Severe readies

We’re almost at the six-month mark. Telly Addict has been under the new roof of UKTV for almost half a year. We’ll be taking a break after Christmas, but you know what to do if you want it to bounce back in 2017: like, share, view, Tweet, lobby. I’ll be doing a review of the second half of 2016 in two weeks, including a Montage of Zen. Until then, two more “regular” Telly Addicts. This week’s begins with a celebration of Top Of The Pops (BBC Four), currently exploding with moments from 1982. Like this unique leg move from Shakin’ Stevens, which needs to be seen in action to be believed. The past is a foreign country. They do things better there.

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Anybody else spot a similarity between Shaky and the translucent tree frog on Planet Earth II (BBC One)? Just me. OK.

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Who Do You Think You Are (BBC One) returned for its 13th series with the sort of series opener that money cannot buy. Not even, in the words of its subject, “severe readies.” Investigate this hour of cherishable telly on the iPlayer forthwith. This will involve you putting aside all prejudices about Danny Dyer, who exists in the grey area between reality and fiction, and in many ways plays himself; but as his bloodline back to royalty unspools, his reactions are priceless. And it’s really quite moving. And when Handel’s Zadok the Priest kicks in, your mind will have been changed.

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Another song of praise now: a nod to The Coroner (BBC One), back for a second series based on audience love in the Daytime, where murders are committed but not in dark alleyways, violently, by serial killers. Hooray for Sally Abbott, the show’s creator, for taking a route through the whodunit that’s as picturesque as it is involving, and gentle. Not all crime drama can have men drilling other men’s heads with power tools. In the grab above, the coroner (Claire Goose) and the detective (Matt Bardock) are discussing the case, while the rest of us gaze longingly at Devon. It’s Escape to The Country with forensics.

If you fancy something more expensive and self-regarding, there’s always season three of Showtime’s The Affair (Sky Atlantic), which I keep saying is an HBO drama, even though it technically isn’t.

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I’ve tried three times now to love it – once with the first season, once with the second, and again with the third – but I just can’t. I don’t buy Dominic West as this irresistible “Mr Lover Man” of New York academia, and that’s difficult to get over. (He shaves that simian beard off in Episode One, by the way, which is a boon, as it isn’t helping.)

The object on the coffee table is an heirloom: the NME cassette compilation C86, from 1986. I treasure it, even though I have no large piece of electrical equipment that will actually play it.

This week’s Moment of Zen comes from The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic), which is quite unlike any other drama I have seen all year, and occupies a special place in my heart. If you just want to look at Jude Law’s torso, you can.

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Oh, and I was perplexed by the new Walliams & Friend (BBC One) sketch show, in which its star, David Walliams, takes a humble back seat to his guests, almost wilfully giving up the spotlight. This seems self-defeating for a David Walliams vehicle.

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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.

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.

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.)

 

 

Home and away

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

Stop of the Pops

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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).

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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.)

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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.

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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).

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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.

The comeback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it to the bridge

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In this trouble town
Troubles are found

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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