and observational wit, I hope it returns for a full series. Plus, any show that uses Tom Waits' heart-tugging Take It With Me as its theme song is A-okay by me.