Sunday, 17 February 2013

Scotsman TV Preview: Complicit/Meet The Izzards/Funny Business

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 16th February 2013.

Sunday, Channel 4, 9pm

Wednesday and Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Today, BBC2, 11:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

If I asked you to imagine Homeland with a steadier grip on reality, I'd essentially be asking you to imagine a different show altogether. It'd be like trying to imagine Doctor Who without the sci-fi and time-travel elements (that would be quasi-surrealist daytime soap Doctors, by the way).

And yet I found myself unable to avoid that strained comparison while watching COMPLICIT, a solid standalone thriller inspired by the (obviously true) allegations that Britain secretly sanctions the torture of terror suspects on foreign soil. Like Homeland, it revolves around a troubled government agent and their obsessive pursuit of a suspected terrorist supposedly planning an imminent attack on home soil. It explicitly questions the dangers of following a fanatical creed. And it endeavours to explore the mindset of opposing forces, both of whom believe they have objective morality on their side.

But whereas Homeland embraces these themes with enjoyably deranged brio, Complicit slowly coils around them with the crushing intensity of a boa constrictor at feeding time. Abandoning the need for gunfights and explosions, it instead focuses on what one can only presume to be the real world of counter-terrorism: interminable, sleep-deprived hours of painstaking investigation, and the frustrating lethargy of every maverick agent's ultimate nemesis, meddling bureaucracy.

At its centre lies the thought-provoking question of whether, in times of national crisis, our saviours might be forgiven – or at least understood – for compromising their ethics to protect the greater good.

David Oyelowo stars as Edward, a taciturn MI5 agent who's spent years on the trail of Waleed, a fanatical British Muslim played with electrifying charm and intensity by Arsher Ali. Convinced that Waleed is planning a ricin attack in the UK, he convinces his initially hesitant bosses – who, in his view, have ostracised him due to his ethnicity – to follow him to Egypt. When David first interviews him in local police custody, Waleed alleges that he's been tortured, much to the consternation of Stephen Campbell Moore's curiously obstructive embassy bod.

Furiously intelligent and cognisant of international human rights laws, Waleed protests his innocence and runs rings around his hands-tied captors. Fearing that the risin has already been shipped to the UK, David gradually succumbs to desperate measures to secure the information he needs. But has his own paranoia and persecution complex compromised his outlook?

The deliberate pace of this nuanced polemic may be too testing for some. But I was captivated by its oppressively slow burn, which is dramatically punctured by some explosive confrontations between Oyelowo and Ali.

It's a noble addition to Channel 4's sporadically laudable history of pointed political dramas; indeed, it's precisely the sort of thing they should be making more of.

Eddie Izzard is going on a journey. Why? Because ever since TV decided that we cud-chewing dimwits couldn't tolerate matters of science and history unless they're filtered through a celebrity on an emotional quest, that's what the likes of Izzard do.

It's fortunate, however, that Izzard is more witty, charming and inquisitive than most, thus transforming MEET THE IZZARDS into one of the more tolerable examples of the genre. Never less than fiercely ambitious, the cross-dressing, multi-lingual, multi-marathon-running comedian is on a mission, not only to trace his personal ancestry using his own DNA, but the global migration of humankind as a whole.

In an effort to vaguely locate ourselves towards the ancient African man and woman who begat us all – as he says, there's one in the eye for yer racist silly-billies – he zips around the globe at tremendous expense, amusing Kalahari bush-people with his nail polish, chatting with a man who's sired 93 children, and dancing with pygmies in the forests of Cameroon. You know, as travelling UK TV presenters are contractually obliged to do.

It feels like a sprawling miscegenation of a survivalist documentary, an extended Comic Relief segment, and an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that's sailed wildly out of control. But Izzard's laid-back charm undermines the project's rather inflated sense of self-importance, and further amusement is provided by his enthusiastic sidekick, Dr Jim Wilson from Edinburgh University, who appears to be angling for a starring vehicle of his own.

Izzard crops up again in the delayed second episode of FUNNY BUSINESS, in which the machinations of comedy agents and promoters fall under scrutiny. But the focus is largely on the rise during the last 30-years of stand-ups earning ludicrous sums of money from sell-out mega-tours, thanks in part to the heavily monopolised likes of Live at The Apollo.

The most fascinating portion of the programme by far is when a comedy historian delves into the BBC's Written Archive – housed in a modest bungalow in Berkshire, believe it or not – to contrast the earnings of today's top comics with those of the heroes of yesteryear. One particularly sobering revelation is that when Ernie Wise died, he left behind an estate worth over just half a million pounds. In 2011 alone, Peter Kay earned an estimated take of over £20 million from touring and DVD sales. As the formerly funny Boltonian might himself remark, what's all that about?

Monday, 4 February 2013

TV Preview: Dancing On the Edge/BeingHuman

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 2nd February 2012.

Monday and Tuesday, BBC2, 9pm

Sunday, BBC3, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Listen. Can you hear it? That hushed collective murmur. That crackle of furrowed brows. It can only mean one thing: maverick auteur Stephen Poliakoff has descended from the heavens with yet another lofty drama heaving with prestige.

One of British television's only prominent writer/directors, Poliakoff is renowned – and in some quarters, reviled – as an idiosyncratic purveyor of discursive narrative and mannered style. His dramas are often wilfully opaque and burnished with a sort of straight-faced eccentricity which, for me at least, makes him one of the medium's most intriguing artistes (for make no mistake, the man is an artiste).

And yet despite having worked in TV for over 30 years, Poliakoff has never created a drama series. That is, until now. Spread over six episodes, DANCING ON THE EDGE focuses on a fictional black jazz band caught in web of dangerous intrigue in early 1930s London.

It begins arrestingly with the suave yet hunted figure of band-leader Louis Lester (the strikingly charismatic Chiwetel Ejiofor) seeking desperate refuge at the headquarters of a popular music magazine edited by rogueish critic Stanley (Matthew Goode, seemingly channelling the winning, edgy charm of a young David Bowie). It then flashes back to eighteen months earlier, where we discover how they met amidst an aristocratic circle of seemingly well-meaning white liberals who, despite professing a sincere love of Lester's thrillingly modern music, appear to be partially attracted by the shock-waves it causes throughout sniffy high society.

The more enigmatic members of the group include a powerful American tycoon played by John Goodman, whose ambiguous motives drive much of the plot, and a benevolent playboy played by Anthony Head. The impressive cast is rounded out by Jacqueline Bisset, Mel Smith, Caroline Quentin and new Doctor Who companion Jenna Louise-Coleman.

One of the more interesting things about Dancing On the Edge is how it merges thriller fiction with little-explored historical fact, as The Louis Lester Band, under the auspices of the ambitious Stanley, suddenly find themselves rubbing shoulders with royalty (in reality, Edward VIII was friendly with the Duke Ellington band) while struggling against ingrained prejudice and Britain's fierce immigration policies.

It's also interesting to see Poliakoff attempt a drama with a potentially more populist appeal – indeed, it's vaguely redolent of The Hour - although the downside of this is that some of his more distinctive traits are compromised in the process. His approach at times is clumsily heavy-handed, with characters prone to articulating their inner motives in unnecessarily helpful detail (in episode one alone, Head's character seems to spend most of his time excitedly looking forward to Britain's future. Oh, if only he knew, eh viewers?). It feels rather condescending, as if the great artiste doesn't trust his audience with nuance of meaning. And having watched the entire series, I can report with some authority that he spreads too little story over too many episodes.

Furthermore, it's little wonder that the first two episodes are screening over successive evenings, given that very little of note actually happens in part one. It's only in part two that the stakes are ramped up, thus drawing you in for more. Because once it gets going its central mystery exerts a fairly solid grip – the gnawing question of who Lester can really trust among his new friends is effectively sustained throughout – and the cast never put a foot wrong. The original period score by Adrian Johnston is appropriately lively, and Poliakoff has lost none of his knack for creating unsettling moods within the artfully oppressive confines of grand houses and hotels. That's one of his “things”, dontcha know.

Similarly obsessed with the horror of hotels, albeit of a tattier three-star persuasion, is writer Toby Whithouse, who delivered a memorable episode of Doctor Who in 2011 which owed much to Kubrick's The Shining. He's at it again with the fifth series of BEING HUMAN, which positions two of its central characters – Hal the vampire and Tom the werewolf – as lowly employees at a hotel in which all manner of blood-caked supernatural mayhem inevitably ensues.

This is the first series of this black comedy-drama in which the original trio of house-sharing ghouls don't appear at all. Fortunately, actors Damien Moloney, Michael Socha and Kate Bracken – a Scottish actress who would've been a far more effective Amy Pond in Doctor Who than Karen Gillan ever was – are capable, likeable replacements. But the problem now with Being Human isn't that the cast has changed, but that the format feels tired.

The personal (if you will) demons and emotional dynamic between the three characters are essentially identical to those of the original line-up. It feels like we've seen it all before. Also, the conceit of introducing a powerful new antagonist every year, who must always be bigger and badder than previous foes, now feels rather rote and strained. All ongoing dramas are bound by formula to an extent, but Being Human appears to have exhausted itself.

You know it's getting desperate when even the addition of Phil Davis in his grizzled, scowling pomp can't add much juice to proceedings. I'd like to be proved wrong, but I don't hold out much hope.