Saturday, 24 September 2016

TV Review: NATIONAL TREASURE + PARANOID

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

TV Review: JOANNA LUMLEY'S JAPAN + CELEBRITY HOME SECRETS

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

TV Review: ARE YOU BEING SERVED? + PORRIDGE + YOUNG HYACINTH

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

TV Review: THE MYSTERY OF VAN GOGH'S EAR + AN HOUR TO SAVE YOUR LIFE

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

TV Review: THE '80s WITH DOMINIC SANDBROOK + VERSUS: THE FILMS OF KEN LOACH

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

TV Review: KEITH RICHARDS: THE ORIGINS OF THE SPECIES + THE MARVELLOUS WORLD OF ROALD DAHL

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

TV Review: THE SECRET AGENT + ONE NIGHT IN 2012: AN IMAGINE SPECIAL

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.