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.

Thursday, 11 August 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6 August 2016.

The ‘80s with Dominic Sandbrook: Thursday, BBC Two

Versus: The Films of Ken Loach: Saturday, BBC Two
Unless you happen to be a wealthy capitalist such as pop star Tony Blair or war criminal Gary Barlow, most rational people agree that Margaret Thatcher was the worst thing that ever happened to this country.

She destroyed British industry. She trampled over the poor. She encouraged a blind philosophy of selfishness and greed which led directly to the chaos of our miserably divided modern age.

That’s not subjective opinion, it’s a matter of historical fact. Or so I thought until my perceptions were altered to mind-blowing effect by The ‘80s with Dominic Sandbrook.

According to the maverick historian, despite what you may have thought in your blissful, woolly ignorance, Thatcher didn’t forge the consumerist boom of the ‘80s. She was merely reacting to it. If anyone is to blame for what happened during that destructive decade, it’s you, the avaricious consumer, not poor, benighted Mrs T.

Sandbrook, in typically rebellious style, didn’t actually support this leftfield theory with any persuasive evidence. He didn’t need to. The man has some sort of degree, he obviously knows what he’s talking about.

Sure, his programmes may look like glib, superficial overviews of a complex subject in which he presents dubious right-wing conjecture as objective fact. But that’s only because we’ve become brainwashed by “experts” who favour qualified rigour over self-consciously challenging revisionism. Michael Gove, as always, was right.

With his glasses, tank-top and reassuringly bald bonce, Sandbrook has the mien of an affable college lecturer. He seems harmless. But don’t be fooled by his disarming act. He’s Columbo, if Columbo had forgone a career apprehending wealthy criminals in methodical detail to pursue the far more important task of skewering received wisdom with the haphazard precision of an attention-seeking assassin.   

Cynics might argue that Sandbrook’s central theory that Delia Smith, not Margaret Thatcher, was the most powerfully influential woman in ‘80s Britain, is an example of contrary posturing at its most egregiously self-satisfied. To those people I’d say this: when was the last time you manufactured an ill-informed opinion for money on BBC Two? You’re just jealous.

History, as they say, is written by its Blue Peter competition winners. Sandbrook has more than earned his badge.

One can only imagine Ken Loach’s reaction to Sandbrook’s tract. I hope he didn’t electrocute himself by smashing a sensibly-shoed foot through his television.

The transmission of Versus: The Films of Ken Loach just two days after Sandbrook’s apologist guff felt like an accidental effort by the BBC to honour their commitment to balance.

This elegant, insightful, touching profile of one of Britain’s greatest film/television directors and “left-wing firebrands” highlighted the difficulties he’s faced over a remarkable, and inspiring, 50-year career.

Equal parts social justice campaigner and cinema artisan, Loach has always been driven by determined moral outrage and compassion. But his best work never feels didactic. Truth and humanity are always paramount.

Sometimes, that’s a questionable approach. Did he really need to film the wee, tear-stained boys from Kes being caned for real during an admittedly powerful scene? He can be ruthless in his pursuit of authenticity.

During Sandbrook’s beloved Thatcher years, Loach was reduced to directing McDonald’s adverts for money. “That sits really badly on my conscience,” winced the self-effacing Marxist nation-hater.

Nevertheless, like Sherlock and Moriarty, Loach and Sandbrook have much in common. Both disguise their true motives behind an unassuming, genteel veneer.

The key difference is that Loach actually lives in the real world.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30th July 2016.

Keith Richards: The Origins of the Species: Saturday, BBC Two

The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl: Saturday, BBC Two
Keith Richards and Roald Dahl: together at last! They may not seem like natural bedfellows, but during last Saturday’s generous documentary double-bill, it struck me that both were natural-born storytellers and nonconformists who have enriched our lives immeasurably.

If you had to define the essence of Keith – eau de Keef - then look no further than the moment in Keith Richards: The Origins of the Species when he recounted a charming childhood memory of his visits to Dartford marshes.

“I saw my first dead man there,” he noted. That faux-casual use of “first”, as if it was merely a throwaway detail, spoke volumes about a man who understands his own myth.

This entertaining hour in the company of one of rock’s great raconteurs was a Rolling Stones documentary with a difference: it ended at the point where the band were about to form.

It focused instead on The Human Riff’s formative years in monochrome, bombsite Dartford, told in his own colourful words. It also functioned as an iconoclastic piece of post-war social history. A keen history buff with a distinctive eye for detail, Keith should have his own BBC Four series by now. If they don’t hurry up, Channel 4 will poach him as the new host of Time Team.

Despite his legendary intake of Bad Things, his memory is remarkably lucid. Reliably funny and engaging – your cup would runneth over with joie de vivre if you’d survived what he has – he told his story with a throaty mix of wry nostalgia and genuine warmth, especially when discussing his family.  

Julien Temple, a director famed for such classic documentaries as The Filth and The Fury, bolstered Keith’s anecdotes in typically inventive style with an eclectic collage of archive footage scored to Stones music and period pop hits. His camera revelled in the lizard-like contours of rock’s craggiest visage. That nicotine cackle and woozy grin were in full, glorious effect.

When infant Keith’s England was being bombed during the war, Roald Dahl was protecting it as an RAF pilot. The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl began with him crashing his plane in Africa. He was lucky to survive. A life-changing incident, it inspired his first piece of published writing. He frequently returned to the magic and terror of flight.

As this fascinating and touching essay made clear, all of Dahl’s classic yarns contained elements of autobiography. Childhood encounters with vicious adults, the tragic loss of comrades during the war, even his own wife’s stroke – her mangled language inspired The BFG – all found their way into his work. Yet he incorporated these dark matters with such sensitivity, they never felt ghoulish.   

Told using extracts from his memoirs, as read by Robert Lindsay and illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, it confirmed my belief that the most beloved children’s author of all time – face facts, Walliams – was one of the greatest literary geniuses of the 20th century.

He understood implicitly that children love reading about frightening things, just as long as the author lightens the darkness with humour.

He endured the horrors of war. His survivor’s guilt inspired him to write about children who’d lost their parents. One of his daughters died when she was only seven. When his young son had a severe brain injury, he co-invented a valve to alleviate his condition. Several thousand other children benefited from this invention, which was never sold for profit.

An extraordinary man. A kindly subversive. Keith and Roald both.

Sunday, 24 July 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 23rd July 2016.

The Secret Agent: Sunday, BBC One

One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special: Sunday, BBC One

Terrorist cells. Suicide bombers. Russia flexing its muscles. Late 19th century Britain was a dangerous place. Thank God we’ve come so far since then.

Adapted from the novel by Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent is an alarmingly prophetic period thriller starring Toby Jones as Verloc, a Soho sex shop owner who moonlights as an informer for the Russian embassy.

Driven by profit rather than any great ideological impulse, he earns an extra crust by sharing fairly banal information about the anarchist gang whose trust he’s earned. But his life becomes a waking nightmare when the embassy orders him to commit an act of terrorism on the gang’s behalf, thus provoking the British government into hard-line action.

As explained by the Russian secretary, played with reptilian zeal by David Dawson, “England is in need of a jolly good scare, an outrage that will summon this country from its slumber. Then we unleash a law that will clamp down on the anarchist threat.”

This compelling three-part drama is full of such moments, when the prescience of its storyline and themes smacks us full in the face. Granted, there are times when writer Tony Marchant gets slightly carried away with this aspect, and practically turns to the audience to scream, “Do you see?! Do you see what I’m getting at?!” But given the overall strength of the piece, that’s forgivable.

The bold antithesis of most Sunday night period dramas, The Secret Agent is mired in a clammy fog of impending catastrophe. Jones is typically arresting as an essentially amoral, cowardly man who nevertheless invites a kernel of sympathy. After all, he’s in the grip of an appalling moral dilemma. If Verloc refuses his orders, the Russians will sign his death warrant by exposing his true colours to every terrorist group in Europe.

Ian Hart also shines as a truly unsettling nihilist with a home-made bomb strapped under his coat at all times. The crazed embodiment of a terror which can’t be reasoned with, he’s driven solely by a desire to cause pain and chaos for its own sake.

Given the relentlessly horrendous state of the world, this impressive adaptation of Conrad’s prophecy couldn’t be more relevant. Everything changes, everything stays the same.

Still, it was nice of One Night in 2012: An Imagine Special to remind us of that fleeting moment of national pride and optimism engendered by Danny Boyle’s justly lauded Olympics opening ceremony.

An in-depth documentary about the making of this triumphant event, it reinforced the fact that no one expected it to succeed. We expected the worst, because we always do in this country. It’s part of our national character. Disaster beckoned. The knives were out. Britain was about to humiliate itself in the eyes of the world.

Of course, what actually transpired was a heartening, powerful and subversive celebration of immigration, industrialisation, free healthcare and Britain’s vast contribution to world-changing innovations and popular culture. But it was ultimately a tribute to the everyday folk who shape British life.

Alongside revealing contributions from Boyle and his team, the programme devoted just as much time to the dedicated volunteers. They were the real stars of the ceremony.

It also revealed – quelle surprise – that Cameron’s coalition government were opposed to the glorious NHS sequence. To his eternal credit, Boyle threatened to walk if this tribute to one of our greatest institutions was cut. Thankfully, he won. We all did.

Sunday, 17 July 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 16th July 2016.

The Job Interview: Tuesday, Channel 4

The Secret Life of Brothers and Sisters: Wednesday, Channel 4

Before I wade into The Job Interview, I should first offer a disclaimer. As an arty media wastrel, I’ve never actually had a proper job interview. I didn’t get where I am today without the twin benefits of blackmail and competition tickets.

But surely the process isn’t as needlessly contrived as shown in this new observational documentary series? Do employers really subject candidates to semi-elaborate role play exercises? If so, I’m amazed anyone has a job at all.

Filmed using fixed-rig cameras, the programme follows actual job-seekers prostrating themselves before genuine employers. The stakes are real. It encourages us to squirm in the company of nerve-wracked candidates as they struggle to sell themselves. We also get to see interviewers collapsing into giggles once certain candidates have left the room. That must do wonders for the latter’s self-esteem.

And yet despite all that, it’s a surprisingly benign voyeuristic exercise. Sure, it’s basically the annual gruelling interview episode from The Apprentice – the one we all enjoy the most – stretched out to a series, but the key difference is that, unlike most Apprentice candidates, the participants are recognisably human. The programme doesn’t mock them. On the contrary, it invites our sympathy.

The first episode also functioned as a sly commentary on this great nation’s class divide. The companies looking for new recruits were a van leasing company and a luxury weddings and events venue. The former was run by an affable pair of ordinary managers, while the latter was overseen by a sitcom-posh mother and daughter duo named Philippa and Bertie. Snooty and brusque, Philippa was like Anne Robinson fused with a cheese grater.

Meanwhile, at the van company, we rooted for candidates such as a single mum experiencing her first interview in twelve years. Getting the job meant the world to her, as she wanted to make her loved ones proud.

We also wallowed in the inherent pathos of a man in his fifties who was recently made redundant after 26 years at a brush-making factory. Seeing as the programme focused on their stories, they were obviously the final contenders. She got the job, but the employers were so impressed by his character, they asked him in again to see if he could fill another role.

Would he have achieved this happy outcome if the cameras weren’t present? I just don’t know any more. Either way, it was rather heart-warming.

Like the similarly benign First Dates, it’s a good-natured study of everyday folk enduring high-pressure situations. As with First Dates, however, their reasons for inviting added pressure by allowing themselves to be filmed is a matter for their psychiatrists.

There was more human anthropology in The Secret Life of Brothers and Sisters, in which behavioural scientists observed various young siblings on their first family camping holiday.

80% of us have siblings. It’s potentially the longest relationship of our lives. You can’t choose your brothers and sisters, so you’d better get along with them. Otherwise, watch out.

Thankfully, there was no screaming enmity on this harmonious campsite. We were introduced instead to some cute kids who clearly loved each other. Anyone hoping for Lord of the Flies horror would’ve been sorely disappointed.

Although it could never be mistaken for an important anthropological study, the programme did manage to provide some pleasant insight into the dynamics between kids embarking on life’s unknown voyage.

One day they’ll be trembling at job interviews. Or writing TV reviews. It’s a gamble. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 9th July 2016.

Brief Encounters: Monday, STV

B is for Book: Tuesday, BBC Four

Essentially The Full Monty with lingerie and sex toys, Brief Encounters is, aptly, a skimpy affair about a group of ordinary women in early ‘80s Sheffield who decide to sell goods from the Ann Summers range.

Though billed as a comedy-drama, it doesn’t deliver on either front. Inevitably, scenes of the women presenting living room demonstrations of their “naughty” toys and undergarments are delivered in a light-hearted fashion, but they’re only gently amusing. Cosy comedy. The dramatic elements are so rote and predictable, they almost feel tacked on as an afterthought.

It’s not exactly bad as such. The very concept of faint praise could’ve been invented for this typically inoffensive ITV confection, in which an able cast of familiar faces do what they can with a competently written, wholly unsurprising script. Like an ageing married couple slipping into sexless twilight torpor, we’ve seen it all before.

It’s stocked full of archetypal, sub-Mike Leigh characters - Leigh stalwart Peter Wight crops up - such as the nouveau riche snob, the permed, predatory sexpot, and the frustrated middle-class housewife (Penelope Wilton). Every box is ticked with a kind of dutiful flourish.

Sophie Rundle (Happy Valley) is a quietly appealing presence as protagonist Steph, a young married working-class mum who seizes her chance to make some extra money when she spots an advert for Ann Summers saleswomen in the local newspaper. It’s also a way of escaping from her workaday rut – she’s a part-time cleaner for a well-off neighbour – and fulfilling her dreams of a worthwhile career.

The Ann Summers parties, though initially regarded with nervous suspicion by some of the women, present an opportunity to have fun and make new friends. What’s more, in a domestic world where disapproving patriarchs rule the roost, it’s a form of rebellious empowerment.

Thematically, it’s a sound premise. But Brief Encounters is stubbornly unwilling to explore its potential as a piece of gender commentary or social history in any great depth.

When Steph’s husband (Rundle’s Happy Valley co-star Karl Davies) is made redundant, the script goes through the motions of showing his wounded pride resentment of his wife’s new career.

The menfolk will doubtless come to terms with it in episode six, thus symbolising society’s gradual acceptance of sisters doing it for themselves (award yourself a tart beverage when Annie and Aretha appear on the soundtrack).

This is all projection, of course, but when confronted with a show which basically writes itself, even Nostradamus would be bang on the money.

However, it does feel more substantial if you regard it as an ominous prequel to harrowing BBC drama Threads, in which early ‘80s Sheffield was destroyed in a nuclear war.

A delightful celebration of the written word, B is for Book followed a group of Hackney primary school pupils as they discovered the joys of reading.

The “emotional journey” arc is one of the most clich├ęd devices in modern documentary-making, but in this case its usage was entirely apt and rewarding. Watching these kids gradually learn to read and grow in confidence over the space of a year was, dare I say it, quite magical.

Even the potentially twee conceit of using the kids as narrators supported the central theme of how important it is to encourage literacy at a formative age.

This charming essay was also one in the eye for critics of Britain’s education system. Good, dedicated teachers literally change lives.

Saturday, 2 July 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 2nd July 2016.

The Living and The Dead: Tuesday, BBC One

Life Inside Jail: Hell on Earth: Tuesday, STV

The gas-lit brainchild of Life on Mars creators Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham, The Living and The Dead is a supernatural period drama which doesn’t scrimp on effective bumps and scares.

Part of that uniquely British sub-genre known as folk horror – a cult gathering epitomised by such classic films as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw  – it unfolds in the innately disquieting setting of late 19th century Somerset.

Inevitably, this rural locale boasts creeping traces of ancient pre-Christian religion, psychosexual weirdness and demonic possession. 

Our photogenic guides are a bright, modern young couple played by Colin Morgan (Merlin; Humans) and Charlotte Spencer. Intensely sensitive Nathan is a pioneering psychologist – a useful vocation in this increasingly unhinged environment - while jolly Charlotte is a leading photographer. It’s only a matter of time before her monochrome snaps capture something horrifically inexplicable.

You knew things were about to go drastically awry when, after returning to Nathan’s ailing farming community, Charlotte breezed, “A few weeks in the country are just what we need!”

Little did she realise that the local vicar’s teenage daughter had been possessed by a guttural maniac. What’s more, dangerous supernatural forces appear to be targeting her husband. But at least the industrial revolution has come along to rescue the area’s agricultural fortunes. Hasn’t it?

Bathed in a pleasingly spooky, insidious atmosphere, this promising yarn benefits greatly from elegant direction by Alice Troughton (Doctor Who), although I wish she’d resisted the temptation to include those hoary old horror props, the creepy Victorian doll and rocking horse. And I’m not yet convinced by the incorporation of a time travel element, which so far threatens to gild the lily. However, I can’t fault its ambition.

Inventive adult ghost stories are all too rare on TV these days, so I’m willing to give it the benefit of my niggling doubts. So far it has the potential to become a haunted gem.

The horror continued in Life Inside Jail: Hell on Earth, a two-part documentary filmed in one of New York’s largest, toughest jails.

Despite being familiar territory – American jailbirds must spend at least 25% of their cell time speaking to British documentary crews – it was, as such programmes always are, a sombrely voyeuristic account of a society gone awry.

Home to a thousand male and female inmates, the prison finds petty criminals rubbing shoulders with people accused of murder. Inevitably, we witnessed lives destroyed by drugs. One desperate young addict, who’d never been in trouble with the police before, was accused of murdering a woman to feed his habit. Trapped in a waking nightmare, he looked utterly dazed by what he’d done.

To stress the point that drug addiction can sink its fangs into anyone, the programme also included saddening scenes of a tearful mother, incarcerated for drug crimes, being visited by her daughters and grandchild. If that weren’t miserable enough, one of her daughters was later imprisoned in the same jail for heroin possession. History repeats itself without remorse.

As for the armed prison guards, they were typically willing to talk about their work on camera. It must be a welcome break from the ever-present threat of violence.

One guard admitted that he often thinks he’s crazy for choosing such a dangerous and depressing job. “It’s hopeless for society, man,” he sighed, as all around him an endless cycle of tragedy ensued.

Another guard was reduced to mordant giggles as she talked about some of the insane behaviour she encounters on a daily basis. Sometimes, all you can do is laugh to stop from crying.