Sunday, 3 September 2017

TV Review: EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER

EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER: Thursday, Channel 4

FESTIVAL TALES: EDINBURGH AT 70: Saturday, BBC Two

STRIKE – THE CUCKOO’S CALLING: Sunday and Monday, BBC One


If there’s a more heart-warming show on TV than the award-winning ‘Educating…’ franchise, I’ve yet to find it. I probably couldn't cope if I did.

The latest iteration of this observational documentary series is EDUCATING GREATER MANCHESTER, which follows the usual winning formula of tracing everyday life in a secondary school full of dedicated teachers and pupils struggling with various sensitive issues.

Episode one focused on the subject of racial integration. Its quiet star was Rani, a Syrian refugee. Rani arrived in Manchester last year and found it hard to make friends. Gradually, with assistance from the staff, we saw him assimilating into this concrete microcosm of multicultural society.

Highlights included a nice wee white lad named Jack befriending Rani in the playground, an older Syrian boy serving as his benign protector, and the literally symbolic sight of him becoming fully integrated by joining a group of friends in that time-honoured ritual of drawing rude illustrations on a dusty van.

The theme of racial and religious sensitivity was starkly compounded by the terrorist attack at the Ariana Grande concert, which occurred during the making of this series.

We witnessed emotional testimonies from pupils who were at the Manchester Arena that night, and followed the concerned staff as they tried to ensure that the tragedy didn’t inflame tensions among their pupils. Thankfully, it didn’t. Kids are generally better than that.

As trite as this may sound, Jack’s mum inviting Rani over for tea just days after the attack spoke volumes about the essential decency and resilience of ordinary human beings. By the end of the episode, the boys were proclaiming friendship for life.

In lesser hands, this carefully structured uplifting narrative could’ve come across as crassly contrived and manipulative. But the makers of ‘Educating…’ aren’t cynical in the slightest, their sincerity is palpable. That’s why it works so beautifully.

The Edinburgh Festival/Fringe is the world’s greatest arts hoedown. It turned 70 this year, but where did it come from? How did it grow into the sprawling behemoth we know and love today?

Jack Whitehall, just one of the countless comedians who made their name at the Fringe, found out in FESTIVAL TALES: EDINBURGH AT 70, a solid documentary celebrating its eventful story, frequent controversies and eclectic spirit.


It was the brainchild of Rudolf Bing, an Austrian Jew with a profound belief in the power of art to bring light in times of darkness. This, after all, was 1947. That he strove to encourage a global healing process in conservative post-war Edinburgh – a dour town without an opera house or gallery of modern art to its name - turned out to be an eccentric masterstroke.

With assistance from esteemed Fringe veterans such as Claire Bloom, Stephen Fry and Michael Palin, Whitehall roamed the venues, alleyways and toilets of Edinburgh, sainted, scented venues which have played host to everyone from Richard Burton and Maria Callas, to Jerry Sadowitz and Puppetry of the Penis.

I doubt that, as a reviewer, I'll ever go through the lonesome, stressful hell of attending the Fringe again. But this fond tribute did serve as a reminder of why it's such an important, freewheeling nightmare.

Former Edinburgh resident J.K. Rowling wrote the Cormoran Strike mystery novels, for adults, using her Robert Galbraith pseudonym. STRIKE – THE CUCKOO’S CALLING is the first TV adaptation of this functional set of sleuth-driven dramas.


Like most police procedurals, it’s inoffensively adequate in its time-passing way. But, as a species, do we really need to witness another disheveled detective solving made-up crimes on a Sunday night? Strike is a boring character. Why should anyone care?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

TV Review: LEN GOODMAN'S PARTNERS IN RHYME + THE STATE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 26 August 2017.


LEN GOODMAN’S PARTNERS IN RHYME: Saturday, BBC One

THE STATE: Sunday to Thursday, Channel 4


I was saddened by the death of the great Bruce Forsyth recently. He was one of the finest talents in television history, the hoofing embodiment of light entertainment itself.

But I’m glad he didn’t hang around long enough to witness LEN GOODMAN’S PARTNERS IN RHYME, an atrocious new Saturday night game show in which his erstwhile Strictly colleague soiled the genre that Brucie helped to build.

Len’s corny rhymes are a popular, if minor, part of the winning Strictly formula. Basing an entire show around them is clearly a terrible idea, but that hasn’t stopped Radio 1 DJ Matt Edmondson, who devised this drivel, from doing just that.

The word ‘surreal’ is often misused, but how else to describe such an utterly bewildering misfire?

It announces its awfulness immediately. The opening theme song is a lethargic, unsettling rap from Len. It sounds like Hooky Street from Only Fools and Horses at half speed, the sort of sonic horror they tortured prisoners with in Guantanamo Bay.

It was followed by an introductory monologue delivered entirely in rhyme, in which Len claimed to have shared champagne with a Great Dane and a stew with a Shiatsu.


He then performed an awkward ‘street dance’ with a black contestant, while introducing a team of celebrity helpers including his old Strictly china Anton du Beke and Big Mo from EastEnders.

The contestants are shown a series of absurd images and have to guess the correct rhyme. It’s Catchphrase for idiots. These rhymes include: Anton Du Beke with a really long neck; a scotch egg with a broken leg; Jack Whitehall on a wrecking ball. Those are some of the better ones.

There’s also a Give Us a Clue-style round in which the celebs mime a rhyme (Tom Cruise looking for clues; Mel and Sue cleaning the loo etc.). At one point, ‘90s relic Mr Motivator turned up for no discernible reason.

The jaw-dropping weirdness is compounded by an unseen studio audience, who are audio-mixed so thinly and distantly, they sound like they’re responding sarcastically from another dimension.


This is the sort of show that people will dimly recall in years to come, while questioning whether it ever actually existed. Even while watching it unspool in front of you, it still doesn’t feel real. Naturally, it’s already been commissioned for a second series.

I’m a staunch defender of the BBC, but they don’t half make life difficult sometimes.

Len Goodman is an affable soul, but he’s no Bruce Forsyth. Brucie was such a gifted host, he could transform even the most unpromising format into entertaining TV gold. He wouldn’t have touched this garbage with a 50-foot bargepole.

Writer/director Peter Kosminsky is renowned for dramas based on controversial and complex subjects torn from the headlines. THE STATE was no exception.

Based on extensive research, it followed various young Brits as they travelled to Syria to fight alongside ISIS. Initially, their encampment felt like a friendly gap-year commune, albeit one based along extreme religious guidelines. Inevitably, the true horror of their decision gradually emerged.

This was, in typical Kosminsky style, a serious, unflinching, clear-eyed attempt to make sense of a disturbing contemporary issue. It offered compelling insight into the inner workings of ISIS from both male and female perspectives.

Only when we begin to understand why someone would wish to join a terrorist organisation such as this, can we begin to eradicate their reasons for doing so. The State won’t solve this problem overnight, but it’s a bold step in the right direction.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

TV Review: CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP + QUACKS

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on Saturday 19 August 2017.


CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP: Monday to Friday, Channel 4

QUACKS: Tuesday, BBC Two


Noel Edmonds is a phenomenon.

A modern-day sage, seer and alternative thinker, he’s the most misunderstood multimillionaire maverick genius since Howard Hughes.

He’s also a frustrated comedian trapped in the body of a leonine entrepreneur, never happier than when he’s prowling around a daft fantasy world that’s broadcast on television for the delight of several. Crinkly Bottom was Noel’s Shangri-La, his safe retreat from a cruel, uncaring society.

Alas, CHEAP CHEAP CHEAP, a semi-scripted comedy quiz show in which our host plays the owner of a bonkers department store, fails to scale the dizzying heights of that Blobby-bothered wonderland.

“It is a very, very simple game,” explains Noel. He’s not wrong, although it is at least a slight step up from his previous vehicle/cult recruitment process Deal or No Deal, which had no rules whatsoever.


Noel presents the contestants with a variety of actual products – it’s okay, Channel 4 are allowed to advertise – and they have to guess which of them retails at the cheapest price. The more correct guesses they make, the more money they win. The grand prize is £25,000. But if they get just one wrong, they lose everything. And that’s it.

Or rather, it would be were it not for the presence of a bunch of jobbing actors playing Noel’s wacky staff. Without them the show would last ten minutes. Not even Noel, who did an undeniably stellar job of milking tension from thin air in Deal or No Deal, could keep this flimsy conceit going on his own.


These characters, these refugees from a bad children’s show, allow Noel to do his patented “What’s going on? This is crazy!” hapless straight-man act whenever they interrupt him. Which is often.

He also does a lot of fake giggling at risqué gags, another one of his key talents.

It’s all very knowing, of course. No one, not even Noel, thinks this is a clever high-concept game show. It’s just a bit of self-consciously stupid fun.

Except it’s not. It’s neither funny nor involving, and doesn’t even succeed – as we’d all hoped – as a bewildering orgy of must-see Edmonds madness. It’s just boring.


The lack of studio audience gives it a dead-air atmosphere that no amount of desperate Noel corpsing can cover up. It drags on forever.

If Noel Edmonds want to host a bad quiz show in a pretend shop, he’s more than welcome to do so. But did he really need to film it? He doesn’t need the money, he could’ve staged this in the privacy of his own enormous home.

Then everybody would be happy. Then we’d all be winners, cosmically ordered for all eternity. Isn’t that what you want, Noel?

It’s a scene familiar from so many dark 19th century period dramas: a dashing surgeon performs a grisly yet pioneering operation before an astonished audience of scientific minds and gasping women. QUACKS, a new historical sitcom starring Rory Kinnear and written by James Wood of Rev renown, takes that scene and runs with it.


It’s broader and sillier than the understated Rev, but similarly witty. Wood has fun mocking the violence, ugliness, prejudice, propriety and repression of Victorian society, but never in a sneering way. The tone is rather jolly.

It also looks like an actual BBC period drama, albeit one in which a surgeon accidentally amputates a patient’s testicles and an arrogant doctor refuses to examine anyone.

It’s the best new British comedy of the year so far.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

TV Review: TRUST ME + PAUL O'GRADY'S HOLLYWOOD

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 12 August 2017.


TRUST ME: Tuesday, BBC One

PAUL O’GRADY’S HOLLYWOOD: Saturday, Channel 4


Jodie Whittaker, in case you haven’t heard, was recently announced as the first female Doctor in Doctor Who. This news passed without much fanfare or reaction, so don’t be concerned if you missed it.

In the new medical drama/psychological thriller TRUST ME, she plays a disgruntled NHS nurse who fakes her qualifications and poses as… a doctor. Nobody involved in this production, perhaps not even Whittaker herself, could’ve foreseen how jarring it is whenever she or anyone else refers to her job title in the show.

However, they might be pleased by the extra attention Trust Me will receive from millions of Doctor Who fans keen to see Whittaker in action before this year’s Christmas special. How does she move and talk? Will we pick up any hints of how she might play the Doctor?

The added interest is understandable, but of course we won’t.  She’s an actress, a perfectly good one, playing an entirely different role. In Trust Me she’s an ordinary human woman, albeit one who does an extraordinary thing.

And that’s the problem with this curious drama – the course she takes is so morally wrong and potentially catastrophic, it’s hard to believe that a diligent, decent nurse would ever do such a thing.


Writer Dan Sefton, who’s a qualified doctor, struggled to give her enough plausible motivation. She complains to her trust about gross negligence of patients on her ward. They don’t want to know, so they suspend her.

She’s understandably upset by this injustice, but would that really trigger the action she takes? She claims she’s doing it to build a better life for her daughter, but surely she must know that the girl will be better off without her mother in prison?

It’s not enough to say: people do crazy things in times of dire need. We need to believe in those crazy things. That’s why the intended suspense of whether she’ll be found out (and she will be) doesn’t work.

Whittaker is fine in this perplexing role, but the material is too unfocused to do her justice. I hope the Doctor Who team giver her something more substantial to work with.

Ever since cinema began, one of its primary goals has been to make audiences cry. That’s because people enjoy sobbing at sad, sentimental stories. It’s cathartic. 

In episode one of PAUL O’GRADY’S HOLLYWOOD, our jovially sardonic host – sitting, as per the rules of programmes about classic films, in an empty old-fashioned cinema – guided as through some of the greatest weepies ever made.


This being Saturday night on Channel 4, the tired and tested clip show format was out in force. That is: a torrent of brief film clips interrupted by famous talking heads telling us what they think.

In fairness, it did include some decent insight from film critics Richard Dyer and Jonathan Ross, psychologist Philippa Perry, and Celia Johnson’s daughter talking about her mother’s involvement in Brief Encounter. Jon Voight and Bernard Cribbins were also welcome as they actually starred in the films they were talking about (The Champ and The Railway Children respectively).

But has anyone of sound mind been seriously champing at the bit to hear Myleene Klass’ thoughts on Marley and Me? Or Richard E. Grant on Brief Encounter? Or some actress from Hollyoaks on anything?


Who are these programmes aimed at? Masochistic cineastes? 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

TV Review: MELVYN BRAGG ON TV: THE BOX THAT CHANGED THE WORLD + ROCK 'N' ROLL GUNS FOR HIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE SIDEMAN

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


MELVYN BRAGG ON TV: THE BOX THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Saturday, BBC Two

ROCK ‘N’ ROLL GUNS FOR HIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE SIDEMAN: Friday, BBC Four

It’s no exaggeration to claim that the birth of Melvyn Bragg triggered a cultural revolution of staggering importance.

That much I gleaned from MELVYN BRAGG ON TV: THE BOX THAT CHANGED THE WORLD, a two-hour muse-a-thon in which the veteran arts nabob examined the myriad ways in which British television has reflected, challenged and transformed society over the last 60 years.

Clips from his own - admittedly unforgettable – interviews with Dennis Potter and Francis Bacon were included among the wealth of familiar archive material, lest we forget that Lord Bragg has played a major role in bringing culture to the masses.   

The programme spliced a series of Bragg-narrated essays on various key areas – news, documentary, drama, comedy – with sensible round-table discussions from broadcasting luminaries such as Joan Bakewell, Michael Grade and Ken Loach.   

They didn’t have to work particularly hard to support the overarching point that television is the most important technological innovation since the Industrial Revolution.

This window to the world has expanded our horizons via explorations of inner and outer space while chronicling the ways in which society has developed over the last seven decades.

It’s brought truth to power by making politicians more accountable. It’s challenged lies and prejudices, broken down class, race and gender barriers, and brought news of vital historic import into our homes with increasing speed.

However, as Bragg observed, it’s also undermined these noble egalitarian achievements by presenting simplified, reactionary and sometimes dangerously irresponsible reflections of society past and present.

Most of the points raised were sound and reasonable. But they were also blatantly self-evident and unchallenging, especially for viewers with even a passing interest in or knowledge of television history. Which is most of us, right?

I’m a television critic – you may have noticed – so this is my field of so-called expertise, but I doubt that anyone over the age of 35 learned anything new. So who was the programme aimed at? Young media students? If that’s the case, then a superficial overview involving dry discussions between Melvyn Bragg and the author of Foyle’s War probably wasn’t the ideal approach.

I’m not suggesting that it should’ve been replaced by a dumbed-down clip show hosted by Nick Grimshaw and a wacky talking iPad, but the comfortably old-guard, Radio 4-ish tone of the programme was at odds with the theoretically wide-ranging, pan-generational, democratic spirit of the medium it sought to examine.  

It reminded me of seminal news spoof The Day Today’s classic ‘Attitudes Night’ sketch, which so perfectly skewered the well-meaning pomposity of these sociological TV essays over 20 years ago. I dare say Bragg has never seen it.  

Still, I can’t thank him enough for giving us another chance to enjoy that rarely-seen footage of Del Boy falling through the bar. 

The secret to exploring well-worn avenues of popular culture is to approach them from a niche perspective. ROCK ‘N’ ROLL GUNS FOR HIRE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE SIDEMEN did just that.

This enjoyable documentary featured revealing contributions from a handful of notable payroll musicians – those unsung heroes whose job it is to support the vision of spotlight-hogging artists – such as Wendy and Lisa (Prince), Bernard Fowler (The Rolling Stones) and our endearingly rock ‘n’ roll cliché of a host, Earl Slick (David Bowie).

The pathos and insecurity of a life spent sublimating your ego to the whims of musical icons was sympathetically captured in this warm odyssey into the shadows of stardom. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Music Review: TONY HADLEY

This article was originally published in The Scotsman in 2014.


Tony Hadley, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

A Tony Hadley concert is like stumbling into a drunken business conference hosted by a bellowing sales rep.

The Spandau Ballet vocalist has never been noted for his subtlety. He's Foghorn Leghorn in a tuxedo laying waste to a Basildon wine bar, steamrollering his material with scant regard for nuance or volume control. He makes Tom Jones sound like a timid choirboy. I say all this with grudging affection.

Indeed, these days the erstwhile New Romantic has more in common with melodramatic crooners such as Jones and Tony Christie. Which is fine by me, as the first half of his current show with the Southbank Sinfonia Orchestra is a belting slice of tie-loosened cabaret, featuring lusty covers by the likes of Neil Diamond and Jim Croce.

In his rather charmingly naff fashion, he managed to Hadley-fy everything from Bowie's Life On Mars to The Killers' Somebody Told Me. If nothing else, that's the mark of a distinctive singer. This old-fashioned entertainer guise suits him.

Sadly, despite bringing his largely female crowd to its tipsy, middle-aged feet, the hit-heavy second half served as a reminder that Spandau Ballet were absolutely dreadful. 

The orchestral arrangements of the preposterous Musclebound and – their best song – To Cut a Long Story Short were enjoyable blasts of camp, but the ghastly likes of True and Gold remain the very sound of Thatcherism itself.

Hadley is a genial geezer with an endearingly OTT voice, but his musical crimes can never be forgiven.  

Saturday, 1 July 2017

TV Review: DOCTOR WHO + BRITAIN'S GREAT GAY BUILDINGS + POP, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

DOCTOR WHO: Saturday, BBC One

BRITAIN’S GREAT GAY BUILDINGS: Saturday, Channel 4

POP, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Saturday, More4


Blimey. 

That, analysis fans, was my considered critical response immediately after watching this year’s magnificent penultimate episode of DOCTOR WHO.

Outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat kept the best ‘til almost last for fellow retiree Peter Capaldi, as the Twelfth Doctor, Bill and Nardole – the best TARDIS team since the show returned in 2005 – struggled against the combined might of the Cybermen and two incarnations of arch nemesis The Master/Missy.

Set on a vast colony ship containing multiple worlds, most of the action took place within the classically creepy Doctor Who confines of a sepulchral hospital ward. Doom-laden nods to the future mingled with chilling echoes of the past, as Moffat reintroduced the original cloth-faced incarnation of the Cybermen, last seen in William Hartnell’s final adventure, The Tenth Planet, in 1966.


Despite their later, sleeker upgrades, these strikingly low-tech zombies always best encapsulated the disturbing body horror essence of the Cybermen, and Moffat pushed that angle as far as he could in a pre-watershed slot. No matter how old you are, those nightmarish scenes of partially converted, agony-wracked humans begging for death in a monotone voice will linger for a very long time.

The dynamic cliffhanger was even more shocking. As The Master (John Simm) dramatically joined forces with his gender-swapped successor Missy (Michelle Gomez), poor, tragic Bill emerged from the shadows as the first fully-converted Cyberman.

When I interviewed Moffat recently, he only half-jokingly claimed that adrenalized Doctor Who finales demand so much emotional upheaval and so many shocking twists, they have to be written standing up. He must’ve been hanging from the lampshades when he penned this.  

Hats off, too, to director Rachel Talalay for milking every last drop of gripping tension, unsettling atmosphere and cruel wit from Moffat’s claustrophobic yarn.


It’s to the credit of all concerned that even the heavily publicised return of John Simm somehow provided another thrilling twist. Call it mass delusion if you will, but I know I wasn’t alone in failing to recognise him under that heavy disguise until just before the end.

This entire series, one of the strongest in years, has been the exit Moffat and Capaldi both deserve. Incumbent showrunner Chris “Broadchurch” Chibnall and whoever he casts as the next Doctor have enormous shoes to fill.


In amongst all that riveting sturm and drang, the Doctor gave Bill a gently chiding lecture about fluid Time Lord attitudes towards sexuality.

“We’re the most civilised civilisation in the universe,” he exclaimed, “we’re billions of years beyond your petty human obsession with gender and its associated stereotypes.”

As well as being a crafty, fan-baiting hint that the next Doctor could be female, that little speech would’ve been unthinkable back in 1967 when homosexuality was legalised in Britain. We’re getting there, Doctor, albeit gradually.

The 50th anniversary of this pivotal moment in history is being marked by a season of programmes on Channel 4.

Despite its whimsical title, BRITAIN’S GREAT GAY BUILDINGS was an essentially serious and occasionally revealing celebration of some key historical sites, including London’s Heaven nightclub, cult drag mecca the Vauxhall Tavern and codebreaking nerve centre Bletchley Park, where the shamefully vilified war hero Alan Turing helped to save millions of lives.

The important role musicians have played in bringing gay culture into the mainstream was given a brisk overview in POP, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. This fascinating subject requires more depth than a well-meaning yet fairly superficial clip show can ever hope to provide.

Monday, 26 June 2017

TV Review: PITCH BATTLE + THE CRYSTAL MAZE

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 24 June 2017.


PITCH BATTLE: Saturday, BBC One

THE CRYSTAL MAZE: Friday, Channel 4


A new definition of TV Hell: when Gareth Malone, an odious narcissist with no shame whatsoever, feels desperately compelled to defend an embarrassing musical performance as “not embarrassing”.

Malone is one of the judges in PITCH BATTLE, a punishingly formulaic singing competition in which 30 amateur vocal harmony groups compete for a cash prize of £50,000. Given the size of most of these groups, that’s about a fiver between them.

The aforementioned performance, so toe-curling it made even Malone look askance, epitomised the, ah, fundamental conceptual flaws of this show.

A group of nice older women, sensibly clad in black evening gowns, unleashed a shrill version of I’m Too Sexy while their immediate rivals, a young gospel group, responded with No Scrubs.

This mystifying display of vocal combat climaxed with the supposedly humorous spectacle of a woman resembling Gloria Hunniford dropping her mic to the floor, diva style. How delightfully incongruous!


There, in a curdled nutshell, was the indefensible problem with, not only Pitch Battle, but that whole cosy, condescending, Middle England miasma of light-entertainment whimsy spearheaded by The Great British Bake Off (the host of Pitch Battle is, of course, Mel Giedroyc, a robotic mother hen who emits manufactured enthusiasm like the paid-up company gal she is).

Malone, the nation’s self-appointed teacher’s pet, is the featureless face of this virulent pandemic, so no wonder he’s involved.

Shamelessly indebted to the success of Glee and the Pitch Perfect film franchise, the pitifully unoriginal Pitch Battle is so half-baked it barely has enough energy to sustain 10 minutes, let alone its interminable 90 minute running time.

Disingenuously marketed as an A Capella singing contest, it actually features groups performing to instrumental backing tracks. The supposed tension and spontaneity of the “Riff Off” round – a concept stolen wholesale from Pitch Perfect – is fatally undermined by the blatantly rehearsed medleys which ensue from a “random” selection of themes (one of which, incidentally, is ‘Fire’, hence why the first episode was rescheduled in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy).

It is, like all of these increasingly redundant post-Cowell talent shows, a facile celebration of bland competency; a dispiriting facsimile of the uplifting power of the human voice.

However, it did force me to access previously untapped reservoirs of sympathy for Malone’s fellow judge, Will Young. Dressed, for some reason, like a Nazi dentist, the affable former pop idol looked understandably lost as he struggled to say something meaningful about the forgettable acts paraded before him.


Look into his tired eyes, and his pleading message is poignantly clear: Be careful what you wish for, pop kids. This is the fate that awaits you.

A fondly-remembered ‘90s sensation, adventure game show THE CRYSTAL MAZE has returned under the auspices of new host Richard Ayoade. Wisely, the format hasn’t been tinkered with. The various worlds within the maze look superb. Ayoade’s trademark shtick of detached irony and semi-benign sarcasm is a natural fit. It should, in theory, work a treat.


Unfortunately, this revival kicked off with a minor celebrity edition in which they struggled at length to solve even the most rudimentary puzzles. Quick-witted Ayoade’s increasingly exasperated, apologetic asides to the audience could barely disguise his genuine disdain for this edition’s lack of entertainment value.

Hopefully, when actual members of the public get involved, the show will regain its lustre. Or will they, in this post-reality TV age, also be a bunch of attention-seeking idiots? 

If so, Ayoade’s inevitable despair should at least prove amusing.

Monday, 19 June 2017

TV Review: POLDARK + FEARLESS + THE LOCH

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 June 2017.


POLDARK: Sunday, BBC One

FEARLESS: Monday, STV

THE LOCH: Sunday, STV


Were it not for POLDARK, Britain would be lost without its desperate fix of brow-clenched, bosom-heaving, stubble-jutting 18th century stoics galloping urgently atop rugged coastlines.

Occasional viewers of this, if you will, handsomely mounted melodrama needn’t worry about picking up the storyline, as nothing ever changes in Poldark’s world of tricorn brouhaha.

Ross broods, Demelza frets, Warleggan smirks. Rinse and repeat. Watching Poldark is like leafing through a yellowed Georgian volume of relationship advice columns; mildly diverting, but of no lasting interest.

It might sound odd to describe a drama steeped in death and betrayal as comfort viewing incarnate, but that’s precisely what it is. A slick cake of antique soap. Howard’s Way in mud-caked britches. Take a Break by candlelight.

Which is fine, up to a point. God knows we all need some escapism in this sense-forsaken cesspit of a world (Corbyn should’ve campaigned on that slogan). But this adaptation of the Poldark saga, for all its solidly professional drive, lacks the heightened dynamism of truly great escapist entertainment.


I used to quite admire its knowing sense of straight-faced camp, but even that seems to have dissipated. Without that saving grace, that enemy of blandness, Poldark is little more than a slightly above average Sunday evening time-passer.

Still, Mammoth Screen, the prolific production company behind Poldark, deserve their reputation as fine purveyors of prestigious period dramas. Parade’s End, Victoria, Endeavour and their macabre Agatha Christie adaptations all testify to that.

However, their newest venture is an atypically contemporary thriller steeped in millennial anxiety; catnip for fans of jittery camera-work, steel-blue lens filters and clandestine meetings in multi-storey car parks, but unfamiliar territory for this team.

Has their detour paid off? Well, you certainly can’t fault FEARLESS for scrimping on Big Topical Issues. Starring Helen McCrory as Emma Banville, a successful human rights lawyer famed for taking on particularly difficult cases, it takes in state surveillance, police corruption, tabloid hysteria and Syrian refugees. Bingo!


Chain-smoking Banville’s latest client is a convicted paedophile and murderer who claims his confession was coerced. She believes him, but the case is hardly cut and dry. 

Her reputation as a maverick liberal trouble-maker is an inconvenient barrier to exposing powerful establishment cover-ups, plus she’s haunted by some unspecified childhood trauma, as protagonists in dramas of this nature tend to be.

For Emma Banville, this will be The Toughest Case Of Her Life.

For all its heavy-handed dialogue, clichéd beats and ropey performances – Sam Swainsbury as the possibly innocent man and comedian John Bishop as Banville’s husband are glaringly poor – Fearless gets by so far on the intrigue of its central mystery plus strong work from McCrory. But the jury’s still out on Mammoth’s shaky foray into 21st century turmoil.

Curling! Murder! Christian fundamentalism! The aged jowls of John Sessions and Callum Gilhooley! 

You won’t find a more accurate or sobering portrayal of post-Brexit, post-Nessie Scotland than THE LOCH, a fairly enjoyable formulaic crime drama which, unlike Fearless, doesn’t take itself too seriously. 


The recent triumphant return of Twin Peaks reminds me that David Lynch basically invented the oft-copied template of dark, offbeat TV thrillers based in hauntingly beautiful, remote communities.

While The Loch is no Twin Peaks – needless to say, no one involved in this shameless Broadchurch and Happy Valley rip-off is a visionary genius - if only for its wry blend of forensic gore and pretty pictures, it’s a welcome Sunday rival for mouldy old Poldark.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

TV Review: ACKLEY BRIDGE + THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD

This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 10 June 2017.


ACKLEY BRIDGE: Wednesday, Channel 4

THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD: Friday, BBC Four


If, by the time you read this, the Conservatives are still in power, cheer yourself up by picturing a typical Daily Mail reader being appalled by ACKLEY BRIDGE. You have to seek small comforts wherever you can find them.

This new pre-watershed comedy-drama from Channel 4 depicts the merging of two hitherto segregated comprehensive schools in a Yorkshire mill town. An uneasy marriage of white and Asian communities ensues, although the mild tension between the two factions is based more on mutual unfamiliarity than actual prejudice.

Kids are used to multiculturalism, it doesn’t bother them, but they do love their established cliques.

The sympathetic, irreverent tone was set by an opening scene in which two teenage girls, one white, one Asian, drank cider and quoted Einstein while sat on a sofa discarded in a skip. These kids are mouthy yet bright and for the most part likeable. Their teachers are young and progressive, but with problems of their own. 

Ackley Bridge has more in common with the modern academy from Channel 4's own heart-warming and tacitly political documentary hit Educating Yorkshire than the bland melodrama of Waterloo Road.

So far the dominant storyline involves those aforementioned girls, best friends since childhood, suddenly finding themselves caught between groups from different cultural backgrounds. The white girl struggles with her drug-addicted mother, while her friend attempts to placate the judgemental gossip of her female Muslim peers.

No one is presented as a villain. It feels like an honest exploration of contemporary playground drama.

The white lad who espouses dubious UKIP doggerel is portrayed as eloquent yet confused. An aggressive cameo from his father suggested that this ambiguous lad is a disenfranchised victim of prejudice he’s picked up at home – prejudice he doesn’t fully understand.


Given its state-of-the-nation themes, Ackley Bridge could all too easily descend into well-meaning earnestness. Thankfully, it’s rescued by an astutely balanced lightness of touch which doesn’t undermine its essential sincerity.

Early days, of course, but I feel cautiously optimistic that Channel 4 have produced a thoughtful, accessible mainstream drama that should appeal to its potentially core audience of open-minded teenagers and adults.

If, into the bargain, it upsets the most awful people in the country, that can only be a good thing.

Conservatives still haven’t forgiven the ‘60s counterculture for impregnating western society with its filthy Marxist Commie creed of peace, love and equality.

That original hippie protest movement fomented a vigorous mistrust of powerful elites and a growing awareness of environmental issues. It encouraged people to question the motives of politicians, the police and the media, to expand their horizons and support social change.

They may have failed to overthrow capitalism and put an end to war, but those stoned idealists triggered a cultural revolution of incalculable influence on subsequent generations. Not bad for a bunch of flower-munching longhairs.

In the excellent two-part documentary THE SUMMER OF LOVE: HOW HIPPIES CHANGED THE WORLD, an eloquent throng of ageing American radicals reflected on the Age of Aquarius with a candid mixture of nostalgia and regret.


They reminded us that, despite its egalitarian optimism, hippie ideology was underpinned with anger and anarchy. Critics dismissed them as naïve dreamers, but these tie-dyed kids were deadly serious.

Their heady stew of radical politics, rock music, eastern philosophy, organic living and hallucinogens did, for one brief, exciting moment, feel like the gateway to a better tomorrow.

It couldn’t last, of course, at least not in the form of a mass movement. Drug problems, internal hypocrisy, commercialisation and brutal government crackdowns quickly saw to that.

Yet as long as freedom of expression and alternative viewpoints are permitted in the mainstream, their legacy endures.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

TV Review: BROKEN + THE HANDMAID'S TALE

A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 3 June 2017.


BROKEN: Tuesday, BBC One

THE HANDMAID’S TALE: Sunday, Channel 4


The mere idea of rugged Sean Bean playing a troubled Catholic priest in a grey northern town sounds like a parody of Jimmy McGovern’s morally righteous social realist oeuvre.

Add Anna Friel – who, like Bean, has worked with McGovern before - as a working-class single mum struggling to support three children, and you’d be forgiven – nay, absolved – for assuming that his latest drama, BROKEN, is a perfunctory self-tribute to the man who brought us the peerless likes of Cracker, Hillsborough and The Street.

Well, you’d be wrong. And yes, I’m aware you’re being corrected for making an assumption I’ve just conjured on your behalf, but no one ever said life was fair. If McGovern has taught us anything, it’s that.

This poetic series is the raw, compassionate, heart-wrenching apotheosis of everything one of our greatest - and angriest - dramatists has been wrestling with on television over the last 30 years.

Bean plays Michael, a tireless Good Samaritan whose private demons and loneliness mirror the solitary anguish of the locals who turn to him in times of dire need. We’re all broken in one way or another, but we rarely have the courage to admit it. Softly-spoken Father Michael is there to listen and advise without judgement.


A damaged hero for our Godforsaken times, Michael acts as an emblem of much-needed kindness in an increasingly selfish, heartless society; he’s basically everything Gervais tried and spectacularly failed to achieve with Derek.

Michael may be a somewhat idealised figure, but he’s rendered utterly convincing by McGovern’s nuanced writing and Bean’s tender, understated performance.

Friel also excels as a woman so desperate for money to feed her family, she makes the terrible mistake of leaving her mother lying dead in bed for three days in order to collect her pension.

McGovern has a seemingly never-ending capacity for wringing tension and pathos from his stock conceit of forcing desperate characters into ill-advised courses of action. They’re tragic victims of circumstance, and always depicted as three-dimensional beings.


The trials of Father Michael and his flock allow the lapsed-Catholic writer to explore his recurring themes of guilt and atonement, but they also provide a vehicle for an attack on the injustice of poverty and the failure of every Tory government to protect the most vulnerable members of society. The real broken Britain.

Though often accused of didacticism – usually by ghouls who lack his humanity - McGovern always anchors his polemic in rich, riveting character drama leavened by dry humour.

On the eve of a pivotal General Election, a politically-charged McGovern psalm espousing decency and tolerance is exactly what we need.

Still, if you think the Dystopian present is frightening, it’s, well, it’s only slightly less nightmarish than our old friend the Dystopian future.

A serialised adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Margaret Atwood, THE HANDMAID’S TALE envisions a near-future in which a totalitarian Christian government rules the United States with a puritanical fist.


Catastrophic environmental contamination has forced the few remaining fertile women into the sexual servitude of the ruling elite (represented here by Joseph Fiennes and his jutting beard).

This bleak premise is given a suitably nervy, suffocating treatment in an intriguing, visually striking drama starring Elisabeth Moss (aka Peggy from Mad Men) as a subjugated handmaid whose inner monologue reveals an undimmed spirit.

It’s a slow-burning, but potentially rewarding, commendably depressing and timely assault on misogyny, fascism and religious fundamentalism.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine Donald Trump sexually harassing a woman forever.