Friday, 8 August 2014

Walter


Our eponymous hero is an amiable, bumbling cop with a sweet, posh daughter.  No prizes for guessing this isn't gritty drama along the lines of 'Line of Duty', which confusingly also featured Adrian Dunbar as a financially compromised detective.  That's the only similarity.  The opening scene may feature a worried-looking man going under a tube train, but this is a comedy-drama.  It's not a hybrid we've ever warmed to, because to carry it off requires first class writing which, in the days of marketing, ratings and pressured deadlines, is pretty rare.

Dunbar is a good enough actor to play hero, jester or villain and carry an audience with him all the way, and Alexandra Roach is likeable as his ditzy, sassy sidekick, but OMG they deserve a better script.  This involves a corrupt cop with a late-blooming conscience (like we said, not realism), and a murder which almost foxes the police, thanks to their undercover officer going awol.  It's sort of in the same spirit as 'New Tricks' - there are jokey scenes with the young, gay Chief Super, widower dad Walter and lovelorn Anne with her Welsh mother - but it needs a more even tone and tighter plotlines if it's going to spin out to a series.  There's potential for a nice light drama with a few laughs, maybe in a Sunday evening 8pm slot, but in the tough world of today's TV they may already have blown their one chance by an underwritten pilot, shown on a Friday evening in August.  

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

In the Club


We have to hand it to Kay Mellor.  Who else could write a soapy drama about six pregnant women that is in any way watchable to anyone not obsessed with pregnancy?

Diane (Jill Halfpenny) has just found out she's expecting twins, only to discover that her husband Rick (Will Mellor) was made redundant months ago and has run up large debts; Roanna (Hermione Norris) is in the throes of a bitter divorce while expecting a baby with her younger lover Simon (Luke Thompson); Kim (Katherine Parkinson, fresh from a pregnancy in 'The Honourable Woman') is having a baby with her partner Susie (Tara Fitzgerald), whose ex-partner Neil (Jonathan Kerrigan) is the sperm donor; midwife Vicky (Christine Bottomley) is expecting her own first child while in an unstable relationship; Jasmin (Taj Atwal) is having doubts about her impending motherhood and is keeping something from husband Dev (Sacha Dhawan); and lonely  fifteen-year-old Rosie (Hannah Midgley) is largely ignorant of what's going to happen to her.

So, all the familiar Mellor ingredients are here for the first of six episodes that will no doubt see emergencies, births, revelations and seismic shifts of emotion.  The strengths of her writing are in the audience being able to identify with everyday people struggling with familiar frustrations.  It's good enough to rise above trite dialogue and resolution, while never challenging in the way that the current, aforementioned BBC2 drama, or C4's 'Utopia' are.  So, if you're a fan of the back catalogue ('Band of Gold', 'The Practice', 'Playing the Field', 'A Passionate Woman' etc.) then you won't be disappointed, but if not, then this probably won't convert you.  Will we keep watching?  Probably not, but then gossip about trapped wind and swollen ankles, while they may be facts of life, can get a bit wearing.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Common



Jimmy McGovern thinks the legal concept of joint enterprise is a bad thing, and he's written a one-off drama to show us why.  It has always been something of a controversial matter, as in the case of Derek Bentley, who was hanged for his allegedly saying "Let him have it" to his younger companion, even while he didn't pull the trigger, had learning difficulties, and was arguably urging Christopher Craig to hand over the gun, rather than use it.  Craig, of-course, was too young to hang.

So here we have Johnjo O'Shea (Nico Mirallegro from 'The Village') giving some friends a lift to get a pizza in his brother's car and becoming a horrified getaway driver when they end up claiming a victim instead of a Margherita.  Viewing the lads as a gang, the police want prosecutions under joint enterprise, which means that Johnjo's not being at the murder scene and claiming his innocence of any intent is not a good enough defence.  His parents and those of the victim - a bystander - both want what they perceive as justice for their sons.

This is familiar McGovern territory - the solid working class under threat - and his reputation gets him the airtime to explore the aftermath of this single act of violence for the estranged, bereaved Wards (Susan Lynch and Daniel Mays) and for the bewildered O'Sheas (Jodhi May and Andrew Tiernan).  Arguably, McGovern doesn't need 90 minutes.  A wail of anguish and a throwaway remark are the kind of moments that nail the realities of life for the families in his dramas, and with this calibre of cast it's enough.  Johnjo, like many of the accused in joint enterprise cases, finds himself between a rock and a hard place: get tried for murder and face a potential life sentence, or plead guilty to conspiracy to commit GBH and face a probable 6 years.  His fellow accused manage to persuade the one who actually stabbed the lad to plead guilty to murder, but must then rely on Johnjo to plead guilty to the lesser charge alongside them, or all of them will stand trial for murder.  So despite being genuinely innocent, even of the plan to assault a local lout that the pizza parlour manager was party to, Johnjo faces imprisonment.  His lawyer and his aunt urge him to take the lesser charge, believing that the establishment use joint enterprise "to clear the scum off the streets", while his mother objects on moral grounds (and presumably the rather more prosaic ones that he will emerge with a criminal record).  For Johnjo, a haemophiliac, neither option is desirable.

It's decent drama exploring a deserving subject - apparently a select committee is currently looking into the law that has its basis in preventing duelling in the 18th Century - but weighted here by our knowledge of the fact that Johnjo did not break any law.  For the judge and, had it gone to full trial, the jury, there would be circumstantial evidence in the form of CCTV footage of the car, engine running, outside the pizza parlour and the lads running over to it before driving swiftly away, though the lads claim they would have backed up his plea of ignorance as to their intent.  In other cases, such as those where someone in his position is guilty of involvement in a conspiracy to murder or cause GBH, then might there be some positives to this charge?  We hope the select committee will look carefully at the issue, but it'll take more than that to stop random violence among young men, or prejudice on the part of prosecutors.


McGovern's next project, due to air next year, is 'Banished', set in an 18th Century Australian penal colony and concerning the lives and loves of prisoners.  So, no topical arguments then?  Doubtless our Jimmy will find a way to reflect our own crumbling prison system, with a bit of Brookside-in-bodices thrown in.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Honourable Woman


We weren't all that crazy about Blick's previous dramatic outing in 2011, 'The Shadow Line'.  It was one of those intriguing but flawed pieces we wanted to like but....  'The Honourable Woman' has been trumpeted as this year's serious BAFTA contender with a stellar cast including Hollywood's Maggie Gyllenhaal and a storyline encompassing the unending conflict in the middle-east.

So far, this is a huge improvement on its predecessor, which was willfully opaque and overblown.  Not that this is the kind of drama you can snooze through, by any means, and nor does it deal with smaller themes.  Ms. Gyllenhaal plays Nessa Stein, who with her brother Ephraim (Andrew Buchan) directs the legacy of her rich Israeli father, who was killed in front of them when they were children, 29 years previously.  Nessa makes an enemy of a friend when she awards a communications contract for Palestine to a Palestinian.  Unknown to her, the recipient is already dead, having been murdered by killers who made it look like suicide.  Newly created a cross-party peer, Baroness Stein of Tilbury has secrets.  She tells us little more in her voice-over, but we're introduced at a steady pace to her bodyguard, her PA, her brother's family and a Foreign Office operative who knows her secret (Eve Best, from 'Shadow Line').  Another hangover from the other series is slightly rumpled, slightly sinister Stephen Rea as an about-to-be-retired spy who is drawn into the suspicious death, and who will no doubt have to call on his embittered ex (Lindsay Duncan) in the process.  Then there's the Israeli woman who helps Ephraim with his family, and has a past with Nessa in the Gaza Strip.  Whatever happened 8 years ago is catching up to the Steins by the end of the hour, leading Nessa to a tense, nighttime run through Hyde Park with unforeseen consequences.

Part one of eight and we'll keep watching.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is wonderful as Nessa, with a flawless English accent and a performance of poise and gravitas as the self-possessed, super-rich but damaged businesswoman.  A sense of doom hangs around her, evidenced by protests that dog her even to a musical evening and a hounding by a radio presenter.  There's also the poignant music, which is currently balancing between adding atmosphere and instructing the audience that hey, this is tragic stuff, but is in danger of veering towards the latter.  Whatever the secrets are, Blick will no doubt unfold them in unexpected, cleverly-measured ways, and with the superb cast and the script thankfully understated, we're hoping this will be the rich experience it promises to be.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Murdered by my Boyfriend


A 'does what it says on the tin' title that nonetheless doesn't do justice to this hour-long drama based on a real case.  We have nothing against BBC3, but don't often watch it, and this was a worthwhile exception.  17-year-old Ashley (Georgina Campbell) meets Reece (Royce Pierreson) at a party.  They have friends in common and even went to the same school, and their obvious mutual attraction soon blossoms into a relationship that has Ashley telling friends she's happy and in love.  Reece, however, has a possessive streak and strange ideas about domestic harmony, and things turn sour when Ashley discovers she is pregnant.  He promises her the earth to keep their baby, but refuses to live with her and is unfaithful.  His short fuse has him lashing out, in front of their daughter, and his physical strength and manipulative talk inflicts real damage on her bodily and mental health.

The spoiler is in the title, but what makes this worth watching are the nuanced performances from the leads (and nice to see Kate Hardie on screen again).  They are good enough to make you understand what is often incomprehensible: why would anyone stay with a violent partner?  Ashley is young, impressionable and in love, wanting a father for her daughter, and drained of her natural confidence by her intimidating boyfriend.  He has a predator's instinct for undermining her, and literally and metaphorically battering her into submission to his will.

A brave drama.  The news may feature celebrity-led protest against gender-based atrocities abroad, but domestic violence on our doorstep is on the rise too.

Amber


Intriguing Irish crime drama about the disappearance of a fourteen-year-old girl and the desperate search by her parents.  Each of the four episodes covers different aspects of the same timeline, from the day she went missing to almost two years later.  It makes good use of the device in slow reveals of Amber's story and its aftermath, with the slow and painful disintegration of the family, and aside from a slightly contrived third episode around a mobile phone (no spoilers) it's gripping and harrowing stuff.

In opting for the life-like route, though, it probably splits its audience.  It's a haunting exploration of how much damage is caused by a lost child, but it lacks a dramatically satisfying end and leaves many loose ends: will Amber's father Ben continue his efforts on the 'dark web' and risk imprisonment?  What part did the prisoner who knew about the mermaid mural play?  Why did Amber get off the train in the middle of nowhere?  How did her lamp end up in the water?  Is the man on the beach with his dog a suspect?  And what about the boy in the chatroom, who was in Nerissa's with Amber's friend who said she didn't know him?  Intriguing, but frustrating.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Penny Dreadful



Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic's new huge-budget, high-concept TV drama began last week.  It's dripping with high production values, but at the same time it's a strange mix of things.

First, it reminds us of Alan Moore.  Like Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it mixes various iconic stories and characters into a steampunk sort of setting.  While League had Alan Quartermain, Tom Sawyer and Captain Nemo, Penny has Frankenstein, but also overlaps with Dorian Grey and Mina Harker from Dracula.

Second, it reminds us of Ripping Yarns.  Ripping Yarns deliberately set out to debunk this sort of tosh (particularly in the episode The Curse of The Claw), and also loved getting cameos from famous friends.

Within these confines it's pretty good, and it's great to see Timothy Dalton in such a meaty role, but as with a lot of the recent Sky stuff, it's not as good as it thinks it is.  Yes, it's suspenseful...  but one person's 'nail-biting suspense' is another person's 'get on with it', and more often than not we fall into the second camp.