Tray disappointing

Cremetray

I don’t believe I need reiterate my hopeless devotion to The Great British Bake Off. Like Adele, even its blockbusting, world-beating success cannot wither my love. It’s bigger than all of us. And yet, it retains its ancient charm: the marquee, the repartee, the good-natured competition, the squirrels, the judgely dynamic, Mel and Sue, the puns, the fun, and, at the end of the day, its joy of baking. The frangipane franchise’s latest and first conceptually apart Great British Spin Off is with us, Bake Off: Creme de la Creme (BBC One), and it’s soured before it’s started. I actually fast-forwarded the first show to the end, just in case there was a delicate hidden layer of fondant pleasure to be had from the stupid confectionery skyscraper round. There wasn’t.

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It’s held in a stately home. Already, this is less welcoming than a tent. (By the way, I understand that it’s not the Bake Off, but Masterchef seems more than capable of extending its brand without – usually – tainting it. I currently subscribe to three versions of it, and that’s a big commitment.) Secondly, Tom Kerridge, a TV chef I’ve long been drawn to for his Gl0ucestershire twang, his odes to eating, and his achievable gastropub style, is not yet ready to host an arena-style TV show. Talking us through his recipes over the kitchen table, one on one, as it were, no problem. But he lacks the authority and the shirt of an actual presenter. (Did he think this was just a run-through? Surely a producer could have nudged him towards trousers?) Thirdly, the judges, who claim to have reached the top in pastry by cooking “from the heart”, but who come across as superior and nit-picky and entirely free of “heart”. I suppose that comes with the territory – it’s Bake Off: The Professionals by a sillier name – but it’s the show’s downfall.

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There is nobody to love, or to root for in this contest. The three teams of three top desserters have nothing but contempt for their competitors. They are in it to win it. When the first round of trays were presented to our unsavoury judges, subtitles allowed us to hear the bitchy comments from the other cooks. (I will not be the first to make comparisons with The Apprentice.) One particularly arrogant gentleman with sticky-up grey hair and “30 fucking years” in pastry, swore twice, lowering the tone further with each “****”. While the Bake Off – and I know it’s not the Bake Off! – runs on a rare, renewable energy of niceness and neighbourliness and lending each other a cup of raising agent, Creme de la Creme is Thatcherite in its sense of cutthroat competition, and should be held in the City, for people who work in the City and still wave wads of banknotes around. That one of the teams comes from a firm that caters privately for City oligarchs who can afford not to fraternise with the wider populace says it all. We are the wider populace; they are literally not for the likes of us.

If this entire show was an elaborate hoax set up by a psychology department to see if a pastry chef would actually kill another pastry chef in order to win a cake-off, I’d find it easier to understand. (By the way, the subtitling was woefully inconsistent: the English-speaking cooks were subtitled when they whispered nasty things to each other, but not the French judge, or the one from Singapore, or the Scottish team captain, all of them literally incomprehensible at points.)

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It’s a show about food. It should be mouth-watering. It should be moreish. It’s not. It should make you want to cook. It does not. Because the endless identical rows of laser-guided concoctions of preening silliness do not make you hungry. (Or at least, they only make you hungry for an M&S-bought fancy out of a box.) Who wants to watch a competition that involves metal rulers and, at one stage, a piece of cutting equipment that looked surgical by nature. I don’t watch Bake Off – and I know it’s not the Bake Off – to be reminded of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.

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I shan’t be watching this show again. Mean-spirited contestants making stupid food that is judged numerically, like ice dancing? It stuck in my throat.

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The comeback

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I’m a bit baffled by the new BBC3. I understood the old one. It was a youth-aimed BBC tributary that hothoused new writers, programme-makers and performers away from the vertiginous ratings expectations of BBC Two or BBC One, with a particular affinity for new comedy, which it served well. (The first sitcom I co-wrote, Grass, debuted on BBC3 in 2002 – the newly-branded channel’s second ever comedy commission, and I’ve worked on other BBC3 shows, notably Badults.) However, since it “went online”, BBC3 seems to have radically changed while at the same time stayed exactly the same. It still commissions edgier stuff, some of it in online-friendly bite-sized chunks, some of it “gateway”, all of it on a tighter budget, but as with the old steam-powered channel’s landmark hits – Little Britain, Gavin & Stacey – if they’re any good, they get promoted to BBC Two. Instantly, sometimes. About a week later. Such has been the case with Thirteen, an original drama that I hastily dismissed as being “for the yoot” – without watching it! – but which has been so moreish I binged on the first three episodes of five on Saturday. (Its fifth and final episode has appeared on BBC3 – ie. iPlayer – but not yet on actual telly.)

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I didn’t know the drama’s writer, Marnie Dickens (good writer’s surname), but a cursory search reveals that she wrote an episode of Ripper Street, and since there has been no bad episode of Ripper Street, she’s clearly no slouch. (She started on Hollyoaks, so I feel an affinity.) This, though, is her calling card. And while I have a few problems with it, the gusto with which I gorged on three episodes in one night, and the remaining two the night after is a rave review in itself. (While I gave up on The Night Manager, I stuck with Thirteen, which, unsurprisingly considering the budget gap, seems to have generated far less press. The cover of the dubiously aspirational Home supplement in the Sunday Times Homes went with, “Get the Night Manager look” at the weekend, which mainly entailed buying a sofa like the one Hugh Laurie sat on.)

The set-up of Thirteen is low-key high-concept: a young woman, Ivy, 26, escapes from a suburban Bristol street where she has been held captive for 13 years, snatched aged 13 while bunking off school. Dickens asks two questions: can she readjust to normal life after being “on pause” for all that time, and can the police catch her abductor when Ivy is clearly traumatised and not technically a reliable witness.

It’s an English Crime Story, set and shot in Bristol, but Dickens is clearly more interested in the relationships than in creating a Line Of Duty-style procedural. Though its casual attitude to police protocol seems to have bothered others, it didn’t bother me. (For instance, Ivy is picked up by police officers, barefoot and wearing just a granny-like smock, and taken to the station without any attempt to put a warm coat around her, or something on her bare feet. Didn’t they have a spare hi-viz or a blanket in the boot? And while her family are assigned a Family Liaison Officer and a police guard at their media-besieged house, Ivy is able to pop out after a couple of days when her old boyfriend turns up; the pair of them quickly give their handily pregnant FLO the slip, and are thus long-lensed by a newspaper photographer, the only one still bothering to hang out at the house of the girl abducted 13 years ago. The scene where Ivy is used as bait to lure her captor out into the open at the Cabot Circus shopping centre was so shoddily policed – 40 officers on the scene, we were told, ready to step in, and yet the baddie was able to lure Ivy to a quiet photobooth and then lead her away to his van – it edged into farce. But I let these niggles go, as I was intrigued by the emotional story: the gaps in Ivy’s testimony, the Gothic weirdness of her and her family’s dilemma, and the way Dickens plotted the explosive effects of her reappearance on those closest to her: the boyfriend (now married), the parents (now split up), the older sister (now engaged), and the wayward pal (now moved to London, though still wayward).

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Jodie Cromer (who was in My Mad Fat Diary and Doctor Foster and is actually 23) never lost her nerve as Ivy, a starring role that was anything but glamorous: she spent most of the five parts in a pink, woolly comfort-cardigan with long, baggy sleeves, gazing into the middle distance and constantly on the verge of curling into a foetal position and screaming at the world. She shuddered like a bass speaker – it was quite a thing to behold. I also liked Natasha Little and Stuart Graham as Mum and Dad, and Richard Rankin as the sympathetic beardy detective. As for poor old Peter McDonald – the lovable Liam Moone from Moone Boy! – I’m sure every male actor quite fancies playing a psychopathic pervert for the panto fun of it, but there are only a handful of variations on the theme. (Fortunately for him, he was only really seen in the last episode.)

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My initial fears that Thirteen was aimed at The Young People were not totally unfounded. Although the characters who’d actually been teenagers when Ivy was abducted in 2003 were now in their mid-20s, they mainly behaved like adolescents, plugged into iPods, mooning around, throwing strops, refusing to eat their dinner and hating their parents. (Ivy was the only one with the excuse to be this way, having been in a basement for 13 years.) And call me an old fart, but the theme tune, by an American band called Dark Dark Dark, which one assumes was employed to keep the kids happy, was tonally wrong for the moody Scandi credits sequence and massively underpowered when used as the “our tune” of Ivy and the sappy ex-boyf. We’re meant to believe it was irresistible to dance badly to. Maybe if you’d been in a cellar for 13 years.

I come to praise Thirteen and point you at the iPlayer. It’s rare that I watch something I’ve cavalierly dismissed as “not for me” when recommended to do so by my nephew, but I’m pleased to have had the tip off. I suspect Dickens will go far.

Check the guy’s track record

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The People Vs OJ Simpson (FX; showing here on BBC2) comes under the anthology title American Crime Story, itself spun off from the anthology title American Horror Story, the ingeniously regenerative device of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that has given us the thoroughly unpleasant Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel (I watched all of the first three with glee, but bailed on Freak Show and have boycotted Hotel because Lady Gaga seems to be in it). Despite the wily, self-aggrandising rebrand, The People Vs OJ Simpson is a horror story as well as a crime story. Murphy and Falchuk treat those two impostors just the same. In their eyes, all stories are camp. This would remain the case if they launched American Sports Story, or American Accounting Story. And I hope they do.

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I know the OJ saga is in the public domain (and I remember the highlights of the legal circus from the time), but I have taken an unusual path with The People Vs OJ: I bought the book. I became instantly smitten with the show: its heightened tone, its showboat casting, its fixed setting at eleven. And after two episodes (there are ten), I sent off for Jeffery Toobin’s The Run Of His Life, published in 1997, which seems to reign as the definitive article. Five episodes in now, and I’ve finished reading it, unable to put it down. Way more than a court transcript, it does what the New Yorker does, which is to say: humanise reams of information. (Toobin began his story covering the trial for the New Yorker, and quickly became part of it, when police detective Mark Fuhrman sued defence lawyer Bob Shapiro, Toobin and the magazine over a leak.)

I usually make a point of not reading books that are going to be made into films. Indeed, I’ve been evangelical about it in the past. But I read Room by Emma Donaghue specifically because I knew it was coming out as a film, and I was glad I did. Even though it meant I knew where the story was going when I subsequently saw it, I felt that the experience of reading it (told from the point of view of the captive five year old son) was improved by having no pre-warning. I started reading High-Rise by JG Ballard in advance of the film, too, and in doing so, I better understand why the film didn’t quite work: it’s JG Ballard’s fault! Reading The Run Of His Life has been entirely different. We all know the outcome. We watched it on the news in 1995. Toobin’s book is predicated on the understanding that we know the ending, and that the ending is a grotesque travesty of justice; that OJ Simpson did murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in cold blood.

The book was safe to read. But having now read it, I am getting so much more out of the TV show. I know that it’s based on fact. It’s a matter of record. Sure, it’s exaggerated for effect – in real life, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal team did not file into Judge Ito’s courtroom in slow motion on the day that they discovered that the prosecution had strategically added Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden to the team, nor did they do so to the lowdown mid-90s G-funk tune Black Superman – but it’s factually accurate, it’s on the books (it was on Court TV, if you cared to watch it, and lived in America). Any surgical enhancement by the writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, D. V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Joe Robert Cole is rooted in fact. Except maybe the retro-fitted bits featuring the Kardashians. But the case is open and shut. If I hadn’t read the book, I might not have believed what went on actually went on.

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It’s a cliché, but you couldn’t make it up. When prosecutor William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) has a panic attack and faints in court, as a viewer, you’re assuming this must be made up. It’s dramatised for effect, but it pretty much happened. There it is on page 259 of Toobin’s account: “Hodgman noticed a strange feeling in his chest … a tightening … the sensation didn’t go away … paramedics were called.” That the actual trial descended into grave farce is a gift. I can’t wait for the black glove. I can’t wait for prosecutor Marcia Clark’s mid-trial haircut, according to Toobin “a much-admired transformation that landed her hairdresser on Oprah.” (Sarah Paulson is my favourite among a stellar cast – I’ve seen pictures of Clark and the resemblance is sound, although it’s reading about her on the page that paints the clearest picture and Paulson has worked it all into her performance.)

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Dramatising “actual events” is a common thread on modern TV, true crime is so fashionable people will even listen to it on a podcast, never mind on glossy cable TV, and actors seem to spend most of their careers now doing “karaoke” turns as real people. But we all accept  artistic licence, otherwise you’re literally just watching great actors read out transcripts. The skill, I think, with The People Vs OJ, is in organising the material in such a way that it slots neatly into ten episodes. See how they used the famous white Bronco chase to tease us from episode one into episode two (“The Bronco’s gone!” gulps David Schwimmer’s pathetic Robert Kardashian, a line that only works if we know exactly where the Bronco has gone and is going). Episode five ends with an imagined vignette of Furhman listening to what sounds like Wagner while admiring an Iron Cross among his collection of Nazi memorabilia. This was a cheaper trick – like a cliffhanger from Dallas – but it works as television. And this is fabulous television.

Just let me know when American Gardening Story starts and I’ll be there.

Take it to the bridge

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In this trouble town
Troubles are found

Happy Valley concluded last night and pulled off a Godfather Part II: series two was even better than series one. (I’m pretty sure I can’t be alone in thinking this – Alison Graham at Radio Times certainly stated it for the record early on in this six-part run.) This defies science. Even TV’s finest dramas – and in fact, especially TV’s finest – struggle to match the freshly-picked novelty and from-a-height impact of a brand new series. A recommission remains the Holy Grail for all creators of TV. Suggest killing off a character for, you know, dramatic reasons, and at least one nervous producer will voice the concern: “What about series two?” A drama that doesn’t aspire to “return” is, in TV orthodoxy imported from the bulk-buying US, not worth a damn. The only series in town is a returning series. And a long-running returning series is gold. (A co-writer and I were specifically warned not to kill off a character at the end of a first series in the unlikely event that we would be recommissioned. We weren’t recommissioned.)

Broadchurch is was one of the cleverest whodunits of the modern era – keen sense of place, high-end casting, intricately plotted, franchisable police double-act – it packed the requisite revelatory punch (few saw the culprit coming) and left millions of us reeling. And satisfied. It was such a valuable “property” for ITV, who needed this kind of real-time, water-cooler hit, there was literally no way it wasn’t coming back as Broadchurch II. Creator and sole writer Chris Chibnall, a hardworking, far-sighted storyteller whom I happen to know (and have admired far longer than I’ve known him), rose to the challenge by extending the story in a direction he’d already mapped: following the court case and throwing a bag of spanners back into the precision works of his own completed, eight-part mystery, forcing us to reassess our certainties, and taking us back to Titanic. I enjoyed series two to the end, while ratings remained around the dizzying 10m mark, but it drew nitpicking complaints about legal intricacies and investigative plot-holes that I felt were actually symptoms of viewer disgruntlement with the very fact that ITV seemed to be diluting a show they loved. Like BBC Two’s The Fall, which I also rated highly, the second series was a challenge for the writer and the viewer. We had to believe that the detective and the serial killer would stalk each other for another whole series and it slid into parody.

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With the second series of Happy Valley, Sally Wainwright shows that she’d dug in so deep with series one that her little patch of West Yorkshire had sprouted new shoots. It’s hard to credit now, but I wasn’t too sure about the first scene in the first episode of the first series back in 2014 and almost bailed before it had got started. In it, Sgt. Sarah Lancashire reels off her curriculum vitae to a suicidal man who has doused himself in petrol:

I’m Catherine by the way, I’m 47, I’m divorced, I live with me sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict, I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me, and a grandson, so … It’s complicated, let’s talk about you.

I felt insulted by this expositional dump and my finger hovered over the “BACK” button on my remote. Luckily, I persevered, and by halfway through that episode, the whole thing just slotted into place and I was hooked. Just as I had been with Broadchurch, I was strapped in for the duration. And not alone. The final episode’s big showdown between Catherine and nemesis Tommy Lee Royce on a barge – also involving petrol (feel the circularity) – was as satisfying, conclusive and yet open-ended as it needed to be. (Again, like Broadchurch, and The Fall, it concluded with more viewers than it had started out with – something that goes against nature in television drama.)

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When we returned to the Calder Valley six weeks ago, I was as thrilled to be reunited with those vivid, flawed, red-blooded characters as any other fan: the taciturn Catherine, a mother hen with nesting problems and a voice that sometimes has to fight its way out from between her pursed lips (drawing ire in some quarters for “mumbling”, although not from me); Siobhan Finneran’s cuddly recovering addict, so real when she fell off the wagon (as was her taller sister’s reaction to this calamity); the indefatigable Ryan, played by Rhys Connah, who treats restlessness about his past and a new Scalextrix just the same; Charlie Murphy’s kidnappee Ann, now a PCSO and getting on with it. Against the same steep hills and the two-faced Hebden Bridge (desirable, yet at the same time deprived), we met new folk: Katherine Kelly, Vincent Franklin and Kevin Doyle’s detectives; Amelia Bullmore as the latter’s lover, Julie Hesmondhalgh as his wife; Con O’Neill as another recovering addict who establishes himself as Clare’s knight in minimarket employee’s armour and a man so nice he must be nasty. And James Norton, inconveniently back on ITV as Grantchester’s ecclesiastical sleuth and still fresh in our minds as War & Peace’s dashing Prince Bolkonsky, still looms over the entire valley as sex offender “That Man”, as Catherine calls him. And Shirley Henderson as the killer shrew. What riches.

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At the outset, I was filled with wonder that an actress as experienced and powerful as Susan Lynch could be slotted into what looked like such a peripheral part as a farmer with a picked-on son, but even though she would remain in a supporting role, she was anything but peripheral to the story. This is Happy Valley; actors of that calibre are understandably keen to be in it. Without going into the plot in any detail, what struck me once again, and all along, was the confidence of Wainwright’s writing. Scenes tend to be long and meandering, like scenes in real life are. An editor who’d been on too many courses might have suggested pruning some of them back, or cutting away more often, but Wainwright held her course, and the result was captivating. (That she took over directing duties, too, suggests an iron grip.) Clare and Neil’s first scene outside the shop (fabulously backdropped by an enlarged photo of some champagne being poured as if to mock the ordinary rhythm of these people’s lives) went on for too long. Clare and Catherine’s scene at the allotment went on for too long, and contained too much information about what Clare was doing with the planks. And yet it didn’t. None of it went on too long.

That kind of confidence has to be earned, and even though I never took to Last Tango In Halifax, or Scott and Bailey, I can see how hard Wainwright works to make it look as if she’s not working that hard. That blurt of exposition way back in episode one, series one (“I’m Catherine, I’m 47“), now sings out to me of a writer who knows exactly what she’s doing! She gets away with it laying the table: go on, tell me that’s the wrong way to introduce my central character! She’s mine! That this second series ended with Catherine trying to talk someone down, just as she did in episode one, series one, was no accident (and nor was the gallows humour she teased from the exchange, a trick that had me smiling and relaxing before I found myself gasping with my hands on my face, and inhaling audibly in my own living room). Happy Valley is what British TV drama should be all about: personal to the author, but of universal appeal. That it is being followed on the same channel a week later by Line Of Duty puts the BBC back in the frontline of fiction. Another drama whose second series was arguably better than its first.