Monday, 22 May 2017

TV Review: THREE GIRLS + A TIME TO LIVE + KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 20 May 2017.


THREE GIRLS: Tuesday to Thursday, BBC One

A TIME TO LIVE: Wednesday, BBC Two

KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER: Thursday, BBC One
  

Unflinching, furious, despairing, THREE GIRLS told the horrifying true story of the Rochdale child sex abuse ring. 

Over several years, a group of men, most of them British Pakistanis, groomed and raped vulnerable working-class schoolgirls. The local police failed to thoroughly investigate their crimes, allegedly due to fears of appearing racist.

This outstanding drama, shown over three consecutive nights, was a damning indictment of a systematic failure to protect abused children.

Based on extensive research, interviews and public accounts, it focused on three of the victims – their names changed for obvious reasons – as well as the whistleblowing NHS sexual health worker (Maxine Peake) and the sympathetic senior police officer (Lesley Sharp) who treated them with the respect they deserved.

Their ordeal didn’t end with the abuse; the trauma continued when they struggled to defend themselves in court.

Their abusers exploited the fact that working-class kids with chaotic lives tend to be ignored and mistrusted by the authorities. As Peake’s character angrily observed, these girls were repeatedly “raped, beaten, not believed.”

She embodied the sense of righteous compassion which coursed through writer Nicole Taylor’s sensitive screenplay. Her sterling work was bolstered by a superb cast, including three extraordinary young actresses who never appeared to be acting at all. The raw power of Three Girls was largely drawn from their entirely natural performances.


Peake and Sharp were typically great – their belief in this material was palpable – but special mention must go to Paul Kaye as the father of one of the victims. His quietly devastating performance proved just how far he’s come since his Dennis Pennis days.

Inevitably, this scandal played into the hands of Britain’s thriving bigot community. Taylor tackled that unfortunate side-effect while reminding us that the crown prosecutor who brought the case to trial was a British Pakistani.

The BBC should be applauded for devoting three hours of primetime to such uncomfortable territory. 

It’s a drama to be spoken of in the same vital breath as Cathy Come Home.

How would you cope if you were given a terminal diagnosis? Would you rail against the cruel injustice of it all, or would you choose to make the most of the limited time you had left?

These difficult questions formed the basis of A TIME TO LIVE, the latest film from one of TV’s finest documentarians, Sue Bourne.


 If you’re familiar with Bourne’s work - and you should be – then you’ll appreciate her talent for gently coaxing candid, eloquent testimonies from particularly vulnerable people. No one is ever exploited in a Bourne documentary, she earns their trust without manipulation.

This tender essay was characteristically honest and moving.

Being of sound, if jaded, mind, I assumed that EastEnders spin-off KAT AND ALFIE: REDWATER would be even less appetising than the dreary soap it sprang from.


Well, imagine my vaguely pleasant surprise when it turned out to be a stylish, intriguing drama wreathed in shades of Nordic Noir (the Danish director numbers Borgen among his credits).

We’re definitely not in Albert Square any more.

Written by Matthew Graham of Life on Mars repute (we won't mention Bonekickers), it follows the Moons as they relocate to a conspicuously lyrical Irish coastal village in pursuit of Kat’s long-lost son. A somewhat unsettling, edgy aura dominates; Ballykissangel with a hint of Royston Vasey.

It’s unexpectedly entertaining, and works because familiarity with EastEnders isn’t necessary. Despite the Moon connection, it exists in a different universe.

Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie are such likeable performers, they were always too good for EastEnders. This is the vehicle they deserve.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

TV Review: BABS + DOCTOR WHO + BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON

BABS: Sunday, BBC One

DOCTOR WHO: Saturday, BBC One

BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON: Friday, BBC Four
  
Why are we supposed to love Barbara Windsor again? She was always a popular member of the Carry On troupe, but at some point during the last 30 years we were suddenly expected to agree that she’s a redoubtable national treasure. Based on what exactly? 

An endearing comic performer in her youth, Windsor’s limitations as a dramatic actress were mercilessly exposed in EastEnders. Even in a soap renowned for its conspicuous lack of Thespian heavyweights, her stiff, shrill performance stood out as particularly poor.

She’s the living definition of a particular kind of British celebrity famed more for being “a survivor” than their actual body of work.

A BBC drama based on her life was inevitable. The only surprising thing about Tony Jordan’s BABS, a corn-stuffed hagiography which fully subscribed to her self-styled myth, was that it’s taken this long to be made.

Jordan is a former head writer on EastEnders and a close friend of Windsor’s. He’s therefore spectacularly ill-suited to the task of writing an honest, unbiased version of her story. Windsor’s involvement in the project – she even made a cameo appearance – confirmed that this was nothing more than a glossy PR exercise.

So here it was, the authorised, boring saga of the little cockney sparra who loved and lost, but made it through the rain. A full house for biopic bingo fans, it was more sentimental than a pie-eyed pearly queen.

Windsor has suffered heartbreak and setbacks. We all have. Her story probably pales in comparison to anything you could offer from your own family history. Fame doesn’t make you automatically fascinating.

Samantha Spiro, an old hand at playing Dame Babs on stage and screen, did her best with the awkwardly theatrical device of flashing back through Windsor’s life via conversations with ghosts from her past, her absent father in particular. Jaime Winstone, as the younger Windsor, didn’t disgrace herself either.

Zoe Wannamaker was far more interesting in her subtly eye-catching supporting role as unorthodox theatre director Joan Littlewood. She made me wish I was watching a biopic about her instead.

The renewed fortunes of DOCTOR WHO continued with yet another fine episode, this one written by award-winning playwright Mike Bartlett of Dr Foster renown and guest-starring David Suchet as a sinister, yet ultimately tragic, landlord.

An effectively creepy “haunted house” yarn involving alien woodlice, an ingeniously realised wood-hewn zombie and – most impressively of all – a supporting cast of generic Young Adults whose deaths I didn’t long for, it confirmed the wisdom of outgoing show-runner Steven Moffat’s return to a more traditional form of storytelling.

Just four weeks in, and already it’s the best, most consistently entertaining series since Matt Smith’s debut.

It doesn’t matter that everyone has probably twigged who’s inside the Doctor’s vault, as the more or less inevitable reveal is clearly less important than the impact it’ll have on the Twelfth Doctor’s imminent demise.

As much as I’ll miss the wonderful Capaldi – and his likeable new companion, Bill, if she is indeed leaving as reported – I can’t wait to see what’s in store over the next eight weeks. Doctor Who has rekindled its mojo.

Do yourself a favour and watch BUDDY HOLLY: RAVE ON via iPlayer. It’s a particularly charming BBC Four music documentary featuring enthusiastic analysis of this short-lived innovator’s unique approach to rock and roll. It’s why you pay your licence fee.

Face facts, Ed Sheeran, no one will curate a tribute like this about you in 50 years time.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

TV Review: LINE OF DUTY + BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6 May 2017.


LINE OF DUTY: Sunday, BBC One

BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY: Wednesday, BBC Four


Jed Mercurio is a crafty swine. I swear he must write LINE OF DUTY while cackling up his sleeve, like a cruel child who can’t resist incinerating ants with an elaborate rig of magnifying glasses.

The latest series of his incomparably entertaining cop drama climaxed with the blatant suggestion that gruffly lovable police chief Ted Hastings might somehow be involved with the overarching thread of deeply sordid establishment corruption.

Mercurio timed this twist to perfection, as Hastings – played by the excellent Irish actor Adrian Dunbar – has gradually secured his place in the pantheon of much-loved fictional TV sleuths.

A no-nonsense copper in the old-school mould, his paternal decency and dogged determination has transformed him into a kind of wish-fulfilment folk hero. It’s comforting to believe that reliable policemen such as Hastings still exist – if, indeed, they ever did – to protect us from the evil deeds of all-powerful elites.

Hastings curtly undermining a smug suspect by calling them “fella” or gently referring to a young female murder victim as “that wee girl” - he's no more sexist than your affable, well-meaning dad - has become a source of national pride, as well as a fun-for-all-the-family drinking game. What’s not to love about the man?  

Well, this blanket adoration has clearly become too cosy as far as Mercurio is concerned. He’s occasionally dropped hints that Hastings might not be as trustworthy as he seems, but that’s always felt like the kind of red herring misdirection he’s so fond of.


When the dodgy senior police officer – played with a dodgy English accent by Scottish actor Paul Higgins - attempted to frame Hastings in the penultimate episode, we didn’t believe it for a second. He was obviously trying to divert attention from himself. Turns out there may be some truth to his accusation after all.

Despite knowing that two more series have been commissioned, I actually wouldn’t mind if Mercurio left us with the tantalising fear that Hastings was behind everything from the start. That might seem like a cheap trick – it probably is – but it would still work as a sly summation of the show’s cynical, paranoid message. No one can be trusted.

As for the rest of this year’s storyline, it unfolded – somewhat disappointingly – more or less as expected. Roz murdered Tim, but not as part of any grand involvement with Balaclava Man/Men.

The main buzz from Roz’s weary confession came from imagining that her oily lawyer, played by Patrick Baladi, was Neil from The Office failing hilariously after training as a lawyer post-sacking from Wernham-Hogg.

I hope, when they make the final series, the ultimate twist is that Hastings is one of the few trusted ‘70s/’80s establishment figures who wasn’t a wrong ‘un. Now that would be subversive, fella.

Space precludes me from rewarding BRITAIN’S NUCLEAR BOMB: THE INSIDE STORY with the detailed praise it deserves, so I urge you to watch this fascinating documentary on iPlayer.


As the world teeters on the brink once again, it whisked us back to a simpler, gentler time when nuclear Armageddon first became a harrowing reality. Our first atomic bomb was invented, tried and tested by men – now dapper, aged and charming – who still lived in fear of post-war German retaliation.

If they could've foreseen Brexit, we'd all be dead by now.

Despite the literally devastating subject matter, the programme managed to scrape some dark, dry humour from our typically parochial flirtation with the apocalypse. They almost destroyed Dorking during test runs. 

Almost restores your faith in hapless British ingenuity, doesn’t it? 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

TV Review: LITTLE BOY BLUE + THE BOSS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 29 April 2017.


LITTLE BOY BLUE: Monday, STV

THE BOSS: Monday to Friday, BBC One


On 22 August 2007, 11-year-old Rhys Jones was shot dead in Liverpool while walking home from football practice. A motive for his murder has never been fully established, but it’s thought he was caught in the crossfire between rival teenage gangs. Another senseless victim of gun crime. Another tragic headline.

While the rest of us shake our heads in sympathy and get on with our lives, the families of victims such as Rhys are given no such luxury. Their unimaginable grief and anger can never truly dissipate.

Enter acclaimed writer/producer Jeff Pope, whose four-part drama LITTLE BOY BLUE offers an unflinching glimpse into the living hell of a devastated family.

Made with the full co-operation of Rhys’ parents, Melanie and Steve, it follows them through the aftermath of their son’s murder. It also sheds light on the police investigation led by a sympathetic DS, and the actions of those responsible for Rhys’ death (including a teenager bullied into hiding the gun).

Though necessarily harrowing, Little Boy Blue isn’t overcooked or manipulative. That’s not Pope’s style. His factual dramas are renowned for their sensitivity and basis in extensive research.


Even when dealing with characters as notorious as Ronnie Biggs, Karen Matthews, Peter Sutcliffe, Myra Hindley, Fred West and Cilla Black, Pope always manages to tackle potentially offensive subject matter in a responsible way.

True to form, Little Boy Blue is refracted through an understated prism of journalistic rigour and compassion. Its power emerges from the realistic detail of such heart-wrenching scenes as Melanie and Steve visiting Rhys’ dead body in hospital, where Melanie was gently yet firmly threatened with arrest if she touched her son. He was still regarded as evidence of an unsolved crime.

Explicit mention is made of the police’s tarnished reputation, hence why the innate decency and determination of DS Dave Kelly is quietly heartening. He’s not an idealised hero, just a good man doing his best to ensure that an ordinary family finds justice. He’s just about enough to restore your faith in the police and human nature.

Stephen Graham and Sinead Keenan deliver note-perfect, realistic performances as DS Kelly and Melanie Jones, neither straining for emotional fireworks in their respective roles. They’re entirely convincing.


So what do we learn from dramas such as Little Boy Blue? Why do they exist? More than mere voyeurism, they dig beneath the headlines and force us to put ourselves in the shoes of everyday victims of violent crime. The Jones family could be any of us.

Without resorting to mawkish sentiment, Little Boy Blue reminds us that humanity endures in a world awash with horror.

But hey, at least we’ll always have the meaningless respite of generic daytime quiz shows.

Hosted by the affable Susan Calman, THE BOSS won’t cause sleepless nights for the makers of afternoon trivia behemoths Pointless and The Chase. It’s too blandly derivative to threaten their unassailable cults.


I won’t bore you with explaining the rules, as I’d quite like you to read the rest of this review. Suffice to say, it’s a tension-free compendium of standard quiz rounds – number games, word puzzles, quick-fire trivia etc. – fatally undone by the easiness of the questions. Pointless and The Chase succeed because the questions are well-chosen and occasionally quite esoteric, especially when it comes to popular culture.

There’s just no fun in watching a quiz boasting brain-teasers which wouldn’t challenge even the most bog-standard, pie-eyed pub team.  

Sunday, 23 April 2017

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO + BIG GOLD DREAM + BORN TO KILL

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 22 April 2017.


DOCTOR WHO: Saturday, BBC One

BIG GOLD DREAM: Saturday, BBC Two

BORN TO KILL: Thursday, Channel 4


Believe it or not, there are people out there who’ve never seen DOCTOR WHO before. Some of them, admittedly, are children who weren’t even born when the show returned triumphantly in 2005, so at least they have an excuse. Everyone else has been slacking, frankly.

Or maybe they’ve been put off by the daunting prospect of joining a club with such a vast membership and over 50 years of continuity behind it. I know I would be.

However, when you throw out all that baggage and get down to basics, the concept behind Doctor Who couldn’t be more straightforward: an eccentric alien hero travels through time and space righting wrongs in his bigger-on-the-inside spaceship. That’s all you need to know.

And that’s why the first episode of Peter Capaldi and head writer Steven Moffat’s final series was so effective. It served as a concise, witty, charming and – most importantly – fun introduction to Doctor Who itself. New viewers could easily jump in here.

Through the wide eyes of new companion Bill – the instantly likeable and engaging Pearl Mackie – the craftily titled ‘The Pilot’ spelled out the essential ingredients of the Doctor’s universe, while providing enough in-jokey wrinkles to satisfy the initiated. Moffat’s wry subversion of the traditional “companion enters TARDIS for the first time” sequence was particularly amusing.


It’s such a shame that this is the wonderful Capaldi’s last hurrah, as he’s now in complete command of the role. A truly Doctorly Doctor - he's even the right shape -  I could happily watch him in action for at least another year. 

The warm teacher/student chemistry between the Doctor and Bill was so refreshing after years of being lumbered with deadweight Clara – casting someone who can act alongside Capaldi makes a world of difference - while Matt Lucas continues to intrigue as the long-suffering yet enigmatic Nardole. There’s clearly more to him than mere comic relief.

Aside from telling an entertaining self-contained story which fulfilled its brief with consummate ease, Moffat also dropped tantalising hints about this year’s series arc.

Why is the Doctor posing as a university lecturer? What secrets lie inside the vault he and Nardole are guarding in the cellar? Why has the Doctor vowed to remain on Earth and out of trouble?

If Moffat provides satisfying answers to these questions while overseeing a series of enjoyable episodes, then he and Capaldi look set to exit with their heads held high. A very promising comeback.

An old Glasgow punk, Capaldi would’ve loved BIG GOLD DREAM. This droll documentary paid fond tribute to that fleeting period of post-punk excitement when Scotland ruled the hip parade via pioneering indie labels Fast Product and Postcard.


A tale of two Svengalis, it showed how Fast’s mercurial Bob Last and Postcard’s insufferable Alan Horne built their DIY empires in Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively.

Musicians from regal Scottish indie bands such as Orange Juice, Strawberry Switchblade, The Associates and Fire Engines shared affable anecdotes, guarded complaints and poignant regrets as they raked over the coals of their youthful innocence.

Like most tales of idealism, eventually it collapsed into a sad heap of compromise, betrayal and disappointment. But the music lingers on.

The most important thing about this delightful film? Reminding the world that Scotland – Bob Last’s Factory pre-dating label in particular – invented independent music as we know it.

Nicola Sturgeon should run on that ticket.

Teenagers can’t be trusted, even when they read aloud to dying pensioners. That’s the important public service message behind BORN TO KILL, a new psychological thriller about a seemingly sensitive, kind adolescent boy with homicidal tendencies.


Sam lives with his mum. He claims his dead father was a war hero, but that’s obviously a desperate fantasy. Mum’s job on a geriatric ward allows him to indulge his dangerous obsession with death, which eventually results in murder.

I’ve no idea what to make of it so far.

Sam is subtly inhabited by promising newcomer Jack Rowan – his unnervingly friendly smile recalls Anthony Perkins in Psycho – but I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that this is yet another emptily stylised exploitation of mental illness as just another form of bogie man monster madness.

Rowan’s performance aside, it feels rather dubious. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

TV Review: PETER KAY'S CAR SHARE + BUCKET

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 15 April 2017.


PETER KAY’S CAR SHARE: Tuesday, BBC One

BUCKET: Thursday, BBC Four

Like a great phoenix night rising from the ashes of obsolescence, the artistic rebirth of Peter Kay has been something to behold.

Despite his continued draw as a stand-up, his reputation as a great observational character comedian had become tarnished – seemingly forever – by years of cynically repackaged DVDs, slapdash memoirs, self-serving chat show appearances and turkeys such as Max & Paddy’s Road to Nowhere and that mirthless X Factor parody.

Even previously loyal fans had begun to regard him as a lazy sell-out.

But then – as Adam Curtis would say – something happened that nobody expected. In 2015, Kay returned with two delightful hit comedies.

In Danny Baker’s Cradle to Grave, he focused solely on acting to marvellous effect. Even more impressively, the BAFTA-winning PETER KAY’S CAR SHARE proved that Kay could still co-create a warm, rich, laugh-out-loud sitcom.

Any concerns that he couldn’t sustain this comeback were cheerfully vanquished by Car Share’s return. It’s just as charming and funny as before.

Picking up where series one left off, it gently toyed with the burgeoning romance between bumptious supermarket manager John (Kay) and his sweetly daft, naïve employee Kayleigh (Sian Gibson, who co-writes with Kay and Paul Coleman).

Though set almost entirely within the confines of John’s car, the series occasionally finds new wrinkles in its premise. So, John and Keyleigh spent most of episode one chatting via phone on their respective journeys to work. These subtle difference are seismic in Car Share’s little world.

Kayleigh’s new digs might’ve scuppered their old routine, but they clearly can’t live without their daily conversations.

John was reticent to admit that his heart was lifted by Kayleigh’s gift of a Now 48 CD – only Kay could derive cockle-warming mileage from Pure and Simple by Hear’Say – but that didn’t dent their natural chemistry. It was like being reunited with two old friends.

And that’s the modest magic of Car Share, it’s a pure and simple comedy about two likeable characters shooting the breeze.

Even the broader sitcom twist of John’s altercation with a belligerent cyclist going viral on YouTube didn’t feel out of place, as it supported the show’s basic humanity: in its unfussy way, it showed how innocent people can become internet villains/laughing stocks by being subjected to duplicitous editing.

If Kay and Gibson make it look easy, new sitcom BUCKET proves just how hard it is to get laughs from two people talking almost uninterrupted.

Writer Frog Stone co-stars as Fran, the reserved, virginal daughter of Mim, a septuagenarian free-spirited hippie played by Miriam Margolyes, an actress upon whom the euphemistic terms “irrepressible” and “redoubtable” are permanently affixed like warning signs.

Their dysfunctional relationship is driven by one joke, hammered into the ground: Mim won’t stop talking frankly about sex, much to Fran’s understandable exasperation.

Old women saying “hilariously” inappropriate things is one of the laziest comedy clichés, but I suppose we should be grateful that she didn’t get high or do a rap. Not yet anyway.

Another insurmountable problem: their nasty bickering is depressing, and no amount of laboured, unconvincing, last-minute pathos can atone for that.

I’m all for black comedy, but Bucket reminded me of how much Steptoe and Son made us care about those characters, even when they were behaving despicably to each other.

We’re supposed to find Mim charmingly eccentric, but she just comes across as an unbearable nuisance. Bucket is inept, a clumsy stab at rude, broad comedy with delusions of depth.

Monday, 10 April 2017

TV Review: ROOF RACKS & HATCHBACKS: THE FAMILY CAR + SECOND CHANCE SUMMER + ALONE WITH THE IN-LAWS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 8 April 2017.


ROOF RACKS AND HATCHBACKS: THE FAMILY CAR: Monday, BBC Four

SECOND CHANCE SUMMER: Wednesday, BBC Two

ALONE WITH THE IN-LAWS: Thursday, BBC Two


I’d normally rather hurl myself bodily off Beachy Head than watch a programme about automobiles, but ROOF RACKS AND HATCHBACKS: THE FAMILY CAR managed to transform that dreariest of subjects into a charming piece of social history.

Part of the reliable Timeshift strand, it was a typically droll, affectionate, well-researched documentary steeped in evocative archive footage.

Most of us have fond childhood memories of time spent in the family car, especially during those long journeys en route to unimaginably exciting British holiday destinations (or even – gasp! – abroad, if your parents could afford such unseemly displays of wealth).

This nostalgic essay traced the post-war evolution of these four-wheeled tools of liberation. I was particularly taken with the chapter on the Ford Cortina, that must-have ‘70s car of choice craftily named after an Italian ski resort to maximise its exotic appeal. ‘Cortina’ actually means ‘curtain’ in Italian, but at least it sounded glamorous. I pray there was once a failed Mediterranean equivalent called the Fiat Sideboard.

Like almost every aspect of British history, this saga boiled down to class and status. Short of paving your children in gold, how better to lord it over the neighbours than with a shiny Austin Allegro in your driveway?  

Speaking of class, SECOND CHANCE SUMMER is a reality show for BBC viewers who wouldn’t be caught dead watching Big Brother and its brethren: I’m a Sunday Times Subscriber, Get Me Out of Here.


Produced by the brains behind The Real Marigold Hotel, it’s a similarly aspirational fantasy in which ten strangers – real people this time, the likes of Biggins aren’t welcome – attempt to build new lives at an idyllic Tuscan farmhouse.

The winners, i.e. anyone who can still stand the sight of each other by the end, will get the opportunity to buy the entire complex.

For various reasons, the participants are all struggling with middle-aged malaise. It should, in theory, be a thoughtful study of human nature, but the results are painfully boring.

I’m not saying that I necessarily want to watch a programme in which a bunch of dreary middle-class grey-hairs descend into a horrifying spiral of Lord of the Flies insanity, but after a tastefully scenic hour of mild passive-aggression I was longing for someone to drink the wine cellar dry and charge into a canyon on the back of a wild boar.

Oh well, there’s always episode two.

Everyone has a story to tell. But that doesn’t mean every story must be televised. Like Second Chance Summer, ALONE WITH THE IN-LAWS squandered a potentially interesting premise on dull people.


A young couple on the verge of marriage spent four days apart with their respective in-laws, the idea being that they’d gain a deeper understanding of each other by exploring where they came from.

He was a creature of habit with happily married parents. The child of divorcees, she was more spontaneous. Despite these seemingly insurmountable differences, they loved each other by the end just as much as they did at the start. Great. Good for them.

This barely watchable experiment was produced by the makers of Wife Swap, and signalled a return to that show’s roots as a more or less serious – albeit voyeuristic – unpicking of the ties that bind. But Wife Swap was never this beige.

There’s a kernel of a good idea here, but the subjects need to be more forthcoming. Otherwise it’s like scrolling blankly through the FaceBook feed of complete strangers.