This time of the year we would usually be fully engaged with the start of the Autumn season, containing multiple new series as well as returning favourites. Alas, the pandemic has so disrupted production that we are likely to be in makeshift mode for some time. Nevertheless, the summer and early autumn have managed to provide a handful of worthwhile new offerings made before the lockdown struck, some maybe held back, others maybe brought forward to fill the yawning gaps in the schedules.
Any time is good to get something new from Jimmy McGovern, but it was particularly welcome in the middle of this arid summer. Anthony (BBC1) was clearly always intended for transmission in July anyway, as it was made to mark the 15th anniversary of the racist murder of Anthony Walker in Liverpool. Mc Govern has such a track record of tackling the city’s major traumas that it was a subject perfect for him, yet the BBC rightly emphasised that Anthony’s mother, Gee Walker, had expressly asked McGovern to do it in case it should be remarked in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the question of “white saviours” in fictionalised representations, that it should have been dramatized by a black writer.
Also pertinent in the light of the recent heightened debates about racism was Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (BBC1), though it was considerably more than that as well. I cannot but agree with all the commentators who hailed it as one of the most significant new dramas of the year, though I have to admit that I’m not completely sure why. This is entirely down to my own limited horizons as an ageing straight white man (with age being the most significant of those four descriptors), rather than any problem with the drama itself. I’m not saying it wasn’t aimed at me – like all great drama it was there to be appreciated by everybody – but rather that it was not within the limits of my full understanding in terms of the detail that makes it a masterpiece: the modern social, cultural and musical references and multiple other subtleties that escaped my comprehension. I do, however, have plenty of experience of judging drama as drama, even in those cases where it doesn’t make an immediate personal connection, and, in terms of its narrative drive I could see that this was obviously something outstanding. I particularly liked the fractured timeline approach, allowing some episodes to stand alone, and the way Coel’s character’s growing appreciation of how to create narrative structure in her own work impacted on her understanding and resolution of what had happened to her, even if it did involve presenting a number of possible endings. A definite for the shortlist.
At the other end of the spectrum, the return of There She Goes (BBC2) for a second season, provided me with something so close to my own personal experience, that I also question my ability to judge it objectively. At the time of the first season, I wrote a blog about this experience (Close to Home, November 14th, 2018) and the second season simply continued in precisely the same vein. Every episode, and particularly the flashback scenes in which Rosie’s disability becomes apparent, once again provided moments of intimate recognition. And Jessica Hynes and David Tennant were again exceptional. I won’t put it on the shortlist again, but it remains my personal favourite.
Documentaries are on much safer ground than dramas these days. The things that make an excellent documentary series have remained fairly constant of late and were all clearly on display in the outstanding four-part Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2): strong subject matter; a balanced roster of the most interesting and articulate interviewees; a gripping narrative structure; and the most relevant archive footage. There is little more to say – it wasn’t ground-breaking, just extremely good programme-making, and it’s on the shortlist.
And if you were looking for a series which illustrated a historical period by dramatic reconstruction and which also worked as character-driven drama, then along came Mrs America (FX/BBC2), Dahvi Waller’s account of the struggles between feminists and a conservative women’s group over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US in the 1970s. Its strengths were also traditional ones – a well-constructed script which gave equal weight to historical context as to character development, subtle touches which underscored both aspects, great attention to period detail and, above all, terrific performances, particularly from Cate Blanchett as the leader of the conservative faction. It was also refreshing to encounter such a series which is clearly not angling for a second season.
All the above were transmitted on the BBC, which has managed to balance its resources well in the extraordinary circumstances of the year. ITV’s most impressive drama offering of the period was Des, a dramatisation of the interrogation and trial of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen. It was clearly inspired by the success of a series like Mindhunter (Netflix), which showed that having such a criminal talk openly to investigators across a desk could be just as chilling, if not more so, than reconstructing his crimes. You need a charismatic actor for it to work well and David Tennant (who seems pretty ubiquitous this year) more than rose to the task.
Most of the above appeared during mid to late summer. The most interesting of the early autumn offerings are on subscription and streaming platforms and are ongoing at the time of writing, so I may well have to return to them later. And the most interesting of those is Lovecraft Country (HBO/Sky Atlantic), which counts Jordan Peele and J.J.Abrams amongst its executive producers, and does it ever show. A mixture of social comment on the history of racism and outrageous horror/fantasy with terrific effects, it never fails to startle, though its ultimate destination remains (so far) a mystery. Meanwhile, I Hate Suzie (Sky Atlantic) is superficially similar to I May Destroy You, and I have many of the same problems with it, though without the clear conviction this time that I am watching something of significance, but I will stick with it just in case.
I have, on several occasions, used this blog to sing the praises of Channel 4’s Utopia and to lament the fact that it was cancelled before completion (and, indeed, to hope that it may at some stage be continued). So, I was bound to be attracted to Gillian Flynn’s American re-make (Amazon), if only to check it out for comparison. Unsurprisingly, it is not a patch on the original (how could it possibly be?), but I’m certainly sticking with it for the duration, if only in the hope that the story will be completed.
The pandemic has, of course, thrown greater responsibility onto TV archives to fill the schedules. Most of this has involved straight repeats or compilations, but, in some instances, has inspired developments in the creative use of archival material. Louis Theroux: Life on the Edge (BBC2) was a series of four in which the documentary-maker looked back thematically at his career and reflected thoughtfully on the meaning of the shows he had made, while at the same time, catching up on-line with many of those whose lives he had explored in order to get their take as well. It was a simple idea, but very effectively and movingly executed. Preceding it on BBC2 on Sundays, was Harry Hill’s World of TV, a laugh-out-loud dissection of different TV genes – another simple idea beautifully delivered, thanks to what must have been exhaustive archival research. I particularly liked the sequences in which he played multiple examples of recurring tropes, such as the large number of highly respected crime dramas which have advanced their plots by having somebody enter a room and dramatically announce “so-and-so has regained consciousness”.
But, the most creative use of archive came along just a couple of nights ago with John Wyver’s 50thanniversary documentary about Play for Today, Drama Out of a Crisis (BBC4). The density of the high definition 16:9 screen was fully employed to cram into its 90-minute span as much material as this legendary strand deserved, all of it presented and framed in its original transmission ratio and selected to illustrate the points being made as effectively as possible. And, of course, the anniversary is also a great excuse for the BBC to transmit the best archival repeats of the lockdown, though they probably would have done so in “normal” circumstances anyway.