Monday, 22 May 2017

TV Review: THREE GIRLS + A TIME TO LIVE + KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 20 May 2017.


THREE GIRLS: Tuesday to Thursday, BBC One

A TIME TO LIVE: Wednesday, BBC Two

KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER: Thursday, BBC One
  

Unflinching, furious, despairing, THREE GIRLS told the horrifying true story of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring. 

Over several years, a group of men, most of them British Pakistanis, groomed and raped vulnerable working-class schoolgirls. The local police failed to thoroughly investigate their crimes, allegedly due to fears of appearing racist.

This outstanding drama, shown over three consecutive nights, was a damning indictment of a systematic failure to protect abused children.

Based on extensive research, interviews and public accounts, it focused on three of the victims – their names changed for obvious reasons – as well as the whistleblowing NHS sexual health worker (Maxine Peake) and the sympathetic senior police officer (Lesley Sharp) who treated them with the respect they deserved.

Their ordeal didn’t end with the abuse; the trauma continued when they struggled to defend themselves in court.

Their abusers exploited the fact that working-class kids with chaotic lives tend to be ignored and mistrusted by the authorities. As Peake’s character angrily observed, these girls were repeatedly “raped, beaten, not believed.”

She embodied the sense of righteous compassion which coursed through writer Nicole Taylor’s sensitive screenplay. Her sterling work was bolstered by a superb cast, including three extraordinary young actresses who never appeared to be acting at all. The raw power of Three Girls was largely drawn from their entirely natural performances.


Peake and Sharp were typically great – their belief in this material was palpable – but special mention must go to Paul Kaye as the father of one of the victims. His quietly devastating performance proved just how far he’s come since his Dennis Pennis days.

Inevitably, this scandal played into the hands of Britain’s thriving bigot community. Taylor tackled that unfortunate side-effect while reminding us that the crown prosecutor who brought the case to trial was a British Pakistani.

The BBC should be applauded for devoting three hours of primetime to such uncomfortable territory. 

It’s a drama to be spoken of in the same vital breath as Cathy Come Home.

How would you cope if you were given a terminal diagnosis? Would you rail against the cruel injustice of it all, or would you choose to make the most of the limited time you had left?

These difficult questions formed the basis of A TIME TO LIVE, the latest film from one of TV’s finest documentarians, Sue Bourne.


 If you’re familiar with Bourne’s work - and you should be – then you’ll appreciate her talent for gently coaxing candid, eloquent testimonies from particularly vulnerable people. No one is ever exploited in a Bourne documentary, she earns their trust without manipulation.

This tender essay was characteristically honest and moving.

Being of sound, if jaded, mind, I assumed that EastEnders spin-off KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER would be even less appetising than the dreary soap it sprang from.


Well, imagine my vaguely pleasant surprise when it turned out to be a stylish, intriguing drama wreathed in shades of Nordic Noir (the Danish director numbers Borgen among his credits).

We’re definitely not in Albert Square any more.

Written by Matthew Graham of Life on Mars repute (we won't mention Bonekickers), it follows the Moons as they relocate to a conspicuously lyrical Irish coastal village in pursuit of Kat’s long-lost son. A somewhat unsettling, edgy aura dominates; Ballykissangel with a hint of Royston Vasey.

It’s unexpectedly entertaining, and works because familiarity with EastEnders isn’t necessary. Despite the Moon connection, it exists in a different universe.

Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie are such likeable performers, they were always too good for EastEnders. This is the vehicle they deserve.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

TV Review: BABS + DOCTOR WHO + BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON

BABS: Sunday, BBC One

DOCTOR WHO: Saturday, BBC One

BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON: Friday, BBC Four
  
Why are we supposed to love Barbara Windsor again? She was always a popular member of the Carry On troupe, but at some point during the last 30 years we were suddenly expected to agree that she’s a redoubtable national treasure. Based on what exactly? 

An endearing comic performer in her youth, Windsor’s limitations as a dramatic actress were mercilessly exposed in EastEnders. Even in a soap renowned for its conspicuous lack of Thespian heavyweights, her stiff, shrill performance stood out as particularly poor.

She’s the living definition of a particular kind of British celebrity famed more for being “a survivor” than their actual body of work.

A BBC drama based on her life was inevitable. The only surprising thing about Tony Jordan’s BABS, a corn-stuffed hagiography which fully subscribed to her self-styled myth, was that it’s taken this long to be made.

Jordan is a former head writer on EastEnders and a close friend of Windsor’s. He’s therefore spectacularly ill-suited to the task of writing an honest, unbiased version of her story. Windsor’s involvement in the project – she even made a cameo appearance – confirmed that this was nothing more than a glossy PR exercise.

So here it was, the authorised, boring saga of the little cockney sparra who loved and lost, but made it through the rain. A full house for biopic bingo fans, it was more sentimental than a pie-eyed pearly queen.

Windsor has suffered heartbreak and setbacks. We all have. Her story probably pales in comparison to anything you could offer from your own family history. Fame doesn’t make you automatically fascinating.

Samantha Spiro, an old hand at playing Dame Babs on stage and screen, did her best with the awkwardly theatrical device of flashing back through Windsor’s life via conversations with ghosts from her past, her absent father in particular. Jaime Winstone, as the younger Windsor, didn’t disgrace herself either.

Zoe Wannamaker was far more interesting in her subtly eye-catching supporting role as unorthodox theatre director Joan Littlewood. She made me wish I was watching a biopic about her instead.

The renewed fortunes of DOCTOR WHO continued with yet another fine episode, this one written by award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett of Dr Foster renown and guest-starring David Suchet as a sinister, yet ultimately tragic, landlord.

An effectively creepy “haunted house” yarn involving alien woodlice, an ingeniously realised wood-hewn zombie and – most impressively of all – a supporting cast of generic Young Adults whose deaths I didn’t long for, it confirmed the wisdom of outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat’s return to a more traditional form of storytelling.

Just four weeks in, and already it’s the best, most consistently entertaining series since Matt Smith’s debut.

It doesn’t matter that everyone has probably twigged who’s inside the Doctor’s vault, as the more or less inevitable reveal is clearly less important than the impact it’ll have on the Twelfth Doctor’s imminent demise.

As much as I’ll miss the wonderful Capaldi – and his likeable new companion, Bill, if she is indeed leaving as reported – I can’t wait to see what’s in store over the next eight weeks. Doctor Who has rekindled its mojo.

Do yourself a favour and watch BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON via iPlayer. It’s a particularly charming BBC Four music documentary featuring enthusiastic analysis of this short-lived innovator’s unique approach to rock and roll. It’s why you pay your licence fee.

Face facts, Ed Sheeran, no one will curate a tribute like this about you in 50 years time.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

TV Review: LINE OF DUTY + BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6 May 2017.


LINE OF DUTY: Sunday, BBC One

BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY: Wednesday, BBC Four


Jed Mercurio is a crafty swine. I swear he must write LINE OF DUTY while cackling up his sleeve, like a cruel child who can’t resist incinerating ants with an elaborate rig of magnifying glasses.

The latest series of his incomparably entertaining cop drama climaxed with the blatant suggestion that gruffly lovable police chief Ted Hastings might somehow be involved with the overarching thread of deeply sordid establishment corruption.

Mercurio timed this twist to perfection, as Hastings – played by the excellent Irish actor Adrian Dunbar – has gradually secured his place in the pantheon of much-loved fictional TV sleuths.

A no-nonsense copper in the old-school mould, his paternal decency and dogged determination has transformed him into a kind of wish-fulfilment folk hero. It’s comforting to believe that reliable policemen such as Hastings still exist – if, indeed, they ever did – to protect us from the evil deeds of all-powerful elites.

Hastings curtly undermining a smug suspect by calling them “fella” or gently referring to a young female murder victim as “that wee girl” - he's no more sexist than your affable, well-meaning dad - has become a source of national pride, as well as a fun-for-all-the-family drinking game. What’s not to love about the man?  

Well, this blanket adoration has clearly become too cosy as far as Mercurio is concerned. He’s occasionally dropped hints that Hastings might not be as trustworthy as he seems, but that’s always felt like the kind of red herring misdirection he’s so fond of.


When the dodgy senior police officer – played with a dodgy English accent by Scottish actor Paul Higgins - attempted to frame Hastings in the penultimate episode, we didn’t believe it for a second. He was obviously trying to divert attention from himself. Turns out there may be some truth to his accusation after all.

Despite knowing that two more series have been commissioned, I actually wouldn’t mind if Mercurio left us with the tantalising fear that Hastings was behind everything from the start. That might seem like a cheap trick – it probably is – but it would still work as a sly summation of the show’s cynical, paranoid message. No one can be trusted.

As for the rest of this year’s storyline, it unfolded – somewhat disappointingly – more or less as expected. Roz murdered Tim, but not as part of any grand involvement with Balaclava Man/Men.

The main buzz from Roz’s weary confession came from imagining that her oily lawyer, played by Patrick Baladi, was Neil from The Office failing hilariously after training as a lawyer post-sacking from Wernham-Hogg.

I hope, when they make the final series, the ultimate twist is that Hastings is one of the few trusted ‘70s/’80s establishment figures who wasn’t a wrong ‘un. Now that would be subversive, fella.

Space precludes me from rewarding BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY with the detailed praise it deserves, so I urge you to watch this fascinating documentary on iPlayer.


As the world teeters on the brink once again, it whisked us back to a simpler, gentler time when nuclear Armageddon first became a harrowing reality. Our first atomic bomb was invented, tried and tested by men – now dapper, aged and charming – who still lived in fear of post-war German retaliation.

If they could've foreseen Brexit, we'd all be dead by now.

Despite the literally devastating subject matter, the programme managed to scrape some dark, dry humour from our typically parochial flirtation with the apocalypse. They almost destroyed Dorking during test runs. 

Almost restores your faith in hapless British ingenuity, doesn’t it?