Dracula meets Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man meets Dr Jekyll meets Mr Hyde meets Dorian Grey

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I wasn’t sure about Penny Dreadful (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) at the birth. Something about the random-seeming audacity of mashing up Frankenstein, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey into one over-the-top show. (That Victorian reading list has since expanded to include The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and incorporates The Wolf Man, which was a film.) But it came alive and fell into place for me in episode two when Eva Green’s apparently possessed protagonist crawled over the seance table of Helen McCrory’s spiritualist like a potty-mouthed Dickensian Linda Blair in The Exorcist, and the very same audacity revealed itself not to be random after all, and clicked. Created by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall), this was actually a flamboyant, costumed challenge to purists, and a gift from one horror aficionado to another. It was in the spirit of Universal’s mercenary 1940s brand-offs like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man – except deadly, if not at all times deadly serious.

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Now, three episodes into season three, I believe it has entered its baroque period. It’s as if the show itself is a manifestation of Simon Russell Beale’s continually finessing facial topiary. After what I felt were a couple of longueurs in season two (I zoned out of the Cut Witch diversion, even though I accepted that it had backstory ballast, as I wanted to get back to the thrilling present with the wax museum, the Pinkertons and the Verbis Diablo), this one swaggers with an inflated confidence and seems to want to break its own taboos. (Without giving too much away for latecomers, there was scene in episode three that involved three-way sex and enough blood to fill a barrel.) John Logan is the presiding genius, creator and showrunner, the Frankenstein to Penny Dreadful’s monster, and his has been the only ever writing credit. That’s 21 hour-long episodes thus far without the visible fingerprint of another writer on them. Producers are credited, but never specifically as writers. I’m certain it’s tabled and punched up, but it’s a rare example of an “authored” US show. It exhausts me just to think about Logan typing every single word. Boardwalk Empire was written by around 20 people over its five seasons; Breaking Bad at least a dozen; even The Knick, which was written predominantly by its two creators, had another loyal captain standing by to take up the slack. Logan makes me think of the Tom Waits song, in which he repeats, “What’s he building in there … ?”

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Penny Dreadful warns of adult themes and scenes of a sexual nature, and has had them from the start (remember Rory Kinnear’s entrance as the creature?), but it is fundamentally a whole heap of fun. Blood is spilled. Blood is smeared. Blood is sucked. Blood rains down on a ballroom full of dancing Victorians and paints the walls of an inn after a massacre. But what season three does, already, is to get out of town. Previously confined to London, which looked suspiciously like Dublin, it has lately exploded into the Wild West, the Arctic (a direct nod for scholars to Mary Shelley’s text) and Africa – what Logan describes as “different geographies” – and it’s quite a treat to see the sky at last. Just as films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre challenged the precepts of “noir” by heading out into the baking sun, Penny Dreadful has pushed back the perimeter fence of Gothic.

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A word on the cast. Eva Green has always been a challenge, as her character, Vanessa is by factory setting an unsmiling, unapproachable “project” of a woman, but she inhabits it like Helena Bonham Carter might do, except without the knowing smirk. Vanessa does not smirk much. Her current window of romance is set to slam shut, and her mania to revisit her past through Patti LuPone’s therapist promises much. (Logan describes the series as being about “one woman’s journey to faith” – hers.) Timothy Dalton has found the role of his life as the grizzled, grieving Sir Malcolm, an amalgam of every retired 19th century adventurer and the motley cast’s father figure; as has Josh Hartnett, a former lightweight who rises to the challenge of the lycanthropic cowboy. A thrill, too, this season, to see Wes Studi (Last of The Mohicans, Dances With Wolves) with his striking features seemingly carved from a rockface, and the promise of Brian Cox to come, no slouch either in the geological physiognomy. The lithe, panda-eyed Harry Treadaway now spars in the lab with Shazad Latif (the IT guy from Spooks and Clem Fandango from Toast!), while Billie Piper and Reeve Carney as the Bride of Frankenstein and Dorian Grey get to grips with new kid Jessica Barden – their story is only just coagulating. Rory Kinnear had an intriguing story in season two, leading to self-exile, but in digging into his past, season three seems to have somewhere deep to go – a rhyme with Vanessa’s rebirthing, perhaps. Oh, and Samuel Barnett as a boyish Renfield – there are no flies on him.

I find the show heady and preposterous, fine and dandy, dark and troubling; in going over the top it gets under the skin. I think Lou inadvertently summed up Penny Dreadful in 1951 in Abbott and Costello Meet The Invisible Man: “I went to shake his hand, his hand was gone. I looked up to speak to him, his head was gone. Then he took off his shirt, his body was gone. He took off his pants, his legs were gone! Then he spoke to me, I was gone.”

Tommy, a rock opera

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I’ve spent so much time since my first set visit to Arley Hall in Cheshire in November in and around Peaky Blinders (BBC Two) – in fact, since I flew to Dublin in August 2014 to meet Cillian Murphy for an interview to herald series two – I seem to have almost forgotten to simply review it. With all the interviews I’ve done on set, in trailers, in pubs and hotels and private clubs, on the phone, and in panels after screenings, and all the column inches I’ve written subsequently, I feel like I’ve done nothing but talk about, and thus “review” Peaky Blinders. But now we’re halfway through series three, which all involved promised me was the best yet, it’s a pleasure to be able to confirm that. It is the best yet, and furthermore a completely different beast to series one and two. All that was magnificent about one and two – the ambition both practical and emotional, the epic scope, the anachronistic music, the intensity of the acting, the almost expressionistic look of the thing (the work of three directors in total: Otto Bathurst, Tom Harper, Colm McCarthy) – is present and correct in three, but more so.

And if any scene in last night’s third episode summed all that up, it was the disarming montage set to Soldier’s Things by Tom Waits. It goes something like this.

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Oh, and this one is for bravery …
And this one is for me

Tommy has been prevented from torturing the doomed head of the rival Italian mob family, Vicente Shangretta, played by Ken Colley (Jesus in Life Of Brian, trivia fans), by the swift intervention of Arthur, who shot Shangretta in the head before his grieving, raging younger brother could subject him to a long night of short knives. A coup de grace, it was a decisive moment: an insubordinate act, an act of mercy, a challenge to Tommy’s increasingly fraught and unpredictable methodology (and an echo of the name of his deceased wife, Grace). The plaintive piano of Soldier’s Things, from Waits’ pivotal 1983 LP Swordfishtrombones, immediately sets the tone of the aftermath, one of quiet reflection, perhaps a moment of clarity for Tommy. The lyric speaks of a military veteran assessing the flotsam of his life, counting his medals, and selling his belongings.

And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy orders younger brother John – not exactly a centre of gravity himself but we’ve seen him, too, show mercy – to get rid of the body and, importantly, get rid of his torture kit (“for good”). The song, which lays everything out, becomes a lament for Tommy’s past life and offers potential hope of a settlement, or a deal with the God he doesn’t believe in, in the future.

He drives himself home, and pulls into the ornate drive of his country compound, the grand house that he and Grace and baby Charles called home until she got caught in the crossfire. Steven Knight declined to show us the funeral (having made such a big deal of the wedding) and instead jumped forward this episode into the depths of Tommy’s grief, which drove him into himself, and into his Gypsy roots, with fire and horses and spells. This line was perfectly synched with the image of the car pulling up:

It’s good transportation
But the brakes aren’t so hot

This is the fusion of great writing and plotting, deft direction from Tim Mielants, who, with Ben Wheatley’s talented DP Laurie Rose, has injected the series with a certain roving urgency as well as an eye for grandeur and Grand Guignol, and attentive editing from Celia Haining.

Neckties and boxing gloves
This jackknife is rusted
You can pound that dent out on the hood

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A tinker, a tailor
A soldier’s things
His rifle, his boots full of rocks

A sudden burst of light, as Tommy is reunited with his and Grace’s only son – so much more than a “thing”. This almost Athena-like tableau of father-son bonding provides another rare moment of Tommy looking at ease with the world, rather than railing against it. He is indeed a tinker, and a soldier, and a thief. It’s as if Waits wrote the tune for him.

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Then it’s back to business. Tommy, the Godfather, back behind his oak desk, pensive, caught between the legitimate and the illegitimate, in cold limbo in fact. The dusty, almost sepia look is clearly a nod to the work of Gordon Willis on The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. We with long memories remember that Michael Corleone started out as a decorated war hero, a Marine returning from World War II with a Silver Star for bravery. He’d dropped out of college to enlist and shunned his family’s business. Tommy had no college to drop out of, and was conscripted in the First World War, but the melancholy of stars on the chest is the same.

Oh, and this one is for bravery
Oh, and this one is for me

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And everything’s a dollar
In this box

Tommy finally walks silently into the room where Ada, still “legitimate”, is studying. She’s his sister, not his wife, but like Kay Corleone, there is a tacit understanding between them that she will not ask about “his business” and he will not tell her about it.

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As the song ends and Tom Waits’ piano – so very rarely licensed to TV or film – tinkles out, Tommy slumps in the chair, a man who’s learned some heavy lessons, not least the one of mercy from his own, born-again elder sibling.

But the song’s end signals the end of reflection, for now. It’s back to work: “There’s someone ahead of us, and I need to know why.” Ada has been doing some investigative work on the Shelby Company’s behalf (she’s a librarian, and a Communist), and so she’s crossed a line, and Tommy is about to lure her over it.  Swordfishtrombones is an album of gin and ruin, wild years and after effects, bullets and shore leave, and one foot in a mythic American past. It couldn’t have been better chosen, as Tommy now has his sights on the port of Boston (“Boston, America?”), and there’s “a vacancy.” What could possibly go right?

Most dramas on TV you couldn’t even watch once. This one demands repeated viewings. They’ve created a rock opera. And there’s nothing else on telly like it.

Returning officer

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Huh? What just happened? A promising, seemingly self-contained, issue-driven crime drama by an assured and reliable writer reached its finale and, after seven weeks that should have been six, a nation started shouting at the telly. Undercover (BBC One) began so well and ended so badly. (That it was egregiously scheduled over five consecutive Sundays, with a week off to make way for the Baftas last Sunday, and then this finale two weeks later was a mistake to rival the random first two weeks of Dickensian. Talk about kicking your loyal audience in the teeth. Over on ITV, Marcella is being given the “event” treatment, with its last two episodes of eight being scheduled across two consecutive nights. Sometimes the BBC is its own worst enemy.)

The plausibility of Undercover was already strained when the BBC rested it for a fortnight after episode five, but still we waited, patiently. We wanted to find out how it would end after Adrian Lester’s undercover officer was finally unmasked by his incidentally epileptic Director of Public Prosecutions wife after 20 years of deceit. Actually, I’ve no idea what might constitute a plausible reaction to discovering that the man you fell in love with, married and raised three children with was lying to you the whole time and investigating from the outset (although this issue is a live one and has happened). But aside from giving Sophie Okonedo ample opportunity to cry and rage and shout and lash out, it didn’t feel right. She didn’t even kick him out of bed. And in this damningly suspect final episode, the entire family of four literally dashed to his aid in the woods to prevent a showdown that explained nothing.

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That Undercover offered no equivalent of the Big Reveal in the drawing room need not be a crime in these more sophisticated TV times; that it muffed any kind of comprehensible conclusion, save for a montage of bad guys having their collars felt, someone innocent getting caught in the crossfire, and a headline-only revelation linking Dennis Haysbert’s Christ-like death-row survivor’s parallel story to the one at home, was heinous. It felt to me like the ending had been tampered with in the name of “leaving things open” for a second series, with entire jigsaw pieces missing to keep us in the game. A crushing irony, this, because anecdotally it seems that these loose ends, implausibilities and ambiguities left a loyal audience vowing not to watch a second series. This wasn’t as headline-grabbingly mercenary as the end of the first series of The Fall – in which a delicious cat-and-mouse between a cop and a killer was cynically left hanging so that it could become a serial – but it was similarly ambiguous and greedy. Okonedo and Haysbert spoke in tongues about “going big” throughout, and in this final episode, she promised to “go bigger,” which is exactly what we didn’t want. Going somewhere is what we wanted.

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I won’t ask the question: why do they do it? We know why. They do it because even the BBC is under pressure to produce saleable goods; returning series, brands, properties. (In this respect, all broadcasters are commercial.) The days of single, self-justifying dramatic plays are long gone. We must be enticed to tune in again. But with the recent crowd-pleasing likes of Line Of Duty, Unforgotten, Happy Valley and – although I found it hokey – The Night Manager delivering big returning audiences and paying back our week-on-week loyalty with skill, rigour and invention, it’s unacceptable to muff a finale. And you certainly can’t have Adrian Lester being asked by his wife, in front of his injured family, to tell them his real name, and the screen going black just before he opens his mouth. What? So it’s tune in next year to find out what his real name is? We don’t care that much. His name is the least of those on our list of questions. What did the mayor of Baton Rouge have to do with it? Why was the DPP allowed to spend half her time in America? Why was the grizzled old hack in the woods? Why the glamorous Louisiana subplot in the first place? To tick some boxes for BBC America? (God, I hope not.)

I return to Chris Chibnall’s sound advice, “Give every character a secret.” Well, Moffat’s entire series rested on Adrian Lester’s secret – a secret going back 20 years – but once it was out of the bag, and the immediate fallout had been swiftly cauterised, Undercover seemed to flail about looking for other ways to keep us interested: the woolly newspaper-journalist subplot; the Haysbert death row case’s preposterous court hearing in which Okonedo became Atticus Finch and an apparent zombie gave evidence; the blameless autistic son being honey-trapped; Vincent Regan’s out-of-nowhere paedophile excuse. Some good acting was put in along the way – Okonedo’s seizures were excellent, and both Alastair Petrie and Derek Riddell shone as the baddies – but it was all thrown away by that final episode. As anyone in law will tell you, you have to get the jury onside, and keep them onside until they make their judgement. We have made ours: guilty.

 

PS: If you’re looking to join a support group for disappointed Undercover viewers, try below-the-line at Kate Abbott’s witty episode guide on the Guardian website. There is a definite consensus there.

Writing for money

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I met Damien Lewis, socially, at the Peaky Blinders BFI event last week. He was there to support his wife Helen McCrory. I’ve known Billions (Showtime; Sky Atlantic) was coming since January when I read this lengthy profile of Lewis in the New Yorker. We chatted about Billions, and about working in America, which he predominantly has done since being cast in Homeland. I was fascinated to hear him talk about how rigorous and bracing the American writing method is for an actor. We all know that the crucial difference between British and US drama (and comedy) is money: that is, they can afford to hire teams of writers and put them on the payroll; we can’t. As a result, our drama and comedy has an authorial “voice”, but theirs has an industrial fine-tuning that we can’t match. (And nor, I suspect, would most British-based writers want to match.) Having now watched episode one of Billions, created by three men, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Cornejo (they can’t even have ideas on their own!), and co-produced/co-written by Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Willie Reale, Peter K Blake, Heidi Shreck and Wes Jones, it’s clear to see how much polishing and “punching up” goes into these team-written shows. It’s like the difference between a car being washed, and a car being washed and waxed.

Many of my all-time favourite US dramas are produced this way, writers’ room style, and I’m not complaining. I wouldn’t want to do it, but I’m glad they do. Just listen to some of the finely honed lines in episode one of Billions.

“The decisions we make, the judgements we bring, have weight.”

“My cholesterol levels are high enough, don’t butter my ass.”

“A good matador doesn’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s stuck a few times.”

“You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass.”

These are lines you can quote. Whether anyone in real life would ever say anything like this is debatable, even in the testosterone circus of high finance, the world Billions is set in. Steven Knight, creator and “author” of Peaky Blinders, told me that he hates the idea of working in a room full of writers. “I think writers’ rooms work with comedy,” he said. “But I’m not so sure with drama. It becomes about social interaction and who can dominate that room. The person who sits there doing nothing might write the best scripts. And if one person wants to do it this way and another person wants to do it that way, you end up doing it the middle way. Writers’ rooms do produce some brilliant stuff, but I don’t know how. It must be an American facility for that.”

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It’s learned behaviour. Sure, it’s entirely possible that “You do an autopsy on the deal, you’ll find yourself a Pulitzer in the carcass” was written by a single writer. But it’s much more likely to have been re-written by the room, until every cadence and every syllable works like a well-oiled machine. Ever since The West Wing, I have been captivated by these kind of hyperreal, almost vaudevillian speech patterns. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, by the way, doesn’t appear to be related to Aaron Sorkin, the monarch of this kind of stuff.)

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The first episode of any US series feels like a product. It’s more often than not the pilot, which sells the whole series, and the next, and the next. But if it’s done as well as Billions, all that effort feels like light work. We can just stretch back and enjoy the show. And with two leads like the almost feline Lewis, as the happily-married rags-to-riches hedge funder (he eats White Castle burgers at his desk), and character heavyweight Paul Giamatti as the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, facing up against each other from the off, there’s plenty to enjoy. The genius bullet-point is that Lewis’s billionaire, Axelrod (“Axe”) is the fund’s only surviving partner from 9/11 – he literally rose from the ashes – and while that haunts him with survivor guilt, it also gives him the altruistic cover any predator in Wall Street needs (he’s actually based in Connecticut): he started a foundation for the families of his deceased partners and carefully keeps it just out of the public domain enough to make it seem like he’s not doing it for publicity points. Without this aspect, Billions would be worth less.

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The first concentric circle of supporting stars is also strong: Maggie Siff (Rachel from Mad Men) as the in-house shrink for masters of the universe who’ve lost their mojo, and Malin Akerman (Watchmen) as Lewis’s fightin’-Irish alpha-wife. David Costabile, as some kind of fixer, is also a welcome face – he was in Breaking Bad and Suits. The first episode also contained at least three solid reveals that show the confidence of the plotting (I won’t reveal them). There are some additional allusions in here, too that I dig – Axe’s dog territorially pisses in his kitchen and he admires it for doing so (explaining its instinctive actions to his two boys), and the sight of the same dog neutered, and with its head in a cone, which drives Axe to do something flamboyantly foolish in the public eye, which sparks the investigation that surely drives the first season.

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Sky Atlantic and Showtime have episode-dumped the entire season in one hit. I can’t wait to gorge on the remaining 11, which are already mocking me for not having seen them yet. This is already a series whose judgments have weight.

No great Shakes

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I watched two minutes and 38 seconds of the first episode of Ben Elton’s new sitcom Upstart Crow (BBC Two). In that time I did not laugh, and I did not smile, which seemed portent enough not to carry on with the remaining 27 minutes of it. It goes without saying that I still hold Ben Elton in high regard for writing, or co-writing, The Young Ones, Happy Families, Filthy Rich & Catflap, and the second, third and fourth series of Blackadder, plus all the stand-up routines he delivered when he was a lightning rod for the shifting tectonic plates of comedy in the 1980s and early 1990s, and his first novel Stark. (I suspect of all those, the novel will stand up least well to the passage of time, although I gobbled it up on publication, when I still thought he was a visionary.) But that all seemed a long, long time ago when I switched on Upstart Crow in good faith, as it looked for all the world to be a return to the fertile comedic ground of Blackadder. I was dissuaded of this Panglossian notion during the tortuous first two minutes and 38 seconds.

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That is my review. I voted with my feet. Comedy is subjective, so I hope others enjoyed it more than I did. A large part of my own comedy writing and script-editing CV took place within the world of audience-based studio comedy, so it is not the form that’s the thing, it’s the mismatch between how funny I felt a line being said out loud by talented actors was, and how funny the studio audience thought it was. I’m sure many people find a similar discrepancy, for which there is no known cure, in Not Going Out. Making a comedy with a studio audience is the opposite of the old stand-up complaint, “Tough crowd.” But it’s a mighty long way down rock and roll, from the Thames TV studio to your remote control.

As David Mitchell said just before I switched off, “It’s what I do!”

The truth

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You’ve seen the righteous, passionate, devastating drama. Now see the righteous, passionate, devastating documentary. Hillsborough (BBC Two), a two-hour account directed and produced by Dan Gordon, whose CV is dominated by films about sport, is a film about truth. A co-production made two years ago by ESPN and the BBC, and shown in America but not here due to the ongoing inquest, it was rapidly updated after the verdict, premiered here on Sunday and remains on iPlayer until the start of June. It still beggars belief that 27 years had to pass between the Hillsborough disaster and exoneration and redemption for the 96 victims, their families and friends, and every other Liverpool fan at that away match on 15 April, 1989. That’s a third of a lifetime, if you’re lucky. And they weren’t lucky. They were unlucky: to be at that FA Cup semifinal, to be Liverpool fans, to be football fans, to be in the away stands, and not be in any way responsible for their own fates.

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I don’t need to go again into the events that happened on that fateful Saturday, and in some ways I didn’t need to see it all again. But the documentary contained footage from the crush that I’d never seen before, as well as CCTV from the unstewarded chaos outside of the turnstiles at Leppings Lane that was still almost too horrific to watch, knowing what was happening in the stands, and what fate befell some of the fans were looking at in their last hour of life. It was worse than any horror film I’ve seen just lately, and I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk.

Jimmy McGovern’s drama was made in the teeth of frustration, when the families were, it transpired, still two decades away from clearing Liverpool’s name. This drama was made in 2014 and completed after the eventual “YES” from the jury at the fresh inquest in Warrington. This “YES” is the answer to the question to the jury: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?” This exchange was dramatically restaged in Gordon’s careful and sober account. He left a pause between that question – spelled out simply in a white caption against ghostly footage of an empty inquest room – and the affirmative answer. The pause hung in the air like the one before a result on Masterchef, but the two preceding hours had earned him a moment of heightened melodrama.

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I was concerned to begin with. In what is now standard documentary grammar, Hillsborough opened with a dramatic reconstruction, not of the inhuman crush itself (thank God), but a seemingly unrelated vignette involving a young police officer being attacked in a dark alley by two men in balaclavas. I immediately recoiled. What was this? Why would a documentary about such a grimly compelling true story need this Crimewatch-style pre-credits “cold open” to grab our attention? I wanted the truth, and I wanted the truth told clearly and without melodrama.

I needn’t have worried. The dramatic reconstruction was sparing from thereon – close-ups of actors playing Duckenfield and Popper and Stuart-Smith to fill in some of the blanks – and this incident, which happened “eight years earlier” (another drama trick), really did light the fire, as the assault on the young PC was a cruel prank by fellow officers, the blowback from which, after an investigation and sackings, meant that Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, an officer with experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who understood football and football supporters, was transferred, 19 days before the fateful match, and replaced by David Duckenfield, an officer with no experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who neither understood football nor football supporters. We heard that he called Nottingham Forest “Nottinghamshire” at his first press conference. Portent.

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The inquest pointed the finger at management, not individual officers on the ground, a handful of whom provided moving testimony against this film’s sober black background. They went to work on a Saturday and they stared death in the face. One of them, PC Martin McLouglin, courageously told of his own nervous breakdown in the weeks after the disaster, finding himself on patrol near Sheffield in a squad car and both crying and wetting himself at a level crossing. It was not just the families and the survivors of the crush who were damaged. And it was the management, the ironically-named authorities, who shamefully doctored the statements of officers on the ground who dared to question the way the disaster was handled (having been told not to write anything in their pocketbooks, something dramatised by McGovern). Stalin would have been proud of South Yorkshire Police.

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Carefully interwoven with contemporary establishing footage of fans visiting the ground, and lingering shots inside Leppings Lane from the time when it was a crime scene, Hillsborough built a slow, steady picture of what happened, with on-the-spot testimony from survivors, family members, police officers and reliable journalists: Les Jones, Stephanie Jones and Doreen Jones (who lost Richard Jones and girlfriend Tracey Cox); Margaret Aspinall (who lost son Mark); Brian Anderson (who lost his father, John); Tony Searle; Tony Evans; Dan Davies; PC Martin McLoughlin; Special Constable John Taylor; DC Stephen Titterton; the Sheffield Star‘s Bob Westerdale; professor Phil Scraton, who wrote the book and sat in the Independent Panel. Their faces were etched with every one of the years that had passed without closure since 1989. Because two years have passed since the testimony was shot, those who returned to “top up” the story, post-justice, looked older still at the end, certainly more than two years older. It was powerful, vital television indeed to stare into their lined faces, even when they were silent, perhaps even more so. Lines of tears on cheeks felt as permanent as glistening tattoos and knew no gender.

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I sat with my hands across my mouth throughout, ashamed of the injustice, and reminded again why Kelvin Mackenzie’s pathetic apology, based on the lie that he was only printing what the agencies were telling him, guv, is worth nothing. What you forget is how long the blackening of the fans’ good character went on, with lies being slapped on top of lies in the Sun and other papers. “The Truth”? Has ever a headline been so blackly ironic? Hillsborough told the story of the immediate aftermath and Chinese-whispering campaign against the fans very well, intercutting the boorish parroting of police spokespeople to show this farce for what it was. Left unchallenged by a media hell-bent on the most lurid revelation, the lie solidified into fact. As one bereaved survivor had it: ask yourself why a fan at a football ground would urinate on anyone, in any circumstance, amid all that chaos, panic and hurt? (No-one did.) While police officers were ordered (and they were only following orders) to form a barrier across the pitch to stop Forest fans from fighting Liverpool fans, it was ordinary supporters who helped police a desperate situation, stretchering the injured without stretchers and administering help without training.

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I can’t be the only person whose thoughts turned to other atrocities from history in which hundreds of people were callously herded into pens to their death. I am satisfied, so that I am sure, that this is a story that can only now be told. And Dan Gordon has told it with honour, respect and dignity, and without flinching from things nobody should ever have to see.

The art of seeing

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Two exceptional programmes about art in as many days: Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature (BBC Four), available on iPlayer here, and Grayson Perry: All Man (Channel 4), available on All 4 here. I know quite a lot about art, and I know what I like, so programmes about art have me at hello.

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Dr James Fox is an art historian, and a young one, too. When I first wrote about him in a Top Trumps-style article comparing TV art buffs for Word magazine in 2011, I wasn’t sure if he or equally youthful small-screen boffin the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke was the youngest, so I got in touch with Dr Fox via his email address at Cambridge University, where he is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College (I couldn’t verify his date of birth anywhere and the BBC Press Office were rudely ignoring me). I didn’t expect a reply from the man himself but got a very cheery one that same afternoon. Professing himself a fan of Telly Addict, he confirmed that he was an embryonic 29 but born a few months after Alastair, so officially the youngest art critic on television! He added, self-deprecatingly, “He’s an art critic while I’m an art historian; he’s a glamorous journalist while I’m a dowdy academic.” (I liked them both on telly, but preferred dowdy.) Dr Fox and I have corresponded often in the years since, as I’ve reviewed his regular series on BBC Four and BBC Two – British Masters, A History of Art in Three Colours, A Very British Renaissance, Bright Lights Brilliant Minds – but never quite managed to buy each other the coffee at the British Library we continually threaten to do.

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I find him a bright, sincere and witty TV guide, a boyish expert with the look of the young Bob Dylan about him (something I suspect he plays up to – I recall a sequence in, I think, Three Colours which seemed deliberately to be lit and framed like the cover of Freewheelin’ – minus Suze Rotolo). His catchphrase is, “But I think …”, which comes after a preamble stating the received wisdom about a painting, or a sculpture, or an era, at which he presents his own thesis. “But I think …”

His latest excursion is very different. It’s still authored, and it’s still him, in his skinny jeans, and with his hair pointing skywards, but Forest, Field and Sky is first of all a one-off, not a series of three (Fox’s usual metier), and secondly, it features artists who, by and large, I’d never even heard of. I am an enthusiastic if not Mastermind-ready weekend art historian so can usually find a number of points of entry with even the more arcane artistic dig; not here. This was all new to me, and refreshing for that. Dr Fox wandered in search of art hewn from nature itself, beginning by forming a small pebble circle on a beach and accurately defining it as a primal “cultural act.”

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With this primordial beginning as a starting point, he stood in geo-agricultural awe of Andy Goldsworthy’s stone sculptures (and watched him attempt a Sisyphean dry stone wall up a tree that collapsed like a Jenga tower, twice), sat for hours in one of James Turrell’s extraordinary sky-bunkers (see: view above), found David Nash’s 1978-conceived “forever” sculpture Ash Dome in a genuinely secret corner of North Wales, lost himself in landscape architect Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Garden Of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, and witnessed Julie Brook building a beacon bonfire in the middle of an outer Hebrides sea loch, designed to snuff itself out with the tide, gone forever. (A London art dealer must have looked at this show and wondered, “How the hell do I make any money out of art that falls down, burns itself out or exists in secret?”)

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My only touchstone in this documentary, often about touching stones, was Richard Long, whose work I discovered through Bill Drummond (the only living artist with whom I’ve personally performed an improvised art lecture). The good Doctor walks ten miles in a straight line across Exmoor as per one of Long’s most famous pieces, which ought to come with a free pedometer. Our host’s awestruck joy at these living artworks was infectious, and in HD, you really got a sense of it. I also really felt like a good walk in North Wales or the outer Hebrides or through the Yorkshire Sculpture Park after watching it. It’s roughage enough in and of itself. But I think … a good art series will always make you want to see art.

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Grayson Perry is an artist and more; just about as popular and recognisable in his field as Andy Goldsworthy and the others aren’t, even in an actual field. He’s a natural showman, or show-woman, depending on the day or the occasion, but ought on paper to be a difficult sell to a mass audience, thanks to his deal-with-it transvestism – which even in this incrementally progressive era of gender fluidity and same-sex acceptance might still be a turn-off to, say, readers of the foxhunting broadsheet paper Alastair Sooke writes for. And while our most visible and famous modern artists – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst – make a big noise with installations and provocations, and fellow populist (but shyer human being) Antony Gormley scores through scale, Grayson is more of a humble artisan, making pots and tapestries in the mediaeval style, and his manner of drawing is that of a cartoonist, or a children’s illustrator. And even in these techniques, he dares to draft not with a pencil or a brush but an electronic pen on a CAD screen. He is a folk artist for a digital age. With a massively infectious guffaw.

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In brief, he refuses to conform to any of the stereotypes of what he is, including, in a previous TV adventure, an Essex man. And yet, look how comprehensively he has insinuated himself into the lives of people who might without thinking say they knew nothing about art, or cared less for cross-dressing. Perry is a sort of messiah figure – potentially divisive but actually unifying. He couldn’t be without also being a TV natural. While Hirst is boorish, and Emin fidgety and self-conscious, Perry loves the camera, and it loves him back, and this symbiosis rewards him with a vast constituency.

It seems pertinent, or at least irresistible, at this juncture to reprint the photo of me and Grayson (or, technically, Claire) at the 2014 Radio Times Covers Party, taken by choirmaster Gareth Malone, and [right] the photo of me and choirmaster Gareth Malone, taken by Claire. (I’m calling the latter an actual Grayson Perry artwork.)

He/she is as charming and down to earth as we’ve now all come to expect having seen so much of him interacting with ordinary people on TV. In All Man, he’s exploring masculinity, and in part one of three (art programmes do seem to come as triptychs), he’s in the northeast, interacting with cage fighters, ex-miners and beer drinkers mourning the loss of a friend who, with statistical inevitability and without sharing his woes, committed suicide. Whether investigating class, identity, fame or socio-geographical roots, his shtick is to meet the general public (or, in the case of Who Are You?, Rylan Clark and Chris Huhne, who are still ordinary people but made famous by extraordinary circumstances), and to turn their true stories into artworks, generally in clay or textile. All Man already cleaves to that winning formula, but once again, he takes people he’s just met into his confidence, earns their lifelong trust by giving just enough of himself, and wins them over, before exploiting their insecurities and strengths through customised earthenware.

Even if, like me, you’re a Perry completist – I’ve seen every one of his shows for Channel 4, and gazed in Dr Fox-like awe at his artworks at the National Gallery in London and the Turner Contemporary in Margate – the magic is never dulled by repetition. When he memorialised the lad who took his own life in the first episode of All Man, his mother was moved, and so were his tough mates, and so, visibly, was the artist. Some may dismiss all this as post-Diana mawkishness, but I believe it is art therapy, nothing less. And it makes us better, not worse, people.

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Both James Fox’s sensibly-shod art odysseys and Grayson Perry’s more interactive and democratic art hugs are vital things to be on our tellies. It’s key that both the BBC and Channel 4, who sponsor and curate these shows, are in line to be “eviscerated” in the words of Peter Kosminsky at the Baftas. Sky Arts, funded from the private purse, has proven itself a key player, too, but without public subsidy, art withers and dies and, like a sculpture made of ash trees in the forest, can it really be said to have existed at all?

 

 

 

 

True crime

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Some late news just in. It took 27 years for the truth to be affirmed by a second inquest that the 96 people who died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 were “unlawfully killed,” and that their senseless deaths resulted from a grossly negligent South Yorkshire police force, a failure of ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care (as well as poor design of the stadium). Not a single football supporter was to blame. The verdict, which sent a palpable wave of relief through the whole of Liverpool and was justly celebrated, led to immediate calls for action regarding the police cover-up identified by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. South Yorkshire Police chief constable David Crompton was suspended, and lawsuits are now pending.

I remember the day vividly, watching the horror unfold on live TV at a friend’s house (he was a Nottingham Forest fan), and I remember outrage at the tabloid reports. I also remember watching Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in December 1996. It was wisely repeated on ITV at the weekend and it’s as powerful today as it was then, 20 years away from justice.

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I interviewed McGovern, something of a fan, in 1997, on location for series one of The Lakes in Glenridding, Ullswater. We ate scampi and chips in a pub, and enjoyed the clocking-off buzz of afternoon beer. Having written somewhere in the region of 80-100 episodes of Brookside, McGovern told me that he fell out with the Merseyside mandarins over a storyline he’d proposed set around Hillsborough’s first anniversary, in which Tracey Corkhill organises a public burning of the Sun. He said that one of the show’s producers, whom he described as “a bourgeois feminist”, wouldn’t buy it. So McGovern walked. He would subsequently find two outlets for his obsession with Hillsborough: the 1994 episode of Cracker, To Be A Somebody, starring an unknown Robert Carlysle as Albie Kinsella, seeking bloody payback for the tragedy at Leppings Lane; and, more head-on, the Hillsborough dramatisation itself.

I wrote: “To underestimate the impact of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Leppings Lane in 1989 on McGovern’s outlook on this country, is to undermine the man himself.” He warmed to the theme over a second pint: “What happens when an influential sector of society has total contempt for another sector, and nobody supports them? You think, My God, what have I been believing in all my life? These are my comrades, people I grew up with, held in total contempt, and treated like animals, herded into a pen and squashed to death.” (He even described Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz from Cracker as “post-Hillsborough man.”)

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Hillsborough, the “docudrama” (demeaning term), still resonates loudly with the same sense of wounded, bereaved injustice that turned to relief and affirmation last Tuesday. The two most recognisable actors in it were McGovern trustees from Brookside and Cracker, Ricky Tomlinson and Christopher Eccleston as John Glover and Trevor Hicks respectively, although McGovern fans will also have known Mark Womack (as Eddie Spearritt) from Hearts and Minds. The rest of the cast were less recognisable, which added to the verité effect. This was not a star vehicle, although watching it again now, you’re basically looking at the future casts of Clocking Off and Shameless; so many people making such an impact in small roles and securing careers. It’s packed with believable, emotional acting performances, chief among them Eccleston’s controlled anger, Tomlinson’s collapse into grief, Annabelle Apsion’s almost unbearable refusal to accept the truth as Jenni Hicks, and Maurice Roeves implacable but fallible as Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Interesting, too, to see Tony Pitts, future stalwart of Red Riding and Peaky Blinders, as a fresh-faced PC in the control booth, and a young Stephen Walters as the tragic Ian Glover (then: Growler off Brookie; now: Dickensian, Outlander, The Village).

It may be McGovern’s finest hour, and it has a lot of hours to compete with. The clarity with which the build-up to catastrophe is paced; the decision when to let the screen go blank, and when to home in on the grief and despair; the power of simple instructions in the infrastructure of self-interest and cover-up, such as the officer telling younger constables not to put any of it in their notebooks (and one defying his order, saying, “Put everything in”). Director Charles McDougall, who went to the US and has recently directed episodes of The Good Wife and House Of Cards, manages to make the disaster itself as tense as a thriller and yet repellent at the same time – you can hardly bear to watch – and captures the moments of humanity in the immediate aftermath with minimal melodrama. This is really happening, before our very eyes.

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Hillsborough is available to view for 28 days. If you watched it at the time, please do watch it again; if you didn’t, or are too young to remember the day itself, please put aside preconceptions about HD and sit down with it. (Actually, the grainy ’90s look assists in its newsreel-like verisimilitude.) You won’t forget it in a hurry. I remember it as clearly as when I first saw it 20 years ago. If ITV Drama seems to be going through another renaissance at the moment, Granada was in a purple patch in the 90s, with Gub Neal and Nicola Schindler producing Cracker, Hillsborough, Band Of Gold and Prime Suspect. (Her Red Productions would subsequently make Clocking Off, which arguably made more stars than Skins.)

Like Fitz, we are all “post-Hillsborough,” but what McGovern meant by that in 1997, it no longer means in 2016.