Thursday, 30 April 2015

The Game

Have I Got News For You?

Cold War spies, you know the ones: Bond, Smiley et al.  This BBC2 apple hasn't fallen far from the tree.  The title sequence has an espionage montage set to twanging, mournful Ipcress File-alike tones.  Already there's been a tense stand-off, whisperings of a trap and a killing.  So begins our induction into the world of Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), rising young star of MI5 in drab 1972 Britain. Model-pretty Joe works for an old dog of a boss known ironically as 'Daddy' (Brian Cox) and who may or may not be losing his powers.  A KGB defector has passed word about Operation Glass and now the race is on to find out what it involves.  A traitor is killed, and another, sending shivers through the team.  Daddy's deputy Sarah Montag (Victoria Hamilton) says there must be a mole among them: mummy's boy Bobby Waterhouse (Paul Ritter), her own husband, nerdy Alan (Jonathan Aris), police liaison DC Jim Fenchurch (Shaun Dooley) and admin Wendy Straw (Chloe Pirrie).

In other words, classic spy drama territory.  Is our boy Joe all that he seems?  Another murder puts this in doubt and there are five more episodes which we expect will be a taut, switchback ride.  If you like your spies more Smiley, i.e. in rather murkier moral and physical territory than Bond, then this is for you: clipped remarks, damp dark streets, the fug of cigars and cut-glass tumblers of brandy in the firelight (well, the miners' strike meant power cuts, you know) while men called Sergei run about with guns.  A refreshing dose of realism after the pre-election debate.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Safe House

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Code of a Killer

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 April 2015


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

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

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

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

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