This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30th April 2016.
Flowers: Monday to Friday, Channel 4
Flowers: Monday to Friday, Channel 4
The Secret: Friday, STV
Destined to be dimly recalled in years to come as “that rubbish with Olivia Colman and Julian Barratt”, Flowers was a black comedy misfire which somehow managed to be overcooked and under-powered simultaneously.
Channel 4 trailed it as an ambitious piece of event television, hence why they stripped all six episodes throughout the week. But I suspect the real reason for that was to get it out of the way as quickly as possible.
A sort of rural British Addams Family, it followed a dysfunctional brood as they fell apart in a claustrophobic country house. Spending time in their company was immensely trying. Black comedy characters don’t have to be likeable, but they need to be interesting. This lot were miserable bores who it was impossible to care about.
Barratt, who’s very good at looking lost, played the depressed author of a popular range of children’s books. His failed suicide attempt came back to haunt him throughout the series, leading to a comical misunderstanding involving a child and a “secret magic snake” with a punchline so blatantly sign-posted it was visible from space.
Writer/director Will Sharpe tried far too hard to present Flowers as weirdly subversive, but the weirdness felt incredibly forced. It wasn’t funny enough to succeed as comedy, and too alienating to work as a serious study of clinical depression. He did manage to conjure a pleasingly gloomy bucolic atmosphere, but his script was an overbearing, tonally confused mess.
And what on earth was going on with the wacky Japanese houseboy/illustrator? A borderline dubious racial stereotype, his jarring presence was typical of Sharpe’s tendency to overdo things in the wrong direction. Sharpe, who is English/Japanese, actually played this character himself, but despite some laboured attempts to imbue him with pathos, the performance didn’t work. Almost nothing in Flowers did.
Its sole saving grace was a typically superb performance from Dame Olivia Colman. Making full use of her wonderfully expressive face, her beaming mask of sunny desperation was constantly under attack from her cracked inner turmoil and passive-aggressive undertow. Performing on the verge of hysteria is something she excels at, but in this case her brilliance far exceeded her tiresome material.
Fact: you’re only ever five minutes away from yet another brooding drama starring James Nesbitt. His latest salvo of grim intensity is The Secret, a superior thriller set in Troubles-era Northern Ireland in which he (and his fascinating hair transplant) plays a seemingly respectable pillar of his local Baptist Church. But as he embarks on an affair with another married member of the church, his true psychotic character gradually becomes apparent.
Based on a horrifying true story, this righteous attack on religious hypocrisy works because it manages to fuse its underlying ire with a bleakly compelling storyline and morally complex characters. Largely shorn of incidental music, its queasy hand-held quality creates an unforgiving sense of realism.
Without being overdone, the Troubles backdrop exacerbates the sense of a world in which violence and murder are a means to an end.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Nesbitt’s role, as it fully exploits his ability to appear outwardly charming while masking a dark, disturbing core. The great Jason Watkins also stands out as a creepily controlling pastor/cult leader.
The BBC have led the way with drama this year, but The Secret should be a deserved hit for ITV. Despite its bland, forgettable title, it’s an impressive piece of work.