The problem with Jez Butterworth’s series for Sky Atlantic is it can never stop smirking at its own irreverence
It’s a terrible thing for a TV critic to admit but I just don’t know what to make of Britannia, the new Sky Atlantic drama set during the Roman invasion of Britain, scripted by Jez Butterworth, starring a top-notch cast including David Morrissey, Zoë Wanamaker and Mackenzie Crook, and heavily touted as the next Game of Thrones.
Is it really in the Thrones’s league? I’d say not. You remember how Thrones started, all those seasons ago: the scouting party in the creepy frozen wood; the dead child with milky-blue glowing eyes; the shockingly draconian punishment meted out by Ned Stark to the party’s sole survivor. Within the first ten minutes it was all there: the gnawing tension, the ‘anyone can die’ cruelty and horror. But perhaps most important of all was the absolute seriousness. Here was a swords-and-sorcery epic determined never to sell itself short through flippancy or self-parody.
The Canadian detective drama is nothing but cliché and a terrible waste of a talented cast – including a lubricious Christina Hendricks
Tin Star, the latest Sky Atlantic drama, has a comfortingly familiar premise: Jim Worth (Tim Roth), an ex-detective from London with an alcohol problem, heads out to rural Canada with his family to start a new life only to find himself embroiled in crime, violence and personal tragedy far worse than anything back home.
It begins well. There’s a lovely establishing scene where Roth walks down the street with his new Canadian sheriff’s badge and everyone greets him, as people presumably do in sleepy Canadian Rockies towns like Little Big Bear, where everyone’s got time for one another. In the police station, his two junior officers have so little crime to solve they’re playing video games. At their suggestion, Jim heads off to the picturesque river nearby to fish for salmon and spots his first bear. Gosh, how delightful it’s all going to be: a bit like that gentle 1990s comedy series Northern Exposure…
Idris Elba’s six-parter on Sky Atlantic about Black Panther-style revolutionaries is not just crap politics, it’s sense of period and place is all over the shop.
‘What we really need is a faux-historical drama series about police brutality and black activism set in 1970s London,’ said no TV viewer, ever. But TV commissioning editors have more important priorities, these days, than mere plausibility, entertainment or value-for-subscription fee. So naturally, when the chance arose to make Guerrilla (Sky Atlantic, Thursday) — a six-parter about Black Panther-style revolutionaries, starring Idris Elba and written by the guy who did 12 Years a Slave — the senior luvvies at Sky were on it like a mistimed high-five.
I like Idris Elba. And I’m not just saying that because it’s actually now illegal not to think he is our greatest living actor who should definitely be the next James Bond and also the lead in all the plays in the next RSC season, from Hamlet to Lear (though not Othello, obviously, because that would be so backward-looking). No, he’s great and all the scenes he’s in in this come alive and make you think that this is a piece of tendentious, race-baiting tosh you could almost bear to watch.
But then, the moment he’s gone, you’re back to reality. Or rather tiresome unreality. Let me give you some examples (plot spoilers ahoy; but don’t worry, I watched this so you don’t have to): the inevitable National Front rally where snarling skinheads, being hatefully white, are opposed by peaceable black folk who just want to make their views known. Down a side street, arrayed like Imperial Stormtroopers, a body of policemen brandishing nightsticks are shown a photograph of the black civil-rights leader they must get. Which they duly do, bashing him down then smashing his brains out (you’re shown this later on the autopsy slab) when he’s on the ground. Exactly like what happened to black civil-rights leaders in London in the 1970s.