His only real talent is toeing the party line – which is probably why his feeble detective drama Collateral, with its right-on politics, attracted such a starry cast.
Shortly after my rave review of McMafia eight weeks ago, I got a long message from an old friend chastising me for being so horribly wrong. Could I not see that the series was boring, convoluted and badly acted? Was I aware of how many better series there had been on Amazon and Netflix recently because, if I wasn’t, she could give me a few recommendations…
Several other people wrote to me in a similar vein and I felt terrible. Life is short and TV production is so voluminous these days that now more than ever we need critics to sift the bullion from the dross. Sure, reviews are a snap judgment, usually based on just one episode and written under pressure. Even so, if you can’t be trusted to get it right, say, 90 per cent of the time, that makes you a critical fail.
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.
It’s at least as well acted, suspenseful and sexy as The Night Manager.
My third most fervent New Year wish — just after Litecoin goes to £20,000 and Jacob Rees-Mogg becomes PM — is for the BBC to retire to its study with its service pistol and a bottle of whisky and finally do the decent thing.
After all, as lots of people are beginning to notice, when you spend 40 per cent of your viewing time watching your £79-a-year Amazon Prime, and another 40 per cent on £96-a-year Netflix, your compulsory £145.50 licence fee starts to look like a lot of money to pay for the remaining 20 per cent’s worth of diversity outreach, anti-Brexit whining and green propaganda.
That’s why I was so very disappointed by the BBC’s first big New Year offering. McMafia (Tuesdays) is so brilliant that it almost disproves my point. It’s at least as well acted, suspenseful and sexy to look at as The Night Manager was. So far, it doesn’t look remotely PC. And, unlike its similarly classy, high-budget predecessor, it has the massive bonus of not being burdened by John le Carré’s weird, cartoonish, out-of-date geopolitics.
Ignore the PC nonsense – this telly Western is well acted, gritty, dusty, uber-violent and clandestinely old-fashioned.
Boy came to me the other night in a state of dismay. ‘Dad, I just turned on Match of the Day to watch England vs Kazakhstan and guess what: they never mentioned this, but it’s the women’s game.’
What bothered him was not so much being forced to watch a slower, less athletic, duller version of real football — though obviously that too — as that the BBC was being so utterly disingenuous about it. This policy of pretending there’s absolutely no difference between men’s and women’s international sporting fixtures has, I know, been operational for some time. But for those of us living outside the PC metropolitan bubble — i.e. most of the BBC’s actual audience — it still feels insulting, hectoring and dishonest.
But you can’t escape it. Even really good drama series that you might actually want to watch have been infected. The new Netflix cowboy drama Godless, for example.
This week I want to put the boot in to Gogglebox (Channel 4, Fridays). Not the mostly likeable, everyday version, whose stars include our very own and much-loved Dear Mary, where ordinary-ish people are filmed reacting amusingly to the week’s TV. I mean the recent celebrity special, featuring former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, a cricketer, a footballer, Ed Sheeran, Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne, the actress formerly known as Jessica Stevenson and Jeremy Corbyn.
The last couple were filmed together sitting on a yellow sofa at a smart-looking terrace address in Edinburgh. No explanation was given as to what the leader of the Labour party was doing with the former star of Spaced — Jessica Hynes, as she’s now known. Perhaps the producers were hoping we’d go: ‘Oh, how nice. Two old, old mates, probably, hanging out, as you do.’ But to me it all seemed very rum.
Corbyn didn’t exactly help himself. Though he’s clearly had a lot of media training in the past year — his dress is snappier, he’s less tetchy and defensive — he still comes across like an early-model replicant where the programmer couldn’t quite get the ‘normal’ function right.
Larry David is both the tragic hero with whom you identify and the comical idiot whom you love to see humiliated – long may he go on suffering!
The best episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm are the ones that make you want to hide behind the sofa, cover your ears and drown out the horror by screaming: ‘No, Larry, no!’ I’m thinking, for example, of the one where our hero attends a victim support group for survivors of incest and, in order to fit in, decides to concoct a cock and bull story about how he was sexually abused by his uncle. This, of course, comes back horribly to haunt him when out one day with his blameless real uncle…
But no, I shan’t try to elaborate, for the plots in Curb Your Enthusiasm are as convoluted as any farce. And besides, you should see it for yourself. So long as you don’t mind writhing in embarrassment, and wishing the ground could swallow you up, there really are few things more excruciatingly funny than Curb.
One’s crabby and conservative, while the other is genial and impeccably PC. No wonder Jack and his dad Michael make such compelling TV.
‘Oh really I don’t mind. Whatever you want to pay me. I just want to do this job and I’m really looking forward it. How much were you thinking?’ says Michael Whitehall in an unctuous, good-natured, amenable voice. Then, in an instant, having been told the imaginary amount, he turns savagely nasty and bangs his fist on the table. ‘No fucking way are you paying me so little…’
Watching Michael Whitehall jokingly re-enact how he negotiated his fee for his son’s new Netflix series, Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father, three things become abundantly clear.
First, that he must have been a brilliantly effective agent (shrewd, tough, terrifying) during his previous career, when he represented such stars as Kenneth More, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and (Jack’s godfather) Richard Griffiths.
Second, that he really should have been on stage or screen himself much earlier (he became a star only in his early seventies), because his acting skills, timing and delivery are immaculate. (He’ll hate the comparison, but I was oddly reminded of the scene where Gollum’s good and evil sides have an argument in Lord of the Rings.)
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…
No, The State (Channel 4) wasn’t a recruiting manual for the Islamic State, though I did feel uneasy about it throughout the four episodes. The fundamental problem is this: if you’re going to make a watchable drama about bad people doing terrible things, you inevitably have to humanise them. And from there it’s just a short step to making them sympathetic.
Peter Kosminsky’s drama followed four British Muslims to Syria to join IS. Shakira, a black convert with a nearly-ten-year-old son, wanted to apply her skills as a doctor; Ushna was a teenager seeking to be a ‘lioness for lions’; Ziyaad was an amiable lunk looking for adventure; and his mate Jalal was a ‘hafiz’ — someone who has memorised the entire Koran — who wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dead brother and witness the Sharia in its purest form.
Needless to say, each was horribly, brutally disabused. But already you see the problem: here were some quite likeable characters — kind, sensitive Jalal, especially — a million miles from the hopped-up, insensate, savage killers we now see roughly once a fortnight bombing, shooting, slashing, van-murdering innocents for the crime of living a normal western life.
Also, the trajectory of the story is never obvious, as in the latest new Scandi-noir on Channel 4’s Walter Presents, Valkyrien.
Valkyrien (C4, Sunday) is the hot new Scandi-noir series, which is being billed as Norway’s answer to Breaking Bad. In this case, the anti-hero having his mid-life crisis is a brilliant surgeon called Ravn (Sven Nordin). He has become disenchanted with The System because the fancy hospital where he works won’t let him use the potentially life-saving treatment he has devised on his dying wife. (It might kill her, they say — which Ravn, quite understandably, considers a ridiculous, faux-ethical excuse.) So off he goes to sulk in his Batcave — a disused nuclear bomb shelter, accessible via an underground station — for what will no doubt be a series of clandestine medical adventures, using equipment he has nicked from his old lab.
Ravn’s Jesse-style sidekick Leif (Pal Sverre Hagen) works for Norway’s civil defence unit — risk-assessing all the things that might bring the world to an end. It’s the perfect job because. . . .