Tuesday, 31 January 2017

TV Review: APPLE TREE YARD + THE CULT NEXT DOOR

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28 January 2017.


APPLE TREE YARD: Sunday, BBC One

THE CULT NEXT DOOR: Thursday, BBC Two


Tired of all the usual Valentine’s Day platitudes? Then why not zing the strings of your lover’s heart with a card declaring: “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf”?

Call me old-fashioned, but lupine evisceration doesn’t sound terribly sexy. Then again, to the best of my recollection I’ve never been seduced by a handsome civil servant in a crypt beneath the House of Commons.

That unlikely setting is where our story began in APPLE TREE YARD, an uncomfortably uneven thriller starring Emily Watson as Yvonne, a respectable genetic scientist, and Ben Chaplin as the wolfish stranger who detonates her polite upper middle-class existence with a series of thrilling sexual encounters in public places (including a café bathroom conveniently bereft of other afternoon customers).

Middle-aged Yvonne is unhappily married to a university lecturer (Scottish actor Mark Bonnar, who’s cornered the market in instantly suspicious characters) who, or so it would blatantly appear, has had an affair with a younger student.


After delivering evidence to a Parliamentary select committee – erotically-charged events at the best of times – she’s whisked off her sensibly-shoed feet by Chaplin’s carnal politico. Suddenly she feels desirable again, and so embarks on a risky affair.

Were it not for some typically solid, nuanced work from Watson and a shocking final scene, most of Apple Tree Yard’s opening instalment would’ve come across as little more than an unusually earnest Mills & Boon fantasy.

Granted, it played a fairly diverting guessing game. It began in media res with a manacled Yvonne being led to the dock, so something awful was bound to occur (it wouldn’t be much of a drama otherwise).

Like Yvonne, we don’t know anything about her nameless seducer. Is he just a harmless swinger, or something much darker? That wolf reference was already risible, but was it also a heavy-handed allusion to his swanky sheep’s clothing? So far at least, all of this turned out to be an effective piece of misdirection.


Having being led to assume that Chaplin’s character was the sole cause of Yvonne’s foreshadowed demise, in the final scene she was viciously raped by a hitherto inconsequential supporting character.

It’s impossible to fully assess Apple Tree Yard on the basis of one episode, especially in light of its horrific denouement. Its borderline silly aspects may prove deliberate in hindsight, there to lull scoffers into a false sense of security.

This is the story of a woman being punished for daring to enjoy the sexual freedom afforded to men. It’s the story of a rape victim.

If handled carefully, it could prove far more indelible than its initial impression.

A disturbing account of brainwashed incarceration was exposed in THE CULT NEXT DOOR, which told the true story of three women who spent more than 30 years in a Brixton flat under the tyrannical spell of an insane Maoist doomsday preacher.


Directed with typically blunt delicacy by the documentarian Vanessa Engle – a film-maker renowned for historical explorations of leftist politics - it allowed two of Aravindan Balaksrishnan’s prisoners to speak for themselves.

One of them, Katy, was born in captivity. Balakrishnan’s daughter, she’s a young woman with the mental age of a ten-year-old.

Despite finding shards of gallows humour within the rubble of its deadly serious subject matter, Engle’s film mounted a sorrowful case against extremist political maniacs who draw vulnerable people into their hermetic orbits.  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

TV Review: LISTEN TO ME MARLON + SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21 January 2017.


IMAGINE… LISTEN TO ME MARLON: Saturday, BBC Two

SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND: Friday, BBC Four


An extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary man, the award-winning documentary LISTEN TO ME MARLON was/is that rarest of beasts – a profile of an artist that matched the depths and complexity of the subject in question.

Shown as part of the Imagine strand (the dreaded Alan Yentob’s introduction was mercifully brief), this mesmerising film revolved around judiciously edited highlights from hundreds of hours of Marlon Brando’s self-recorded ruminations on the meaning of life and art.

Most self-analytical actors could bore you to tears with such lofty subject matter, but Brando wasn’t most self-analytical actors.

As these tapes confirmed, he was an intensely thoughtful, sensitive, eloquent man who never considered himself any greater or more important than anyone else. On the contrary, he spent most of his adult life in a state of almost self-disgusted ambivalence when it came to his craft.

Brando, quite rightly, will always be regarded as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but acting often struck him as an absurd way to make a (very lucrative) living. And yet he was evidently fascinated by its - and by extension, human nature’s – muddled contradictions.


Unlike most documentary tributes to great artistes, this film, by director Stevan Riley, actually tapped into the psychological essence of its subject.

Having Brando as a narrator helped immeasurably, of course, but Riley obviously came to understand this eccentric soul after spending so much time in his head (literally represented at points by an eerie computer-generated simulation).


A portrait emerged of a man whose sensitivity was forged from a childhood raised by an alcoholic mother whom he adored, and a tough, violent, emotionally distant father.

Brando craved love and appreciation, hence why he became an actor, but movie stardom and critical plaudits eventually revealed themselves to be just another illusory facet of a hypocritical, unjust society. He was in essence a good, if troubled, man.

But let’s not get carried away. Despite being produced with the blessing of Brando’s estate, Riley’s film, for all its compassion for the man, wasn’t a blanket hagiography.

It didn’t ignore his notoriously fractious relationship with directors whose work didn’t compliment his often stubbornly wayward vision of how a part should be played. He was a right pain in the arse, sometimes for the sheer hell of it.

His later performances could be embarrassingly lazy – he wore an earpiece feeding him lines - which no amount of disillusionment with acting can excuse. The last half of his career sometimes felt like a cynical, cash-grabbing joke at the world’s expense.

A lifelong supporter of the underdog, Brando may have used his embarrassing celebrity status to raise awareness of social injustice, but he also exploited it in pursuit of women. One of his choice quotes from the film, typical in its sly erudition, was: “I was known and destined to spread my seed far and wide.”


Then again, what woman or man could resist the young, beautiful Brando in his charismatic pomp? Much like the similarly carnal yet self-mocking Elvis Presley, there was – at the risk of soliciting hyperbole - something almost Godlike about Brando. And yet Brando, like Elvis, always wrestled with nagging guilt: why am I the chosen one?

Riley’s haunting film humanised this tarnished deity to quite stunning effect.

In the latest episode of SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND, the estimable music historian traced, with characteristic acuity, the maturation of stage musicals during the late 1950s and 1960s.


This was an era when Jewish artisans such as Lionel Bart and Leonard Bernstein began, via classics such as Oliver! and West Side Story, to tackle deeper themes of social inequality and racial identity.

In many ways the essence of BBC Four, Brand’s illuminating lectures – with their avuncular yet authoritative tone – are a delight. Whenever Earth’s biggest bores start grousing about the licence fee, this is the sort of programme I nominate in its defence.

Never underestimate the value of a modest, impassioned expert.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

TV Review: TABOO + LET IT SHINE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14 January 2017.


TABOO: Saturday, BBC One

LET IT SHINE: Saturday, BBC Two


Even if TABOO involved heavyweight method growler Tom Hardy playing the word-based guessing game while smashed to the gills on ghastly fruit liqueur, it still wouldn’t be as bonkers as the actual show itself.

Not that I’m complaining. This delirious Gothic melodrama is a hoot.

Set in 1814, it follows rogue ex-soldier turned pirate James Delaney (Hardy) as, far from dead as presumed, he returns from Africa to London for his father’s funeral.

He inherits a disputed piece of land in America, with whom Britain is at war, much to the chagrin of the powerful East India Company, led by Jonathan Pryce swearing like a trouper (His language isn’t anachronistic – according to estimable Horrible Histories expert Greg Jenner, expletives were all the rage in Regency England).   

Revenge is afoot when Delaney discovers that pater was murdered, which exacerbates the typhoon of demonic voodoo voices in his head.


Delaney is a perfect fit for Hardy, which is hardly surprising as he co-created Taboo with his father, the winningly named Chips Hardy, and writer Steven Knight, who devised the similarly violent and stylised Peaky Blinders.

A magnetic actor, Hardy’s natural eccentricity imbues every role he plays. Striding through the filth, macho coat-a-flapping, he revels in Knight’s knowingly ripe, lurid dialogue. Hardy doesn’t chew the scenery in Taboo, he gargles and caresses it.

Sample threat: “You send me twelve men, I will return you twelve sets of testicles in a bag.” I’d quote the rest of that line, but this is a family newspaper.

Imagine an adventure yarn written by a laudanum-addled Robert Louis Stevenson tearing through the Viz Profanisaurus, and you’ve almost imagined Taboo.

It’s stirring stuff, strikingly drawn in visceral charcoals and populated by scarred, craggy faces including such reliable stalwarts as Christopher Fairbank (Moxey from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and Scots walnut David Hayman.


Propelled by Hardy’s imposing performance, it moves with the sleekness of a contemporary thriller while exploiting the potential of its wretchedly fascinating period setting.

If it delivers on its promise, then Taboo could rule Saturday nights for the next eight wintry weeks.

In reality, of course, LET IT SHINE will triumph. Mediocrity always does.

Gary Barlow desperately needs to find five young lads for his new Take That-based musical, so thank God the BBC has stepped in to help him via this formulaic talent show.


If I was feeling similarly charitable, I’d dismiss it as a harmless yawn of bland razzle dazzle. But I can’t ignore its role in the inexplicable campaign to promote toadying lickspittle Barlow as an undeserved national treasure.

This is a man so desperate for a knighthood he’d muck out the corgi kennels with his bare hands if that’s what it took. He makes fellow Windsor’s pet Gareth Malone look like Oliver Cromwell.

The programme itself is benign enough – even the ‘losers’ are treated gently – but Saturday night talent shows are in dire need of a rest. Strictly can stay, as it’s always been more of an old-fashioned light entertainment extravaganza, but the rest are more tired than a Barlow solo album.

In an ideal world, this knackered genre would receive a shot in the arm from the likes of ‘Atmosphere!’ in which New Order search for the star of a new Ian Curtis musical, or ‘Bootsy Camp’ starring legendary bass genius Bootsy Collins as he attempts to revive Funkadelic with fresh-faced Italia Conti graduates.

News just in: we don’t live in an ideal world.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

TV Review: THE HALCYON + UNFORGOTTEN

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 7 January 2017.


THE HALCYON: Monday, STV

UNFORGOTTEN: Thursday, STV


If escaping to the past beats facing up to a brutal future, then how better to ignore the birth of 2017 than traveling back to a glamourous five-star London hotel in 1940? Sure, World War II and all that, but weren’t the fashions divine?

Welcome, then, to THE HALCYON, where jitterbugs and doodlebugs collide in a streamlined tumult of soapy wartime melodrama: Downton Abbey with ration books and epaulettes.

A hotel is a classic setting for drama, offering as it does a myriad of stories operating under one convenient roof. In this case we have a Savoy-esque palace populated by various characters divided by class, nationality and politics, most of them portrayed by familiar TV faces.

Chief among them are the perennially watchable Steven Mackintosh as Garland, the ambiguous hotel manager whose outward propriety hides a scheming underbelly – Mackintosh excels at playing seemingly ordinary men with a sinister edge – and his haughty yet melancholy nemesis Lady Hamilton, played by Olivia Williams. She’s The Halcyon’s widowed owner who, for reasons only hinted at, despises Garland and his murky relationship with her late husband.


It’s a shame Lord H bumped himself off in episode one, as he was enjoyably portrayed with philandering ennui by the excellent Alex Jennings. He reminded me of Paul Whitehouse’s caddish 13th Duke of Wybourne from The Fast Show: “Me, Lord Hamilton, here? In the bathroom of a naked jazz chanteuse? With my reputation?!”


The lifts are also jammed with the likes of Mark Benton plying his usual trade as an affably lugubrious concierge, Charity Wakefield – last seen over Christmas playing a surrogate Lois Lane in Doctor Who – as, well, a glamourous Nazi sympathiser, and Absolutely’s Gordon Kennedy as a caustic Scottish chef – the ghost of Crossroads’ Hughie McPhee looms large.

Of less interest are a simpering receptionist, a gaggle of identikit posh blokes and two big band-style songs from Radio 2 jazz squid Jamie Cullum.

Filmed within an impressive studio set shot and dressed with appropriate opulence, The Halcyon is a blatant attempt by ITV to replicate the success of Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge. It’s also indebted to practically every Stephen Poliakoff drama ever made, albeit set to a brisker pace (which wouldn’t be hard - the tombs of Ramesses are more animated than most Poliakoff dramas).

Nevertheless, the show set its well-trodden wheels in motion in confident and fairly promising style. Seeing as it clings so unashamedly to ITV’s Posh Soap blueprint – sex, serfs, toffs and fancy furnishings - success for The Halcyon is almost a formality.

Already a deserved hit for ITV, superior crime drama UNFORGOTTEN returned with another byzantine cold case for refreshingly normal and compassionate detectives Cassie and Sunny (Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, whose underplayed chemistry remains a key component).


This time they’re investigating a grisly unsolved murder from 1990. Naturally, the formula that proved so effective last year remains intact: when Cassie and Sunny eventually discover the identity of an unfortunate corpse, they’re plunged into an England-spanning mystery involving several seemingly unconnected characters.

Series Two’s suspects include an NHS nurse, a Muslim schoolteacher and a gay barrister: an apoplectic Daily Mail nightmare writ large. Good.

With all the requisite intrigue in place, the pressure is on for Unforgotten to match the twisting heights of series one.

If it does, then its reputation as one of the best TV dramas of its kind is secured.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO + THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION + TO WALK INVISIBLE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 31 December 2016.


DOCTOR WHO: Christmas Day, BBC One

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION: Boxing Day/Tuesday, BBC One

TO WALK INVISIBLE: Thursday, BBC One


Superheroes are such a ubiquitous cultural fixture these days, I wouldn’t have blamed you for slumping face down in your leftovers when another one turned up in the DOCTOR WHO Christmas special.

Is nothing safe from their super-strength stranglehold?

Apparently not, and for once I’m glad. The Doctor’s encounter with a New York caped crusader was actually rather charming.

An affectionate tribute to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, it swapped the tiresomely dark seriousness of so many modern superhero sagas for a nostalgic dip into a more innocent, optimistic age of comic book action and romance.   

Steven Moffat is known - some would say notorious - for his intricate storytelling puzzles, but this was a refreshingly straightforward tale, told with a lightness of touch, in which a geeky young man eventually got his dream girl by abandoning his masked alter ego to reveal – oh yes -  the human hero within.

Corny stuff, but winningly delivered by Moffat with his customary wit and skill. Post-modern yet sincere.

It sagged whenever the perfunctory alien invasion plot took over from the more engaging central storyline, but on the whole it achieved its primary goal – to provide 60 minutes of smart, satisfying, handsome entertainment for Doctor Who apostles and floating viewers alike.

Oh, and Matt Lucas, in the space of just two episodes, has proven himself a more likeable foil for Capaldi than Clara ever was.

Whereas many Agatha Christie adaptations are produced in quaintly ornamental style, the team behind Christmas 2015’s justly-acclaimed And Then There Were None and this year’s THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION revel in the depths of her darkest yarns.


These beautifully crafted productions treat Christie seriously, yet never feel strictly deferential. Like all good adaptations, they honour the source material while exploring the subtext (in this case: homosexuality, post-war grief, xenophobia and the abandonment of our brave boys, although not necessarily in that order).

Set in early-1920s London, this particular mystery is forbiddingly urban. Mired in seediness, violence and a grimy nicotine fug – it’s a real pea souper, even indoors – it boast a visual ambition and thematic richness beyond most of its rivals.

Little man du jour Toby Jones starred as a threadbare solicitor who believed, largely for sentimental personal reasons, in the innocence of his client, a young man accused of murdering his wealthy lover.

All the principal characters, including Andrea Riseborough’s Austrian showgirl and Monica Dolan’s vindictively jealous housekeeper, were lost in a cloud of lonely ambiguity.

Despite these solemn trappings, it zipped along in suitably compelling murder mystery style. Exemplary stuff.

Alas, the same can’t be said for TO WALK INVISIBLE, a curiously sluggish drama about the struggles and tragedy of the Bronte sisters from the otherwise brilliant Sally Wainwright of Happy Valley renown.


So what went wrong? A writer/director of Wainwright’s calibre combined with such potentially fascinating material should’ve sparked one of the festive season’s TV highlights, but she somehow failed to get under the skin of this remarkable family.

For 120 interminable minutes, she never made me care about these people, whereas I was utterly invested in her Happy Valley characters. Like the Brontes, her talent lies in examining reality through fiction.

Wainwright knows there’s a timeless story to be told here, about sexism, addiction, sibling loyalty, the pressures of familial expectations and the catharsis of creative expression, but for once her usually reliable instincts were thwarted by dawdling over-indulgence and a lack of focus.

Even the wuthering Yorkshire scenery looked disappointed.