Saturday, 26 November 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 November 2016.

Thursday, BBC Four

Sunday, BBC Two
When the great Aneurin Bevan created the NHS in 1948, it soon became apparent that his heroic endeavour required urgent assistance from beyond these shores.

There simply weren’t enough doctors, nurses and midwifes in Britain to support it, so thousands of Caribbean women were shipped over to assist the “Mother Country”. 

Their story was told in BLACK NURSES: THE WOMEN WHO SAVED THE NHS, another revealing entry in the BBC’s excellent Black and British season.

This primarily mournful documentary illustrated how, despite playing a vital role in creating and sustaining the NHS for 70 years, they’ve rarely received the respect they deserve.

It starred a group of eloquent older ladies sharing vivid memories of their nursing careers, many of them tainted by anger and sadness. While they remain understandably proud of their achievements, the racism they experienced painted a dispiriting portrait of Britain then and now.

They recounted tales of white patients who refused to be treated by black nurses. One woman recalled being attacked in the street by a group of men. This was the thanks they received for serving our great nation?

The prejudice was horrendous. Angering archive footage revealed white ‘50s Britons decrying black immigrants as dirty, whereas in reality these young women were scrupulously hygienic. Indeed, they were shocked by the grubby state of Britain when they first arrived.

As far-right groups exploited rising tensions – images of ‘Keep Britain White’ graffiti mirrored recent reports from America of daubed hate speech in the wake of Trump’s triumph – most black women, regardless of ability, were unfairly funnelled into the junior nursing category. Their chances of promotion were almost non-existent.

To this day, black people represent only a tiny percentage of NHS senior management position. Several nurses spoke of becoming demotivated after being repeatedly passed over when applying for promotion.

Only in the field of midwifery did they gradually flourish, as midwives tend to be regarded as more important than nurses. Not true, of course, but that’s the prevailing view.

The programme was bookended by the observation that the midwife who helped to deliver ‘Prince’ George and ‘Princess’ Charlotte is black. That’s an achievement of sorts, I suppose, although I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it wasn’t the best way of illustrating a semi-optimistic kernel of progress.

The Black and British season continued with the observational documentary, LIFE AND DEATH THE PENTECOSTAL WAY.

Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian faith in Britain, with Black Majority Pentecostal churches proving particularly successful.

The programme spent time with the curators and parishioners of the Brixton New Testament Church of God, which was established by Windrush West Indians in the 1950s.

Religion gets short shrift in our increasingly secular society, often for good reason, but this was a convincingly positive portrayal of a church that embodies truly altruistic Christian values.

It plays a vital role in a community troubled by poverty, crime and police harassment. If Jesus Himself ran a charitable inner-city drop-in centre for vulnerable people, it would probably look something like this.

Even the way the church is funded, by locals donating however much they want, seemed sound.

Regardless of your beliefs, there’s no denying the admirable endeavours of these genuinely kind, tolerant children of God. I was particularly impressed by a rousing sermon from the charismatic Bishop Brown, as he urged his flock to treat all people equally.

It was a reminder that you’ve got to have faith, at least in human nature.

Saturday, 19 November 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19 November 2016.

Sunday, BBC One

Sunday, STV

As befits the spirit of Remembrance Sunday, our rival networks came together last weekend to commemorate both world wars.

Despite being tainted with a nagging tug of predictability, BBC One’s MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS is a fairly promising new drama about life in a rural Northern Ireland parish in 1943.

The opening scenes didn’t bode well. They unfurled in a studiously tasteful procession of wartime clichés: children staring up at bombers flying overhead; women in woollen berets riding bicycles; flat-capped men grumbling about spam; US airmen swaggering into town on a wave of big band jazz (“All right, boys, this is a dance, but they call it a ceilidh!”).

The only thing missing was our old friend, the untethered horse cantering down a cobbled high street.

Thankfully, those dubious first impressions were gradually laid to rest. Much like Call the Midwife, this is a cosmetically pretty – it’s beautifully photographed - yet fundamentally solemn and understated Sunday night confection.

Our protagonists are the Coyne family. Mother Rose (Hattie Morahan, hitherto best known as the neurotic Jane from Outnumbered) is an educated Englishwoman whose role as a pillar of the community still can’t overcome her alien status. Although somewhat snobbish, she’s perceptive, humane and – so it transpired – willing to take up arms.

Her conflicted Irish husband, Michael, runs the local boozer, while her teenage daughter and young son (whose weathered adult narration, courtesy of Ciaran Hinds, provides the requisite air of ambiguous nostalgia) struggle to make sense of their war-torn playground.

In time-honoured and occasionally over-literal fashion, it’s a child’s-eye view of a perplexing adult world.

When Rose encountered a Tennyson-quoting US army captain (Mad Men actor Aaron Staton) on a picturesque clifftop, the stage was set for an inevitable “will they, won’t they?” romance. Likewise, there were few surprises in the story of Rose’s innocent daughter falling for a charming American airman. His cards were marked from the moment he appeared.

Nevertheless, it was a rather poignant vignette about adolescent confusion and the tragedy of young men being sent off to certain death. These stories are fictional, although loosely based on actual incidents. A palpable sense of sadness permeates proceedings, and writer Barry Devlin isn’t afraid to explore the underlying darkness, violence and bigotry of his rain-drenched parish.

If he cuts back on the clichés, then I don’t see why this sincerely tender drama couldn’t run and run.

Though generally dismissed as a bulwark of bottom-drawer populism, ITV is very occasionally capable of producing programmes of surprising sensitivity and depth.

This one-off docudrama paid tribute to the soldiers whose experiences in the trenches during World War One inspired some the greatest anti-war poetry ever written.

It was framed by John Hurt as an ageing Siegfried Sassoon, still haunted by the war 50 years later. The great Thespian’s husky voice caressed Sassoon’s starkly disillusioned words, while younger actors read from letters, diaries and poems to provide a horrifyingly vivid picture of life on the frontline.

The emotionally-charged yet platonic mentor/student relationship between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen was touchingly portrayed. Owen, our greatest wartime poet, was killed in action just one week before Armistice Day. But his harrowing work lives on.

This graceful programme served as a fitting testament to the subversive genius of two outstanding poets, and to the fallen soldiers whose hellish nightmare they immortalised so unsparingly.

Saturday, 12 November 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 November 2016.

Damilola, Our Loved Boy: Monday, BBC One

Close to the Enemy: Thursday, BBC Two
Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor was 10-years-old when he was fatally attacked on a Peckham estate in November 2000. The image of this innocent, smiling child seared itself on the nation’s consciousness, an unwitting emblem of growing fears over inner city knife crime.

Following a prolonged, controversial trial, two teenagers were eventually charged with manslaughter.

The shock of this senseless crime still reverberates, hence Damilola, Our Loved Boy, a deeply moving drama made with support from the Taylors.

Primarily framed through the eyes of Damilola’s father, Richard, it went behind the headlines to explore the anguish of a family struggling with unimaginable tragedy.

The establishing scenes of the Taylors living a happy life in Nigeria – Richard was a successful businessman with government connections – were weighted with a sense of impending horror.

The Taylors moved to England so that Richard’s British-born daughter could receive urgent NHS treatment for her epilepsy. Writer Levi David Addai didn’t need to stress the terrible irony of parents losing a child while seeking to save the life of another.

Damilola’s excitement about moving to this land of hope and glory was heart-breaking. Breadwinner Richard stayed behind as the family moved into a cramped Peckham flat. Seven months later, Damilola was dead.

Certain scenes lingered long after the credits had rolled. The mounting panic of Damilola’s mother when he didn’t return from school; his guilt-stricken older brother phoning Richard to break the awful news; Richard visiting the scene of Damilola’s murder, then eventually breaking down away from the gaze of the family for whom he tried to remain strong.

With admirable honesty, it depicted Richard as an often myopically proud and moral man who, via sincerely noble deeds in the local community, neglected the needs of his family while trying to make sense of Damilola’s death. But that was his way of dealing with guilt and grief.

Sensitively handled by all concerned – Babou Ceesay was particularly outstanding as Richard – this necessarily upsetting film succeeded by stating its nuanced, complex case without a trace of tabloid hysteria.   

One thing we can all agree on about divisive auteur Stephen Poliakoff is that no one makes television quite like him. He’s an eccentric genre unto himself. For some, his work is agonisingly mannered and opaque. For others, myself included broadly speaking, those affectations are often quite appealing.

So what to make of Close to the Enemy, in which he rakes over his trademark obsessions with hot jazz, war criminals and the haunted glamour of barely populated luxury hotels? It’s tempting to assume that he’s trolling his critics with a Bingo-card summation of every Poliakoff drama ever made.

Set in the bomb-damaged London of 1946, just as the Cold War began, it pivots on a strange performance from Jim Sturgess as a maverick military intelligence agent tasked with securing the services of a reluctant German scientist.

With his shop-damaged chocolatey diction and eyebrows a-cocked a la Roger Moore, he appears to be sending the whole thing up. I don’t quite know what the hell he’s doing, but it’s certainly entertaining.

Like Poliakoff’s last tribute to his own oeuvre, Dancing on the Edge, it’ll probably squander its vague promise by drifting languidly up its own fundament. In which case, the BBC may finally decide to stop throwing money at this self-indulgent oddball.

But I must admit, it’s perversely pleasing that he’s managed to reign unfettered for so long. There’s something to be said for public disservice broadcasting. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 5 November 2016.

Dark Angel: Monday, STV

Humans: Sunday, Channel 4

ITV has dramatised so many real-life crime and murder cases over the years, it’s all but exhausted the 20th century as a gruesome source of inspiration.

Hence, one presumes, the arrival of two-part death carnival Dark Angel, starring Joanne Froggatt (dutiful housemaid Anna from Downton Abbey) as 19th century serial murderer Mary Ann Cotton. This is truly horrible history.

From 1865 to 1872, Cotton cut a poisonous swathe through the North East of England, murdering several husbands – and possibly eleven of her 13 children – for their life insurance policies.

In the hands of writer Gwyneth Hughes, she was initially portrayed as a sympathetic figure mired in poverty and struggling to raise a family while her first husband scraped a paltry living at sea.

But our sympathies soon waned when she discovered the swift and painful properties of arsenic.

A fine, intelligent actress, Froggatt pitched her performance astutely. The – to say the least – morally wayward nature of her character was rendered more chilling by her decision to adopt the gentle North East tones of Sarah Millican.

Froggat’s Cotton wasn’t depicted as a leering maniac, but rather as a coldly pragmatic, manipulative killer who wasn’t beyond feeling guilt for her actions. However, those occasional pangs of conscience couldn’t dissuade her from a cruel and perverse mission to climb the social ladder.

No one suspected foul play when her family members coincidentally died in vomit and faeces-stained agony, because Victorian society couldn’t even begin to entertain the notion that a woman would be capable of such crimes.

By the end of episode one, she’d dispatched two hapless husbands, two children and her own mother. No wonder the blue-grey colour palette looked so depressed.

It may not be the most compelling study of a psychopath you’ll ever see, but Dark Angel is a suitably bleak and low-key account of an overlooked chapter in British criminal history. Seldom have the words “Let’s make you a nice cup of tea” been delivered with such an impending sense of doom.

A deserved hit for Channel 4, series one of Humans was one of the most thoughtful and intelligently-realised sci-fi dramas of recent years.

Based in a near-future Britain where lifelike androids – or synths – are employed as unquestioning slaves within the service industries, it managed to combine all the usual philosophical quandaries of A.I. fiction with an overarching conspiracy narrative and an effective domestic setting.

But where to go from there? In attempting to broaden the scope of this world, the first episode of series two was a globe-trotting muddle in which far too many strands competed for our attention.

The relatively small-scale drama of series one has been replaced by an overly busy stew of disjointed ideas. It’ll hopefully settle down and regain focus soon, but this was a textbook example of how not to begin a new series.

Or perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t particularly care about the fate of our rag-tag group of sentient synths and their voyage of self-discovery, and preferred Humans when it was the story of a dysfunctional family struggling to cope with the introduction of a synth into their lives. The scenes involving the Hawkins’ were more engaging than anything else in episode one.

I’ll gladly eat those words if Humans 2 matches the quality of its predecessor. Maybe, in its eagerness to grab our attention, it just got off to an awkward, malfunctioning start.