Loose Ends

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OK, the tree is up, presents are starting to accumulate underneath it and Hanna is getting excited. In other news, the rush of publication of advance editions of Radio Times that characterises early December means that we now know what will be on for the rest of this year. So, now is a good time to take stock of where I am with my shortlist for the best of 2018, to revisit the titles I mentioned in my blog of 17thSeptember and to add a couple of things that have grabbed my attention in recent weeks. I can then enjoy reading all the other “best of year” lists and pay attention to the most promising upcoming highlights before settling on my own final top ten just before the year ends.

 

Back in September, I had six promising drama series on the go at the same time and expected a couple of them to make my shortlist. That happened, but it didn’t entirely turn out as I expected. To deal with them in reverse order, as it were, I gave up on Trust Unknown-2after four episodes – after a very promising start, it seemed to be drawing the story out to intolerable lengths: maybe I’ll give the Ridley Scott movie a go instead.  Bodyguard gripped to the end but was ultimately just too improbable and manipulative for my taste (and how was the dead man’s button ever a problem when his hand was taped to the device?). No Offence was its usual wonderful self, but I don’t think the third season represented any kind of advance on the previous two, so it doesn’t make it to the shortlist for that reason.

 

Which leaves two titles I was expecting to make the shortlist and one I wasn’t. I certainly did expect to be shortlisting Killing Eve on the evidence of its opening episodes – it was sharp, witty and innovative. Unfortunately, Phoebe Waller-Bridge did not write it all andUnknown the standard of some of the later episodes did not reach her level. Also, it settled into a regular, episodic and repetitive game of cat-and-mouse, which would have been fine if it had come up with a satisfactory ending but leaving things open for a second season was precisely not what I wanted (in that respect it reminded me of The Fall). I won’t be following it further.

 

I was also expecting Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising to make my shortlist and it does so, though not without a few reservations. In comparison to his previous series which I loved, it seemed short on the explosive set-pieces and visual elan I was expecting, though Unknownmaybe that is just because his style is established and no longer such a revelation. Nevertheless, it still resonates with me and definitely needs to be revisited. It was also remarkable for treating a period of recent African history at length and with little concession to western ignorance, while at the same time providing a lot of great roles to black acting talent.

 

On the other hand, I had not expected Wanderlust to end up on my list, but the fifth episode, an extended therapy session for the main character, played by Toni Collette, Unknown-3shifted it from an interesting and engaging comedy-drama about sex and relationships to something with considerably more depth, so it is there. Once Bodyguard was over, I carried on watching whatever drama tuned up in the BBC1 Sunday night 21.00 slot – The Cry was highly involving and well-constructed over 4 episodes, but The Little Drummer Girl fell between two stools of Le Carre adaptations, with neither the Bond-ish glamour of The Night Manager or the claustrophobic intensity of the Smiley series, and I gave up after two episodes (I like to think I’m getting good at spotting the duds early and subsequent feedback seems to confirm a wise choice in this case).

 

Also, in my September blog, I noted the imminent arrival of the exciting new phase in the Doctor Who saga. I have certainly enjoyed the beginning of the Chibnall/Whittaker era – the “team” of assistants works very well and the introduction of a female doctor has been successful simply by not appearing particularly revolutionary. Actually, the change of gender of the doctor is an even more modern development than it would have been five years ago. Basically, the Doctor is now transgender (Whittaker’s Doctor is constantly saying “when I was a man”) and it has been the more recent advances in transgender rights, rather than feminism, which has paved the way for this change and Unknown-2made it so seamless.  Even the move to Sunday night has worked better than I predicted, but I still prefer stories which take more than one episode and miss both the cliff-hangers and the pre-credit sequences, which seem to have been dispensed with. The most significant thing about Chibnall’s approach for me, though, is how it looks back to Sydney Newman’s original 1963 conception of the series as a vehicle for historical education (before Verity Lambert introduced the Daleks in the second story and set it firmly on the sci-fi path). In particular, the episode about Rosa Parks has to be the purest manifestation of Newman’s original vision the series has achieved in its 55-year history. The episode did have sci-fi elements, including an agent sent from the future to alter history, but programmed not to kill (nods to both Terminator 1 and 2 there!), but it did not flinch from a fine examination of the historical context of the civil rights movement, which was a great lesson for the character of Ryan as well as the young Doctor Who audience of today. I am thus including that particular episode in my shortlist for the best of the year.

 

Another single episode which very much caught my imagination was the brilliant Inside No 9 Halloween live special. I wasn’t taken in, as many were, by the “loss of sound”, but wrongly assumed it was a way of deliberately withholding information vital for the story. Of course, the story itself turned out to be a red herring, but there is no second-guessing Pemberton and Shearsmith. The 4thseason, shown in January, is already on my shortlist, so the special only serves to cement its place.

 

Meanwhile, on Amazon, I have just finished watching Homecoming, which is superb. It is based on a podcast and boasts an excellent cast, well-led by Julia Roberts, but it is the direction by Sam Esmail (creator of Mr Robot) which makes it stand out. It is a mystery thriller with a Hitchcockian edge, set in a sinister present-day rehabilitation facility and a future timeline in which the Julia Roberts’ character, Heidi Bergman, cannot recall Unknownwhat had happened and the crisis point is approached gradually from both directions. The future scenes are shot in a restrictive, claustrophobic frame, while the full-frame scenes include split screen sequences and, together, the shooting styles represent a very clever way of advancing the narrative. The series contains what has to be my “TV moment of the year” (big spoiler alert here, if you haven’t seen it!): at the moment when the future Heidi realises the truth of what happened the restricted screen expands into full widescreen – which sounds trite when I write about it but is a stunning effect when you watch it. The ending of Homecoming is also very satisfying but is not the ending – you have to sit through the entire and lengthy end credits (which I always do) to get to an extra scene which sets up a second season. Very neat! (makers of Killing Eve etc. take note!). It’s the best thing on Amazon since…well, since Mr Robot, and a must for the shortlist.

 

I have rarely blogged about news – mainly because I take my time composing these pieces, whereas news blogging needs to be immediate, for obvious reasons. However, I would like to add some news to my shortlist. Channel 4 News has had a particularly good year and the standout story was the full week of headline grabbing and headline making investigative reports into the Cambridge Analytica sandal, back in March. Great undercover reporting and excellent follow-up pieces leading each night’s bulletin.

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So, to recap, I now have a shortlist of 17 for the best of 2018: Inside No 9, Kiri, Save Me, Mum, Damned, Homeland, The Funeral Murders, Channel 4 News coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, A Very English Scandal, Mother’s Day, American Vandal 2, 22 July, There She Goes, Black Earth Rising, Wanderlust, Doctor Who: Rosa and Homecoming. It would be neat to get the shortlist up to 20, from which to choose my top 10 before the end of the year, but looking through all those copies of Radio Times, I’m not sure that will happen. There is a new Jimmy McGovern on tonight, though, and you never can tell with Christmas schedules. I also have a few things “on the go” at the moment, including Kidding (Sky Atlantic), The Sinner and Vic & Bob’s Big Night Out (both BBC4 – and, yes, I know The Sinner is on Netflix, but I’m watching it on BBC4). I also realise that the last mentioned is a throwback to the show which introduced Reeves and Mortimer to TV almost 30 years ago, so I feel I can’t in all good conscience include it on my shortlist for 2018, but its simple stupidity makes me cry uncontrollably with laughter, so I may just have to.

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Anyway, have a Happy Christmas everybody, enjoy loads of great viewing and I’ll be back before the year is through.

A Dramatic Improvement

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Well, I’ve been banging on in my last few blogs about the lack of decent TV, especially drama, during the summer, and that situation has now been reversed in such a radical way that I am struggling to keep up with all the new-season series that have attracted my interest. At the moment, there is a drama series I am watching on broadcast TV every night of the week except Friday (a night traditionally reserved for comedy anyway), and the things I am anticipating on streaming platforms are still yet to arrive (I’m particularly looking forward to American Vandal 2 on Netflix). There’s even been some decent comedy around, too.

 

But before the deluge of series arrived, there was that rarity, a single drama of great note which, in earlier days, would have been part of a strand like Play for Today or Screen Two, but nowadays is fitted into a vacant 9 o’clock slot as a filler until a series come along to take that position. Mother’s Day (BBC2) looked back 25 years at the public and personal fallout from the IRA bombing of Warrington, in which two boys died, but also looked back to a simpler style of TV drama – commitment to veracity and social values; Unknown-5unfussy visuals; characters whose opinions and motivations evolve gradually; subtle yet powerful acting performances (Anna Maxwell-Martin, Daniel Mays, Vicky McClure). It ensured that all voices from the era of the Troubles were heard and understood, much as the Vanessa Engle documentary I highlighted from earlier in the year, The Funeral Murders, did. Indeed, the two pieces form a valuable diptych and, though they address issues from 25 and 30 years ago, have a similar contemporary resonance in reinforcing why the Irish border is the most important aspect of the Brexit process. Mother’s Day becomes the 9thprogramme on my running shortlist for the best of 2018.

 

I only add drama series to that shortlist when they have completed their run, so none of the current batch yet qualifies, though I expect one or two of them may and I will return Unknown-2to any that do at that point. First to arrive, and now nearing completion, was Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard (BBC1, Sundays), an accomplished thriller (as one would expect from that source) which has been a big success and even had the confidence to kill off one of its lead characters halfway through and thus wrong-foot the audience, as it seemed to have been developing a compelling conflict-of-loyalty theme which is now redundant. It is manipulative and at times stretches credibility, but I’m hooked on it.

 

I also think I may be hooked on Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesdays) despite signs of it settling in for the long term as early as the second episode. The initial premise – a happily married couple, Joy and Alan (Toni Collette and Steven Mackintosh) are bored with each other sexually, take opportunities elsewhere, confess to each other and decide to continue their affairs – was explored deftly, amusingly and with great style. The developments in the second episode – the reactivation of the couple’s love life and the reaction of those involved in their affairs – were predictable but nicely handled in the Unknown-3performances and the direction. The expansion of the narrative into the relationships of other characters (the couple’s friends, colleagues and children; Joy’s clients in her work as a therapist) is also highly engaging, but I did start to worry that it is beginning to stray into Cold Feet territory, potentially replicating the longevity and eventual repetitiveness of that series, so I’m not sure of the need to stay with it, but I probably will because: a) it’s as easy to watch as Cold Feet;  and b) I’m still watching Cold Feet!

 

The series I have been most eagerly anticipating (indeed, I’ve been looking forward to it Unknown-1since it was announced some three years ago) arrived on BBC2 last Monday. Black Earth Rising is the latest piece from my favourite television auteur, Hugo Blick (actually there aren’t many writer/director/producers around – Poliakoff is another, but they are few on the ground). If it turns out to be anywhere near as good as The Shadow Line (2011) or The Honourable Woman (2014), and early indications are that it will, then it will be an automatic choice for my top 10, but I will return to it later. So far it has contained Blick’s trademark expository scene-setting and has certain similarities to The Honourable Woman, but neither of these are particular drawbacks for me – it’s just great to be back in his intelligent and stylish world.

 

I approached Trust (BBC2, Wednesdays), the Danny Boyle version of the Getty story, with great interest. I spent a large part of my career working in a building called the J. Paul Getty Jnr Conservation Centre, and met the BFI’s benefactor on many occasions, as well as being a guest at some of the wonderful country house cricket matches at his home in Oxfordshire (and regularly sitting in the stand he built at Lord’s). So, I was keen to see the dramatisation of the most notorious period of his life. He is portrayed in this version by Michael Esper, but all eyes are, of course, on Donald Sutherland as Getty senior, the creator of the family’s fabulous wealth, and he gives a riveting performance which dominates the whole production.

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So far, all the series I have described have been new ones, but Thursday’s unmissable drama is the very welcome return of Paul Abbott’s No Offence on Channel 4. This continues at the constant breakneck pace to which we have become accustomed. The characters are all strong ones and need no introduction, so grabbing our attention was never going to be a problem – but, just to be sure, killing off one of the lead characters before the first ad break of the new season was a stunning way to do just that.

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Completing the every-night-except-Friday cycle, Saturday saw the start of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s intriguing and captivating Killing Eve (BBC1), an unconventional thriller with a wicked sense of humour.  I didn’t actually watch it on Saturday – just as Fridays are forUnknown comedy, so Saturdays are for sport, especially during the football season. It is not a night for drama, apart from the one exception to that rule, which I will come to below. Anyway, now that the first episode has aired, the whole thing is available on BBC i-player, which is how I will watch it in any spare moments between all the other fine series listed above.

 

All of which leads me to ask: instead of throwing them all at us now, why could we not have had some of these during the barren summer? Trust would have been perfect for the summer and, like Killing Eve, the BBC is making the whole series immediately available on the i-player, so probably doesn’t see it as a regular ratings-grabber. Judging from all the trailers we are getting, especially from the BBC, there seems to be plenty more interesting stuff on the way, too, including, of course, the new season of Doctor Who. This is highly anticipated for the bold and exciting choice of Jodie Whitaker as the new Doctor, as well as for the debut of Chris Chibnall as show-runner, but, as if this was not enough novelty to deal with, the BBC has made the disastrous decision to move it toJodie-Whittaker-Doctor-Who-Feature Sunday evening. Moving it away from its traditional Saturday home has been tried before and it failed miserably, though maybe in the era of catch-up services it will not matter so much. I worry that the bold experiment of a female Doctor, already tied to the success or otherwise of a new and potentially uncertain show-runner, will be fatally compromised by this blunder – or maybe it is a way of giving the traditionalists something else to focus on, rather than the gender of the lead actor, thus diverting attention from the biggest change and providing something easily rectified. We shall see.

 

As for the comedies I mentioned, it is great to have Upstart Crow (BBC2) back and going from strength to strength, but the most striking new piece has been Hang Ups (Channel 4), co-written by and starring Stephen Mangan and based on Lisa Kudrow’s US series Web Therapy. Mangan is the on-line therapist with more problems than his clients and most of the action is shot on various devices (laptops, phones) as the characters use them to communicate with each other. It moves at a frantic pace and has a large cast of characters, played by a wonderful array of guest stars including Charles Dance, David Tennant and Richard E.Grant, each giving it their all in brief cameos, as well as a regular cast including Katherine Parkinson and Jessica Hynes. Not quite shortlist quality, but certainly one to return to.

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