Saturday, 28 December 2019

TV Column: DRACULA + DOCTOR WHO


This article was originally published in The Courier on 28th December 2019.


NEXT WEEK’S TV

DRACULA
New Year’s Day to Friday, BBC One, 9pm


If, like me, you eventually grew tired of Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’ unbearably self-indulgent Sherlock, you might be pleasantly surprised by their muscular take on Dracula. A 19th century period piece, it borrows heavily from Bram Stoker’s novel while going its own freewheeling way (e.g. traumatised solicitor Jonathan Harker recounts his terrible tale to a drolly straight-talking, Godless nun). Despite containing flashes of slyly affectionate meta-commentary on established vampire lore, this Dracula isn’t a send-up. It’s witty, yes, but it’s also grimly atmospheric and unabashedly horrific. It may be one of the goriest dramas ever made by the BBC. Main selling point: a commanding performance from saturnine Danish actor Claes Bang as an utterly ruthless, cocksure Count.

DAME EDNA RULES THE WAVES
Hogmanay, BBC One, 9:05pm


The great Dame emerges from semi-retirement to host this one-off special from her enormous luxury yacht (it’s three times the size of Wales). Her celebrity shipmates include Sharon Osbourne, Judge Rinder, Emily Atack and Anita Rani, all of them eager to be insulted in inimitable passive-aggressive Edna fashion. Now aged 85, Edna’s material isn’t quite what it was. Her opening monologue falls flat, sadly, although it does contain this touching tribute to her late sidekick Madge Allsop: “She went peacefully… she died in my sleep.” All is not lost, however: once the guests come out, traces of her sharp improvisatory wit can still be detected. She can’t help being naturally funny, that gift never disappears completely.

DOCTOR WHO
New Year’s Day, BBC One, 6:55pm


The Doctor returns with a skittish two-part Bond pastiche called Spyfall (like Skyfall; such wit), featuring guest-stars Stephen Fry as a Q-style MI6 official and Lenny Henry (more of whom below) as a villainous billionaire businessman. I’m no fan of tin-eared showrunner Chris Chibnall; he is, at best, a competent hack. Spyfall is Chibnall at his best. It’s a fairly enjoyable run-around in which a mysterious race of aliens launch an attack on international intelligence agents. Chibnall pulls off a couple of decent set-pieces, Ryan and Yaz actually get to do something for once, and Jodie Whittaker makes her mark whenever the script allows her to. Things can only get better?

IMAGINE… LENNY HENRY: YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK
Thursday, BBC One, 12am


This thoughtful profile of Sir Lenworth has, for some mystifying reason, been buried at midnight. So what if you can watch it whenever on iPlayer? He deserves better. It’s a poignant companion piece to his recently published autobiography, in which he focuses, not on his years of fame and fortune, but on his early struggle to make a name for himself on the ‘70s working men’s club and television circuit: a seemingly insurmountable task for a black teenager in a predominantly white - and covertly racist - environment. He reflects upon the importance of delivering race-based jokes before the audience got there first. It was a defence mechanism, he had no choice. Today he’s a figurehead for the diversity movement.

LAST WEEK’S TV

A CHRISTMAS CAROL
22nd December to Christmas Eve, BBC One


The zillionth adaptation of Dickens’ festive classic starred Guy Pearce as Scrooge and Stephen Graham as Marley. It was written by Steven ‘Peaky Blinders’ Knight, hence the knowingly mannered, sooty charcoal aesthetic and salty language. Knight was obviously more interested in exploring Scrooge’s eloquent nihilism than his eventual redemption, but it was the resolutely dark Christmas Carol we deserved this year. An enjoyably nasty addition to the canon.

MARTIN’S CLOSE
Christmas Eve, BBC Four

Mark Gatiss – that man again – wrote and directed this boring adaptation of an M.R. James ghost story about a 17th century nobleman accused of murdering a young woman with learning difficulties. I admire Gatiss’ commitment to reviving the BBC’s Christmas tradition of supernatural yarns, but his efforts tend to be little more than fanboy homages. They lack the haunting impact of the adaptations he adores. RIP Jonathan Miller.

GAVIN & STACEY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
Christmas Day, BBC One


There are few things worse than a reunion with people you didn’t much care for in the first place. This unnecessary comeback confirmed the wisdom of that stone-clad sitcom edict: don’t bother. Have Corden and Jones learned nothing from Only Fools and Horses and David Brent: Life On The Road? It’s a nice enough show, fairly well-observed, but leave it where it belongs: somewhat fondly remembered in the third tier.

Saturday, 21 December 2019

TV Column: WORZEL GUMMIDGE + DOLLY PARTON: HERE I AM


This article was originally published in The Courier on 21st December 2019.


NEXT WEEK’S TV


WORZEL GUMMIDGE
Boxing Day and Friday, BBC One, 6:20pm and 7pm


A labour of love for writer/director/star Mackenzie Crook, this adaptation of the evergreen children’s books is every bit as charming and funny as you’d expect from the man behind Detectorists. Early press photographs of Crook as the root vegetable-headed scarecrow made him look infinitely more unsettling than Jon Pertwee’s iteration, which is quite an achievement, but thankfully he’s turnip-sweet when you see him in action. Crook makes several wise decisions, such as not doing a Pertwee impersonation, making minimal concessions to the modern world, and basking, a la Detectorists, in gorgeous bucolic scenery scored to haunting English folk music. He’s also assembled a cast including Michael Palin, Steve Pemberton and Zoe Wannamaker. It all works.

HUGH GRANT: A LIFE ON SCREEN
Monday, BBC Two, 9pm


The global success of Four Weddings and a Funeral transformed Hugh Grant, at that point just a young jobbing actor with a background in Edinburgh Fringe comedy, into an overnight sensation. It also typecast him as a bumbling English charmer, which, as he readily admits in this enjoyable profile, was partly his own fault. In more recent years, however, he’s successfully severed ties with that image via critically-acclaimed roles such as Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. He is, in fact, a fine character actor. Grant has a reputation for being quite irascible, but he’s on good form here as he rakes over the highs and lows of his career with, quelle surprise, lashings of wry self-deprecation.

DOLLY PARTON: HERE I AM
Christmas Day, BBC Two, 8:30pm


When Dolly Parton settled upon her image as a pulchritudinous backwoods Barbie, she created a sly form of self-parody that’s always been controlled on her own terms. This sturdy 90-minute documentary ventures beyond that fa├žade to highlight her considerable gifts as a singer-songwriter. Parton is a funny woman who takes her craft seriously. With characteristic wit and wisdom, she looks back over her storeyed career, which began in the 1960s when, as a determined young woman in a male-dominated industry, she smuggled feminism into the conservative Country charts. Superstardom beckoned. This saga of uncompromising self-realisation features insight from musicologists, collaborators and famous friends such as Jane Fonda. It also boasts a stunning array of wigs.

PADDINGTON: THE MAN BEHIND THE BEAR
Boxing Day, BBC Two, 9pm


Michael Bond was an unassuming genius whose stories about a hapless little Peruvian bear have brought pleasure to millions. Hosted by Hugh Bonneville, this cockle-warming documentary reveals how Paddington came to be. While serving during WWII, Bond was haunted by the sight of starving Jewish refugees packed into a boat. Meanwhile, back in England, his parents welcomed Jewish children into their home. Bond later resided in Notting Hill, where he witnessed first-hand the racism endured by the Windrush generation. It’s not much of a stretch to view Paddington as an embodiment of Bond’s compassion for displaced immigrants. Contributors include Bernard Cribbins, Stephen Fry and that beacon of tolerance Jeremy Clarkson, whose parents manufactured a successful range of Paddington toys in the 1970s.

LAST WEEK’S TV

ROD STEWART: REEL STORIES
Saturday 14th, BBC Two

During this informal interview with Rod, Dermot O’Leary cued up various archive clips of the once-great artist in action. As he raked over his past, Rod’s natural ebullience was tinged with a pang of wistfulness he doesn’t usually reveal in public. He was clearly quite moved at times. Rod would never admit this himself, but I do think he knows that he squandered his talent.

A MERRY TUDOR CHRISTMAS WITH LUCY WORSLEY
Friday 20th, BBC Two

In which the chummy historian cleaved to her tried and tested formula of whisking us back in time while dressing up in period garb. Her mission on this occasion was to recapture the broiling stew of sights, tastes and smells of a traditional Christmas during the Tudor era. The tone was even more light-hearted than usual, but given the time of year that’s to be forgiven.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

TV Column: RESPONSIBLE CHILD + THE DIRTY WAR ON THE NHS


This article was originally published in The Courier on 14th December 2019.


NEXT WEEK’S TV

RESPONSIBLE CHILD
Monday, BBC Two, 9pm


Based on a true story, this riveting standalone drama follows a twelve-year-old boy, Ray, as he stands accused of the brutal murder of his stepfather. Ray (a haunting performance from newcomer Billy Barratt) is a bright, shy, sensitive child from an abusive family background. The details of his alleged crime are gradually revealed via fraught flashbacks. Meanwhile, his dedicated defence team mount their case. Criminal law in England and Wales decrees that children as young as ten are fit to stand trial in an adult court. Responsible Child probes deeply into the stark ramifications of that law. Etched in nauseating shades of anguished verisimilitude, it’s a compassionate piece in the Ken Loach vein. It will linger.

STICKS AND STONES
Monday to Wednesday, STV, 9pm


When a successful businessman botches a crucial sales pitch through no fault of his own, his colleagues start to bully him. Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue, but the well-intentioned message behind this three-part drama from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett is fatally undermined by sledgehammer writing. It’s utterly ridiculous. The victim’s tormentors are one-dimensional pantomime villains, their cruel behaviour is absurdly blatant. In real life they’d be more insidious, that’s how bullying among adults tends to work. Bartlett presumably knows this, but subtlety has never been his strong point. Sticks and Stones is a missed opportunity, a drama with its heart in the right place but with a big fat foot in its mouth.

THE GALAXY BRITAIN BUILT: THE BRITISH FORCE BEHIND STAR WARS
Monday, BBC Four, 9:30pm


Now this is rather lovely. Star Wars, as we know, was a game-changing Hollywood blockbuster, but it would never have existed or thrived without the efforts of talented British artisans. To illustrate that point, affable broadcaster David Whiteley, a lifelong Star Wars fan, meets some of those now elderly producers and design pioneers. It’s a thorough excavation of a project that was regarded as an utter oddity, an expensive folly, at the time, but which turned out to be something quite special. One is left with the abiding impression that George Lucas was/is a bit of a weirdo who hit upon some good ideas, none of which would’ve been realised without major professional assistance. Either way, it worked.

THE DIRTY WAR ON THE NHS
Tuesday, STV, 11:05pm


The great investigative journalist John Pilger must’ve spat a fountain of feathers when informed that his report on Boris Johnson’s plans for the NHS was to be buried in a graveyard slot after the election. This, we're told, is officially due to broadcasting rules of impartiality during a G.E. campaign. Yeah, right. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually seen the programme, as it wasn't available for preview at the time of writing, but this is how Pilger describes it: “The NHS today is under threat of being sold off and converted to a free market model inspired by America's disastrous health insurance system, which results in the death every year of an estimated 45,000 people. Now President Trump says the NHS is ‘on the table’ in any future trade deal with America.”

LAST WEEK’S TV

ELIZABETH IS MISSING
Sunday 8th December, BBC One

The last time we saw the seemingly retired Thesp and former Labour MP Glenda Jackson on TV was either via Morecambe and Wise repeats or on Newsnight. So it was a rare pleasure to be reminded of what a great actor she is in Elizabeth is Missing, a beautifully-written, gut-punching drama in which she played an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s. This was the sort of role for which grandstanding, BAFTA-hungry actors were born to inhabit with the utmost faux-humility, but Jackson is better than that. Her vanity-free performance as Maude was utterly convincing, tender and true. Actually magnificent. Maude’s life is all our lives. We love, we laugh, we cry, we frail away and die. Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease, we must never, ever ignore or misunderstand it. These people aren’t invisible. Take care of each other, will you?

Saturday, 7 December 2019

TV Column: THE CASE OF SALLY CHALLEN + LUCY WORSLEY'S CHRISTMAS CAROL ODYSSEY


This article was originally published in The Courier on 7th December 2019.


NEXT WEEK’S TV

THE CASE OF SALLY CHALLEN
Monday, BBC Two, 9pm


In 2011, Sally Challen was convicted of murdering her husband, Richard. Earlier this year, following a landmark legal campaign, her conviction was quashed. This engrossing and fiercely important documentary allows Sally, plus her supportive friends and family, to tell their story. To the outside world, she appeared to be a happy wife and mother. So why did she bludgeon her husband of 31 years to death? Behind closed doors, Richard was a cruel, vicious bully who subjected his vulnerable wife to decades of extreme psychological abuse. This wasn’t widely known at the time of her conviction, as she was still suffering from the undiagnosed disorientating effects of his coercive control. That horrific form of control is now legally recognised as domestic violence.

LUCY WORSLEY’S CHRISTMAS CAROL ODYSSEY
Monday, BBC Four, 9pm


Here’s something to take your anguished mind off the General Election results: a typically engaging essay from that always welcome font of knowledge, Lucy Worsley, in which she traces the eventful history of our most cherished Christmas carols. Wassailing fertility rituals rooted in Paganism, jolly carols regarded with contempt by those party-loving Puritans, and the fascinating story of Silent Night, which began life as an egalitarian folk song, are all grist to Worsley’s mill. Only the most curmudgeonly bah humbug bore would deny the magic of these cockle-warming songs. They’re embedded within our collective consciousness for good reason: they exist purely to make us feel happy, if only for a few precious weeks each year. Five! Gold! Rings!

GEORGE CLARKE’S AMAZING SPACES
Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm


In this wintry edition of his ongoing nose around magical residences you’ll never live in, the desperately enthusiastic Clarke - a blandly pleasant Sunderland man who increasingly resembles Alan Titchmarsh forced to present at gunpoint - parks his Parka-clad frame in Finland. His mission: to see the Northern Lights. He and his genial ‘scripted legend banter’ companion eventually see them, of course, but not before they visit various aesthetically-pleasing, renewably-energised, precision-made cabins, house-pods and sweltering wood-panelled saunas (followed by dips into icy lakes): all testaments to the genius of ethical Scandinavian design, architecture and their culture in general. Those cats are way ahead over there. Let’s all move to Finland, folks.

VIC & BOB’S BIG NIGHT OUT
Wednesday, BBC Four, 10pm


No matter what happens this week in the (sigh) real world, we’ll always have Vic and Bob mucking about as a source of defiantly silly comfort. They’re an eternal force for good, something to be proud of. Episode three, their latest gift to the nation, involves Vic revealing the secrets of beatboxing, Bob introducing a handsome new train driver wig, another powerful anti-capitalist free-running protest, and more trad gags than you can honk a horn at. Eavesdropping on these daft old friends is such a lovely luxury. Whenever they giggle at each other, the effect is contagious. This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it’s two undiminished comic greats buoyed by layers of warmth developed over decades.

LAST WEEK’S TV

THE HIT LIST
Saturday 30th November, BBC One

This shiny floor pop quiz couldn’t be simpler: members of the GBP answer questions in the hope of winning £10,000. That’s it. That’s all it needs to be. Viewers can play along at home and, in time honoured style, shout at the contestants. Last week’s show featured two utter fools who claimed the Beatles are overrated, which is – FACT - the single most boring contrary opinion anyone can ever have about popular music.

MICHAEL McINTYRE’S BIG SHOW
Saturday 30th November, BBC One

Michael McIntyre was placed on Earth for one reason only: to host harmlessly brash Saturday night light entertainment extravaganzas on BBC One. In case you’ve ever wondered, it’s what he’s for. His Big Show is worth it if only for the pleasing image it conjures of a furious Noel Edmonds watching at home and claiming it wouldn’t exist without him.

SEAMUS HEANEY AND THE MUSIC OF WHAT HAPPENS
Saturday 30th November, BBC Two

The BBC has recently received an avalanche of criticism for its appallingly blatant pro-Tory news coverage, but the fact that it broadcast this lyrical Arena profile of the great Irish poet on the same night as its usual populist flotsam briefly reinstated my fundamental – if sorely tested – support for that maddening institution. It symbolised everything the BBC should be: a premium broadcaster catering to all tastes.