TV Review – Ripper Street, Death in Paradise, Lewis

Ripper Street

Boneheaded Flatfoots

Police procedurals have been getting a bit conceptual in recent years. Whether it’s the time travel/Sweeney procedural (Life On Mars) the modern day Sherlock Holmes procedural (Sherlock, Elementary) or the copycat murderer re-enacts old crimes procedural (Whitechapel), TV has tried its best to have its presentation be all modern and tricksy whilst its inner workings remain familiar.

Ripper Street (BBC1), set at the time of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, seems to be the culmination of this, although it has sometimes struggled with the identity crisis imposed by its forebears. Set six months after the last Jack the Ripper murder, the first episode found incredibly serious Police Inspector Matthew Macfadyen and his Whitechapel-based team dealing with an absurd copycat killer who turns out to be a toff making snuff movies.

Despite the moving picture having yet to be invented. This wasn’t the only implausibility as we also had modern pathology, tabloid journalism and Macfadyen pinning pictures related to the crime on a pinboard, like he was Trevor Eve or something. Surprisingly, given its unprepossessing start, subsequent episodes of Ripper Street have actually proven watchable. This is largely thanks to its sloughing off of its original premise and dubious anachronisms. Now it’s simply a police procedural set in late-Victorian times and I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty good to me.

Subsequent episodes have featured a violent Scouse Fagin, a Jewish orphanage, an outbreak of cholera and lots and lots of prostitutes. As its unlikeliness ebbs, it grows more compelling. Unfortunately, the writers have started writing stories about the main police characters, despite the fact that they’re very dull.

The latest episode centred on Matthew Macfadyen’s sidekick, a bruiser played by Jerome Flynn. The concept of Flynn playing such a character even two years ago would have seemed preposterous, even for those who don’t remember the warbling Robson and Jerome years – one of the many unlikely things that precipitated the rise of Simon Cowell. And there are some of us who still remember Badger.

Whilst his erstwhile partner is Extreme Fishing somewhere off Papua New Guinea, Jerome Flynn reinvented himself by somehow nabbing the best part on Game of Thrones. As Peter Dinklage’s sword-wielding minder, Flynn got all the best lines (“you wouldn’t know him”). His role in Ripper Street is largely the same, being Macfadyen’s bearded muscle, although sadly without the funny lines.

Instead he plays a gruff and loyal ex-soldier who is torn between his duty to his current boss and loyalty to his old boss, Iain Glen’s bitter ex-Colonel. As boring as Glen is in his role on Game of Thrones as a Queen Explainer, here Glen gets to chew the scenery, wrapping his fruity quasi-Scottish tones around some of the ripest dialogue heard on British TV outside of a Brian Sewell documentary.

Ripper Street is noted for Matthew Macfadyen delivering exceptionally florid Victorian lines seemingly every other sentence. Connoisseurs like myself have been collecting them. “Do you think me some boneheaded flatfoot?” “There was trouble taken to make it seem like self-slaughter.” “Will you indulge me and allow me to weary you with the details of my day?”

Iain Glen is Macfadyen to the power of 11, angry at his treatment by the British Empire. “Thus our glorious Britannia, Sergeant. She takes a man and hollows him, spits him back with the marrow still dripping from her maw,” he declaims casually whilst taking Flynn on a walk and talk through poverty-filled Victorian alleys. “Don’t you deserve to writhe no more in the serpent strangle of your nightmare?” he later tells Flynn, trying to persuade him to join a nefarious scheme to loot the British Mint of its gold.

Flynn is tempted by the scheme as he needs money to marry his sweetheart. Flynn seems a bit old to have a sweetheart, but it’s no matter as he bails on Glen’s plan at the last minute. To have gone through with it would make him interesting. TV has long had a problem with dealing with police corruption; characters are either cleaner than clean or dirty to the core. Real corruption has always been about what you can get away with, although plundering the British Mint is possibly a step too far. The game up, Glen self-slaughters with a final flourish. “They shall know my justice is a hurricane of fire, for I have thrown open the doors of the firmament!” You don’t get that on EastEnders, much as you suspect they would love to.

At the opposite end of the police procedural is Death In Paradise (BBC1), somehow starring Ben Miller when the part was surely written for Martin Clunes. Miller’s a pernickety British Detective Inspector who is transferred to an idyllic Caribbean island with a sexy female partner and, get this, hates it. Oh the hilarity that has ensued, as he sits miserably in his gorgeous beach house saying, “I have an aversion to sand taking every refuge in every bodily orifice. May as well stick sandpaper down your trousers.”

There’s a certain expectation when a show has ‘death’ or ‘murder’ in the title. This is why the bodies piled up on otherwise innocuous programmes like Murder She Wrote or Midsomer Murders. So it goes here. The latest episode was all about buried treasure, despite there being no evidence that the original Pirates of the Caribbean ever did that. It was on QI. But death is stalking a group of visiting treasure hunters, especially burly leader Jonathan Cake.

First he is blown up in the cave he’s excavating. Having survived that, someone tries to drop a tree on him. Finally, he checks out via a severe aversion to insect bites and a suspiciously drained adrenaline pen. But Cake is actually the mandatory second murder, after the treasure hunters’ geologist is shot dead with a 300 year old flintlock. Police Commissioner Don Warrington is keen that the curse of dead pirates is not factored out of the investigation lest it affect tourism.

Fellow treasure hunter Kelly Adams seems to have the most to hide, despite wearing a bikini throughout. Miller’s glamorous sidekick, Sara Martins, is suspicious of her, possibly because she merely wears fetching tight yellow trousers. Miller eventually gathers all the protagonists into a Caribbean drawing room to reveal the killer. It turned out to be the one guy who was never a suspect and had an alibi. Funny that. Also, there was no buried treasure but there was a possible seam of palladium, which apparently fuels mobile phones. I think that was on QI as well, so the makers were watching after all.

Death is Paradise is as formulaic as TV gets, a moving painting-by-numbers where the lovely locations and bikini babes encourage you not to think too much about the rote plots. Despite this, or perhaps because, it has been extraordinarily successful, getting an average of eight million viewers – huge for the BBC on Tuesday nights.

The antecedent for most modern police procedurals was Inspector Morse, a behemoth that wasn’t allowed to die even when the character and its actor did. Lewis (ITV1) is keeping the Oxford punt propelled, even though it’s showing signs of puffiness and not just in Kevin Whately’s waistline. ITV might realise this as they’ve divided the formerly two hour show into two weekly one hour snatches.

Not that they would dare tinker with the formula, the origin of the one Death In Paradise gets so much mileage from at half the screen time. Lewis always starts with a scene featuring a group of characters we’ve never seen before exchanging meaningful looks that come to have huge significance later on. Here it’s a dinner party presided over by wideboy-made-good Peter Davison, needling his guests. Smooth copper Mark Powley exchanges glances with Davison’s wife. In the servant’s quarters, Taron Egerton and his girlfriend sing cheerful songs which his dad wistfully echoes. Which detail will ultimately unlock the mystery?

A typically twisty tale unfolds after the discovery of an old man’s body dumped in a park, with shocks roughly every half hour which by statute has to involve at least one other murder. So at half an hour, a doctor who attended the dinner party is also found dead, at an hour someone attempts to kill Egerton by stuffing him in a mortuary freezer, and at an hour and a half someone tries to set fire to the houseboat his girlfriend lives in. In between, we get the tale of the wrong body sent to the crematorium by a funeral home owned by Davison, and Powley apparently disappearing.

Ultimately, the detail at the beginning was Egerton’s dad finding a notebook in a draw which held the details of a crystal meth ring wherin repatriated dead bodies were stuffed with drugs. Everybody at the dinner table was involved but it was Peter Davison who went on the killing spree. In happier news Kevin Whately has finally moved on from his dead wife (killed for contractual reasons inbetween Inspector Morse and Lewis) and found love with pathologist Clare Holman, who’s been on the show(s) almost as long as he has. At one point it was John Thaw she was flirting with. Whately’s boss Rebecca Front remembers Morse too. “That man has a lot to answer for.”

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TV Review – Utopia, Spies of Warsaw, Harry and Paul’s Magnificent Sporting Moments, Blandings, Father Brown, World Without End

Utopia

A Tortured, Twisted Business

Between Utopia (Channel 4), last year’s Good Cop and the next Fast and the Furious film, a whole lot of stuff has been filmed in Liverpool recently. Was the first thing Joe Anderson did on entering office offer free money and comely women to anyone who so much as put up a camera in the city?

It’s not as though Utopia needs to be set in Liverpool. The city is never mentioned and well-known landmarks are avoided. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Paul Higgins’s government civil servant works in the Cunard Building or that Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s geeky IT man works in Beetham Tower.

What is recognisable about Utopia is the director has seen a lot of Stanley Kubrick and the writer has seen No Country For Old Men. Two unmistakable thugs walk into a comic shop. One is fat and smirks. The other is a Teddy Boy. Both are as nasty as Javier Bardem and even come armed with a compressed bottle of something. Those geeks they don’t brutally kill with a metal pipe they calmly gas. Poor geeks.

Clearly this is the height of modern hip television, which can’t go five minutes without terrifyingly unstoppable thugs scaring the shit out of us. We must blame Quentin Tarantino for making hoodlum duos cool but his were never so omnipotent, even when the forces of law and order get involved. Michael Smiley’s Detective Inspector has only just found out something is amiss when he gets killed round the back of Mello Mello, seemingly just in case. You’d think people would react.

But Utopia is not that interested in reality. You’d think after ten years of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Bagram that film and TV makers would avoid sensationalising torture. Kathryn Bigelow certainly wishes she’d not taken everything her contacts in the CIA told her at face value. But it seems torture is the coolest thing ever. The pointless and gruesome scene presented in Utopia, wherein our two thugs do horrible things to the eyes of the most likable character, is obviously meant to show how hip and fearless the show’s makers are. On the contrary, the makers can fuck right off.

This scene just about destroys any goodwill that the rest of the programme may have built up. The unlikely plot involves the manuscript for a graphic novel written by a madman, and our thugs’ desire to both retrieve said manuscript and kill anyone who has any connection to it. Meanwhile, government functionary Paul Higgins is blackmailed by a bad Russian accent into purchasing millions of pounds worth of ‘Russian Flu’ vaccine, encouraged by sinister grandees Stephen Rea and James Fox.

Meanwhile, because it’s Channel 4 and they’ve a reputation to be snotty and zeitgeisty to maintain, the ad breaks are bookended by testimonials from newspapers and tweets from people watching. Most are praising the show we apparently can’t judge for ourselves, although the Daily Mail is typically sniffy. “Strictly for the kind of people who like this kind of thing.” It’s not often I say this, but I agree with the Mail.

Is the institutional upheaval at the BBC to blame for some downright peculiar scheduling recently? Last year, Parade’s End was shown on Fridays on BBC2 when it surely belonged on Sunday nights on BBC1. The two part Spies of Warsaw (BBC4) was buried on a minority channel when it surely should have had the same prominence enjoyed by the very similar Restless on BBC1, shown over Christmas. Like that show, this was a tale of wartime spies but it had the advantage in being unhampered by an incoherent plot that needed to keep its secrets till the end.

David Tennant, thankfully not hosting a panel game anymore, plays a French superspy, the sort with bayonet scars and sniper’s bullet holes. “There’s still some shrapnel in my left knee.” He’s stationed in Warsaw in 1937, perfectly positioned between two superpowers who would dearly love to carve the place up. Tennant is supremely good at his job, wining and dining Russians one minute, evading machine guns on the Polish-German border the next. “It was impossible to get away, Princess,” he apologises to a Polish impressive at another lavish diplomatic party.

His boss at the Embassy, former Torchwood star Burn Gorman, has nothing but contempt for him. Gorman holds another report from his agent like it were a dead rat. “Is this another of your gloomy predictions about the likelihood of war?” Tennant is running a German agent, an engineer who brings disquieting tales of tanks trundling through trees, something which the Maginot Line is not prepared for.

His agent is sweating about revealing too much. “I am caught in a dangerous game and these are dangerous times.” Well said. Tennant’s search for more proof of German intentions are interrupted when he falls in polite lust with French-born Polish diplomat Janet Montgomery, freshly escaped from the hell that is American network TV. However, she is living in sin with a Russian emigre so she can’t return the lust immediately, even after she learns that Tennant is not only brave but also minor royalty.

Their dialogue slowly hots up. “It’s been an unexpected pleasure,” notes Montgomery, after their first dance. They slowly bond over League of Nations small talk (“Does anyone listen to the League anymore? Especially now that Mussolini has pulled Italy out”) and tank measurements (“A 37 inch barrel with only one machine gun?”) before he finally gets her alone on a train. “I’m pursuing you,” notes Tennant, and as we’ve seen, he usually gets what he wants.

But whilst Tennant is away, Gorman callously sends Montgomery’s Russian emigre back to the Motherland and certain death. Montgomery blames Tennant. The Polish version of Claude Rains from Casablanca can’t help the tormented Tennant. “She’s filled with guilt and anger. What happened would not have happened if she had not fallen in love with you.”

Tennant consoles himself by travelling all over Europe, being heroic. There he is in Paris, helping elderly Russians escape assassination. There he is in Czechoslovakia to recruit a German spy. There he is in Paris, being seduced by English aristocrat Fenella Woolgar. “What a tortured, twisted business this espionage is.” On the contrary it’s terrific fun and best of all there’s none of that hoary old double agent nonsense that spoiled Restless. Well, apart from one.

In Paris, Tennant discovers Montgomery’s Russian emigre is alive and well. He was a spy all along. “She wasted a lot of pointless tears on you.” Rather than twist the plot up, Tennant is delighted as this means he and Montgomery have no barrier to their relationship. Well except the looming War. Capitalized because it’s a proper one and everything.

Spies of Warsaw is as handsomely mounted as Tennant is on his horse, filmed entirely in Poland and employing local actors in smaller roles. Of great delight is Tennant’s no-nonsense henchman, played by an actor who looks like Vinnie Jones with pockmarks. The series finishes as Montgomery and Tennant escape Poland with the country’s bullion reserves, just as the Nazis invade. Montgomery looks back at her country. “What now?” I know what I want next. Sequel please.

On Harry and Paul’s Magnificent Sporting Moments (BBC1, inexplicably) our stars waste their time presenting silly clips from YouTube whilst doing impressions of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson. It’s maybe the least essential programme ever made and a complete waste of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s undoubted genius.

Blandings (BBC1), bizarrely placed early evenings on Sunday, was another waste of its stars’ talents. Another Fast Show alumni, Mark Williams, pottered around giving an impression of what a butler looks like as filtered through a century’s worth of broad caricatures. But the worst miscasting, apart from the pig, was Timothy Spall as Lord Emsworth. The character as presented in the book is tall and bony. Spall, for all his many talents, is neither. His acting is so posh it’s incoherent.

Even more bizarre scheduling is Father Brown (BBC1), shown daily during the afternoons like it was Doctors or something. Mark Williams (again) played GK Chesterton’s Catholic sleuth and was as fitting as Timothy Spall wasn’t. I liked the way his oversized hat would shoot up as his eyebrows registered surprise, never mind his unbeatable double chin (the best in the business) whenever he was in deep contemplation. Whilst the small diocese that Father Brown inhabits may include a disproportionately large number of murders to be solved, this is genuinely great entertainment. Having not been advertised at all, catch it on iPlayer whilst you can.

But for true rubbish given the wrong time slot, we have to turn to prime time Saturday night Channel 4. Two episodes in on supposed Black Death drama World Without End (C4) and the titular disease has yet to make an appearance. Milhouse is shouting “when are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” about now. Instead we get absurdly modern soapy nonsense regarding ploughing peasants, fornicating friars, manipulative matrons and the exciting business of building a bridge. Most rubbish of all is Cynthia Nixon’s excruciatingly posh English accent enunciating such lines as, “and whom is he fucking?” And the 100 Year War has only just started.

TV Review – Doctor Who, Superstars, The Girl, Restless, Doors Open, James May’s Toy Stories, Christmas University Challenge, Room 101

Restless
Cloak and Dagger Stuff

So Doctor Who (BBC1) eh? What else are we going to talk about after Christmas? It certainly looked nice and Jenna-Louise Coleman looks like being a great companion. If she hadn’t died. Again. As with Rory, Steven Moffat seems to think the Kenny-from-South Park approach to storytelling is the way to go. It’s yet another sign that he might be running out of ideas.

Also failing to come up with something new were the people behind Superstars (BBC1), a one-off revival of the old show long-since discontinued because it could never get anyone famous on it. But in Olympic year there’s a whole load of famous athletes who don’t get paid enough to turn nonsense like this down. Well done guys, your reward for so thoroughly entertaining us during the summer is to run around a track in the pouring rain in front of about 30 spectators.

“There’s a lot of people here to see you guys,” gees up desperate presenter Gabby Logan, lying through her teeth. Boxer Anthony Joshua wins the 100m, leaving the likes of Mo Farah and the Brownlee brothers far behind. Christine Ohuruogu is the winner in the women’s event, sprinting away from the likes of Nicola Adams and Katherine Grainger, the latter lumbering over the line several hours after the winner, thereby proving she is undoubtedly a rower.

When it comes to the archery and the kayaking, nobody is taking it seriously anymore. Everyone is collapsing in fits of giggles at each other’s incompetence, with the possible exception of Jonathan Brownlee, who got beaten into bronze by his elder brother Alistair in the Olympic Triathlon and threw up in the process. His efforts are wasted as Alistair constantly beat him here as well.

The BBC’s big Boxing Day offering was The Girl (BBC2), a hopelessly one-sided view of the war of attrition that occurred between Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren whilst the former was trying to make the latter into the new Grace Kelly. “With thanks to Tippi Hedren,” read the end credits, after an hour and a half of showing how saintly and put-upon the poor woman was.

The Girl portrayed Hitchcock as a bit of a sleaze, which he undoubtedly was, but completely ignored every other aspect of his personality. Considering he’s generally thought to be the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, who constantly rewrote the rulebook whilst remaining a commercial force, you’d think there might be a bit more to his personality than mindlessly torturing his star in between asking for sex. It’s like they made a Stanley Kubrick biopic that concentrated solely on how good he was at chess.

The last title card says that their final film together, the execrable Marnie, was generally regarded as “Hitchcock’s final masterpiece”, which is wrong in so many ways and provided the final topping on this turd tart. Poor Toby Jones and Sienna Miller tried their best to bring life to this wretched endeavour, all in vain.

Far better was Restless (BBC1), a tale of wartime derring do that was a bit too clever for its own good. In the seventies, Charlotte Rampling is telling her daughter Michelle Dockery of her exploits during the war, when she was improbably played by Hayley Atwell. Atwell is all big eyes and lips, whereas Rampling is – and always has been – narrow of eyes, lips and just about everything else.

Unlike most, Rampling’s wartime experiences were actually quite interesting. This involved her being half-Russian, being recruited by Rufus Sewell’s moustache in Paris, being trained in Scotland, being sent to Belgium and taking a hush-hush trip to a little town in Holland with Sewell’s moustache which results in a cock-up on a supposedly routine operation. Bare in mind this all takes place before Churchill was installed as prime minister and actually started the OSS. Her handler orders her to “take a bus” to escape the resulting mess. M should tell Bond that more often.

It’s clear that Rufus Sewell is a bad ‘un. The moustache is a dead giveaway, but in what way? The direction seems to suggest that he may be a figment of Rampling’s imagination. It takes two film-length episodes before we find out, during which time he has magically transformed into Michael Gambon. Have the BBC finally given up on that aging make-up that never looks convincing? If they have, they might want to look for actors who look remotely like their younger/older selves. Gambon doesn’t even have a moustache. In the end, it takes an extended trip to the US and an interminable story of a forged map, before we learn that Sewell was actually a Soviet spy all along, keen to keep the US out of the war.

Rampling tells this to an increasingly bewildered Dockery, not distracted by the fact that her stinking hippie daughter is blatantly not wearing a bra. Fans of Downton Abbey join John le Carre in choking on their evening cups of cocoa. Rampling is somewhat paranoid as she recounts her tale, wielding a freshly-purchased shotgun and peering at shadowy figures in the nearby woods. “The war’s been over for thirty years for God’s sake,” wails a baffled Dockery. “What’s with all this cloak and dagger stuff?”

Dockery nevertheless hunts down Gambon and helps Mum in exposing the dastardly double agent, who conveniently commits suicide. Restless was mostly gripping stuff, if overlong and suffering from naggingly distracting direction. It was keen to keep its secrets at every opportunity and sometimes rendered the whole thing incoherent.

Over the Christmas holiday, Film 4 showed the classic British caper film The Lavender Hill Mob, as charming a film that was ever threaded through a projector sprocket. What seemed at first an attempt to make a modern version of it was an adaptation of Ian Rankin’s Doors Open (ITV1) an art-based caper starring Stephen Fry, Douglas Henshall and Kenneth Collard. In the absence of any Top Gear special this year, it’s appropriate that one is very tall and one is very short and they all play pals who cook up a daft scheme to steal some valuable paintings from the collection that Jeremy Fry curates.

Straight away, your sense of plausibility is at snapping point, as all three have reasons to want to pull off the crime. Stephen Clarkson; because the bank that owns the paintings is going to sell them, which outrages his aesthetic ponceyness. Kenneth Hammond; because he’s recently been fired by the self-same bank. And Douglas May; because he’s still in love with Lenora Crichlow, who dumped him five years earlier and who so happens to be the person overseeing the sale.

On top of all those contrivances they get the unwelcome help of gangster Brian McCardie who turns out to know someone who can actually break into the vault. So that was handy. In the end, Fry’s aesthetics get the better of him and he nicks all the paintings for himself, leaving his supposed mates firmly in the merde. But it’s all right as Henshall wins back Crichlow. Collard is presumably still penniless and stuck on the dole, since the show ignores his fate. Never mind, he was the short one.

Talking of which, in James May’s Toy Stories: Flight Club (BBC2), nothing went according to plan. The original idea was to fly a toy glider from Dover to Calais, until the French authorities got sniffy about what would essentially be an unmanned drone in their airspace. A back-up plan of flying the glider from Ilfracombe to Wales fell victim to the weather. Eventually, the glider went from Ilfracombe to the Isle of Lundy, where it was found by surprised children before James and the team could get to them. Thanks to the onboard camera, we were able to hear clearly what the children thought the miniature pilot looked like. “I know which guy that is off Top Gear. The stupid one.”

Christmas University Challenge (BBC2) was a swizz. A charade. A farago. A travesty. A seasonal contest for mature alumni from various universities, the team from New College Oxford won easily. By strange coincidence, they had three authors on their team, including captain Kate Mosse, and a suspicious amount of the questions seemed to be of a literary nature. More than suspicious, as well over half the questions seemed to be about books and authors.

Okay, it didn’t help that the captain of Liverpool University was ‘design guru’ and preening ninny Stephen Bayley, who spent most of the time sucking his glasses and ignoring the (correct) answers of his teammates. What made New College’s victory the harder to take was the presence of Rachel Johnson on the team, Boris’s sister.

In Room 101 (BBC1) Frank Skinner described older people using Bluetooth headsets, when they might have hairy ears. “Like a police car in a forest thicket.”

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