Saturday, 24 November 2012

Scotsman TV preview of PEEP SHOW and BBC4's 'WHY POVERTY?' SEASON

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 24th November.

Sunday, Channel 4, 10pm

Sunday, BBC4, 9pm

Monday, BBC4, 10pm

Tuesday, BBC4, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Unless you're the sort of person who cracks up at the mere sight of Micky Flanagan, the clinically housebound and gypsies, Channel 4, 30 years young this year, is no longer synonymous with comedy of quality and distinction. Indeed, were it not for prolific scriptwriting duo Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, they couldn't honestly boast any good comedy at all.

So it's little wonder that PEEP SHOW, which begins its eighth series this week, is by far the channel's longest running sitcom. While it could never claim to be much of a ratings winner, this black farce about a pair of co-dependent thirty-something losers has attracted a loyal cult and consistent critical acclaim.

Winner of numerous awards, it is, alongside Armstrong and Bain's enjoyable student comedy Fresh Meat, Channel 4's only reliable source of mirth. And while it's to their credit that they've stuck with it for so long, you get the sense of them gratefully clinging on to it for dear life, in the eager hope of deflecting attention from their otherwise moribund cache.

So here it is, back again, in its new Sunday evening, post-Homeland slot, presumably in the further hope of picking up new viewers in need of a laugh after an hour of teeth-clenched suspense. Not that that strategy really worked in the case of recently departed sitcom Friday Night Dinner (it's got Friday in the title, for God's sake, it shouldn't be shown on a Sunday), but I suppose it's worth another punt.

For those of you new to the Peep Show universe, the premise couldn't be simpler. Portrayed respectively by comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Mark and Jeremy are former student chums who, despite having practically nothing in common, have somehow found themselves sharing a flat well into adulthood.

In classic odd couple style, Mark is fastidious, square and neurotic, while Jeremy lives a feckless, irresponsible lifestyle fuelled by soft drugs and the erroneous belief that he will one day be recognised as a talented musician. They don't particularly like each other; indeed, their only fleeting joy in life comes from petty one-upmanship. But, like so many sitcom couplings before them, in a perverse way they need each other. Their strained mutual dependency is probably preferable to the terror of forming a normal relationship in a functioning society that neither feels comfortable in.

Distinctively filmed from each character's subjective point of view, and peppered with inner monologues which often provide the biggest laughs, Peep Show is a comedy of anxiety and discomfort. But unlike most post-The Office shows in that vein, it is at its heart a traditional British sitcom full of sharp, funny dialogue and deft comic performances.

So that's yer Peep Show.

As series eight begins, Mark is finally on the verge of kicking Jeremy out, in the hope of achieving the hitherto unimaginable feat of living conventionally with his girlfriend, Dobby. Typically, however, Jeremy is dragging his heels and Dobby seems more concerned with looking after her sick friend – and one of Mark's many nemeses – Gerrard. In a desperate attempt to oust Jeremy – and partly for his own amusement – Mark pays for him to take a potentially life-healing course of therapy, with inevitably ridiculous and far-reaching results.

As a Peep Show fan, I wouldn't rate this as one of the strongest episodes, but it certainly doesn't signify a drastic drop in quality. Indeed, episode three of this series, in which the team go paint-balling, is up among its best in a while. But its weirdly comforting having these spiteful, awful idiots back in one's life for a while. And if you're new to the show, it may well mark the start of a beautiful relationship.

An earth-quaking shift in tone now as we enter BBC4's new Why Poverty? season, consisting of several Storyville documentaries in which the BBC, together with over 70 broadcasters around the world, probe into the shameful issue of global poverty.

Bono and Bob Geldof, who despite their best efforts have so far failed to make poverty history as promised, are the subject of GIVE US THE MONEY, which examines their epic campaign to bring aid to Africa. Commendably even-handed, it features several dissenting voices who argue that, despite their undoubted sincerity, these messianic musicians have actually achieved more harm than good, although Bono and Bob themselves – both on self-deprecating and, yes, likeable form throughout – unsurprisingly beg to differ. It's a thought-provoking rumination on the moral complexities of charity and the cult of celebrity.

Preview copies of STEALING AFRICA were unavailable at the time of writing, but it promises to uncover the tax avoidance schemes employed by western multinationals operating in poverty-stricken Zambia. It sounds like the kind of thing to make you despair of the human race.

Similar selfishness abounds in PARK AVENUE: MONEY, POWER AND THE AMERICAN DREAM, a despairing film contrasting the game-rigged comfort of New York's wealthiest residents with the hopeless poverty of the South Bronx neighbourhoods which lie just ten minutes away. Capitalism, eh? It's a million laughs.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Scotsman TV preview: EVERYDAY and THE HOUR.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 10th November 2012.

Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm

Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

Proving the old adage that a stopped clock will be right at least twice a day, Kevin Bishop – an otherwise perfunctory footnote in the collected works of television comedy – once produced a memorable sketch presumably titled 'Gritty BAFTA'. Specifically inspired by the then inescapable hype surrounding Channel 4's heavyweight adaptation of Red Riding, it took an amusingly blunt swipe at those ostentatiously prestigious TV dramas seemingly designed to reduce BAFTA voters to quivers of admiring jelly.

Striding around an artfully photographed rain and blood-lashed North, Bishop and his cohorts, playing intense TV character actors for whom the craft is paramount, starred in a spoof trailer muttering nothing but “Gritty BAFTA” in a variety of dramatic timbres. “Coming soon, to Channel 4,” whispered the ersatz announcer with maximum faux portent. Not the most sophisticated satirical attack, perhaps, but it made its point cheekily and succinctly enough.

I mention this, not to automatically discredit Michael Winterbottom's latest opus, EVERYDAY, nor, heaven forbid, to suggest some sneaking admiration for the work of Kevin Bishop. But I can't deny that, if ever a C4 drama had “Gritty BAFTA” stencilled through its core, it's this ponderous slice of dour social realism.

Now, I'm all for unflinching British dramas that hold up a mirror to the harsh realities of society. But I'd rather they achieved that while telling an engaging story stocked with three-dimensional characters. Everyday resolutely fails on the second count.

One of the most versatile British auteurs of recent times, writer/director Winterbottom has given us such idiosyncratic comedies as 24 Hour Party People and the powerful dramas Welcome to Sarajevo and A Mighty Heart. He's a maverick talent in the cross-wired vein of Ken Loach and Julien Temple. But his willingness to experiment is occasionally a weakness, as evinced by the dreadful 9 Songs – live footage of Franz Ferdinand spliced with unsimulated sex scenes, what could possibly go wrong? - and the meandering Everyday.

Filmed sporadically over five years, it strives to examine the impact of the British penal system on a prisoner and his wife, portrayed by John Simm and Shirley Henderson. The action, such as it is, is divided between home and prison, as Henderson struggles to raise their four kids – portrayed by actual siblings – while awaiting her husband's release.

Incarcerated for an unspecified crime, he lives for their staggered visits. Watching his kids grow up in fits and bursts, he hears about missed Christmasses and birthdays, offers banal enquiries - “How's school?”, “Have you been good?” - and, whenever they're out of earshot, expresses to his wife his sexual frustration. And that's about it.

Shot in grainy pseudo-documentary style, it certainly captures the loneliness, angst and monotony of such an existence. But Winterbottom's dogged unwillingness to impose any dramatic embellishments on his deliberately spare and repetitive saga results in a film almost entirely composed of the boring bits we wouldn't normally see. I appreciate what he's trying to do, but it's like staring at a stranger's home movies.

Henderson and Simm are fine actors, but they can't do much with such thinly-sketched characters. As for the conceit of filming over five years, the only vaguely noticeable result is that the seasons change and the children age. But so what? Was that really worth the time and effort?

Possibly aware that his experiment wasn't working, Winterbottom attempts to broaden the canvas with painterly landscapes (Henderson and co conveniently live near picturesque fields and woodlands) that contrast heavy-handedly with the claustrophobia of Simm's cell. And Michael Nyman provides a pastoral score that tries in vain to make the film feel more profound than it actually is.

Even the most forgiving (gritty) BAFTA voter would struggle to stay awake during this well-intentioned misfire.

Incidentally, I'm aware that my opening analogy implies that Kevin Bishop has been responsible for at least two funny sketches in his career, rather than the paltry one. But I think you'll find that technically a stopped clock is right only once a day, equivalent to the time that it originally expired. Believe me, I'm tremendous fun at pub quizzes.

The first series of Abi Morgan's '50s period thriller THE HOUR was flawed, implausible and naggingly anachronistic, but as a piece of winningly performed, suspenseful entertainment, it ticked along quite effectively. But with its threads tied up in the final episode, it felt like a self-contained piece unburdened by the need for a sequel. So where can it go from here?

It's 1957 and, against the increasing tumult of the Cold War, our crusading BBC news team face fresh competition from an ITV rival. Hector is now a complacent star, Bel is undermined by her superiors, and maverick journalist Freddie returns from his travels with an unconvincing bohemian beard (that's not a euphemism). Meanwhile, crime is on the rise in London, but the government are more concerned with pumping money into the nuclear arms race.

Dominic West, Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw are as solid as ever, and Peter Capaldi is a welcome addition as the taciturn new Head of News. But there's little in the first episode to suggest that another bout of The Hour is entirely necessary.