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


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.


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.

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

Heading Out


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.)

TV Review – The Planners, Lizard Lick Towing, World’s Most Dangerous Roads, Forget The Oscars, Here Are The Kermodes, Bob Servant Independent, Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway

Industrial Vernacular

Welcome to the red-nosed, trouser-dropping world of Council Planning, wherein dull local government functionaries go about the business of allowing appalling buildings to be built with nary a brown envelope or tap to the side of the nose. The Planners (BBC2) looked at Chester’s Leadworks, of which only the distinctive tower remains. It was actually built in Napoleonic times, used to make lead shot.

Seeing how Napoleon is not much of a threat anymore you may think it would be long past its useful best, but it only closed 11 years ago and has been quietly rotting away ever since. Enter Chester’s Lead (not lead) Planner Fiona Edwards. “If I was responsible for seeing this tower disappearing, I’d have a lot to answer to.” It’s always worrying when someone seems more worried about their own legacy than the city’s, but she has got a plan.

Some developers want to remake the area into 1,000 square metres of shops, restaurants and apartments. Even Chester has been taken over by charity shops of late, but it’s nice to be optimistic. The architect arrives at the site. He’s called Matt Brook and he’s got a tiny mouth through which he forces an awful lot of words, most of which are quasi-architectural rubbish. “We’ve tried to give it more of an industrial vernacular. It’s lead-ish.”

His ‘lead-ish’ design features two buildings either side of a big tower that looks more, well, ‘penis-ish’. In fact, those bollocks, I mean buildings, look familiar. The jet black cladding is strongly reminiscent of Liverpool’s gruesome Mann Island, the obsidian blindfolds that obscures one of the waterfront’s great views and threatened its World Heritage Status.

Whilst Matt drones on (“You feel a weight of responsibility dealing with a building at this point in its life cycle, because if we can’t get this scheme to move forward you’re onto a vicious circle…”) suspicions are confirmed when an objector goes to Liverpool to ‘do some research into the architects’. Uh-oh. Apparently, Mann Island’s architects are not only still in business, but they’re peddling their Carbuncle Cup-nominated work to other poor saps.

The appropriately named Matt doesn’t care. “I’d much rather create a building that forced people to have a reaction to it.” A reaction like getting a World Heritage Status revoked? Time for the massed ranks of the Planning Committee to leap into action. Visiting the site in a minibus, they resemble an old people’s home on a day trip to some Roman ruins.

Opponents argue their case before the Planning Committee. “Alien and cheap… brutal and gloomy… cheap and ugly…” You’ve said ‘cheap’. The Committee are wont to agree. One of them thinks the architect needs to be shot. Matt is actually sat behind her but he doesn’t immediately see this as a murder threat, no doubt used to it. Fiona, vessel of the developers, sees which way this is going and withdraws the bid on their behalf.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of it. The architects momentarily lick their wounds, “We’ve never had that kind of objection from anything other than single objectors,” says Matt’s boss, somehow mistaking the entire population of Liverpool for a single person. But they come back, guns blazing, with exactly the same plan except the cladding is grey (“zinc”).

Unbelievably, this is accepted. No-one even threatens to shoot anyone. What changed in the meantime? We may never know for, despite presented as a behind-the-scenes exposé, nothing on-screen can explain this volte-face. Well done Chester, you’ve got your own Mann Island. In the shape of a grey cock and balls.

Still in the world of reality programming, and almost as unbelievable, is Lizard Lick Towing (Dave), a show so false that it has a quality disclaimer at the beginning. Even Dave have got standards. Lizard Lick Towing is unapologetically American trash TV, which must be in short supply as this is so manufactured it could come with an endorsement by Henry Ford.

Lizard Lick Towing are a repossession company, consisting of three wacky people and others who can’t be as interesting. Ron is the boss and looks like a wrestler dressed as a skate punk with a Donald Trump haircut. Amy is also the boss and also looks like a wrestler, but she’s otherwise normal. Bobby is Ron’s apprentice, who doesn’t seem to possess a brain. But he’s American so he gets by.

Their first task is to repossess a truck in the backwoods of their snowy part of North Carolina. Ron is wary, knowing from experience what can go down in the backwoods. He’s right. A shotgun-wielding Hick in army fatigues meets them and, with an impassioned “Y’all aren’t taking my daddy’s truck!” showers them with petrol and threatens immolation.

Ron and Bobby beat a retreat back to the office like the US Army withdrawing from Saigon. But the Hick rings them to apologise for his uncouth behaviour. He now wants y’all to repo his daddy’s truck. Ron, changing out of his petrol-soaked clothes, is now even more wary. “About three hours ago you was madder ’n a wet hen at an omelette scramble,” he tells the Hick over the phone.

Brainless Bobby is keenly optimistic for recovery. Ron responds with more carefully scripted North Carolina wisdom. “I know you’re all roostered up but I’m not feeling so cock-a-doodle-do.” Unwisely, Ron listens to Bobby. “It’s a trap!” Admiral Ackbars Ron. The Hick attacks again with what looks like grenades but aren’t, otherwise there’d be bloody body parts everywhere. Throughout, the Hick’s face is not pixellated. Either he signed a release form or he’s not actually trying to kill anyone.

This all happens in the first ten minutes of a very short half hour. Our tame morons move onto other things, such as repossessing a herd of deer during which Bobby ‘hilariously’ shoots Ron with a tranquilizer, and Amy employing a massive comedy black woman who had previously tried to ‘hilariously’ rape Bobby. Lizard Lick Towing was originally shown on TruTV in the US. It fits, as it’s ‘true’ but not really.

Our reality shows are slightly more sedate. In a recent episode of World’s Most Dangerous Roads (BBC2), Jessica Hynes scared the effluent out of the Earl of Grantham whilst bombing over mountain passes near the already scary Chechen border. Vertigo-sufferer Hugh Bonneville went pop-eyed whilst his hands desperately tried to grip any substantial surfaces within reach. The recently qualified Hynes apologised, once Bonneville regained something of his admittedly pasty colour. “I got through a few driving instructors.”

Now that the extravagantly meaningless Academy Awards are over with, one must look back at the unextravagant Forget The Oscars, Here Are the Kermodes (BBC2) and compare. Overly bumptious film critic Mark Kermode really liked A Royal Affair, a Danish film that compares badly with Danish TV. To top it off, he picked Sam Mendes as best director for Skyfall, a decent film, badly directed. The Oscars won’t be forgotten anytime soon, Mark.

Talking of Hollywood stars, the Brian Cox who isn’t a slightly camp Mancunian professor has been donning a badger moustache and slumming it on Bob Servant Independent (BBC4), portraying a fictional Dundee man-of-the-people-whether-they-like-it-or-not, now standing for parliament. This week saw Servant appear at a by-election debate, albeit only broadcast on BBC Local Radio.

Servant’s fiercely loyal agent Jonathan Watson urges him to ‘go Braveheart’, much like Johnny Cochran’s vaunted and infallible Chewbacca Defence, to which Servant is at first reluctant. But sensing defeat by the more erudite competition, Servant ups the rhetoric. “Give us our freedom!” Shame the originator of this manoeuvre was an anti-semitic Australian.

Ant and Dec’s Saturday Takeaway (ITV1) returned with its stars yet to go doolally, despite them telling the world that they’ve taken drugs and one of them voted Conservative, perhaps as a result. Nancy Reagan never came up with a better Just Say No Kids message. They’re also currently in an advert for Morrison’s saying how great supermarket meat is, not the best thing to be doing at the moment.

Going doolally is the inevitable result of appearing on such high-profile shows. Primetime Saturday night, when there’s always millions of families watching, has driven many a so-called ‘light’ entertainer over the edge. But Ant and Dec have survived this bear pit for a long time now.

“Woo-hoo-hoo, I love fireworks!” geordies Dec (or maybe Ant) in the opening introduction. They’re combatting their critics by using their main weapon against them: Twitter. They fetch a prole from the audience who’s an obsessive recorder of their own life and effectively mock her timeline. They even get her favourite boy bands, no longer boys, to mock-sing some of her tweets, but she seems delighted.

Feeling she hasn’t been humiliated enough, they do a Have I Got News For You missing words-style round of particularly inane tweets, but she knows the answers before guest announcer David Walliams has finished reading them. Lesser hosts than Mr. McPartlin and Mr. Donnelly would be annoyed by this refusal of a non-celebrity to not accept their unworthiness, but they laugh along. Yes, they are genuinely good at what they do.

TV Review – Black Mirror, Dancing on the Edge, Being Human, Hugh’s Fish Fight


Almost Creepy

Much like finding out your burger is 90% horsemeat, the first series of Black Mirror (C4) was a tough beast to swallow. A provocateur, writer Charlie Brooker likes taking an already  twisted idea and seeing how far he can get it to corkscrew. Usually, when presenting shows like Weekly Wipe, this is leavened by his corruscating sense of humour. In Black Mirror, as with his earlier Dead Set, everything is very serious.

Channel 4 are constantly reminding us that we can watch the first series of Black Mirror online, whenever we want, even on our phones. The only time I’ll ever watch Prime Minister Rory Kinnear porking a pig again is if I’m the subject of a rendition to an unfriendly country with surprisingly good broadband connectivity.

The first episode of the new series of Black Mirror mercifully didn’t need you to put your hands over your eyes. It’s so low key that it’s hard to believe this is the same sowfucking series. Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson are a perfectly ordinary young couple, so ordinary that they have disappointing sex. They live in a nice cottage in the country, surrounded by the sort of rain that never falls in World Without End.

Gleeson does like sharing things though. Not with his wife but with the world at large, using a subtly hinted-at not-too-distant-future version of Twitter. This is achieved using various devices that would make Steve Jobs weep in his sweater if he were still around. Then one day, Gleeson doesn’t arrive at the cottage on time, whilst the police arrive several hours later.

At the funeral, a friend recommends signing up to a service that could help the grieving Atwell. “He was a heavy user, he’d be perfect.” A heavy user of social networking that is, as Atwell discovers when she gets an email from software imitating her dead husband. Soon enough she’s exchanging emails and updating him on things.

“Almost creepy isn’t it?” chatrooms dead Gleeson. Atwell is so relieved she has someone to talk to, she’s forgotten her need to be distracted is the death of the man she’s chatrooming to. By uploading loads of videos she is also able to talk to a simulacrum of his voice. What she may finally find creepy is what Gleeson calls “another level to this.”

During the adverts, which features BlackBerry and Microsoft products that look inadequate compared to what Atwell is using, she gets a giant box of an Amazon delivery. Opened, this looks like what they put in hamburgers when the horsemeat runs out. Once defrosted, it turns out to be a perfect clone of Gleeson. “You look like him, but on a good day,” breathes an impressed Atwell.

But, just as all online flirtations are doomed once you have to breathe each other’s cheese and onion crisps, so Clone Gleeson proves both too perfect – he’s good in the sack, “That I can turn on pretty much instantly” – and simultaneously inadequate, in not knowing things he never shared amongst the wider world.

“You’re not enough of him,” says Atwell sadly, before consigning him to the attic like a passing time-passing handicraft you should eventually get bored of. I’m glad Black Mirror is around, I just wish it was shorter and to the point, like its Twilight Zone inspiration. At least we didn’t get a feature-length bore-athon like last year’s interminable talent show episode.

Talking of interminable, what’s been happening on the buzzy Dancing On The Edge (BBC2), Stephen Poliakoff’s caffeine-trip through the sweaty basements of the early days of British jazz? Well, rather quickly during the first feature-length episode, smooth Chiwetel Ejiofor’s band left the jazz clubs for stately homes, garden parties and high class tea rooms.

Ejiofor spent the rest of the hour sighing as he was handed oversized thirties phones by other people’s servants to be told the latest bad news about a member of his band being deported. So it goes, Dancing on the Edge is really just a typical Poliakoff drama where everybody is fascinated by royalty.

The Prince of Wales turned up in episode two, along with Jacqueline Bisset as someone called Lady Lavinia Cremone, who lost her sons in the war and now spends her time collecting jazz magazines. This naturally impresses Matthew Goode, spiv peddler of said jazz mags.

“There are important people here,” says Ejiofor’s sort-of manager, played at full-on oiliness by Anthony Head, channeling Malcolm McLaren. Damn right there are. Everywhere you look on Dancing on the Edge there are important people. The other members of the band now just Blackground scenery, this week’s episode was all about sticking it to the Nazis.

Snobby hotel manager Mel Smith has booked the band to play his massive tea room, when a German delegation leaves in disgust. The Nazis didn’t like jazz. “Fuck ’em,” says Smith. It takes a long time for the Germans to leave the room, but then it’s a big room. Poliakoff likes his characters to be dwarfed by their surroundings and even John Goodman is rendered a tiny dot in the distance.

Dancing on the Edge is piffle. Overdressed, over-starred piffle. When the only other member of Ejiofor’s band who actually has a character, Angela Coulby’s slinky chanteuse, spends all episode in a coma, then dies at the end, it reads like a metaphor for Poliakoff finally deciding he can’t be bothered with all this jazz stuff anymore. Let’s have more devious toffs giving dinner parties.

There’s far more enjoyable programmes elsewhere on the BBC network, and for a fraction of the cost. I gave up on Being Human (BBC3) sometime during season three, when its undemanding premise of three supernatural weirdoes sharing a house was shoved aside in favour of a ball-aching overall plot that was so melodramatic it made The Devils look like a fun romp.

A quick Wikipedia check reveals that a lot of stuff happened and now there are three different characters occupying the house share in Barry, each with the same attributes as their forebears. Tom, son of Robson Green, is the werewolf, working in the same hotel as Hal, a 200 year old vampire and Lord to boot. Haunting the house is Alex, Hal’s one-time girlfriend.

In other words, the show has been re-booted. Thank gawd for that. This is Being Human as I remember; slightly silly and not at all full of dread import. A flatshare dramedy about people who shouldn’t get on. The latest episode even featured Julian Barratt as this week’s guest star, finally breaking his recent exile whilst he looked after the twins he had with Julia Davis.

Barratt is perfect as a former weatherman who now does motivational talks at hotels. He’s recently divorced, recently unemployed and living in his car. And he’s also a werewolf, the only thing immediately spotted by Tom. Barratt barely breaks his rictus smile as he offers to become Tom’s life coach. This ‘advice’ consists of moving in, acres of corporate-speak and getting Tom to put a car iron through the window of his ex-wife’s BMW.

Really, Tom is getting back at a perceived slight by Hal, who’s got his own problems. He’s been ‘dating’ a proper Lady for over 200 years, Amanda Drew, dressed like a “cake decoration”. She gets the best lines as an outwardly Regency Lady ghost who’s been secretly keeping up with the times whilst Hal isn’t around and keeping him on the straight and narrow whilst he is.

A worried Alex gets her to confess to her (very) longtime paramour. “I like action films,” admits Lady Drew. “John Woo, Jackie Chan. And the music of Metallica. I shoplift… quite a lot. I suppose this must all be a head fuck.” However, Hal has a confession of his own to make, being that Drew had thought that she was his last victim all that time ago. Far from it, the Lordly bloodsucker. Drew looks agog. “You. Are. Shitting. Me.”

She tries to get revenge with a poltergeist stake aimed at Hal’s heart, but the gang team up to defeat her. Foiled, Drew ponders her options. “Maybe I’ll go scare the shit out of some loggers in the Amazon.” I like new Being Human, back to what it did best. Oh, it’s been cancelled. Well done everybody. I’ll sign any petition going.

Hugh’s Fish Fight (C4) is the sequel to an earlier series where Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tried to stop overfishing. These attempts succeeded in getting some European legislation implemented, although Hugh can’t help but talk all over the announcement on the radio.

Despite mostly looking like another episode of Heston’s Fantastical Feasts (our hero educates the masses on a British seafront with the aid of a giant totalizer thing) it all got a bit peculiar when Hugh goes to Indonesia to participate in a fishing trip that uses dynamite. Something which has been banned throughout the world. Including Indonesia.

“It just doesn’t look safe,” understates Hugh as the fishermen make their own dynamite over a roaring fire. Hugh gets permission to participate in this by refusing to reveal the names of the people involved in this illegal activity. “I’m not sure how I feel about being complicit in the dynamiting of a reef,” he notes. We’re as confused as you, Hugh.

TV Review – Richard III: The King in the Car Park, Top Gear, The Great Album Showdown, When Albums Ruled the World, Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, World Without End

Retro Nonsense

Something unbelievable happens about ten minutes into Richard III: The King in the Car Park (C4). The trouble is it happens to the sort of person who believes, and wants to believe, in things very much. Simple ordinary life is too dull; she’s forever motivated by “the strangest sensations.”

Her name is Philippa Langley and one of the things she believes in very sincerely is that King Richard III was not a Shakespearean monster, rather a slandered King who never had any kind of twisted back and ruled both justly and, indeed, wisely. Langley deeply believes this, as Catholics believe the Pope is one of them. So much that she raises enough money to dig up a car park in Leicester.

Langley has gotten advice from an historian that Richard might be buried in the car park, the former sight of a medieval friary. This is based on the theory that his post-battle corpse was displayed for all to see then interred in the nearest church. Despite this vagueness she chooses the first digging location because she sees an ‘R’ painted on the tarmac. To everybody else this would mean ‘reserved’, but she isn’t and is relying on her sensations. That’s where they find a pair skeletal legs.

This is what happens 10 minutes in. Bear in mind they’re not even sure of the location of the church attached to the friary that might be the final resting place of the last Plantagenet king. The original plan was to uncover the friary first and locate where they might find Richard’s remains from that. To uncover his remains the first time they digged down should be impossible.

Yet that’s what they did. Whilst other diggers are still looking for the friary, Langley is standing on the bit where ‘R’ used to be and looking down into a trench whilst be-masked “bone expert” Jo uncovers more of the remains. Jo finds a skull with a hole in it but has to apologise because she made the hole herself with a pickaxe ten minutes earlier. Then Jo finds that the skull is attached to an abnormal spine. Weird has just gone beyond weird.

“I just thought she was insane.” The presenter and man on the ground is Simon Farnaby, comic actor most famous for, er, Horrible Histories. You can imagine how low rent he is. He looks like Tom Baker’s dim cousin and has a Yorkshire accent. Richard III was a Yorkist so there’s the obvious connection.

Farnaby was obviously brought in by Channel 4 at the beginning of this documentary because he was cheap and the whole thing was patently ridiculous. Unluckily for him and them, this epic search for Richard III found him in the first ten minutes. The bones are uncovered and deposited in the University of Leicester, in a cardboard box wouldn’t you know. Philippa wants to put a Royal Standard over the box, which brings out the uncomfortable in everyone.

“This seemingly bonkers project might just have pulled off the impossible,” says light relief Farnaby, whilst the viewer wishes that someone like David Attenborough could take over now it’s gotten fascinating. Indeed, Farnaby is disappointed this isn’t all more like a Steven Spielberg film. The music isn’t helping either, jaunty twinklings seemingly piped in from the Great British Bake-Off when we’re looking at a freshly dug up corpse rather than a nicely-iced Battenberg.

The bones are laid out in the university’s archaeology lab. Farnaby brings disbelief whilsy Langley brings Michele Bachmann’s fervour and glassy stare. Jo the Bone Expert is quite breezy about handling the skull. Imagine if they dug up the Queen’s father, as played by Colin Firth, and did that. There’d be a public execution. Langley is upset. “It’s all just laid out for the world to see. Again.” So why did you dig him up? She’s actually upset that the corpse has a twisted spine. She thought that was Tudor propaganda. A professor assures her that such a spine would be hardly noticeable when clothed. Langley calms down.

Carbon dating puts the bones at the time of the Battle of Bosworth and the wounds on the skull that weren’t put there by pickaxe-wielding Bone Experts match the descriptions of how Richard died in battle. But it’s DNA that will finally prove it. The closest relative they can find is a cabinet maker in Belgravia with an American accent. There is a match. “So we can categorically say we found a king in a car park,” says Farnaby, choosing the exact words to not match the occasion. This documentary told a remarkable story that the makers clearly weren’t expecting to tell. “Royalty’s a queer old thing,” sums up Farnaby.

It’s been a while but the new series of Top Gear (BBC2) finally arrived last week. However nobody cared as they were reviewing new cars, which blah blah snore. People don’t watch Top Gear to see cars being reviewed. What we like is three middle aged blokes going on road trips and arguing about nothing. Anyone who’s ever seen their dad and his brothers fiercely facing off over the pop music of their youth will know there’s nothing funnier.

This week’s Top Gear takes place in the USA and they do a road trip in expensive cars for no obvious reason. Clarkson turns up in a yellow Lexus blah, which is apparently the best car ever. James May turns up in a blue Aston Martin snore moments later, which Clarkson calls “The most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” In return, May calls Clarkson’s hideous yellow blah ‘fantastic’. Hold on, where’s the middle-aged bickering?

Thankfully, self-styled short angry bloke Richard Hammond arrives in a black blah and the pointless shouting commences. “That looks ridiculous. This is a bunch of retro nonsense.” It may sound forced but they are all getting quite old now. To compensate, the show throws a game of laser quest involving two planes strafing them as they race round a track. The planes especially liked shooting the Lexus thing, possibly because it’s bright yellow but probably because it’s driven by Jeremy Clarkson.

The climax is a race to the Mexican border, with the loser getting the honour of actually going into Mexico. Our trio are worried about this, thanks to derogatory remarks made on a previous show. Clarkson and May contrive to make sure it is Hammond who loses, which they regard as only fair as it was Hammond who offended the most. Offensive remarks against a whole country? Just another week on Top Gear.

Jeremy Clarkson also showed up on televised radio show The Great Album Showdown (BBC4). Part of the BBC’s Golden Age of the Album strand, Danny Baker hosted with the breathless excitement of someone who genuinely knows what he’s talking about and has the tools to articulately share that knowledge.

“Welcome to my world,” he introduced, which was mostly a chat between Baker, Clarkson, producer Stephen Street and journalist Kate Mossman about rock albums. Unfortunately, the chat was interrupted throughout just as it was getting good by Baker introducing pre-recorded clips of him explaining what they were talking about. Since the only people watching are people who already know what he was talking about it seemed a little pointless.

Without the pre-recorded clips, The Great Album Showdown was a radio show on TV and there’s honestly nothing wrong with that. Only people in cars listen to the radio these days anyway. What’s the problem with watching Baker and Clarkson arguing about which year was the best for rock music? Clarkson thought 1973, Baker thought 1971. There’s merits to both sides, and they were more believable than the disagreements on Top Gear.

At the end of the programme, the guests chose their favourite albums and Baker visibly bristled when Mossman chose a Queen album. Clarkson chose Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, despite Baker earlier saying “there’s another Fleetwood Mac?” in admiration of the earlier Peter Green version. Clarkson’s other choices were the Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and End of the Century by Supergrass, thereby telling us, as if we didn’t know, that he is a true populist. The Great Album Showdown was cheap, disposable and pointless. I could have watched it all night.

Related documentary When Albums Ruled The World (BBC4) prominently featured an irritatingly braying hipster in hornrims unforgivably called Travis Elborough, who somehow got more screen time than the likes of Rick Wakeman and Noel Gallagher. Even worse, it had a segment on Dark Side of the Moon that bafflingly showed the rear of the album, where the rainbow light converged. This should be a scandal worse than Sachsgate.

Never mind radio on the TV, Charlie Brooker finally returned in front of the cameras for Weekly Wipe (BBC2), a newspaper column on the TV. He said that Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards’ victory in Splash, “proves once and for all that even our fittest celebrities are no match for our shittest Olympians.” Wish I could come up with stuff like that. It’s probably because I don’t watch Splash.

In World Without End (C4), the Black Death finally arrived. To celebrate, our now nunnified heroine fell into a plague pit with the élan of Miranda Hart. Naturally, a fellow nun consoled her with some sapphic snogging. As daft a programme that has ever shown an England where it never rains, Show Without End still has two shitisodes to go.

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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