Saturday, 22 December 2012

CHRISTMAS TV PREVIEW: Loving Miss Hatto, Doors Open etc.

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 22nd December 2012.

Sunday, BBC1, 8:30pm

Thursday and Friday, BBC1, 9pm

Boxing Day, STV, 9pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 5:15pm

Christmas Day, BBC1, 7:30pm

Christmas Day, STV, 8:45pm

Paul Whitelaw

If history's taught us anything, it's that if you stick Alfred Molina in a cardigan and ask him to play a hapless, well-meaning man, the pathos he exudes will make a mountain weep. Support him with a script written by Victoria Wood, and, well, resistance is futile.

In LOVING MISS HATTO, Wood's captivating account of the biggest fraud in classical music history, Molina plays William Barrington-Coupe (aka 'Barrie'), an ambitious dreamer who fooled the world into believing that his terminally ill wife, Joyce Hatto, was one of the greatest living concert pianists. And all of this orchestrated from a semi-detached in Hertfordshire.

His ruse – achieved simply by passing off doctored recordings of other pianists as works by Hatto – was eventually exposed following Joyce's death in 2006, although he maintains to this day that she had no involvement in the scheme. Wood understandably opts for a different view - how could Joyce not have known what was going on? But although she depicts them as complicit, she never passes cruel judgement. Instead, she delivers a sympathetic, nuanced portrayal of an ordinary couple who resorted to desperate measures in order to gain the recognition they felt they'd been denied.

Joyce was actually a promising concert pianist in her youth, with Barrie – despite his propensity for getting into what he called “muddles” - an idealistic and committed supporter of her fledgling career. But, for various reasons, fame never arrived – at least not until decades later when Barrie discovered the hoodwinking potential of the internet.

Wood frames this remarkable story as a touching love affair between two thwarted people with nothing to lose. Barrie, who's still alive, should be pleased with her depiction of him as a decent man who only broke the law out of love for his frustrated wife. And Wood's witty, poignant, thoughtful screenplay, together with charming performances from Molina and Francesca Annis - and Rory Kinnear and Maime McCoy as their younger selves - ensure that their scam never feels like anything more damaging than a romantic “muddle” that got out of hand.

Adapted by William Boyd from his own novel, RESTLESS is perhaps the most aptly titled thriller I've ever seen. It doesn't so much test one's patience as suffocate it. Curiously inert and stilted, it charts the interminable saga of a female Secret Service agent, both during World War Two and in the 'present' of the 1970s: so that's two stubbornly paced and flabbily plotted narratives running concurrently. It's supposed to be a compelling puzzle. It feels like an endless, boring game of Risk.

The problem may be that Boyd is so attached to his source material, he was loath to cut it (both episodes are feature-length). He also fails to invest his central character with an interesting inner life; he simply gives us no reason to care about her. It also doesn't help that her daughter – who plays a key role in the '70s segments – is played by Michelle Dockery, alias Lady Mary from Downton, an actress so stiff she makes the average corpse look like a whirling dervish on a hotplate.

The very definition of an insubstantial, middling bit of fluff, DOORS OPEN is an Ian Rankin adaptation which couldn't be further removed from the gritty world of Rebus if it was set in Atlantis. Produced by Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig – she also co-writes – it follows three friends as they undertake a benign art heist.

Millionaire Mike (Douglas Henshall) is doing it for memories of his ex-lover (Being Human's Lenora Crichlow, in a thankless role); Allan (Kenneth Collard) because the paintings are owned by the heartless bank he's just been sacked from; and Professor Gissing (Fry) believes he's liberating the ineffable soul of art from the clutches of commerce. Bathed in a vaguely knockabout, overbearing sheen, it tries desperately to pass itself off as an Edinburgh-set Hollywood romp. But it's the sort of thing you forget about even while you're watching.

Preview copies of this year's DOCTOR WHO Christmas special were unavailable at the time of writing, but as fans such as myself have come to expect little from these invariably underwhelming festive outings, maybe this year we'll be pleasantly surprised. I know, I know, forever the optimist.

If I'm being charitable, the cloying sentiment of CALL THE MIDWIFE is slightly more palatable in a festive setting. But only slightly. Inevitably, the Christmas Day edition of this mechanical period drama serves up the heavily symbolic spectacle of a baby being born in a lock-up, and shoves the midwives-as-angels angle further down our throats than ever before. Oh, and hapless Miranda is involved in a sub-plot involving the local nativity play. Of course she is.

If we're talking about sumptuous Sunday period dramas, then DOWNTON ABBEY obviously can't be beaten. But whereas Midwife is earnest, Downton is a frantic conga-line of ludicrously watchable toot. Previews weren't available, but we're promised a Christmas trip to Scotland during which, I dunno, Carson and a stag get stuck up a chimney. Probably, it doesn't matter. Merry Christmas, everyone! 

Sunday, 9 December 2012

TV PREVIEW: The Poison Tree; This World: Cuba with Simon Reeve

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 8th December 2012.

Monday, STV, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

The broadcasting equivalent of an airport page-turner, the world of ITV drama is traditionally home to psychopaths, murderers and terrorised middle-class families. Martin Clunes' son has been kidnapped by a lunatic! Sarah Lancashire is being stalked by a pervert! Trevor Eve has only gone and got himself involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse! You know, that sort of thing.

So you won't be shocked to learn that their new two-part drama, THE POISON TREE, is yet another psychological thriller in which things go from bad to worse for a troubled household of desperately unlucky sods.

Produced by STV, it stars MyAnna Buring as Karen, a woman who's spent twelve years waiting for her partner, Rex (Matthew Goode), to be released from prison. With a sentence as lengthy as that, it's obvious the Rex's crime was – to put it mildly - rather serious, and the central mystery of exactly what it was is sustained quite effectively throughout the opening episode.

Desperate to move on from this dark chapter in their lives, Karen, Rex and their teenage daughter – who thinks daddy was banged up for tax evasion – begin life anew in a remote cottage by the sea, because that's the sort of moodily atmospheric setting one requires in dramas of this nature. Alas, their hopes are dashed almost immediately, as Karen starts to receive a series of sinister phone calls and texts of the “I know what you did” variety, and their guilty secret threatens to explode.

Most of the action unfolds in extended flashbacks to 1999, when mousy Karen (who hasn't aged a day since) abruptly befriends an irritating free-spirit called Biba (yes, really) who brings her out of her shell during an evening taking fashionable '90s drug “Ecstasy”. Biba also introduces Karen to her brother and housemate Rex, and together they enjoy a bohemian lifestyle subsidised by the family's seemingly inexhaustible independent wealth.

Inevitably, it all goes horribly wrong once Biba reveals herself to be a complete fruitcake – I could've told Karen that the moment she met her – and the drugs and company she keeps grow harder and more dangerous. Her conspicuous absence from the scenes set in the present day certainly suggests that things didn't exactly pan out well for this overstated hippie stereotype.

Despite climaxing with two unlikely dramatic bombshells in rapid succession, part one suggests The Poison Tree is a perfectly serviceable, entertaining pot-boiler. Unfortunately, as is so often the way with these things, part two degenerates into unmitigated bullshit, as the already thinly-drawn characters start behaving implausibly simply to serve the mechanics of the shoddy and nonsensical plot.

Goode wanders through the production looking remarkably sanguine for a man who's just spent twelve hellish years in prison. But with such an underwritten part, there's not much else he can do. Buring fares slightly better, delivering a competent portrayal of the same character at two very different stages in her life. But The Poison Tree is ultimately a crashing waste of time. It doesn't even have a tree oozing poison in it. What a swizz.

Buenos dias!” Ah, look, it's that nice Simon Reeve, the hale and hearty travel presenter whose ability to get on famously with the peoples of the world is central to the appeal of his programmes. In his latest adventure, THIS WORLD: CUBA WITH SIMON REEVE, he investigates the sweeping economic reforms that have transformed one of the world's last Communist strongholds into a burgeoning crucible of grass roots capitalism.

With Cuba's economy in ruins, its government has been forced to cut one million public-sector jobs and – by Castro's beard! - actually encourage self-employed entrepreneurs in the hope of generating urgent tax revenues. Reeve dives enthusiastically into this brave new world of private enterprise, where he meets ordinary citizens – he was only allowed into the country if he promised not to interview any prominent political dissidents – to discuss the second most significant revolution in Cuban history.

His many new friends include a qualified doctor paid so little by the state he now moonlights as a plumbing supplies salesman; a former cheese-trader currently earning a fortune on Havana's emerging property market; and the owner of a nascent McDonald's-style fast food franchise. He also discovers that the legendary Bay of Pigs – a symbolic site central to the tenets of the revolution – is now surrounded by privately-owned guest houses.

The point of all of this, of course, is that – healthcare and arts-funding aside - Castro's system has failed dismally, and that for too long Cuba's population has been forced to endure appalling living conditions under the oppressive gaze of a totalitarian regime. But now that the iron fist is loosening its grip, for how much longer can the government square its Communist manifesto with the unstoppable influx of western consumerism?

While the overall mood is cautiously optimistic, it's constantly undermined by images of abandoned sugar mills and crumbling houses. And the fact that few of Reeves' interviewees are prepared to say anything remotely negative serves as a grim reminder of Cuba's atrocious human rights record. It's a commendably clear-eyed and revealing report