TV Review – Parade’s End, Inspector George Gently, Jennifer Saunders: Back In the Saddle

Potty and Piggy

The BBC have been bowling unreadable googlies in the first wave of their Autumn drama schedule. What should be a prestigious drama is actually a zany comedy and what should be a fuzzy nostalgic wallow in yesteryear is a serious portrait of race relations.

First, the wacky comedy. Parade’s End (BBC2) follows the hilarious antics of a Tory statistician played by Benedict Cumberbatch as he pratfalls between two women and a bestiary of bizarre supporting characters. Channel 4 must be looking green with envy, as Parade’s End tops almost anything they served up for Funny Fortnight.

Paris 1908. The Great War is just around the corner, as is Panama’s independence from Columbia. Cumberbatch is not happy to be in the City of Light, as he’s embarking on a marriage with the thoroughly unsuitable Rebecca Hall. To prove how unsuitable she is, she shags a married man with a moustache the night before the wedding. But Cumberbatch has to go through with it because she’s pregnant (“trapped by a papist bitch carrying a baby”). Even though he’s not sure he’s the father, he’s such a decent, honourable chap that he’ll Do The Right Thing. Such is our straight man set up for the many red-nosed trouser droppings to follow.

Cumberbatch is from Yorkshire. We know this because his disapproving mother disapproves of Hall because she’s not from Yorkshire and by lowering his voice a bit. Otherwise, he sounds more like Geoffrey Howe than Geoffrey Boycott. Married life is palling as he has a wife who hates him. As she says to her live-in mother, “Do you know what he’s doing? He’s making corrections in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I could kill him and no jury would convict me.”

Eventually Hall leaves him for the married man in the moustache (who is called Potty), and Cumberbatch takes his anger out on his witless political masters, who are practically pond life compared to his superior intellect. “Angry with his wife I suspect”. One of them is played by Roger Allam with a huge moustache and Colonel Blimp-like waistline. He understands Cumberbatch’s marriage completely, “she’s a splendid girl, straight as a die.”

He also understands the burgeoning suffragette movement (“they say they’re all whores”) and is not at all pleased when a pair of the examples he so disdains invade his round of golf. However, stiff Cumberbatch is smitten with one of the girls, who are being chased by a whistle-blowing policeman straight from a Jeeves and Wooster story. As it turns out, he already knows this “Wannop girl” (Adelaide Clemons), who he helps to escape.

But Hall wants her man back, despite wanting to “shake some reaction out of that lump.” As she tells Potty, the married man in the moustache, “he’s spoiled me for every other man in London.” Potty is not happy about this and pulls a gun on her. “I hope you’re not going to behave badly,” an unfazed Hall says, as she turns her back on him. “The French understand these things.”

Straight man Cumberbatch feels he has no choice but to take her back. “I stand for monogamy,” he tells his loyal Tory party pal, played by Stephen Graham doing a vocal impression of Alex Salmond and a visual impression of Charles Darwin. “Aye, monogamy and chastity.”

Graham should laugh in his face at this, seeing as he’s fallen for Anne-Marie Duff, despite her husband. He’s the Reverend Rufus Sewell, who’s worried that he’s a lunatic. “I detect the pallor of self-abuse,” he intones, gazing at Graham. He quotes rude Latin and says “arsehole” at the breakfast table. He is a lunatic. “Alas with women, it’s more a case of having two cu…” The helpful Help knee him in the balls and escort him from the room.

Also present is “the Wannop girl” whom Cumberbatch is smitten with, despite all his assurances to his masters that his marriage failure was not due to him doing what politicians traditionally do to mess up their marriages. On a misty moonlit horse ride, Cumberbatch and Clemons bond over nightingales. “You should know, Miss Wannop, we are being talked about,” smoulders Cumberbatch.

“You’re not so dreadfully ugly really,” counters Clemons, her tongue toasting his balls to gas mark eight. They almost kiss in the fog but Allam’s new-fangled motor car almost crashes into them. Cumberbatch parts from Clemons to go back to the wife who hates him, clearly looking forward to the war to take him away from all this.

The first episode of Parade’s End was a farcical hoot, although maybe someone forgot to tell Cumberbatch he was in an Edwardian version of a Brian Rix play (I forgot to mention Miranda Richardson pursuing Graham around a table in order to secure a good review for her book). God knows how they’re going to keep up the hilarity in future when the war finally arrives. Still, if Blackadder can do it…

Inspector George Gently (BBC1) is a police show on Sunday nights, which means it has a certain weight of expectation. Warm and familiar with the odd murder to spruce things up lest you disappear into the comfy slippers of TV familiarity. Inspector George Gently is also set in 1968, so there’s nostalgia too. Even the word ‘gently’ is there in the title. It’s the BBC’s version of Heartbeat.

Except it isn’t. George Gently is played by Martin Shaw at his most gruffiest. He’s what Inspector Morse would have sounded like if John Thaw had played him as Jack Regan from The Sweeney. He may have a comedy sidekick in bumbling Lee Ingleby, all Beatles haircut and gormless features, but the subject matter is pretty grim. It starts with a black girl being killed for a start.

She was a regular at a Northern Soul all-nighter run by a couple of brothers, the elder the promoter, the younger the DJ. As with all of these shows, the first scenes are revealing but only in hindsight; turns out she was going out with the latter but may have been also seeing the former.

Shaw and Ingleby show up when she’s found dead the day after an all-nighter. Shaw goes to visit the promoter brother. “Tell me about Northern Soul.” The brother looks shifty, as well he might since the term wasn’t popularised until 1970. Shaw suspects that he’s a bit of a gangster like his notorious dad, only in it to sell pills to the alcohol-free patrons.

So he sends in Ingleby undercover, in tank top and carrying a record case. “Don’t be a wallflower.” Ingleby isn’t, as he hits on the dead girl’s best mate, played by Being Human’s Lenora Crichlow. He’s surprised she’s here, a week after her mate’s death. “They don’t care about the colour of your skin here. Most of our heroes are black.”

Then the entire show stops in order to watch something on the television. Is it the Cup Final or a moon shot? No, it’s Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. “That’s all this country needs,” gruffs a pained Shaw. As it’s now an hour into the programme, Morse-law dictates there has to be another death and it’s the promoter brother who gets it. But whodunnit? Was it the dead girl’s father, played by Eamonn Walker, or Crichlow? Was it the DJ brother, upset that his dead girlfriend was pregnant? And how is the dead man’s father going to react, surrounded by his ‘Keep Britain White’ posters?

By now, the music has got decidedly less Wigan Pier and more sombre. Perhaps cheerful Sunday night telly isn’t the best place to tackle such subject matter and it doesn’t help that it’s not very believable. None of the police are racists (apart from one who mildly says Enoch’s speech needed saying) and the depiction of the era is unrealistic, beyond just getting the dates wrong.

To cheer us up after such a downer, here comes Jennifer Saunders on a great big horse. Asked by ITV to do one of their regular travelogue shows in the manner of Billy Connolly biking down Route 66, she obviously said, ‘sod that, can I do something about horses? I like horses.’ To which the researcher who rang her up took 0.0002 seconds to say, ‘okay!’

Jennifer Saunders: Back In The Saddle (ITV1) is the result. “It’s my mission in this Olympic year to re-engage the nation with the horses who jump.” But we’ve already ‘re-engaged’ with horses, precisely because of those Olympics. We even cheered the Dressage because we won medals in it. One suspects that this programme was commissioned to be shown before the Olympics, then someone got wise and thought it would boost ratings if the Olympics (shown on the BBC) were the advert for this show.

Which leaves Saunders looking a bit of a plum, as she talks to various horsey people with posh names (one of whom is actually called Piggy) about their chances of qualifying for an Olympics which has already happened. But there is a reason to watch, for Saunders has signed up for something called an Elite Amateur Event. Suspicions are alerted about this Elite Amateur Event when it turns out Saunders’s main rival is a 15 year old.

“I wish I’d never agreed to do this now,” says Saunders unconvincingly, for at the Elite Amateur Event Saunders’s massive horse doesn’t so much jump over the fences as step over them. I suspect that these fences are more for the likes of the 15 year old’s pony rather than the fully grown beast that Saunders has. She gets a clear round and is cheerfully patronised by the members of the Olympic squad she’s met over the course of the series. Horsey people are nothing if not polite.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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