Gold!!!

Woah! Eleven minutes and seven seconds?! What happened there? By all means watch all nine Telly Addicts so far and compare the running times. I do try my hardest to keep them under ten minutes, but sometimes – as with this week’s – I find that the clips are just so good, I have to let them run. There’s a full-scale Laura Kuenssberg montage! And two very long but exquisite pauses from Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (BBC3; BBC Two, like all BBC3 shows), which I feel sure you’ll appreciate. We are all in the appreciation game, after all. AA Gill, Marmite TV critic of the Sunday Times, made a poignant remark in his review of the new Clive James book about binge-watching box sets, basically asking how any TV critic could possibly criticise TV if they hated TV? You have to love it, he said, in order to dislike it. If you didn’t care about it, why would you criticise it? What would be the point. I know what he means. Anyway.

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The good news: Versailles (BBC Two), that addictive slice of wiggy court life flounced to its conclusion, with an announcement over the end credits promising a second series “next year”. Hooray! I have loved every second of this pricey-looking historical romp with its tendency to slip into Ultravox video mode and have fallen for its – to me – previously unknown stars George Blagden and Alexander Vlahos (the king and his brother). I’ve also appreciated Kate Williams and Greg Jenner’s polite little lectures, Inside Versailles (BBC Two) after each episode. So gossipy and yet informative at the same time. And it has an easel. Not enough shows have easels.

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Sad to hear of the cancellation of The Living and the Dead (BBC Two) this week – the Yin to the previous piece of news’s Yang. Another of my favourites since taking Telly Addict to the badlands of YouTube, the bucolic ghostbusting mystery shall be sorely missed in my house. Fingers crossed for a return for Brief Encounters

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To Fleabag, then. Waller-Bridge is 30, I think, but has her finger on the pulse of what it is to be young and urban and anxious, and a daughter, and a sister, and a lover, and single, and in a relationship. This show might have slipped under my demographic radar had I not been alerted to its beauty by other critics. So thanks to them, I am now watching a sex comedy. We’ve seen “mockumentaries” before (we’ll be seeing one again in a minute), and post-Office naturalism (ha ha, Post Office) done to death, but Waller-Bridge’s theatrical trick of talking, or gurning, to camera so that ONLY WE CAN SEE HER is its genius move. And the guy with the false teeth in the grab above, Jamie Demetriou, was in Fleabag this week, and also in this mockumentary:

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I understand why jobbing actors end up in two things that end up being on at the same time on different channels, but I like it when it happens. It’s sort of spooky and foretold. And Demetriou is very funny at nice but dim, as proven by Ep1 of Fleabag, and Ep1 of Borderline (Channel 5), about which I was cautious, although I met its star Jackie Clune at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000 and she was lovely company, and a caution. She’s the only really familiar face in this new comedy set in a tiny airport, but the rest of the cast, who seem to freewheel, are excellent, especially James Michie, whose name I looked up especially. I am often reluctant to criticise comedies, as I write comedy and comedies, but it’s nice when two come along at the same time that are funny, and appealing to me.

Here’s something a bit more grave.

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A clip of Michael Gove when he was Government Chief Whip and not that important, before he became important, and then stopped being important again, once the thing he was important enough to be trusted in selling to the electorate actually happened and then he went away again, thank God. In the clip, for James Delingpole’s YouTube channel (hey, we YouTubers should stick together, but maybe not all of us), Gove compares himself to Tyrion Lannister. Watch Telly Addict to see the full horror. Laura Kuenssberg really proves her mettle in this otherwise depressing film, Brexit: the Battle for Britain (BBC Two, again) which was really well made.

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I wasn’t expecting to see hopeless Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith turn up on Dragons’ Den (BBC Two), selling a thimble, which he can use to collect all his votes in. Hey, enough of my Trotskyist propaganda! I only watched the Den see if it had changed, and it hasn’t (they’re still using that ancient looking air conditioning system out of Saw, but three of the Dragons who were on it last time I tuned in have been replaced by other Dragons, whose provenance is not yet known to me).

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And finally … Parks & Rec (Dave), which nears the end of its road. But by forwarding the action by three years, the writers have invigorated the arc for its valedictory run of 13. I will be bereft. If you haven’t yet viewed Telly Addict #9, look out for my cuddly sparrow, bought from a garden centre and made in China for the RSPB. It makes a realistic sparrow noise when squeezed. I thoroughly recommend one for therapy in this squalid world. We didn’t start the fire.

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.

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.