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.

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