Two Lights in the January Darkness

 

 

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Having so recently joined in with the “best of year” list-making festivities, it seems a bit perverse to be speculating on what may make 2018’s list when we are only just over one month into the year. But, as awards season begins and prompts further looking back at the last year, the new material emerging at this time of year can get overlooked when it comes time to assess the current year’s offerings. So, if only to act as a useful reminder when the Christmas tree goes up again, here are a couple of things from January which will already be in contention for my best of 2018.

Yes, there are only two so far and the first of them is a returning favourite. Season 4 of Inside Number 9 (BBC2) has to be the best yet, and that’s saying something given the established quality of the series. I doubt that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton will ever be able to top The Twelve Days of Christine from season 2, which was just about the most perfect 30 minutes of TV drama imaginable on all levels, but, this time round, they have given us a full six outstanding pieces of writing and storytelling. Though it resists genre classification, all the usual elements were there: mystery, comedy, horror, pathos, despair and the trademark plot twists – plus some terrific dialogue (most notably in the Shakespearean comedy set in a hotel corridor, Zanzibar, which kicked off the season) and some great set-pieces (the retro comedy routine in Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room). The “ten minutes earlier” shifts in Once Removed allowed for multipleimages plot twists in the same story, while the plot shift in To Have and To Hold was amongst the most disturbing things the duo have given us (in a story which was already pretty bleak!). Maybe And the Winner Is… was comparatively lightweight following the outstanding impact of the first four, but it still contained plenty of laughs and showbiz barbs, and the series finished strongly with a new and very “Number 9” take on a familiar horror trope in Tempting Fate.

A fifth series will be coming and there seems little reason why the quality should not be sustained – the format is very flexible and the half-hour slot works so well, as does the opportunity it affords for telling guest roles. It really should be cleaning up at the awards shows, but, as its creators have observed (and alluded to in And the Winner Is…) the fact that it does not easily fit into a genre category works against it, as, I guess, does the 30-minute duration. As I noted in a previous blog, though, if something is the right length for what it is attempting that is all that matters, and succinctness can be the greater skill. This applies to the acting performances, too, and Inside Number 9 contains many outstanding ones. Maybe each edition should be treated as a separate entity – the movie-style posters created for them hint at the scale of their ambition.

Excellent acting was also on show in my other early contender for 2018 honours – Channel 4’s Kiri. Sarah Lancashire was obviously the prime focus, though her character Unknown-1of an embattled social worker did not dominate the series, which examined the effects of the murder of a black child, fostered with a white family, on a wide range of individuals and was essentially about attitudes to race, spoken and unspoken, in modern Britain. Lia Williams as the white foster mother, Lucian Msamati as the girl’s grandfather, Wunmi Mosaku as the investigating police officer and young Finn Bennett as the foster family’s natural son also shone, and the piece was strikingly directed by Euros Lyn, but it was basically the work of writer Jack Thorne which was the key element.

As with Thorne’s previous series for Channel 4, 2016’s National Treasure, Kiri was in four parts and examined its narrative from multiple perspectives. It also dealt with a contentious social and political issue in a way which humanised the problem and found no easy answers. But the greatest similarity with its predecessor came at its ending, which left a great deal unresolved. The trial verdict in National Treasure was not particularly conclusive and the characters’ lives were left in limbo, which was an appropriate and satisfactory way for it to end. In Kiri, we did find out who killed the title character, but the potential for a miscarriage of justice remained, while the characters were, again, left high and dry. Unlike National Treasure, there seems plenty of scope for the story of Kiri to continue, but the possibility of a second season has been dismissed by Thorne and Channel 4. Inconclusive endings seem to be part of Thorne’s style (and nothing wrong with that). He is reported to be considering writing a series about the Grenfell Tower disaster, which could form the third part of an impressive issue-based trilogy (gender, race and class politics?).

Of course, there were plenty more new series starting in January but, as so often happens, few of them enticed me beyond the first one or two episodes. I didn’t get very far with either McMafia or Hard Sun (why is it that you know a drama series scheduled for BBC1 on a Saturday night isn’t really going to be any good?), while two episodes of Sky’s Britannia convinced me I had seen enough. As a result, I have managed to catch up with a fair amount on DVD and Netflix, and that will be the focus of my next blog.