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.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Generation War

When it aired in Germany last year it caused controversy, with its depiction of young middle-class Germans in 1941, a full 8 years after the Nazi ascendance, supposedly ignorant of what was happening in their country.  In 'Downfall', when Hitler's secretary says it was only later that she realised that it was "no excuse, to be young & not to know", we assume she meant willful ignorance.  This opens as 'Friends', transposed to 1941 Berlin, where five young Germans have a party in a cafe prior to two of them leaving for the Russian front: our narrator, Wilhem Winter, is a Lieutenant in the Wehrmacht artillery; his younger brother Friedhelm is serving reluctantly under his command; Charlotte, secretly in love with WIlhelm, has enrolled as a volunteer nurse; her friend Greta wants to be the next Marlene Dietrich but is having an affair with Viktor, a Jewish tailor.  Hmmm.  This does stretch credulity, if history books are to be believed.  The so-called Final Solution hadn't yet happened but Jewish communities were being rounded up, dispossessed and generally victimised - we are told that Viktor's family have lost their shop in the Krystallnacht atrocities in 1938 - so would Germans so openly fraternise?

Once the story gets going with its three strands on the Russian front, Berlin and at a military hospital, it becomes much more compelling, and more of a tale of the effects of war on every participant.  The Winter boys face the blitzkrieg triumph turning to a literally frozen stalemate as they winter within 100km of Moscow, having witnessed brutality against civilians and eventually participated.  In the hospital, Charlotte also makes choices with fatal consequences while back in Berlin, Greta compromises herself with a Nazi to help her lover escape.

It's not unfamiliar material, and the shock of these young people at what is going on around them isn't easy to believe after years of Nazi propaganda and education, but it is good, solid drama.  It also benefits from being a German production, both for an English audience who don't recognise actors from a soap or cop show, and because Germany has to tell its own history.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This

We approached Tommy Cooper with a feeling of dread.  It seems to be both a star vehicle for, and a pet project of, David Threlfall (in a false nose), and at two hours on a Bank Holiday Monday a bit of a vanity project.

As it turns out it was far better than it had a right to be.  Tommy Cooper's story isn't that well known - arguably he isn't that well known himself these days - and the story we were given of a love triangle over 15 years, tolerated by both the mistress, Cooper's wife, and the mistress's husband was very good.    In this respect it was a bit like the BBC's Hattie from 2008, where Hattie herself was in the love triangle, and her husband John Le Mesurier had to put up with it. 

As with Hattie, and all of the other films of this type (The Curse of Steptoe, Eric & Ernie) one major pitfall is how bad the performances of the supporting cast as other dead celebrities are, and how crass it is when they're introduced, given that the actors are rarely spitting images of who they're playing.  Tommy Cooper managed to avoid this by and large, with good performances by Bob Golding as Eric Morecambe, and Paul Ritter as Eric Sykes, and even Jordan Metcalfe as Les Dennis, but there were a couple of dodgy bits when they were introduced: 

Cooper walks into a bar: "Hello Eric, Hello Eric!"
Barman: "Alright Tommy.  What are you having, Mr Morecambe?  Mr Sykes?"

Overall though, the script by Simon Nye was very good, matched by the performances of Threlfall, Amanda Redman as his wife, Helen McCrory as the mistress, and Gregor Fisher as his agent.  So good in fact that it made you understand why they would put up with a miserly alcoholic who was always late.

The problem with dramas like this is that you always wonder if they'd have been better off filling the schedules with a documentary instead - I doubt a drama about Mel Smith could be as good as the tribute to him shown over Christmas for example - but in this case the acting and the writing dragged it through. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

Jamaica Inn

Windswept moors, smugglers and mangled west country accents, yes, we're in Du Maurier territory again for another remake of 'Jamaica Inn', starring Jessica Brown Findlay (dead Sybil Crawley from 'Downton') as Mary Yellan, the ingenue who 'bain't be from 'ereabouts' who must face cruelty, madness and Matthew McNulty on the Bodmin Road.

Ms Brown Findlay plays Mary less as naive waif than sulky teenager with a deprived childhood, while Sean Harris and Matthew McNulty reprise roles they seem to specialise in - laconic meanie and handsome rough diamond respectively - as Joss and Jem Merlyn.  For a rollicking, sinister tale, it takes a long time to get going.  Half an hour in and Mary's realised that the titular inn is barely upright in the evil wind blowing across the moor, and that it isn't a place to stay clean in any sense, but little else has happened.  Joanne Whalley, as jittery, broken Aunt Patience, gives an understated performance in what could (and often is) either an overplayed or deeply unsympathetic role, but at a third of the way through, a stay in the modern, standardised and deeply unexciting Jamaica Inn would be preferable to a stay with the Merlyns, and as du Maurier fans that's saying something.

And while we're on the subject, nor is the adaptation particularly faithful to the book, with Mary helping her uncle's criminal gang, albeit reluctantly, in receiving wrecked goods on the beach.  Women did lead hard lives, but Mary's active, physical participation in men's work of the day feels like a sop to a 21st Century audience.  She ends the episode morally compromised, having protected Jem and by implication her uncle, echoed by a tide line of mud risen from the hem of her skirt to her thigh.  It would have been better scheduled over the Easter break, which has been largely devoid of new drama, and would have been improved by better sound.  We aren't in our dotage, but half of the lines were muttered and thrown away, while the music blasted out loud and clear. 

Monday, 14 April 2014


Another long-ago crime comes back to haunt Claire Goose, whom we've hardly seen since she pitched off a balcony and through a windscreen in 'Waking the Dead'.  This is one of those short psychological crime thrillers that ITV does so unevenly.  Jane (Claire Goose) was a very young child when her mother was murdered in front of her by a man who was never caught.  Now grown up, and a mother herself, she sees the man she thinks was responsible, but he is a respected doctor (Peter Firth + beard).  However, she has a history of mental health issues and has abruptly stopped taking her anti-depressants.  When Dr Rawlins, aided by his solicitor daughter Emma (Christine Bottomley), has a DNA blood test which doesn't match blood from the victim's clothes, Jane's husband and even her supportive DI Alison Hall (Pippa Haywood) begin to doubt her convictions....

Any veteran viewer of these thrillers will know whether Rawlins is guilty, and needless to say the killer is given no specific motive for the murder, other than being generally violent and unpleasant.  Great cast, but a script that doesn't reward 100 minutes of viewing.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Crimson Field

2014, as the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, was obviously going to mean our screens were full of men in khaki and puttees, with women dressed as nurses amid a backdrop of mud, blood and stumpy trees.  The documentaries have always been compelling, the dramas less so.  This one has female leads - a sort of 'Call the Midwife' but without the babies or the NHS, and added bi-planes.

We follow a small group of new volunteers arriving at a field hospital in France, where we meet an escapee from 'Downton Abbey'.  It's quite apt, since this could well be 'Downton Abbey - the Missing Years' depicting Matthew and the other Downton menfolk at the front.  We feel qualified to say this, having read an account of a nurse's life at a field hospital in recent weeks.  Presumably the writers have read many similar accounts, and have taken the unvarnished truth and varnished it up with a coat of 'Tenko' (all women together in a "perfectly ghastly" war), another coat of the aforementioned 'Downton' and for good measure a finishing wax of just about any WWI depiction to date ('Upstairs Downstairs', 'Aces High', 'When the Boat Comes In', 'Wings'....).  This opener dealt with suspected cowardice, nascent understanding of shell shock, professional rivalries, class distinctions and the extreme youth of those involved - though the doctors' youth is unlikely to be an accurate portrayal: romantic potential in the absence of able-bodied soldiers perhaps?  Each of the characters comes replete with a backstory, of-course, so the tensions are all about whether Nurse Kitty (Oona Chaplin) is a suffragette or some other freakish sort of female; whether ridiculously naive, perfume-wearing Flora is under-age; and whether Rosalie really is an old maid who only joined the war effort to escape a dull life.  Oh and not forgetting whether Sister Livesey (Suranne Jones) is in fact a time-travelling flapper from the 1920s, with bobbed hair and a motorbike.

Confusingly, the original title for this was 'The Ark', which other than having a rather laboured relationship to a tale of a field hospital, presumably led viewers to think this was a televisual version of 'Noah', currently in cinemas.  The episode ended with patients returning to war, rebel Kitty accepted into the fold and one patient dead in anything but a peaceful manner.  Accounts of real nurses in the First World War tend to be understated, but have all the more impact for it.  This is a drama, so we expect a certain amount of conflation, but would volunteer nurses really arrive at a field hospital in France without even knowing how to make a bed?  We're not sure something so earnestly soapy does justice to their experiences.

Friday, 4 April 2014

New Worlds

This is the sequel to 2008's 'The Devil's Whore' which had a starry cast (Andrea Riseborough, Dominic West, John Simm, Michael Fassbender, Maxine Peake and Peter Capaldi, to name a few) and some well-phrased moments but was essentially a missed opportunity for original historical drama.  Freed from the constraints of a source text or a biopic, it featured a fictional character living through the turbulent years of the English Civil War, but the heroine, Angelica Fanshawe (then Andrea Riseborough, now Eve Best) took an improbably romantic journey through every major issue and player of the day.  The original drama left her back in her ancestral home, with a new baby daughter and an enlightened view of the world.

So, this wasn't exactly eagerly anticipated by us, and the synopsis of two parallel (and inevitable) romances taking place in England and America seemed to be aimed squarely at fans of Philippa Gregory.  Those fans won't have been disappointed.  Everyone looks impossibly lovely and clean (Dornan is a model, and with 'The Fall' is the only recognisable actor here, although Hope is played by Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert and Freya Mavor (Beth) was previously in the adaptation of Gregory's 'The White Queen').  Both 'worlds', England and Massachussetts, are depicted as lands of fierce struggle, against which backdrop our two pairs of lovers experience the sort of 'their eyes met...' epiphanies that have them changing the course of their lives in mere minutes.  There is clumsy exposition, to explain the back story, and equally clumsy visual symbolism with white nighties, fresh and copious blood, dark woods and bedraggled heroines.  The American chapter is basically a 'first of the Mohicans', complete with the spectacular, deliberate fall from a cliff and a scalping.

Most disappointing of all is the childlike black and white depiction of the English Civil Wars as simple struggles by the liberal and the poor against a wicked tyrant King who wants to rule without Parliament.  Charles II may have been other than a Merry Monarch to many of his subjects, but he's portrayed here as a virtual Caligula.  This seemed to have more in common with 'The Musketeers' than any serious adult drama, not least the very 21st Century women who take up arms and pursue their men with the zest of post-sexual revolution feminists.  Hard to believe that Flannery was responsible for 'Our Friends in the North'.