Friday, 21 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 22 October 2016.

Tutankhamun: Sunday, STV

HIM: Wednesday, STV

Paul Whitelaw

It’s not often you see a blustering character actor sporting both pince-nez and fez these days. That, I believe, is where society has gone wrong. 

So tasselled hats off to Tutankhamun, a four-part epic of the old-school based on the 1922 discovery of the legendary Egyptian tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter.

As our story began, various brandy-sipping gold-diggers grumbled that Egypt’s Valley of the Kings was all “dug out”. Having been mined for years, it was thought to be a barren wasteland as far as ancient treasures go. 

But Carter - a socially awkward yet fiercely driven maverick with a headstrong moustache - thought otherwise. He just knew there was something else, something incredible, waiting down there.

Carter is mentored by Sam Neill manfully resisting the temptation to ham it up as one-legged Lord Carnarvon, a colonial cove who decided to mount an archaeological expedition to stave off boredom. His friendship with Carter provides something approaching an emotional core.

There’s no suspense whatsoever, of course. We know how this story pans out. That wouldn’t matter if the characters weren’t so papyrus-thin (Carter’s American love interest exists solely to drive the plot by giving him insights into his own feelings).

The dialogue leaves nothing to the imagination, it’s almost entirely expository. You want historical context? Then try this for size: “Some idiot kid just shot the Archduke of Austria and his wife!” Thanks for that.

Normally, writing of this nature would drive me mad, but I’ll let Tutankhamun off as it takes place in a land of hokum, where subtlety has no place. It has no pretensions towards high-minded drama, it’s just a good old-fashioned piece of mindless escapism.

Yes, it could be objectively better – a dash of wit wouldn’t go amiss – but it looks suitably panoramic and at least the pace never drags.

An enjoyable load of old Tut.

By contrast, HIM is a drama that takes itself very seriously indeed, and ends up looking utterly foolish as a result.

It’s a risible supernatural saga about a troubled, angry, sensitive teenager with a nasty case of telekinesis. The son of divorced parents, his powers flare up whenever he’s emotionally upset, which is 90% of the time. It’s Stephen King’s Carrie meets Kevin the Teenager.

His supposedly disturbing displays of mind-magic are inadvertently funny, especially when he almost murdered his antagonistic stepdad with the floating contents of a tool bag. I’ve seen scarier things in Rentaghost (seriously, I have).

He/Him (we never learn his name) also seeks advice from a saintly old white-haired grandma in a care home, who’s the only person who understands him. When she urges him to use his gifts for good, he helpfully changes the TV channel from afar for the old dears in the communal living room. It’s hilarious.

The sight of a pregnant woman being drowned by a burst water tank shouldn’t be funny, but HIM somehow turns even that into a piece of comedy gold.

Whereas the lack of subtlety in silly old Tutankhamun is more or less acceptable, it’s wince-inducing in this supposedly serious drama.

Written by long-serving TV dramatist Paula Milne, whose heavy-handed work I’ve never rated, HIM is clearly intended as a novel way of studying family dysfunction and the traumatic effects of loss and divorce on children.

But all it proves is that Milne doesn’t have much self-awareness, otherwise she’d realise how ridiculous the whole thing is.

Monday, 17 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 8 October 2016.

Louis Theroux: Savile: Sunday, BBC Two

Still Game: Friday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

When Jimmy Savile was posthumously outed as one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders, Louis Theroux’s already infamous 2000 encounter with him instantly developed extra layers of gruesome fascination. It appeared to reveal so much in hindsight.

Theroux, to his evident regret, didn’t succeed in exposing the man for the monster he was. Savile hoodwinked Theroux with his obfuscating carapace of eccentricity, just as he duped the nation for over 40 years.

In Louis Theroux: Savile, the documentary-maker sought to make amends by trying to find out how Savile got away with his crimes for so long. He met people who knew him – insomuch as anyone ever knew someone who only revealed his true nature to those he abused – to unearth a grim portrait of a cunning sociopath who hid behind a self-servingly charitable veneer.

One elderly woman with a weird shrine to Savile in her shed – that Lego bust will haunt my dreams - still couldn’t come to terms with the fact that a predatory paedophile raised millions for her hospital. Savile’s long-term PA was in deep denial, despite the fact that he treated her appallingly. An uneasy pall of regret, anger and horror hung over the programme.

Although it was partly preoccupied by Theroux’s guilt over his part in the scandal, his anguish didn’t overshadow that of Savile’s actual victims. Instead he used his experience with Savile as a symbol for how we all failed to recognise the truth, a theme which gradually coalesced with the most important figures in this story.

He spoke to women who’d been abused by Savile, all of whom recounted bravely frank tales of a brazen predator with a repugnant knack for targeting vulnerable children. That was the real Savile. Hearing the harrowing details of their ordeals was essential, as we need to understand the full extent of his crimes.

Theroux also asked what they thought about his original documentary. Without fail, they chastised him for being so naïve.

In a way, this was a self-flagellating apology from Theroux on behalf of the BBC. A noble endeavour, but he needn’t shoulder the burden of guilt here. He was just another one of millions manipulated by the bizarre force of Savile’s personality.

Theroux’s extraordinary, searching film proved that, if Savile had a talent, it was hiding in plain sight.

Time now for a grinding segue into lighter pastures, and how better to oil those wheels than with Still Game? After a nine-year sabbatical, Glasgow’s favourite pensioners Jack and Victor returned last week. It was as if they’d never been away.

Bringing back a beloved sitcom is a dicey manoeuvre, as it automatically invites “not as good as it used to be” concerns. Thankfully, writers/stars Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill haven’t lost their touch when it comes to daft farce and colourfully bickering dialogue.

The opening scene, which simply involved Jack and Victor chatting over breakfast, instantly confirmed that they still know these characters inside out. Despite being packed with vinegary one-liners – the poetry of Scottish swearing has rarely been captured so adeptly - the dialogue feels natural, their warm rapport the result of years working together. 

Spending time in their world is a tonic, it’s such a likeable show.

The episode revolved around Jack, Victor and Isa’s endearingly foolish obsession with “innovative” catalogue gadgets. Perhaps inevitably, this resulted in Jack getting stuck in his bath.

As Jack fumed and Victor proved more hindrance than help, Kiernan and Hemphill’s love of Laurel and Hardy was delightfully plain to see. 

Saturday, 1 October 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 1 October 2016.

Damned: Tuesday, Channel 4

The Fall: Thursday, BBC Two

The Level: Friday, STV
There was once a time, not so long ago, when Jo Brand was negatively pigeonholed as a sardonic comedian who joked about nothing apart from chocolate and how rubbish men are. Yet in the last few years, quietly and assuredly, she’s recast herself as the tragicomic queen of socially conscious sitcom.

Having tackled the thankless lives of NHS nurses and community care assistants in the wonderful Getting On and its recent sequel Going Forward, she now turns her attentions to social workers in Damned. Like Getting On, it’s a sympathetic yet unsentimental comedy inspired by her own experience – a former psychiatric nurse, she’s the daughter of a social worker – in which harassed carers strive to do their best under trying circumstances.

The title comes from the apt observation that social work is an unfairly vilified occupation in which employees are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. It’s set in a Children’s Services department where the lifts, toilets and especially the people who work there, are knackered.

Brand’s character, Rose, is the spiritual twin of Nurse Kim Wilde from Getting On, a caring professional whose jaded surface belies a genuine desire to help.

Her similarly careworn friend and co-worker Al (Alan Davies) is the only other “normal” member of a staff which includes Peep Show’s Isy Suttie as a bafflingly exuberant temp, Himesh Patel as an ex-policeman and humourless stickler for the rules, and the great Kevin Eldon, that always welcome Zelig of British TV comedy, as an endearingly innocent office manager.

It’s a classic workplace sitcom in many ways – long-suffering protagonists surrounded by “wacky” supporting characters – but it’s largely successful in its attempts to fuse traditional gags with unforced pathos. Despite the necessarily stark backdrop of abuse, neglect, illness and desperation, it’s a fundamentally warm, likeable show.  

Co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith of, respectively, Absolutely and The Thick of It renown, Damned confirms Brand’s status as one of the most thoughtful writer/performers in TV comedy.

Back, unbidden, for a third series, exasperating thriller The Fall is a textbook example of a show that doesn’t know when to quit.

It began as a gripping, if questionably violent, cat-and-mouse drama about a detective hunting a serial killer, but gradually devolved into a self-indulgent, risible chore.

Its failings were epitomised by this opening episode, which was preoccupied by an interminable effort to rescue Paul Spector from death’s door. Why should we care if he dies or not? He’s a psychopathic, misogynist murderer, and a boring one to boot.

Whereas once she proved intriguingly aloof, Gillian Anderson now looks truly fatigued as DS Gibson. The Fall should be put out of its misery.  

Philip Glenister scored the easiest pay cheque of his career in The Level, a silly crime drama in which his character was murdered within the first 10 minutes.

He’ll presumably return in flashbacks/dream sequences, but the sound of him laughing all the way to the bank is the only note of joy in this drab account of a compromised detective trapped in a mild nest of intrigue while self-medicating her preposterously lenient gunshot wound with ibuprofen and gauze.

You know you’re watching a redundant thriller when the scenery – Brighton in this case – is more engaging than the story.

And how’s this for dialogue?

“The boss says you used to be school friends.”

“Yeah, when we were kids.”

The ideal age to be school friends, I find.

Saturday, 24 September 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 24 September 2016.

National Treasure: Tuesday, Channel 4

Paranoid: Thursday, STV

Operation Yewtree and the VIP sex scandal is one of the biggest talking points of our age, so it was only a matter of time before it became the subject of a TV drama. Although the estimable Line of Duty recently employed it as a bold thematic plot point, National Treasure places the issue centre stage.

The treasure in question is Paul Finchley, a much-loved fictional comedy legend played by the similarly beloved yet non-fictional Robbie Coltrane.

He’s a charming, loving family man. His wife (Julie Walters) adores him even more than his public. He seems harmless. And then one morning the doorbell rings.

The police question him about an historic rape allegation. He denies all wrongdoing. The press get hold of the story – seemingly after a tip-off from the cops – and his life falls apart.

Gradually it’s revealed that Finchley isn’t as cuddly as he seems. He watches porn, cheats on his wife and sleeps with prostitutes. He’s seedy, dubious, but that doesn’t mean he’s a rapist. Does it?

Taking as his cue the compulsion, both in the media and among sections of society, to judge public figures before they’ve been proven innocent or guilty, writer Jack Thorne encourages us to regard Finchley with cautious suspicion.

An intriguing scene with Finchley and his psychologically damaged daughter (Andrea Riseborough) is key to the ambiguity running throughout episode one. When she tells him about a violent dream she had in which he sexualised her, is she unlocking a traumatic childhood memory?

Coltrane is superb as the pathetic, troubling, yet weirdly vulnerable Finchley, and Thorne handles this sensitive material in a measured way.

When more women came forward to accuse Finchley of sex offences, the stage was set for an exploration of a contentious area. But I worry that, should Finchley be found innocent, then this topical drama may lend credence to the dangerous culture of victim-blaming. Also, in purely dramatic terms, if Finchley is guilty, then the story might unfold exactly as expected. But as we know from real life, such stories often do.

Thorne, having decided to tackle such a complex issue, will have thought about this challenge in some depth – I admired his avoidance of obvious character exposition and authored moralising - so it will be interesting to see if he succeeds in overcoming potential pitfalls.

If he does, then National Treasure could be the nuanced, thought-provoking drama this subject both deserves and demands.

Aren’t you sick of thrillers in which people with mental health issues are portrayed as dangers to society, especially when – cliché of clichés – they’re off their meds? Paranoid was guilty of this and more.

A quotidian police procedural, it features standard beats such as a quipping crime scene investigation, cops receiving cryptic messages from a mysterious stranger ahead of the game, and a psychiatrist helpfully providing simplistic medical exposition. It even threw in a female Scandi-cop for good measure.

It attempts to embellish its investigators with details of their troubled private lives, but Scott & Bailey it ain’t. However, this allows the ever-reliable Robert Glenister to deliver solid work as a depressed copper suffering panic attacks. Elsewhere, Lesley Sharp is unnervingly serene as a strangely observant Quaker (the most sinister kind of Quaker).

Both deserve better than Paranoid. Although billed as a conspiracy thriller, it fails to provide the intrigue, drive and scope that the genre requires. How can you be thrilled when you don’t care about the conspiracy?

Monday, 19 September 2016


This article originally appeared in The Dundee Courier on 17 September 2016.

Joanna Lumley’s Japan: Friday, STV

Celebrity Home Secrets: Monday, STV

In the far-flung court of the celebrity travelogue, Palin is the unconquerable king. He started this whole racket in the first place with Around the World in 80 Days, but let’s not blame him for that. He knew not what he wrought.

However, if we must put up with programmes in which famous people go on expense-free foreign holidays – and clearly we must – then Palin does at least have two highly capable lieutenants: Billy Connolly and Joanna Lumley. Like him, you always get a sense that they’re genuinely interested in the cultures they engage with. They’re the best at what they do.

In the latest episode of Joanna Lumley’s Japan – a title which suggests she’s gone mad with power and staged a political coup – the charming Thesp once again displayed her natural command of the formula.

With that warm, familiar voice set to Maximum Caramel mode, she marvelled at the vast wonders of thoroughly modern Tokyo.

Western documentaries about Japanese culture often adopt a condescending tone, but Lumley is too courteous to mock its supposedly wild and wacky weirdness. Instead she strove to celebrate Japan as a country in the gradual process of laying to rest its old social restrictions.

Its image as a strict beacon of conformity was challenged by Lumley’s visit to a progressive kindergarten where individual expression is encouraged. This laudable institution may be a notable exception in Japanese society, but it’s a step in the right direction.

By contrast, her conversation with a traditional Geisha Girl was rather sad. It appears to be such an oppressive, lonely life. There was also something slightly dubious about Lumley’s encounter with an 18-strong girl band, whose audience consists almost entirely of men. Have they just come to ogle these girls? Or is it just a bit of harmless, innocent fun? I couldn’t make my mind up, and nor, I suspect, could our host.

If Lumley didn’t come across as such a nice, genuine person, her breathy style of narration and gushing expressions of awe would be laughable. But I find her quite endearing, even when she flirts with self-parody by using verbose phrases such as “an unfathomable matrix of discombobulation.”

However, such borderline pretention is preferable to enduring the likes of a bored Paul Merton staring wryly at some unusual foreign hats. At least Lumley looks like she’s being enriched by her adventures. Like Palin and Connolly, she also seems to enjoy meeting people and enquiring about their lives.

For that reason, I actually learned something new about the subject at hand. That should be the point of any travelogue, of course, but it’s all too rarely the case in reality. Long may Lumley broaden her carbon footprint.

While watching the latest episode of Celebrity Home Secrets, it struck me that Janet Street-Porter would be a dreadful travelogue presenter.

I’ve always liked her, despite disagreeing with some of the guff she comes out with for coins, but just imagine her spectacular disinterest when faced with some of the people and wonders that Lumley encounters.

She was reliably unsentimental during this supposedly nostalgic piece of flotsam, in which celebs return to homes which defined certain chapters in their lives. 

Basically an over-extended One Show item, it’s the shrugging definition of a TV time-passer, bolstered on this occasion by Street-Porter’s natural gifts as a caustic raconteur. 

Sunday, 4 September 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 September 2016.

Are You Being Served?: Sunday, BBC One

Porridge: Sunday, BBC One

Young Hyacinth: Friday, BBC One
The BBC’s Landmark Sitcom season is, officially, a celebration of its redoubtable sitcom legacy. Chief among its offerings are revivals of old favourites such as Are You Being Served?, Porridge and Keeping Up Appearances.

Though billed as one-offs, they’ll almost certainly be recommissioned if viewers approve. The success of Still Open All Hours, which began as a Christmas special, proves that.

Naturally, this has led to accusations that the BBC is trading on former glories when it should be supporting original comedy. Well, yes. To a degree.  But that j’accuse conveniently ignores the plentiful sitcom pilots which also form part of the season.

But let’s focus on the reheated oldies. Everyone else is. Are You Being Served? was never a classic anyway, but the revival captured its bawdy spirit. Set three years after the original ended, it’s officially a sequel, albeit with different actors in situ. The original cast, of course, have all taken that escalator to the great shop floor in the sky.

Its torrent of camp innuendo was occasionally tinged with a coarser 21st century edge. For all its blatant rudeness, the original wouldn’t have stooped to gags about “seamen” and “taking Mr Humphries up the Regal”. But you’d have to be righteously po-faced to resist smirking at such knowingly contrived tosh.

Mr Humphries may be an outdated gay stereotype, but there’s still no malice in the way he’s written and performed. Jason Watkins had a ball (ooh, pardon!) in the late John Inman’s fleet-footed shoes, although his performance took a harsher approach. Sheree Hewson was equally enjoyable as Mollie Sugden’s Mrs Slocombe, purple rinse, pussy and all.

Good, breezy fun as a one-off tribute, but the novelty won’t last if it becomes a series. Where can they go from here?

Another sequel, Porridge had a more difficult mountain to climb. After all, the original is one of the greatest British sitcoms ever made. Alas, despite being written by its sainted creators Dick Clement and Ian La Franais, it was curiously listless.

Kevin Bishop did a decent job as Fletch’s cyber-criminal grandson, although his best moments involved physical comedy rather than dialogue.

His personality is basically identical to Fletch’s, which just made me miss Ronnie Barker even more. Clement and La Franais haven’t forgotten how to write Fletch, at least in terms of nailing his cheerfully sarcastic speech patterns. But the gags were tired and threadbare, the stabs at modernity dutifully forced. It felt like a mechanical lecture from veteran scientists with nothing left to prove.

Not a disaster by any means, but utterly pointless

A 1950s-set prequel to Keeping Up Appearances, Young Hyacinth was – remarkably – the best of the bunch.

The only good thing about the shrill, tiresome original was Patricia Routledge’s performance as the appallingly snobbish Hyacinth Bucket, but the brilliant Kerry Howard echoed her mannerisms with startling accuracy. However, it was more than mere mimicry. She played a character, not a UK Gold repeat.

Roy Clarke, that prolific veteran of gentle teatime comedy, clearly enjoyed delving into the past of one of his few memorable creations. A wry character piece shot on film, it was far more charming than the original. Some of Clarke’s dialogue was even reminiscent of Alan Bennett, if only in terms of cadence and rhythm.

Key to its modest success was Hyacinth as a desperately class-climbing young woman, which carries far more pathos than the middle-aged monster she became.

We’ll probably see more of Young Hyacinth, which means that Clarke, who also writes Still Open All Hours, is still a popular sitcom writer at the age of 86. I can take or leave his work, but I bow to his incredible longevity.

Monday, 15 August 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 13 August 2016.

The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear: Saturday, BBC Two

An Hour to Save Your Life: Tuesday, BBC Two
The story of Vincent Van Gogh severing part of his ear as a perversely romantic gesture is almost as famous as his immortal body of work. According to legend, the emotionally fragile artist turned up at the door of a Provence brothel in 1888, and handed a package containing a bloody slice of his own lobe to one of the working girls. 

It’s a sad, shocking story. But did it actually happen? As revealed in The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear, contemporary newspaper reports were suspiciously inconsistent when it came to details. Surely there must be accurate archive medical and police reports pertaining to the most notorious incident in the history of modern art?

Intrigued by this murky mystery, art lover Bernadette Murphy embarked on a seven-year mission to uncover the truth. A nice middle-aged lady with a snazzy line in neckerchiefs, the Provence-based adventures of this tenacious amateur sleuth are a Sunday night detective drama just waiting to happen: Vera meets Lovejoy.

Hosted by that other great tortured artist, Jeremy Paxman, in full-blown quizzical gravitas mode (honestly, you sometimes have to wonder if he’s even heard of Chris Morris), this engaging documentary managed to sustain its central conceit, even though the results of Murphy’s investigation recently hit the headlines. The journey was just as interesting as the final destination.

Murphy uncovered several hitherto unknown facts. “Rachel”, the object of Van Gogh’s affections, wasn’t a prostitute after all. She worked at the brothel as a cleaner. It’s possible that, as the victim of a rabid dog attack, she was one of the “wounded angels” with whom Van Gogh felt such empathy.

After poring through research by the author of the Van Gogh biopic starring Kirk Douglas, Murphy finally unearthed a conclusive medical diagram by the doctor who treated Van Gogh post-injury.

The great man didn’t just cut off his lobe, he severed his entire ear.

Understandably, Murphy was reduced to tears. Not only had she solved a mystery that’s eluded experts for over a century, she’d exposed the harrowing depths of a deeply troubled soul.

The programme also reinforced an inescapable point: uniquely among artists, our appreciation of Van Gogh’s work is intrinsically fused with our knowledge of his tragic personal life. He quite unwittingly forged the dubiously romanticised notion that genius and self-destruction are automatic bedfellows. While I understand the impulse to believe that – I include Brian Wilson and Peter Sellers among my heroes - it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Then again, would Van Gogh have created his masterpieces if he hadn’t been mentally ill? It’s a conundrum that even Jeremy Paxman can’t unravel.

The trauma continued in the latest series of An Hour to Save Your Life, in which cameras follow paramedics and doctors as they make critical decisions on behalf of accident victims.

Like most medical documentaries, it’s essentially a form of rubber-necking voyeurism. Yet despite its manipulative bombast – with its ticking clock graphics and split-screen technique, the production team are blatantly influenced by 24 - it does highlight the unflappable professionalism of people who hold lives in the balance on a daily basis.

All at once, it makes you value your wellbeing, worry about the freak fragility of existence, feel humbled in the presence of those who make a difference, and resent the fact that you’ve done nothing worthwhile with your life. 

Marginally less troubling than The One Show, it’s an existential minefield.