You have been watching

Apologies for the delay of the blog entry of the 25th Telly Addict, which will be the last regular Telly Addict of 2016. After this week’s promised Zen round-up, which is going to be a corker, we’re taking a break. But Telly Addict will return in 2017. Look out for some special Telly Addicts in the New Year, and – fingers crossed, MPs lobbied, YouTube clips and blog entries “liked”, “shared” and Tweeted – we’ll be back under the same UKTV umbrella, the one which has kept Telly Addict dry for the last 26 weeks, after the Guardian made it homeless in April. (I have genuinely cancelled my subscription to the newspaper.)

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In the last regular Telly Addict, a review of the finale of The Missing (BBC Two), which ought to be far enough in the past now for some footage of three main characters walking through the woods in what is actually Belgium for tax reasons no longer to constitute an active spoiler. I loved this second series, perhaps even more than the first, which for me was at least one episode short of an eight episode drama. This one confidently expanded to fill the slot, and even went so far as to reveal the villain in episode six, without losing our rapt attention. Fantastic work, Jack and Harry Williams, and director Ben Chanan. The cast were top-flight, too: Roger Allam, David Morrissey, Tchéky Karyo, Anastasia Hille, Keeley Hawes (an actress so often called upon to be sad and vexed who will be smiling again in the New Year in The Durrells), Laura Fraser and Derek Riddell.

It’s ongoing, but I’m enjoying the sheer, unvarnished gloom of Rillington Place (BBC Two). Those of us who hold the movie version with Richard Attenborough dear were always going to have trouble erasing his eerie performance from our minds, but Tim  Roth, whispering his way to the gallows, gives him a run for his money, with Samantha Morton particularly strong as Ethel. Considering this is the season to be jolly, there’s not much in the drama department to support that cliché. (Even the Christmas Radio Times seems to be filled with murder and melancholy. Maybe that reflects the shitty year we’ve had.)

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A little treat to remedy the mood: We Have Been Watching (Gold), a simple knock-off of Gogglebox except with the stars of comedy watching comedy, in a couple of cases, comedies they are literally in. It works because of the rapport between the couples doing the watching. We share their excitement as, say, the Father Ted logo fades up.

The happiest bits come from Him and Her, Sarah Solemani and Russell Tovey, who seem to be the very best of pals, and the saddest bits come from Ricky Tomlinson, forced to watch the clip of him and Caroline Aherne from the 1999 Royle Family Christmas special, which has all sorts of emotions flying about and making the party hats look ironic.

Quite how three working MPs fit in to all this festivity and murder, I don’t know, but here they are, Nick Clegg, Naz Shah and the fictional character Jacob Rees-Mogg in MPs: Behind Closed Doors (Channel 5), a valuable one-off doc showing the three of them in surgery, dealing with the people who elected them, or didn’t, including some persuasive and adamant constituents who won’t take no for an answer. Not that politicians ever say yes or no, they just waffle and prevaricate and avoid confirmation or denial. Which is why Nick Clegg comes across the best. Give it a spin on catch-up. You’ll be proud to be part of the electorate, even if you disagree with the assessment that Jacob Rees-Mogg is “quite human.”

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Also recommended, if you have a strong heart as it’s very sad, is UB40: Promises & Lies (BBC Four, where else?), anything but a standard rock doc. I had caught wind of there now being two UB40s, but I had no idea how this split had destroyed the Campbell family, and how ongoing the acrimony seems to be. It’s on iPlayer for a couple more weeks, and needs to be seen.

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The final Telly Addict of the year, and for now, will be up on Thursday, that bumper round-up I was talking about. A year like the one we’ve had requires extra Zen.

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The tube

The return of Telly Addict. Can it really have been a whole week since the first “soft launch” broadcast pilot went live under my new roof at UKTV’s YouTube site? I have yet to wean myself off the “refresh” key, as it’s a new toy to me. There was no way of monitoring views on the Guardian website, but YouTube make it too easy to fixate and tap. We’re also under a whole new dictatorship of stats, so when I ask if you wouldn’t mind awfully clicking on “like” and “subscribe”, be gentle with me. I’m new here. It’s fortuitous that Celebrity Masterchef gets a nod this week. Regular viewers will know that I have no defences against this brand and have even succumbed to Masterchef The Professionals, thus swelling my portfolio. It’s a tired old dig to remark that you have not heard of some of the “celebrities” on Celebrity-prefixed formats, but having been on Celebrity Mastermind myself (I came second), I can hardly mither. Not knowing who this young gentleman was is my failing, not his.

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He’s Marcus Butler, 24, and he has over 4.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel, despite not enunciating his words very well. He seems nice enough. hey, I am over the moon to have had 817 views of the first Telly Addict. But give me time. (Oh, I watched the first of Marcus’s clips, and it seemed to be about him saying that men should be more empathic of women, and then trying to put on a pair of tights as if to prove what a hard life women have. It was pretty thin stuff.) I am not in competition with Marcus Butler. I’m not in competition with anybody. I review three or four programmes that I watched last week, which this week also includes: the series finale of Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic), the series finale of The Good Wife (More4), and, to please my UKTV overlords, the new series of format-of-formats Taskmaster (Dave), which I raved about on Telly Addict long before UKTV came to my rescue. Also, a tip of the hat to The Secret Life of a Bus Garage (ITV), which is on ITV Hub here. It’s a heart-warming, pre-Brexit vision of a functioning South West London multicultural utopia, in a place of work where 50 languages are spoken. I hope everybody we see on the show still has a job and has not started getting sly abuse from emboldened thickos.

Get clicking.

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.

Early Release

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.

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.