Sunday, 30 October 2016


Ordinary Lies: Tuesday, BBC One

Arena: The Roundhouse – The People’s Palace: Sunday, BBC Four
Now in its second year, the excellent anthology series Ordinary Lies succeeds in its mission to covertly smuggle standalone dramas into the primetime schedules.

Although linked by overlapping storylines and a shared workplace setting – this year it’s a Welsh call centre and warehouse – each episode focuses on a different character. Much like The Street by Jimmy McGovern, it’s essentially a series of self-contained plays.

Writer Danny Brocklehurst, who’s worked with McGovern, has inherited the master’s cruel penchant for plunging his characters into painful moral dilemmas. They’re like a pair of vengeful Gods.

The overarching theme of the series is the costly repercussion of deceit. People lie for many reasons, and not always with the intent of deliberately hurting others. Each week the tension arises from when and how the protagonist will be found out.

Brocklehurst’s latest unfortunate plaything was Holly, the company’s highly capable PA. Bored of life and nursing a broken heart, Holly had lost all confidence in herself. Her fragile ego took a further battering when she accidentally discovered a note in which her boyfriend apparently listed his problems with her (the eventual twist that this was in fact a list of his own perceived failings was hardly surprising).

This spurred her into inevitably doomed action. Using social media, she decided to track down the ex who shattered her sense of security, in a desperate bid to reinvent herself. This involved the theft of glamorous images from her FaceBook friends, and an elaborate ruse in which she posed as the successful manager of her own company. Suitably impressed, he swiftly ended up in bed with her.

However, it turned out he wasn’t being truthful either. Not only had he cheated on her years ago, he’d also fathered a child with his mistress. This quagmire of deceit was compounded by the revelation that, when he left her, Holly was pregnant with his child.

The scene in which this information tumbled forth was suitably gut-wrenching; hitherto best known for comedy roles in the likes of Fresh Meat, Kimberley Nixon as Holly more than proved her worth as a dramatic actress.

This was a sad, cautionary study of the devastating effects of heartbreak and the ways in which social media can make users feel inferior by presenting a distortedly rosy image of other people’s lives. It’s all too easy to present a manufactured front to the world from behind your laptop.

And yet Brocklehurst couldn’t quite bring himself to destroy Holly completely. The episode appeared to be a lesson in the futility of trying to rekindle a dead romance, but she received a glimmer of hope in the final scene.

Even vengeful Gods have their moments of leniency.

Britain’s most beloved Victorian engine shed was the star of Arena: The Roundhouse – The People’s Palace, which paid tribute to a legendary London venue steeped in weird-beard history.

Once the home of experimental theatre and underground ‘60s happenings from the likes of Pink Floyd, today The Roundhouse is basically a corporate music and arts centre. So no wonder this typically well-researched documentary focused on its reign as a radical portal for punks, hippies, beat poets, black power activists and, err, Barbara Windsor.

Call me a romantic old dreamer if you will, brothers and sisters, but contemporary culture is nowhere near as interesting as it was in the wild heyday of The Roundhouse. The party is over.

Friday, 21 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 22 October 2016.

Tutankhamun: Sunday, STV

HIM: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

It’s not often you see a blustering character actor sporting both pince-nez and fez these days. That, I believe, is where society has gone wrong. 

So tasselled hats off to Tutankhamun, a four-part epic of the old-school based on the 1922 discovery of the legendary Egyptian tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter.

As our story began, various brandy-sipping gold-diggers grumbled that Egypt’s Valley of the Kings was all “dug out”. Having been mined for years, it was thought to be a barren wasteland as far as ancient treasures go. 

But Carter - a socially awkward yet fiercely driven maverick with a headstrong moustache - thought otherwise. He just knew there was something else, something incredible, waiting down there.

Carter is mentored by Sam Neill manfully resisting the temptation to ham it up as one-legged Lord Carnarvon, a colonial cove who decided to mount an archaeological expedition to stave off boredom. His friendship with Carter provides something approaching an emotional core.

There’s no suspense whatsoever, of course. We know how this story pans out. That wouldn’t matter if the characters weren’t so papyrus-thin (Carter’s American love interest exists solely to drive the plot by giving him insights into his own feelings).

The dialogue leaves nothing to the imagination, it’s almost entirely expository. You want historical context? Then try this for size: “Some idiot kid just shot the Archduke of Austria and his wife!” Thanks for that.

Normally, writing of this nature would drive me mad, but I’ll let Tutankhamun off as it takes place in a land of hokum, where subtlety has no place. It has no pretensions towards high-minded drama, it’s just a good old-fashioned piece of mindless escapism.

Yes, it could be objectively better – a dash of wit wouldn’t go amiss – but it looks suitably panoramic and at least the pace never drags.

An enjoyable load of old Tut.

By contrast, HIM is a drama that takes itself very seriously indeed, and ends up looking utterly foolish as a result.

It’s a risible supernatural saga about a troubled, angry, sensitive teenager with a nasty case of telekinesis. The son of divorced parents, his powers flare up whenever he’s emotionally upset, which is 90% of the time. It’s Stephen King’s Carrie meets Kevin the Teenager.

His supposedly disturbing displays of mind-magic are inadvertently funny, especially when he almost murdered his antagonistic stepdad with the floating contents of a tool bag. I’ve seen scarier things in Rentaghost (seriously, I have).

He/Him (we never learn his name) also seeks advice from a saintly old white-haired grandma in a care home, who’s the only person who understands him. When she urges him to use his gifts for good, he helpfully changes the TV channel from afar for the old dears in the communal living room. It’s hilarious.

The sight of a pregnant woman being drowned by a burst water tank shouldn’t be funny, but HIM somehow turns even that into a piece of comedy gold.

Whereas the lack of subtlety in silly old Tutankhamun is more or less acceptable, it’s wince-inducing in this supposedly serious drama.

Written by long-serving TV dramatist Paula Milne, whose heavy-handed work I’ve never rated, HIM is clearly intended as a novel way of studying family dysfunction and the traumatic effects of loss and divorce on children.

But all it proves is that Milne doesn’t have much self-awareness, otherwise she’d realise how ridiculous the whole thing is.

Monday, 17 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 8 October 2016.

Louis Theroux: Savile: Sunday, BBC Two

Still Game: Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

When Jimmy Savile was posthumously outed as one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders, Louis Theroux’s already infamous 2000 encounter with him instantly developed extra layers of gruesome fascination. It appeared to reveal so much in hindsight.

Theroux, to his evident regret, didn’t succeed in exposing the man for the monster he was. Savile hoodwinked Theroux with his obfuscating carapace of eccentricity, just as he duped the nation for over 40 years.

In Louis Theroux: Savile, the documentary-maker sought to make amends by trying to find out how Savile got away with his crimes for so long. He met people who knew him – insomuch as anyone ever knew someone who only revealed his true nature to those he abused – to unearth a grim portrait of a cunning sociopath who hid behind a self-servingly charitable veneer.

One elderly woman with a weird shrine to Savile in her shed – that Lego bust will haunt my dreams - still couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a predatory paedophile raised millions for her hospital. Savile’s long-term PA was in deep denial, despite the fact that he treated her appallingly. An uneasy pall of regret, anger and horror hung over the programme.

Although it was partly preoccupied by Theroux’s guilt over his part in the scandal, his anguish didn’t overshadow that of Savile’s actual victims. Instead he used his experience with Savile as a symbol for how we all failed to recognise the truth, a theme which gradually coalesced with the most important figures in this story.

He spoke to women who’d been abused by Savile, all of whom recounted bravely frank tales of a brazen predator with a repugnant knack for targeting vulnerable children. That was the real Savile. Hearing the harrowing details of their ordeals was essential, as we need to understand the full extent of his crimes.

Theroux also asked what they thought about his original documentary. Without fail, they chastised him for being so naïve.

In a way, this was a self-flagellating apology from Theroux on behalf of the BBC. A noble endeavour, but he needn’t shoulder the burden of guilt here. He was just another one of millions manipulated by the bizarre force of Savile’s personality.

Theroux’s extraordinary, searching film proved that, if Savile had a talent, it was hiding in plain sight.

Time now for a grinding segue into lighter pastures, and how better to oil those wheels than with Still Game? After a nine-year sabbatical, Glasgow’s favourite pensioners Jack and Victor returned last week. It was as if they’d never been away.

Bringing back a beloved sitcom is a dicey manoeuvre, as it automatically invites “not as good as it used to be” concerns. Thankfully, writers/stars Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill haven’t lost their touch when it comes to daft farce and colourfully bickering dialogue.

The opening scene, which simply involved Jack and Victor chatting over breakfast, instantly confirmed that they still know these characters inside out. Despite being packed with vinegary one-liners – the poetry of Scottish swearing has rarely been captured so adeptly - the dialogue feels natural, their warm rapport the result of years working together. 

Spending time in their world is a tonic, it’s such a likeable show.

The episode revolved around Jack, Victor and Isa’s endearingly foolish obsession with “innovative” catalogue gadgets. Perhaps inevitably, this resulted in Jack getting stuck in his bath.

As Jack fumed and Victor proved more hindrance than help, Kiernan and Hemphill’s love of Laurel and Hardy was delightfully plain to see. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 1 October 2016.

Damned: Tuesday, Channel 4

The Fall: Thursday, BBC Two

The Level: Friday, STV
There was once a time, not so long ago, when Jo Brand was negatively pigeonholed as a sardonic comedian who joked about nothing apart from chocolate and how rubbish men are. Yet in the last few years, quietly and assuredly, she’s recast herself as the tragicomic queen of socially conscious sitcom.

Having tackled the thankless lives of NHS nurses and community care assistants in the wonderful Getting On and its recent sequel Going Forward, she now turns her attentions to social workers in Damned. Like Getting On, it’s a sympathetic yet unsentimental comedy inspired by her own experience – a former psychiatric nurse, she’s the daughter of a social worker – in which harassed carers strive to do their best under trying circumstances.

The title comes from the apt observation that social work is an unfairly vilified occupation in which employees are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s set in a Children’s Services department where the lifts, toilets and especially the people who work there, are knackered.

Brand’s character, Rose, is the spiritual twin of Nurse Kim Wilde from Getting On, a caring professional whose jaded surface belies a genuine desire to help.

Her similarly careworn friend and co-worker Al (Alan Davies) is the only other “normal” member of a staff which includes Peep Show’s Isy Suttie as a bafflingly exuberant temp, Himesh Patel as an ex-policeman and humourless stickler for the rules, and the great Kevin Eldon, that always welcome Zelig of British TV comedy, as an endearingly innocent office manager.

It’s a classic workplace sitcom in many ways – long-suffering protagonists surrounded by “wacky” supporting characters – but it’s largely successful in its attempts to fuse traditional gags with unforced pathos. Despite the necessarily stark backdrop of abuse, neglect, illness and desperation, it’s a fundamentally warm, likeable show.  

Co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith of, respectively, Absolutely and The Thick of It renown, Damned confirms Brand’s status as one of the most thoughtful writer/performers in TV comedy.

Back, unbidden, for a third series, exasperating thriller The Fall is a textbook example of a show that doesn’t know when to quit.

It began as a gripping, if questionably violent, cat-and-mouse drama about a detective hunting a serial killer, but gradually devolved into a self-indulgent, risible chore.

Its failings were epitomised by this opening episode, which was preoccupied by an interminable effort to rescue Paul Spector from death’s door. Why should we care if he dies or not? He’s a psychopathic, misogynist murderer, and a boring one to boot.

Whereas once she proved intriguingly aloof, Gillian Anderson now looks truly fatigued as DS Gibson. The Fall should be put out of its misery.  

Philip Glenister scored the easiest pay cheque of his career in The Level, a silly crime drama in which his character was murdered within the first 10 minutes.

He’ll presumably return in flashbacks/dream sequences, but the sound of him laughing all the way to the bank is the only note of joy in this drab account of a compromised detective trapped in a mild nest of intrigue while self-medicating her preposterously lenient gunshot wound with ibuprofen and gauze.

You know you’re watching a redundant thriller when the scenery – Brighton in this case – is more engaging than the story.

And how’s this for dialogue?

“The boss says you used to be school friends.”

“Yeah, when we were kids.”

The ideal age to be school friends, I find.