Monday, 20 February 2017


This article was first published in The Dundee Courier on 18 February 2017.



Human beings are frighteningly vulnerable. Even the sharpest minds among us can be assaulted without warning by the cruel lottery of fate. Two programmes last week shone defiant glimmers of hope into mortality’s glowering visage.

They focused on robust and somewhat eccentric characters who dealt with serious illness – one fatal, the other life-threatening – with humour, pragmatism and a healthy lack of sentiment.

The phenomenally successful fantasy author Terry Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s in 2015. He’d lived with the degenerative disease for eight years, during which he continued to write until he was no longer able.

His final project was a memoir recorded with the assistance of his PA. Pratchett never lived long enough to complete it.

Enter TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK, a charming tribute which sought to tell the story of his life in fittingly irreverent fashion.

Wearing the guise of a mischievous narrator, actor Paul Kaye, aka the prankster formerly known as Dennis Pennis, rescued the Discworld creator from the philosophical clutches of Death (coincidentally the most popular character from Pratchett’s novels).

Armed with trademark wizard’s beard, black fedora and nasal rhoticism – the result of a childhood accident which, in Pratchett’s words, left him sounding like “David Bellamy with his hand caught in an electric fire” – Kaye’s affectionate impersonation would, one presumes, have delighted the man who inspired it.

He led us through a prolific life and cynical/compassionate worldview forged by a childhood in which Pratchett was told he’d never amount to anything, hence why his distinctive form of satire was driven by an angry intolerance of hypocrisy, snobbery and injustice. An indelible streak of “I told you so” remained with him until the end.

But if Pratchett could be cantankerous, an essential sense of decency was his abiding characteristic. He never lost his amused yet sincere fascination with the human condition, even when he was eventually felled by the kind of unjust act of fate he always railed against.    

Andrew Marr is a kindred spirit. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, the respected political journalist refused to kowtow to self-pity – which he describes as “the most nauseating human quality of all” – in a way Pratchett would’ve appreciated.

Despite clinging to the celebrity-fronted “personal journey” blueprint so beloved of modern television, ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME was, thanks to the wryly no-nonsense nature of its star, refreshingly free of stage-managed catharsis. Marr’s journalistic eye ensured that he never became the whole story. 

 Through the prism of his own experience, he examined the available recovery options and various neurological effects of the biggest cause of disability in Britain (the inclusion of a post-stroke Marr interviewing former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t accidental).

“I’m nothing special,” he insisted, as he met stroke survivors who made him look relatively lucky.

Marr believes two years of excessive work caused his stroke, but he appears to be working as prolifically as ever. Slowing down just isn’t an option for this intensely driven broadcaster, who cites painting as one his few sources of solace. In one revealing moment, he expressed regret that he never attended art school. A fear of failure sent him on a different course.

Yet despite his candour, Marr’s Celtic stoicism remained admirably intact.

“I know the BBC has a special contract where I have to burst into tears at one point,” he smiled, “but I can’t do it. I come from Dundee.”

Saturday, 11 February 2017


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11 February 2017.


ROOTS: Wednesday, BBC Four

When nine-year-old Shannon Matthews went missing in 2008, the media descended upon her Yorkshire council estate.

Her mother, Karen Matthews, wasn’t as conveniently middle-class as the parents of Madelaine McCann, but the nation donated its sympathies anyway. We’re magnanimous like that.

As we now know, Karen abducted her own daughter in cahoots with a male relative. Inspired by the financial rewards surrounding the discovery of Maddie, they hid terrified Shannon with the intention of eventually ‘finding’ her and enjoying their payday.

When the truth was revealed, the usual suspects had a field day. An unmarried, uneducated working-class mother on benefits who exploited her own child for media attention and scrounging remuneration? Typical!

Well no. Obviously. This was hardly a typical case, as THE MOORSIDE made clear.

 Produced by the team behind acclaimed factual dramas about the likes of Fred West and Myra Hindley, this sensitive – if occasionally didactic – drama seized upon this story to critique our dismally polarised society.

It focused on the compassionate grass-roots search for Shannon organised by neighbour Julie Bushby (Sheridan Smith), a fellow single mother who sympathised with the trauma that Karen was supposedly going through.

It’s the story of a so-called underclass fighting for its right to be respected as a close-knit community who, abandoned and demonised by the media and ruling elite, sought to prove themselves as dignified human beings.

Their betrayal by Karen Matthews – who made fools of them all – may have proved a point to morons who’ve never expressed a nuanced thought in their lives, but The Moorside illustrates how basic human decency, however misplaced, is more important than knee-jerk generalisations.

Karen’s actions were unforgivably cruel, and The Moorside doesn’t try to excuse them. But it also portrays her as a pitiful person whose weakness wasn’t formed in a vacuum.

Smith is typically excellent, but Gemma Whelan as Karen is quite outstanding. Yes, she occasionally mugs too comically when caught in the glare of her deceit, but her performance is gut-wrenching in episode two.

I hope Katie Hopkins is forced to watch it endlessly, Clockwork Orange-style.

Based on author Alex Haley’s semi-fictionalised account of his family history, the classic 1977 miniseries ROOTS played a landmark role in confronting a mass audience with the horrors of slavery.

 It remains one of the key texts in the teaching of African-American history and western civilisation’s shameful legacy of racist tyranny. You only have to look at Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants to appreciate its ongoing relevance.  

Which is why, for once, a remake doesn’t feel redundant. Like the oral histories upon which it was based, Haley’s epic saga demands to be retold.

It’s reasonable to assume that many, if not most, younger viewers will be unfamiliar with the ‘70s original, so this new adaptation will be their introduction to the dramatic story of defiant Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte and his descendants.     

It isn’t a remake so much as a retelling mounted with modern production values.

While faithful to the source material, it sometimes deviates to significant effect. It’s more explicitly violent in ways I’m sure the original – which was hardly a walk in the park - would’ve depicted had such visceral imagery been permitted on ‘70s television.

Bolstered by impressive performances from English actor Malachi Kirby as Kunta, Scotland’s own Tony Curran as a sadistic plantation overseer, and the estimable Forest Whitaker as an unsentimentally drawn yet pathos-riddled ‘court jester’, this well-made adaptation is powerful, moving and unflinching.      

Monday, 6 February 2017


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4 February 2017.



The late artist Francis Bacon has always struck me as the sort of boozy raconteur who’d be entertaining company until one drink over his tolerance level transformed him into the kind of monstrous bore for whom swift exits were built.

That’s raging alcoholics for you, especially those possessed of talent, brains and an infinite capacity for self-loathing.

While the stark documentary FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE did little to disabuse me of this view, it did succeed in humanising a man whose riotous legend was at odds with the lost soul who flailed in its shadow.

Although I’m sometimes guilty of it myself, I’m suspicious of our tendency to lionise unhappy geniuses. I’d rather they found peace during their lifetime than suffer the indignity of antiseptic experts pontificating over their tragic legacy. But Bacon wouldn’t have painted his masterpieces without that tortured drive. A chicken, egg and Bacon sandwich.

 As with most introspective artists, it’s impossible to judge their work without examining their private lives. Bacon enjoyed publicity, hence the smattering of archive interviews included here. I would’ve preferred to watch those interviews in full than listen to talking heads pontificate on his behalf.

Bacon’s extraordinary paintings were shocking, spiteful, furious, horrific. They possessed a visceral ugliness which, depending on one’s taste for the morbid, could seem rather beautiful in a certain sensitive light.

I’ve seen Ricky Gervais’ Derek, so I know what it’s like to gaze into the abyss. Bacon’s work is but a light aperitif.

A homosexual whose work screamed against the abusive tyranny of his upbringing and dysfunctional adult relationships, Bacon’s propensity for masochism and black humour was hardly surprising.  

This lonely demon-bohemian with the puffy cherub face and Tony Curtis quiff would, I hope, have chuckled at this grubby canvas of essay-quoting critics and old friends, now greying eccentrics, who somehow survived all that after-hours drinking and existential jousting.

A final joke before closing time.

Tracey Ullman is a talented show-off whose undoubted artistry and intelligence ceases to be entertaining when allowed to roam unfettered.

Her old US sketch show – which famously begat The Simpsons – was proof of her tendency towards overbearing self-indulgence, and the first series of TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW, her UK comeback vehicle for the BBC, confirmed it.

A frustrating talent, she’s always seemed tantalisingly capable of creating great work. A handful of sketches in series one did at least suggest a depth of ambition beyond the usual confines of mainstream British comedy, even when they fell short of their potential.

Every spotty sketch show deserves a second chance, especially one starring a comedian capable of uncanny impressions of Judi Dench and Clare Balding, but it’s still nothing more than a generic compendium of, at best, mildly amusing spoofs.

These are the jokes, folks. Dench exploits her status as a beloved national treasure to cause mayhem (quite funny the first time; tiresome when repeated ad nauseam). Balding is manically ubiquitous. Nicola Sturgeon is a Bond-style supervillain. And so on. It’s terribly weak, strained sauce.

I quite liked Angela Merkel’s tearfully melodramatic musical number about being ostracised by her old EU chums, but finding anything to enjoy in this show is like clutching at straws.