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?

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