Saturday, 24 September 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 24 September 2016.

National Treasure: Tuesday, Channel 4

Paranoid: Thursday, STV

Operation Yewtree and the VIP sex scandal is one of the biggest talking points of our age, so it was only a matter of time before it became the subject of a TV drama. Although the estimable Line of Duty recently employed it as a bold thematic plot point, National Treasure places the issue centre stage.

The treasure in question is Paul Finchley, a much-loved fictional comedy legend played by the similarly beloved yet non-fictional Robbie Coltrane.

He’s a charming, loving family man. His wife (Julie Walters) adores him even more than his public. He seems harmless. And then one morning the doorbell rings.

The police question him about an historic rape allegation. He denies all wrongdoing. The press get hold of the story – seemingly after a tip-off from the cops – and his life falls apart.

Gradually it’s revealed that Finchley isn’t as cuddly as he seems. He watches porn, cheats on his wife and sleeps with prostitutes. He’s seedy, dubious, but that doesn’t mean he’s a rapist. Does it?

Taking as his cue the compulsion, both in the media and among sections of society, to judge public figures before they’ve been proven innocent or guilty, writer Jack Thorne encourages us to regard Finchley with cautious suspicion.

An intriguing scene with Finchley and his psychologically damaged daughter (Andrea Riseborough) is key to the ambiguity running throughout episode one. When she tells him about a violent dream she had in which he sexualised her, is she unlocking a traumatic childhood memory?

Coltrane is superb as the pathetic, troubling, yet weirdly vulnerable Finchley, and Thorne handles this sensitive material in a measured way.

When more women came forward to accuse Finchley of sex offences, the stage was set for an exploration of a contentious area. But I worry that, should Finchley be found innocent, then this topical drama may lend credence to the dangerous culture of victim-blaming. Also, in purely dramatic terms, if Finchley is guilty, then the story might unfold exactly as expected. But as we know from real life, such stories often do.

Thorne, having decided to tackle such a complex issue, will have thought about this challenge in some depth – I admired his avoidance of obvious character exposition and authored moralising - so it will be interesting to see if he succeeds in overcoming potential pitfalls.

If he does, then National Treasure could be the nuanced, thought-provoking drama this subject both deserves and demands.

Aren’t you sick of thrillers in which people with mental health issues are portrayed as dangers to society, especially when – cliché of clichés – they’re off their meds? Paranoid was guilty of this and more.

A quotidian police procedural, it features standard beats such as a quipping crime scene investigation, cops receiving cryptic messages from a mysterious stranger ahead of the game, and a psychiatrist helpfully providing simplistic medical exposition. It even threw in a female Scandi-cop for good measure.

It attempts to embellish its investigators with details of their troubled private lives, but Scott & Bailey it ain’t. However, this allows the ever-reliable Robert Glenister to deliver solid work as a depressed copper suffering panic attacks. Elsewhere, Lesley Sharp is unnervingly serene as a strangely observant Quaker (the most sinister kind of Quaker).

Both deserve better than Paranoid. Although billed as a conspiracy thriller, it fails to provide the intrigue, drive and scope that the genre requires. How can you be thrilled when you don’t care about the conspiracy?

Monday, 19 September 2016


This article originally appeared in The Dundee Courier on 17 September 2016.

Joanna Lumley’s Japan: Friday, STV

Celebrity Home Secrets: Monday, STV

In the far-flung court of the celebrity travelogue, Palin is the unconquerable king. He started this whole racket in the first place with Around the World in 80 Days, but let’s not blame him for that. He knew not what he wrought.

However, if we must put up with programmes in which famous people go on expense-free foreign holidays – and clearly we must – then Palin does at least have two highly capable lieutenants: Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley. Like him, you always get a sense that they’re genuinely interested in the cultures they engage with. They’re the best at what they do.

In the latest episode of Joanna Lumley’s Japan – a title which suggests she’s gone mad with power and staged a political coup – the charming Thesp once again displayed her natural command of the formula.

With that warm, familiar voice set to Maximum Caramel mode, she marvelled at the vast wonders of thoroughly modern Tokyo.

Western documentaries about Japanese culture often adopt a condescending tone, but Lumley is too courteous to mock its supposedly wild and wacky weirdness. Instead she strove to celebrate Japan as a country in the gradual process of laying to rest its old social restrictions.

Its image as a strict beacon of conformity was challenged by Lumley’s visit to a progressive kindergarten where individual expression is encouraged. This laudable institution may be a notable exception in Japanese society, but it’s a step in the right direction.

By contrast, her conversation with a traditional Geisha Girl was rather sad. It appears to be such an oppressive, lonely life. There was also something slightly dubious about Lumley’s encounter with an 18-strong girl band, whose audience consists almost entirely of men. Have they just come to ogle these girls? Or is it just a bit of harmless, innocent fun? I couldn’t make my mind up, and nor, I suspect, could our host.

If Lumley didn’t come across as such a nice, genuine person, her breathy style of narration and gushing expressions of awe would be laughable. But I find her quite endearing, even when she flirts with self-parody by using verbose phrases such as “an unfathomable matrix of discombobulation.”

However, such borderline pretention is preferable to enduring the likes of a bored Paul Merton staring wryly at some unusual foreign hats. At least Lumley looks like she’s being enriched by her adventures. Like Palin and Connolly, she also seems to enjoy meeting people and enquiring about their lives.

For that reason, I actually learned something new about the subject at hand. That should be the point of any travelogue, of course, but it’s all too rarely the case in reality. Long may Lumley broaden her carbon footprint.

While watching the latest episode of Celebrity Home Secrets, it struck me that Janet Street-Porter would be a dreadful travelogue presenter.

I’ve always liked her, despite disagreeing with some of the guff she comes out with for coins, but just imagine her spectacular disinterest when faced with some of the people and wonders that Lumley encounters.

She was reliably unsentimental during this supposedly nostalgic piece of flotsam, in which celebs return to homes which defined certain chapters in their lives. 

Basically an over-extended One Show item, it’s the shrugging definition of a TV time-passer, bolstered on this occasion by Street-Porter’s natural gifts as a caustic raconteur. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 September 2016.

Are You Being Served?: Sunday, BBC One

Porridge: Sunday, BBC One

Young Hyacinth: Friday, BBC One
The BBC’s Landmark Sitcom season is, officially, a celebration of its redoubtable sitcom legacy. Chief among its offerings are revivals of old favourites such as Are You Being Served?, Porridge and Keeping Up Appearances.

Though billed as one-offs, they’ll almost certainly be recommissioned if viewers approve. The success of Still Open All Hours, which began as a Christmas special, proves that.

Naturally, this has led to accusations that the BBC is trading on former glories when it should be supporting original comedy. Well, yes. To a degree.  But that j’accuse conveniently ignores the plentiful sitcom pilots which also form part of the season.

But let’s focus on the reheated oldies. Everyone else is. Are You Being Served? was never a classic anyway, but the revival captured its bawdy spirit. Set three years after the original ended, it’s officially a sequel, albeit with different actors in situ. The original cast, of course, have all taken that escalator to the great shop floor in the sky.

Its torrent of camp innuendo was occasionally tinged with a coarser 21st century edge. For all its blatant rudeness, the original wouldn’t have stooped to gags about “seamen” and “taking Mr Humphries up the Regal”. But you’d have to be righteously po-faced to resist smirking at such knowingly contrived tosh.

Mr Humphries may be an outdated gay stereotype, but there’s still no malice in the way he’s written and performed. Jason Watkins had a ball (ooh, pardon!) in the late John Inman’s fleet-footed shoes, although his performance took a harsher approach. Sheree Hewson was equally enjoyable as Mollie Sugden’s Mrs Slocombe, purple rinse, pussy and all.

Good, breezy fun as a one-off tribute, but the novelty won’t last if it becomes a series. Where can they go from here?

Another sequel, Porridge had a more difficult mountain to climb. After all, the original is one of the greatest British sitcoms ever made. Alas, despite being written by its sainted creators Dick Clement and Ian La Franais, it was curiously listless.

Kevin Bishop did a decent job as Fletch’s cyber-criminal grandson, although his best moments involved physical comedy rather than dialogue.

His personality is basically identical to Fletch’s, which just made me miss Ronnie Barker even more. Clement and La Franais haven’t forgotten how to write Fletch, at least in terms of nailing his cheerfully sarcastic speech patterns. But the gags were tired and threadbare, the stabs at modernity dutifully forced. It felt like a mechanical lecture from veteran scientists with nothing left to prove.

Not a disaster by any means, but utterly pointless

A 1950s-set prequel to Keeping Up Appearances, Young Hyacinth was – remarkably – the best of the bunch.

The only good thing about the shrill, tiresome original was Patricia Routledge’s performance as the appallingly snobbish Hyacinth Bucket, but the brilliant Kerry Howard echoed her mannerisms with startling accuracy. However, it was more than mere mimicry. She played a character, not a UK Gold repeat.

Roy Clarke, that prolific veteran of gentle teatime comedy, clearly enjoyed delving into the past of one of his few memorable creations. A wry character piece shot on film, it was far more charming than the original. Some of Clarke’s dialogue was even reminiscent of Alan Bennett, if only in terms of cadence and rhythm.

Key to its modest success was Hyacinth as a desperately class-climbing young woman, which carries far more pathos than the middle-aged monster she became.

We’ll probably see more of Young Hyacinth, which means that Clarke, who also writes Still Open All Hours, is still a popular sitcom writer at the age of 86. I can take or leave his work, but I bow to his incredible longevity.