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.