Friday 28 September 2012


'Homefront' is a bit like 'Soldier Soldier' with a war on and, therefore, no soldiers to speak of.  The only bombshells dropping on the families left behind are news from the front and the sort of incestuous revelations that come from institutionalised living.  It's a soap, basically, with women getting drunk and getting by while their men are fighting in Afghanistan.

Episode one had a death (and Wootton Bassett-style funeral: not sure we'd have been keen to watch if we lived there or had lost someone close), guilt, recrimination, possible infidelity, possible pregnancy and officer/NCO tensions.  All in 50 minutes.  Nothing very incisive or groundbreaking then, and the church service scene was straight from the dafter moments of soapdom, but it's average rather than terrible.

There will be those who disagree with this portrayal of squaddies and their families, or the fact that this doesn't address the wider picture of what the British Army are doing in 21st Century Afghanistan in the first place, but it's most likely to sit quietly in the schedules for the rest of its run.  Something for the faint-hearted, perhaps.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Room at the Top

A pleasure postponed after being pulled off air at the last minute for legal reasons last year, though having just seen Matthew McNulty and Peter Wight in 'The Paradise' this was unfortunate rescheduling.  This is one drama that flies in the face of Mark Lawson's alarum over the dominance of bonnets on the air.  Joe Lampton (McNulty) for those who haven't read Braine's novel or seen the 1957 film, is a working class anti-hero on the make, railing against the stultifying social codes of post-war Britain and taking his women wherever and however he finds them.  Think 'Alfie' with anger and less swinging, or Jimmy Porter with more sex and less vitriol.  Not a bonnet in sight, and very apposite in view of the current widening of the gap between the Lamptons and their supposed betters.

Not a green teacup, a marcel wave or a fluffy jumper out of place.

The Paradise

Prepare to suspend disbelief.  Emile Zola wrote 'Lark Rise to Candleford'.  If you don't believe it, you'll have to forget that Zola wrote the novel that 'The Paradise' is based on, because Bill Gallagher wrote both and the similarities far outnumber the differences.  Even the casts have names in common.  We are sure that this wasn't given a Sunday scheduling because 'Lark Rise...' fans would get confused.

Now don't get us wrong, one half of us quite liked the story of Laura Timmins and co. as comforting Sunday night fayre, and this is shaping up nicely to be equally camp and clunking.  Young Denise (Joanna Vanderham) fetches up from an erstwhile Lark Rise, arriving doe-eyed and clueless in a bigger, brighter version of Candleford's haberdashery store, which happens to be run by a handsome devil with dimples and a moustache which ought to twirl.  She may be naive, but by golly she's a natural!

If you don't know what happens next, you need to stay in more.  There's lots of frills, gossip, and snobbery, and so far no-one except Denise is better than they ought to be.  Forget Zola, or you'll be in trouble.  Think 'Lark Rise...' with a dash of 'Downton' and smidgens of what you've heard about the origins of Selfridges, Liberty, Whiteley's, Swan and Edgar and Fortnum.  Can't see this winning Emmys, or winning a new audience for heaving corsets, but it adds a warm hazy glow to autumn evenings.

Saturday 15 September 2012

The Scapegoat

Last night I dreamed I watched 'The Scapegoat' again... and woke up hoping that, should my double exist, I never meet her.  A little later than planned, we watched this one-off drama, based on a lesser-known work by Daphne du Maurier.  To get around the 1952 story showing its age, this is a sort of Jubilee tribute, set in the Coronation year and drawing parallels between the Queen who was never meant to be, and the usurper John Standing who makes a better fist of his double's life than the real Johnny Spence (both Matthew Rhys).

The Prince and Pauper storyline is a familiar one from fiction (Man in the Iron Mask) and partially in fact (the Titchborne Claimant) and is yet another programme badly trailed.  Instead of a lurid thriller, this was an old-fashioned story and while the premise is implausible, Sturridge and his cast have fashioned a decent drama from du Maurier's book.

The ending hints at its being an oblique metaphor for the abdication crisis having a happy outcome.  Even the pet goldfish is called Mrs Simpson, and dies, to be buried in a matchbox in the garden.  Which is probably a kinder slant than interpreting the moral more directly implied by a close-up of John/Johnny's eyes in the final frame: if you're doing a better job than the real thing, but the real thing wants their role back, it's allowable to dispose of them.  Hmmm.

Tuesday 11 September 2012


It's probably hard to advertise a drama about a married woman's affair with a much younger man without making it look both cliched and seedy, and the trailers for 'Leaving' did it no favours.  Some surprise, then, that rather than leaving (sorry, irrestible pun) at the first break, this proved watchable.

Helen McCrory has surely by now assumed the role once reserved for Helen Mirren and Barbara Flynn, that of the thinking man's cupcake.  Although as Julie, she might have spared a thought for her decent and not particularly dull hubby, who had reached a similarly comfortable groove in their marriage, the circumstances of the relationship were deftly written and if the coincidental meeting at the hospital was unlikely, it was a minor flaw in an otherwise unusually sensitive production.  It's written by Tony Marchant, proving yet again that without a good script, a so-so premise goes nowhere.

Aaron (Callum Turner) falls initially for Julie's love of her job, which rekindles his jaded emotions after his girlfriend has jilted him to marry his brother.  It's an unusual definition of a role model, but McCrory is perfectly cast as a spirited, passionate woman at the height of her powers, whose strengths are overlooked or taken for granted.

Oh and nobody got killed, which is refreshing.  Fingers crossed for the entire cast surviving the next two episodes.

Sunday 9 September 2012

The Bletchley Circle

If Susan Traherne, the disillusioned heroine of David Hare's 'Plenty' had only spent her war at Bletchley rather than with the SOE, she may have ended up well-adjusted enough to join her namesake (Anna Maxwell Martin) and chums in becoming a cross between Miss Marple and the Famous Five.

This was Ms Maxwell Martin's second TV outing of the week.  On Tuesday she was a compromised prison officer in a not entirely believable story from the 'Accused' series.  'The Bletchley Circle' stretched credulity far more.  It's 1952 and four plucky lasses who had helped crack codes, and therefore enemy heads, in WWII, are living unsatisfying lives on post-war rations.  So they do what any self-respecting ex-Bletchleyites would do and turn private detective.  Two of them have useless husbands, while two have jobs, and one has a couple of children, but these are no obstacles for the crime-busting brain-boxes.

Presumably this is ITV's attempt to catch the 'Call the Midwife' audience, with a circle of women in a man's world and a healthy dose of nostalgia.  The cosiness is jarred by childbirth, sex and poverty in 'Midwife', and by a serial killer here.  Yes, it's another misogynist who also happens to be a necrophiliac.  Sounds more CSI than anything by Christie or Blyton.  The clothes and hair have a similarly modern slant, with a patina of vintage chic, or drear, depending on the character.  This makes for an uncomfortable combination and inevitably the distinctly modern psychological profile approach feels wrong.

And what the hell was the scene with them using lipstick to draw a route on a map?  Dan suggests that maybe they didn't have pencils or pens in those days.  Ali thinks maybe it's making a point that these right-thinking-but-so-feminine gals would gladly sacrifice an expensive luxury like lipstick to save the world.  Or save some women anyway.  There's an unfortunate resonance with a recent EC advert to draw young girls into science, which featured sexily-clad lab assistants getting all experimental with the lipstick.  It was withdrawn within a day after a high number of complaints.

It's no disrespect to Anna MM, Julie Graham, Rachael Stirling or Sophie Rundle to say that it would take better actors to convince us.  We doubt those actors exist.  Too gory for Scooby-Doo, too cosily absurd for serious drama (more Rosemary and Thyme than... well, Midsomer Murders).  Quel dommage.

Thursday 6 September 2012

Mrs. Biggs

Britain in 1957 was so unutterably grim that dowdy bullion office worker Charmian Powell (Sheridan Smith) falls for cheeky chappy Ronnie Biggs (Daniel Mays) after a brief encounter on a train.  She learns he's a convicted criminal, works as a carpenter and lives with another woman, but still agrees to steal from her employer and run away with him.  He hits her, but still she stays.  Her dad is a bully and a bore, but the words 'frying pan' and 'fire' spring to mind.

The performances are as good as expected and the writing by Jeff Pope is competent enough but... an 80-minute episode slipped by before we even got to the so-called Great Train Robbery, and there are another four episodes, presumably of 50 minutes, to go.  We already know what happened, but do we care?  They weren't Robin Hoods, just thieves; not folk heroes, just criminals.  The drama doesn't appear to have anything interesting to say, probably because there's nothing more to be said.

Monday 3 September 2012

A Mother's Son

What do you do if your son's schoolmate is found killed and you find a pair of stained trainers under his bed?  Assume he's the killer while saying nothing at all about it, according to the latest offering from ITV.  Only in soapland are things this absurd.  "Did you do the washing?" asks mum Rosie (Hermione Norris) in a knowing way, before scouring the web and buying hydrogen peroxide to see if it fizzed when in contact with the suspect trainers.  The boy, Jamie (Alexander Arnold) has been acting strangely, moping about, possibly peeping at his mum's boyfriend's daughter Jess (Antonia Clarke) in the shower and downloading dodgy videos onto his laptop.  And there we were thinking that was typical behaviour for a teenage boy....

It's hard not to think that a top calibre cast (Martin Clunes as Rosie's boyfriend Ben and Jake Davies as his son Rob add to the good work here) could do so much more with a script centred around how a family copes with juvenile violence and criminality than they can with a ridiculously drawn-out 'did he/didn't he' scenario.

Mum eventually confides in her ex-husband, Jamie's natural father David (Paul McGann), but not before we'd shouted ourselves hoarse: "Just ASK him, you daft woman!"  Ex-hubby asks why she hasn't mentioned it to their son.  She says he's too fragile after the divorce to handle being suspected.  Because, obviously, the only way to broach the subject would be to say: "Did you kill that girl?!"  No wonder DC Upton (Nicola Walker) and the victim's mother Kay (Annabelle Apsion) look dazed and confused.

Saturday 1 September 2012

Good Cop

This new BBC1 prime-time four-parter had what is now standard lurid trailer treatment, with quick cuts of violence, anger, despair and love.  We tend to watch things despite trailers these days, not because of them, since similar ad offerings can result in anything from great (Line of Duty) to unwatchable (we'll be circumspect) tv.

The good cop of the title is John Paul Rocksavage (Warren Brown), who looks after his dad but once upon a time wasn't a great boyfriend to Cass (Aisling Loftus).  It opens with his having literal blood on his hands and in possession of a gun, and we then revisit his last eighteen hours.  Unsurprisingly he's had the Mother of all bad days.  By the closing credits, his partner and a lowlife called Noel Finch (the currently ubiquitous Stephen Graham) are both dead and he faces a three-way cat and mouse game with vicious criminals and DCI Costello (Mark Womack).

Gripping yes, but within the bounds of TWH?  We're not so sure.  The villains in question - sneering, brutal and downright nasty, so no grey areas here - appear being rowdy and offensive to a waitress in a restaurant, and then causing a disturbance in a rundown house complete with prostitutes.  Their motivation for ambushing and beating a policeman to death isn't clear, and as a criminal you would surely have one?  These are not teenagers high on drugs, and anyone more sober or experienced would be unlikely to target a uniformed officer, knowing that the penalty would be severe.  Then there are the coincidences: Rocksavage's three encounters with Finch and co. and his finding the bereaved mother he'd been called to earlier at the hospital in a city the size of Liverpool are just a little far-fetched.  Maybe there's some murky design going on here, and this one episode is good enough to keep the viewer watching until all is made clear, but hopefully there will be no more unlikely scenarios.  Wouldn't the scene of crime be manned day and night, for example?  It enables a crucial plot point and there's a throwaway line later about there 'not being a spare uniform' to secure the scene, but it felt like a TWNH nevertheless.

We hope the remainder of the series entertains, and asks pertinent questions about the nature of justice today, either of which requires believable characters in believable situations.