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; unfussy 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 to 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 performances 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 since 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.
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.
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 for 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 to 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.