Monday, 20 February 2017

TV Review: TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK + ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME

This article was first published in The Dundee Courier on 18 February 2017.


TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK: Saturday, BBC Two

ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME: Tuesday, BBC Two


Human beings are frighteningly vulnerable. Even the sharpest minds among us can be assaulted without warning by the cruel lottery of fate. Two programmes last week shone defiant glimmers of hope into mortality’s glowering visage.

They focused on robust and somewhat eccentric characters who dealt with serious illness – one fatal, the other life-threatening – with humour, pragmatism and a healthy lack of sentiment.

The phenomenally successful fantasy author Terry Pratchett died of Alzheimer’s in 2015. He’d lived with the degenerative disease for eight years, during which he continued to write until he was no longer able.

His final project was a memoir recorded with the assistance of his PA. Pratchett never lived long enough to complete it.

Enter TERRY PRATCHETT: BACK IN BLACK, a charming tribute which sought to tell the story of his life in fittingly irreverent fashion.

Wearing the guise of a mischievous narrator, actor Paul Kaye, aka the prankster formerly known as Dennis Pennis, rescued the Discworld creator from the philosophical clutches of Death (coincidentally the most popular character from Pratchett’s novels).

Armed with trademark wizard’s beard, black fedora and nasal rhoticism – the result of a childhood accident which, in Pratchett’s words, left him sounding like “David Bellamy with his hand caught in an electric fire” – Kaye’s affectionate impersonation would, one presumes, have delighted the man who inspired it.


He led us through a prolific life and cynical/compassionate worldview forged by a childhood in which Pratchett was told he’d never amount to anything, hence why his distinctive form of satire was driven by an angry intolerance of hypocrisy, snobbery and injustice. An indelible streak of “I told you so” remained with him until the end.

But if Pratchett could be cantankerous, an essential sense of decency was his abiding characteristic. He never lost his amused yet sincere fascination with the human condition, even when he was eventually felled by the kind of unjust act of fate he always railed against.    

Andrew Marr is a kindred spirit. When he suffered a debilitating stroke in 2013, the respected political journalist refused to kowtow to self-pity – which he describes as “the most nauseating human quality of all” – in a way Pratchett would’ve appreciated.

Despite clinging to the celebrity-fronted “personal journey” blueprint so beloved of modern television, ANDREW MARR: MY BRAIN AND ME was, thanks to the wryly no-nonsense nature of its star, refreshingly free of stage-managed catharsis. Marr’s journalistic eye ensured that he never became the whole story. 


 Through the prism of his own experience, he examined the available recovery options and various neurological effects of the biggest cause of disability in Britain (the inclusion of a post-stroke Marr interviewing former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith wasn’t accidental).

“I’m nothing special,” he insisted, as he met stroke survivors who made him look relatively lucky.

Marr believes two years of excessive work caused his stroke, but he appears to be working as prolifically as ever. Slowing down just isn’t an option for this intensely driven broadcaster, who cites painting as one his few sources of solace. In one revealing moment, he expressed regret that he never attended art school. A fear of failure sent him on a different course.

Yet despite his candour, Marr’s Celtic stoicism remained admirably intact.

“I know the BBC has a special contract where I have to burst into tears at one point,” he smiled, “but I can’t do it. I come from Dundee.”

Saturday, 11 February 2017

TV Review: THE MOORSIDE + ROOTS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 11 February 2017.


THE MOORSIDE: Tuesday, BBC One

ROOTS: Wednesday, BBC Four


When nine-year-old Shannon Matthews went missing in 2008, the media descended upon her Yorkshire council estate.

Her mother, Karen Matthews, wasn’t as conveniently middle-class as the parents of Madelaine McCann, but the nation donated its sympathies anyway. We’re magnanimous like that.

As we now know, Karen abducted her own daughter in cahoots with a male relative. Inspired by the financial rewards surrounding the discovery of Maddie, they hid terrified Shannon with the intention of eventually ‘finding’ her and enjoying their payday.

When the truth was revealed, the usual suspects had a field day. An unmarried, uneducated working-class mother on benefits who exploited her own child for media attention and scrounging remuneration? Typical!

Well no. Obviously. This was hardly a typical case, as THE MOORSIDE made clear.


 Produced by the team behind acclaimed factual dramas about the likes of Fred West and Myra Hindley, this sensitive – if occasionally didactic – drama seized upon this story to critique our dismally polarised society.

It focused on the compassionate grass-roots search for Shannon organised by neighbour Julie Bushby (Sheridan Smith), a fellow single mother who sympathised with the trauma that Karen was supposedly going through.

It’s the story of a so-called underclass fighting for its right to be respected as a close-knit community who, abandoned and demonised by the media and ruling elite, sought to prove themselves as dignified human beings.

Their betrayal by Karen Matthews – who made fools of them all – may have proved a point to morons who’ve never expressed a nuanced thought in their lives, but The Moorside illustrates how basic human decency, however misplaced, is more important than knee-jerk generalisations.


Karen’s actions were unforgivably cruel, and The Moorside doesn’t try to excuse them. But it also portrays her as a pitiful person whose weakness wasn’t formed in a vacuum.

Smith is typically excellent, but Gemma Whelan as Karen is quite outstanding. Yes, she occasionally mugs too comically when caught in the glare of her deceit, but her performance is gut-wrenching in episode two.

I hope Katie Hopkins is forced to watch it endlessly, Clockwork Orange-style.

Based on author Alex Haley’s semi-fictionalised account of his family history, the classic 1977 miniseries ROOTS played a landmark role in confronting a mass audience with the horrors of slavery.


 It remains one of the key texts in the teaching of African-American history and western civilisation’s shameful legacy of racist tyranny. You only have to look at Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants to appreciate its ongoing relevance.  

Which is why, for once, a remake doesn’t feel redundant. Like the oral histories upon which it was based, Haley’s epic saga demands to be retold.

It’s reasonable to assume that many, if not most, younger viewers will be unfamiliar with the ‘70s original, so this new adaptation will be their introduction to the dramatic story of defiant Mandinka warrior Kunta Kinte and his descendants.     

It isn’t a remake so much as a retelling mounted with modern production values.


While faithful to the source material, it sometimes deviates to significant effect. It’s more explicitly violent in ways I’m sure the original – which was hardly a walk in the park - would’ve depicted had such visceral imagery been permitted on ‘70s television.

Bolstered by impressive performances from English actor Malachi Kirby as Kunta, Scotland’s own Tony Curran as a sadistic plantation overseer, and the estimable Forest Whitaker as an unsentimentally drawn yet pathos-riddled ‘court jester’, this well-made adaptation is powerful, moving and unflinching.      

Monday, 6 February 2017

TV Review: FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE + TRACEY ULLMAN'S SHOW

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 4 February 2017.

https://www.thecourier.co.uk/category/lifestyle/entertainment/tv-film/

FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE: Saturday, BBC Two

TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW: Friday, BBC One
  

The late artist Francis Bacon has always struck me as the sort of boozy raconteur who’d be entertaining company until one drink over his tolerance level transformed him into the kind of monstrous bore for whom swift exits were built.

That’s raging alcoholics for you, especially those possessed of talent, brains and an infinite capacity for self-loathing.

While the stark documentary FRANCIS BACON: A BRUSH WITH VIOLENCE did little to disabuse me of this view, it did succeed in humanising a man whose riotous legend was at odds with the lost soul who flailed in its shadow.

Although I’m sometimes guilty of it myself, I’m suspicious of our tendency to lionise unhappy geniuses. I’d rather they found peace during their lifetime than suffer the indignity of antiseptic experts pontificating over their tragic legacy. But Bacon wouldn’t have painted his masterpieces without that tortured drive. A chicken, egg and Bacon sandwich.


 As with most introspective artists, it’s impossible to judge their work without examining their private lives. Bacon enjoyed publicity, hence the smattering of archive interviews included here. I would’ve preferred to watch those interviews in full than listen to talking heads pontificate on his behalf.

Bacon’s extraordinary paintings were shocking, spiteful, furious, horrific. They possessed a visceral ugliness which, depending on one’s taste for the morbid, could seem rather beautiful in a certain sensitive light.

I’ve seen Ricky Gervais’ Derek, so I know what it’s like to gaze into the abyss. Bacon’s work is but a light aperitif.


A homosexual whose work screamed against the abusive tyranny of his upbringing and dysfunctional adult relationships, Bacon’s propensity for masochism and black humour was hardly surprising.  

This lonely demon-bohemian with the puffy cherub face and Tony Curtis quiff would, I hope, have chuckled at this grubby canvas of essay-quoting critics and old friends, now greying eccentrics, who somehow survived all that after-hours drinking and existential jousting.

A final joke before closing time.

Tracey Ullman is a talented show-off whose undoubted artistry and intelligence ceases to be entertaining when allowed to roam unfettered.

Her old US sketch show – which famously begat The Simpsons – was proof of her tendency towards overbearing self-indulgence, and the first series of TRACEY ULLMAN’S SHOW, her UK comeback vehicle for the BBC, confirmed it.


A frustrating talent, she’s always seemed tantalisingly capable of creating great work. A handful of sketches in series one did at least suggest a depth of ambition beyond the usual confines of mainstream British comedy, even when they fell short of their potential.

Every spotty sketch show deserves a second chance, especially one starring a comedian capable of uncanny impressions of Judi Dench and Clare Balding, but it’s still nothing more than a generic compendium of, at best, mildly amusing spoofs.

These are the jokes, folks. Dench exploits her status as a beloved national treasure to cause mayhem (quite funny the first time; tiresome when repeated ad nauseam). Balding is manically ubiquitous. Nicola Sturgeon is a Bond-style supervillain. And so on. It’s terribly weak, strained sauce.

I quite liked Angela Merkel’s tearfully melodramatic musical number about being ostracised by her old EU chums, but finding anything to enjoy in this show is like clutching at straws.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

TV Review: APPLE TREE YARD + THE CULT NEXT DOOR

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 28 January 2017.


APPLE TREE YARD: Sunday, BBC One

THE CULT NEXT DOOR: Thursday, BBC Two


Tired of all the usual Valentine’s Day platitudes? Then why not zing the strings of your lover’s heart with a card declaring: “Sex with you is like being eaten by a wolf”?

Call me old-fashioned, but lupine evisceration doesn’t sound terribly sexy. Then again, to the best of my recollection I’ve never been seduced by a handsome civil servant in a crypt beneath the House of Commons.

That unlikely setting is where our story began in APPLE TREE YARD, an uncomfortably uneven thriller starring Emily Watson as Yvonne, a respectable genetic scientist, and Ben Chaplin as the wolfish stranger who detonates her polite upper middle-class existence with a series of thrilling sexual encounters in public places (including a café bathroom conveniently bereft of other afternoon customers).

Middle-aged Yvonne is unhappily married to a university lecturer (Scottish actor Mark Bonnar, who’s cornered the market in instantly suspicious characters) who, or so it would blatantly appear, has had an affair with a younger student.


After delivering evidence to a Parliamentary select committee – erotically-charged events at the best of times – she’s whisked off her sensibly-shoed feet by Chaplin’s carnal politico. Suddenly she feels desirable again, and so embarks on a risky affair.

Were it not for some typically solid, nuanced work from Watson and a shocking final scene, most of Apple Tree Yard’s opening instalment would’ve come across as little more than an unusually earnest Mills & Boon fantasy.

Granted, it played a fairly diverting guessing game. It began in media res with a manacled Yvonne being led to the dock, so something awful was bound to occur (it wouldn’t be much of a drama otherwise).

Like Yvonne, we don’t know anything about her nameless seducer. Is he just a harmless swinger, or something much darker? That wolf reference was already risible, but was it also a heavy-handed allusion to his swanky sheep’s clothing? So far at least, all of this turned out to be an effective piece of misdirection.


Having being led to assume that Chaplin’s character was the sole cause of Yvonne’s foreshadowed demise, in the final scene she was viciously raped by a hitherto inconsequential supporting character.

It’s impossible to fully assess Apple Tree Yard on the basis of one episode, especially in light of its horrific denouement. Its borderline silly aspects may prove deliberate in hindsight, there to lull scoffers into a false sense of security.

This is the story of a woman being punished for daring to enjoy the sexual freedom afforded to men. It’s the story of a rape victim.

If handled carefully, it could prove far more indelible than its initial impression.

A disturbing account of brainwashed incarceration was exposed in THE CULT NEXT DOOR, which told the true story of three women who spent more than 30 years in a Brixton flat under the tyrannical spell of an insane Maoist doomsday preacher.


Directed with typically blunt delicacy by the documentarian Vanessa Engle – a film-maker renowned for historical explorations of leftist politics - it allowed two of Aravindan Balaksrishnan’s prisoners to speak for themselves.

One of them, Katy, was born in captivity. Balakrishnan’s daughter, she’s a young woman with the mental age of a ten-year-old.

Despite finding shards of gallows humour within the rubble of its deadly serious subject matter, Engle’s film mounted a sorrowful case against extremist political maniacs who draw vulnerable people into their hermetic orbits.  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

TV Review: LISTEN TO ME MARLON + SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21 January 2017.


IMAGINE… LISTEN TO ME MARLON: Saturday, BBC Two

SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND: Friday, BBC Four


An extraordinary tribute to an extraordinary man, the award-winning documentary LISTEN TO ME MARLON was/is that rarest of beasts – a profile of an artist that matched the depths and complexity of the subject in question.

Shown as part of the Imagine strand (the dreaded Alan Yentob’s introduction was mercifully brief), this mesmerising film revolved around judiciously edited highlights from hundreds of hours of Marlon Brando’s self-recorded ruminations on the meaning of life and art.

Most self-analytical actors could bore you to tears with such lofty subject matter, but Brando wasn’t most self-analytical actors.

As these tapes confirmed, he was an intensely thoughtful, sensitive, eloquent man who never considered himself any greater or more important than anyone else. On the contrary, he spent most of his adult life in a state of almost self-disgusted ambivalence when it came to his craft.

Brando, quite rightly, will always be regarded as one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but acting often struck him as an absurd way to make a (very lucrative) living. And yet he was evidently fascinated by its - and by extension, human nature’s – muddled contradictions.


Unlike most documentary tributes to great artistes, this film, by director Stevan Riley, actually tapped into the psychological essence of its subject.

Having Brando as a narrator helped immeasurably, of course, but Riley obviously came to understand this eccentric soul after spending so much time in his head (literally represented at points by an eerie computer-generated simulation).


A portrait emerged of a man whose sensitivity was forged from a childhood raised by an alcoholic mother whom he adored, and a tough, violent, emotionally distant father.

Brando craved love and appreciation, hence why he became an actor, but movie stardom and critical plaudits eventually revealed themselves to be just another illusory facet of a hypocritical, unjust society. He was in essence a good, if troubled, man.

But let’s not get carried away. Despite being produced with the blessing of Brando’s estate, Riley’s film, for all its compassion for the man, wasn’t a blanket hagiography.

It didn’t ignore his notoriously fractious relationship with directors whose work didn’t compliment his often stubbornly wayward vision of how a part should be played. He was a right pain in the arse, sometimes for the sheer hell of it.

His later performances could be embarrassingly lazy – he wore an earpiece feeding him lines - which no amount of disillusionment with acting can excuse. The last half of his career sometimes felt like a cynical, cash-grabbing joke at the world’s expense.

A lifelong supporter of the underdog, Brando may have used his embarrassing celebrity status to raise awareness of social injustice, but he also exploited it in pursuit of women. One of his choice quotes from the film, typical in its sly erudition, was: “I was known and destined to spread my seed far and wide.”


Then again, what woman or man could resist the young, beautiful Brando in his charismatic pomp? Much like the similarly carnal yet self-mocking Elvis Presley, there was – at the risk of soliciting hyperbole - something almost Godlike about Brando. And yet Brando, like Elvis, always wrestled with nagging guilt: why am I the chosen one?

Riley’s haunting film humanised this tarnished deity to quite stunning effect.

In the latest episode of SOUND OF MUSICALS WITH NEIL BRAND, the estimable music historian traced, with characteristic acuity, the maturation of stage musicals during the late 1950s and 1960s.


This was an era when Jewish artisans such as Lionel Bart and Leonard Bernstein began, via classics such as Oliver! and West Side Story, to tackle deeper themes of social inequality and racial identity.

In many ways the essence of BBC Four, Brand’s illuminating lectures – with their avuncular yet authoritative tone – are a delight. Whenever Earth’s biggest bores start grousing about the licence fee, this is the sort of programme I nominate in its defence.

Never underestimate the value of a modest, impassioned expert.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

TV Review: TABOO + LET IT SHINE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 14 January 2017.


TABOO: Saturday, BBC One

LET IT SHINE: Saturday, BBC Two


Even if TABOO involved heavyweight method growler Tom Hardy playing the word-based guessing game while smashed to the gills on ghastly fruit liqueur, it still wouldn’t be as bonkers as the actual show itself.

Not that I’m complaining. This delirious Gothic melodrama is a hoot.

Set in 1814, it follows rogue ex-soldier turned pirate James Delaney (Hardy) as, far from dead as presumed, he returns from Africa to London for his father’s funeral.

He inherits a disputed piece of land in America, with whom Britain is at war, much to the chagrin of the powerful East India Company, led by Jonathan Pryce swearing like a trouper (His language isn’t anachronistic – according to estimable Horrible Histories expert Greg Jenner, expletives were all the rage in Regency England).   

Revenge is afoot when Delaney discovers that pater was murdered, which exacerbates the typhoon of demonic voodoo voices in his head.


Delaney is a perfect fit for Hardy, which is hardly surprising as he co-created Taboo with his father, the winningly named Chips Hardy, and writer Steven Knight, who devised the similarly violent and stylised Peaky Blinders.

A magnetic actor, Hardy’s natural eccentricity imbues every role he plays. Striding through the filth, macho coat-a-flapping, he revels in Knight’s knowingly ripe, lurid dialogue. Hardy doesn’t chew the scenery in Taboo, he gargles and caresses it.

Sample threat: “You send me twelve men, I will return you twelve sets of testicles in a bag.” I’d quote the rest of that line, but this is a family newspaper.

Imagine an adventure yarn written by a laudanum-addled Robert Louis Stevenson tearing through the Viz Profanisaurus, and you’ve almost imagined Taboo.

It’s stirring stuff, strikingly drawn in visceral charcoals and populated by scarred, craggy faces including such reliable stalwarts as Christopher Fairbank (Moxey from Auf Wiedersehen, Pet) and Scots walnut David Hayman.


Propelled by Hardy’s imposing performance, it moves with the sleekness of a contemporary thriller while exploiting the potential of its wretchedly fascinating period setting.

If it delivers on its promise, then Taboo could rule Saturday nights for the next eight wintry weeks.

In reality, of course, LET IT SHINE will triumph. Mediocrity always does.

Gary Barlow desperately needs to find five young lads for his new Take That-based musical, so thank God the BBC has stepped in to help him via this formulaic talent show.


If I was feeling similarly charitable, I’d dismiss it as a harmless yawn of bland razzle dazzle. But I can’t ignore its role in the inexplicable campaign to promote toadying lickspittle Barlow as an undeserved national treasure.

This is a man so desperate for a knighthood he’d muck out the corgi kennels with his bare hands if that’s what it took. He makes fellow Windsor’s pet Gareth Malone look like Oliver Cromwell.

The programme itself is benign enough – even the ‘losers’ are treated gently – but Saturday night talent shows are in dire need of a rest. Strictly can stay, as it’s always been more of an old-fashioned light entertainment extravaganza, but the rest are more tired than a Barlow solo album.

In an ideal world, this knackered genre would receive a shot in the arm from the likes of ‘Atmosphere!’ in which New Order search for the star of a new Ian Curtis musical, or ‘Bootsy Camp’ starring legendary bass genius Bootsy Collins as he attempts to revive Funkadelic with fresh-faced Italia Conti graduates.

News just in: we don’t live in an ideal world.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

TV Review: THE HALCYON + UNFORGOTTEN

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 7 January 2017.


THE HALCYON: Monday, STV

UNFORGOTTEN: Thursday, STV


If escaping to the past beats facing up to a brutal future, then how better to ignore the birth of 2017 than traveling back to a glamourous five-star London hotel in 1940? Sure, World War II and all that, but weren’t the fashions divine?

Welcome, then, to THE HALCYON, where jitterbugs and doodlebugs collide in a streamlined tumult of soapy wartime melodrama: Downton Abbey with ration books and epaulettes.

A hotel is a classic setting for drama, offering as it does a myriad of stories operating under one convenient roof. In this case we have a Savoy-esque palace populated by various characters divided by class, nationality and politics, most of them portrayed by familiar TV faces.

Chief among them are the perennially watchable Steven Mackintosh as Garland, the ambiguous hotel manager whose outward propriety hides a scheming underbelly – Mackintosh excels at playing seemingly ordinary men with a sinister edge – and his haughty yet melancholy nemesis Lady Hamilton, played by Olivia Williams. She’s The Halcyon’s widowed owner who, for reasons only hinted at, despises Garland and his murky relationship with her late husband.


It’s a shame Lord H bumped himself off in episode one, as he was enjoyably portrayed with philandering ennui by the excellent Alex Jennings. He reminded me of Paul Whitehouse’s caddish 13th Duke of Wybourne from The Fast Show: “Me, Lord Hamilton, here? In the bathroom of a naked jazz chanteuse? With my reputation?!”


The lifts are also jammed with the likes of Mark Benton plying his usual trade as an affably lugubrious concierge, Charity Wakefield – last seen over Christmas playing a surrogate Lois Lane in Doctor Who – as, well, a glamourous Nazi sympathiser, and Absolutely’s Gordon Kennedy as a caustic Scottish chef – the ghost of Crossroads’ Hughie McPhee looms large.

Of less interest are a simpering receptionist, a gaggle of identikit posh blokes and two big band-style songs from Radio 2 jazz squid Jamie Cullum.

Filmed within an impressive studio set shot and dressed with appropriate opulence, The Halcyon is a blatant attempt by ITV to replicate the success of Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge. It’s also indebted to practically every Stephen Poliakoff drama ever made, albeit set to a brisker pace (which wouldn’t be hard - the tombs of Ramesses are more animated than most Poliakoff dramas).

Nevertheless, the show set its well-trodden wheels in motion in confident and fairly promising style. Seeing as it clings so unashamedly to ITV’s Posh Soap blueprint – sex, serfs, toffs and fancy furnishings - success for The Halcyon is almost a formality.

Already a deserved hit for ITV, superior crime drama UNFORGOTTEN returned with another byzantine cold case for refreshingly normal and compassionate detectives Cassie and Sunny (Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar, whose underplayed chemistry remains a key component).


This time they’re investigating a grisly unsolved murder from 1990. Naturally, the formula that proved so effective last year remains intact: when Cassie and Sunny eventually discover the identity of an unfortunate corpse, they’re plunged into an England-spanning mystery involving several seemingly unconnected characters.

Series Two’s suspects include an NHS nurse, a Muslim schoolteacher and a gay barrister: an apoplectic Daily Mail nightmare writ large. Good.

With all the requisite intrigue in place, the pressure is on for Unforgotten to match the twisting heights of series one.

If it does, then its reputation as one of the best TV dramas of its kind is secured.