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.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO + THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION + TO WALK INVISIBLE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 31 December 2016.


DOCTOR WHO: Christmas Day, BBC One

THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION: Boxing Day/Tuesday, BBC One

TO WALK INVISIBLE: Thursday, BBC One


Superheroes are such a ubiquitous cultural fixture these days, I wouldn’t have blamed you for slumping face down in your leftovers when another one turned up in the DOCTOR WHO Christmas special.

Is nothing safe from their super-strength stranglehold?

Apparently not, and for once I’m glad. The Doctor’s encounter with a New York caped crusader was actually rather charming.

An affectionate tribute to Christopher Reeve’s Superman films, it swapped the tiresomely dark seriousness of so many modern superhero sagas for a nostalgic dip into a more innocent, optimistic age of comic book action and romance.   

Steven Moffat is known - some would say notorious - for his intricate storytelling puzzles, but this was a refreshingly straightforward tale, told with a lightness of touch, in which a geeky young man eventually got his dream girl by abandoning his masked alter ego to reveal – oh yes -  the human hero within.

Corny stuff, but winningly delivered by Moffat with his customary wit and skill. Post-modern yet sincere.

It sagged whenever the perfunctory alien invasion plot took over from the more engaging central storyline, but on the whole it achieved its primary goal – to provide 60 minutes of smart, satisfying, handsome entertainment for Doctor Who apostles and floating viewers alike.

Oh, and Matt Lucas, in the space of just two episodes, has proven himself a more likeable foil for Capaldi than Clara ever was.

Whereas many Agatha Christie adaptations are produced in quaintly ornamental style, the team behind Christmas 2015’s justly-acclaimed And Then There Were None and this year’s THE WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION revel in the depths of her darkest yarns.


These beautifully crafted productions treat Christie seriously, yet never feel strictly deferential. Like all good adaptations, they honour the source material while exploring the subtext (in this case: homosexuality, post-war grief, xenophobia and the abandonment of our brave boys, although not necessarily in that order).

Set in early-1920s London, this particular mystery is forbiddingly urban. Mired in seediness, violence and a grimy nicotine fug – it’s a real pea souper, even indoors – it boast a visual ambition and thematic richness beyond most of its rivals.

Little man du jour Toby Jones starred as a threadbare solicitor who believed, largely for sentimental personal reasons, in the innocence of his client, a young man accused of murdering his wealthy lover.

All the principal characters, including Andrea Riseborough’s Austrian showgirl and Monica Dolan’s vindictively jealous housekeeper, were lost in a cloud of lonely ambiguity.

Despite these solemn trappings, it zipped along in suitably compelling murder mystery style. Exemplary stuff.

Alas, the same can’t be said for TO WALK INVISIBLE, a curiously sluggish drama about the struggles and tragedy of the Bronte sisters from the otherwise brilliant Sally Wainwright of Happy Valley renown.


So what went wrong? A writer/director of Wainwright’s calibre combined with such potentially fascinating material should’ve sparked one of the festive season’s TV highlights, but she somehow failed to get under the skin of this remarkable family.

For 120 interminable minutes, she never made me care about these people, whereas I was utterly invested in her Happy Valley characters. Like the Brontes, her talent lies in examining reality through fiction.

Wainwright knows there’s a timeless story to be told here, about sexism, addiction, sibling loyalty, the pressures of familial expectations and the catharsis of creative expression, but for once her usually reliable instincts were thwarted by dawdling over-indulgence and a lack of focus.

Even the wuthering Yorkshire scenery looked disappointed.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

TV Review: WALT DISNEY + TIME COMMANDERS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 December 2016.


WALT DISNEY: Saturday, BBC Two

TIME COMMANDERS: Monday, BBC Four
  
If we know one thing about Walt Disney it’s that he wasn’t, despite urban mythology, cryogenically frozen following his death in 1966. 

According to the solidly revealing documentary, WALT DISNEY, he also wasn’t the bigoted right-wing tyrant that some biographers would have you believe.


Instead, I was left with the impression of an essentially decent if politically naïve man whose tireless, even reckless, drive towards perfection could sometimes spill over into ruthlessness.

Episode one of this two-part profile (it concludes on 17 December) examined how, from humble beginnings, he eventually built one of the most powerful entertainment empires on the planet.

A hugely ambitious idealist, he saw the potential of movie animation when the industry was still in its infancy. Like so many early Hollywood legends, this was the story of a talented, enterprising visionary who created a form of art and entertainment that simply didn’t exist before.

The only animator and film producer to become as internationally famous as his creations, Uncle Walt – he insisted that his often long-suffering employees always referred to him as Walt - was a jovial extrovert who loved being the centre of attention. With his slick coiffeur, pencil-moustache and appealing smile, he even looked like a film star.


Yet despite his self-made image as a humble purveyor of populist family entertainment, in private Disney craved acceptance as a serious artist. Considering the incredible technical innovations he and his profoundly talented team devised, no wonder he felt snubbed when masterpieces such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first animated feature-length film - were only awarded with condescending ‘special’ Oscars.

It’s also unsurprising that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. He expected his staff to work as hard as he did, which was into the ground. Their painstaking efforts reaped phenomenal results via expert in-house lectures on cubism, impressionism and expressionism.  He even encouraged them to take acting classes, so they could study their own faces and movements in pursuit of realism. 

The result was animation of unprecedented emotional richness and visual depth. When the audience cried at Snow White’s death during the film’s premiere, Disney knew he’d succeeded in creating a whole new art-form.

Obsessive innovator, dubious taskmaster, romantic ideologue, soft conservative, Walt Disney was above all else a genius.

The distant past came alive via computer animation in TIME COMMANDERS, a game show in which members of the public commandeer legendary battles from history.


Inexplicably hosted by MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace, the latest series began in 202 BCE, as a trio of wrestlers from Glasgow re-enacted Ancient Rome vs Hannibal’s Carthaginians with three board game enthusiasts from somewhere unimaginably twee and middle-class.

The fun derives from watching the teams becoming swept up in whatever the hell is going on – it’s never quite clear - especially when they start bickering among themselves. Meanwhile, Wallace reiterates his unique talent for shouting over-excitedly – “You are getting mullered in the middle there!” – as a phalanx of experts offer urgent commentary.

Unless he was employed as a human cannonball fired at ferocious velocity, he’s literally the last man you’d want by your side in the heat of battle.

The splendidly named combat historian Mike Loades, a man so bellicose he makes Wallace sound like an ailing dormouse, was overshadowed by white-jeaned, pony-tailed action specialist Gordon Summers, who risked death by choking on his own swaggering self-regard. Make no mistake, this is a man who chose this line of work purely to buckle his swash while avoiding arrest.

I bet he uses his collection of Carthaginian javelins as a chat-up line.

Mildly educational and fairly entertaining, Time Commanders is a charmingly ridiculous distillation of the BBC’s core values.

Even Lord Reith, who knew the Carthaginians personally, would grudgingly approve. 

Saturday, 10 December 2016

TV Review: IN PLAIN SIGHT + THIS IS US

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 December 2016.


IN PLAIN SIGHT: Wednesday, STV

THIS IS US: Tuesday, Channel 4


 What with Reg Christie on BBC One and Peter Manuel on ITV, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to post-war serial killers this Christmas. Nothing encapsulates the spirit of the season more than murderous psychopaths.

Spread over three episodes, IN PLAIN SIGHT stars Martin Compston as Lanarkshire-based Manuel, who was convicted of murdering seven people between 1956 and his final arrest in 1958. His toll accounted for almost a third of the people murdered in Scotland during that time.

It also stars Douglas Henshall as Detective William Muncie, the unsung hero who doggedly pursued Manuel. As the body-count rose following Manuel’s release, Muncie had no doubts about the killer’s identity. And yet Manuel, through sheer, brazen cunning, repeatedly eluded capture.

They first met in 1946, when Muncie arrested Manuel, then only nineteen, for a string of burglaries and sexual assaults.

According to the screenplay by Nick Stevens, Manuel never forgave Muncie for sending him to prison for nine years, hence why he took such perverse pleasure in openly taunting the policeman during his subsequent killing spree.


Although there’s no such thing as a typical psychopath, Manuel embodied the grandiloquent delusions of genius and untouchability we commonly associate with serial killers. Of course, that’s because the likes of Manuel have influenced generations of crime fiction authors.

It’s therefore tempting to suspect that Stevens has packaged a real-life case into a straightforward tale of good versus evil. Or is it that we’re so used to fictional narratives along these lines, we’ve forgotten that such black-and-white cases do actually exist? To paraphrase a cliché, sometimes truth is more horrifying than fiction.

Stevens has apparently done his research, and – bearing in mind that relatives of Manuel’s victims are still alive - he should be commended for leaving those murders to the imagination. They’re alluded to, but never shown. The scene in which he terrorised a young girl for three hours before releasing her was all we needed to fear his unhinged cruelty.

This particular case, during which Manuel successfully defended himself in court, illustrated the era’s disgraceful attitudes towards female victims of assault. Via Manuel’s manipulations, the girl was dismissed as a harlot.


Compston, to his immense credit, is authentically detestable as Manuel. No scenery was chewed in the making of this programme. His cocky smirk and sleazy facsimile of wide-boy charm are monstrous enough.

Henshall is equally understated as Muncie. Despite contending with “You’re too close to this case!” clichés, he’s thoroughly convincing as a decent man who, through thwarted experience, has sorrowfully accepted that criminally insane killers are a rare yet unknowable fact of life.

Billed as a Thirtysomething for the 21st century, THIS IS US is a risibly earnest and sentimental US drama about a group of navel-gazing 36-year-olds who happen to share the same birthday. Mired in Hallmark schmaltz, it strains towards profundity like a constipated poet.


Our cardboard archetypes are a hunky sitcom actor suffering a crisis of integrity, his overweight sister embarking on a relationship with a nice man from her Weightwatchers class, a successful businessman meeting his biological father for the first time, and – in an admittedly unexpected twist – a couple whose storyline takes place in 1980, thus providing the glue that melds these characters together.

God knows we need some uplift in these dark and depressing times, but This Is Us will only provide comfort to viewers with an unquestioning tolerance for banal, cookie-cutter wisdom.

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.