Wednesday, 29 June 2016

TV Review: FRAT BOYS: INSIDE AMERICA'S FRATERNITIES + MR v MRS: CALL THE MEDIATOR

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 25th June 2016.


Frat Boys: Inside America’s Fraternities: Thursday, BBC Two

Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator: Tuesday, BBC Two

When Brits think of American college fraternities, our instant frames of reference are anarchically light-hearted films such as National Lampoon’s Animal House and - possibly- Richard Linklater’s latest, Everybody Wants Some!!

Our own equivalent would be the repulsive elitism of The Bullingdon Club, but somehow that doesn’t seem quite as fun and harmless as a bunch of drunk, shaggy American dudes twisting in togas to My Sharona.

That, of course, is the benign Hollywood fantasy. The sobering reality, as seen in the This World documentary, Frat Boys: Inside America’s Fraternities, is that these college hothouses are just as much of a vile breeding ground for powerful corporate and political leaders as our own Oxbridge gene pools.

In the last few hundred years, nearly half of America’s Presidents have belonged to a fraternity. It’s an honorific badge for life, and a potential fast-track into positions of influence.

The basic facts: college students traditionally pledge allegiance to a campus fraternity or - for women - sorority. Shared accommodation can cost up to $2,500 per term. For male students, it’s seen as a noble brotherhood. They repeatedly boast of sharing the same values and goals. That is, becoming as rich and successful as possible. Darwinism and the American Dream in microcosm.

But in this macho world full of brutal masonic rituals, where new students are sometimes horrifically beaten and branded, tragedy is an inevitable by-product. The secret initiation process known as hazing has resulted in several deaths over the years. Bound by a sacred oath, these heroic brotherhoods then concoct lies to cover their tracks.

Fearful of losing donations from their powerful fraternity alumni, colleges have been accused of covering up the truth with students and the police.

Needless to say, misogyny runs rampant in an obnoxious, shallow subculture where hard-partying jocks roar at each other’s pecs and guzzle booze from footwear. Women – sorority girls - are treated as trophies. Rape cases frequently creep into the headlines. It’s endemic.

One female student spoke chillingly of being drugged and raped at a frat-house party. She didn’t report the crime, as she feels that colleges don’t encourage women to make such allegations. As she stated bluntly, they’re “the personification of patriarchy… no one wants to be known as the rape school.”

Naturally, this dispiriting programme focused on the darker aspects of frat life, because that’s where the story lies. Not every frat boy is a potential murderer or sex criminal.

But you can’t ignore the horrifying pitfalls of a protected system where social, financial and sexual triumphs are viewed as the ultimate sordid goal. You can’t ignore this world.

So you leave college, get a job, get married and live happily ever after. Right? Wrong, otherwise why would Britain need a professional network of family mediators to help couples struggling with divorce?

Filmed over a year, Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator offers intimate insight into the work of impartial mediators tasked with assisting estranged couples, some of whom can barely tolerate each other, as they seek to resolve difficult disputes and avoid costly court cases.

The director attempts to force a layer of black humour via ironic music cues, but it’s basically a depressing miasma of frosty grimaces, bitter rebukes, catastrophic passive-aggression and dreams gone horribly sour.

Each week we trace the stories of three couples. As with all forms of voyeuristic television, it’s impossible to avoid making your mind up about people you’ve never met: Jeremy Kyle, faux-cosy BBC style. It’s guilty viewing in the most uncomfortable sense.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

TV Review: THE NEW GYPSY KINGS + BORN ON THE SAME DAY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 18th June 2016.


This World: The New Gypsy Kings: Thursday, BBC Two

Born on the Same Day: Tuesday, Channel 4

When one thinks of traditional European gypsies, the word “bling” doesn’t readily leap to mind.

80% of Romanian Gypsies live below the poverty line. Unemployment is almost universal. And yet, as seen in This World: The New Gypsy Kings, in recent years a flashy new genre of Gypsy pop has swept the nation.

Called manele, it’s a kind of commercial electro-folk music glorifying material wealth and hedonism. Despite its popularity, manele has attracted fierce criticism from within the Roma community for its moral bankruptcy and overt links to organised crime.

But is it all bad? Director Liviu Tipurita, who’s been making documentaries about Romanian gypsies for many years, tried to find out by delving into a bleak, strange, murky world of prejudice, violence, people trafficking and even witchcraft, where a career in music is one of the few ways of escaping from poverty.

On a more positive note, Tipurita showed how, in the last 20 years, successful Gypsy musicians have ploughed their earnings into building houses and schools for poor communities which were once without basic sanitation. But those musicians are devoted to traditional gypsy music and values; Manele performers are primarily concerned with their own booming bank balance.

We were introduced to mansion-dwelling superstars who openly boast of mafia connections, plus Romania’s answer to Simon Cowell – a mogul known as Dan the Badger – and a shady businessman married to “one of the world’s most powerful witches”. She’s currently in prison for bribing a judge. All Tipurita had to do was switch on his camera to capture an endless cavalcade of weirdness.

As far as Dan the Badger is concerned, the manele lifestyle is something for Gypsies to aspire to. He sees himself as an inspirational figure. In a way, he is. After all, during the brutal reign of Ceausescu, Romanian Gypsies weren’t even recognised as an ethnic minority. Only in the last 30 years, in the wake of revolt and Ceausescu’s execution, has their culture been widely celebrated.

But let’s not get carried away. One of manele’s originators served nine years in prison for attacking a policeman with a Samurai sword. The music blatantly glorifies gangsterism. For the most part, Tipurita’s eye-opening film resembled an Eastern European version of The Godfather. The entire movement is funded by criminality.

He didn’t need to labour the point that these shameless capitalists are drowning in dubious money while half the country starves. The sombre truth was self-evident.

Some TV concepts are so simple yet effective, you wonder why they weren’t exploited sooner. Born on the Same Day is one such beast.

Take a random date from history – in the case of this opening episode, 7th March 1944 – and trace the life of a notable figure born on that day. So far, so History Channel. But here’s the neat little twist: to illustrate that all lives are extraordinary, you then tell the stories of lesser-known people born within the same 24 hours.

It began with famed explorer Ranulph Fiennes. A remarkable man, but the show’s emotional heft sprang from Ewart and Frances. 

A first-generation Jamaican immigrant, Ewart’s story encompassed decades of racism. And yet he’s never let it define him. 

Meanwhile, Frances suffered third-degree burns as a child. She went on to foster and adopt sick children. A kinder woman you’d be hard-pressed to meet.

A winning format, it’s a fine, sincere and moving piece of social history.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

TV Review: NEW BLOOD + UK'S BEST PART TIME BAND

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11th June 2016.


New Blood: Thursday, BBC One

UK’s Best Part Time Band: Friday, BBC Four

I don’t know what’s worse: the murky world of illegal medical testing, or New Blood, an atrocious BBC thriller about the murky world of illegal medical testing.

Written – or rather, assembled – by Anthony Horowitz, the creator of somnambulant detective drama Foyle’s War, it’s a bizarrely inept, dated concoction. With its hackneyed script, woefully over-stylised direction and one-note acting, it’s like a bad ‘90s children’s drama fused with Hollyoaks After Dark

Horowitz, who’s 61, has committed the excruciating crime of delivering an old man’s idea of a cutting edge youth drama.

The plot? Well, if you must. A group of penniless British backpackers answer an advert for paid medical testing while travelling in India. For some reason, one of them goes crazy and stabs a nurse with a scalpel. Six years later in London, another member of the group is found dead after falling from a building. It looks like suicide, but Rash, an ambitious young PC, suspects foul play.

Meanwhile, Stefan from the fraud squad has gone undercover to investigate a corrupt pharmaceutical company. Even though he lives with a bunch of lazy Poles – not my assessment, that’s how they’re depicted – his attempt at a Polish accent makes him sound like the world’s worst Borat impersonator.

Somehow – it doesn’t really matter – he and Rash eventually team up to expose a conspiracy that so far involves a predatory homosexual, a stereotypical oddball who lives with his mum, the kind of sexy female assassins who only exist in bad thrillers, and Scottish actor Mark Bonnar playing a sinister man from the ministry, just as he did in the recent Undercover

His presence serves as a reminder that, for all its flaws, Undercover was a far superior conspiracy thriller than New Blood. Then again, so is an average episode of Father Dowling Investigates.

Horowitz is obviously trying to say something important about state corruption and the trials of modern metropolitan living, but he delivers his message with all the subtlety of an H bomb. 

It’s a blandly mechanical drama, unencumbered by depth or nuance. Every line of dialogue is lazily culled from the big book of cop show clich├ęs: poor Mark Addy is particularly ill-served by the thankless role of a truculent copper defined by a constant belch of tiresome sarcasm.

Conclusion: Horowitz wrote this, barely, while recovering from the effects of a medical experiment gone wrong. It’s the only feasible explanation. 2016 has been an exceptional year for BBC drama so far. This is a major step backwards.

A benign antidote to The X Factor, UK’s Best Part Time Band is a cheerful series in which comedian and DJ Rhod Gilbert trawls the country looking for, well, the title says it all. There’s no prize as such. Instead it aims to celebrate people who make music for, in Gilbert’s words, “the sheer bloody love of it.” They aren’t after riches and fame, they simply dig what they do.

In the latest episode he travelled around the north and the midlands with affable Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, who offered polite constructive criticism and advice to various unsung musicians.

An eclectic bunch, they included a “modern mariachi” band who rehearse in the bedroom of their primary school teacher/leader’s mum, a punk band consisting of junior doctors, and a ska band fronted by three middle-aged factory worker brothers.

Without resorting to cheap sentiment, it’s a quietly heart-warming tribute to everyday folk with talent, commitment and desire.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

TV Review: VERSAILLES + A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4th June 2016.

https://www.thecourier.co.uk/category/lifestyle/entertainment/

Versailles: Wednesday, BBC Two

A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Monday, BBC One

A gilded palace of sin full of rampant scheming and deadly betrayal, the court of King Louis XIV should be rich fodder for an entertaining melodrama. It’s a pity no one told the makers of Versailles that.

Oh, they’ve certainly put all the gory pieces in place – it’s positively caked in sex and violence – but they’ve done so in such a self-conscious, po-faced way, this new series achieves the unappetising feat of being boring and risible simultaneously.

Wearing its racy “adult” attributes on its billowing lacy sleeve, it feels like something knocked up by a feverish teenage boy with a passing interest in French history. There’s nothing wrong with mixing fact and fiction per se – this is drama, not documentary – but it requires more assurance than this.

It doesn’t help that young Louis himself comes across, not as a charismatic strategist as intended, but as a pouting, jumped-up hairdresser. Whenever he and his photogenic kin aren’t pontificating solemnly, they’re roistering preposterously with citrus fruits. 

Sexual congress and gratuitous murders aside – which only seem included to keep viewers awake - Versaille is just a bunch of spaniel-haired men emoting at each other in dimly lit rooms. It’s like a midnight gathering of the Johnny Depp fan-club.

At one point we were treated to a riveting discussion about tax revenues. The supposedly dramatic closing moments – when the Queen’s new-born baby was revealed to be black – were inadvertently hilarious. The whole thing is a tonal misfire, oscillating uncomfortably between rampant melodrama and taking itself very seriously indeed.

The bland cast of unknowns are adrift with this material. They may be fine actors in other contexts, but how can you tell as they wade awkwardly through such clumsy dialogue? It’s a right royal mess.

It would be much more fun in the artisan hands of Russell T. Davies. As evinced by his suitably playful adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the former Doctor Who show-runner has lost none of his spark for mixing comedy, fantasy and romance.

Of course, that’s all there in the original text, but RTD (as the cool kids call him) put his own distinct stamp on this version, but without drawing arrogant attention to himself. After all, the play’s the thing.

However, it undoubtedly had the feel of one of his old Doctor Who episodes. It even used members of the production team, a pushy orchestral score from composer Murray Gold, and a woolly-hatted cameo from Bernard Cribbins. But if any Shakespeare play requires a broad touch of the sci-fi fantastical, it’s this enjoyably daft confection.

It’s probably fair to say that no Shakespeare adaptation has ever contained so much CGI (I haven’t seen Olivier’s Henry V). The moon-lit forest looked suitably magical. It also provided further proof that Shakey’s work is easy to understand and enjoy, even for novices, as long as it’s staged competently.

The standouts from a fine cast were a perfectly chosen Matt Lucas stealing the show as Bottom, and John Hannah suggesting that he should play villains more often.

And thank God – or RTD, whichever you prefer – that, unlike so many modern Shakespeare adaptations, there wasn’t an embarrassing rap chorus to be found. That was perhaps its greatest achievement of all.