Saturday, 30 April 2016


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

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.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


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

I Want My Wife Back: Monday, BBC One

Michael McIntyre’s Big Show: Saturday, BBC One

Only in the boating pond of gentle British farce do the following vessels collide: meddling in-laws, slovenly best friends, philandering workmates, flirtatious secretaries, easily avoidable misunderstandings and, drowning in the middle, our old friend the harassed, suburban middle-aged man shrugging haplessly.

There’s nothing wrong with these stock devices in and of themselves, it’s just that I Want My Wife Back sticks to them with rigid orthodoxy.

Part of BBC One’s new Monday night comedy power hour – the other half being a curious Peter Kay compilation largely comprised of work he did for Channel 4 – it’s a traditional sitcom starring Ben Miller as Murray, a well-meaning business drone who is dismayed when his wife decides to leave him on her 40th birthday.

Murray is a workaholic, an absent partner, so she’s had enough. The spark has gone. But Murray still loves her (it’s suggested that she still has glimmers of affection for him), so he does everything in his limited power to woo her back.

It’s a half-decent premise, predictably executed. Miller, a competent comic actor, does what he can with his beleaguered nice guy act. But his hunched-up jumble of jittery faux pas can’t disguise the fact that Murray is a bland protagonist. It’s amiable enough, but we’ve seen it all before.

Inevitably, the first episode climaxed (gently, of course) with a surprise 40th birthday party during which everything went wrong. Thanks to the estranged wife’s parents, she and Murray were shipped off to a romantic foreign holiday. Oh the calamity!

The first episode of any sitcom has to work hard to get viewers onside. We need time to get to know the characters and for the situation to bed in, so it’s perhaps unfair to dismiss I Want My Wife Back completely at this point. But there was nothing in this lazy opener to suggest that it will offer any surprises in future.

Joining it squarely in the middle of the road is Michael McIntyre’s Big Show. It’s a shamelessly derivative yet tolerable heap of Saturday night variety flotsam in which the tirelessly mainstream comic unleashes a slick barrage of Beadle-esque disguises, Edmonds-style pranks and Barrymore-shaped japes with the Great British Public.

I’m not a McIntyre fan, although I appreciate his appeal and the skill with which he plies his trade. Delivering trite observations in a consummately professional, excitable simian fashion, he’s the benign king of cuddly comfort comedy. He’s good at what he does, but what he does is of no lasting interest. Nevertheless, it would be silly (albeit funny, a la Stewart Lee) to pretend that he’s detestable in any way.

A seemingly improvised segment with an audience member showed how quick he can be, and the item in which he surprises members of the public is quite sweet. Last week it was a Welsh hairdresser who dreams of becoming a professional singer. Big-hearted McIntyre rewarded her with a Michael Ball duet. Surely every girl’s fantasy?

There was music for the kids from Tinie Tempah, old-fashioned novelty from some acrobats, and a mildly amusing skit involving Geri Halliwell (she’s apparently a Horner now) during which McIntyre harmlessly bothered people in her mobile phone address book.

All in all, a passable rival for Ant & Dec on t’other side.

And if we must have MOR comedians, then I’d rather McIntyre over John Bishop. McIntyre has some presence at least. Bishop is just a man who says things.

Saturday, 16 April 2016


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

Scott & Bailey: Wednesday, STV

BBC: The Secret Files: Thursday, BBC Four
Thanks to the magnificent Happy Valley, writer/director Sally Wainwright is now rightfully recognised as one of Britain’s finest TV dramatists. As if to emphasise that point – and she’s earned the right – she returned last week with another series of her previous creation, Scott & Bailey, starring Lesley Sharp and Suranne as a pair of humane coppers.

Granted, she didn’t actually write this new mini-series – that honour went to Lee Warburton – but Scott & Bailey is distinctively hers; a female-fronted, northern cop show mired in plausible reality and unforced character detail.

From a distance it resembles a bog-standard police procedural – plods investigating nasty cases in dour weather – but on closer inspection it reveals itself as one of the genre’s leading lights.

Unlike most TV cops, the protagonists aren’t dysfunctional or quirky. They’re likeable, compassionate professionals with a dry sense of humour (some of Scott’s quips draw scripted attention to themselves, but I’ll magnanimously let that pass) and a warm, understated chemistry.

It also focuses on the interesting nuts and bolts of dogged police work, an aspect informed by the advisory involvement of former Detective Inspector Diane Taylor.

Bubbling under the surface of this latest case, in which they struggled to apprehend a serial killer who posts footage of his crimes on the darkest corners of the internet, was the story of two close friends who haven’t seen each other for a year. As always, the everyday trials of their private lives were as important as the case itself. This time we discovered that Bailey is pregnant. Meanwhile, Scott’s teenage daughter became embroiled in an underage sex investigation because of illicit selfies sent by her boyfriend.

It managed to explore these real-life issues without feeling too contrived or overcooked, so it’s a shame that the otherwise semi-naturalistic tone is completely at odds with an overbearing, needlessly dramatic incidental score. It’s not a documentary, it needs to meet the demands of an episodic hour of dynamic crime drama, but there’s no need to slather it in the soundtrack from a Yakuza-based B-movie.

That frustrating misgiving aside, this was a solid return from one of TV’s very best cop shows. Also, hats off to Warbuton for including jokey allusions to the original Pink Panther films and Hanna-Barbera’s animated Godzilla series from the 1970s. Yes, really.

Seeing as it must cost peanuts to produce, it’s hardly surprising that BBC Four opted to roll out a sequel to last year’s eye-opening traipse through the BBC’s vast archive of internal letters and memos between agents, executives and artists.

Once again presented by Penelope Keith, who I like to imagine living down there surrounded by cabinets and memorabilia, BBC: The Secret Files included some fascinating correspondence between the BBC’s notoriously dour founding father, Lord Reith, and his rival, Winston Churchill, plus an amused look at how the fusty old BBC dealt with the rise of rock and roll. This segment was worth it for the unique pleasure of hearing Keith say “1960s counterculture” in her cut-glass tones.

It also revealed that Morecambe & Wise’s producer initially felt that Eric would be better off without Ern, and that the redoubtable Barbara Wodehouse basically talked her way into a BBC contract following years of no-nonsense correspondence.

But my favourite moment was the revelation that a jazz song titled Where Is My Sunday Potato was once deemed “politically unsuitable” and banned. One can only wonder about its incendiary contents.