Monday 30 September 2013

By Any Means

To call this drama original would be stretching it somewhat.  Ever heard of a crack unit of crime-fighters who work 'in the shadows'?  Yes, we've heard it all before too, several times, and with varying success.

Taking its title, rather improbably, from Jean Paul Sartre (by way of Malcolm X) the team works outside the law, as a squad of fixers who can get the right thing done when the baddie seems to either have a cast iron alibi, or a good enough legal team who can keep him out of the clutches of the law.

Two episodes in, and it's very formulaic.  Helen Barlow (Gina McKee) briefs Jack Quinn (Warren Brown) on a miscarriage of justice, and asks him to sort it out (a bit like in Charlie's Angels).  Jack goes back to the team, and they decide how they are going to proceed, each using their special skills (a bit like in Pimp My Ride).  The plan progresses with a few slip ups until the crook has been tricked into incriminating himself, and is caught (a bit like in Scooby Doo).

It's perfectly watchable, within these constraints, but maybe the most interesting thing is that IMDB says that it's filmed in Birmingham, given the number of shots of classic London landmarks like The Gherkin.  The director's shown real skill and imagination in weaving these in - if only there was the same s&i shown in the script.  

I'm not sure how confident the BBC is in this.  It's been scheduled against Downton, when the Spooks slot on Monday evening would have been a better idea,  so maybe the writing's on the wall for it already.  

One final point: we want more John Henshaw!  Give him more to do - IMDB says he's only in two series of this - and craft a series (drama or comedy) around him.  He's the next David Jason and the next Bryan Cranston rolled into one.  Why can no one else see this?

John Henshaw - the next David Jason *and* the next Bryan Cranston

Saturday 14 September 2013

The Peaky Blinders *spoilers*

Well spotted that the smooth-looking Cillian Murphy doesn't feature in the above line-up.  This 'based on true events' series follows on from the gangs-are-sexy ethos that inspired 'Gangs of New York' in the cinema and more recently 'Ripper Street' on TV.  Well, they do say the police is the biggest national gang in any country....

The first problem is the accent.  To viewers who are Brummies, the actors make a decent stab at best, and at worst, stabbing would probably be less painful.  To non-Brummie viewers, it's almost incomprehensible and sounds like they're taking the p***.

Then, what is this trend for interpreting late 19th and early 20th Century England in terms of the Wild West?  Lawless elements and beleaguered policeman who cross the line are hardly the same as frontier towns under threat from bounty hunters and Indians.  So, twanging guitars and a modern thumping beat for good measure seem out of place.  The streets are suitably filthy, but the inhabitants have a neat dividing line between the extras, who are also filthy, and the main characters - Peakies, police and pretty young women - who are smart and clean.  There's also something in the hairstyles and clothes that is more 2013 than 1919.  Yes, we know it's a drama, but it seems patronizing, or cowardly, or perhaps just lazy, to assume that the audience wants something that places a drama set in 1919 firmly in the here-and-now.

The other thing that makes this contemporary is its inclusion of Chinese and Italian communities, and a black preacher.  They were about in Birmingham to be sure (as the Irish characters say) but whether they are all relevant to the plot or just window dressing is anyone's guess.

Nonetheless, this first episode sets the scene nicely enough.  WWI veteran Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has ambitions for his family and his gang while senior copper Sam Neill arrives in the city determined to stop them in their tracks.  Strong roles for women, with Helen McCrory a brilliant-as-steel matriarch Aunt Polly, but the wilful Ada (Sophie Rundle) and especially the undercover cop Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), who is set up as a love interest for Tommy in the corniest way possible, seem like characters from a modern soap rather than the inter-war midlands.   Oh and Andy Nyman is a convincing younger Churchill and deserves a mention for his one scene.

Overall, handsomely mounted and enough of interest to keep watching, but suspect this is style over substance.

The Wipers Times

Typically British, we struggled with the nuances of foreign languages.  Ypres?  What sort of nonsensical word is that?  Wipers will do.  This 90-minuter co-penned by Ian Hislop about two of his favourite subjects - WWI and satire - is a nicely-focused piece about a newspaper printed at the front on a salvaged printer (which seems to work better than any modern domestic counterpart, even after a direct hit) for the troops in the trenches.  The content is brought to life in sketches acted by the soldiers which surprisingly doesn't slow the narrative.  Its tight focus precludes much of the grim business of war, but the writers take knowledge of the conflict as a given, in much the same way as their WWI counterparts did.  Which is rare and nice.

We didn't know about the Wipers, and aren't entirely ignorant of the Great War, so this was another rare thing: a genuinely educational drama.  Clearly the paper became a lifeline for many of its readers and most of all for its writers, who combated the ongoing insanity that surrounded them with humour.

Friday 13 September 2013


If dystopian narratives are your thing, then this one-off drama is for you.  The title gives it away: the UK suffers a week-long failure of the national grid and here for your delectation is what would happen.  Well, it's a version of what might happen, which is dark in the extreme.  The mobile phone/digicam footage supposedly collaged from those who experience this chaos works well, and the footage is all too believable thanks to judicious use of real news clips of violent protests, traffic tailbacks and the 2011 riots.  Our hesitation in recommending is for the utter nihilism portrayed.  Would things be rosy?  Almost certainly not, but there would doubtless be a great many people who stayed at home, coped on rations and helped their neighbours.  No sign of that here.  And that contrasts with the copout about the cause of the disruption, attributed to 'cyber-hackers' who somehow blow the whole country's power.  We can believe that backup measures aren't what they should or could be, but a seven-day outage is more likely to be caused by a lack of fuel.

Friday 6 September 2013

The Guilty

Aliens browsing our TV archives in the future will probably deduce that child abduction and murder was extremely common in the early 21st Century.  In the wake of 'May Day' and 'Broadchurch', not to mention 'The Killing', to name but three recent examples, comes this, a three-part ITV drama with Tamsin Greig as DCI Maggie Brand, investigating the discovery of little Callum Reid's body, five years after his disappearance.  It's another skeletons-in-the-community story, this time a smart riverside estate, which switches between 2008 and now.  Mother Claire (Katherine Kelly) copes with an errant husband and a reluctant stepson while the DCI is herself a mother of a troubled young son.  Then there's the object of Mr. Reid's interest - and seemingly every other male on the block - blonde and flirtatious neighbour Teresa, and the suspicious au-pair Nina and her unpleasant boyfriend.

To say this is cliched is pointless.  A murdered child is likely to engender similar reactions in any situation, and while truth may be stranger than fiction, something wide of the mark in a drama is just going to be unbelievable.  Hence, the grieving mother, the sexual secrets, the setting up of many suspects etc.  It's mostly well done, such as the opening sequence of Callum in 2008 and the 2013 call to the helpline for the missing child, which establishes the premise in seconds without having to tell us anything.  Then there are the inevitable lazy moments.  A BBQ in 2008 features music that was probably in a compilation 'Hits of 2008'.  We've said this before, but does nobody in TV dramas listen to anything but current pop?  And while we're on the subject of soundtrack, the sad piano refrain denoting Claire's memories as she wanders around his empty bedroom crying is unnecessary.  What else would she be but grieving?

Other than portraying us a nation and perhaps a world of selfish adults, unfit to be around our children, the gist of all these dramas seems to be that small communities of any kind should be avoided at any cost.