Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Safe House

"It's okay, they're saying we might be the new 'Broadchurch'."

The clue is in the title, since the drama would be a pretty poor one if the house was actually safe.  Robert (Christopher Eccleston) is an ex-cop who had a breakdown after a woman he was protecting was shot in the street.  He has renounced policing and has restored a remote, grim old house with his wife (Marsha Thomason) and has made a new life for himself running a B&B, acquiring enough friends to make a decent birthday party and swimming in the lake without a thought of Weil's disease.  When his wife invites his ex-colleague (Paterson Joseph) to visit their idyll, Robert is persuaded to allow his house to be used as a 'safe house', protecting vulnerable witnesses.  (This might not seem like a good idea, but characters in dramas are not to be dissuaded, and Robert does at least show a nifty line in evading a pursuer in a car chase.)

A mum (Nicola Stephenson), her young son and teenaged stepdaughter arrive at the house after the boy was the victim of an attempted kidnapping which hospitalised his father (Jason Merrells).  Blackpool Pleasure Beach seems a rather odd choice for an abduction, and either the child mysteriously didn't scream or the crowds just ignored a child in peril as the bearded villain made off with him.  It's clear the man knew the dad, who came after him and was getting a kicking when a motorist, presumably an innocent bystander, waded in to help and was subsequently stabbed.  Recovering in hospital, dad is stunned to hear that the stabbed victim has died and shockingly reluctant to accept help from the police.  Could this have something to do with his student son, who is AWOL and clearly involved in something dodgy?

This is one of those dramas that ratchets up the tension consistently and throws in just enough backstory to keep things interesting, the risk being that the pay off has to be pretty strong to make it all worthwhile.  No wishy-washy, or wildly unlikely, explanations for the action are going to satisfy viewers who have given four episodes of their time (time may as well be measured in episodes as in minutes, or coffee spoons).  We are rooting for it, having sat through one, and if it must be compared to 'Broadchurch', please let it be series one and not series two.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Code of a Killer

Catching criminals by DNA profiling seems so embedded in modern policing that it's astonishing to think it has only been a procedure at all since 1986, when DCS Baker (David Threlfall, having survived the flood as Noah) approached Alec Jeffreys (John Simm) at Leicester University to see if his pioneering work in genetic fingerprinting could help him catch the rapist and killer of two local women.

It's perhaps surprising that this case has taken so long to appear as a dramatisation, given it has the worthy 'breakthrough' element ('Breaking the Mould', 'Longitude') as well as a real-life serial killer (e.g. 'Appropriate Adult', 'See No Evil', 'This is Personal') and tried and trusted formulas are beloved of TV commissioners.  Watching this, though, we couldn't help but wonder whether it wouldn't have been better as a straightforward documentary account.  It has all the hallmarks of a police procedural, and we know the outcome, so it's a bit like watching a repeat of an episode of 'Lewis'.

There's mild interest when a young suspect comes forward to confess to one of the killings, but not the other, and is found innocent of both by way of his DNA comparison to that found on the victims.  That aside, though, this wasn't a case that grabbed the headlines for reasons of macabre methods, unlikely perpetrator or sheer numbers, and while the lab stuff is explained clearly enough for the lay audience, it isn't thrilling enough to sustain what will end up being over two hours of television.  Nor, at the other end of the scale, did it delve into the human drama of the victims' families ('Five Daughters').  Why cast the wonderful Dorothy Atkinson as Dawn Ashworth's mother?  So far she has had little to do but look distressed in a couple of scenes.

Finally, we are sorry to say that it wasn't imaginatively written and produced.  The 1983 setting is indicated by drab clothes, 70s wallpaper and a car stereo blaring 'Karma Chameleon'; the discovery of a body is shot in slow motion; Jeffreys' obsessive geekdom is indicated by his ignorance of The Smiths and his forgetting both a family wedding and his daughter's school play.  Since taking licence with the facts would be in poor taste here, we can only conclude that it wasn't a great choice for dramatisation after all.  The science, which is remarkable, has changed the course of many lives and will continue to do so, and Professor Jeffreys has received a deserved knighthood for his discoveries.  Some great stories tell themselves without the need for script and actors.

Monday, 6 April 2015


Coalition was Channel 4's dramatisation of the formation of the Conservative / Lib Dem coalition government in 2010.  Starting with the first ever TV debate, it took viewers up to the point of the foundation of the government, and Cameron & Clegg's first joint press conference.

While it started well - the debate worked, I think - it soon drifted off into less comfortable territory.  The biggest problem was that the cast of characters was very big.  Normally with re-creations you have a few actors playing real figures, but in this almost all characters were current, living politicians.

So while you could take the 3 party leaders ('Cameron' looked very convincing for example), as more and more people started to appear it became a very distracting case of 'who is that meant to be?'.  I spent a few minutes wondering whether Alex Avery has shaved the top of his head to play William Hague (Google images suggests he had), and also to wonder where I'd seen 'Ed Balls' before (it was, of course Nicholas Burns, aka Nathan Barley).  It was a serious drama, but a few knowing gags like one about Chris Huhne's marital problems again broke the suspension of disbelief.

A few interesting points came out of the drama.  I'd forgotten how rude Gordon Brown could be, for example, but overall I felt that it would have been done far better as either a documentary, with talking heads, or a Comic Strip style take on the story, complete with action sequences, and over the top performances.  (They could have called it 'Inside Number 10')

However, like some of the voters, the programme makers chose to go a third way, and produce something that didn't really work very well, although you could see what the original intention was.  A bit like the coalition, in fact...

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Ark

So, you live with your large, grown family who have terrible table manners but otherwise rub along pretty happily together.  One day, while sitting and contemplating your strangely arid farm, God's messenger, in the form of Ashley Walters, plops down beside you and tells you God is fed up with the greed, selfishness and violence of human beings and is going to send a flood to drown them all.  Understandable enough, you reckon, if a bit drastic, but then comes the killer: you alone can save mankind!  All you have to do is build an enormous wooden structure, waterproof it and persuade as many people as you can to join you, and drag in some animals that will come your way.  The phrase "easier said than done" could have been coined for poor Noah (David Threlfall), previously considered a devout, strict but kindly old eccentric.  It goes without saying that Mrs. Noah, Emmie (the estimable Joanne Whalley) and the offspring don't exactly jump at the idea of hard labour and ridicule for building an ark in the sunny desert.

This is a nice re-telling, emphasizing the human aspects of the story - the sons' longing for independence; the wife's despairing, "Please tell me you've miscalculated the size?!" - if a little oddly paced.  Thirty minutes into a ninety-minute production before God's instructions arrived meant little time for the actual flood, which was, as CGI effects go, pretty underwhelming. Forty days and forty nights took little more than forty seconds of rather muddled images of water walls.  For bibliophiles, too, it may have been puzzling, since Canaan (Nico Mirallegro) is here Noah's son who strays off the righteous path through no fault of his dad's.  Ah well.  The core message of, umm, keeping faith despite all, comes through, and the acting was nicely understated for a biblical epic.  It made a nice change from Easter-centric crucifixion tales and yes, apparently rainbows are a reminder of man's covenant with God, not leprechauns and pots of gold, and the two are not the same....

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Ordinary Lies

You'd expect ordinary lies in a second-hand car showroom along the lines of "Never been in an accident, mate," or "only one careful owner and two thousand on the clock"; not "my wife's just died" when she is at home with a mild outbreak of irritable bowel syndrome.  Salesman Marty's rather extra-ordinary whopper is, it's hinted, the tip of the iceberg among his colleagues' lurking secrets, but it's his story that features in the first of six 'Clocking Off' style episodes.  When his mid-life low leads him to drinking, late or no-shows for work and rows with his wife he is given a final warning.  The next day - running late again - he phones in and finds himself telling his colleague that he has just become a widower.

If you can get over this wholly unlikely scenario, and the fact that he relies on his sulking wife to wake him up in the morning when he has a working alarm, then this is an entertaining hour.  You know he's going to get found out, even he knows he's going to get found out, but it plays out well enough.  Jason Manford (Mark Addy's younger sibling, surely) is a real find and conveys the agony of a decent man who finds himself in a downward spiral of his own making.  He's ably supported by a great cast, notably Rebecca Callard as lonely do-gooder Grace, and things move from comic to serious as bumpily as Marty's own journey through his crisis.

Whether this is anywhere near as good as 'Clocking Off', or Brocklehurst's own recent 'The Driver' is still in the balance.  (The author also wrote 'Exile', which turned out to be a bit less than the sum of its parts.)  There are clear storylines shaping up here about a broken marriage, a missing partner, drug couriering and old family secrets, and they will need a sure hand.  So far, we're sticking with the characters, but needless to say, we wouldn't buy a second-hand car from any of them.

Sunday, 8 March 2015


If you like your swashes buckled, your bodices ripped and your upper lips stiff as you like, you really are spoiled for choice on UK TV at the moment, with the 'Musketeers', 'Banished', 'Arthur and George', 'Indian Summers' and 'Mr. Selfridge' all jostling with each other in the schedules, and now, going head-to-head on a Sunday with two of the above, comes 'Poldark'.  (That's pronounced 'PolDARK' btw, with the emphasis on the last syllable, Cornish-style.)  The series of eight episodes is based on the first two of Winston Graham's novels which form an epic family saga of late 18th Century tin mine-owning squires.  Several were filmed in the mid 1970s and that adaptation, staring Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees, retains a fan following so devout that an attempt in the late 90s at a sequel following the next generation (but without any of the original stars) sank without trace.

Galloping up, then, is Aidan Turner, who admittedly looks the part to the extent that you wonder why he hasn't already been cast as Heathcliff, Mr. Rochester and every other brooding hero you care to name.  Turner plays the eponymous Ross Poldark, newly returned in defeat from the American War of Independence, to find his once-prosperous home and mines gone to wrack and ruin after his father's death.  Thinking Ross lost in the war, his fiance Elizabeth (Heida Reed) has got engaged to his drippy cousin Francis (Kyle Soller), none of which turns Poldark from a brooder into a cheery chap.  This first episode sees him rescuing young tomboy Demelza Carne (Eleanor Tomlinson) and suffering the violent repercussions of her brutish kinfolk; meanwhile he vacillates about whether to make something of his dwindled inheritance or leave the crashing Cornwall waves behind him.

So, will this be as popular as the '70s version?  Almost certainly not, but that has as much to do with the multitude of channels and viewing-on-demand available now.  Times have changed in other ways too - the original saw Sunday evening church services in abeyance because parishioners were apparently glued to the screen.  This is a perfectly respectable adaptation of Graham's original prose, and so far faithful to the previous TV version too.  It's also good Sunday evening hokum with a cracking cast and that lovely wild coastline as a backdrop.  It's a worthy last job for the late Warren Clarke as Uncle Charles Poldark, and Ruby Bentall finally steps out of dim-girl roles as the centre of gravity of the piece, Ross's cousin Verity.  (There's also an improvement, in the persons of Beatie Edney and Phil Davis as Prudie and Jud, whose every appearance in both book and previous version had the attention wandering.)  If they keep up this standard, we hope they go on to become a Sunday staple.  After all, this has the blessing of the previous Ross, Robin Ellis, who makes a cameo appearance in the series.  

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Considering how few dramas are set in penal colonies, compared to, say, cop and doc shows, this felt unsettlingly familiar.  Convict James Freeman (Russell Tovey) sticks up for Anne Meredith (Orla Brady) when a nasty blacksmith steals her food.  Being a classic bully, the blacksmith promptly returns the woman's food and takes Freeman's, delivering a brutal assault as he does so, and sneering that Freeman will never eat again.  No-one helps out the hungry man, not even his friend Tommy Barrett (Julian Rhind-Tutt), who has trouble of his own in the form of Elizabeth Quinn (MyAnna Buring).  She has been caught paying him a nocturnal visit and when she refuses to name her lover, is given 25 lashes.  The lovers wish to marry but have living spouses back in England, and when Barrett refuses to live without her it looks like tragedy will ensue.

Timberlake Wertenbaker got there first, and crafted a curious, lyrical and often brutal tale of unfortunates shipped off to a barren land as punishment.  This is very much McGovern's take on proceedings, and while he's an old hand at old lags, he's had most success with contemporary tales, and his decorously begrimed actors betray their well-fed 21st Century origins with almost every line.  As you'd expect, the main characters are noble, have honour, feel love, and fight a gutsy battle with tyranny and their straightened circumstances.  Barrett even claims he is innocent.  Meanwhile the soldiers and the clergy protect the blacksmith because they need his tools; the soldiers use the women prisoners for sex with impunity, and state that a dead convict is just one less mouth to feed, that scum and whores shouldn't breed etc.

It's entertaining enough, but has found a strange berth at BBC2.  The first of seven episodes had a histrionic climax and a sudden happy ending, leading us to think that the remaining six will tackle a familiar issue each week: rebellion, disease, pregnancy, unlikely friendships, the ever-present threat of death.  No doubt McGovern has done his research, and there are contemporary accounts to supplement any histories with authentic voices, but to his viewers the past is less a foreign country than an all-too-familiar landscape.