Like the battle

LoD3MCAD

Urgent exit required. You can say that again. Hearts were in mouths. Breath was taken. Edges of sofas were perched on. Kettles were not boiled. Shots were fired. Lines were crossed. Evidence was presented. Lorry drivers were asked to follow that car. Line Of Duty (BBC Two) mostly talked its way to glory in the series three finale, but when Dot texted those three magic words, the ensuing shoot-out and car/foot chase were a blessed relief. It began with a man being shot and ended with a man being shot, linked by a whole identity parade of other men, and although enough threads were left hanging to allow Jed Mercurio to resurrect the case should he wish to in series four, the protracted interview sequences (protracted even for LoD) pretty much joined all the dots to Dot. (Craig Parkinson is one of a few actors I know well enough to have a coffee with, and he is, of course, a charming, uncorrupt, non-shifty, non-lurky man in real life, but he played one of about a dozen blinders in this series.)

You don’t really need another voice added to the chorus of approval at the end of what has been, arguably, the tightest, most disciplined and most topically resonant of the three series so far. But I would like to commend all concerned for creating the holy grail of steam-powered television in the stream-powered age: TV you want to watch when it goes out (the equivalent of John and Gregg’s “food you want to eat” on Masterchef). But the fuss being made currently seems disproportionate. Not because series three wasn’t amazing. It was. But because it was the third series. There were two more before this one. Its quality and addictiveness are nothing new. We first met the anti-corruption outfit AC-12 in the summer of 2012 – Steve, Kate, Ted, Dot, Nigel – in a five-episode run that saw Detective Chief Inspector Tony Gates (Lennie James) investigated. Its ratings held steady and firm at around 3.7 million. Figures slipped a bit for series two in 2014, in which we met DI Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes), but crucially defied TV ratings orthodoxy by rising during the six-part run, a sure sign of positive word of mouth. A buzz was created. Social media said hello. As such, anticipation for series three was high. And the heat was on Jed Mercurio.

LoD3grave

While Gates was killed (he walked into traffic) in series one, Denton was merely locked up, and her return was series three’s second big shock, after the Marion Crane-style death of its apparent new lead Daniel Mays in episode one. Mercurio knows how to play to the gallery: he had an audience this time, and he gave us what we wanted: surprises, police procedure and – yes – loads of talking. It was the lengthy interrogation of Mark Bonnar’s crooked Detective Chief Constable Dryden in series two that really strained preconceptions about what a TV audience wants and rewrote the rulebook in doing so. As Vic and Bob used to say, it’s not all talking, but Line Of Duty‘s courage and conviction live in those interrogation scenes. By the way, it’s always Adrian Dunbar’s Ted Hastings who makes those scenes breathe with his muttered asides. Scenes like those should by rights be dry and technical, and they are, but individual characters still arise from within them, which is fantastic writing. (Ted’s even got a comic catchphrase: “Hastings, yes, like the battle.”)

LoD3VMgun

I’m all for hyperbole and noisy praise, and I like it when the name of writer is bandied around by people who normally only name actors, but the morning after the last episode before is no time to nominate people as the next James Bond because they did a bit of running on the TV. Most of the principal cast on LoD had already established themselves in any case; this just gave them a perfect platform to show us what they’d got, and which many of us already knew they had. But the fact that even the most loquacious and verbose cheerleaders of Twitter seemed content merely to say “breathtaking” speaks volumes about the shock it left us in.

LoD3VM

Let us not forget that series one and series two were also breathtaking, and so were the actors in them: Parkinson, Dunbar, Vicky McClure, Martin Compston, Keeley Hawes, Neil Morrissey. That the main characters now seem to exist is as much down to the airtime they’ve had as the skill with which Mercurio has developed them in series three. I want them back. We all want them back. Urgent re-entry required.

I wonder how many people currently whooping about LoD saw Bodies in 2004? I wish they’d repeat it – it was on BBC Three and I imagine only a critical hit – it’s one of the best medical dramas I’ve seen. And Line Of Duty is one of the best crime dramas I’ve seen. That’s hyperbole enough.

 

Advertisements

Outside. Now.

RTPeakycover

This is what the 30 April-6 May 2016 cover of Radio Times looks like. If you live in Birmingham. If you live anywhere else in the country, it looks like this:

RTVictoriaWoodcoverApril16

I have been a journalist for 28 years. I know how this works. The first cover story I ever wrote, professionally, was about The Fall and their new album Extricate in the NME dated 25 January 1990. I was inextricably proud. Since that momentous day, I have not written that many cover stories, by which any freelance writer’s stock can be measured. Even when I got my own desk and became a commissioning editor – at NME, Select, Q and Empire – I rarely gave myself the cover story to write. It didn’t seem politic, and in any case, a good features editor will have an army of great writers to call upon, and to not call upon them would be a dereliction of duty. I gave myself Carter USM, twice, and My Bloody Valentine, and Billy Bragg, at NME; I gave myself Blur, and Paul McCartney, at Q; and was given Blur and Alanis Morissette by the features editor at Select; at Word, where I was a humble freelance again, I was given Elbow, and the Stone Roses. Age does not wither the excitement of writing a cover story.

wordelbowWordcoverRosesMay2012

Peaky Blinders was a story I’ve been writing, as in researching and interviewing for, most excitingly on location of the imminent third series, since November. It is a production that’s close to my heart, and I’ve been more or less embedded with it this time around, hosting the press launch, and a BFI screening. I even had some exclusive material for my cover story, which can be read in the new Radio Times. Even in a cynical media world where instant gratification drives everything, people on both sides of the glass care about magazine covers, the timing of them, the exclusivity of them, the sheer magic of them in a prelapsarian age of paper and staples and shops and high streets. Cillian Murphy was on the cover of the Guardian magazine last Saturday, but that doesn’t count, as you can’t see the cover of a supplement on the newsstand – it’s wrapped and sometimes bagged up around the newspaper itself. The gorgeous full-face of Cillian Murphy on the cover above can be seen, even by browsers. But only in Birmingham.

Here’s the problem: famous and brilliant people have been dying at an alarming rate this year, many of them TV names: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, Terry Wogan, Maurice White, George Kennedy, George Martin, Keith Emerson, Ronnie Corbett, Garry Shandling, Prince, and, at a fearfully early age, Victoria Wood. When I heard that she’d died, last Wednesday, I was in the Radio Times office, where the magazine dated 30 April-6 May 2016 was being put together by a team of dedicated professionals. I was, in that instant, sad. Sad for her, obviously, and sad for her friends and family, and for all the viewers who would never see a new Victoria Wood programme on television, which includes me. And I was also sad for the Peaky Blinders cover. Even a show as rich and beautiful and improving as Peaky Blinders will be on again the week after, and the week after that, and the week after that. But you only die once. And some lives demand to be memorialised in the affectionate and comprehensive way that the magazine I work for has done this week for Victoria Wood. (As it did for Ronnie Corbett, and Terry Wogan. Just as you turn to 6 Music to get you through the death of a musical hero, Radio Times does the job with a TV hero.)

Which is why I am personally glad that Peaky Blinders made the cover in one very specific part of the country: its home. (The contents of both versions of the magazine are identical.)

 

 

It’s no game

GoT6a

There’s a brief respite from all the crudity in the crude Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy Sisters where, to illustrate what a bad time three uninvited party guests are having, we see them “enjoying” a night in with Game Of Thrones (HBO, Sky Atlantic). The buttoned-up host, Maya Rudolph, tells one of her guests off for referring to Prince Joffrey actor Jack Gleason by the actor’s name (“did you know he was the little boy in Batman Begins?”), reminding her that by breaking the spell “you’re not allowing yourself to live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.” The other guest is reminded of the “no phone policy”, and it is also revealed that they’re drinking alcohol-free wine, they have to take off their shoes, and there are further “rules”. The message is: all the fun is happening somewhere else.

GoT6ad

To love GoT is to denounce “fun” in the traditional sense. It is by definition hard work. You can’t casually watch it. (I’ll never forget the moment on The Culture Show when Lauren Laverne challenged David Simon over the unfriendliness of The Wire to the casual viewer, to which he mischievously replied, “Fuck the casual viewer.”) Rattling on about the new, sixth season, which began in the middle of the night here, but which I watched in comfort the evening after, to Andrew Harrison, Matt Hall and Jude Rogers on the inaugural Bigmouth podcast, I was shocked to discover that Jude follows the saga’s progress by reading online episode guides so that she can empathise with her GoT-addict partner, but doesn’t actually watch it. Having sat on the Best International Programme Bafta jury a couple of years ago, I watched Game Of Thrones literally divide a room, almost down the middle. Jurors – the great and the good of British TV – either loved it, or hated it. It didn’t even make the shortlist that year. Which is an ignominious fate akin to something Ramsay Bolton might cook up for one of his best friends, considering it is regarded by many people as the greatest current show on television. This is how many.

GoTratingsgraph

Correction: that’s how many people legally watch the show on HBO in the States. Beginning with 2.2 million (already a jackpot for cable), it has grown to around 8 million and holds steady. It’s illegally watched by millions, and even though I have nightmares about creative people not being recompensed for their labours, I do like the way certain executives on the production are sanguine about torrents and piracy – after all, it’s illegally seen by superfans, who may well invest at other stages in the product.

Sorry, did I call it a product? Game Of Thrones is a way of life. I’m wary of using words to describe it, as Clive James has done that, at length, in the New Yorker, and it’s free to read online. There’s rarely any point writing about something Clive James has written about. But what I will say is this pertinent thing: Episode One of Season Six, The Red Woman, was perfectly adequate. It did the job. It moved things along a bit. It was an episode of Game Of Thrones. What other show that you love to death would you let get away with just getting from A to B – and sometimes not even get to B? There was once an entire season that was just about getting from one place to another place, but that’s broadly the gist. The Red Woman picked up the ball moments after the end of Season Five, Mother’s Mercy, with a dead Jon Snow in the snow and panic on the ramparts of the Wall, Sansa and rebooted Greyjoy on the run from Bolton, Jamie sailing into King’s Landing with a shrouded Myrcella to reunite with his sister-bride the subdued but vengeful, Margaery in the clink with the “confess” woman (“Confess”), Jorah and Daario in search of Daenerys, and Arya on the streets with those cataract contacts in. Stuff happens: a spear through the back of the head, timely intervention by Brianne and Pod, and a terrifying revelation about Mellisandre being the most memorable. But still we fixate.

GoT6Cersei

Clashes of kings, queens, princes, princesses, high priests and priestesses, lords, ladies, knights, witches, white walkers, wildlings, bastards, eunechs, wolves, crows, dragons, at least one imp and at least one Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and of the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons … a cast of thousands, a vast geography that literally requires a map, umpteen castles, keeps, longboats, dungeons and catacombs, and one iron throne that has borne many a bottom in its time. Clive James was put off by all this guff – and so, on past form, should I have been – but it wins you round with sheer commitment to a set of fat books that millions have read, but which no longer provide a handy guide, as the TV series has overshot author George RR Martin’s text. It’s on its own now. We’re fixating without a safety net, and the “readers”, as I think of them, may no longer lord it over the rest of us, whom I think of as “viewers”. It has been a grand struggle for succession, and the “viewers” are in the ascendant.

GoT6Arya

If you want eye-popping detail, and witty insight, you simply must follow Sarah Hughes’s Guardian episodes recaps, and – if you can bear to look – the comments beneath. Sarah is the one true queen to those of us who take off our shoes, forswear our phones and live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.

Confess.

 

 

The plateful eight

Masterchef16nineMasterchef16eight

And then … there were eight. This series of Masterchef (BBC One) has been one of, if not the best ever. We’re on the cusp of the semifinals. The nine contestants in the above screengrab were reduced, like a fine sauce, down to eight on Friday. (We were sorry to see queen of puddings Natasha go.) But even in the early weeks, we were seeing talented and inventive cooks being eliminated, so high has the standard been. It’s hard to believe we got here without Pedro, and Jacob, and Julie, and Alec, and Mark, and Noma, and Kath, and Caron, and Jessie, and Tom, and Rob, whose names are already fading from memory (I made one of those up, just to prove it). In any other year, some of those competent and imaginative preparers of food would still be in the competition, but the heat is so intense this year, and has been since the start. Usually a “home cook” would still be in the running, but although “full-time Mum” Jane was initially patronised into that Masterchef archetype, it seems a dim and distant memory. It’s true that some of the “characters” have fallen by the wayside, but that tends to happen, as the quarter-finals require a raising of the game (especially when cooking game) that allows less room for mucking about and/or getting away with it.

Masterchef12final11 Last year was a big one for me and Masterchef – and I speak as someone who watched the very first Sunday-afternoon incarnation of the show in 1990, with future sauce mogul Loyd Grossman – it’s the year I accepted Masterchef: The Professionals into my heart, after seven years of denial. A full-time adherent to Celebrity Masterchef – a spin-off format I even stuck with after Michael Buerk tried to derail it by not only being a bad cook but by clearly not wanting to be on the programme in the first place – I snubbed The Professionals, as I could not for the life of me see the appeal of watching professional cooks cook. (In many ways, this is what sucks Bake Off: Creme de la Creme of the mothership’s charm.) I was wrong. In August last year, I met and interviewed no-nonsense Professionals judge Monica Galetti at an exclusive screening of the first episode in a cinema in Edinburgh attended by hardcore Masterchef fans, and it opened my eyes. (Yes, the contestants work in professional kitchens, but at a level that makes them just as keen and hungry as the non-professionals. The format works. I’m in.)

Masterchef16food2

It’s a big commitment watching a full series of Masterchef, as, unlike the Bake Off, it’s way more than just a bucolic weekly pleasure. We’re talking at least three, and up to five times a week (the precise format is constantly tinkered with). That’s a lot of reductions, fondants, tuiles, ganaches, three-ways, crumbs, purées, brittles and inadvisable sous-vide bags, and a lot of variations on the clichés: “I’m gutted,” “I like to push myself in the kitchen,” “I want to show the judges what I’m made of,” “I go to bed at night thinking about food and I wake up in the morning thinking about food,” “Food is my life,” “I hope I’ve done enough to stay in the competition,” and the bingo classic, “I’m cooking outside my comfort zone.” (Every time we hear one of those phrases, I’m inside my comfort zone.) Sometimes it can feel like an endurance test, but when it catches fire like a blowtorched lettuce leaf, rarely does an edition goes by, not even in the wheat/chaff early rounds, when some magic doesn’t occur, whether it’s the crescent shape of the accompaniments to a beautiful dish, a Gregg Wallace gurn or a John Torode “lovely, lovely thing”. In most hour-long programmes, it’s all three. Masterchef done three ways, in fact.

Masterchef16logo

We all have our favourite rounds. I’m not sorry to see the back of the palate test (unless it re-emerges in semifinal week), where they have to guess what’s in a dish John has cooked and copy it. The meat and potatoes of Masterchef is, for me, and has always been since the 2001 revamp, a round in which a dish is prepared, or three dishes are prepared, and evaluated by John, Gregg, past finalists, restaurant critics, or fellow chefs. (I understand the need for the professional kitchen round, which is more of an insight into how much of a git a professional chef can be, but it’s too tense for me.) This series, the visiting critic has chosen a key ingredient for the contestants to showcase – that’s new – but it all boils down to the basics: can you take some things and make them taste nice? As John and Gregg habitually put it: “food you want to eat.” As opposed to the other kind: food you want to look at, or Instagram. (In a later episode of Parks & Recreation, while everyone else tucks into a tasting menu, Tom takes photos of the food and is the only one who avoids getting food poisoning from a mini calzone.)

Masterchef16love

Of the remaining “Plateful Eight”, the favourite has got to be either Jack (above, glasses), or Liz (above, top of head), with Annie and Juanita in the running. But there’s always room for a late spurt, and the more arduous cooking tasks of the semis sometimes reveal new frontrunners. I was glad that the two early contestants who had that Apprentice-style over-confidence and outward determination to “win” didn’t survive. It’s not about winning, it’s about cooking. You don’t “win” the professional kitchen round; you survive it. You don’t “win” the blockbusting semifinal tasks, you just cook, in teams, in pairs, or individually, to the best of your preternatural ability, and with the ingredients provided, and leave it to the judges to judge. (As with the Bake Off, Masterchef contestants support one another – they all want each other to win.) Billy is the closest to a “win” contestant in the remaining quorum, but he’s a softie. I can’t think of a knockout competition with so many hugs and tears.

In The Apprentice – a Hunger Games for monkeys which I forsook many years ago – it’s “You’re fired.” In Masterchef, it’s “You’re fried.”

 

We British

IndianSummersraj

My education into British colonalism began with Carry On Up The Khyber and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. I guess I must have been about ten or eleven when I first saw the film on TV, which was concurrent with the start of the popular BBC sitcom. I gathered that both were set in the past, and the military aspect helped me correctly place It Ain’t Half Hot Mum at the time of the Second World War. (Up The Khyber is set much earlier, as evidenced by the uniforms, although such historic subtlety wouldn’t have occurred to me at that young age; the BFI synopsis says 1895.) The Carry On was prototypically subtitled The British Position In India, which clarified things somewhat. Here’s what I learned about the British Raj at that time: “we British” – as the Indian bearer Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to ironically say – seemed to rule over India, where Indians live, on the other side of the world. Quite why was not made clear to me then. But you accept the world as it is handed down to you at the age of ten or eleven.

CarryOnUpTheKhyber

Without the luxury of historical or ethnic context, I followed the crux of the comedy in both film and sitcom: that “we British” were a bunch of arses. Pompous, incompetent, cowardly, entitled, and no match for the cunning and wisdom of the Indians (“There is an old Hindu proverb …” as Rangi used to say in wrap-up). In Up The Khyber, an Indian uprising is quelled by a kilted regiment revealing to the revolting natives that they wear no underwear beneath their kilts. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, our military heroes belong to a camp concert party, and their militaristic sergeant major’s attempts to man them up are a constant source of frustration for him and laughs for us. In the Carry On, Kenneth Williams plays the Indian ruler, the Khasi; the equally Caucasian Angela Douglas is his daughter, Princess Jelhi; and the Jewish Bernard Bresslaw is Burpa leader Bungdit Din. More infamously, Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was played by an even more vigorously “browned-up” Michael Bates, who was born to British parents in British India and spoke Hindi, but was not by any stretch of the imagination Indian. (The usual excuse for this is that there weren’t many Indian or Pakistani actors working in Britain in the early 70s, which may have been statistically true, but they managed to cast the other two key Indian roles with Bengali Dino Shafeek and London-born Babar Bhatti. It’s sobering to remember that David Lean cast Alec Guinness as Hindi professor Godbole in A Passage To India in what you might have hoped was a more enlightened mid-80s.) Is it any wonder my view of the British Raj was somewhat shallow?

IndianSummerstitle

I am older and wiser now, further-educated by a wealth of drama set at the time of the British position in India: A Passage To India, Gandhi, The Jewel In The Crown, The Far Pavilions, The Man Who Would Be King, even Black Narcissus. These have all been far more helpful than the two formative comedies. I’ve also read India: A History by John Keay, which I ordered from a book club and found very informative. And now we have Indian Summers (Channel 4). Or, in fact, maybe we don’t, as I just read that C4 have pulled the plug on it after two pricey series.

My politics place me in historical opposition to the British Empire. The very idea of it feels foreign, bullying and distant: lording it over large parts of the globe? Ruling the waves? We seem unable to run a whelk stall or organise a piss-up in the brewery in the 21st century. For me, our imperial past is nothing to be proud of – I’m vehemently against medals being handed out in the name of the British Empire – and I expect my dramatists to feel the same. What’s refreshing about Paul Rutman’s ambitious drama, which opens in 1932 but was planned to go on, is its clear focus. It revolves around the community of civil servants and hangers-on who repair up the mountains of Shimla during the unbearably sticky summers, where they rule a hilltop fiefdom, dress to the nines (at one party as French aristocrats), drink, cavort, patronise, put on plays, wheel, deal and throw their weight around with the “natives”, who are of course not to be trusted, except for Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), a clerk, who is, but perhaps shouldn’t be.

Indian Summers

Now here’s my confession. I watched the first episode of series one last February, and, despite the strong cast (Craig Parkinson, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Patrick Malahide, Edward Hogg, Fiona Glascott), and some fetching locations in Malaysia, I felt I’d seen it all before and took it off series link. When it returned for its second series, we decided to give it another go, watched episode one and realised very quickly that we were lost. (There are ten episodes a series.) Conveniently, C4 has the whole first series on catch-up, so we rewound to the beginning and started again. Not since The Knick have I been so wrong about a TV drama based upon my first impressions. The series-one binge was glorious: all the internecine intrigues and secrets (Chris Chibnall once gave me the sound advice: “Give everyone a secret”), and despite the inevitable clashes between civilisations, the line between Good Indians and Bad English was never too thickly drawn. Rutman, who claims no Asian credentials but who worked in India as a drama teacher and fell in love with the culture then went home and read up on the Raj, is interested enough in the more extreme cultural difference and racial divide – the club run by Julie Walters actually bears a sign warning “No dogs, no Indians” in series one – but finds subtleties of conflict to explore dramatically too.

IndianSummersDalal

One of the Brits asks how an Indian from one social caste can recognise that another Indian is from a different caste. There is no concrete answer: you can just tell. This cleverly shows the extent of the remove at which the colonialists operate from the indigenous population, and how complex a board game they have taken on – or at least, the one the East India Company took on. (Indian Summers does not get bogged down in history, concerned chiefly with the here and now, which has enough local difficulty to be getting on with: Gandhi’s hunger strike, the rise of the Indian National Congress, political representation for the “untouchables”, the Government of India Act, provincial elections, terrorism, snakes. On top of these tensions and shifts, Rutman weaves further stories out of the hockey-sticks comings and goings of the colonial whites: affairs, illegitimate babies, power struggles, marital disharmony, fraternity with the natives, financial ruin. Dalal’s family has conflicts enough for its own soap: between him and his fiercely rebellious sister, his sister and his Anglophile father, both parents and his girlfriend Sita.

Although Julie Walters plays the old-fashioned lovable music-hall racist and hostess Mrs Coffin (which sounds like a Wood & Walters character name) for broad melodrama – in one scene wearing a massive headdress to her latest free lunch on the verandah which opens up to reveal a live dove – and Patrick Malahide’s viceroy could have stepped out of the dinner party scene in Up The Khyber, picking bits of plasterboard out of his pith helmet, the most striking “baddie” is far more complex, Lloyd-Hughes’s Ralph Whelan, boyish viceroy-in-waiting, who runs the gamut from dastardly to benevolent and treats those impostors just the same. A lustily sneering political climber, he’s brilliant. You want him to get the gig, even though he’s willing to do anything to get it.

Indian Summers

So, I’m behind on series two, but literally catching up, with a suddenly empty goal ahead of me, simultaneously berating myself for getting it so wrong at the start and grateful to have had the luxurious experience of racing through series one at a lick. Paul Rutman, incidentally, is one of those writers who’s been plugging diligently away on big TV brands like Lewis, Vera and Marple, and this is his big passion project. Even if it must end before its time, his passion shows, and I’m pleased he got to make two series of it, at a lofty price tag. If you, too, have denied yourself this big, colourful pleasure, please adjust your position.

Home and away

Early Release

Three British dramas I’m currently enjoying for different reasons. Undercover (BBC One) is a taut, perhaps over-stuffed contemporary “issue”-boiler from ex-barrister Peter Moffat (North Square, Criminal Justice, Silk); The Durrells (ITV) is a much softer, holiday-brochure Sunday nighter based on zoo man Gerald Durrell’s beloved childhood memoirs, adapted by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly); and Marcella (ITV) is a Scandi-bleak contemporary psychological crime thriller and a vehicle for its star.

The first begins in Louisiana, where a black prisoner is on death row and where it’s quite clearly South Africa. (I can’t always spot faked locations, but I had a feeling about this one that turned out to have grounds. And we all know South Africa is a cost-effective location.) Sophie Okonedo is a British lawyer representing the prisoner, whose end is nigh (and who’s Dennis Haysbert from 24), and, back home, Adrian Lester is her husband and apparent primary carer; their older two kids are watching the countdown to the lethal injection online. What is an issue for Haysbert’s character isn’t an issue for the other characters in these establishing scenes: colour.

Undercoverpair

To all intents and purposes, the fact that Lester, Okonedo and their kids are black is irrelevant. (That the son seems to be on the autism spectrum is also treated lightly and not as a big deal.) This is a refreshing thing in British TV, reflecting perhaps a new age of diversity-awareness and increased colourblind casting. She didn’t need to be black to defend a black prisoner. She just is. Neither is his apparent job anything to do with race: I think he’s training to be a swimmer? The big early reveal is that he’s an undercover police officer. However, in their shared past, 20 years ago – fed to us in lengthy flashback because it feeds the present-day narrative – their being black is pertinent, as he’s been specifically prepared to enter a racially sensitive world, that of anti-racist activism.

The future couple meet cute at the rally of a black-power activist (Sope Dirisu from Humans), who plays a key part in the story, which hinges in the present on Okonedo being considered as the Director of Public Prosecutions, which, if she landed the top job, would make her the first ever black DPP – again, a detail that fires a lot of the story. Thus, it turns out that Undercover – although written by a white writer – is a black story, on BBC One. That in itself is something to be proud of. It features black lawkeepers and black lawbreakers, political and apolitical. And at the rally, Okonedo’s bouncer-shaped then-boyfriend (Thomas Dominique) is perceived to be “blacker” than Lester’s undercover cop (he speaks in Jamaican patois), which creates an interesting, almost class- or caste-based friction.

There’s lots going on here, lots to process – too much, arguably – but you know with Moffat that he knows precisely where he’s going and he balances the two timeframes like a chef.

TheDurrells

The Durrells is something approaching the polar opposite of Undercover. It’s set in the past, indeed an idealised past, and based on the childhood memoirs of Gerald Durrell. That it fills ITV’s early Sunday evening slot should come as no surprise. Set in the years between 1935 and the start of the Second World War, and beginning with the beloved volume My Family and Other Animals, it was brought to you by Men Behaving Badly crowd-pleaser Simon Nye (who adapted the trilogy for a one-off in 2005, which is unlikely to be shown again in a hurry as it starred Chris Langham as Theodore Stephanides). Thus it has a light comic touch, poking gentle fun at the silly ways of an English family abroad, and basking in the glory of the Greek island location.

theDurrellsKH

It must be weird for Nye to have already adapted the three books into a 90-minuter, and to adapt the same material into six hour-long eps. (I never saw the first version so I’m unable to confirm or deny if he’s recycled his original dialogue?) But there’s little doubting his comfort with the stories and the tone, and it has a pleasing confidence, and is, again, deftly cast, with Keeley Hawes, simultaneously severe as DI Lindsey Denton in Line Of Duty, making brisk work of the jolly-hockey-sticks Mrs Durrell, widowed into action and determined to make a go of this moving to Greece lark, despite the laziness of her brood, keener to moon, shoot, foster animals and get drunk than help out in their wreck of a house. She was almost ten years older in 1935 than Hawes is now, but she does a clever job of upping her mumsiness and clomps around the island with a mixture of innocent-abroad and the-world-on-her-shoulders. It’s fun. It’s funny. And there can be no harm in that. (I also like the fact that it’s directed, very fetchingly and with not too many drone shots, by Steve Barron, who directed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video and whom I interviewed for the NME in 1990 about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie!)

MarcellaAF

Staying on ITV, something that’s no fun, but that’s the point. Marcella (pronounced “March-ella”) is an English-language, London-set departure for The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt, so it’s a crime thriller with a fairly high concept: the titular lead investigator, returning to work after maternity leave, suffers from blackouts. You have to accept that she gets to hold down a responsible job with this condition, which she keeps secret. What could possibly go wrong. I disliked the last thing I saw Anna Friel in – Homeland-influenced NBC thriller American Odyssey (I lasted one episode; NBC lasted 13) – but liked the thing I saw her in before that, Norwegian-Danish-British wartime true-adventure The Saboteurs, in which she played a fictitious British intelligence officer. I’m for her in general. Like Sarah Lancashire, she’s put her soap immortality behind her. Here, she’s believable enough as a cop – less so her resentful boss, played by Ray Panthaki – and as the wife of a philandering City-type husband (Nicholas Pinnock). The “baddies”, who, naturally, all work in Canary Wharf and build high buildings (a-boo!), are less nuanced: Sinead Cusack, Patrick Baladi, Maeve Dermody. Maybe their characters would seem exotic and aloof if they spoke in Danish or Swedish? In English, they’re a bit panto.

MarcellaLDN

But I really like the fact that it’s set in London, and features recognisable but ordinary places like Edgware Road Tube station – as well as the ugly City skyline like a row of tramp’s teeth – and I think Friel carries it, playing both victim (of her illness and an unfaithful husband) and protagonist. It’s sweet to see former star export Jamie Bamber in a supporting role as the decent detective Marcella once didn’t sleep with. Remember when he was the thrusting, brave Apollo of Battlestar Galactica and then it went all quiet? I’m happy to see him again on British TV. I wonder if he’s moved back here?

All the current fuss is quite rightly being made about Line Of Duty, which I’m also hooked on. But there is a strong drama unfolding elsewhere and I’m starting to think we may be going through a purple patch, terrestrially.

Birmingham Blues

Peakypremscreen2

With one of my favourite dramas Peaky Blinders set to return to BBC Two for its third season in May (actual date yet to be confirmed), and a lot of activity at my end, having visited the set and written a story for next week’s Radio Times, it seems an opportune time to dust down this passionately corrective column on the lack of depictions of Birmingham and the West Midlands on our TV screens. It was published on the Guardian website in September 2013, but it’s still relevant. (Although who remembers crime series By Any Means?) For the record, I’ve seen the first episode of the new series, and it scales new heights. But let’s talk about Brum …

Peakylineup

Peaky Blinders, BBC2’s big-hitting, six-part period gangster saga may be saddled with an offputting title and unhelpful comparisons to Boardwalk Empire, but it remains a truly unique piece of dramatic television. Why? Because it’s explicitly set in Birmingham, a city that’s all but ignored, dramatically speaking, outside of soaps. Not since Slade In Residence on The Smell Of Reeves & Mortimer in 1993 have we had so many unashamed Brummie and Black Country accents in our living rooms. As a son of the East Midlands, I have an innate soft spot for the despondent downward intonation at the end of a sentence and the over-articulated “ng” sound of my Black Country and Brummie cousins. But a study of regional accents in 2008 found that Birmingham’s gave the worst impression of “perceived intelligence.” In the test, silence gave a better impression.

This certainly seems to have been taken to heart by TV commissioners. And who can blame them when, in an otherwise glowing review of Peaky Blinders in the Sunday Times, critic AA Gill complained, “It’s not that it’s impossible to sound … intelligent with a Brummie inflection. It’s that the rest of us just don’t care. We know from the first flat vowel that it’s going to be probably about boilers, or carp fishing.”

Benny from Crossroads has a lot to answer for. The infamous motel-based soap was set in the fictional Midlands village of King’s Oak and filmed in and around Brum. Many of its stars were local – Roger Tonge, Ann George, John Bentley – but it was simple-minded handyman Benny, played by local boy Paul Henry from 1974 to 1987, who came to epitomise the show; a gift to Tuxedoed impressionists. He lingers as the region’s woolly-hatted ambassador, with his entreaties to “Miss Diane” (rather, “Miss Doy-ane”).

BrumBarry

Brickies-abroad comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet – produced by Midlands franchisee Central – had a token Brummie: low-voltage, Wolves-supporting electrician Barry. He was so endearingly played by Timothy Spall over the show’s two decades it became impossible to extricate the Black Country accent from bumbling innocence. The rise to MTV reality-show superstardom in the noughties of damaged Aston-born rocker Ozzy Osbourne in The Osbournes did nothing to reposition popular opinion; the downward intonation signalled “lovable idiot”.

Concurrently, Jasper Carrott of Acocks Green bestrode TV like a comic colossus throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s; it’s a great accent if your job is to make people laugh, as Frank Skinner might subsequently testify. Carrott wrapped his horizontal vowels around the mock-biker anthem Funky Moped in 1975, a Top 5 hit.

It was produced by ELO’s Jeff Lynne to underline its “Brum Beat” credentials. Birmingham has long been a cradle of rock, its foundries giving birth to heavy metal and a civic fondness for leather and long hair, hence the “Grebo” movement of the late 80s. That the latter scene’s prime movers were the larky, fart-lighting Pop Will Eat Itself and acid-tongued pranksters The Wonder Stuff may not have helped the Black Country’s bid to be taken entirely seriously. (Although now that PWEI’s leader Clint Mansell is a prolific and respected Hollywood film composer, maybe detractors should check their prejudice.)

Steven Knight, creator of Peaky Blinders, former gagsmith for Carrott and a native of Small Heath, was asked by the Visit Birmingham website why Britain’s second city is so rarely represented onscreen. “Birmingham people stay in Birmingham,” he replied. “In London, you’ll meet a lot of people from Manchester and Liverpool because they want to get out. Whereas in Birmingham, people tend to stay, so that pollen doesn’t get distributed.”

LibraryofBirmingham

It’s a theory that, like the 160 miles of canal that helped make Birmingham “the workshop of the world” during the Industrial Revolution, holds a lot of water. The tragedy is that the bulk of Peaky Blinders was shot in Leeds and Liverpool. Meanwhile, By Any Means, BBC1’s glossy new contemporary crime show, is shot in Birmingham and produced out of the spanking BBC Drama Village in Selly Oak, but makes no mention of its geographical location. At least Doctors is set in a fictional Midlands town, Letherbridge, while the soap’s Mill Health Centre is an affectionate nod to decommissioned production hub Pebble Mill. Perhaps we’ll glimpse the incredible new Mecanoo-designed Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square in a future episode of By Any Means. Surely that wouldn’t give a bad impression of “perceived intelligence”?

As Lynne wrote in the ELO tune Birmingham Blues, “It may be kind of homely but it sure is sweet/Industrial Revolution put it on its feet.”

First published in September 2013

Sad men

Happyish7

This series has been cancelled. Happyish (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) is no more. That’s your lot. It’s been and gone. What turned out to be the tenth and final episode of the Shalom Auslander-scripted gloomcom went out on Showtime in June last year, though happily all are now available to view on Sky catch-up. Happyish was axed. Which is a more melodramatic way of saying that the broadcaster declined to recommission it, which is in the broadcaster’s gift. Even cable is cut-throat. In the strong language of the show itself, “F— you, Showtime.”

Happyishfinger

It had a troubled birth. A show about a depressed 44-year-old advertising executive who’s feeling his age in an increasingly youth-skewed industry, it was written by Auslander (a David Sedaris-like author and humorist) with Philip Seymour Hoffman in mind. He’d agreed to do it, and a pilot was filmed, but then he died. Which is a very Happyish thing to do. Steve Coogan was drafted in, and the character remained the same, except he was now an expat Brit with one of those frankly irksome, bendy transatlantic accents, which Coogan is very good at, as it’s one I think he slips into in real life as soon as he lands at LAX. (We’re witnessing John Oliver develop one before our very ears on Last Week Tonight.)  The key word here – and it’s a word that’s said A LOT in Happyish – is “asshole.” It’s pronounced as if it were a hole belonging to an ass, not to an arse. Asshole.

The first episode begins as the single season means to go on, with Coogan’s character, Thom Payne (geddit) saying “Fuck you!” to Thomas Jefferson, and raising the finger to camera. In a subsequent episode he does the same to God. It’s this kind of metatextual, Billy Liar-ish fantasy element that makes Happyish Marmite; Payne regularly consults animated characters from adverts, and in one episode he and his wife Lee (Katherine Hahn) join Moses (a Richard Kind cameo) in the Promised Land. I’m all for it, and am currently racing through the one and only season, wishing there were more, but knowing there isn’t, which is an odd feeling. (I remember watching the first episode of David E Kelley medical drama Monday Mornings, enjoying it, then reading that it had been cancelled by TNT after one season, and I instantly lost the will to carry on watching it. It’s like befriending someone on death row)

Happyish5

Happyish is an “authored” sitcom, the kind of thing we do well over here, and it’s clear that the entire cast are speaking for Auslander, whether old, young, black, white, Jewish, not Jewish, American or English. Again, I don’t mind that. I love mithering, neurotic Jewish humour. The cast is tip-tip, with roles for Ellen Barkin as a cougarish headhunter, Andre Royo (Bubbles!) as Payne’s best pal, Carrie Preston as an agency creative and Bradley Whitford, particularly enjoyable as Payne’s alcoholic, colic fiftysomething boss (I think – they seem to be equals, but not). But you could take a line from any character except perhaps the Paynes’ son, and give it to any other character. Hahn manages to find her own brand with a force-of-nature performance. While Coogan (likeable no matter how grey the cloud above his head gets) is essentially depressed and cynically fatalistic the whole time, she has her art and grabs moments of free-spirited joy, which are then crushed by routine and parenthood and reality. It basically supplants Mad Men to the 21st century of Silicon Valley, throwing in viral marketing, social media and Google, and relocating its central couple to bucolic, organic but snowbound Woodstock, where Lee can nurture her utopian, anti-consumerist dream of not buying an iPhone. (She is the anti-Betty.)

Happyish1

If you look at its ratings on Showtime, they go from 0.4 million to 0.2 million. I don’t think this is even workable on a cable network. (The Affair, albeit much more mainstream, tips 1 million on Showtime; Ray Donovan does 1.5 million; the more comparable Episodes only gets 0.5 but it’s been steady for four seasons. Meanwhile, Mad Men was getting at least 2 million on AMC.) I’m sad – if not as sad as Thom Payne – that my enjoyment of Happyish will be cruelly finite (I have three episodes to go and am trying to savour them), but TV is cruel. Fuck you, TV!

 

He’ll be back

TWDS6finale

SPOILER ALERT

NO, REALLY, SPOILER ALERT!!!!

IF YOU HAVEN’T YET SEEN THE SEASON SIX FINALE OF THE WALKING DEAD AND DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END OF IT, PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THE BLOG.

Good. I’m among friends. The man with his back to us in the screengrab above is Negan. He is a bad man. One of the worst men. All through Season 6 of The Walking Dead (AMC; Fox), we’ve scented him. Negan, a name top-loaded with negativity and carefully chosen to rhyme with “Reagan”, has struck fear into us since Episode 8, when Daryl, Abraham and Sasha are held up by some organised bandits called the Saviours who explain, “Your property now belongs to Negan.” From hereon in, Negan took on mythic status, and when he finally stepped out of his trailer, inscousiant and grinning, like Jeffery Dean Morgan’s investigator Jason Crouse over on network TV in The Good Wife except with menaces and a sporting implement, it was almost a relief.

TWD6Negancomics

If you’re reading the source comics (which I’m not, although I occasionally dip in to see what a character looks like on the page for comparison to the televisual incarnation), you’re ahead of the series. You know what Negan is capable of, and what he actually does (“KRAKK!”); more crucially, you’ll know which of our heroes gets beaten to probable death at the end of Episode 16, Last Day on Earth. We, the hapless viewer, can only guess. Then wait six months to find out. And there’s the rub.

I have read that “fans” are displeased by this cliffhanger. I don’t really know who these “fans” are, as I don’t frequent TWD forums, or search social media for consensus. I can’t think of anything worse than having my phone to hand while watching a TV show, all the better to scroll through Twitter and find out what people I’ve never met think of the TV show I’m in the process of watching. I find watching stimulus enough, with perhaps occasional real-time comment with a close family member. In this regard, perhaps I am not a “fan”, although having watching TWD from Episode 1, and only dipped out during Season 2, I feel like one. You have to mean it, man. It’s an arduous watch sometimes, and intended to be. It can be existentially dispiriting and doomy. It is, after all, a metaphor for the world we live in, always on the edge of collapse and feral survivalism. There but for the grace of God etc.

TWD6pose

Dread, recoil, tension, disgust, these are its tag words. Smiles are rare. Laughs rarer. Relief from the grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia comes only fleetingly, a portent of further grinding, death-stalked misery and paranoia. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his ever-evolving band of bedraggled brothers and sisters have moved home a number of times, but it’s never a wise idea to put out too many framed photos on the bedside table. The Walking Dead is uniquely horrible, and that’s why I love it. We tend to tape it and watch it early in the evening, rather than last thing at night. Because who would want to submit to sleep with nightmares already sloshing around?

TWD6midGlenn

Like any “fan”, I have my ups and downs with the show. But what “fans” seem pissed off about after Season 6 is the manipulative nature of the cliffhanger. Which of our assembled 11 goodies – Rick, Glenn, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Rosita, Aaron, Sasha, Abraham, Carl, Eugene – has been beaten to death by Lucille, Negan’s pet name for his barbed-wired-wrapped baseball bat? This is cable TV, after all, and Game of Thrones, another gory fantasy based on a literary property, has helped establish the unsettling lottery of principal-character mortality in the line of narrative duty. Nothing is sacred. No-one is immune. That said, it won’t be Rick. (Or Aaron – who would care if Aaron died?) Lest we forget, the mid-season cliffhanger showed Glenn (Steven Yeun), another seemingly “safe” character, having his guts pulled decisively out by a scrum of walkers. But he survived. (They weren’t his guts; he was trapped beneath Nicholas, whose viscera they were.) Was this a cheek? Cheap fanbait? Was it manipulative? (Of course it was, it’s fiction, it manipulates.)

Ever since Dallas left us hanging over the small matter of who shot J.R., long-running drama has used a big question mark to keep us on the hook. The “death” or otherwise of Jon Snow on GoT in the show’s Season 5 cliffhanger is another recent case in point. In an over-connected world of chatter, such trifles get talked about to death. Jon Snow may or may not be dead, but the discussion is. (The Walking Dead’s companion show is called The Talking Dead. I have never watched it. I don’t want to see the actors out of costume, mucking about in a chat show setting as it breaks the spell.) I will find a way to survive for the next six months in what is necessarily a break from the show. “Fans” can discuss it until they’re left with nothing but a husk. Me, I have wondered who might have had their skull caved in by Negan, but I’m not losing sleep over it. I’m fairly sure it’s not Maggie, a pregnant woman, although that would be the brave choice for Scott M. Gimple and his 100 producers.

One thing I have learned re: the Negan Cliffhanger is that there are two distinct kinds of Walking Dead SPOILER: the TV SPOILER, and the comic-book SPOILER. A moany Guardian blog (“Fans had to wait almost a month to find out if Glenn made it out alive”) warned at the top of a TV spoiler, but gaily gave away who Negan caved in by way of a comic-book SPOILER. (This, by the way, is a SPOILER I won’t repeat. This is Telly Addict, not Comics Addict.)

TWDGuardianspoilercommentTWDGuardiancommentspoiler2

As a GoT “fan” who tried to read the first page of George RR Martin’s first Ice and Fire novel (“Now a major TV series!”) and couldn’t get further than halfway down it, I am a very content TV-only consumer. If you can stomach fantasy literature, and millions can, then you’re going to be watching GoT in a totally different way: largely unshockable, and a bit superior, knowing that the Red Wedding is coming and all that. The comic-book early adopters of TWD will be the equivalent. How much sleep they must lose over the fact that Negan doesn’t look like Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the comics? (I understand he’s supposed to look like Henry Rollins.)

TWDposter

It’s possible to be a “fan” and not continually rail against the makers of the show you’re a fan of when things don’t pan out precisely how you want them to. It’s a commercial product on a commercial television channel, designed to sell advertising space, merchandise and DVDs, not a charity. Call it “Negan-omics.” If Season 6 ended in the middle of an innocuous sentence about growing sorghum wheat, rather than the showstoppingly violent death of one of 11 beloved-ish regulars, complaints would still be lodged at the highest level (ie. on a forum or Twitter). I look forward to finding out who is dead when the time comes. And then we’ll move on to the next cliffhanger.

KRAKK!

 

Stop of the Pops

TOTP81run2

I love Top of The Pops (BBC Four). I realised how very much I loved it when, a year after Jimmy Savile’s death, the nauseating truth began to unfold and any editions of the nation’s favourite chart show presented by the grim reaper were understandably taken out of circulation. (He hosted around 300 editions between 1964 and 2006, including the first and the last.) In 2012, the year Operation Yewtree began, BBC Four were in full nostalgic swing with real-time repeats of Top of The Pops on Thursday nights, by then most of the way into 1977, a chance for those of a certain age to relive their youth. Sinister, telltale gaps started to appear in what had previously been an unbroken weekly virtual reality experience. Gary Glitter, arrested that October and jailed in February 2013, was already persona non grata in archival terms, and had long since been wiped from pop history. But now, with good reason, we lost any editions the monstrous Savile hosted or co-hosted. The subsequent arrest of Dave Lee Travis in November 2013 removed another batch of Pops shows (he was eventually convicted of one count of indecent assault in 2014). The arrest and imprisonment of Rolf Harris made less of a mark on the archive as he’d stopped having hits by the late 70s (although the mid-90s edition where he performs Stairway To Heaven will most likely now not be shown – if we get that far).

TOTP80PP

Even though Paul Gambaccini was acquitted of any wrongdoing, his arrest in 2013 temporarily cast doubt over editions he presented. Disaster averted there, thankfully. And now Tony Blackburn has been sacked by the BBC (not arrested, by the way, but fired from the BBC because his testimony to Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into Savile differed from the Corporation’s version of events over an allegation made in 1971 which Blackburn denies and which he claims the BBC never interviewed him about at the time, hence the disparity, hence the overreacton by Tony Hall). This, we have to assume, takes the many shows he presented off the table, which certainly includes a couple in the early 80s, otherwise packed with fabulous music from a peppy time when the studio seemed less like a mausoleum and more like a balloon factory. All of this makes you grateful for Peter Powell, John Peel, Paul Burnett, Simon Bates, Kid Jensen, Steve Wright and indeed any Top Of The Pops presenter never to have had a knock at the door from Inspector Knacker. (Incidentally, Blackburn has threatened legal action against his former employers and continues to broadcast on local commercial radio in Kent.)

TOTP80Boy

We’re into the 80s now, so at least we can put history’s most sexually suspect decade behind us. The very glimpse of a presenter with his arms around teenage girls now makes us shudder, however innocently, even if it speaks of no greater crime than being an adult male working in the entertainment industry between the years 1970-79. The tactile culture, an implicit patriarchy where young women were still called “girls” or “birds”, was not helped by the weekly cavort by Legs & Co, all-female dance troupe, often scantily clad (some weeks, even into the 80s, Legs & Co are essentially in bras and pants), and, one may assume, filmed by all-male camera crews; the creepy male gaze in full effect. It really was another time, another place. I was a child during the 70s and not expected to be sexually anything, never mind sexually enlightened; I gorged on TOTP, weekly, because it had all the pop acts and bands on that were in the charts. It was a simple contract.

TOTP81run

As an adult, I have been all over the BBC Four reruns. Top of the Pops has become again a must-see treat, every Thursday. With all the episodes that have been retired due to unforeseen sexual assault and predatory paedophilia, it’s an incomplete experience, but one that I still cherish; even if, let’s be brutally honest, there’s nothing to top the sheer plurality of a 1970s Pops, with its feverish mix of glam rock, rock’n’roll revivalism, punk, disco, soul, funk, novelty singles and end-of-the-pier holiday cabaret music sung by people who looked like your auntie and uncles. Apparently, there is still a chart, but it’s not on telly every week, and it’s bent out of shape by downloads and the X-Factor, and I haven’t heard of most of the people who top it (or if I have, I don’t much care about them, as they don’t seem to be able to make a record without one of the other people “featuring” on it).

TOTP80PP2

To an extent, yes, I live in the past, and TOTP enables that illusion for 30 blessed minutes. The past is a foreign country, and a half-hour cross-section of its popular music gives me a Proustian rush and a snapshot of a more innocent time. (I realise the very idea of “innocence” is now tainted by grim findings, but you know what I mean). To give you a clue as to how far out of synch we are now with real-time TOTP, the editions now showing are from August 1981 – we’re five months into the future in the past! BBC Four have been occasionally showing two a week, as if to sweep these valuable time capsules under the carpet (or maybe just to clear the decks for the Proms and the more-important festival season). The writing may well be on the wall. The Top Of The Pops balloon may be about to go up. History has been rewritten by the victims, and we must respect that. But I so wish the BBC could afford to sit an editor down in a suite for a year and carefully edit out any sexual miscreants from archived shows, so that we could at least watch the music without the links.

For the record, I wrote about Savile in my other blog in October 2012, before Yewtree’s findings.

Stop Press: see comments below for insight into why editing out miscreants might not work.