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.