Saturday, 22 December 2012

CHRISTMAS TV PREVIEW: Loving Miss Hatto, Doors Open etc.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 22nd December 2012.

Sunday, BBC1, 8:30pm

Thursday and Friday, BBC1, 9pm

Boxing Day, STV, 9pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 5:15pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 7:30pm

Christmas Day, STV, 8:45pm

Paul Whitelaw

If history's taught us anything, it's that if you stick Alfred Molina in a cardigan and ask him to play a hapless, well-meaning man, the pathos he exudes will make a mountain weep. Support him with a script written by Victoria Wood, and, well, resistance is futile.

In LOVING MISS HATTO, Wood's captivating account of the biggest fraud in classical music history, Molina plays William Barrington-Coupe (aka 'Barrie'), an ambitious dreamer who fooled the world into believing that his terminally ill wife, Joyce Hatto, was one of the greatest living concert pianists. And all of this orchestrated from a semi-detached in Hertfordshire.

His ruse – achieved simply by passing off doctored recordings of other pianists as works by Hatto – was eventually exposed following Joyce's death in 2006, although he maintains to this day that she had no involvement in the scheme. Wood understandably opts for a different view - how could Joyce not have known what was going on? But although she depicts them as complicit, she never passes cruel judgement. Instead, she delivers a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of an ordinary couple who resorted to desperate measures in order to gain the recognition they felt they'd been denied.

Joyce was actually a promising concert pianist in her youth, with Barrie – despite his propensity for getting into what he called “muddles” - an idealistic and committed supporter of her fledgling career. But, for various reasons, fame never arrived – at least not until decades later when Barrie discovered the hoodwinking potential of the internet.

Wood frames this remarkable story as a touching love affair between two thwarted people with nothing to lose. Barrie, who's still alive, should be pleased with her depiction of him as a decent man who only broke the law out of love for his frustrated wife. And Wood's witty, poignant, thoughtful screenplay, together with charming performances from Molina and Francesca Annis - and Rory Kinnear and Maime McCoy as their younger selves - ensure that their scam never feels like anything more damaging than a romantic “muddle” that got out of hand.

Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, RESTLESS is perhaps the most aptly titled thriller I've ever seen. It doesn't so much test one's patience as suffocate it. Curiously inert and stilted, it charts the interminable saga of a female Secret Service agent, both during World War Two and in the 'present' of the 1970s: so that's two stubbornly paced and flabbily plotted narratives running concurrently. It's supposed to be a compelling puzzle. It feels like an endless, boring game of Risk.

The problem may be that Boyd is so attached to his source material, he was loath to cut it (both episodes are feature-length). He also fails to invest his central character with an interesting inner life; he simply gives us no reason to care about her. It also doesn't help that her daughter – who plays a key role in the '70s segments – is played by Michelle Dockery, alias Lady Mary from Downton, an actress so stiff she makes the average corpse look like a whirling dervish on a hotplate.

The very definition of an insubstantial, middling bit of fluff, DOORS OPEN is an Ian Rankin adaptation which couldn't be further removed from the gritty world of Rebus if it was set in Atlantis. Produced by Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig – she also co-writes – it follows three friends as they undertake a benign art heist.

Millionaire Mike (Douglas Henshall) is doing it for memories of his ex-lover (Being Human's Lenora Crichlow, in a thankless role); Allan (Kenneth Collard) because the paintings are owned by the heartless bank he's just been sacked from; and Professor Gissing (Fry) believes he's liberating the ineffable soul of art from the clutches of commerce. Bathed in a vaguely knockabout, overbearing sheen, it tries desperately to pass itself off as an Edinburgh-set Hollywood romp. But it's the sort of thing you forget about even while you're watching.

Preview copies of this year's DOCTOR WHO Christmas special were unavailable at the time of writing, but as fans such as myself have come to expect little from these invariably underwhelming festive outings, maybe this year we'll be pleasantly surprised. I know, I know, forever the optimist.

If I'm being charitable, the cloying sentiment of CALL THE MIDWIFE is slightly more palatable in a festive setting. But only slightly. Inevitably, the Christmas Day edition of this mechanical period drama serves up the heavily symbolic spectacle of a baby being born in a lock-up, and shoves the midwives-as-angels angle further down our throats than ever before. Oh, and hapless Miranda is involved in a sub-plot involving the local nativity play. Of course she is.

If we're talking about sumptuous Sunday period dramas, then DOWNTON ABBEY obviously can't be beaten. But whereas Midwife is earnest, Downton is a frantic conga-line of ludicrously watchable toot. Previews weren't available, but we're promised a Christmas trip to Scotland during which, I dunno, Carson and a stag get stuck up a chimney. Probably, it doesn't matter. Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

TV PREVIEW: The Poison Tree; This World: Cuba with Simon Reeve

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 8th December 2012.

Monday, STV, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

The broadcasting equivalent of an airport page-turner, the world of ITV drama is traditionally home to psychopaths, murderers and terrorised middle-class families. Martin Clunes' son has been kidnapped by a lunatic! Sarah Lancashire is being stalked by a pervert! Trevor Eve has only gone and got himself involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse! You know, that sort of thing.

So you won't be shocked to learn that their new two-part drama, THE POISON TREE, is yet another psychological thriller in which things go from bad to worse for a troubled household of desperately unlucky sods.

Produced by STV, it stars MyAnna Buring as Karen, a woman who's spent twelve years waiting for her partner, Rex (Matthew Goode), to be released from prison. With a sentence as lengthy as that, it's obvious the Rex's crime was – to put it mildly - rather serious, and the central mystery of exactly what it was is sustained quite effectively throughout the opening episode.

Desperate to move on from this dark chapter in their lives, Karen, Rex and their teenage daughter – who thinks daddy was banged up for tax evasion – begin life anew in a remote cottage by the sea, because that's the sort of moodily atmospheric setting one requires in dramas of this nature. Alas, their hopes are dashed almost immediately, as Karen starts to receive a series of sinister phone calls and texts of the “I know what you did” variety, and their guilty secret threatens to explode.

Most of the action unfolds in extended flashbacks to 1999, when mousy Karen (who hasn't aged a day since) abruptly befriends an irritating free-spirit called Biba (yes, really) who brings her out of her shell during an evening taking fashionable '90s drug “Ecstasy”. Biba also introduces Karen to her brother and housemate Rex, and together they enjoy a bohemian lifestyle subsidised by the family's seemingly inexhaustible independent wealth.

Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong once Biba reveals herself to be a complete fruitcake – I could've told Karen that the moment she met her – and the drugs and company she keeps grow harder and more dangerous. Her conspicuous absence from the scenes set in the present day certainly suggests that things didn't exactly pan out well for this overstated hippie stereotype.

Despite climaxing with two unlikely dramatic bombshells in rapid succession, part one suggests The Poison Tree is a perfectly serviceable, entertaining pot-boiler. Unfortunately, as is so often the way with these things, part two degenerates into unmitigated bullshit, as the already thinly-drawn characters start behaving implausibly simply to serve the mechanics of the shoddy and nonsensical plot.

Goode wanders through the production looking remarkably sanguine for a man who's just spent twelve hellish years in prison. But with such an underwritten part, there's not much else he can do. Buring fares slightly better, delivering a competent portrayal of the same character at two very different stages in her life. But The Poison Tree is ultimately a crashing waste of time. It doesn't even have a tree oozing poison in it. What a swizz.

Buenos dias!” Ah, look, it's that nice Simon Reeve, the hale and hearty travel presenter whose ability to get on famously with the peoples of the world is central to the appeal of his programmes. In his latest adventure, THIS WORLD: CUBA WITH SIMON REEVE, he investigates the sweeping economic reforms that have transformed one of the world's last Communist strongholds into a burgeoning crucible of grass roots capitalism.

With Cuba's economy in ruins, its government has been forced to cut one million public-sector jobs and – by Castro's beard! - actually encourage self-employed entrepreneurs in the hope of generating urgent tax revenues. Reeve dives enthusiastically into this brave new world of private enterprise, where he meets ordinary citizens – he was only allowed into the country if he promised not to interview any prominent political dissidents – to discuss the second most significant revolution in Cuban history.

His many new friends include a qualified doctor paid so little by the state he now moonlights as a plumbing supplies salesman; a former cheese-trader currently earning a fortune on Havana's emerging property market; and the owner of a nascent McDonald's-style fast food franchise. He also discovers that the legendary Bay of Pigs – a symbolic site central to the tenets of the revolution – is now surrounded by privately-owned guest houses.

The point of all of this, of course, is that – healthcare and arts-funding aside - Castro's system has failed dismally, and that for too long Cuba's population has been forced to endure appalling living conditions under the oppressive gaze of a totalitarian regime. But now that the iron fist is loosening its grip, for how much longer can the government square its Communist manifesto with the unstoppable influx of western consumerism?

While the overall mood is cautiously optimistic, it's constantly undermined by images of abandoned sugar mills and crumbling houses. And the fact that few of Reeves' interviewees are prepared to say anything remotely negative serves as a grim reminder of Cuba's atrocious human rights record. It's a commendably clear-eyed and revealing report

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Scotsman TV preview of PEEP SHOW and BBC4's 'WHY POVERTY?' SEASON

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 24th November.

Sunday, Channel 4, 10pm

Sunday, BBC4, 9pm

Monday, BBC4, 10pm

Tuesday, BBC4, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Unless you're the sort of person who cracks up at the mere sight of Micky Flanagan, the clinically housebound and gypsies, Channel 4, 30 years young this year, is no longer synonymous with comedy of quality and distinction. Indeed, were it not for prolific scriptwriting duo Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, they couldn't honestly boast any good comedy at all.

So it's little wonder that PEEP SHOW, which begins its eighth series this week, is by far the channel's longest running sitcom. While it could never claim to be much of a ratings winner, this black farce about a pair of co-dependent thirty-something losers has attracted a loyal cult and consistent critical acclaim.

Winner of numerous awards, it is, alongside Armstrong and Bain's enjoyable student comedy Fresh Meat, Channel 4's only reliable source of mirth. And while it's to their credit that they've stuck with it for so long, you get the sense of them gratefully clinging on to it for dear life, in the eager hope of deflecting attention from their otherwise moribund cache.

So here it is, back again, in its new Sunday evening, post-Homeland slot, presumably in the further hope of picking up new viewers in need of a laugh after an hour of teeth-clenched suspense. Not that that strategy really worked in the case of recently departed sitcom Friday Night Dinner (it's got Friday in the title, for God's sake, it shouldn't be shown on a Sunday), but I suppose it's worth another punt.

For those of you new to the Peep Show universe, the premise couldn't be simpler. Portrayed respectively by comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Mark and Jeremy are former student chums who, despite having practically nothing in common, have somehow found themselves sharing a flat well into adulthood.

In classic odd couple style, Mark is fastidious, square and neurotic, while Jeremy lives a feckless, irresponsible lifestyle fuelled by soft drugs and the erroneous belief that he will one day be recognised as a talented musician. They don't particularly like each other; indeed, their only fleeting joy in life comes from petty one-upmanship. But, like so many sitcom couplings before them, in a perverse way they need each other. Their strained mutual dependency is probably preferable to the terror of forming a normal relationship in a functioning society that neither feels comfortable in.

Distinctively filmed from each character's subjective point of view, and peppered with inner monologues which often provide the biggest laughs, Peep Show is a comedy of anxiety and discomfort. But unlike most post-The Office shows in that vein, it is at its heart a traditional British sitcom full of sharp, funny dialogue and deft comic performances.

So that's yer Peep Show.

As series eight begins, Mark is finally on the verge of kicking Jeremy out, in the hope of achieving the hitherto unimaginable feat of living conventionally with his girlfriend, Dobby. Typically, however, Jeremy is dragging his heels and Dobby seems more concerned with looking after her sick friend – and one of Mark's many nemeses – Gerrard. In a desperate attempt to oust Jeremy – and partly for his own amusement – Mark pays for him to take a potentially life-healing course of therapy, with inevitably ridiculous and far-reaching results.

As a Peep Show fan, I wouldn't rate this as one of the strongest episodes, but it certainly doesn't signify a drastic drop in quality. Indeed, episode three of this series, in which the team go paint-balling, is up among its best in a while. But its weirdly comforting having these spiteful, awful idiots back in one's life for a while. And if you're new to the show, it may well mark the start of a beautiful relationship.

An earth-quaking shift in tone now as we enter BBC4's new Why Poverty? season, consisting of several Storyville documentaries in which the BBC, together with over 70 broadcasters around the world, probe into the shameful issue of global poverty.

Bono and Bob Geldof, who despite their best efforts have so far failed to make poverty history as promised, are the subject of GIVE US THE MONEY, which examines their epic campaign to bring aid to Africa. Commendably even-handed, it features several dissenting voices who argue that, despite their undoubted sincerity, these messianic musicians have actually achieved more harm than good, although Bono and Bob themselves – both on self-deprecating and, yes, likeable form throughout – unsurprisingly beg to differ. It's a thought-provoking rumination on the moral complexities of charity and the cult of celebrity.

Preview copies of STEALING AFRICA were unavailable at the time of writing, but it promises to uncover the tax avoidance schemes employed by western multinationals operating in poverty-stricken Zambia. It sounds like the kind of thing to make you despair of the human race.

Similar selfishness abounds in PARK AVENUE: MONEY, POWER AND THE AMERICAN DREAM, a despairing film contrasting the game-rigged comfort of New York's wealthiest residents with the hopeless poverty of the South Bronx neighbourhoods which lie just ten minutes away. Capitalism, eh? It's a million laughs.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Scotsman TV preview: EVERYDAY and THE HOUR.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 10th November 2012.

Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm

Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

Proving the old adage that a stopped clock will be right at least twice a day, Kevin Bishop – an otherwise perfunctory footnote in the collected works of television comedy – once produced a memorable sketch presumably titled 'Gritty BAFTA'. Specifically inspired by the then inescapable hype surrounding Channel 4's heavyweight adaptation of Red Riding, it took an amusingly blunt swipe at those ostentatiously prestigious TV dramas seemingly designed to reduce BAFTA voters to quivers of admiring jelly.

Striding around an artfully photographed rain and blood-lashed North, Bishop and his cohorts, playing intense TV character actors for whom the craft is paramount, starred in a spoof trailer muttering nothing but “Gritty BAFTA” in a variety of dramatic timbres. “Coming soon, to Channel 4,” whispered the ersatz announcer with maximum faux portent. Not the most sophisticated satirical attack, perhaps, but it made its point cheekily and succinctly enough.

I mention this, not to automatically discredit Michael Winterbottom's latest opus, EVERYDAY, nor, heaven forbid, to suggest some sneaking admiration for the work of Kevin Bishop. But I can't deny that, if ever a C4 drama had “Gritty BAFTA” stencilled through its core, it's this ponderous slice of dour social realism.

Now, I'm all for unflinching British dramas that hold up a mirror to the harsh realities of society. But I'd rather they achieved that while telling an engaging story stocked with three-dimensional characters. Everyday resolutely fails on the second count.

One of the most versatile British auteurs of recent times, writer/director Winterbottom has given us such idiosyncratic comedies as 24 Hour Party People and the powerful dramas Welcome to Sarajevo and A Mighty Heart. He's a maverick talent in the cross-wired vein of Ken Loach and Julien Temple. But his willingness to experiment is occasionally a weakness, as evinced by the dreadful 9 Songs – live footage of Franz Ferdinand spliced with unsimulated sex scenes, what could possibly go wrong? - and the meandering Everyday.

Filmed sporadically over five years, it strives to examine the impact of the British penal system on a prisoner and his wife, portrayed by John Simm and Shirley Henderson. The action, such as it is, is divided between home and prison, as Henderson struggles to raise their four kids – portrayed by actual siblings – while awaiting her husband's release.

Incarcerated for an unspecified crime, he lives for their staggered visits. Watching his kids grow up in fits and bursts, he hears about missed Christmasses and birthdays, offers banal enquiries - “How's school?”, “Have you been good?” - and, whenever they're out of earshot, expresses to his wife his sexual frustration. And that's about it.

Shot in grainy pseudo-documentary style, it certainly captures the loneliness, angst and monotony of such an existence. But Winterbottom's dogged unwillingness to impose any dramatic embellishments on his deliberately spare and repetitive saga results in a film almost entirely composed of the boring bits we wouldn't normally see. I appreciate what he's trying to do, but it's like staring at a stranger's home movies.

Henderson and Simm are fine actors, but they can't do much with such thinly-sketched characters. As for the conceit of filming over five years, the only vaguely noticeable result is that the seasons change and the children age. But so what? Was that really worth the time and effort?

Possibly aware that his experiment wasn't working, Winterbottom attempts to broaden the canvas with painterly landscapes (Henderson and co conveniently live near picturesque fields and woodlands) that contrast heavy-handedly with the claustrophobia of Simm's cell. And Michael Nyman provides a pastoral score that tries in vain to make the film feel more profound than it actually is.

Even the most forgiving (gritty) BAFTA voter would struggle to stay awake during this well-intentioned misfire.

Incidentally, I'm aware that my opening analogy implies that Kevin Bishop has been responsible for at least two funny sketches in his career, rather than the paltry one. But I think you'll find that technically a stopped clock is right only once a day, equivalent to the time that it originally expired. Believe me, I'm tremendous fun at pub quizzes.

The first series of Abi Morgan's '50s period thriller THE HOUR was flawed, implausible and naggingly anachronistic, but as a piece of winningly performed, suspenseful entertainment, it ticked along quite effectively. But with its threads tied up in the final episode, it felt like a self-contained piece unburdened by the need for a sequel. So where can it go from here?

It's 1957 and, against the increasing tumult of the Cold War, our crusading BBC news team face fresh competition from an ITV rival. Hector is now a complacent star, Bel is undermined by her superiors, and maverick journalist Freddie returns from his travels with an unconvincing bohemian beard (that's not a euphemism). Meanwhile, crime is on the rise in London, but the government are more concerned with pumping money into the nuclear arms race.

Dominic West, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw are as solid as ever, and Peter Capaldi is a welcome addition as the taciturn new Head of News. But there's little in the first episode to suggest that another bout of The Hour is entirely necessary.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

TV PREVIEW: Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, The American Road Trip: Obama's Story, Family Guys? What Sitcoms Say About America Now

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27th October 2012.

Tuesday, BBC4, 9pm

Sunday, Channel 4, 7pm

Saturday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Halloween is almost upon us, which can only mean one thing: Mark Gatiss, on BBC4, looming from the shadows in the manner of a suave undertaker to tell us all about his favourite horror films.

A luxurious 90 minute special devoted to cult cinema classics, HORROR EUROPA WITH MARK GATISS follows in the wake of his well-received series from 2010, A History of Horror, in which he took a potted journey through the broadly familiar landmarks of the American and British branches of the genre. Bathed in clotted streams of crimson blood, his latest essay pays tribute to a “distinctive, diverse horror tradition” which both influenced and absorbed developments in cinema beyond continental Europe.

Encompassing every relevant 'ism' from German expressionism and Belgian surrealism, to sombre post-war realism and nightmare ruminations on fascism, it presents a sort of alternate history of horror cinema, or at least one that will doubtless prove unfamiliar to non-aficionados.

But therein lies the frustrating, albeit probably unavoidable, rub with Gatiss' horror documentaries: partly intended as an introductory overview, they do tend to spoil the twists and denouements of the very films he's encouraging us to seek out. His knowledge and enthusiasm are commendable, but this uneasy compromise between introduction and broad analysis does confuse the issue of who these programmes are aimed at exactly.

Nevertheless, it's still an enjoyable, witty and handsomely shot tribute to flamboyant horror titans such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, and the expressionist pioneers of early German cinema. One of Gatiss' more interesting points is that the latter group were, in the wake of Germany's catastrophic defeat in World War One, intent on restoring their nation's pride by establishing cinema as a respectable art form. It's perhaps surprising that they chose to do so within a genre so often dismissed – at least by high-falutin' critics – as cheap and disposable.

Gatiss further explores the after-effects of war via the bitter, guilt-ridden pseudo-realism of French classics such as Les Diaboliques, and argues that the many grotesque characters played by the great silent actor Condrad Veidt essentially functioned as allegorical representations of German post-war trauma.

Not that European horror filmmakers were always ignited by such lofty aspirations. Gatiss is in his lip-smacking element when discussing the lurid exploitation flicks that emerged from the Italian horror boom of the '60s. These stylish, quasi-psychedelic fantasias resemble nothing so much as a contemporaneous Hammer chiller shot through the prism of a deranged mind. Your Lovefilm list may be heaving with this stuff by programme's end.

Arch of eyebrow and tailored of suit, Gatiss is an engaging guide to a rich, varied, eye-catching subject of which – lest there be any doubt – he's clearly hugely passionate about. Any programme that devotes time and respect to fantastically titled curios such as Who Can Kill a Child? and The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue is more than deserving of your rapt attention.

Four more years? That's the question at the heart of THE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP: OBAMA'S STORY, in which, ahead of next week's closely fought US election, Channel 4's Washington Correspondent Matt Frei travels through the swing states of the Midwest and the South to canvas the opinions of ordinary voters.

With many Americans feeling that their country is in terminal decline, Obama's chances of winning a second term are hardly set in stone. Frei meets middle-class (or what we would term working-class) people on the edge of destitution, who, despite Obama's promises of sweeping upward change, have come to realise that the American dream is a hopeless myth. “We were sold a line,” sighs one man, “and the line is a noose.”

And yet despite this widespread disappointment, it's fortunate for Obama that his Republican opponent, millionaire Mormon gaffe-trumpet Mitt Romney, currently looks about as electable as a rabid mongoose (he says, fingers crossed). No wonder the nutzoid Tea Party movement, who Frei drops in on, are so terrified and confused.

Unfortunately, despite the potentially interesting subject matter, Frei's report is superficial and unrevealing. He wastes time mocking a Mormon elder for the sacred underpants worn by those of faith, and, in one bizarrely irrelevant sequence, argues with his Sat-Nav while driving through Kentucky. I blame the heat.

Nevertheless, a portrait does emerge of America as a divided, messed up nation. But is that entirely accurate? In FAMILY GUYS? WHAT SITCOMS SAY ABOUT AMERICA NOW, historian Tim Stanley argues that TV comedies provide a more accurate illustration of American society than the ragingly polarised bickering of mainstream political debate.

Using as examples the likes of Modern Family, with its gay fathers and interracial marriage, and The Middle, about a recession-hit middle-class family, he shows how sitcoms throughout the ages have reflected and consolidated shifting attitudes. But even in these supposedly more tolerant times, subjects such as abortion and religion are still considered dangerously divisive.

Featuring insightful contributions from leading writers, directors, executives and critics, it's an interesting programme that proves, if any more proof were needed, that comedy remains one of the world's most valuable, risky and challenging art forms.  

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Book review: MICK JAGGER by Philip Norman

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 20th October 2012.


Philip Norman

HarperCollins, £20

Paul Whitelaw

When Michael Philip Jagger, corporate head of the Rolling Stones empire, was asked to deliver his autobiography in the early '80s, the ghost-written results were deemed so irredeemably dull that the publishers were forced to cancel the £1 million advance and scrap the entire project. His exasperated editor quipped that it should've been titled The Diary of a Nobody.

Contrast that with the colourful – if not always reliable – content of fellow Stone Keith Richards' best selling memoir, Life, from 2010, which, in between hair-raising anecdotes and scholarly ruminations on open-G tuning, functioned as a kind of frustrated public letter to his estranged old friend. The Stones are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, with another mega-tour rumoured to follow in 2013, but Richards claims he hasn't set foot in Jagger's dressing room in over 20 years.

So what happened? How is it possible that a legendary figure such as Jagger, who's lived a life liberally festooned with dramatic incident, could think of nothing interesting to say about himself? And how did it get to the stage where he barely communicates with the man with whom he wrote some of the world's greatest rock songs?

Philip Norman's hefty, even-handed biography seeks to dig behind the studied public façade and bore into the heavily guarded heart of this paradoxical icon. That he succeeds in presenting a rounded portrait of such a slippery character is doubly remarkable given Jagger's predictable refusal to have anything to do with the book.

And yet, despite this glaring Jagger-shaped hole, Norman may well have written the only biography of a living entertainer to actually benefit from the absence of its subject. After all, the author argues, when have you ever read a remotely revealing interview with Mick Jagger? From the moment he strutted onto the world's stage in the mid-'60s, his public pronouncements have always been couched in feigned indifference and, in later years, a maddening insistence that he's forgotten the finer details of his past.

A highly intelligent, shrewd professional, this is clearly a convenient avoidance technique honed over the years to reveal as little of himself as possible. Famously, Jagger is a song-writer who, despite penning countless lyrics, has provided barely a hint of autobiography in his work.

This diplomatic narcissist obviously cares deeply about how he's perceived, but his unwavering commitment – to borrow ex-paramour Marianne Faithfull's choice phrase – to The Tyranny of Cool prohibits him from ever suggesting otherwise in public.

Norman repeatedly returns to the Tyranny of Cool motif throughout the story, as a persuasive way of deciphering Jagger's often self-defeating and callous behaviour. Despite pushing 70, this still limber force of nature is arguably the most vainglorious exponent of the perpetual adolescence enjoyed by pampered rock stars.

Although Norman rightly celebrates Jagger's immense talent and historical impact, a portrait emerges of a selfish, charming, controlling man who's had his every whim, whether fiscal or carnal, indulged almost without question throughout his long career. And yet despite his keen sense of self-awareness, Jagger doesn't seem to realise that his endless series of affairs with women less than half his age has transformed a one-time cultural powerhouse into an increasingly pathetic parody of himself. That, I suppose, is what happens when the word you've heard least in your life is “no”.

Norman has assembled an addictive narrative mired in sex and, to a lesser extent, drugs (Jagger was always too sensible to overindulge), but thankfully he isn't interested in salacious gossip.

An esteemed biographer of, among others, The Beatles, John Lennon, and the Stones themselves (an updated edition of his exhaustive 1984 biography is published this month), his reputation for thorough research is compounded on virtually every page. Norman is the sort of detail-hungry biographer who'll delightedly note that an Abbott and Costello comedy prophetically titled Money For Jam was playing at the local cinema in Dartford when the notoriously stingy Jagger was born.

Having gone back over interviews conducted for his previous Stones tome, he's also gathered fresh, record-straightening yet dignified contributions from the likes of Jagger's former lovers Chrissie Shrimpton and Marsha Hunt (who gave birth to his first child, which he briefly tried to disown), and Maggie Abbot, his one-time film agent, who grants fascinating insight into the numerous film offers that came his way during his thwarted bid for Hollywood stardom. It's tantalising to imagine what directors such as Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, John Boorman and Franco Zeffirelli could've done with Jagger's unique charisma.

Despite his penchant for detail, Norman could never be accused of being a dry, academic biographer. Adopting a wry tone befitting his habitually self-mocking subject, he rarely passes up an opportunity for an ironic aside. Indeed, at times he'd be best advised to avoid a tempting pun or gag, as they often irritate rather than amuse. Perverting the title of the Stones' first US album to Europe's Newest Shitmakers? Describing ageing groupies as “gurgling matrons”? Really, Philip? And he does tend to repeat himself as the book goes on. Oh for the hand of a stricter editor.

Nevertheless, having breathed new life into familiar material, he's written what must surely be regarded as the definitive account of Jagger's remarkable life. Its very existence will, of course, vex and embarrass Sir Mick himself, who would clearly prefer it if people only wrote about him in the manner of a glowing press release. But you can be sure that, whenever the subject inevitably arises during future interviews, he'll casually dismiss it as an irrelevance. The Tyranny of Cool will never be vanquished.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman is published 4th October (HarperCollins, £20)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Scotsman TV preview: Getting On, BBC4 Big Science, Hebburn

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 13th October 2012.

Wednesday, BBC4, 10pm

BBC4, days and times vary

Thursday, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Dismantled by a government possessed of all the selflessness and empathy of a Cyberman attending an annual “Let's Kill the Humans” convention, the NHS currently finds itself in the most parlous position of its lifetime. And while no conceivable trace of good could ever arise from this dismal situation, it does add an extra layer of depth to careworn sitcom GETTING ON. So that's something. I suppose.

Now in its third series, this unvarnished gem – written by and starring Vicki Pepperdine, Joanna Scanlan, and former psychiatric nurse Jo Brand – has always presented a humane and despairing portrait of the beleaguered NHS. But now more than ever it feels like a helpless eulogy for an institution trudging towards its final days.

If that all sounds like unreasonably depressing fodder for a comedy, it should be explained – for those who haven't already succumbed to its charms – that Getting On never goes in search of broad, easy laughs. Instead its subtle humour arises naturally from realistic situations and well-rounded characters. It's funny in a desperate, often painful way.

Set in an understaffed geriatric ward, it lives up to its double-edged title by showing ordinary, flawed human beings muddling through under trying circumstances (i.e. life). Overshadowed by the ever-present spectre of death – laugh it up, folks! - it pays heartfelt yet crucially unsentimental tribute to the thankless lot of NHS nurses.

Jo Brand as knackered nurse Kim is the heart of Getting On. Although shrouded in lingering traces of Brand's cynical comic persona, Kim is kinder and more cognisant of the needs of her elderly patients than any other character in the show. She's that rare thing: someone from a modern British sitcom that you'd actually like to know in real life.

The same can't be said for Pepperdine as effortlessly condescending consultant Dr Moore, who's more concerned with ticking boxes and boosting her profile. Permanently teetering on a frayed tightrope of passive-aggression and stunning obliviousness, she's a weirdly vulnerable monster, and Pepperdine plays her impeccably.

Scanlan, who's already asserted her deft comic touch as Terri in The Thick Of It, also impresses as capable but lazy ward sister Den, who tends to form a shaky united front with Kim. In the latest episode she receives unwelcome news from her ex-partner and male matron, Hilary – a beautifully understated performance from hulking comic Ricky Grover – while struggling with a hypochondriac patient.

I'd describe Getting On as bittersweet, if that word hadn't been hijacked to describe bland ITV comedy-dramas starring Martin Clunes as a lonely divorcee. Instead I'll describe it as a raw, honest study of institutional and mortal decay, but funny.

Directed by, among others, Scanlan's The Thick Of It co-star Peter Capaldi, it's deliberately grey and unflatteringly lit, all the better to underscore its harsh, satirical message. In the unlikely event of Jeremy Hunt sitting down to watch it, I doubt that he'd care about that message at all. This, ultimately, is all you need to know.

Swapping its nurses uniform for a lab coat, BBC4 launches its BIG SCIENCE season this week, featuring a host of classy documentaries devoted to, well, you can probably guess.

It begins with Order and Disorder (Tuesday, 9pm), in which Professor Jim Al-Khalili explains how the human race came to harness and manipulate energy. In The Final Frontier? A Horizon Guide to the Universe (Wednesday, 9pm), Dallas Campbell raids the Horizon archive to chart the scientific breakthroughs that have transformed our understanding of the universe. Meanwhile, in Tails You Win – The Science of Chance (Thursday, 9pm), David Spiegelhalter, the – implausible yet impressive job title alert – Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, examines factors of risk and probability to argue that, instead of avoiding chance, we should embrace it.

Finally, HEBBURN is a fairly warm-hearted new sitcom written by stand-up comic Jason Cook. Set in the unremarkable town of Hebburn, South Tyneside, where Cook grew up, it revolves around a close-knit working-class family headed by Vic Reeves (here billed under his real name, Jim Moir) and Gina McKee. He's affable and blokey, she's overbearingly well-meaning in the way that sitcom mums almost always are.

Rounding out the brood are comedian Chris Ramsey – who looks like Stan Laurel moonlighting as a member of One Direction – as the prodigal son awkwardly introducing his girlfriend (Fresh Meat's Kimberley Nixon) to the family for the first time. But unbeknownst to them, the pair secretly got married in Vegas. Oh no! Apparently.

There's also a daffy gran prone to inappropriate outbursts, and a tart-with-a-heart sister. So no, it won't win any awards for originality (if indeed such awards existed). And that's Hebburn's problem: although it's packed with gags, they're mostly rather obvious and unremarkable. Cook – who also appears in a supporting role – can't resist all the usual cheap tracksuits and fake-tan jibes, and even throws a cheesy pub singer in for good measure. Tinged with pathos and black comedy, it's amiable enough, and nicely performed – especially by McKee, reminding us that she's capable of delivering much more than the frosty types she's usually cast as. But it isn't remotely distinctive or original.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Scotsman TV preview - Best Possible Taste: The Kenny Everett Story, Hunted, Boardwalk Empire.

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 29th September 2012.

Wednesday, BBC4, 9pm

Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Today, Sky Atlantic, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

It's often sensible to exercise a certain amount of caution around the BBC's cottage industry of biopics about much-loved entertainers. More often than not, they tend to treat the remarkable talent of their subjects as an irrelevant sideshow, preferring instead to wallow in the murky shallows of their supposedly hellish private lives. Prurient, voyeuristic and occasionally mean-spirited, they're usually about as sensitive as a cannonball to the groin.

So it's with some relief that I recommend BEST POSSIBLE TASTE: THE KENNY EVERETT STORY, a warm, witty and respectful tribute to the ground-breaking DJ and comedian that, while never shying away from the more troubled aspects of his character, actually goes out of its way to celebrate his genius.

Closer in spirit to the delightful Eric & Ernie and Tony Roche's winningly irreverent Holy Flying Circus – Ev's comic alter-egos, from Sid Snot to Cupid Stunt, act as a Greek chorus throughout - it's clearly a labour of love from screenwriter Tim Whitnall, whose ability to write about comedians with affectionate insight was previously established by his award-winning stage-play Morecambe.

With Ev's ex-wife and soul-mate Lee and his key collaborator Barry Cryer both acting as consultants, Whitnall's film abounds with a sense of anecdotal charm and detail that so many of these biopics lack. Sure, it begins with our hero recovering from a suicide attempt, and pivots around his struggle to come to terms with his homosexuality, but it never treats him crassly. Instead he's portrayed as an inveterate rebel with a self-destructive streak, whose total mastery of his craft clashed with his private anxieties. That's artists for you.

Framed as an unorthodox love story between Ev and Lee, it's a touching portrait of a sensitive, brilliant, loveable, maddening man trying to find his place in the world, before tragically passing away years before his time. Newcomer Oliver Lansley is simply outstanding in the lead role, inhabiting Ev's various personae – including his softly-spoken actual self – with uncanny accuracy and depth. If this magnificent performance isn't awarded with a BAFTA next year, then I'll shake my fist at the sun in anger. That'll show them.

Ex-Coronation Street actress Katherine Kelly provides excellent support as the strong-willed Lee, and there are even a few colourful cameos from Freddie Mercury, Michael Winner and Dickie Attenborough (the latter essayed by Simon Callow in Full-Callow mode).

While many of these biopics often look as though they were made for the price of a packet of Swan Vestas, director James Strong does wonders with his resources here, producing a beautiful, inventive piece that its late subject may well have approved of. Alas, the budget cuts at BBC4 suggest that this will be their last drama for quite some time. But at least they've gone out on a high.

From the sublime to the irredeemably awful. Created, presumably on a napkin, by US dramatist Frank Spotnitz (The X Files), HUNTED is a new eight-part thriller co-produced by Kudos, home of Spooks, and US cable titans HBO. Normally the sort of hackneyed, risible garbage that HBO wouldn't touch with an executive bargepole, it's held together with every heaving cliché in the book, as Melissa George – a fine actress, who deserves better – goes through the motions as a beautiful yet emotionally remote private intelligence agent who infiltrates the family of a corrupt millionaire.

Peppered with outbursts of nasty violence, Hunted is absolute hokum, but not in a good way. Like 24 without the sense of comic-book fun, it takes itself incredibly seriously, with various migraine-intense characters interacting in that terse, furtive, flippant way that fictional spies always do. All that's required of George is that she pout and kick the occasional ass, while suffering the indignity of pretending to be haunted by traumatic childhood flashbacks that resemble nothing more than the Papa Lazarou coda from the League of Gentlemen Christmas Special.

Piles of cash have clearly been wasted on this one-dimensional drivel. Watching it feels like an affront to common decency.

Fortunately, HBO remind us what they're good at with the return of BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Now in its third season, the roaring '20s prohibition drama continues without one of its hitherto key characters, Jimmy Darmody, whose murder at the climax of season two was, while inevitable, shockingly carried out by his surrogate father Nucky Thompson (the great Steve Buscemi).

The abiding theme this year, then, is the transformation of Nucky from being “half a gangster” to a full-blown lord of misrule. It's a bold development, and one that could backfire if handled badly. Although blatantly corrupt and responsible for orchestrating acts of violence from afar, Nucky was always an essentially likeable anti-hero. But it's impossible to sympathise with him now, which may be a problem as the series progresses.

Nevertheless, it returns with a strong opening episode introducing a dangerous new antagonist, Gyp Rosetti, a ludicrously thin-skinned gangster set to cause future headaches for the permanently harassed Nucky. Rosetti may be a rather broad and familiar character, but he's still an entertaining addition to one of the most compelling TV dramas of the day. It sure is swell to have it back. 

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Scotsman TV Preview: Downton Abbey, Parade's End, Strictly Come Dancing

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 15 September 2012.

Sunday, STV, 9pm

Friday, BBC2, 9pm

Today, BBC1, 6:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

A lavish harlequinade of withering gazes, arched eyebrows and stoic suffering: yes, DOWNTON ABBEY is back, and thankfully it seems to have calmed down following last year's hyperactive series, which at times felt more like a series of disjointed trailers for an upcoming episode interspersed with blaring commercial breaks every five minutes. The latter are still an unwelcome intrusion, but it's good to have it back on form.

In case you'd forgotten where we were, the first few scenes are helpfully devoted to nothing but clunky exposition, leading up to the return of Lady Sybil and her fierce republican husband (cue awkward discussions of “the Irish problem” over dinner), the much publicised arrival of Shirley Maclaine as Lady Grantham's mother (cue laboured bouts of American modernism vs English traditionalism), and the wedding of Lady Mary and Matthew (cue the expected drama on the eve of their nuptials). And most dramatically of all, Lord Grantham is shocked to learn that he may run the risk of losing dear old Downton altogether.

Despite the fact that you can always hear the gears shifting in Julian Fellowes' writing, I can't deny that, at his best, he's a fine purveyor of world-class soap opera. It's corn on a grand scale, but it's expertly tuned and entertaining corn at that.

The cerebral yin to Downton's full-bosomed yang, PARADE'S END, which concludes this week, is almost stubbornly anti-populist in its appeal. Indeed, this handsome Edwardian period drama mirrors precisely the compelling, frustrating, enigmatic allure of its central character, Christopher Tietjans, who for the past five weeks has made an esoteric virtue of keeping his entire world at arm's length.

Immaculately portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch – his oval jaw set in stone, although increasingly prone to wobbles as the story progressed – Christopher's damned loyalty to his strict, self-flagellating moral code takes a further battering in the final episode, which mostly finds him mired in the insanity of the Western Front trenches.

Created by Ford Madox Ford for a series of highly-regarded early 20th century novels, “the last decent man in England” is certainly more complex than any character found in Downton, and highlights, not only the fundamental difference between the two programmes, but also the inherent, possibly deliberate flaw of Tom Stoppard's otherwise impressive adaptation: Downton Abbey wants to loved, and will jab all your buttons to ensure that it is, whereas Parade's End has no interest in giving you an easy, comfortable, emotional ride.

And that's why, although I enjoyed it, I never felt particularly moved by this sprawling epic. I admired its stellar performances, its dry, eccentric wit and Susanna White's assured direction, but I never really got under the skin of the central love triangle between Christopher, his entertainingly maddening wife Sylvia (Rebecca Hall, a haughty swan, superb throughout) and moist-eyed, lovestruck plot device Valentine (Adelaide Clemens, doing her best with an underwritten role).

I suspect that Stoppard was more interested in the material for its reams of layered character study and socio-politcal satire, than as an unconventional romantic drama. It's certainly obvious that Madox Ford's novels, which many deemed unfilmable, don't lend themselves easily to adaptation, and Stoppard should be commended for transforming them into five hours of captivating, if at times inscrutable, TV drama.

And I'm glad that the BBC has taken a leaf from co-producers HBO's book and produced something that demands concentration and actively repels the casual viewer. It's encouraging that we have a landscape where populist period fare such as Downton can comfortably coexist with the relatively challenging and idiosyncratic likes of Parade's End. And while it wasn't an unqualified success – the stasis of Christopher and Sylvia's relationship, for instance, led to repetitive reinstatements of their central dynamic every week – it was undeniably smart, startling and ambitious. And we need more of that, always.

Also, special mention should go to Stephen Graham, who, despite being lumbered with a ridiculous stick-on beard that made him look like a Blackadder Dickens, pulled off a faultless Edinburgh accent while proving himself yet again as one of TV's most versatile actors. And speaking of Blackadder, the penultimate episode, with the great Roger Allam coming to the fore to essentially portray a blimpish General Melchett substitute, was one of the most effective and darkly humorous “war is hell” statements I've seen on TV in quite some time.

Finally, STRICTLY COME DANCING returns tonight for another ratings-grabbing series of flotsam and fluff.

Personally, I've never been a fan. It's not something I object to – it's utterly harmless – but it's just one of those cultural happenings that unfolds every year in my peripheral vision, like football and chart music and the latest globule of scandalous idiocy that habitually dribbles from the mouth of some celebrity I couldn't care less about. Not even the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Russell Grant being fired from a cannon could rouse my interest last year, which means that I'm either suffering from a clinical case of ennui, or that the mere idea of the roly-poly astrologer hurtling through the air in a shower of glitter is entertainment enough for me. Either way, it's back, and there if you want it.  

Saturday, 1 September 2012

TV PREVIEW: Doctor Who, Dallas, Mrs Biggs.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 1 September 2012.

Today, BBC1, 7:20pm

Wednesday, Five, 9pm

Wednesday, STV, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

TV's annual summer drought finally comes to an end with the return of two beloved hardy perennials, most notable of which is DOCTOR WHO. Now in its seventh series since its revival, it shows no sign of flagging under the auspices of ingenious show-runner Steven Moffat and – mark my considered words – one of the best actors to ever fill the Doctor's boots, Matt Smith.

If, like me, you felt the last series was bogged down somewhat by the convoluted Amy/Rory/River Song arc, then you'll be pleased to note that we've been promised a new series of self-contained “blockbusters”, presumably epitomised by Moffat's tremendous kick-starter, Asylum of the Daleks, in which the titular war-tanks come across as more unnerving and menacing than at any time since Rob Shearman's celebrated Dalek in 2005.

You'll doubtless have read that this adventure features more physical Dalek models – including several from Doctor Who's entire half-century existence – than ever before, making it something of a dark celebration of their iconic status. But that doesn't obscure a cracking yarn in which the Doctor, Amy and Rory are unwillingly press-ganged by their arch nemesis into “saving” a danger-strewn planet of insane Skarosians.

Full of sepulchral, claustrophobic corridors straight out of a classic '60s/'70s episode, it's an atmospheric setting swathed in rust, dust and cobwebs: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Whom. The compact storyline also throws up a couple of genuine shocks that I can't reveal for obvious reasons, but suffice to say they provide intriguing implications for the future of the series.

Scattering fine-tuned moments of wit and poignancy throughout – as well as a surreal detour resembling The Shining by way of Sapphire & Steele – it is, in typical Doctor Who style, a gripping, twisty horror romp fit for all the family. Visually, it's as impressive as usual, feeling richer and more cinematic than anything else on British TV. My only complaint is that – after redeeming herself last year – Karen Gillan as Amy is back to her semi-dislikeable, irritating ways, although that's thankfully offset by the charm and comic timing of the peerless Smith and Arthur Darvill as Rory. I'll miss the latter when he leaves along with Gillan later this year.

Fun of a somewhat different hue is triggered by the return of DALLAS, the glossy mega-soap which, save for a couple of late-'90s TV movies, hasn't graced our screens since the original series ended in 1991. Like Doctor Who before it, the writers have wisely foregone a reboot in favour of a continuation of the established saga of the Ewing clan, albeit with a new generation pushed to the fore.

And whaddya know, J.R's son John Ross has grown up to be as much of a smirking, Machiavellian reptile as his father, with sibling rival Christopher proving as benign as his adoptive dad, Bobby. So expect more Cane and Abel histrionics which threaten to TEAR THE FAMILY APART, while the old guard – represented by the likes of Larry Hagman and the astonishingly ageless Patrick Duffy – pull the strings and fret on the sidelines.

Cleverly, it manages to harness everything we loved about Dallas in the first place – that campy bombast and glowering melodrama – whilst never tipping over into outright self-parody. The younger cast may be typical US TV blandroids, but the rodent-like Josh Henderson shows potential as the villainous John Ross, and it's great to see Hagman – whose unruly eyebrows deliver a startling performance of their own – back in the saddle.

This sleek, ridiculous, incident-packed revival may well prove as addictive as the original in its prime. Channel Five – who are hardly known for showing hit dramas – have chosen wisely here.

And ITV, for all its faults, are undeniably skilled at presenting crime-based factual dramas which – despite boasting an innate sense of prurient interest – can never be accused of sensationalising or romanticising their subjects. So it is with MRS BIGGS, a handsomely-mounted five-part drama focusing on the wife of the notorious Great Train Robber.

Written by ITV's head of factual drama Jeff Pope, whose credits include Pierrepoint and See No Evil: The Moors Murders, it shows how the life of this innocent, bright, middle-class girl was rocked forever by her charming rogue of a husband. Although Ronnie is presented as a habitual petty criminal struggling to quash his urges for the sake of the woman he loves, Pope certainly doesn't make any excuses for his actions. And Charmian Biggs, although portrayed sympathetically, is often exasperatingly naïve in her devotion.

Sheridan Smith and Daniel Mays make for captivating, nuanced leads, ably supported by the likes of Jay Simpson as coolly sinister criminal mastermind, Bruce Reynolds. Framed as a tumultuous love story, it's a sensitive and revealing take on familiar territory, and far more thoughtful than the romping likes of Phil Collins vehicle Buster, which essentially treated the whole affair as a bit of a caper.

Mired in fag smoke and jazz, it also presents a convincing depiction of Britain's brown Formica '50s and early '60s, and shows a life of crime for what it is: an interminable mug's game. 

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Scotsman TV preview: Channel 4's Funny Fortnight

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 18th August 2012.


Days and times vary, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I wasn't alone in regarding Channel 4 as home to some of the best and most innovative British comedy. Few, I'm sure, would argue with the likes of The Comic Strip Presents, Saturday/Friday Night Live, Absolutely, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Father Ted and Brass Eye.

But C4's noble pedigree has, with the honourable exception of the long-running Peep Show, been badly damaged in the last decade. Comedy on 4 is now epitomised by the charmless likes of Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Micky Flanagan and Frankie Boyle. And any channel that allows the insufferable Noel Fielding to flourish should be regarded with deep suspicion.

The deterioration of its comedy output is indicative of an overall slide in standards at C4, a sorry state of affairs that its Funny Fortnight season inadvertently illustrates. Boasting over 30 hours of new pilots, one-off specials and numerous repeats of former glories, it does at least offer some glimmers of hope, while at the same time neatly encapsulating everything that's wrong with C4 these days.

The worst offender by far is I'M SPAZTICUS (Sunday to Wednesday, 10:10pm, 10:30pm and 10:35pm), a jaw-droppingly witless and misconceived hidden prank show in which disabled performers humiliate able-bodied members of the public.

Its title – taken from an Ian Dury protest song, but shorn of its original context for maximum shock value – is the least offensive thing about this disaster. What point is it trying to make exactly? That disabled people can be involved in woefully uninspired prank shows too, especially ones that define them solely by their disability? Wow, what a heartening message. Or, seeing as its flustered “victims” are well-meaning innocents, is it saying that able-bodied people will go out of their way to help disabled people no matter how absurd the situation? Well, that's good isn't it?

Only one prank – a spoof vox pops in which members of the public are asked to choose which disability they'd least like to have - could reasonably be taken as pointed satire, although all it really proves is that dim people will partake in any old crock if there's a camera involved. But hasn't Chris Morris already made that point, albeit in a more imaginative way?

This is what C4, hosts of the 2012 Paralympics, regards as inclusiveness: a comedy show starring disabled people in which they're reduced to comedy props. The producers would doubtless pull a Gervais – an unfortunate phrase, but let's not dwell – and argue that it isn't problematic as they're willing participants and in on the joke. But all that proves is that some disabled actors are as desperate for work as able-bodied actors.

Actually, maybe that's the hidden genius of I'm Spazticus. Maybe it's a cleverly subversive comment on how C4 will exploit anyone for profit, whatever their physical ability. And that, when you think about it, actually makes them the most trailblazing equal-opportunities employer in television. All hail C4, defender of minorities!

Still, it's not all thoroughly horrendous. THE FUNCTION ROOM (Sunday, 10:40pm) is a cheerfully traditional and often very funny studio sitcom set in a pub, and starring a host of familiar comedy actors including The Vicar of Dibley's James Fleet, The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith, The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison, The Fast Show's Simon Day (once again playing a pub know-it-all) and every-comedy-of-the-last-twenty-years' Kevin Eldon.

The sort of uproariously gag-heavy sitcom that encourages deserved rounds of applause from its studio audience, it's definitely a step in the right direction for C4, and if they have any sense – which they don't – they'll commission a series. 
We really are through the looking glass here, as TOAST OF LONDON (Monday, 10pm) is yet another promising sitcom pilot. Co-written with Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, it's a winningly silly vehicle for Matt Berry from The IT Crowd , and follows a farcical day in the life of a successful West End stage actor.

Yes, it finds the one-note Berry delivering the only performance he can – a bombastic, bawdy, swaggering ham with a voice like vintage brandy - but I can't deny that, with a busily gag-strewn script such as this, he exploits his limited strengths to the full. Not to be outdone, the whole cast – including the great Geoffrey McGivern, last seen in Dead Boss – deliver similarly broad performances, and the whole thing is so relentlessly daft it's hard to resist its rambling charms. More please, C4!

Considerably less impressive is CHANNEL 4 COMEDY PRESENTS: THEM FROM THAT THING (Tuesday and Wednesday, 10pm) an almost entirely mirthless sketch show that wastes a core cast of able comic performers such as Sally Phillips and Fonejacker's Kayvan Novak on weak, strained material (some of which was apparently written by the usually reliable Charlie Brooker).

Its gimmick, such as it is, is casting straight actors such as Bill Paterson and Sean Pertwee in comic roles, but that just comes across as a desperate attempt to give it some identity. This is committee-formed comedy, lacking in singular vision.

Still, at least this season proves that C4 comedy isn't completely dead in the water. It just needs some careful resuscitation.