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.