Sunday, 24 July 2016

TV Review: THE SECRET AGENT + ONE NIGHT IN 2012: AN IMAGINE SPECIAL

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


The Secret Agent: Sunday, BBC One

One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special: Sunday, BBC One

Terrorist cells. Suicide bombers. Russia flexing its muscles. Late 19th century Britain was a dangerous place. Thank God we’ve come so far since then.

Adapted from the novel by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent is an alarmingly prophetic period thriller starring Toby Jones as Verloc, a Soho sex shop owner who moonlights as an informer for the Russian embassy.

Driven by profit rather than any great ideological impulse, he earns an extra crust by sharing fairly banal information about the anarchist gang whose trust he’s earned. But his life becomes a waking nightmare when the embassy orders him to commit an act of terrorism on the gang’s behalf, thus provoking the British government into hard-line action.

As explained by the Russian secretary, played with reptilian zeal by David Dawson, “England is in need of a jolly good scare, an outrage that will summon this country from its slumber. Then we unleash a law that will clamp down on the anarchist threat.”

This compelling three-part drama is full of such moments, when the prescience of its storyline and themes smacks us full in the face. Granted, there are times when writer Tony Marchant gets slightly carried away with this aspect, and practically turns to the audience to scream, “Do you see?! Do you see what I’m getting at?!” But given the overall strength of the piece, that’s forgivable.

The bold antithesis of most Sunday night period dramas, The Secret Agent is mired in a clammy fog of impending catastrophe. Jones is typically arresting as an essentially amoral, cowardly man who nevertheless invites a kernel of sympathy. After all, he’s in the grip of an appalling moral dilemma. If Verloc refuses his orders, the Russians will sign his death warrant by exposing his true colours to every terrorist group in Europe.

Ian Hart also shines as a truly unsettling nihilist with a home-made bomb strapped under his coat at all times. The crazed embodiment of a terror which can’t be reasoned with, he’s driven solely by a desire to cause pain and chaos for its own sake.

Given the relentlessly horrendous state of the world, this impressive adaptation of Conrad’s prophecy couldn’t be more relevant. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

Still, it was nice of One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special to remind us of that fleeting moment of national pride and optimism engendered by Danny Boyle’s justly lauded Olympics opening ceremony.

An in-depth documentary about the making of this triumphant event, it reinforced the fact that no one expected it to succeed. We expected the worst, because we always do in this country. It’s part of our national character. Disaster beckoned. The knives were out. Britain was about to humiliate itself in the eyes of the world.

Of course, what actually transpired was a heartening, powerful and subversive celebration of immigration, industrialisation, free healthcare and Britain’s vast contribution to world-changing innovations and popular culture. But it was ultimately a tribute to the everyday folk who shape British life.

Alongside revealing contributions from Boyle and his team, the programme devoted just as much time to the dedicated volunteers. They were the real stars of the ceremony.

It also revealed – quelle surprise – that Cameron’s coalition government were opposed to the glorious NHS sequence. To his eternal credit, Boyle threatened to walk if this tribute to one of our greatest institutions was cut. Thankfully, he won. We all did.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

TV Review: THE JOB INTERVIEW + THE SECRET LIFE OF BROTHERS & SISTERS

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


The Job Interview: Tuesday, Channel 4

The Secret Life of Brothers and Sisters: Wednesday, Channel 4

Before I wade into The Job Interview, I should first offer a disclaimer. As an arty media wastrel, I’ve never actually had a proper job interview. I didn’t get where I am today without the twin benefits of blackmail and competition tickets.

But surely the process isn’t as needlessly contrived as shown in this new observational documentary series? Do employers really subject candidates to semi-elaborate role play exercises? If so, I’m amazed anyone has a job at all.

Filmed using fixed-rig cameras, the programme follows actual job-seekers prostrating themselves before genuine employers. The stakes are real. It encourages us to squirm in the company of nerve-wracked candidates as they struggle to sell themselves. We also get to see interviewers collapsing into giggles once certain candidates have left the room. That must do wonders for the latter’s self-esteem.

And yet despite all that, it’s a surprisingly benign voyeuristic exercise. Sure, it’s basically the annual gruelling interview episode from The Apprentice – the one we all enjoy the most – stretched out to a series, but the key difference is that, unlike most Apprentice candidates, the participants are recognisably human. The programme doesn’t mock them. On the contrary, it invites our sympathy.

The first episode also functioned as a sly commentary on this great nation’s class divide. The companies looking for new recruits were a van leasing company and a luxury weddings and events venue. The former was run by an affable pair of ordinary managers, while the latter was overseen by a sitcom-posh mother and daughter duo named Philippa and Bertie. Snooty and brusque, Philippa was like Anne Robinson fused with a cheese grater.

Meanwhile, at the van company, we rooted for candidates such as a single mum experiencing her first interview in twelve years. Getting the job meant the world to her, as she wanted to make her loved ones proud.

We also wallowed in the inherent pathos of a man in his fifties who was recently made redundant after 26 years at a brush-making factory. Seeing as the programme focused on their stories, they were obviously the final contenders. She got the job, but the employers were so impressed by his character, they asked him in again to see if he could fill another role.

Would he have achieved this happy outcome if the cameras weren’t present? I just don’t know any more. Either way, it was rather heart-warming.

Like the similarly benign First Dates, it’s a good-natured study of everyday folk enduring high-pressure situations. As with First Dates, however, their reasons for inviting added pressure by allowing themselves to be filmed is a matter for their psychiatrists.

There was more human anthropology in The Secret Life of Brothers and Sisters, in which behavioural scientists observed various young siblings on their first family camping holiday.

80% of us have siblings. It’s potentially the longest relationship of our lives. You can’t choose your brothers and sisters, so you’d better get along with them. Otherwise, watch out.

Thankfully, there was no screaming enmity on this harmonious campsite. We were introduced instead to some cute kids who clearly loved each other. Anyone hoping for Lord of the Flies horror would’ve been sorely disappointed.

Although it could never be mistaken for an important anthropological study, the programme did manage to provide some pleasant insight into the dynamics between kids embarking on life’s unknown voyage.

One day they’ll be trembling at job interviews. Or writing TV reviews. It’s a gamble. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

TV Review: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS + B IS FOR BOOK

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 9th July 2016.


Brief Encounters: Monday, STV

B is for Book: Tuesday, BBC Four

Essentially The Full Monty with lingerie and sex toys, Brief Encounters is, aptly, a skimpy affair about a group of ordinary women in early ‘80s Sheffield who decide to sell goods from the Ann Summers range.

Though billed as a comedy-drama, it doesn’t deliver on either front. Inevitably, scenes of the women presenting living room demonstrations of their “naughty” toys and undergarments are delivered in a light-hearted fashion, but they’re only gently amusing. Cosy comedy. The dramatic elements are so rote and predictable, they almost feel tacked on as an afterthought.

It’s not exactly bad as such. The very concept of faint praise could’ve been invented for this typically inoffensive ITV confection, in which an able cast of familiar faces do what they can with a competently written, wholly unsurprising script. Like an ageing married couple slipping into sexless twilight torpor, we’ve seen it all before.

It’s stocked full of archetypal, sub-Mike Leigh characters - Leigh stalwart Peter Wight crops up - such as the nouveau riche snob, the permed, predatory sexpot, and the frustrated middle-class housewife (Penelope Wilton). Every box is ticked with a kind of dutiful flourish.

Sophie Rundle (Happy Valley) is a quietly appealing presence as protagonist Steph, a young married working-class mum who seizes her chance to make some extra money when she spots an advert for Ann Summers saleswomen in the local newspaper. It’s also a way of escaping from her workaday rut – she’s a part-time cleaner for a well-off neighbour – and fulfilling her dreams of a worthwhile career.

The Ann Summers parties, though initially regarded with nervous suspicion by some of the women, present an opportunity to have fun and make new friends. What’s more, in a domestic world where disapproving patriarchs rule the roost, it’s a form of rebellious empowerment.

Thematically, it’s a sound premise. But Brief Encounters is stubbornly unwilling to explore its potential as a piece of gender commentary or social history in any great depth.

When Steph’s husband (Rundle’s Happy Valley co-star Karl Davies) is made redundant, the script goes through the motions of showing his wounded pride resentment of his wife’s new career.

The menfolk will doubtless come to terms with it in episode six, thus symbolising society’s gradual acceptance of sisters doing it for themselves (award yourself a tart beverage when Annie and Aretha appear on the soundtrack).

This is all projection, of course, but when confronted with a show which basically writes itself, even Nostradamus would be bang on the money.

However, it does feel more substantial if you regard it as an ominous prequel to harrowing BBC drama Threads, in which early ‘80s Sheffield was destroyed in a nuclear war.

A delightful celebration of the written word, B is for Book followed a group of Hackney primary school pupils as they discovered the joys of reading.

The “emotional journey” arc is one of the most clich├ęd devices in modern documentary-making, but in this case its usage was entirely apt and rewarding. Watching these kids gradually learn to read and grow in confidence over the space of a year was, dare I say it, quite magical.

Even the potentially twee conceit of using the kids as narrators supported the central theme of how important it is to encourage literacy at a formative age.

This charming essay was also one in the eye for critics of Britain’s education system. Good, dedicated teachers literally change lives.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

TV Review: THE LIVING & THE DEAD + LIFE INSIDE JAIL: HELL ON EARTH

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 2nd July 2016.


The Living and The Dead: Tuesday, BBC One

Life Inside Jail: Hell on Earth: Tuesday, STV

The gas-lit brainchild of Life on Mars creators Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, The Living and The Dead is a supernatural period drama which doesn’t scrimp on effective bumps and scares.

Part of that uniquely British sub-genre known as folk horror – a cult gathering epitomised by such classic films as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw  – it unfolds in the innately disquieting setting of late 19th century Somerset.

Inevitably, this rural locale boasts creeping traces of ancient pre-Christian religion, psychosexual weirdness and demonic possession. 

Our photogenic guides are a bright, modern young couple played by Colin Morgan (Merlin; Humans) and Charlotte Spencer. Intensely sensitive Nathan is a pioneering psychologist – a useful vocation in this increasingly unhinged environment - while jolly Charlotte is a leading photographer. It’s only a matter of time before her monochrome snaps capture something horrifically inexplicable.

You knew things were about to go drastically awry when, after returning to Nathan’s ailing farming community, Charlotte breezed, “A few weeks in the country are just what we need!”

Little did she realise that the local vicar’s teenage daughter had been possessed by a guttural maniac. What’s more, dangerous supernatural forces appear to be targeting her husband. But at least the industrial revolution has come along to rescue the area’s agricultural fortunes. Hasn’t it?

Bathed in a pleasingly spooky, insidious atmosphere, this promising yarn benefits greatly from elegant direction by Alice Troughton (Doctor Who), although I wish she’d resisted the temptation to include those hoary old horror props, the creepy Victorian doll and rocking horse. And I’m not yet convinced by the incorporation of a time travel element, which so far threatens to gild the lily. However, I can’t fault its ambition.

Inventive adult ghost stories are all too rare on TV these days, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of my niggling doubts. So far it has the potential to become a haunted gem.

The horror continued in Life Inside Jail: Hell on Earth, a two-part documentary filmed in one of New York’s largest, toughest jails.

Despite being familiar territory – American jailbirds must spend at least 25% of their cell time speaking to British documentary crews – it was, as such programmes always are, a sombrely voyeuristic account of a society gone awry.

Home to a thousand male and female inmates, the prison finds petty criminals rubbing shoulders with people accused of murder. Inevitably, we witnessed lives destroyed by drugs. One desperate young addict, who’d never been in trouble with the police before, was accused of murdering a woman to feed his habit. Trapped in a waking nightmare, he looked utterly dazed by what he’d done.

To stress the point that drug addiction can sink its fangs into anyone, the programme also included saddening scenes of a tearful mother, incarcerated for drug crimes, being visited by her daughters and grandchild. If that weren’t miserable enough, one of her daughters was later imprisoned in the same jail for heroin possession. History repeats itself without remorse.

As for the armed prison guards, they were typically willing to talk about their work on camera. It must be a welcome break from the ever-present threat of violence.

One guard admitted that he often thinks he’s crazy for choosing such a dangerous and depressing job. “It’s hopeless for society, man,” he sighed, as all around him an endless cycle of tragedy ensued.

Another guard was reduced to mordant giggles as she talked about some of the insane behaviour she encounters on a daily basis. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh to stop from crying.