Monday, 15 December 2014

The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies

In ‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum’, Heinrich Boll’s eponymous heroine has a romantic encounter with a man who is wanted by the police, is vilified by the tabloid press and shoots the reporter responsible; summary justice of the kind not advocated by the Leveson Inquiry.  Writer Peter Morgan draws parallels between the fictional victim of press intrusion and Christopher Jefferies, who was an early suspect in the December 2010 murder of landscape architect Joanna Yeates.  There are two crucial differences to Boll's story, however.  One is that Jefferies was an entirely innocent victim and the second is that the press used his unusual appearance and other personal lifestyle choices as indicators of deviant tendencies.

Real-life reconstructions are hazardous.  Where and how are lines of taste drawn?  There has been criticism of the focus on Jefferies rather than on Jo Yeates, whose life wasn’t just changed but ended in December 2010.  Was it appropriate to use news footage of Ms. Yeates’ parents as they appealed to the public to help find their missing daughter?  ITV chose to show this drama over three hours on two consecutive nights (with multiple ad breaks) and at times, in a purely dramatic sense, it plodded along.  Jason Watkins as Jefferies gives a career-high performance as the man whose combover almost landed him in the dock, but there was a definite sense of Morgan and Roger Michell, the director, trying too hard to portray him as the Great English Eccentric, who inspired devotion in ex-pupils and whose curmudgeonly tendencies disguised a warm and noble heart.  Jefferies may be the sort of person whose bakery gives him free loaves for a month in order to lure his return as a customer, but highlighting this made it dangerously close to the black/white character summaries of which the press is so often guilty.

In case we were in any doubt, there was Steve Coogan’s fictionalised meeting with Jefferies while waiting to appear before the Leveson Inquiry, in which they discussed press intrusion, but for us (well, not for Dan, whose recurring nightmare is in fact being wrongly imprisoned) this got to the real heart of the matter.  Is it justifiable to invent a meeting in a drama based on a real-life case that is all about truth, distorted interpretations of the truth and downright lies?  The only dramatic point that this scene made was not that Jefferies’ appearance drew suspicion upon him, but the fact that he was not a celebrity: Coogan’s wild coiffure wasn’t even remarked upon.  What was referred to in the drama as the renowned English tolerance, even celebration, of eccentrics seems more to us like western society’s double standards.  Howard Hughes (and perhaps also the late Michael Jackson) minus millions would be less a figure of mystery than a hospital inmate.  The press tend to draw characters around the plot, describing any victim as the most promising, loved person cut down in their prime or before they could flower, and any culprit as having shown obvious signs of cruel and criminal intentions in their introvert behaviour or choice of sombre reading material.  Jefferies was a victim of our sensation-seeking, which essentially encourages journalists to appeal to mass ignorance.  Ironically, as a committed teacher, it’s something he’s battled against for most, if not all, of his career.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Remember Me

It seems almost bad sport to find TWNHs in televised ghost stories, not least because fans are starved of decent offerings on TV.  There is no shortage of generic horror/supernatural dramas ('Penny Dreadful', 'Intruders' etc.) but ghosts usually only appear on TV at Christmas, and the last non-festive tales we recall were 'The Secret of Crickley Hall' and 'Lightfields'.  Still it must be said, would anyone outside of TV drama choose to enter a stranger's house alone after dark, and would anyone spend more than, say, 0.3 seconds in a supposedly deserted room that had a fire blazing and several candles lit?

While we're getting the grumbles out of the way, there were distinct nods to both 'The Woman in Black' and 'Oh Whistle & I'll Come to You My Lad' in this story of strange goings-on involving a curmudgeonly pensioner (Michael Palin) who fakes a fall in order to escape his house and be sent into a home.

To reiterate, though, ghosts are fairly thin on the ground on TV, so viewers must be grateful for what they get and this was in many respects a fairly promising first episode (of three) with some genuinely scary moments.  Most of those are thanks to some good camerawork, cutting and sound effects, but there are some decently disturbing chills in there.  If you're thinking of going to Scarborough for a break, we advise waiting a few weeks 'til the story's told.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Intruders

Unusual 8-part, prime-time fare from BBC2 with a cross-Atlantic cast.  If it's true that vampire stories originated in our former ignorance of decomposition, as many contend, then the plethora of zombie/possession tales around seems to testify to our having a hellraiser of a long way to go to find out what keeps body and soul together, or parts them.  This starts bafflingly: a young girl in California in 1990 is visited by two menacing men in the middle of the night and given a number '9', after which she kills herself in a bath, leaving a note for a man who in the present day appears to enlist the help of ex-cop Jack (John Simm) while looking into the death of a mother and son elsewhere in America.  Needless to say, the family were visited and killed by these same two 'men in black'.  Simm's character meanwhile has troubles of his own, namely his wife, who on her birthday has suddenly started dancing to jazz, which she hates, and then disappears on a supposed business trip to Seattle.  Then there's nine-year-old Madison, celebrating her birthday when she too is visited by one of the gangster duo and thereafter starts behaving very strangely indeed. 

Still following?  No opportunity for menace is overlooked.  A car fender, a pair of arms, the pupils of an eye all seem to betoken something sinister.  By the end of the first episode a conspiracy-theory loner DJ has also fallen victim to James Frain (whom we wouldn't want on our doorstep on a dark night either) who knew the murdered family and is investigating a secret society who have, by way of organ pipes that can't be heard by human ears, conquered death.  Yes really.  It would appear that the dead girl, Simm's wife Amy (Mira Sorvino) and Madison are inhabited by other souls, long past their due dates.  As with all of these wonderful schemes, like time travel for instance, there are glitches.  Not all of these immortal souls get along.  Frain (yes, he's one) is chasing after little Madison, who is now partially possessed by Marcus, a criminally-inclined man.  Amy is turning Japanese, literally.

It's intriguing, but whereas something like France's recent 'The Returned' was elegant in its opacity, and focused on the identifiable pain of people faced with the simultaneously sublime and terrible - the return of dead loved ones, just as they were when they disappeared - this is more unpleasant than disturbing.  Frain is your archetypal cold-blooded assassin, presumably all but undefeatable having had hundreds of years to perfect his methods of violence.  The returned were only vaguely aware that something was wrong, and that the something was them; here, the inhabitors of others' bodies are intent on survival.  Even John Simm's American accent isn't as scary as we expected.  We're always hopeful that series based on books will have more coherent plots than screenplays that have other agendas and may have been hastily put together, but we shall have to wait and see.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Missing *spoilers*

Neither an original title nor plot - Tony and Emily Hughes' five-year-old son Ollie goes missing while they are on holiday in France in 2006 and in 2014 he still hasn't been found.  Not unlike true cases - the McCanns immediately spring to mind - this pieces together the loss and immediate aftermath of the disappearance in tandem with Tony's (James Nesbitt) continuing search for his missing son.  Emily (Frances O'Connor) has seemingly moved on with her life, away from her husband and in with one of the policemen assigned to the case, and his son, who is unnervingly close in age to that of Ollie.  In this, the first of eight episodes, Tony re-enlists the help of a reluctant French detective from the original case to follow up a new lead.

It's gripping and the performances are great.  We felt the Hughes' pain as they searched in vain for their missing little boy and also the wariness of the local population in dealing with this old case which brought so much unwelcome publicity to the town.  What makes us slightly wary, however, is how far credulity will stretch over an eight-hour run.  How many red herrings must we swallow and will there be an ending to justify the hours of watching?  That's to say, there's only room on the airwaves for one 'Amber'.  There were also rather unlikely plot points: a second-hand clothes shop owner who recorded the names and contact details of all those who donated items?  A family who returned home from holiday and didn't notice graffiti on their cellar wall or a scarf that didn't belong to any of them?

We're hoping these minor quibbles are not the precursors of major ones.  It was a good start but there's a long road ahead, every Tuesday 'til Christmas.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Great Fire

Forget what you learned at school.  A bit of plague and Pudding Lane were rather dull anyway, weren't they?  No, ITV have given this particular history lesson a 21st Century make-over.  The baker is hunky Andrew Buchan, married to a comely wench (Rose Leslie) and unwittingly involved in intrigue at the highest levels.  In 1666 this of-course means randy Merry Monarch Charles II (William Houston), his secretly Papist brother James and, err, Charles Dance in full sinister mode and a terrible wig.  Joining him in the hirsute syrup stakes is Daniel Mays as lusty Samuel Pepys, who proves his acting chops with a convincing performance away from his usual Cockney chappies.  Nonetheless, a scene where he plays posh opposite Andrew Buchan playing Cockney, with rather less success, is bizarre.

The Fire itself gets going about 40 minutes into episode 1, which gives rise to a rather unlikely Hollywood action movie sequence where Buchan rescues his daughters from their burning bakery.  Here again things depart from school history, or for that matter fire awareness courses, since the Great Fire is the Slowest Fire Ever To Get Going.  Even our overstuffed sofas can cause fatal conflagrations in a couple of minutes, but the incendiary bundle of naked flame, straw and timber smoulders away and kindles into the sort of flames seen in gas fire ads.

While the fire is thinking about getting going, the drama plods along in soap-like fashion.  Charles has his eye on fresh young meat; a Catholic skulks about the court with a knife and the sort of sly glances that would in reality have caused his head to be parted from his torso in a flash; baker Farriner pleads with Pepys to help him out of debt; Mrs. Pepys overcomes her lack of children by learning to dance.... etc.  With no spoilers necessary in any direction, we can only hope it whips up the pace before viewers start wishing the fire had been even greater, or perhaps hadn't started at all and left the characters all to succumb to the Black Death.

The Code

Despite best intentions, we missed this.  Letting the side down and otherwise living life.

Monday, 6 October 2014


This is one of those fluffy-robe-and-slippers dramas to cosy up to of an autumn evening.  It's set in the nice, safe 1950s and has such a nostalgic glow it's almost sepia-toned.  Those who remember the 1950s may be scratching their heads at the likes of this, but along with 'Call the Midwife' and 'Quirke' it ticks a plethora of boxes for maximum appeal.  Here we have a kindly, lovelorn young vicar (James Norton, whom we recently saw cold-bloodedly raping and killing as Tommy in 'Happy Valley') who befriends a kindly, careworn old cop (Robson Green, taking a break from angling) to solve murders in the titular sleepy English town.

This first story, based one of James Runcie's books, has a supposed suicide whom his mistress suspects was murdered.  She's a suspect, of-course, as is his melancholy German widow, his business partner and his secretary.

Nothing new in the plot, so what about our hero?  A former soldier in the war who drinks whisky, smokes, has a crush on a girl who's now engaged to someone else and loses at backgammon.  Oh and he's open-minded in a way very few vicars - or indeed anyone else in a town like the fictional Grantchester - were in the 1950s.  The preview for next week had the token black character who is musical, fun, popular, and the obvious suspect in a theft.  OK, this is ITV prime-time stuff but does that have to mean anachronisms and cliches?  It's not bad, but it could be so much better.

Monday, 29 September 2014


Marvellous was...  Marvellous.  Inspired by a Guardian article from 2010, Peter Bowker has written a very engaging, very inspiring biopic of 'living legend' Neil Baldwin, a man who refused to let his learning difficulties hold him back, and has lived life to the full.

Now in his 70s, the film mainly looks at the time in the 1980s when he played an active role in Stoke City FC, working as kit man having introduced himself to new manager Lou Macari, who comes over as a real saint, and offering his services.  Over this period it looks at Neil's relationship with his mother, and her attempts to get him to be more independent, his relationship with the church (he has a very powerful faith, and is a lay preacher), and his role at Keele University, who recently gave him an honourary degree.

On paper this seems like a very unlikely recipe for a TV drama, let alone a good TV drama, but that is what this was.  Neil's positive outlook on life, and his likeability gets him through all manner of challenges.  Somehow Bowker managed to strike a balance between heartwarming pathos and real humour, and Toby Jones' performance was perfect as someone who clearly has learning difficulties, but accepts them and moves forward.  At one point he says 'If you meet people who don't like you, then just meet other people who do like you'.  The whole cast was note perfect, but we should praise Gemma Jones (no relation) as Neil's mother Mary, and Tony Curran as Macari.

The production was interspersed with songs from a ukulele orchestra and choir, and also featured Neil himself, Lou Macari, and other 'real people' appearing to comment on the action, but this never distracted from the piece.

Like Neil's own story, Marvellous was an incredibly unlikely success, but a real success it was, possibly the best one-off TV film we've seen for the past few years.  It only got 1.5m viewers, but the critical reaction seems to have been uniformly positive, so let's hope for a quick repeat in a better slot.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Driver

What we expected from the first hour of this three-parter was a set-up episode, perhaps with a hook-in 'chaos' opener to set the scene before flashing back to the main story some hours/days/months/years before.  We got what we expected, and, it must be said, quite a bit more besides

 It wasn't a wordy script, so maybe it was just the top calibre acting from Morrissey and Hart, in particular, that made us care about the taxi driver struggling to make a living and dealing with gobby kids, a staid marriage, and stultifying middle age; we even cared about his longtime, ex-con mate.  There wasn't anything particularly unexpected here, but we felt the allure of easy money in the face of dealing with his vile passengers (and their bodily excretions) and his growing horror at being confronted with what he'd previously refused to countenance: complicity in some very dark goings on.

There were moments of subtle humour in there too, which is rare (think 'Breaking Bad') and even more incredibly there were no glaringly obvious TWNH scenes where we just wanted to scoff knowingly and say that no-one in their right mind would do X or Y.

Bring on episodes two and three: the best thing so far this autumn.


Surprise, Surprise!  Sheridan Smith continues her single-handed take-over of feisty working-class females in TV biopics.  Here she is as Priscilla White, better known to the public as Cilla Black, in this three-parter on ITV.  Classy cast all round with Ed Stoppard as manager Brian Epstein - who also managed that little-known moptop foursome The Beatles - and Aneurin Barnard as the love of her life Bobby Willis.  (Quite why they cast a raven-haired actor to play blonde Bobby is beyond us.  Maybe Mr. Barnard has a thing for strange hairstyles after his Richard III portrayal.  'Tis a relief that Edward Scissorhands is already made.)

Anyway, Jeff Pope's screenplay is solid enough and while the scally-speak is sometimes hard to fathom (is this because we're not au fait with Scouse or because the actors are heading hither and yon from Liverpool?  We can't comment.) it has all the scenes you'd expect.  Sheridan Smith acts her socks off again, and with that and some belting rock'n'roll numbers, it's a lorra lorra fun (sorry Cill).

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Secrets

One of BBC1's half-hour-each-weeknight dramas, all on the Secrets theme and quite starry.  This first episode has Olivia Colman reluctant to help her mother Alison Steadman commit suicide.  Hard to know what to say since this may not be representative of the whole series, but this was very depressing for a Sunday night.  The obvious counterpoint of Olivia Colman's pregnancy (death and birth, the cycle of life, yes?) and the incidental humour of Alison Steadman's smoking a joint didn't relieve the bleakness much, and the legal arguments were largely sidelined.  Yet surely it was the legal status of assisted suicide which made this a secret at all?  What made this watchable were the performances of the three leads, understated to such a degree we wondered if the dialogue was improvised.  If the rest of the acting is of this calibre, the remaining episodes will be worth watching.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Castles in the Sky

Another one of those 'the story of...' 90-minute dramas that the Beeb does so well.  OK so they take a few liberties with the truth for the sake of dramatic tension or humour, and the 'eureka!' moments are cheesy, but the performances are solid (with the exception of Eddie Izzard's Scottish accent wandering across the Atlantic and back) and the science of radar is explained for dummies.  There is apparently evidence that people perform best under pressure, and the threat of Hitler's Luftwaffe brought out the best in weatherman Watson Watt and his team.  Despite prejudice from the toffs, the sorely tested patience of loved ones and the political infighting of Churchill, Tizard and co. they invent something that can detect enemy planes early enough to scramble aircraft effectively.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Chasing Shadows

Room for another ITV crime drama?  There have been allusions to 'The Bridge' because of the main cop's presence on the autism spectrum.  It's clearly the 'tick du jour', and who better to play it than Reece Shearsmith, fresh from his wife-killing psycho in another ITV crime drama.  "Does she have bad breath?" he bluntly asks the anxious parents of a missing girl.  They clearly see DS Sean Stone, demoted to the missing persons unit, as a Holmesian character whose quirks aid his razor-sharp mind etc.  Alex Kingston is his warm-hearted, divorced mother foil, Ruth Hattersley and Noel Clarke his uppity young boss DCI Prior.

His first case is investigating girls who have gone missing after visiting a website for suicidal people - no, not the Samaritans.  And that's about it for feasible plot so far.  The rest is fill: Hattersley has a weird son and Stone a helpful cleaner; or unlikely jokes at the expense of Stone's autistic tendencies and the usual cop TWNHs.  You might be forgiven for thinking policemen aren't the most articulate on the planet, but it's hard to believe that Stone negotiated his way to Sergeant with his lack of tact, or that Hattersley would be daft enough to agree to meet the suspect, whom she's only approached online, alone in what looks like an abandoned shopping centre.

It's ok, but a slightly queasy mix of serious story and odd humour, and will really have to up the ante to sustain four episodes (though so riddled with ad breaks that each can't be more than 45 minutes at most).

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Our Zoo

George Mottisford (Lee Ingleby) is a dispirited veteran of the Great War, living with his parents, wife Lizzie (Liz White) and two daughters in a small terrace and running a grocery shop.  He suffers from what would probably now be called PTSD, and survivor guilt at having come through the war that killed his brother Stanley.  A chance encounter with his rascal brother-in-law (Ralf Little) leads to him rescuing a parrot and a monkey from the docks and then, in the teeth of opposition from his mother (Anne Reid, splendid as usual), an elderly camel from a circus.  Don't try this at home....

This is Hovis-cozy Sunday night drama airing on a Wednesday, for some unfathomable reason.  The first episode of six sees George's enthusiasm persuade his wife to agree to stake everything on a bank loan to buy a derelict stately home and turn it into a free-roaming zoo.  In time-honoured, TV-drama fashion, George triumphs against the odds and takes the first steps towards making his dream come true, with the slightly baffling support of a posh lady (Sophia Myles) and the interest of the local vicar (Stephen Campbell-Moore).  Peter Wight is his amiable dad Albert, rounding out a good cast, and the story is based on the founding of Chester Zoo.

The preview of episode two suggests that George gets off to a shaky start and may have bitten off more than he can chew with the residents of Upton.  We know he overcomes it, so no spoilers possible really, and no real tension either.  He has an amazingly precocious - for the time - 15-year-old daughter who has already tried to elope with the neighbour's boy, prompting bad CGI of a departing steamer.  It's not challenging stuff, then, and its 9pm weekday slot is probably not as good a fit as 8pm Sunday, but we think fans of Anne Reid and cheeky-looking camels will probably find it worthwhile tuning in.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Crimes of Passion

With the Brits busy imitating Skandi Noir (Hinterland, Broadchurch) here comes a Swedish crime drama owing far less to its countrymates like 'The Killing' and 'Wallender' than to quintessential Brit crime queen Agatha Christie.  There's even a sly reference by a character to 'Ten Little Indians' and the setting - an island where the guests at a Midsummer's Eve party in the 1950s are murdered one by one - is a definite homage.

'Crimes of Passion' is a new six-parter on BBC4's foreign crime slot on a Saturday evening, based on the 1940s/50s books by Maria Lang.  Our main character, Puck (Tuva Novotny) keeps a beady eye on the investigation like a young Miss Marple, attracting attention from the womanizing policeman Wijk (Ola Rapace) as well as her true love Einar (Linus Wahlgren).  All the usuals are here: an isolated, would-be idyllic setting and a cast of characters mired in various delusions and tortured relationships, plus the tongue-in-cheek knowingness that the most recent batch of Marples and Poirots all display.  The period setting adds glamour, of-course; no kitchen-sink grime to be seen, and what current drama is complete without a 21st Century preoccupation at the heart of the matter?

Nothing new, then, but good cosyish fun for a quiet evening in.

Friday, 8 August 2014


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


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.


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.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Dylan Thomas: a poet in New York

Tom Hollander is a genius.  He bears no more than a passing resemblance to poet Dylan Thomas, and to most viewers is more familiar in a dog collar as 'Rev', but within fifteen minutes is utterly convincing and, more, sympathetic as the gifted, spoiled, self-pitying alcoholic.  This takes his Big Apple trip in 1953 which proves to be his last, and interweaves just enough of his prime moments in life to give a real sense of the intense feelings that drove him to sublime heights of verse and terrible lows at the bottom of several bottles.  When it comes to drink and women, he just can't seem to help himself, and his fame and charm give him abundant access to both, much to the anger of his wife in Laugharne, Caitlin, and his mistress in New York.  This recreates early '50s NY on probably a fraction of 'Mad Men's budget and while some of the accents stray eastwards of the Atlantic and even of Wales, this remains a beguiling 80 minutes, and a fitting tribute to a flawed, fabulously gifted man who died at only 39.

Monday, 26 May 2014

From There to Here

Daniel (Philip Glenister) tries to reconcile his wayward brother Robbo (Steven Mackintosh) with their dad Samuel (Bernard Hill) over a drink in a central Mancunian pub.  Unfortunately for him, the truce fails and they are sitting feet away from the IRA bomb on the day it exploded in 1996.  Nobody dies, of-course, but it proves a catalyst in all their lives.  Before the end of the episode (one of three) Sam has had a stroke, Robbo has come up with not one but two insane plans to clear his debt and Daniel has begun an affair with the pub cleaner, whom he rescued from the wreckage.

This has nice moments but is mostly either predictable or unbelievable.  The use of northern staples the Stone Roses and the Smiths on the soundtrack is lazy and responsible Daniel's sudden need to escape from his close (adoptive) family into the arms of a stranger just doesn't ring true.  So far, this is largely a waste of a good cast, in-particularly Steven Mackintosh, who turns in an ill-advised imitation of the drug dealer in 'Withnail & I'.  If you like Madchester, and these are typical residents, you may like it a little less after watching this.

Sunday, 25 May 2014


John Banville's crime series hero could have been written for the lugubrious features of Gabriel Byrne.  We're in familiar territory, but noir with a capital N and handsomely mounted.  50s Dublin and 50s Boston probably never looked this good but who cares when it's 90 minutes of pure escapism and Byrne's craggy features?

Quirke is a man of mystery and lots of alcohol.  In common with his fellow crime protagonists he has no discernible first name, comes from shady origins and has suffered loss and loneliness.  He has enough of the Marlowesque about him to enliven proceedings, however, and this first of three feature-length tales starts very close to home, with Quirke's complicated family.  He finds his adoptive brother in his path lab late one night, forging a death certificate of a young woman, and this leads to a chain of violence and disclosure of old family secrets involving hidden identities and the brutal treatment of young, pregnant women.  From these basic ingredients, Banville's story weaves a mesmerising spell.  If the next two are as good as this, Quirke must be here to stay.

The Duchess of Malfi

As a piece of televised theatre this works far better than it ought to, considering the production is filmed in the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at the Globe in candlelight.  Gemma Arterton's Duchess perhaps lacks the gravitas of previous incumbents of the role, but is as young and vivacious as her character was written and the humour in the earlier acts is to the fore.

Webster's play is one of the best Jacobean revenge tragedies - which means one of the bloodiest - and encompasses passion, incest, madness and murderous violence.  The language is easier than Shakespeare for a 21st Century audience to understand and the theme of women's oppression as valid now as it was then.  Described as 'a theatrical event', it brings the play alive for a far wider audience than could cram into the theatre on the South Bank, and will no doubt be a good secondary experience of theatre for pupils stuyding for GCSEs and A-Levels.  Is it as good an experience as being in a theatre and seeing it live?  No, and could never be, but it's a brave attempt to recreate the original conditions for the audience, and has made us want to visit the Playhouse.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


Airing in the 'foreign drama' slot at 9pm on BBC4 is new bilingual Welsh crime drama 'Hinterland'.  It seems we're so hungry for vicarious crimes which are always solved (if not prosecuted) that we want endless variations; your techs can be Roman, Victorian or mid-20th Century; based in Glasgow, Connemara, Shetland or now... Aberystwyth.  This latest offering has the same sea'n'sky scenery, lowering clouds and sleazy seafronts that lend tales of gore some dramatic background, and it also has brooding lead Richard Harrington as Menzies, posted somewhat unwillingly, it's hinted, to an unexciting beat which quickly proves him wrong, yielding a tale of old tragedies and fresh killings.

It's certainly moody and atmospheric, but like many in the genre, the plotline seems to come second.  Our hero leaps around Devil's Bridge in the pouring rain chasing after a corpse, happening to spot a tiny necklace and crucifix pendant (what else) on a rocky ledge.  In the rain?  He must have x-ray vision and amazing grips on his shoes (we have been, we have slipped, and we stuck to the paths).  His team's investigation - oh yes and there's a nerdy junior, two squabbling women and a remote boss, while we're on the subject: a hardly unfamiliar combination - leads to a failing hotel which was once a children's home.  The top floor hasn't yet been renovated, and probably never will be, but while it may be empty and eerie, how likely is it that there would be case files, furniture, toys and even old cine-film of the former occupants?  This echoes a recent episode of 'Endeavour' which was also gloriously spooky, but had an unlikely attic of a girl's school still stuffed full of family relics from a century earlier.

The terrible revelations in the news over recent years about institutional abuse in children's care homes has inspired a number of crime dramas, to the point where it's already becoming a cliche, and while this was a sad tale, there were early clues to the culprit, who had a baby nobody saw or heard and a neat home.  There was also a schizophrenic old woman who had run the children's home in a sadistic manner (all in the name of Almighty G) but loved at least one boy as a son.

Not bad but not brilliant either.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Happy Valley

The title is an ironic nickname for a northern town where things are anything but.  Cop Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) leads the kind of life that lesser mortals would have ended swiftly with whatever came to hand.  Now her work life threatens to butt head-on with her personal life and things are looking bleaker than ever.

Sally Wainwright's recent 'Last Tango in Halifax' was a critical and ratings success, with astute scripts and performances from a collegiate and superior cast.  Gentle humour sprinkled a strong tale of rekindled love and family relationships that was sometimes very dark indeed, but the overall light and shade, affecting characters viewers cared about, made it a watch-or-record must.  Therein lies the first difference from her new series.  Sarah Lancashire plays hangdog so well she can darken any room in which she appears on screen, which is quite an ask for a whole hour.  Here, she even looks joyless while having furtive sex with her ex-husband (Derek Riddell).

The other main claimant on our sympathies is Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton) as a basically decent everyman whose moment of explosive anger lands him in deep, very dark waters.  There's a problem for us with Kevin, though, because his anger is directed at his boss Gallagher (George Costigan) for not giving him a payrise... to pay for his kids to go to public school.  He has a disabled wife, so maybe we should praise him for his honesty when he could have played on sympathy for her, but it's hard to feel for someone who plans to extort money via kidnapping an only child, just so his offspring can avoid a state education.   It's not the moral grey areas that are the main problem - they're what made 'Breaking Bad' so compelling after all - but the uneven tone.  There's something whimsical about Kevin, and about Catherine when she spills her life story to a stoned teenager on a housing estate (who may be about to unwittingly set himself on fire) but a story involving rape, suicide, kidnapping, drug deals and delinquency sits oddly with this kind of humour.

It's probably too early to judge the Valley, and it may settle into its stride as it moves forward.  This was very much a set-up episode where the main action happened in the last fifteen minutes.  We'll stick around for next week's, which needs nonetheless to offer more than this one has promised.


Cop Marcus Farrow (John Simm) is on the run, wrongly accused of killing his estranged wife Abi and younger son Max.  We’re back in well-trodden man-on-run territory here with all the TWNHs usual to the genre.  It starts off promisingly enough, with Simm regaining consciousness having landed upside-down in a road accident and escaping custody.  Flash back to 3 days earlier, and he and Heather Peace are very good as the parted couple feeling their way through post-relationship arrangements with very different feelings.  Reliable Craig Parkinson also turns up as Sean Devlin, an (initially) sympathetic fellow cop and friend of Marcus.  When Marcus turns up at his family home to find Abi stabbed and dying, however, things spiral out of control in more ways than one.

First, we are expected to believe that Marcus, a trained policeman, fails to call an ambulance for his fatally-wounded wife, having left his mobile phone in the car.  He later blames shock, which presumably also blocks out his memory of having a landline.  Shock must also account for his lack of concern for his two young sons, since he staggers to a ditch at the bottom of the garden and wallows in it, rather than wondering whether his children are ok and whether his wife’s killer might still be in the house.

Then there is the unsympathetic cop Reinhardt (Rosie Cavaliero), stalking her ex-partner’s new family and immediately hostile to Marcus when he is brought into the station.  Forget sympathy for a colleague, or questioning him as a witness first and foremost; forget good-cop, bad-cop even, since Benedict Wong as her colleague remains largely silent; no, Reinhardt is frozen-faced and interrogates Marcus as though he is the culprit, because there was no sign of a break-in and he was covered in blood.  The fact that he had keys to the house, that the victim could have let in the killer and that he tried to save his bleeding wife and so was obviously bloodied don’t seem to figure in Reinhardt’s logic.  She informs Marcus that his younger son was also found dead in the house, but that his elder son is safe with grandparents, but no explanation is given beyond this and no questions are asked.

This leads us to the escape, and more disbelief as a trained driver transporting prisoners is distracted by the ruckus between Marcus and another man in custody and manages to cause a spectacular crash.  Having escaped, with a biro embedded in his shoulder (no, we don’t believe it would be strong enough either), Marcus embarks on a fairly woolly quest to find the man he thinks is responsible for the killings (an informant on an old case who made an unsubtle threat to his family in a pub).  Hereby hangs another TWNH, since the prisoner in the van and another man in the above-mentioned pub have already heard of Marcus as ‘that cop who killed his own kid’.  So the crime was committed, he was arrested, charged and escaped and the case made the papers all in a couple of days?  And if so, why is he able to run around in his local area undetected, with his ‘disguise’ consisting of a stolen hoodie?  (The latter was stolen from a washing line, so his turning green and muscular when angry wasn’t out of the question either.)

Finally, when in the house of the suspected killer, he tries to call his surviving son, who believes he killed his mother, and then his boss, who doesn’t seem to have spoken up for his previous good character at all.  Who should arrive at this unlikely location but Sean, attempting to destroy the floppy disks which are evidence of the crime he and Marcus were originally investigating?  Cue a fight, in which the injured, slight-framed Marcus overcomes gangly Sean and escapes to fight another two episodes. ‘Line of Duty’ this isn’t, not least because unless they’re going into fugue-state territory, we know Marcus isn’t guilty, and while the former had some implausibles, this is simply absurd.