TV Review – The Night Manager, The X-Files, Fresh Meat

nightmanager

Combined Harvesters

Unlike most TV reviewers, I’ll admit that I haven’t read War and Peace so wasn’t in a position to criticise the BBC’s recent lavish adaptation for sexing up Tolstoy. When people who had actually read War and Peace pointed out that all that sexy stuff was right there in the book, it was just the latest in a long list of things where TV reviewers overreached. You’ve got to have a broad knowledge to review TV, as the letters of corrections pouring into Private Eye every issue attest.

Noting all that, I will risk saying that I have read John le Carre’s novel The Night Manager but it was a while ago and just about the only thing I remember of it is that Richard Roper, the memorable villain of the book, was not played by Hugh Laurie. Replacing War and Peace in the prestige Sunday night slot is an adaptation of The Night Manager (Sundays, BBC1), starring Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper.

To be fair to Laurie he didn’t think he would be playing Roper either. This adaptation has been so long in the gestation that Laurie aged out of the role he wanted to play, the titular hero and manager of night, here played by the suitably age appropriate Tom Hiddleston. Whilst most people in this country still associate Laurie with roles like Bertie Wooster and the various Georges from Blackadder, Laurie has spent the intervening years not making The Night Manager polishing his anti-hero chops on US show House, a modern day adaptation of Sherlock Holmes done when such a thing wasn’t fashionable.

Laurie doesn’t appear for the first half of the first episode of The Night Manager but his presence is felt, and it’s not a cuddly one. Tom Hiddleston is managing night in a hotel in Cairo during the Arab Spring. He’s very efficient at managing night. “I have several guests extremely keen to leave,” he whisps into a phone as riots and people putting down said riots hit the hotel walls.

He’s just as efficient at attracting female attention. Gangster’s moll Aure Atika wants his bones and she knows exactly how to get them; by photocopying and passing him eyewateringly dangerous documents of recent arms transactions regarding her boyfriend and Mr. Roper, whom she calls the “worst man in the world”. Hiddleston and Atika do get to sleep together but only after she’s had seven bells knocked out of her and they’ve had to escape to a secret safe house.

The documents eventually make their way to Olivia Colman, who you know is a good guy because she’s wearing a chunky cardigan and because she’s, well, Olivia Colman. But they’ve also passed through the hands of David Morrissey, who may as well have Roper’s Tool printed on his forehead. Morrissey works for “The River House”, AKA MI6 in John le Carre’s world, the Circus now having been relocated. Colman works for something called the International Enforcement Agency and, unlike the inhabitants of the River House, sees it as her job to bring down dangerous arms dealers. “Oh yeah,” Colman’s Colman to Morrissey, “instead of putting handcuffs on him let’s give him a seat in the House of Lords”.

Inevitably, Atika winds up dead on the floor of Hiddleston’s hotel. “It was burglar. Crazy burglar,” adjudges the local plod, who also has a mysteriously absent Roper’s Tool tattooed on his forehead. Four angst-ridden years later and Hiddleston is now managing a different hotel’s night, this one in Switzerland. He notices that a late booking has just come in for a R. Roper and the fires of revenge burn in his eyes. Actually, being Tom Hiddleston, he just looks shifty. He spent three Marvel films looking shifty and it’s stuck.

Finally, late at night (it’s got a manager, thanks) enter Laurie via helicopter as the Most Dangerous Man in the World (author’s capitals). “So pleasing to wake up the fucking Germans.” No man who hates the Germans can be all bad, surely. He arrives with a full entourage including some minor royalty and a too-young-for-him girlfriend who is fucking enormous. Seriously, she would trouble chandeliers in ballrooms. Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston are pretty tall chaps but she makes them look like Tom Hollander. It’s unfortunate that the same Tom Hollander is also part of the entourage, as the man Laurie gets to sign everything, although he often struggles to reach up to the desk.

Hiddleston may have the burning acid of revenge seething through his veins but he’s also a highly efficient Englishman, so his revenge is very polite. He photocopies more of Laurie’s documents (not since the transfer window closed has there’s been more photocopying) and passes them onto Olivia Colman again. Because she’s Olivia Colman (a noticeably pregnant Olivia Colman at that) she gets to the point. “Why does a respected hotelier risk his career by snitching on his guests” Hiddleston seems most annoyed that Laurie is English and it offends his patriotic pride that an Englishman would do such things. Surely foreigners are the better people to handle illegal arms deals?

And there is the problem with The Night Manager. It’s an old book now – over 20 years old – and it’s author is even older (very rarely are authors younger than the books they write). Spy stories have moved on a bit since David Cornwell was photocopying things in Bonn in the fifties and thinking of switching careers. Hiddleston’s old-fashioned patriotism and Colman’s terrier-like want to do right seem awfully out of place in a show that also includes the terminal head-scratcher that is the Arab Spring and its after-effects. But Laurie is very good as the villain, tossing about obvious euphemisms such as “combined harvesters” as he controls very high-powered and behind-closed-doors meetings. Sadly the role has been essayed before, by Ray McAnally in the BBC’s adaptation of A Perfect Spy, based on the life of Le Carre’s shyster father. He has a lot of daddy issues.

When it was announced that The X-Files (Mondays, Channel 5) would be returning in TV form, shrugs broke out across the land, pausing only to wonder why such a thing was necessary. Two episodes of this very short season did very little to dispel the air of general insignificance but then this week’s episode arrived.

The thing is, The X-Files was never really about ball-aching season-long arcs about shadowy government conspiracies. That was what was used to smuggle the truly great episodes through: the one-off silly episodes that also spake great truths that were very much not out there. Vince Gilligan was a natural at these, before he went on to create Breaking Bad, but even he would acknowledge the true master of them: Darin Morgan.

Morgan wrote only four episodes of the original series of the X-Files, and very little of anything else, but what exists are widely regarded as some of the best episodes of television ever made. Little one-offs rampant in silly shenanigans, unreliable narrators and deep truths about the nature of humanity. So anticipation was high when it was announced that one of the new episodes would be written by him. And he didn’t disappoint.

Mulder and Scully investigate a were-lizard played by Rhys Darby. The twist being that he is a lizard who was bitten by a man. Darby finds it surprisingly easy to get on in the world of humanity, getting a job in a smartphone shop straightaway and managing to become manager by the end of the day. And that’s before we get to the transexual hooker, the peeping tom hotel manager, the paint-sniffing couple and a serial killer so boring Mulder and Scully immediately cut off his big speech. And for the ladies, David Duchovny once again wears the red speedos once sported on a classic episode of The Simpsons. Anyway, stop reading this now and go and watch it. It’s on the (surprisingly good) Demand Five.

Fresh Meat (Mondays, Channel 4) returned for a fourth and final series, a good job as the cast members are starting to resemble lecturers rather third year university students. Having spent the previous two years alternately getting twatted/sleeping with each other/sleeping with their professors/putting dental drills through people’s faces/killing legendary poets, our Friends-a-like gang of housemates finally realise they will have to get down to work for their Finals.

This impetus arrives in the form of Jack Whitehall’s brother, a character disconcertedly resembling our beloved Prime Minister. Writers Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong might have thought it a proper wheeze to write down ‘he looks and sounds exactly like David Cameron’ but to actually get that on the screen is the casting decision of the year. Congratulations to whoever cast the spot-on Richard Goulding in the part.

The gang respond to the sudden need to get down to work by naturally going on a “last” bender; almost literally in Whitehall’s case as he lays out his many intentions for this day, including wanting to go to “the gay village and get fucked by a load of really great guys.” Enlightenment comes elsewhere, as he realises he doesn’t want to follow his hyper-worked brother’s “5 to 9” life. Since his only career ambitions are “something to do with lions” or drawing penises, it’s fair to say he would much rather stay a student for the rest of his life.

I wish all the gang could stay students. Oregon, Josie, Kingsley, JP, Vod and Howard, “the Fritzl of revision”. But they’ve all got more grown-up and lesser sitcoms to do.

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Tiny Article – Hannibal and Gore

In the absence of Elementary I’ve been catching up with Hannibal, the TV version of Serial Killer thrillathons The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon et al.

It’s quite a remarkable series, simply because it’s on one of the US’s three mainstream channels. CBS, ABC and NBC have long dictated how the American viewing public absorb their televison, right back to the 50s. And Hannibal (on NBC) feels like something has shifted. Not necessarily for the better.

As long as these big three networks have existed, it’s been known that you can’t do certain things on them. No swearing. No sex. Maybe some family-friendly violence.

Hannibal features a whole lot of violence. And a lot of gory stuff. In fact some quite repulsive gory stuff, the sort that will make you barf in your cornflakes and make you curse that you’re equipped with eyes. But swearing and sex? Nope.

Which makes me wonder about the American mentality. Over here we swear and have sex on TV quite regularly, provided it’s after the famed watershed. We trust our adults to know what’s what

In the US late night talk shows like the Daily Show regularly bleep out even the mildest swear words, even though it’s well gone eleven.

Who’s the more well-adjusted culture to do you think? Ah, let’s have another naked woman impaled on a stag’s antlers.

Cartoon – Beatles 1967

Beatles1967

Cartoon – Vivian Stanshall

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Cartoon – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

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Cartoon – The Rolling Stones

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TV Review – Heading Out, Parks and Recreation, Girls, The Big Bang Theory, Only Connect

Heading Out

Quirksome

Despite the many obvious problems, I love Sue Perkins. She was the host of one my favourite ever radio shows, The 99p Challenge. She effortlessly held her own, anchoring a quite complicated panel game populated by some heavyweight comedy names. Sadly, the writers wanted to move onto bigger things. This turned out to be the sitcom Hyperdrive on BBC2. No, of course you don’t remember it; it wasn’t any good.

In truth, The 99p Challenge  probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway, since it was centred around two comedians who very quickly went on to much bigger things. One of them was Armando Iannucci, who immediately went on to create The Thick Of It, the first step towards movies starring James Gandolfini and HBO series starring Julia-Louis Dreyfus.

The second comedian was Simon Pegg, who was just making Shaun of the Dead and well on the path towards being Tom Cruise’s sidekick. It’s hard to imagine these names making regular appearances on Radio 4 these days, although Benedict Cumberbatch still racks up for radio sitcom Cabin Pressure despite being Pegg’s arch-enemy in the next Star Trek film.

Anyway, back to Sue Perkins. Despite the not-too-distant-future comedy powerhouses surrounding her (which also included Miranda Hart) Sue Perkins was constantly quick and funny throughout; a new star. 10 years later, during which time she mostly ate cake on The Great British Bake Off, she’s finally got her own show.

Heading Out (BBC2) is the show in question, off-puttingly described as “her quirky new comedy” by the continuity announcer. It’s very much a quirksome show tailored to Perkins’s personality, being as it is written by her and features her playing a slightly fictionalized of herself. If you don’t like Sue Perkins, you won’t like Heading Out. Theoretically.

She plays a vet and in the first episode she has to deal with a dead cat. Perkins is at least professional (“Your cat is essentially a windsock”), although, because she’s in a sitcom, she has to carry the thing around in a plastic bag all day. The second episode featured an even hoarier old trope, the paintball weekend. Ever since Spaced (Simon Pegg again) all sitcom characters have to run around a forest in army fatigues and goggles.

Perkins has wacky friends, including Dominic Coleman as the requisite gay one and Nicola Walker as the requisite stupid one. There are even wackier guest stars, this week headed up by impressively mustachioed comedian Tony Law. As a co-worker tries to explain to a clueless Perkins, Law is a “Dutch Kung Fu champion. You know. He was in Raw Meat? Purge? The Assassinator?”

Thicko Walker naturally knows who he is, further filling out his filmography: “Tank Baby? Dark Crevice? Blow Off? Massive Metal Trousers? Infinite Overkill? Fizzy Fist?” What’s notable is that it isn’t Perkins saying these titles: she’s the straight (oh the irony) woman around which funny things happens. She’s the buzzkill at the centre of her own show.

Her old panel game pal Miranda Hart never made that mistake, and if the BBC is hoping to get another Miranda then Perkins needs to give herself more pratfalls. Or just give herself anything remotely funny to do. As those who’ve heard her on Radio 4 can attest, Sue Perkins can usually gather laughs easily. On Heading Out, you wonder why she’s there.

Equally mistaken once, but for going too far in the opposite direction, was Amy Poehler, the American Sue Perkins. She was a big star on soul-suckingly temporary gig Saturday Night Live. Parks and Recreation (BBC4) was her first American TV solo effort. Now being shown on terrestrial TV for the first time, and having watched some later episodes, I know that Poehler later toned it down a bit.

She had to. In the first episode she arbitrarily falls into a pit – take that Miranda. In the second episode she desperately fancies a sleazy co-worker called Mark (“Mark and I made love once. And it was intense”). Poehler evangelically wants to build a new park over the afore-mentioned pit, but her attempts to publicise her scheme backfire in an incompetent interview with a young female journalist.

Unwisely (a word that could be used often throughout Parks and Recreation), Poehler asks Mark to smooth things over with the journalist. She’s the last to twig exactly how he smoothed things over with the attractive journo. “I think Shauna is being a little unprofessional. She got here 15 minutes late, she’s wearing the same dress as yesterday and she had to get a ride from…” It goes unsaid but the word she’s reaching for is ‘Mark’.

He doesn’t help either by telling the journalist that the park that Poehler desperately wants to build over the pit is “never, ever getting built.” Turns out Mark just wanted to keep the journalist in bed but Poehler doesn’t see it like that, for some reason. In the end, he apologises to Poehler and is welcomed back to the planning sub-committee, which doesn’t seem to thrill him as much as it does her.

After seeing later episodes, it’s important to watch out for the supporting characters, particularly Nick Offerman’s moustachioed boss, a hardcore conservative who represents that peculiar Republican mentality of hating government so much he got elected to it. In the first few episodes of Parks and Recreation, Amy Poehler is unaccountably thick for someone in such a job, like Sue Perkins being unaccountably straight.

Let’s hope Perkins follows Poehler’s example and gets a second series to learn from her mistakes. If the BBC will let her; Heading Out looks expensive so she probably hasn’t got a chance. I still like Sue Perkins. Just not her show, which she probably spent years working on. Sorry Sue.

Perhaps another model Perkins should have used is that of Girls (Sky Atlantic), but she would need a dark, dark soul that I don’t think she possesses. Girls takes the basic model of Sex and the City, removes the money, the clothes and any human decency and dares you to watch it. One of the four twenty-something girls of the title isn’t even in it anymore.

This has left its writer, director and star Lena Dunham on her own, as she doesn’t see much of her other two friends anymore either. Instead, she’s facing the prospect of writing a long article for an editor who is frustratingly vague in what he wants. When he finally comes up with an airy subject of ‘sexual failure’, Dunham leaps into action. “I did have sex with a teenager last month and I’m willing to talk about it.”

But as an OCD victim of procrastination, Dunham ends up plucking splinters out of her ass and sticking cotton buds in her ears until they get stuck. On a trip to the emergency room, she bumps into her moronic ex-boyfriend. Dunham’s story having ended, we follow this ex-boyfriend and this is where things get really dark. Seeing Dunham inspires him to get plastered and all but rape his new girlfriend.

Director Dunham spares nobody in what is a pretty hardcore (in every way) scene. Girls often gets called controversial, but the outrage was  more to do with the un-model-like Dunham’s constant nudity. In recent episodes, she seems to have said, ‘You don’t know controversial. I’ll give you controversial.’ Please don’t go to this place, Sue.

Any other American ‘comedy’ would be decidedly fluffy by comparison, and The Big Bang Theory (E4) is no stranger to the paintball weekend. But we need a palate cleanser after Girls and at least we get one of the best sitcom characters to emerge in recent years. Not OCD nerd (OCD is a big thing on American comedy shows) Sheldon but his ‘girlfriend’ Amy, played by Mayim Bialik. Her disconnect from real life matches Sheldon’s so they’re a perfect couple, even if they don’t have sex.

This week Amy is still trying to adapt to remotely normal society and attempting to persuade Sheldon to go to a Halloween party as a matching couple. “There are certain things that say to the world, ‘I have a boyfriend.’ Matching costumes, hickeys and sex tapes.” Since there’s no chance of the latter two Sheldon finally agrees although she balks at his suggestion of going as C-3P0 and R2-D2. Eventually they compromise and go as Raggedy Ann and Raggedy C-3P0.

“Oh brilliant,” wailed David Mitchell on hearing a discreet chime on a special Comic Relief edition of Only Connect (BBC4). His teammates looked baffled. “It means it’s the MUSIC round,” the tin-eared Mitchell bemoans, thereby proving he regularly watches his wife’s show. Being married to Victoria Coren didn’t help: he still lost by eight points.

(Edit: this article was amended to remove a bit of poorly researched writing on my part. I won’t do it again.)

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