Monday, 30 May 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28th May 2016.

Secret Life of the Human Pups: Wednesday, Channel 4

Love, Nina: Friday, BBC One

We all want to be seen as different in some way, as unique individuals set apart from the masses. Some choose to express their iconoclasm by wearing humorous socks or pretending to enjoy experimental jazz. Others make a stand against conformity by dressing up in tight-fighting rubber dog costumes. Whatever works.

Despite its voyeuristic premise, Secret Life of the Human Pups took a sympathetic look at a growing subculture of men who live unusual double lives. Although it sprang from the underground fetish scene, it seems that for most human pups in the UK – current membership, around 10,000 – it’s not about sexual gratification.

Many of them are bored. They enjoy adopting a canine alter ego as a way of escaping from the dreary pressures of life. Whereas some people take the edge off with drugs and booze, these chaps take the healthier option of having their bellies rubbed by designated handlers. Others suffer from social anxiety. Theoretically, escaping into another identity and meeting likeminded, non-judgemental believers should improve their self-esteem. Just another form of cosplay, it all seems fairly harmless.

Of course, any practice deemed outside the accepted parameters of society will always come at a price for some. Tom, who sleeps in a cage – despite evidence to the contrary, he insists it’s perfectly comfortable – was last year honoured as the first ever Mr Puppy UK.

But Tom’s doggy desires destroyed his romantic relationship with Rachel, to whom he was once engaged. She’s still his best friend, but her sadness was palpable. “It would be a nice thing to have him back,” she sighed, as Tom prepared to compete for Mr Puppy Europe.

Back in Britain, it was telling that when a handler arranged for a group of them to take their first walk in public, only two of the 50 applicants turned up. While it was brave of these men to expose themselves on camera, their reticence to risk public wrath is understandable.

Personally, I suspect that most people don’t really care if grown men want to dress up as dogs for kicks. They’re not harming anyone, after all. What is normal anyway?

Thankfully, that was the position the programme took. While it didn’t ignore the innate humour of their fetish – it’s not as if human pups take themselves entirely seriously either – it didn’t poke fun at them. To each dog their own.

Adapted by Nick Hornby from Nina Stibbe’s autobiographical book about her time spent as a nanny for a well-heeled London family in 1982, Love, Nina is a comedy-drama which just about stays afloat on a waft of gentle charm.

A no-nonsense lass from Leicester – The Generic North, in other words – Nina looks after the precocious/annoying young sons of an elegantly lonely single mum (Helena Bonham Carter) while fending off snobbish putdowns from the gossipy Scottish poet next door (Jason Watkins, playing a character loosely based on Alan Bennett).

Despite being the living definition of a comedy designed to provoke, at best, wry smiles instead of laughs – it’s all very Radio 4; a so-so Brit flick in episodic form – it ambles along inoffensively.

But current BBC comedies such as Going Forward and Mum are far more effective in wringing subtle humour from character detail and social observations. Love, Nina, by comparison, is too whimsical, too insubstantial, to make much of an impression.  

Sunday, 22 May 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21st May 2016.

Going Forward: Thursday, BBC Four

Mum: Friday, BBC Two

It’s arguably the fault of Carla Lane and her endless glut of joke-shy sitcoms about unhappy middle-class women that the term “gentle comedy” was, for many years, derided as a euphemism for “not funny”. The truth of the matter is that, at its best, understated, low-key comedy – a more helpful description, I think – is often sharper, funnier and more penetrating than broader examples of the form.

A notable case in point was the BAFTA-winning sitcom Getting On, written by and starring Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine. Based in an NHS geriatric ward, it said more about the struggles and faults of that beleaguered institution, and the nuanced flaws of the human condition, than any number of dramas on the same subject. Plus it was funny, piercingly so.

Now Brand is back with a sequel, Going Forward, which follows droll, kindly Kim Wilde in her new job as a community healthcare worker. Although Scanlan and Pepperdine no longer share co-writing duties, it’s just as witty and humane as Getting On. Like that show, it takes a potentially depressing premise – in this case, a middle-aged married couple with mounting financial woes – and finds something curiously life-affirming at its core.

A large part of its charm is the natural chemistry between Brand and Omid Djalili as her struggling chauffeur husband, Dave. They really do feel like a beleaguered yet happy couple who’ve shared a couch for years. Generously, Brand gave Djalili the funniest scenes in episode one, via his exasperated, almost Pete and Dud-esque conversation with a colleague who insisted that chauffeuring in Iraq is where the jackpot lies. 

Despite its warmth, there’s an underlying edge of desperation to Going Forward. Kim and Dave are barely surviving. Kim’s sister is a neurotic mess. Kim’s clients are, of course, lonely, housebound elderly people who rely on her for company. But like all the best comedies of its careworn kind, it finds humour in sadness and vice versa. Without blowing its own trumpet, it’s a sly, compassionate comment on the reality of life for millions of Britons today. There’s nothing gentle about that.

Cut from a similar cloth, Mum is a well-observed new sitcom starring the brilliant Lesley Manville as Cathy, a recently bereaved widow struggling to put her life back together. Once again, it spins a rich seam of comedy from a wholly downbeat premise.

Each episode is set over a few hours inside Cathy’s suburban home, hence why it reminds me of Simon Amstell’s underrated Grandma’s House. Tender and sharp, humane but never sentimental, it revolves around that distinctly British conceit of maintaining politeness in the face of social awkwardness. 

It’s full of small talk, inadvertent insensitivity, condescending pettiness and pained smiles (Manville is so good at smiling through anguish). But like Going Forward, it doesn’t look down on its characters. Even Cathy’s horrifically snobbish sister-in-law is tinged with pathos.

Peter Mullan – an actor often typecast as hard-nuts – is a heart-tugging bundle of unrequited love as an old friend of Cathy’s, while newcomer Lisa McGrillis shines with an endearingly tactless performance as the well-meaning girlfriend of Cathy’s son. She’s that rarity, a “stupid” sitcom character written and performed with warmth. That’s Mum all over, really. It’s a gem.

Saturday, 14 May 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14th May 2016.

Attenborough at 90: Sunday, BBC One

Upstart Crow: Monday, BBC Two

Paul Whitelaw

This year marks the 90th birthday of a truly beloved British monarch, whose regal humility and tireless dedication have enriched millions of lives around the world. I am of course talking about Sir David Attenborough, the reigning king of Natural History television.

It’s impossible to avoid gushing praise when discussing Attenborough, because quite simply he deserves it. How many people can claim to have fundamentally changed the way we see the world? How many broadcasters are synonymous with the evolution of television itself? A serene emblem of the BBC at its world-beating best, his natural ability to communicate and inform is second to none. He’s one of the greatest broadcasters in the history of the medium, and we’ll almost certainly never see his like again.

So no wonder the BBC has gone all out in celebrating his 90th summer on Earth, a planet he’s taught us more about than anyone else in his field. The centrepiece of their ongoing season of archival treats was Attenborough at 90, an affable, touching, studio-based salute hosted by another consummate broadcaster, Kirsty Young.

Sprawled on a couch like a slightly crumpled yet still-spry deity, Attenborough was in delightful raconteur mode as he regaled the audience with a welter of anecdotes.

While all the usual clips were present and correct – let’s face it, we’ll never tire of those gorillas – the programme also served as a reminder that Attenborough was a pioneer, not only in the field of conservationism awareness and – in tandem with his peerless backroom boffins - technological advancements in Natural History filmmaking, but also across every genre of television via his progressive stewardship of BBC Two in the ‘60s.

Initially hired by the BBC as a producer, he basically fell into presenting by accident. Had he not decided to focus his energies on hosting documentaries, he would’ve probably ended up as Director General at one point. Executive management’s loss was a grateful nation’s gain.

Though he shows no sign of slowing down as such, Attenborough’s skill as a presenter is, alas, a dying discipline. Always devoted to his subject first and foremost, his programmes are never about him. He’s an informed guide, a benign teacher, a beacon of integrity and passion. The man owns a dinosaur egg, for heaven’s sake. Need I say more? Happy birthday, your Lordship.

Following the catastrophic disaster of The Wright Way – a sitcom so hackneyed it felt like a parody – it seemed that Ben Elton had finally lost it for good. A prolific talent in his ‘80s pomp, the man who co-wrote classics such as The Young Ones and Blackadder had since become a byword for selling out and treading water; a sad shadow of his former self.

So, you could’ve knocked me down with a pig’s bladder when I found myself laughing – actually laughing! – at Upstart Crow, his breezy new sitcom starring David Mitchell as a hapless William Shakespeare.

Swathed in welcome traces of Blackadder, it plays to his strengths via ridiculously wordy, witty dialogue, knowingly farcical contrivances, winningly broad performances and even – via genuinely pointed swipes at the Oxbridge mafia – a little bit of politics (yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen).

It’s funny, intelligent, self-aware and clearly the work of a re-energised writer who, for obvious reasons, feels he has something to prove again. It’s as if the real Ben Elton has suddenly woken up after 25 years in a nightmarish trance. A remarkable comeback. 

Saturday, 7 May 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 7th May 2016.

The Windsors: Friday, Channel 4

Grayson Perry: All Man: Thursday, Channel 4

Made by the team behind scattershot celebrity satire Star Stories, The Windsors boasts a similar blend of heightened silliness and healthy disrespect. It’s a brash sitcom in which our beloved Royal Family are depicted as a workshy bunch of freeloaders and functioning alcoholics. Happy birthday, your majesty!

Though framed as a Dallas-style soap parody, that’s really just an excuse for a hit and miss barrage of nonsense. Yes, it ticks off all the usual Royal gags – Harry and William are nice but dim etc. – but it attacks them with relish. It’s not an excoriating or particularly clever satire, but it’s full of crude, amusing energy.

It also subverts the tired comedy notion that Charles is a harmless duffer. Instead it portrays him as a dictatorial bully with a savage sense of entitlement. That alone makes it more interesting than your average Royal spoof.

His fellow antagonists are Camilla, an embittered, power-hungry schemer, and Pippa Middleton, a duplicitous sex-pot. Prince Edward also crops up as a desperate failure. It’s all good fun, although the absence of the Queen and Prince Philip is curious. Aren’t they ripe for parody too?

The writers presumably felt that someone among this motley shower of buffoons had to be vaguely sympathetic, if only so they can fall victim to the cruelty and stupidity of the others.

That honour goes to William and Kate, who are depicted as essentially well-meaning. Kate is ineffably bland, so her character doesn’t work, but full marks to Hugh Skinner (Will, the bumbling intern from W1A) for seizing the role of William – a hapless hero who’d rather fly helicopters than be King – with such dense enthusiasm. It’s the sort of role that Hugh Laurie would’ve nailed in his youth, but Skinner does a fine job.

Harry Enfield is also good value as Charles; his absurd line-readings are a particular highlight. And I’m always pleased to see Morgana Robinson, a comic actress whose devotion to grotesque clowning is admirable. Her own starring vehicles have never matched her talents, but she always adds a peculiar energy in supporting roles.

While no classic, The Windsors does at least milk some barbed comedy mileage from a deserving target.

Be honest, you’d watch a series about Britain’s hardest men hosted by Grayson Perry. Placing the cross-dressing artist in aggressively male environments sounds like a recipe for fish-out-of-water fun. But there’s far more to Grayson Perry: All Man than that.

It’s a thoughtful study of masculinity in which our charismatic host – “a lifelong cissy” – tries to find out why some men feel compelled to be macho. He began his investigation in the violent world of cage fighting, where his own prejudices were challenged by meeting dedicated, articulate athletes with an undercurrent of emotional vulnerability.

His natural ability to relate to anyone he meets triggered the poignant spectacle of one fighter breaking down while discussing his brother’s suicide. As well as providing a surrogate family and sense of self-worth, cage fighting for him was a form of therapy. Perry went on to reveal that 80% of people who kill themselves in the north-east, where the programme was based, are male.

He also illustrated how deprived backgrounds inspired many of these men to channel aggression into something positive. Perry handled this raw subject without a hint of condescension. On the contrary, it was a sensitive, moving, open-minded essay on working-class community pride and the tragic price of male stoicism.