Saturday, 3 December 2016

TV Review: RILLINGTON PLACE + THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 December 2016.


RILLINGTON PLACE: Tuesday, BBC One

STORYVILLE: THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN – INSIDE THE FAMILY: Tuesday, BBC Four


Few figures in history have encapsulated “the banality of evil” more than notorious serial killer John Reginald Christie.

With his bald bonce, tortoiseshell spectacles and mousy demeanour, he was outwardly nondescript in every way. And yet between 1943 and 1953 he murdered at least eight women in his sepulchral abode at 10 Rillington Place in North-west London.

Such was Christie’s infamy, his squalid saga was dramatised in a classic 1971 film starring Richard Attenborough.

That, seemingly, was the last word on this insidious monster. However, writers Tracey Malone and Ed Whitmore beg to differ with RILLINGTON PLACE, a grimly absorbing three-part drama starring Tim Roth as Christie and Samantha Morton as his conflicted wife, Ethel.

So how does it differ from the Attenborough film? Well, it began by focusing on Ethel as a kind of tragic identification figure. By viewing Christie from her perspective, it provides a chillingly claustrophobic sense of what it must’ve been like to live with him.

It also means that his murders take place off screen – at least for now - as Ethel never witnessed them. Instead we receive terrifying hints – a blood-stained mattress, a suspicious suitcase containing unknown horrors, Christie digging in the garden and skulking around at night with a hammer – while downtrodden Ethel gradually twigs that her shifty husband is more than a “mere” philanderer, thief, voyeur and liar.

Episode one also fleshed out their backstory. It ended as the events of the film began, i.e. the arrival at Rillington Place of doomed neighbour Timothy Evans, who would eventually be hanged for one of Christie’s murders.  

Roth and Morton are extraordinary. With his flat, whispered Yorkshire tones and eerie self-containment, he’s like a sinister Jon Ronson disguised as Arthur Lowe. His steadfast calm being broken by a sudden physical attack on Ethel was particularly disturbing, revealing as it did the psychotic violence lurking beneath that apparently pathetic veneer.


 Meanwhile, Morton’s subtly expressive face captures Ethel’s perpetual tug of war between hurt, suspicion, anger, disgust and denial. The writers suggested that she covered for Christie on at least one occasion, presumably out of misplaced loyalty to the only man she’d ever been with. To troubling effect, Morton nails this complex ambiguity.

Suitably mired in a dank, shabby, weak tea haze of gloomy wartime and post-war misery, Rillington Place excels on every level. Despite the lurid subject matter, it’s an admirably restrained yet gut-punching study of everyday evil.

Likewise, the sad and angering Storyville documentary THE CULT THAT STOLE CHILDREN: INSIDE THE FAMILY examined the harrowing psychological toll of lives destroyed by mentally unstable captors.


In 1963, Anne Hamilton-Byrne founded an Australian sect comprised of supposedly respectable adults and children either sired by followers, or stolen from vulnerable young mothers.

Believing herself to be Christ incarnate, for over 20 years this charismatic psychopath oversaw a despicably cruel regime in which children were starved, beaten and fed LSD. The programme featured testimonies from “her” children, all of them unimaginably scarred by their ordeal. Even the police officers investigating the case were traumatised.

She got away with it by exploiting draconian attitudes towards unwed mothers, while securing/manipulating friends in high places. When finally apprehended, all she faced was a fine for falsifying adoption documents. Today she resides in a retirement home, her memories vanquished by Alzheimer’s.

The Australian justice system and society at large failed these abused children. It was a scandal beyond your darkest nightmares.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

TV Review: BLACK NURSES: THE WOMEN WHO SAVED THE NHS + LIFE & DEATH THE PENTECOSTAL WAY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 November 2016.


BLACK NURSES: THE WOMEN WHO SAVED THE NHS
Thursday, BBC Four

LIFE AND DEATH THE PENTECOSTAL WAY
Sunday, BBC Two
  
When the great Aneurin Bevan created the NHS in 1948, it soon became apparent that his heroic endeavour required urgent assistance from beyond these shores.

There simply weren’t enough doctors, nurses and midwifes in Britain to support it, so thousands of Caribbean women were shipped over to assist the “Mother Country”. 

Their story was told in BLACK NURSES: THE WOMEN WHO SAVED THE NHS, another revealing entry in the BBC’s excellent Black and British season.

This primarily mournful documentary illustrated how, despite playing a vital role in creating and sustaining the NHS for 70 years, they’ve rarely received the respect they deserve.

It starred a group of eloquent older ladies sharing vivid memories of their nursing careers, many of them tainted by anger and sadness. While they remain understandably proud of their achievements, the racism they experienced painted a dispiriting portrait of Britain then and now.

They recounted tales of white patients who refused to be treated by black nurses. One woman recalled being attacked in the street by a group of men. This was the thanks they received for serving our great nation?

The prejudice was horrendous. Angering archive footage revealed white ‘50s Britons decrying black immigrants as dirty, whereas in reality these young women were scrupulously hygienic. Indeed, they were shocked by the grubby state of Britain when they first arrived.

As far-right groups exploited rising tensions – images of ‘Keep Britain White’ graffiti mirrored recent reports from America of daubed hate speech in the wake of Trump’s triumph – most black women, regardless of ability, were unfairly funnelled into the junior nursing category. Their chances of promotion were almost non-existent.

To this day, black people represent only a tiny percentage of NHS senior management position. Several nurses spoke of becoming demotivated after being repeatedly passed over when applying for promotion.

Only in the field of midwifery did they gradually flourish, as midwives tend to be regarded as more important than nurses. Not true, of course, but that’s the prevailing view.

The programme was bookended by the observation that the midwife who helped to deliver ‘Prince’ George and ‘Princess’ Charlotte is black. That’s an achievement of sorts, I suppose, although I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it wasn’t the best way of illustrating a semi-optimistic kernel of progress.

The Black and British season continued with the observational documentary, LIFE AND DEATH THE PENTECOSTAL WAY.

Pentecostalism is the fastest-growing Christian faith in Britain, with Black Majority Pentecostal churches proving particularly successful.

The programme spent time with the curators and parishioners of the Brixton New Testament Church of God, which was established by Windrush West Indians in the 1950s.

Religion gets short shrift in our increasingly secular society, often for good reason, but this was a convincingly positive portrayal of a church that embodies truly altruistic Christian values.

It plays a vital role in a community troubled by poverty, crime and police harassment. If Jesus Himself ran a charitable inner-city drop-in centre for vulnerable people, it would probably look something like this.

Even the way the church is funded, by locals donating however much they want, seemed sound.

Regardless of your beliefs, there’s no denying the admirable endeavours of these genuinely kind, tolerant children of God. I was particularly impressed by a rousing sermon from the charismatic Bishop Brown, as he urged his flock to treat all people equally.

It was a reminder that you’ve got to have faith, at least in human nature.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

TV Review: MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS + THE PITY OF WAR: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF THE WAR POETS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19 November 2016.


MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS
Sunday, BBC One

THE PITY OF WAR: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF THE WAR POETS
Sunday, STV

As befits the spirit of Remembrance Sunday, our rival networks came together last weekend to commemorate both world wars.

Despite being tainted with a nagging tug of predictability, BBC One’s MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS is a fairly promising new drama about life in a rural Northern Ireland parish in 1943.

The opening scenes didn’t bode well. They unfurled in a studiously tasteful procession of wartime clichés: children staring up at bombers flying overhead; women in woollen berets riding bicycles; flat-capped men grumbling about spam; US airmen swaggering into town on a wave of big band jazz (“All right, boys, this is a dance, but they call it a ceilidh!”).

The only thing missing was our old friend, the untethered horse cantering down a cobbled high street.


Thankfully, those dubious first impressions were gradually laid to rest. Much like Call the Midwife, this is a cosmetically pretty – it’s beautifully photographed - yet fundamentally solemn and understated Sunday night confection.

Our protagonists are the Coyne family. Mother Rose (Hattie Morahan, hitherto best known as the neurotic Jane from Outnumbered) is an educated Englishwoman whose role as a pillar of the community still can’t overcome her alien status. Although somewhat snobbish, she’s perceptive, humane and – so it transpired – willing to take up arms.

Her conflicted Irish husband, Michael, runs the local boozer, while her teenage daughter and young son (whose weathered adult narration, courtesy of Ciaran Hinds, provides the requisite air of ambiguous nostalgia) struggle to make sense of their war-torn playground.

In time-honoured and occasionally over-literal fashion, it’s a child’s-eye view of a perplexing adult world.

When Rose encountered a Tennyson-quoting US army captain (Mad Men actor Aaron Staton) on a picturesque clifftop, the stage was set for an inevitable “will they, won’t they?” romance. Likewise, there were few surprises in the story of Rose’s innocent daughter falling for a charming American airman. His cards were marked from the moment he appeared.


Nevertheless, it was a rather poignant vignette about adolescent confusion and the tragedy of young men being sent off to certain death. These stories are fictional, although loosely based on actual incidents. A palpable sense of sadness permeates proceedings, and writer Barry Devlin isn’t afraid to explore the underlying darkness, violence and bigotry of his rain-drenched parish.

If he cuts back on the clichés, then I don’t see why this sincerely tender drama couldn’t run and run.

Though generally dismissed as a bulwark of bottom-drawer populism, ITV is very occasionally capable of producing programmes of surprising sensitivity and depth.
THE PITY OF WAR: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF THE WAR POETS was one such anomaly.

This one-off docudrama paid tribute to the soldiers whose experiences in the trenches during World War One inspired some the greatest anti-war poetry ever written.

It was framed by John Hurt as an ageing Siegfried Sassoon, still haunted by the war 50 years later. The great Thespian’s husky voice caressed Sassoon’s starkly disillusioned words, while younger actors read from letters, diaries and poems to provide a horrifyingly vivid picture of life on the frontline.


The emotionally-charged yet platonic mentor/student relationship between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen was touchingly portrayed. Owen, our greatest wartime poet, was killed in action just one week before Armistice Day. But his harrowing work lives on.

This graceful programme served as a fitting testament to the subversive genius of two outstanding poets, and to the fallen soldiers whose hellish nightmare they immortalised so unsparingly.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

TV Review: DAMILOLA, OUR LOVED BOY + CLOSE TO THE ENEMY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 November 2016.


Damilola, Our Loved Boy: Monday, BBC One

Close to the Enemy: Thursday, BBC Two
  
Nigerian schoolboy Damilola Taylor was 10-years-old when he was fatally attacked on a Peckham estate in November 2000. The image of this innocent, smiling child seared itself on the nation’s consciousness, an unwitting emblem of growing fears over inner city knife crime.

Following a prolonged, controversial trial, two teenagers were eventually charged with manslaughter.

The shock of this senseless crime still reverberates, hence Damilola, Our Loved Boy, a deeply moving drama made with support from the Taylors.


Primarily framed through the eyes of Damilola’s father, Richard, it went behind the headlines to explore the anguish of a family struggling with unimaginable tragedy.

The establishing scenes of the Taylors living a happy life in Nigeria – Richard was a successful businessman with government connections – were weighted with a sense of impending horror.

The Taylors moved to England so that Richard’s British-born daughter could receive urgent NHS treatment for her epilepsy. Writer Levi David Addai didn’t need to stress the terrible irony of parents losing a child while seeking to save the life of another.

Damilola’s excitement about moving to this land of hope and glory was heart-breaking. Breadwinner Richard stayed behind as the family moved into a cramped Peckham flat. Seven months later, Damilola was dead.

Certain scenes lingered long after the credits had rolled. The mounting panic of Damilola’s mother when he didn’t return from school; his guilt-stricken older brother phoning Richard to break the awful news; Richard visiting the scene of Damilola’s murder, then eventually breaking down away from the gaze of the family for whom he tried to remain strong.

With admirable honesty, it depicted Richard as an often myopically proud and moral man who, via sincerely noble deeds in the local community, neglected the needs of his family while trying to make sense of Damilola’s death. But that was his way of dealing with guilt and grief.

Sensitively handled by all concerned – Babou Ceesay was particularly outstanding as Richard – this necessarily upsetting film succeeded by stating its nuanced, complex case without a trace of tabloid hysteria.   

One thing we can all agree on about divisive auteur Stephen Poliakoff is that no one makes television quite like him. He’s an eccentric genre unto himself. For some, his work is agonisingly mannered and opaque. For others, myself included broadly speaking, those affectations are often quite appealing.

So what to make of Close to the Enemy, in which he rakes over his trademark obsessions with hot jazz, war criminals and the haunted glamour of barely populated luxury hotels? It’s tempting to assume that he’s trolling his critics with a Bingo-card summation of every Poliakoff drama ever made.


Set in the bomb-damaged London of 1946, just as the Cold War began, it pivots on a strange performance from Jim Sturgess as a maverick military intelligence agent tasked with securing the services of a reluctant German scientist.

With his shop-damaged chocolatey diction and eyebrows a-cocked a la Roger Moore, he appears to be sending the whole thing up. I don’t quite know what the hell he’s doing, but it’s certainly entertaining.

Like Poliakoff’s last tribute to his own oeuvre, Dancing on the Edge, it’ll probably squander its vague promise by drifting languidly up its own fundament. In which case, the BBC may finally decide to stop throwing money at this self-indulgent oddball.

But I must admit, it’s perversely pleasing that he’s managed to reign unfettered for so long. There’s something to be said for public disservice broadcasting. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

TV Review: DARK ANGEL & HUMANS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 5 November 2016.


Dark Angel: Monday, STV

Humans: Sunday, Channel 4

ITV has dramatised so many real-life crime and murder cases over the years, it’s all but exhausted the 20th century as a gruesome source of inspiration.

Hence, one presumes, the arrival of two-part death carnival Dark Angel, starring Joanne Froggatt (dutiful housemaid Anna from Downton Abbey) as 19th century serial murderer Mary Ann Cotton. This is truly horrible history.

From 1865 to 1872, Cotton cut a poisonous swathe through the North East of England, murdering several husbands – and possibly eleven of her 13 children – for their life insurance policies.

In the hands of writer Gwyneth Hughes, she was initially portrayed as a sympathetic figure mired in poverty and struggling to raise a family while her first husband scraped a paltry living at sea.

But our sympathies soon waned when she discovered the swift and painful properties of arsenic.


A fine, intelligent actress, Froggatt pitched her performance astutely. The – to say the least – morally wayward nature of her character was rendered more chilling by her decision to adopt the gentle North East tones of Sarah Millican.

Froggat’s Cotton wasn’t depicted as a leering maniac, but rather as a coldly pragmatic, manipulative killer who wasn’t beyond feeling guilt for her actions. However, those occasional pangs of conscience couldn’t dissuade her from a cruel and perverse mission to climb the social ladder.

No one suspected foul play when her family members coincidentally died in vomit and faeces-stained agony, because Victorian society couldn’t even begin to entertain the notion that a woman would be capable of such crimes.

By the end of episode one, she’d dispatched two hapless husbands, two children and her own mother. No wonder the blue-grey colour palette looked so depressed.

It may not be the most compelling study of a psychopath you’ll ever see, but Dark Angel is a suitably bleak and low-key account of an overlooked chapter in British criminal history. Seldom have the words “Let’s make you a nice cup of tea” been delivered with such an impending sense of doom.

A deserved hit for Channel 4, series one of Humans was one of the most thoughtful and intelligently-realised sci-fi dramas of recent years.

Based in a near-future Britain where lifelike androids – or synths – are employed as unquestioning slaves within the service industries, it managed to combine all the usual philosophical quandaries of A.I. fiction with an overarching conspiracy narrative and an effective domestic setting.

But where to go from there? In attempting to broaden the scope of this world, the first episode of series two was a globe-trotting muddle in which far too many strands competed for our attention.


The relatively small-scale drama of series one has been replaced by an overly busy stew of disjointed ideas. It’ll hopefully settle down and regain focus soon, but this was a textbook example of how not to begin a new series.

Or perhaps it’s because I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t particularly care about the fate of our rag-tag group of sentient synths and their voyage of self-discovery, and preferred Humans when it was the story of a dysfunctional family struggling to cope with the introduction of a synth into their lives. The scenes involving the Hawkins’ were more engaging than anything else in episode one.

I’ll gladly eat those words if Humans 2 matches the quality of its predecessor. Maybe, in its eagerness to grab our attention, it just got off to an awkward, malfunctioning start. 

Sunday, 30 October 2016

TV Review: ORDINARY LIES + THE ROUNDHOUSE: THE PEOPLE'S PALACE

Ordinary Lies: Tuesday, BBC One

Arena: The Roundhouse – The People’s Palace: Sunday, BBC Four
  
Now in its second year, the excellent anthology series Ordinary Lies succeeds in its mission to covertly smuggle standalone dramas into the primetime schedules.

Although linked by overlapping storylines and a shared workplace setting – this year it’s a Welsh call centre and warehouse – each episode focuses on a different character. Much like The Street by Jimmy McGovern, it’s essentially a series of self-contained plays.

Writer Danny Brocklehurst, who’s worked with McGovern, has inherited the master’s cruel penchant for plunging his characters into painful moral dilemmas. They’re like a pair of vengeful Gods.

The overarching theme of the series is the costly repercussion of deceit. People lie for many reasons, and not always with the intent of deliberately hurting others. Each week the tension arises from when and how the protagonist will be found out.

Brocklehurst’s latest unfortunate plaything was Holly, the company’s highly capable PA. Bored of life and nursing a broken heart, Holly had lost all confidence in herself. Her fragile ego took a further battering when she accidentally discovered a note in which her boyfriend apparently listed his problems with her (the eventual twist that this was in fact a list of his own perceived failings was hardly surprising).


This spurred her into inevitably doomed action. Using social media, she decided to track down the ex who shattered her sense of security, in a desperate bid to reinvent herself. This involved the theft of glamorous images from her FaceBook friends, and an elaborate ruse in which she posed as the successful manager of her own company. Suitably impressed, he swiftly ended up in bed with her.

However, it turned out he wasn’t being truthful either. Not only had he cheated on her years ago, he’d also fathered a child with his mistress. This quagmire of deceit was compounded by the revelation that, when he left her, Holly was pregnant with his child.

The scene in which this information tumbled forth was suitably gut-wrenching; hitherto best known for comedy roles in the likes of Fresh Meat, Kimberley Nixon as Holly more than proved her worth as a dramatic actress.

This was a sad, cautionary study of the devastating effects of heartbreak and the ways in which social media can make users feel inferior by presenting a distortedly rosy image of other people’s lives. It’s all too easy to present a manufactured front to the world from behind your laptop.

And yet Brocklehurst couldn’t quite bring himself to destroy Holly completely. The episode appeared to be a lesson in the futility of trying to rekindle a dead romance, but she received a glimmer of hope in the final scene.

Even vengeful Gods have their moments of leniency.

Britain’s most beloved Victorian engine shed was the star of Arena: The Roundhouse – The People’s Palace, which paid tribute to a legendary London venue steeped in weird-beard history.


Once the home of experimental theatre and underground ‘60s happenings from the likes of Pink Floyd, today The Roundhouse is basically a corporate music and arts centre. So no wonder this typically well-researched documentary focused on its reign as a radical portal for punks, hippies, beat poets, black power activists and, err, Barbara Windsor.

Call me a romantic old dreamer if you will, brothers and sisters, but contemporary culture is nowhere near as interesting as it was in the wild heyday of The Roundhouse. The party is over.

Friday, 21 October 2016

TV Review: TUTANKHAMUN + HIM

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.