Friday 21 February 2014

The Smoke (spoilers)


It has been a while since the demise of 'London's Burning', a one-time soapy ITV staple alongside 'Peak Practice' and 'Soldier Soldier'.  Sky One have decided it's time for more everday tales of muscular, blokey men fighting fires, each other and their womenfolk.

Before we go any further, we must establish some pro-Jamie Bamber credentials... for one of us anyway.  No prizes for guessing who cried when his character breathed his last in 'Hornblower'.  We are talking a three-hankie misery-fest that no amount of chocolate could comfort.  Mr. Bamber was also responsible for turning outrage at a remake of 'Battlestar Galactica' (because what could be as wonderfully terrible as the original?) into - well, acceptance.  His 'Law and Order: UK' cop was probably the basis for his casting here.  The well-spoken actor was likeable London detective Matt Devlin, who caused more wet hankies when he was gunned down in the street.

OK, so here, as Kev Allison, he ditches understatement to play the brash fireman who wets those hankies in the first scene of the whole series, thanks to a fire on a housing estate.  It's a strong scene, and viewers are left in no doubt that Kev's suffering is thanks to the sort of penny-pinching cuts that are so prevalent in the UK and elsewhere now.  Still one TWNH though: we hear the baby crying, and from the reaction of the firemen, so do they, but it's unlikely when they are wearing helmets and other protective gear in the middle of a blazing inferno.

Fast-forward 9 months and it's Kev's first day back at work, and what a day.  Showing White Watch playing poker, eating donuts and watching porn may not be the stuff of great drama, but this is serious overkill.  Surely never in the history of firefighting did anyone have such a full-on, lousy first day back?  Our Kev starts by rescuing a woman from a car wreck and then tackles a fire on the very estate where he had his trauma.  Far from being pleased to see him, the occupants throw him out and the local kids run off with his jacket, triggering an uncontrolled, violent response.  Returning to the station, paranoid about an assailant who tried to kill him during the original fire, he is tracked by the dad of the woman he rescued: she died.  Then he's forced to talk to a counsellor (err, wouldn't this have been necessary before he was allowed to return as fit for duty these days, especially in view of his attempted suicide?) and then gets drunk before going to collect his medal and reveals all, literally, to the shocked guests.  His girlfriend Trish (Jodie Whittaker, who hasn't had much to do yet) has told his workmates, you see, that the burns have affected a rather delicate part of his anatomy....

The episode ends cutting between the crew going about their business and a reveal of just who the would-be killer is, setting things up nicely enough for future episodes.  But... the script was leaden, the characters cliched and one-dimensional and at least one of the cast was wholly unconvincing.  This wasn't Jamie, we hasten to add, although it has to be said that he is not the obvious choice for Kev.  Calling everyone 'sweetheart' or 'darling' and eating a McFlurry aren't sufficient to get us inside Kev's headspace and world in a way that would be more believable from an actor like Daniel Mays, for instance.  And shouting about 'ALPs' may be authentic but it's just frustrating for a lay audience 'til you work out what the hell the acronym stands for.  Maybe 'London's Burning' fans will feel at home with this, but we can't help thinking that far from setting the world afire, firefighting dramas are still treading water after a couple of decades.

Sunday 16 February 2014


Fleming is the new 3 part dramatisation of Ian Fleming's life up to the writing of Casino Royale.  It opens with Fleming and his wife swimming in Jamaica, then returing to Goldeneye, for him to finish the manuscript.  In this first five minutes you had the two main problems: first it's showing off its big budget Bond-ness in a pointless (but beautiful) underwater scene, and then the final line, "The bitch is dead now" being typed out, clunk, clunk, clunk....

Ideally this would be like a 'wartime James Bond' - surely someone must have pitched this - but since Fleming wasn't Bond himself (Bond was more a composite of many agents that Fleming had met - Sydney Cotton, Fitzroy Maclean, Dusan Popov and others) instead we get a series that joins the major dramatic dots in Fleming's life, close to accounts like Andrew Lycett's Ian Fleming.

Acting and dialogue is fine within these parameters, and it's not for us to say TWNH, because these things did happen, but we can definitely say TWNH to scenes like Fleming walking into Admiral John Godfrey's office and giving an elevator pitch for two ideas in 30 seconds, one of which was Operation Mincemeat

Another problem is that Fleming wasn't likeable or even sympathetic, except maybe as an overshadowed younger brother.  The final problem is that it's just not very interesting or watchable. 

Fleming wasn't Bond, but was a genuine war hero, and there could have been a good, shorter drama if it had focussed on things like Mincemeat, but it's too concerned in showing the details of his personal life, while making visual nods to Bond at every opportunity.  We won't say  it's shaky and not stirring, we'll stick with it's a shame.

Friday 14 February 2014


A homegrown cop drama on Channel 5?  Unlikely but true.  What makes this slightly different to the usual product is that the camera is hand-held (or appears to be) and the cast are improvising.  This gives the story of an abducted toddler a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel which is at once believable and discomforting.  Believable because it unfolds much as you'd imagine a real case would, with no sharp and clever lines and no amazing coincidences that solve the case for them, but discomforting because this is fiction, peopled by actors, presented as vérité.  Yes, we know that describes all drama to an extent and yes, Lars von Trier fans will applaud, but is dramatising a case of child abduction in this way somewhat tasteless?

Each episode deals with a case in 45 minutes including breaks, which thankfully allows no time for the usual buddy banter or sexual undertones down at the station and relates well to the unspectacular nature of most real crimes.  Television drama now features ever-more baroque explanations and/or resolutions, from 'Midsomer Murders', where it was always a specialty, to 'Lewis' and 'Gently'.  Having a straightforward story makes this refreshing, but even to solve a case such as this in reality might take several days or weeks, so despite the shaky camera and the unrehearsed lines, this is still speeded up and played out for the screen.  Inevitable, yes, but then that's what makes the attempt to take the illusion one step further than the average drama so disconcerting.