Black Mirror: White Christmas

December 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Reviews

Black Mirror DSC3454--(None)


It’s an odd idea, a “Black Mirror” Christmas special – one starring Jon Hamm and Rafe Spall, no less – but Charlie Brooker’s Amicus-style, festive anthology revels in its incongruity. In the story’s first segment, Hamm is a dating guru, dispensing “The Game”-worthy advice to nervous would-be players. The role is pretty typical for him, but that seems deliberate. The character is your internal cool-guy fantasy, externalised and given the face of Don Draper. Because that’s how you always pictured him, right?

It’s the first example of a theme that runs through “White Christmas”: social media as a metaphor for relationships. The wingman on your mobile, couples ‘blocking’ each other out. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram don’t replace social interaction: they make it almost constant. We live in public (and that will prove to have a tragic flipside later in the story).

In the second segment, we learn Hamm’s day job is duplicating the minds of rich customers and conditioning those copies to work as home hubs. Brooker acknowledged in the Q&A that followed last week’s preview screening that this could be read as a comment on Western consumers’ easy reliance on slave labour, but there’s also a fascinating question in there about ‘artificial’ intelligence.

If we make computers as smart as humans, can we still treat them like computers? To steal the words of science fiction author Lance Parkin, the mind isn’t what the brain does: it’s what electricity does while it’s in the brain. You don’t really even need the meat bit. Only last week, the OpenWorm project announced it had successfully simulated a worm’s brain and placed it into a Lego robot. Duplicate a music file and you’ve got two music files. Putting aside the comforting, obfuscatory hogwash of ‘a soul’, why should a duplicated human mind not be a human mind all the same?

In the concluding chapters of the story, we learn that, while Hamm and Spall might not actually be in the same situation, they do share a fate: social isolation. In our modern, constantly connected world, it is a cruel punishment. The pair exist in full view of others while divorced from them. Hamm’s character, a charismatic guy, constantly in control, meets that with confusion: a player isn’t much use if he can’t interact with the people he wants to play.

For Spall, it’s crueller still. He is, as Hamm’s character observes, a good man. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of doing bad things, but it does mean he understands with vicious pain how bad they are. The mental torture of the ill deeds done against him, jumbled up with the guilt of what he has done. His dreams, his pain, do not matter except to condemn him for what amounts to eternity. The cruellest sting of his isolation is the knowledge that he deserves it. Begin unpacking that final scene, and you’ll never sleep this Christmas night.

Black Mirror: White Christmas iss broadcast on 16 December at 9pm on Channel 4.

Follow Michael Mills on Twitter

How to cook like American Dad

August 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Features

how to cook like american dad

American Dad Season 8 out on DVD this week and, to celebrate, a load of us journos got invited along to London’s Central Cookery School to learn how to cook burgers. Americans like burgers, you see: it’s one of the few facts anthropologists have been able to discern about that primitive and noble people.

In my case, I needed the lesson; I’ve never been a cook. On my second night at uni, I burnt my hand taking pizza out of the oven. A year later, I was still struggling to cook an egg. Now, age 24, I mark down anything more complicated than pasta as “too much risk”. I am a shell of a man, but American Dad was there to help.

Specifically, Stan Smith, or at least his stand-in – a charming man with blue suit, brash manner and suspect accent – who ribbed and goaded us through a lesson in making minced steak patties. Stan also turned out to be a veggie, which I’m claiming as this piece’s scoop.

I’m yet to show any symptoms of dysentery, salmonella or food poisoning, so it’s safe to say I’ve made an advance. I’ve limped through basic food preparation and you can too: if you want to enjoy your new American Dad DVD in the same way I did, you can find the recipe below. I’m sure Stan’s available for hire as well.

Burgers with fennel-roasted tomatoes and crispy new potato wedges

For 2 burgers


200g good quality beef mince (not lean)
120g chuck steak
Half an onion, finely grated
2 thick slices of onion (rings)
2 slices Emmental
4 medium salad/new potatoes
10 cherry plum tomatoes
1 tsp coarsely ground fennel seeds
1 tsp dried oregano
Sea salt
Ground black pepper
Sunflower oil
Olive oil
2 good quality burger buns or fresh bread rolls
Cos lettuce, beefsteak tomatoes, spring onions


1. First make the burger patties. Gut any sinew away from the steaks but keep the hard fat. Roughly chop the steaks into about 2cm pieces. Then, using a sharp knife cut up the pieces to form a coarse mince. This will take quite a while.

2. In a bowl, mix the mince, chopped steak, grated onion and a small pinch of salt and pepper. Mix well together but don’t overwork.

3. Empty the bowl onto a clean work surface and form tow round patties. Flatten the patties out and push a dimple in the centre. Rub all over with oil and place onto a plate in the fridge.

4. Next the potatoes. Set the oven to 200°C. Wash the potatoes but leave the skins on. Cut into wedges. Dry with kitchen roll and tip into a roasting tin. Pour over about 11tbsp sunflower oil, sprinkle over some sea salt and mix until evenly covered.

5. Distribute the potatoes evenly in the roasting tin, trying to avoid them touching as much as possible.

6. Place in the oven 30-40 minutes until crispy at the edges. Use a spatula to turn them over a couple of times during cooking. It doesn’t matter if they stick to the pan and have to be shoved off as this will create crispier edges. When cooked, place onto kitchen roll and keep warm.

7. Slice each of the tomatoes in half and arrange cut side up on a baking sheet. Sprinkle over the fennel, oregano, some salt and pepper, and olive oil, and place in the oven for 10 minutes. When they look nicely roasted (crinkly and starting to colour) take them out, tip into a bowl and dress with a little more olive oil.

8. Take the burgers out of the fridge. Get a large frying pan or griddle pan really hot, then turn down to medium (or use a medium hot barbecue). Place the burger on the heat. Cook for 3-4 minutes on each side, depending on how you like it (6 minutes total should be medium-rare, but push the burger with your finger to check). When you turn the burger, place the cheese on top.

9. In the same pan, on the grill, place the onion slices next to the burger. Turn at the same time as turning the burger.

10. Slice the rolls and assemble your burgers. Place the onion slice on the bottom, then the burger and cheese.

11. Serve with the potatoes and the tomatoes either inside the burger or on the side with a crispy, fresh salad.

I am Ramsey. Hear me roar.

American Dad Volume 8 is out now on DVD from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

That Music Show

August 5, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews


Post-pub TV is back – or it would be if pubs didn’t now kick out after midnight. As it is, That Music Show is playing to those not going out on a Friday night: chiefly, those thirty or fortysomethings who remember the 90s and are feeling nostalgic. That’s why we open with Primal Scream – who are trying to cover up the last 20 years by getting ever-bigger sunglasses and hair.

“We’ve got one of the most incredible teams ever assembled,” says team captain Shaun Keaveny. No, that’s the Avengers. The lineup you’ve got to represent 1995 in this supposedly young-v-old pop quiz is actually Alex James and some parents. Nevertheless, I warmed to the Justice League of Britpop – they’ve all got an endearingly sensible way of holding a pint that suggests they’re appreciating a night away from the kids. I’d just prefer it if Nick Grimshaw was asking them what boxsets they were enjoying at the moment, rather than put them through a bad pub quiz.

Grimshaw will be a sticking point, especially in a show playing to the thirtysomethings he put off the Radio 1 breakfast show. Some people like his laid-back, matey style, others find him insipid and creeping. Regardless of the show’s other merits, he’s going to be the thing on which most decide whether to watch or flick over to the Sherlock repeats on the other side.

They couldn’t have got Zoe Ball: that would have meant admitting the whole thing was an exercise in nostalgia and not – as any 41-year-old account exec who wants this needs to believe – a sign it’s all still too-cool, hip and trendy.

The 2005 team is hilariously arbitrary: Sharleen Spiteri (because I know we all think mid-noughties when we think of Texas), Theo from Hurts (which was formed in 2009) and some comedian who’s as quiet as he is irrelevant. To be fair, they’ve also got Maggot out of Goldie Looking Chain, but Team 2005 still looks a lot more like Team 1997.

The show’s loose and rough in a way that would have been defended as ‘anarchic’ back in the day, but which we now recognise as ‘shit’. The sub-Shooting Stars surrealism isn’t funny – and I’m not sure it ever was. Someone read One Day and thought Dexter’s music show was a serious proposition.

The format’s hardly tight: “GoldenEye came out in 1995, so we’re doing film soundtracks [none of which came out in 1995]”. Alex James and Sharleen Spiteri look increasingly uncomfortable as the show’s potential drops with the beer level. There’s precious little wit on display: instead, there’s wooping, big faces and insults. It looks a bit like humour, but it isn’t.

The advantage of not going out on a Friday night is you don’t have to put up with this sort of crap. If you are the kind of person who thinks drunk Facebook photos are the funniest thing ever, then That Music Show might appeal. I hope it brings you comfort in your humourless existence.

Top Of The Lake

July 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Picture shows: Tui (JACQUELINE JOE)© See-Saw Films

Peggy Olson? Sexual brutality with panoramic views? Chuck in a couple of “winter is coming”s and you’ve got the perfect confluence of televisual cool. Elisabeth Moss (for it is she) is Robin Griffin, a police detective recently returned to New Zealand (implicitly from America, a hand wave that’s been used to cover dodgy accents before). She’s only meant to be visiting, but is called in to help investigate the rape and impregnation of a 12 year old girl.

It’s a provocative opening of the sort the genre loves: Top Of The Lake may be set in New Zealand, but nordic noir is the template. The cool pallets, the dispassionate direction and, of course, the violence. Since Stieg Larsson, crime dramas have been keen to make a claim for literary worth by confronting us with society’s underbelly.

More than Moss, though, it’s the landscape that’s the lead character. Almost every shot is framed to show us the immense emptiness of the mountains. As mobile phones and the internet bind us ever tighter together, fiction has to travel further out to find those frontiers where the savage world can still be seen.

The landscape, untouched by man, plays into the primacy of the characters’ actions: the disconcerting notion that our advances are driven by the same impulses that made Caveman 1 smash Caveman 2’s head against a rock so he could cop off with his girlfriend. Dark deeds are still done among the mountains, but psychopaths and paedophiles are our modern dragons.

The shooting of the dog underlines the metro-centric aspect of latter-day noir. Anyone who’s grown up around farms will know a lot of death goes into keeping things alive – something urbanised society has trouble with, despite its dependence on it. Let’s talk about misogyny and child abuse, but let’s also talk about Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man. Our nightmares don’t paint us in the best light.

The playing of the feminist commune for laughs is a misstep. By treating misogyny with such levity – if only for a few scenes – the show puts a pike through any atmosphere it’s built up. There’s a reason there are no knob jokes in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The casting of Moss, the premier at the Sundance Film Festival, and the BBC Two slot have given Top Of The Lake greater prominence than many new crime dramas. But those of us used to finding our Saturday night slashers on BBC Four – and who will, presumably, be the core audience – have high standards. Top Of The Lake will need to even out its tone or it’ll disappear back into the crowded bustle of modern-day noir.

Dynamo: Magician Impossible – Series 3

July 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

dynamo magician impossible 1

Here’s the problem with putting street magic on telly: it’s inherently unspectacular. It relies on the tricks being in the here-and-now, inconsequential and slight. It’s got a good image, sure – it’s not cheesy like a Vegas act or up-its-own-arse like David Blaine – and boy do the commissioning editors at Watch see that. It’s a shame Dynamo: Magician Impossible is as street as Michael Portillo.

Dynamo himself seems sound and his tricks are surprising: when you think he’s going to pull off the sort of cold reading or slight-of-hand you’ve seen a hundred times before, he adds a twist and you’re amazed. But that’s not enough for this show: it forces a narrative on things. Dynamo isn’t just wandering around New York, showing off card tricks: he’s discovering people, sensing the danger… and then showing off card tricks.

For a magician, Dynamo is remarkably lacking in flare: he has the narrative voice of a pupil forced to read out in class. That wouldn’t be a problem if the show wasn’t trying to turn him into Derren Brown. But this isn’t Enigma, it’s The Real Hustle. Have him do a few tricks, throw some funky graphics over it, then send him off to the bar to swizz drinks off jocks.

The pattern becomes interminable: the director shows off some local colour, gives us plenty of setup, Dynamo does the trick, the director replays the trick, then the dupes describe the trick we’ve just seen twice. This is drop-in/drop-out TV of the sort Watch and it’s UKTV bredren are too fond of. It’s great if you’re channel-hopping during the ad breaks in something more interesting, but there’s no reward for those who stick around. This isn’t an episode: it’s 44 minutes of filler.

The editors mix in shots of kids on corners and guys on dirt bikes to show you how much honest, aching, corporate cred it all has. But – in the words of Bruce Campbell and Old Spice – if you’ve never had any of it, ever, people just seem to know. I’m more street than Magician Impossible and I go to the Hay-on-Wye literary festival.

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Nordicana Film Festival This Weekend

June 11, 2013 by  
Filed under News

BT Pressemøde på DRs nye dramaserie Borgen

Cold coastlines. Mutilated corpses. The exposure of racism, misogyny and elitism. Excited? Either you need to be investigated or you’ll want to check out this weekend’s Nordicana festival in London. Celebrating all things Nordic and noir-ish, it’ll be running at Clerkenwell’s Farmiloe Building across Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th June.

Creators and stars from series including Arne Dahl, Borgen and The Killing will be attendance, and there’ll be screenings, food, drink and quizzes – all suitably Scandinavian. Those of you who weren’t interested in the festival, we’ve passed your details onto the police.

Borgen star Sidse Babett Knudsen (Birgitte Nyborg) will officially open The Nordicana Show on Saturday 15th June.

Visitors to The Nordicana Show can enjoy all-day film and episode screenings, eat and drink in the open-air atrium, shop in the marketplace, and participate in Q&As with the stars and creators of the hugely popular Scandinavian TV programmes such as The Killing, Borgen and Arne Dahl.

More details and a complete schedule can be found on their website.


May 19, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews

Performance EntreChats à l'hotel Mama Shelter


19 May, 9pm on Fox

Why’s Jean Reno French? Not generally – we all have these burdens to bear – but specifically in Jo. He’s heading up a Parisian homicide team, but everyone else speaks like they’re in a pilot for CBS. In truth, it’s because the series is an attempt by French broadcaster TF1 to grab a slice of the lucrative international market. But in TV terms… well, it doesn’t have the elegance of Wallander.

Being cast in the American mould, CSI: Paris throws us straight into the murder and death with little hoo-hah – this show’s got to be syndicated some day and backstory’ll only confuse the proles. There’s a dead body in front of a landmark – Paris has got a few, so we’re good for a couple of series yet – Reno’s Jo rolls up, quickly diagnoses a religious motive and saunters off to an autopsy. Boom, job’s a good ‘un and we’re almost done in time for brioche.

These bite-sized, 45-minute crime dramas may appeal to the undemanding, but they’re unsatisfying. They don’t have the contemplation of noir or the plotting of something like Morse. People are dead and lying to us before we know who they are, and the investigators are many so we don’t have to waste time getting between plot points. There’s no room for ideas to bed in, so subversion and reveals don’t mean much.

The cops in such series are identikit and the attempts to give them some marginal individuality are one of the few places you’ll get some laughs. Jo may be another unstable, drug-taking cop with an estranged daughter, but he’s an unstable, drug-taking French cop with an estranged daughter goddammit. So, he, um, has controlled rent and shiz.

But remember, Reno’s the tentpole casting here – the Gallic equivalent of Gary Sinise – and the only regular with any acting chops to be seen. He’s there to make the project look like it has dramatic worth and give it profile. But while Jeany Boy gets the mandatory scenes of torment, the Abercrombie & Fitch models he’s cast with are only there to spout exposition and practice being out of focus. Presumably they’ll each get their moments in upcoming episodes, but such things aren’t usually much more than fodder for showreels.

Jo’s showing on Fox, so TF1 got their prize of a marketable commodity – but the products sells because it’s a known quantity. Like a lightbulb or a strip of cling film or some batteries – not like a piece of quality television. Maybe it’s unfair to to single out Jo if the problems are with the market as a whole, but it’s no reason to defend it either. Do like a French footballer and shrug.

Doctor Who during the wilderness years

May 10, 2013 by  
Filed under Features


You’ve seen them on the display stands in Waterstones. Photo montages of Matt Smith, Daleks and Spirograph designs. Nice present for a Doctor Who-obsessed niece maybe, but inessential. Tie-in books have never garnered the most respect. If looking cool on the Tube with a dog-eared copy of On the Road is at one end of the scale, getting crammed up against the doors with a near-mint edition of War of the Daleks is the other.

But hold on, hipster. Most people who care know Doctor Who is the longest-running science-fiction series in the world, but it also holds the record for the most novels published about one (fictional) character. These aren’t mere cash-ins; they’ve had an important, reciprocal and occasionally fraught relationship with the parent series. And when the show went off air in 1989, the books kept on going.

“This was during what Doctor Who fans call ‘the Wilderness Years’,? said Doctor Who scriptwriter Paul Cornell at this year’s Sci-Fi London festival. “But I call [them] ‘the Theme Park Years’ – they’re full of great, fun ideas.? Cornell’s just one of the current generation of Doctor Who scriptwriters who cut their teeth on the novels – Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Gareth Roberts and Matt Jones all made similar early starts.

Many franchises are dismissive of their tie-in media, but for Doctor Who, its time off air proved a petri dish for emerging talent. The young, fan authors who came onboard with Virgin’s “New Adventures? range were not only cheap and eager; they had new ideas and fresh tones to bring the series. The back cover of each yellowing novel proudly proclaimed it a story “too deep and too broad for the small screen?.

The tie-in comics and later audio plays would follow suit. Forget 2005, Rose Tyler and Christopher Eccleston. This was where Doctor Who did so much of its growing up. This was where the Doctor came to meditate on his own monstrousness, where his companions fell in love with him and where he broke their hearts. He even blew up Gallifrey.

Cornell’s own “Human Nature? – in which the Doctor becomes the human schoolmaster John Smith and inconveniently falls in love – started life as fan fiction, before becoming a book in 1995 and finally, in 2007, a two-parter on television. “Something I wrote at school ended up on TV!? he said. “What am I going to do with the rest of my life??

Alright, so not everything from the books made it to TV. In one adventure, the Doctor took hallucinogenic drugs so he could battle the baddie on the astral plane, in another a character was threatened with a forced abortion, and Russell T Davies’ “Damaged Goods? saw the Doctor’s companion getting a blowjob in the back of a taxi.

But weren’t we all a bit like that growing up? Too enthusiastic about the newfound darkness in the world? But it was also when we wriggled into adulthood. For many, the Nineties will always be “the Wilderness Years? for Doctor Who, but it turns out that what Britain’s longest-running television series really needed was not to be on TV at all.


April 16, 2013 by  
Filed under Reviews


Endeavour, Episode 1,

14 April on ITV

Lewis may have gone for a rest, but the third opera of the Morse cycle is back for a full series – and it’s not just marking time until ITV can get away with commissioning Hathaway. But rather than following the next generation of deductive minds, we’re skipping back one – to Morse’s first days in Oxford CID.

The constants are here: the opening montage, classical music and academic allusions. The franchise has always been ‘intellectual’ in a very ITV way – the characters must be educated because they listen to classical music, use Latin phrases and went to a natty university – but that’s also its strength.

The atmosphere is one of intelligence, but the mysteries are solid and don’t sacrifice plot in favour of high-mindedness. It’s a Sunday evening, this is ITV and you want a good mystery – not Swedes having crises of masculinity. Leave that to BBC Four.

Morse the character is a conduit for this. An Oxbridge dropout, he has the capacity for intellectual engagement but is not divorced from the common experience of life. It’s what sets him apart from so many of those he investigates: the dons, doctors and poetic undergraduates whose analytical or poetic mind-sets frame all life in the vernacular of Homeric odysseys, periodic calculus or Lewisian fantasy.

To any guest cast in Morse, Lewis or Endeavour, the rigours of justice look like the crude demands of a philistine. That it is these people who so often form the cadre of suspects is a satisfying twist on the Promethean archetype of the hero: Morse is the fallen god come back to burst some Olympian egos.

But in Endeavour we have a Morse who is yet to fully realise that ability. He is less certain in his questions, but already has the streak of individualism that makes him equally ill-suited to the hierarchies of the police as academia. He wants to listen to Wagner and solve murders, and doesn’t want his ‘superiors’ telling him what he should be thinking about either.

Those high-ups take the form of Roger Allam and Anton Lesser. Both have the sort of demeanour that can play rough-but-acceptable or posh-but-relatable depending on how you frame them: here, Allam goes for the former, while Lesser takes something approaching the latter.

Perhaps Lesser’s ruthless superintendent works a little too hard to mark the difference between the imagined, proper postwar period and the far-from-revolutionary revisionism the murders themselves present; The decade of Up the Junction, Cathy Come Home and The L-Shaped Room is quite capable of critiquing itself.

That is, however, a minor quibble. The vintage cars and choice LPs add period flavour – and gives ITV a replacement for Heartbeat as well as Lewis in these belt-tightening times – but Endeavour is comfortingly familiar. Sticking to the formula has paid off in this case and Morse is a franchise that is very happily extended. Oh, and he stills gets his obligatory moment of inadvertent revelation – “LEWIS!?

Mad Men Series Six Premiere

April 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Features



“Do you have any soft drinks??

“We have all the soft drinks,? this is the Groucho Club, she didn’t need to add.

10 minutes there was enough to shatter any illusion I had that I was Don Draper. Mind you, there were plenty at the Mad Men season premier trying harder than me. The invite said, “dress to impress,? and those of us attending had rushed to the hair cream, handkerchiefs and razor-sharp shirts like an account exec with his first crack at the bourbon.

We were at least in good company: as the sixth season opens, even Don Draper and Roger Sterling are finding it hard to be them. 1967 is coming to an end and it feels like the world is going with it. For all the glamour of its image, the series has always shown the venality of its characters’ lives. The partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce may fill a few fantasies, but they are not nice people and their culture isn’t a pleasant one.

Some have missed the point and called the series racist, sexist and homophobic – but in presenting these realities of the era without comment, Mad Men is not condoning them. It is crediting its audience with the independence of thought to conclude for themselves how awful it all was (and maybe still is). It isn’t Heartbeat.

Four or five series ago, Don and Roger gloried in their own competence and vitality, but these opening episodes reek of death. The tranquillity Don finds in Hawaii isn’t from a brochure, it is – as he sees in the mirror of his own copy – the peace of the grave. This isn’t a desire to die, but an appreciation of the serenity an ending would bring: like laying your head on a soft cotton pillow at the end of the day and cutting off the background hum of everything.

Grim as it may seem, it’s a good place for Mad Men to be. The next series will be the last, but the lords of Madison Avenue aren’t going out with a bang: the world they knew is already gone and now it’s a question of what they will be left with. Mad Men’s time will soon pass and it may be years before we see another show so well written. So close the door, sit down and take a drink. Do enjoy the cocktail, because it is very good.

Season 6 of Mad Men, airs on Sky Atlantic from Wednesday 10 April at 10pm

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