Saturday, 18 March 2017

TV Review: SMILE! THE NATION'S FAMILY ALBUM + MEET THE LORDS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 18 March 2017.


SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM: Thursday, BBC Four

MEET THE LORDS: Monday, BBC Two


In People Take Pictures of Each Other, the closing track from The Kinks’ classic Village Green Preservation Society album, Ray Davies strikes a typically ambiguous pose on the subject of sentimental family snapshots.

People take pictures of the summer/Just in case someone thought they had missed it/Just to prove that they really existed.”

The makers of SMILE! THE NATION’S FAMILY ALBUM missed a trick by neglecting to include Davies’ elegy on the soundtrack, as it neatly encapsulates the bittersweet theme of this warm, poignant documentary.

An engaging piece of social history viewed through the lens of ordinary British families, it examined our deep emotional need – our anxious desperation, some might argue – to freeze treasured memories in time. From cradle to grave, we document our lives as a way of creating narratives which, while not necessarily false as such, tend to favour happier moments.


Contributors included a couple who’ve amassed 20,000 images of their lives together over the last fifty years, plus a proud father who snapped a portrait of his son every day from the moment he was born until his 21st birthday. Having attracted 6.5 million views on YouTube, they’ve vowed to continue their obsessive project by each taking a daily selfie for the rest of their lives.

Despite its celebratory surface, the programme couldn’t disguise the nagging undercurrent of sadness one sometimes gets from revisiting more innocent, carefree times. That Proustian rush of nostalgia is a double-edged sword.

There’s something uniquely evocative about the sunshine captured in faded Polaroid snapshots, especially when it beams upon loved ones who’ve since passed away. These images trigger powerful memories, which often help families to deal with personal loss.


My only issue with this otherwise charming programme was its unquestioningly positive assessment of our modern digital age, in which amateur photographers seemingly never stop sharing fragments of their lives online.

While the immediacy of smartphone technology has its benefits, it stops people from living in the moment – put down your phones and absorb your surroundings! - while encouraging tedious narcissists to wallow in the mistaken belief that every detail of their existence is profoundly interesting.

What’s the point of a life defined, not by experience and memory, but by the number of ‘likes’ it received on Instagram and FaceBook?

As Davies’ warbled presciently in 1968: “Don’t show me no more, please…”

The final episode of MEET THE LORDS, an observational documentary offering unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to our hallowed gravy train of unelected peers, reminded me that Black Rod has the sweetest gig in Westminster.


He’s only really called into service – and I use that term loosely – during the state opening of Parliament. So what does this liquorice-legged layabout do for the rest of the year?

If the aim of this series was to cement the dispiriting image of Britain as an absurd nation governed by privileged clowns in liveried robes – they look like desiccated Time Lords - then it was an unqualified success. 

The failure of the House to reform itself from within was laughably exposed when the outgoing Lord Speaker abandoned her investigation into outrageous expenses claims, as she felt her findings would cause an embarrassing scandal. This is a woman who, during her five years in office, spent £4,000 of taxpayers’ money on flowers for her office.

Strange, isn’t it, that these inveterate scroungers – Britain’s worst by far – are never held to account in the benefits-bashing pages of The Daily Mail?

Sunday, 12 March 2017

TV Review: MUTINY + HOW'D YOU GET SO RICH?

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


MUTINY: Monday, Channel 4

HOW’D YOU GET SO RICH?: Monday, Channel 4


If Top Gear has taught us anything – and I hope for all our sakes it hasn’t - it’s that a certain type of man enjoys nothing more than indulging in utterly pointless masculine endeavours. MUTINY, a seasick documentary series in which nine ordinary blokes follow in the oar-strokes of Captain Bligh, is further proof of that.

The mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789 is one of the most notorious incidents in British maritime history. Together with a small band of loyal sailors, Bligh was abandoned in a tiny boat in the middle of the Pacific, but miraculously managed to survive a treacherous 4,000 mile voyage to safety.

238 years later, because Channel 4 have some airtime to fill, a group of strangers climbed aboard a purpose-built replica of Bligh’s escape vessel to mimic his epic ordeal.

Their combined skills include carpentry, medicine and dire banter. I’m no historian, but I daresay that when Bligh’s starving crew defecated over the side of his boat, their indignity wasn’t accompanied by hoots of laughter.

Should you wish to join in with this adventure at home, then drink a cup of salt water every time the words “mate”, “lads” and “boys” are uttered. You’ll be dangerously dehydrated and delirious within minutes.

Their leader is bearded Action Man/sober Captain Haddock Ant Middleton, a burly ex-soldier who could eat Bear Grylls for breakfast. Ant never feels more alive than when he’s scaling a volcano for six hours in search of coconuts, while urgently documenting his alpha-maleness down a camera lens.


Programmes such as this would be nothing without conflict, hence the involvement of crewmember Chris, a rebellious Liverpudlian who doesn’t take kindly to orders. He spent the first few days behaving like a petulant, foolhardy child, then complained when his captain and teammates treated him accordingly.

His ultimate ambition is to sail the world solo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mutiny ends with him stealing the boat and doing just that. 

Chris would be a nightmare to deal with while filming an ostensibly dramatic documentary about the indomitable spirit of human endurance. That’s why I have grudging respect for him. He makes a mockery of the whole thing, which, for all his immaturity, seems entirely reasonable.

I really don’t give two hoots about this futile exercise in false peril and macho camaraderie. Shiver me timbers, it’s dull.

In HOW’D YOU GET SO RICH?, comedian Katherine Ryan gently poked the underbelly of four disparate millionaires.

The nice couple who founded Poundland were disappointingly normal and content – the notion that money actually does buy you happiness is the last thing most of us want to hear – but Ryan’s surface of detached irony couldn’t disguise her conflicted sympathy for one Danny Lambo, a self-described playboy leading a sad, lonely, aimless existence.


The next time you gaze despondently at your bank balance, spare a thought for Lambo – short for Lamborghini - who derives scant pleasure from judging vanity-funded beauty contests and filming inept music videos. When he inevitably makes a film about his life, he’ll probably cast himself. Matt Berry would be a better fit.

Ryan’s Hollywood encounter with a cosmetically-preserved septuagenarian plastic surgeon seemed to suggest that money can buy eternal youth. So why does Donald Trump look like a heaving colostomy bag?

Just one of many questions Ryan failed to address in this glib, if tacitly judgemental, holiday in other people’s immense wealth.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

TV Review: THE REPLACEMENT + BROADCHURCH + PRIME SUSPECT 1973

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4 March 2017.


THE REPLACEMENT: Tuesday, BBC One

BROADCHURCH: Monday, STV

PRIME SUSPECT 1973: Thursday, STV


Never trust overbearingly friendly, helpful people. That’s the important public service message behind THE REPLACEMENT, an uncomfortably gripping psychological thriller about a successful Glasgow architect gradually being usurped by the mentally unstable woman hired to cover her maternity leave.

When Ellen (Morven Christie) becomes pregnant, she initially welcomes the ultra-capable and seemingly empathetic Paula (Vicky McClure) to the fold. Paula is a doting mother, or so she claims, but her interest in Ellen’s pregnancy is acutely inappropriate. She tries to not-so-subtly undermine her colleague with physically invasive behaviour and passive-aggressive advice.

Ellen gradually develops a dislike for her. She becomes suspicious of her motives. But is she merely in the grip of hormone-addled paranoia? Of course not. We’ve all seen Rosemary’s Baby.

Aside from a climactic death scene – which naturally sends Ellen into labour - writer/director Joe Ahearne avoids overt thriller flourishes in favour of a more insidious approach. It’s very effective.

Christie and McClure are both excellent, the latter in particular. She succeeds in portraying Paula’s manipulative clamour while appearing outwardly pleasant and self-effacing. A plausible monster.

The end, at last, is in sight for BROADCHURCH, the Cluedo-like whodunit that squandered the buzz of its first impressive, attention-grabbing series. Can this third and final outing atone for the redundant mess of series two?


Well, this new case involving a traumatised victim of sexual assault is sensitively handled and more or less divorced from the original storyline. So far at least, it’s a respectable piece of drama, seemingly based on careful research into rape crisis management. Well I never.

Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but I hope it proves that writer Chris Chibnall – the journeyman tasked with ruling Doctor Who after the great Steven Moffat retires at Christmas – isn’t merely a hack who once caught lightning in a bottle.

Flushed with the success of Endeavour, ITV have taken the cynical – sorry, natural – step of producing a prequel to another one of their much-loved crime dramas.

Awash with rain and wistful recordings by Joe Cocker and Cat Stevens, PRIME SUSPECT 1973 charts the nascent career of Jane Tennison, originally played by Helen Mirren, as a young police constable entering a world mired in violence and murder.


Blandly earnest, she's nowhere near as interesting as the older Tennison, which is possibly why her creator Lynda La Plante left the project during pre-production. Even allowing for her youth, there's nothing to suggest that she's the same character. Why, it's almost as if ITV didn't have the nerve to launch a '70s-set cop show without tying it to the safety net of an established "brand".

However, it does a decent job of capturing the brown-upholstered fog of early 1970s Britain, without too much reliance on the self-conscious period signifiers common to other dramas of its type. There’s not a single spacehopper to be found.

While the twin discomforts of institutionalised sexism and police brutality are both present and politically incorrect, they don’t feel overcooked. Writer Glen Laker has a fairly convincing feel for the period.

Indeed, the sombre approach of the original Prime Suspect is successfully carried over into this surprisingly diverting piece of anti-nostalgia. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

TV Review: SS-GB + INSIDE NO. 9

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 25 February 2017.


SS-GB: Sunday, BBC One

INSIDE NO. 9: Tuesday, BBC Two


In the twisted annals of alternative history, one theoretical question dominates: what if the Nazis had won World War II?

This nightmare scenario has inspired such notable works of counterfactual fiction as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here and that episode of Star Trek with Joan Collins.

It also forms the basis of SS-GB, a 1978 novel by Len Deighton. Set in a parallel 1941, after Germany won the Battle of Britain, it depicts occupied London as a forbidding maze of summary executions and a growing Resistance movement. Scotland Yard still exists, albeit as an adjunct to the SS.

So far, so intriguing. Unfortunately, SS-GB squanders the potential of its ‘what-if?’ scenario by focusing on a conventional murder mystery. Alternative history thrives on plausibly imaginative details, but aside from the impressive spectacle of a bomb-torn Buckingham Palace, episode one didn’t depict this world in a particularly rich or compelling way.

While strong on smoky atmosphere, the narrative burned far too slowly.


Deighton’s novel has been dragged to the screen by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, the writers behind every Bond film starring Daniel Craig. If, like me, you regard those films as moderately entertaining at best, then your expectations for SS-GB will have been lowered accordingly. Even so, I expected more.

The only truly interesting facet so far is our intriguingly compromised hero, DS Douglas Archer (Sam Riley), a lawman who’s earned the trust of his Nazi overlords while secretly praying for their eventual destruction.

Despite Riley’s youthful appearance, he seems older than his years, thanks largely to his raspy channelling of the late John Hurt (possibly as a nod to Hurt’s performance in 1984). 

Affecting the distinctive brogue of another actor could’ve backfired embarrassingly, but Riley’s charismatic, committed performance transcends mere plagiarism. He makes the most of his ambiguous role.


Authors have always returned to the concept of an Axis victory because it could so easily have happened. It’s a frighteningly plausible piece of skewed reality. Fascism remains a threat to this day – just look at the White House. By rights, SS-GB should tap into those fears in a powerful, queasy way.

Instead, it merely dresses them up in lugubriously stylised noir-ish threads: Peaky Blinders meets ‘Allo ‘Allo with a riding crop up its rectum.

It didn’t stir into action until the third-act arrival of a clich├ęd yet arrestingly unpleasant SS officer with whom Archer must form an uneasy alliance. But even the threat of a bomb at Archer’s son’s school couldn’t quicken the pulse of this thin, murky, wasted opportunity. 

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith packed more tension into 30 minutes of INSIDE NO. 9 than SS-GB managed in an hour.

When four men arguing over a restaurant bill feels more high-stakes than a Nazi occupation of Britain, you know you’re in the presence of ingenious writers.


Every episode of their justly celebrated anthology series is different, but the latest was typical in the way it continually subverted expectations, even when you thought the final twist had already been revealed.

However, on this occasion I wish they actually had settled on the cunning revelation that the whole argument was an elaborate scam at the expense of wealthy businessman Philip Glenister. The final twist – having rumbled their plot, Glenister becomes their accomplice – was too sudden and felt unnecessary.  

Still, this otherwise entertaining episode proved once again that Pemberton and Shearsmith operate within the highest echelons of television writing. 

No one else manages to combine character-driven black comedy and tightly-woven drama with as much finesse; I hope they’re given carte blanche to create this magnificent series for as long as their fiendish brains will allow.