Tuesday, 20 December 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 December 2016.

WALT DISNEY: Saturday, BBC Two

If we know one thing about Walt Disney it’s that he wasn’t, despite urban mythology, cryogenically frozen following his death in 1966. 

According to the solidly revealing documentary, WALT DISNEY, he also wasn’t the bigoted right-wing tyrant that some biographers would have you believe.

Instead, I was left with the impression of an essentially decent if politically naïve man whose tireless, even reckless, drive towards perfection could sometimes spill over into ruthlessness.

Episode one of this two-part profile (it concludes on 17 December) examined how, from humble beginnings, he eventually built one of the most powerful entertainment empires on the planet.

A hugely ambitious idealist, he saw the potential of movie animation when the industry was still in its infancy. Like so many early Hollywood legends, this was the story of a talented, enterprising visionary who created a form of art and entertainment that simply didn’t exist before.

The only animator and film producer to become as internationally famous as his creations, Uncle Walt – he insisted that his often long-suffering employees always referred to him as Walt - was a jovial extrovert who loved being the centre of attention. With his slick coiffeur, pencil-moustache and appealing smile, he even looked like a film star.

Yet despite his self-made image as a humble purveyor of populist family entertainment, in private Disney craved acceptance as a serious artist. Considering the incredible technical innovations he and his profoundly talented team devised, no wonder he felt snubbed when masterpieces such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first animated feature-length film - were only awarded with condescending ‘special’ Oscars.

It’s also unsurprising that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. He expected his staff to work as hard as he did, which was into the ground. Their painstaking efforts reaped phenomenal results via expert in-house lectures on cubism, impressionism and expressionism.  He even encouraged them to take acting classes, so they could study their own faces and movements in pursuit of realism. 

The result was animation of unprecedented emotional richness and visual depth. When the audience cried at Snow White’s death during the film’s premiere, Disney knew he’d succeeded in creating a whole new art-form.

Obsessive innovator, dubious taskmaster, romantic ideologue, soft conservative, Walt Disney was above all else a genius.

The distant past came alive via computer animation in TIME COMMANDERS, a game show in which members of the public commandeer legendary battles from history.

Inexplicably hosted by MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace, the latest series began in 202 BCE, as a trio of wrestlers from Glasgow re-enacted Ancient Rome vs Hannibal’s Carthaginians with three board game enthusiasts from somewhere unimaginably twee and middle-class.

The fun derives from watching the teams becoming swept up in whatever the hell is going on – it’s never quite clear - especially when they start bickering among themselves. Meanwhile, Wallace reiterates his unique talent for shouting over-excitedly – “You are getting mullered in the middle there!” – as a phalanx of experts offer urgent commentary.

Unless he was employed as a human cannonball fired at ferocious velocity, he’s literally the last man you’d want by your side in the heat of battle.

The splendidly named combat historian Mike Loades, a man so bellicose he makes Wallace sound like an ailing dormouse, was overshadowed by white-jeaned, pony-tailed action specialist Gordon Summers, who risked death by choking on his own swaggering self-regard. Make no mistake, this is a man who chose this line of work purely to buckle his swash while avoiding arrest.

I bet he uses his collection of Carthaginian javelins as a chat-up line.

Mildly educational and fairly entertaining, Time Commanders is a charmingly ridiculous distillation of the BBC’s core values.

Even Lord Reith, who knew the Carthaginians personally, would grudgingly approve. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 December 2016.


THIS IS US: Tuesday, Channel 4

 What with Reg Christie on BBC One and Peter Manuel on ITV, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to post-war serial killers this Christmas. Nothing encapsulates the spirit of the season more than murderous psychopaths.

Spread over three episodes, IN PLAIN SIGHT stars Martin Compston as Lanarkshire-based Manuel, who was convicted of murdering seven people between 1956 and his final arrest in 1958. His toll accounted for almost a third of the people murdered in Scotland during that time.

It also stars Douglas Henshall as Detective William Muncie, the unsung hero who doggedly pursued Manuel. As the body-count rose following Manuel’s release, Muncie had no doubts about the killer’s identity. And yet Manuel, through sheer, brazen cunning, repeatedly eluded capture.

They first met in 1946, when Muncie arrested Manuel, then only nineteen, for a string of burglaries and sexual assaults.

According to the screenplay by Nick Stevens, Manuel never forgave Muncie for sending him to prison for nine years, hence why he took such perverse pleasure in openly taunting the policeman during his subsequent killing spree.

Although there’s no such thing as a typical psychopath, Manuel embodied the grandiloquent delusions of genius and untouchability we commonly associate with serial killers. Of course, that’s because the likes of Manuel have influenced generations of crime fiction authors.

It’s therefore tempting to suspect that Stevens has packaged a real-life case into a straightforward tale of good versus evil. Or is it that we’re so used to fictional narratives along these lines, we’ve forgotten that such black-and-white cases do actually exist? To paraphrase a cliché, sometimes truth is more horrifying than fiction.

Stevens has apparently done his research, and – bearing in mind that relatives of Manuel’s victims are still alive - he should be commended for leaving those murders to the imagination. They’re alluded to, but never shown. The scene in which he terrorised a young girl for three hours before releasing her was all we needed to fear his unhinged cruelty.

This particular case, during which Manuel successfully defended himself in court, illustrated the era’s disgraceful attitudes towards female victims of assault. Via Manuel’s manipulations, the girl was dismissed as a harlot.

Compston, to his immense credit, is authentically detestable as Manuel. No scenery was chewed in the making of this programme. His cocky smirk and sleazy facsimile of wide-boy charm are monstrous enough.

Henshall is equally understated as Muncie. Despite contending with “You’re too close to this case!” clichés, he’s thoroughly convincing as a decent man who, through thwarted experience, has sorrowfully accepted that criminally insane killers are a rare yet unknowable fact of life.

Billed as a Thirtysomething for the 21st century, THIS IS US is a risibly earnest and sentimental US drama about a group of navel-gazing 36-year-olds who happen to share the same birthday. Mired in Hallmark schmaltz, it strains towards profundity like a constipated poet.

Our cardboard archetypes are a hunky sitcom actor suffering a crisis of integrity, his overweight sister embarking on a relationship with a nice man from her Weightwatchers class, a successful businessman meeting his biological father for the first time, and – in an admittedly unexpected twist – a couple whose storyline takes place in 1980, thus providing the glue that melds these characters together.

God knows we need some uplift in these dark and depressing times, but This Is Us will only provide comfort to viewers with an unquestioning tolerance for banal, cookie-cutter wisdom.

Saturday, 3 December 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 December 2016.



Few figures in history have encapsulated “the banality of evil” more than notorious serial killer John Reginald Christie.

With his bald bonce, tortoiseshell spectacles and mousy demeanour, he was outwardly nondescript in every way. And yet between 1943 and 1953 he murdered at least eight women in his sepulchral abode at 10 Rillington Place in North-west London.

Such was Christie’s infamy, his squalid saga was dramatised in a classic 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough.

That, seemingly, was the last word on this insidious monster. However, writers Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore beg to differ with RILLINGTON PLACE, a grimly absorbing three-part drama starring Tim Roth as Christie and Samantha Morton as his conflicted wife, Ethel.

So how does it differ from the Attenborough film? Well, it began by focusing on Ethel as a kind of tragic identification figure. By viewing Christie from her perspective, it provides a chillingly claustrophobic sense of what it must’ve been like to live with him.

It also means that his murders take place off screen – at least for now - as Ethel never witnessed them. Instead we receive terrifying hints – a blood-stained mattress, a suspicious suitcase containing unknown horrors, Christie digging in the garden and skulking around at night with a hammer – while downtrodden Ethel gradually twigs that her shifty husband is more than a “mere” philanderer, thief, voyeur and liar.

Episode one also fleshed out their backstory. It ended as the events of the film began, i.e. the arrival at Rillington Place of doomed neighbour Timothy Evans, who would eventually be hanged for one of Christie’s murders.  

Roth and Morton are extraordinary. With his flat, whispered Yorkshire tones and eerie self-containment, he’s like a sinister Jon Ronson disguised as Arthur Lowe. His steadfast calm being broken by a sudden physical attack on Ethel was particularly disturbing, revealing as it did the psychotic violence lurking beneath that apparently pathetic veneer.

 Meanwhile, Morton’s subtly expressive face captures Ethel’s perpetual tug of war between hurt, suspicion, anger, disgust and denial. The writers suggested that she covered for Christie on at least one occasion, presumably out of misplaced loyalty to the only man she’d ever been with. To troubling effect, Morton nails this complex ambiguity.

Suitably mired in a dank, shabby, weak tea haze of gloomy wartime and post-war misery, Rillington Place excels on every level. Despite the lurid subject matter, it’s an admirably restrained yet gut-punching study of everyday evil.

Likewise, the sad and angering Storyville documentary THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN: INSIDE THE FAMILY examined the harrowing psychological toll of lives destroyed by mentally unstable captors.

In 1963, Anne Hamilton-Byrne founded an Australian sect comprised of supposedly respectable adults and children either sired by followers, or stolen from vulnerable young mothers.

Believing herself to be Christ incarnate, for over 20 years this charismatic psychopath oversaw a despicably cruel regime in which children were starved, beaten and fed LSD. The programme featured testimonies from “her” children, all of them unimaginably scarred by their ordeal. Even the police officers investigating the case were traumatised.

She got away with it by exploiting draconian attitudes towards unwed mothers, while securing/manipulating friends in high places. When finally apprehended, all she faced was a fine for falsifying adoption documents. Today she resides in a retirement home, her memories vanquished by Alzheimer’s.

The Australian justice system and society at large failed these abused children. It was a scandal beyond your darkest nightmares.