14 May, BBC 1 at 9pm
Few television characters are more inoffensive than district nurse Frankie Maddox, the title character in Lucy Gannon’s new six-part series. Frankie is the sort of smiley generic everywoman who typically features in adverts for Boots, where she’s seen skipping down the street with her girlfriends, seemingly chuffed with her purchase of some reasonably priced lipstick. She’s like a real person, except with the rough edges rounded off: a practically perfect woman whose only flaw is that she devotes too much time to trying to be nicer than she already is.
Of course, in a thirty second advert this completely inoffensive character works very well at suckering viewers into buying mascara and shower gel. But when a character whose sole feature is simply being nice fronts an entire television series, it’s often hard to find them quite as endearing as they’re intended to be.
This is largely true of Frankie, a character defined almost entirely by a warmness that could rid the world of its troubles. Played by the brilliantly talented Eve Myles, the character is driven by a desire to help others: at work she goes to extremes to tend to patients, while at home she finds herself treating her shiftless boyfriend with similar care.
In episode one, Frankie’s patients include an old man suffering from severe memory loss who is desperate to avoid going into care, and the pregnant wife of a serving soldier. She also has to deal with cuts to services that her department would have previously been able to provide. But while there is certainly drama at times, the tone of the episode is kept very light throughout, due mainly to Frankie’s wonderfully sunny disposition.
It’s the sort of series that makes a pleasant, although by no means essential, addition to an evening: a programme that one watches privately while wearing a duvet and eating an entire jar of jam. This is feel good television that is so starved of cynicism that it borders on being saccharine, and yet it never quite manages to turn the stomach.
Even though it uses practically every medical drama cliché in the book, there’s just something strangely admirable about a series that is so void of cynicism. In an age where television is saturated with sadistic dream crushing, one automatically assumes that Frankie is on the cusp of some sort of nervous breakdown or that something horrible is going to happen in her world, but it never does. There is no catch or sinister twist. Frankie is just pure unashamed niceness, from beginning to end.
King of Coke: Living the High Life
Tuesday 14th May 10pm on National Geographic
This is the story of Larry Levin, a studious and charming young man with his sights set on the big time glamour of dentistry. On the way he uses his charisma and attention to detail to accidentally almost become one of the most significant coke dealers of the 80’s.
Born into a successful middle class family, Levin was used to having money and nice stuff but this all changed when his Dad’s business went kaput and suddenly his family were more or less ostracised from the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ lifestyle they had become used to and Larry had to fend for himself.
Winning a scholarship to an Ivy League college, Levin had no more than a 100 bucks in his pocket when he first rocked up to the privileged institution. Desperate for cash, he soon turned to hustling weed to maintain his existence and much more importantly, to fit in amongst the moneyed set of his new environment. Fortunately for him, his looks, charm and what can only be described as ‘coolness’ made it easy for him to establish himself as ‘the man’.
Then as the 70’s moved into to the 80’s and as the show puts it “long hair gave way to big hair” marijuana was no longer the drug of choice for the fashion conscious and the old Bolivian marching powder came back into vogue.
Levin shifted into this higher gear effortlessly and by seeking out money motivated and attractive slicksters like himself he was able to build and run his rapidly growing Chang Dynasty and still be a dentist.
His life soon became a cliché of 80’s glamour. Full of pastel coloured suits, fast cars and busty ten foot blondes you could shake a Duran Duran at. Of course as you know from the mere existence of this doc, it all went very wrong very quickly.
King of Coke is a pretty standard old school documentary. Lots of interviews with the people involved with just a wee bit of dramatic reconstruction to help highlight certain situations.
It is also an engrossing subject, nearly 30 years on, the now middle aged Levin, talks about his success and downfall with a casual, almost aristocratic air. He clearly loves what he did and is unable to hide the pride he has in almost getting away with it.
It is this appealing arrogance on display that no doubt enabled him to make so much money without intimidation or violence in business that is drenched in blood and guts. It is also very much part of the hubris that meant he was always going to get caught.
13 May at 9pm BBC2
I had hoped this would going to be a dramatisation of Albert Camus’s philosophical novel ‘The Fall’ when I first got the go ahead and review it.
It isn’t, and my disappointment only sharpened when I saw it was in fact going to be another detective show about another arsing serial killer. Then I saw Gillian Anderson was in it and I breathed a sigh of relief, maybe this was not going to be that painful after all.
I am a big fan of Anderson and not because of her iconic turn as Agent Scully in the X-Files, sure I liked the show (the first few series anyway) but she never particularly blew me away and I was not caught up in the whole Gillian Anderson as a sex symbol thing either (not that she wouldn’t get it but she didn’t get my teenaged blood up like a Erika Eleniak or a Nora Batty).
No, the reason I am a big fan is that once she was shorn of her break through role she went on to do some interesting projects and proved herself to be a very charismatic and effective actor. More than capable of carrying a piece as a lead or adding a touch of class to a character part.
This can only be a good omen for ‘The Fall’ but from the opening episode it’s quite hard to properly judge. I found it interesting that it was set in Belfast, Northern Ireland is not the most common of TV locations and I also liked playing spot the Hollyoaks actor ( I definitely saw two) but not a huge amount happens.
The story moves around handsome young psycho Paul Spector (crass? Yes, I think so) as he tries to balances his night time hobbies of lurking outside windows, sniffing knickers and ‘moidering’ attractive young professionals, with his career as some kind of guidance/bereavement/marriage councillor.
When he’s not doing these things he likes to nothing more than ponce around naked in shadows, allowing shafts of moonlight to perv tastefully over a bit of muscle, sinew or half buttock.
The local police force are finding him very difficult to track down basically because they refuse to see any connections between the deaths. But they still draft in Detective Stella Gibson to help track down the culprit even though don’t think there is ‘one’.
As I said at the beginning serial killers are the go-to villains in modern detective shows and have been pretty much since Anthony Hopkins hammed it up as Hannibal Lector in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ many years ago.
While I like a serial killer as much as the next person; like many people I have more than one book on my shelves discussing the various individuals and psychoses that fuel their blood soaked carnality. However, this familiarity does mean that we have a good idea where the show will go: more profiling and forensics than traditional detective work as they have no real motive to investigate other than the perp likes to fuck and kill!
The Fall though might prove to be a bit more substantial, it’s got a slow drip, drip vibe to it, taking time to round out all the characters. The writing is smart and all about suggestion and subtlety not pointing and shouting and I have high hopes for part two.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher
12 May at 8pm on ITV
I was looking forward to this. I love a bit of Victorian sleuthery, the fog, the gas-light and mangled faces of the supporting casts have always evoked great comfort and pleasure in me.
I am also a big fan (who isn’t?) of Mr Paddy Considine, he has a rare charisma that I find hard to pin down and is extraordinarily watchable so the combination of the period, the actor and ‘moider’, should have made for an excellent nights viewing.
Unfortunately it did not. Following on from ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House’ from 2011, we meet up with our titular hero as he looks out for one Susan Spencer; who he spies on a desperate mission to prise information about a missing child from the denizens of the seedier, grimier parts of town.
After emancipating her purse from a young oik, Whicher offers his services as an ex copper to help her track down her missing charge.These services seem to consist of wandering around, mumbling questions to an assortment of undesirables and getting useful and immediate answers. They just tell him everything at the slightest prompt, it’s quite bizarre.
I have been watching the classic ITV Sherlock Holmes of Jeremy Brett of late, (I say of late but I never really stop watching it, it’s been on for about ten years now) and I guess ITV are in some manner trying to recreate that show in the ‘Suspicions of Mr Whicher.’ If they are to do so they really need to up the ante on the writing.
The detective’s ability to evoke honest answers from everyone around him is a microcosm of the script as a whole; everyone seems to spout exactly what is on their minds without any subtlety or sub plot. None more so in the utterly wasted Olivia Coleman as Miss Spencer. She is hamstrung by the weakness of the writing, taking a layered and cultured actress and turning her (and the rest of the cast) into little more than exposition machines. Which is just such a shame, as one of the greatest pleasures of period drama is often the effortless use of elegant language.
Despite this, the atmosphere and Paddy C manage to make this ‘on the nose’, unsophisticated stuff pretty watchable at first, but at the hour mark I found myself focusing on the frivolities, like the similarity of one of the main characters to Sir Digby Chicken Caesar, instead of what was actually occurring.
By the time we got to the reveal of the main villain and the reason for their schemes my head was thick with lethargy and didn’t know what was happening and nor did I care.
However, I like to think there is potential in this and if ITV do go onto make many more, it could be thrilling. If they trust the audience to understand and enjoy a less obtuse script that is.
Murder on the Home Front
9th May at 9pm on ITV
TV dramas can be a tricky one. There’s so many great ones on TV at the moment (hello, new series of Mad Men), that lower-budget shows can pass by unnoticed. There’s also the issue of wanting to catch up on some of the bigger names. Everyone would love to start watching Game of Thrones, but no-one except students and the unemployed can set aside the good 24 hours necessary to watch it from the start.
Maybe Murder on the Home Front is at the other end of the spectrum to those shows, but it fills the gap quite nicely. Murder, sex, blood and guts, and only a couple of hours to set aside to enjoy it all.
Telling the story of Lennox Collins, a Government worker in the fledgling science of forensic pathology during the London blitz, it charts the investigation into a grisly murder of a strangled girl with a swastika carved into her tongue, and the various suspects from the underworld of 1940s London.
If the whole swastika/tongue thing sounds gruesome, that’s because it is. The tone is very strange – it’s filled with Poirot-esque jaunty humour and a cheesy soundtrack, intercut with graphic shots of autopsies and murder victims. It can be a bit of a shock to see Molly Cooper, Collins’ assistant, spouting one-liners one minute, and opening a box to find a severed tongue the next. It seems to be striving to be a gritty thriller, but it’s ultimately unable to break away from ITV whodunnit tropes.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here. The period costumes and set approach Mad Men-levels of detail, and the show does a great job of capturing the fractured glamour of the war years. Those slightly annoying ’40s obsessives who wear pinafores and go swing dancing are going to lap it up.
The acting varies, but it’s generally of a good standard. Patrick Kennedy plays the role of Collins, and gives a fantastic performance throughout. His manic, incisive detective comes pretty close to Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in Sherlock, which is always a good thing.
Unfortunately, leading lady Tamzin Merchant swings wildly between excellent and painfully wooden, and some of the minor characters almost spoil the whole thing. Jake Curran plays Norman Beckett, a sinister soldier on leave who is initially a suspect. The ‘sinister’ side doesn’t really come through in his performance though – instead it seems like he’s in the middle of a mild stroke after having had his jaw wired shut.
Really though, this sort of thing is par for the course in a primetime ITV drama. Happily, it’s more than made up for by the wonderful costumes, occasionally excellent acting and genuinely intriguing story. As a two-parter, it’s snappy and fast paced, and well worth a watch. It’s probably a good idea not to watch it while you’re having dinner though. Especially if you’re eating tongue.
Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball
Friday 10 May at 9pm on BBC 2
Fans of Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball will likely form two camps – those who crave Jane Austen so much that they are prepared to sit through just about anything with her name on it; and those who enjoy frilly gowns, delectable desserts, ballroom dancing and being repeatedly told by a team of experts that these things are “simply fascinating”.
The 90-minute film follows social historian Amanda Vickery and company, as they attempt to recreate a Regency ball on the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s beloved novel. Subtext, we’re told, is key to further understanding Austen’s work, and thus much can be learned by discovering how her characters would have behaved, dressed, eaten and danced in the ballroom.
The problem is that 90-minutes of examining these things is enough to make even the most honourable of gentlemen cast aside all social etiquette and hang himself with his own breeches. Thirty minutes would have more than sufficed, and while Amanda and her co presenter, Alastair Sooke, both display endless enthusiasm for the subject matter, it’s hard to stay engaged in what is essentially a feature-length film about cakes and dresses.
The subtext part doesn’t really ring true either, as nothing featured in the documentary really adds to one’s enjoyment of the book. The programme, in fact, is quite a transparent excuse to indulge in the spectacle and splendour that has long made Pride and Prejudice such an adaptable piece for film and television.
For such a beloved book, there seems to be little need to provide 90-minutes of what we’re led to believe is “context”. Does an insatiable craving for heroin improve William S. Burroughs’ books? Does engaging in explicit gay sex add some much-needed perspective to Alan Ginsberg’s poems?
These things might help, but they’re obviously not essential, which is more or less true of Prejudice: Having A Ball — it seems gratuitous. Certainly, it’s bound to please the diehard Austen fans and lovers of period drama, but alas there’s little here for anyone else.
The Job Lot
ITV, 29 April at 21:30
The idea of a sitcom set in a Jobcentre seems promising on paper, not simply because it’s a risible institution that’s about as effective at helping people find work as lazily wafting a hand about in the air is at warding away flies, but also because there are currently more unemployed people in the UK than there are idiots walking around wearing Beats headphones. Plus, in an age of Daily Mail sensationalism and Ian Duncan Smith gaffes, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for such a programme to appear on our screens.
The Job Lot is ITV’s attempt: a decent enough comedy that is unfortunately light on satire, and treads just a little bit too close to territory that has previous been covered by other sitcoms. Aside from the fact that it looks and feels unmistakably like an ITV production, it’s really not too dissimilar from The Office or even Parks and Recreation. Nor is it as funny as either of these two programmes.
Nevertheless, the characters do have some charm: there’s Karl (Russell Tovey), an uninspired art graduate who works at the Jobcentre, but naturally longs for better things; his neurotic manager Trish (Sarah Hadland); Angela (Jo Enright), an employee who seems to delight in making other people’s lives more difficult; and various claimants, ranging from a hapless father signing on for the first time to a man who attends his weekly appointments dressed only in a blazer.
Episode one sees the Jobcentre staff attempting to turn their claimants from unemployed into “funemployed”, a task that seems to spark a string of events that result to Karl storming out of the building and resigning. But his rebellion is short lived, when upon exiting the building, he bumps into Chloe (Emma Rigby), the new temp. Taking an immediate shine to her, and with the intention of getting to know her better, he decides to return to work and pretend as if nothing has happened.
It’s remarkably similar to an episode of Seinfeld in which a desperate George Costanza, faced with the prospect of unemployment, is forced to return to his job after he resigned the previous day. But then originality is hardly what The Job Lot does best, which is a shame, given the programme’s setting.
There are certainly a few laughs sprinkled throughout the episodes, but as a whole, it feels like a missed opportunity for well-observed satire. Indeed, only one scene really attempts to lampoon the Jobcentre and how it operates. It features the sadistic Angela, who tells a man wishing to sign on that, before she speaks to him, he must first call on the phone and book an appointment. He does, but his troubles don’t end there, and when returns, he’s pushed to the very limits of absurd Jobcentre bureaucracy, much to his frustration.
It’s a shame that the first episode doesn’t feature more scenes of this calibre: one can only hope that there will be more satire as the series continues. Certainly, The Job Lot is a fun and very watchable comedy, but if it’s going to be something truly special, it’ll have to do more than that. Fortunately, this is a promising enough start to stick around for episode two.
Monday 29th April
Catching thespian legends Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi on stage at the same time is as rare and precious a thing as a primetime Saturday night show on ITV which is not hosted by Ant and Dec.
‘BUT SUCH A PHENOMENON DOES NOT EXIST!’, you cry, thumbing through your TV guide with fervour, attempting to find a single show on ITV which does not feature the Geordie duo, let alone on Saturday night which is, in fact, sponsored entirely by Ant’s forehead*.
But miracles do happen, viewers. Though Ant and Dec sadly remain the undisputed Kings of ITV, there are a couple of new ‘Vicious Old Queens’ on the televisual block. The show’s final, snappier (and perhaps less inflammatory) title, Vicious, describes the tone of pretty much every remark to come out of the protagonists’ mouths throughout each ridiculous show.
McKellen and Jacobi star as a homosexual couple who appear to be deeply unhappy with their lives; a fact which each attributes almost entirely to the other’s mere existence. Insults about “grey cataracts” and failed acting careers fly as the pair warm to their venomous theme, delivering one liners as though they were written by The Bard himself. The dissatisfied 70-somethings live in their deliciously dingy bubble as a pair of virtual recluses; slinging catty remarks and regretting most of their lives together is their modus operandi.
The sheer nastiness of certain comments had me recoiling into my sofa at times, toes clinging to my leopard print slippers. Like all the best comedies, however, Vicious remembers to inject some bittersweetness into proceedings. After one particularly vile exchange, the pair find themselves utterly unable to resist making things up over a glass of Rioja. The truth of the matter is, they are deeply in love. This is a fact which does not escape either the audience or the couple’s closest friends, who consider their bickering to be entirely meaningless.
Unlike the tired drudgery of many of its ITV predecessors – where mere mention of the word ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ was enough to send audiences into hysterics –this pair are funny and HAPPEN to be homosexual, as opposed to funny BECAUSE they like men.
Together with the outstanding cast and some truly toe-curling writing from Gary Jenetti (who has also worked on Family Guy and Will and Grace), Vicious is a bold and incredibly welcome break from the TV norm.
*not true…it’s also sponsored by Dec’s ego
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BBC4 27 April at 2100
The first thing I learnt about this series is that Arne Dahl is the name of the writer not a main character like a Frost or Inspector Linley.
The action revolves round ‘A Unit’ who are I guess, having not seen the first story, Sweden’s top level crimes team. They are a bit of an NCIS type set up, in that are made up of specialists of one sort or another. There is the female all-rounder, an intellectual Finlander, a brute, a tough guy, a Mexican (I think, his name is Chavez) and a veteran lady-cop who leads the whole shebang.
In this two-parter, the ‘A Unit’ are warned by the FBI that an American serial killer is on his way over to mix things up a bit and do some murdering Swedish style. Swedish style in this case being the same way he indulged his morbid peccadillo in the States, specialist pliers in the throat to keep the victims from making any noise as he goes to town on their genitalia.
It’s an interesting show, after opening with some serial killing and the team descending on the local airport to try and capture the ‘Kentucky Killer’ on arrival, it then segues into the lives of the characters who make up the ‘A Unit’.
This is done extremely well. Which surprised me as in the opening minutes the dialogue and camaraderie between the group was forced and unnatural; very much “we need to show that this is a team who work together and play together, so let’s have some shit jokes and personal references to bring the audience up to speed”.
But, when it actually got going this side developed very naturally and I was sucked in to the slightly depressing lives of the Swedish crime busters. The drama between fathers and family is very much a theme for the story and ‘A Unit’ has at least two Dads with interesting familial dilemmas but it also spotlights some over some over 40’s sexy time, which as a younger man would have hurt my eyes but now, equidistant between my 20’s and 50’s, actually give me some kind of comfort in light of my rapidly approaching middle age.
I could have watched this quite happily but as must happen, by the time the second feature length instalment starts the focus switches back onto ‘Kentucky Killer’. Though this is still very enjoyable it also seems to be a bit far-fetched when compared to the down beat realism of ‘A Units’ private lives.
This clash is my own real problem with what is a very intelligent and carefully paced thriller, with fully rounded characters filmed in a bleak and grizzly style going up against with what the FBI describes as “like 65 psychopaths wrapped up in one body”. It all clashes a bit, especially when it is revealed that there is a second ‘Kentucky Killer’ who wants to kill the first one, the involvement of the CIA and the ubiquitous terrorist story arc.
There is a lot going on and it’s an odd mix but Arne Dahl just about gets away with it.
Men At Work
23/04/13 at 2200 on Fox
Breckin Meyer, used to be sort of famous (go on Google, the sonnuvabitch, you will like totes recognise him from the movies) but now he is not, so he has created what I suppose is called a sitcom, though I am not entirely sure.
It has laughter (canned, natch) but nothing funny happens and there is no conflict, so it certainly isn’t a drama and there is no tragedy, ergo it must be a comedy. It is also half an hour long and has actors who have previously been in sitcoms, playing the same pick’n'mix roles that appear in these things.
We have a so called likeable main guy (played by someone from That Seventies Show), a geek/weirdo (if played by a woman they are known as kooky), a cocky, confident chap who is also good with the laydeeez, though here Breckin Meyer has split this character in two and we have a slick wise arse and a lady killer but they are best mates so we get two for the price of one. You lucky people.
Anyway, Milo (the likeable main guy) has broken up with his long term girlfriend and turns to his group of clichés to help him muddle through this difficult transitional phase, he gets drunk and pours his heart out to some girl, the lady killer has sex with three women (2 at one time), the cocky guy is witty and comes out on top and the geeky guy is geeky…though he does have a surprisingly hot girlfriend.
And that’s about it, it’s the same thing you have seen a million times but you won’t be used to seeing it this badly. The States tends to only export their good stuff but with all this globalism that’s been going on recently we now have to watch their crap as well.
I am sure when Breckin Meyer originally came up with his ‘Men at Work’, it was a brilliant and cutely observed piece on being suddenly single in your mid-thirties, it was probably full of original characters and snappy dialogue that dared show what men are really like (and ladies you may think you know what we are like, but really you don’t).
But then the suits got involved and sanded down all those nasty edges that seemed way too like real life. I bet Breckin Meyer fought every step of the way to keep it true to his vision but no doubt had a kid or something and eventually capitulated just to earn a buck.
Or maybe he so hated being sort of famous that he created the most vanilla and forgetful series he could think of just to burn any bridge that might take him back to Lala Land.
Or he thought anyone can write a sitcom. Ed. Hello Leverage fans! What do you think?