Halo, halo, halo

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Since it was published at the weekend in the books section of the Event listings/review supplement nestled within the Mail On Sunday, which may have passed you by, here is my review of Ian Ogilvy’s “affably self-deprecating” memoir, Once A Saint. Nobody else is asking me to review books for them, so I am rather pleased that the Mail occasionally does. If you can’t read the print in the accompanying scans (I do approve of the generous way they lay the book reviews out), here is the copy, which seems to be appropriate for a blog about TV:

Once A Saint: An Actor’s Memoir
by Ian Ogilvy
(Constable, £20.00)

The crux of Ian Ogilvy’s affable but self-deprecating memoir comes on page 16: “At the end of the 70s I played the iconic character Simon Templar in a revived television series of The Saint. For most of the 1980s, I was unwelcome in UK television and films.”

His boyish smirk and blow-dried coiffure seemed never off the covers of TV Times or Look-in when Ogilvy’s 24 episodes of the glamorous international-man-of-mystery caper aired on ITV between 1978-79. Unlike his predecessor Roger Moore, who graduated to James Bond, Ogilvy never escaped from under Templar’s halo in our collective imagination. But fame is less interesting than the struggle, and the highlight of his Saint chapter is the arrival on location in the South of France of an inebriated Oliver Reed, who bellows, “You? The Saint? You’re a poofter!” (A duel is averted when Reed loses interest, somewhat emblematic of an Ogilvy showbiz yarn.)

His best anecdotes stem from his apprenticeship in gaudy 60s British horror films like The Sorcerers, with an “old and uninsurable” Boris Karloff, and Witchfinder General, with a “truculent” and also inebriated Vincent Price. Ogilvy’s long and constant spells on the stage prove even riper ground. When the curtain goes up on a 1974 production of The Waltz Of The Toreadors at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, a – guess what? – inebriated Trevor Howard snarls “FUCK OFF!” at the audience, many of whom, in Ogilvy’s witty account, “took Trevor’s instruction to heart and fucked off.”

The son of Francis Ogilvy, who helped set up the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather with his Don Draper-inspiring brother David, the young Ian enjoyed a chauffeur-driven boyhood in an 18th-century Essex manor house, but found himself “one of the poorest and least aristocratic” pupils at Sunningdale and Eton, where he shared a boxing ring with the future Sir Ranulph Fiennes. He blames his own “strangulated Eton vowels” for putting him at a disadvantage during the kitchen-sink 60s (when “everything working class had value”), a situation very much reversed in the Cumberbatch era.

He wryly describes the fees on TV panel games as “just enough to cover my milk bill”, and offers a knowing “spoiler alert” before revealing that he is the murderer in Stranger In The House, a film none of us will ever see. He candidly attributes his marital infidelities on “male pattern boredom.”

The section on the making of the film Waterloo in spartan Uzhgorod in Ukraine in 1969 is a tour de force, with prison-camp veteran Rupert Davies fashioning a toaster out of “two tin hotplates and a ball of string,” which he hangs from the light fitting in his hotel room, while Jack Hawkins, post-laryngectomy, speaks in “a kind of regulated belch.”

It’s a fun, if fitful ride, and Ogilvy leaves out some of his own achievements – a popular series of children’s books, for instance – in order perhaps to stick to his own humble script: “I’m inclined to like anything written about me because it means somebody has given me a passing thought.”

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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.

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.

Like the battle

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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.

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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.”)

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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.

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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.

 

Outside. Now.

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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:

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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.

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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.)