Sunday, 31 March 2013

TV PREVIEW: Doctor Who/The Voice UK/The Village/Life's Too Short

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 30th March 2013.

Today, BBC1, 6:15pm

Today, BBC1, 7pm

Sunday, BBC1, 9pm

Today, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

The problem with previewing new episodes of DOCTOR WHO is that, because it thrives on shock and surprise, you're left with little to say beyond a few gentle hints. To go into any more detail would be like telling a child what it's getting for Christmas. Which I might actually do one day as a social experiment, but that's another story.

So, what I can tell you is that as series seven resumes, the Doctor is brooding over the bizarre ongoing mystery of Clara Oswald, a young woman who, on the two occasions they've met, has died in different periods in history. How can this be? This being Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, the eventual answer will probably be convoluted and disappointing, but I'll gladly be proven wrong.

In any case, the Doctor is now obsessed with tracking down yet another version of Clara, only this time with a view to keeping her alive. And sure enough, as anyone with even a passing interest in Doctor Who already knows, he meets Clara Mark III in Moffat'sThe Bells of Saint John. It's one of those purely entertaining episodes best described as a romp, as the Doctor sets himself up as Clara's galactic guardian while struggling to save humankind from being enslaved by alien Wi-Fi.

This, of course, is a standard Moffat trick: take an everyday facet of existence and invest it with horror. He must spend his days wandering around thinking of ways to make door knobs and carpets scary. Here he takes our real-world concerns about internet identity theft, chucks in one of his other favourite tropes, the creepy child, adds a possible reference to The Exorcist and a fan-pleasing nod to a former companion, and voila! 45 minutes of fun, pacy Moffat Doctor Who.

Matt Smith is a note-perfect delight as usual, although the day he stops being a note-perfect delight as the Doctor is the day he regenerates into the unfortunate thesp who has to follow him. After Clara's introduction in last year's Asylum of the Daleks and the most recent Christmas special, Jenna Louise-Coleman continues to impress with her likeable, charming, understated performance (she's far less annoying than she was in her sass-talking début). She and Smith make for an endearing team.

Also, watch out for a surprise cameo from John Simm's Master and classic series baddies the Zygons.

Dear internet forums and fellow media outlets: please note that this last statement is an outright lie, humorously pertaining to the dilemma established in my opening paragraph. Thanks.

Also returning to BBC1's Saturday night line-up is THE VOICE UK, the torpid X Factor clone that drew flack last year for its repetitive, drawn-out format and excessive overuse of Jessie J doing that thing with her head. But the producers have apparently made some game-changing improvements to the format, despite retaining the same set of judges. So expect another billion weeks of Tom Jones looking like he'd rather be at home having a nap, and standing on his chair whenever he feels he's not getting enough attention.

A big week for TV dramatists called Moffat continues with THE VILLAGE, in which Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice; Silk) abandons his usual peregrinations around the legal system for an epic trek across the entire 20th century. Or at least, that's the plan. Moffat has declared that The Village, which is entirely set within a rural community in the North of England, will unfold over 42 episodes. So that's seven series in as many years.

This ambitious concept automatically confers upon The Village the sort of “event TV” buzz one doesn't normally associate with Sunday night period dramas. It's frustrating, then, that episode one feels like little more than a flat, silly parody.

Leaving no trope unturned, it begins in 1914 by introducing a sadistic farmer (John Simm – genuinely this time – glowering for all his worth) who brutally torments his cowering wife (Maxine Peake) and children, one of whom tops and tails each episode as a centenarian reflecting over his life. There's also a sadistic schoolteacher who is, of course, directly countermanded by a kindly schoolteacher. Meanwhile, up at the Downton-esque big house, the conversation at dinner is preoccupied with the suffragette movement and dark rumblings about war with Germany. It practically writes itself.

Although it's clear that Moffat is trying to do something interesting here, he struggles to settle on the right tone. The unrelenting misery actually becomes funny after a while, a problem hardly alleviated by the persistently mournful brass and harmonium soundtrack. It feels at times like a deranged Hovis advert. However, the more idiosyncratic elements of The Village begin to click into place in part two, with part one feeling in retrospect like a formally self-conscious introduction. So it may be worth sticking with. Over seven years, if need be.
Finally, Gervais & Merchant's dismal sitcom LIFE'S TOO SHORT returns unbidden for a one-off finale. Drab and mean-spirited, it sidelines its nominal star, Warwick Davis, in favour of the supposedly hilarious spectacle of ha-ha-has-beens Keith Chegwin, Shaun Williamson and Les Dennis making fools of themselves. It's truly desperate stuff.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Doctor Who: 50th Anniversary Celebration

This article was originally published in Scotland On Sunday on 24th March 2013.


On 23rd November 1963, the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the BBC launched a new Saturday tea-time adventure serial ostensibly aimed at children.

Enigmatically titled Doctor Who, and swathed in an eerie electronic theme tune, episode one, An Unearthly Child, introduced a pair of inquisitive schoolteachers who, concerned by the strange behaviour of a brilliant young pupil, followed her home to solve the puzzle.

What they discovered, much to their understandable alarm, was that the girl lived in a junk yard. Not only that, she lived in a police box in a junk yard. Except it wasn't a police box at all, but rather a bigger-on-the-inside alien spacecraft capable of travelling through time and space. Its pilot, a crotchety old man known only as the Doctor, wasn't best pleased that his teenage granddaughter had unwittingly led a pair of meddling apes into his secret world. Fearing discovery by the rest of humankind, he saw no choice but to kidnap the teachers and exit the Earth post-haste.

The episode ends with the TARDIS – an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space – materialising on a barren, forbidding landscape, as the ominous shadow of a misshapen figure falls into view.

It's one of the most arresting introductions to a television drama in the entire history of the medium. Over the space of just 25 minutes, the craftspeople responsible for this curious new programme managed to establish a premise so original, strong and bewitching, it has endured practically unchanged for fifty years.

Without access to a time machine themselves, they could never have foreseen that in 2013 we can say, without much fear of contradiction, that the ever-regenerating Doctor is one of the greatest heroes in all of fiction. And yet here we are, with the world's longest-running science-fiction television series still reigning supreme.

So why has it endured for so long? Is its quirky character in some ways a reflection of our own national identity? Of our affinity with underdogs and loveable eccentrics?

One of the things that's interesting about Doctor Who as a cultural phenomenon over the whole fifty years is that its selling point has really been its Britishness,” says Dee Amy-Chinn, a senior lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of Stirling. “The Doctor has always in some way embodied a kind of quirkiness that's specifically British. When it started in the 1960s it was reflecting Britain's back-room boffins who'd won the war through Bletchley Park and building the bouncing bomb. Britain had never been able to chuck troops at the Second World War in the way that America had, but it could do something that was something just a little bit different and British.”

The Doctor is a classic hero. Decent, honest and brave, he despises intolerance in all its forms and stands up for the oppressed wherever they need saving. Sure, he's made mistakes. You don't traverse the farthest reaches of the universe for over a thousand years without cracking a few eggs and causing the odd rip in the fabric of time and space. But, as current show-runner Steven Moffat says, “He's such a moral man. He's a good, clever man, that's all he is. I think that's about as positive a message as you could possibly give.”

Conceptually, the show is unique in that the periodic replacement of its lead actor is actually ingrained within its fictional lore. When first Doctor William Hartnell became too ill to continue in the role, the production team came up with the inspired idea of having him physically regenerate his appearance into that of Patrick Troughton. It was a risky move which ultimately paid off, and an enormous factor in Doctor Who's longevity. The fundamental genius of its infinitely flexible format is another major component. What other TV show can hop across so many genres – horror, comedy, western, period drama, space opera etc. - with such ease every week? “

Today regarded as a cultural institution, it can attract guest stars of the calibre of Simon Callow, Penelope Wilton, Timothy Dalton and – both in the role of the Doctor's arch-nemesis The Master - Derek Jacobi and John Simm. Notable writers during the current era include Richard Curtis, celebrated fantasy author Neil Gaiman, and Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye.

But it wasn't always so feted. After reaching its peak of popularity in the '70s under the stewardship of the dashing Jon Pertwee and the incomparable Tom Baker – viewing figures frequently peaked between an impressive ten and twelve million – its popularity declined following the early 1980s tenure of Peter Davison. It became the butt of tired jokes about wobbly sets (they didn't actually wobble) and cheap monsters (they maybe had a point there). Even its fans were derided as sad spotty virgins laughably obsessed with a tatty kid's show.

And yet to be a fan in 2013 simply means you're an ordinary viewer who enjoys one of the most treasured jewels in the BBC's crown. No longer the niche concern that it was during the twilight years of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, it's now a shiny bauble of block-busting Saturday night entertainment: the space-hopping yin to Strictly's fox-trotting yang. It's finally won the widespread respect it always deserved.

Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword for long-time fans such as myself. While we're thrilled that it's now one of the UK's most popular TV shows – and it's finally gaining a significant audience in the US too – one can't help bristling at the fact that many of those now praising it were once only too eager to dismiss it out of hand. Vintage Doctor Who couldn't boast the Hollywood-standard special-effects of the revived series – no TV show could in those days – but it was basically always the same wonderfully imaginative and unique show that critics and awards panels adore so much today. So what took them so long?

One explanation is that in the last ten years, the sort of paraphernalia enjoyed by “geeks” – computer games, sci-fi, superheroes, comics etc. – has been assimilated into the mainstream. So there's no longer any stigma attached to watching Doctor Who. As Steven Moffat has often said, it's a show which “fetishises” intelligence. Thankfully, today's audience responds to that in droves.

It's remarkable to consider that if you were born in Britain before, say, 1985, you'll have been aware of Doctor Who for most or all of your life. “It's part of a series of shows today that appeal to both children and adults,” says Dee Amy-Chinn. “But I think Doctor Who does that better than other dramas in that slot, things like Merlin, because adults remember it from their own childhood.”

Even if you've never seen a single episode, you'll recognise the TARDIS and know what a Dalek is. That, it must be said, is one powerful cultural imprint for a television programme to leave behind.

Similarly remarkable is that no-one seriously expected Doctor Who to be in this position in 2013. After being quietly dropped in 1989, ostensibly due to dwindling ratings – although the BBC essentially killed it off by scheduling it opposite Coronation Street – it mainly continued to exist on home video, the convention circuit and in a teeming range of spin-off novels, some written by the very people associated with the series today.

A 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, while greeted favourably at home, failed to spark the hoped-for comeback when the US co-producers pulled out due to its poor performance over there. And that, it seemed, was that. Generations would grow up without the comforting presence of the Doctor by their side. He was yesterday's hero.

Except, as we know, he wasn't. You can't confine a Time Lord to the past, after all. As much of a pioneering hero in his way as the people responsible for creating Doctor Who back in 1963, lifelong super-fan Russell T. Davies – who also happened to be an award-winning TV writer of huge renown – revived the show in 2005 to spectacular effect . Casting “proper actor” Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor came as a surprise to some, but it also helped to convince sceptics that this revival meant business. Since then it's gone on to win five BAFTAs, six Hugo Awards, and fourteen National Television Awards. It's also been credited with reviving the phenomenon of communal family viewing.

As media consumption becomes more fragmented,” says Dee Amy-Chinn, “anything you can do to bring people together in the way that Doctor Who does, with something for everybody because it works on so many different levels, then that show is doing something quite rare and unusual. It's success says that audiences are interested in good storytelling, well drawn characters, high production values, and something that can be a shared family experience.”

Not everyone loves it, of course. It's been criticised for being emotionally manipulative, over-complicated, inappropriately sexualised and self-important. Some say it's changed too much. And they're right, as well as wrong. It has endured because it has constantly evolved over the decades, but without ever losing sight of its fundamental reason for being: to inspire and entertain. Like the Doctor himself, it's changed several times, yet always remained the same.

That simple yet inspired idea, cooked up fifty years ago in the corridors of the BBC, about an eccentric alien in a time machine has travelled farther than even the Doctor's wildest dreams. Why? Because at its heart, it's a triumphant celebration of inquisitive knowledge and heroic rebellion, of loyal endeavour and noble sacrifice, of liberal morality and the thwarting of evil. Plus it's got loads of crazy aliens and explosions in it.

Few cultural artefacts have managed to cover so much ground in a way that appeals to such an enormous, disparate audience. It's an incredible achievement. Happy birthday, Doctor. Long may you roam.

Sunday, 17 March 2013


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

Sunday, BBC3, 10pm

Sunday, BBC1, 8:30pm

Monday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

Q: What's the best way of surviving an onslaught of zombies? A: Refusing to engage with popular culture on any level.

More ubiquitous and malignant than even Sue Perkins, zombies are bloody everywhere at the moment. From The Walking Dead to Warm Bodies and practically every piece of modern horror fiction in between, the brain-guzzling undead are second only to vampires in an over-saturated market of zeitgeisty ghouls. So you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes in anticipation of BBC3's new zombie drama IN THE FLESH. But wait! This one comes with a novel twist! And it's a rather good one.

Taking place in the aftermath of a zombie uprising, it depicts a world in which, having being cured of their nasty affliction, reanimated corpses attempt to reintegrate into society via a government-backed rehabilitation scheme. The focus rests on Kieren Walker (his surname an in-joke for zombie fans), a wan young sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome who's tormented by harrowing flashbacks to his untreated past.

After being released from hospital – where patients partake in support groups and restore their human appearance with contact lenses and flesh-tone mousse – Kieren returns to the bosom of his family in a northern village riven with anti-undead feeling. Given that zombies almost always function as an allegory for something or other, here they're depicted as victims of knee-jerk prejudice, epitomised by Rev star Steve Evets' hate-spewing militia, the Human Volunteer Force (basically the EDL/BNP with guns). Naturally, they're as rabidly single-minded in their crusade as the zombies were in theirs.

If this sounds heavy-handed, writer Dominic Mitchell actually succeeds in exploring his premise with bleak wit and intelligence. A satirical social-realist take on familiar horror territory, it echoes the recently departed Being Human in its efforts to explore the hardships of unfairly vilified “monsters” living on the margins of society. Its ruminations on bigotry also recall HBO's vampire romp True Blood, although stylistically they couldn't be more different.

Bathed in mistily desaturated colours, its persuasive depiction of a world gone mad is anchored by a sensitive performance from Luke Newberry as Kieran, whose fake tan and forlorn demeanour suggest a human mannequin at a closing down sale. Ricky Tomlinson also turns up as a nosy neighbour, thus adding to the general Ken Loach via George A. Romero feel. Watching Jim Royle coping with a thwarted zombie apocalypse is pleasingly absurd and disturbing.

Despite being gilded in the moody emo trappings that every youth-skewed fantasy drama must come with these days, In The Flesh rarely feels earnest or corny. My only major qualm is that, by referring to his zombies as “rotters” throughout, Mitchell makes his characters sound like sub-par Terry-Thomas impersonators whenever they're mentioned. Mind you, they are a bunch of cads, that zombie shower.

Why bother remaking a Hitchcock classic? It's not as if you'll feasibly improve upon his work. Although its based on an obscure novel, THE LADY VANISHES is to all intents and purposes a Hitch original. And yet the BBC's latest adaptation surgically removes everything that was good about his 1938 film – mainly the droll humour, amusing characters and sparkling sense of playfulness – and turns it into the sort of dull, bland, turgid thriller he would never have dallied with in his prime. It's like painting over the Mona Lisa with a pencil sketch of Emma Bunton.

As superfluous as Hammer's failed 1978 remake, it takes the bare bones of this familiar story – spoiled young socialite searches for a missing spinster on a train full of people who appear to be conspiring against her – and locks them into a dreary parable about British xenophobia and entitlement. Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes – recently seen to greater effect as the psychotic Julian in Dancing On The Edge – make for a pair of colourless, pretty leads, while the surrounding glut of character actors deliver the sort of “Who's just blown off in my pantry?” performances familiar from countless make-weight Agatha Christie adaptations.

Better by far is THE CHALLENGER, a solid co-production between BBC Scotland, the Science Channel and the Open University in which the magnificent William Hurt stars as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Tracing his determined quest to uncover the truth behind the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, it's a classic David versus Goliath tale in which our irreverent, dishevelled hero takes on the stonewalling mendacity of the authorities who desperately tried to evade responsibility for this tragedy.

A thorn in the side of the Presidential Commission tasked with investigating its causes, Feynman is a tenaciously independent spirit who refuses to accept the pussyfooting excuses offered in NASA's defence. And thanks to his tireless studies, he eventually helped to make the space programme safer.

It would be very easy for a story of this nature to descend into a quagmire of Hollywood cheese. And yet despite a couple of hokey eureka moments, The Challenger tackles its fascinating subject matter with a satisfying degree of control and charm. And Hurt's wry, understated, entirely believable performance is an absolute delight. As far as studies of ethical and political dilemmas in which brilliant boffins investigate engineering data are concerned, it's a lot more compelling than most.

KEVIN ELDON interview

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 7th March 2013.

Kevin Eldon's CV is so festooned with riches, it borders on the ridiculous. His instinctively funny bones have blessed practically every outstanding British comedy of the last 20 years, including I'm Alan Partridge, Brass Eye, Blue Jam/Jam, Big Train, Spaced, Fist of Fun, Look Around You, Nighty Night and Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle.

And yet despite his reputation as one of the most versatile comic actors in the business – and the only person ever to nail a stunningly accurate impersonation of Beatles producer George Martin - only in the last couple of years has he decided to tip his malleable fizzog into the solo limelight. The putsch began with his critically acclaimed, sold-out live show, Kevin Eldon is Titting About, followed by his début TV starring vehicle, the delightfully silly sketch extravaganza It's Kevin. So what took him so long?

I did the [live] show in 2010 as a bit of a personal challenge,” he explains, “just to see if I could. It was to stop me being so lazy for a whole year. And because it was actually quite scary, I thought it might therefore be worthwhile trying to get it right. I was very nervous about doing it, and very relieved when it generally went down okay.”

Despite having his name in the title, he's keen to stress that his show is a collaborative effort. Indeed, it's rather heartening that, having given invaluable support to so many great writer/performers over the years, he was able to call upon many of them to support him for a change. With a cast including such luminaries as Julia Davis, Simon Day, David Cann and Simon Munnery, not to mention core script assistance from Father Ted/Big Train co-creator Arthur Mathews, It's Kevin is delirious catnip for comedy nerds.

It's just a marvellously fortunate coincidence that some of my friends happen to be really good comedy actors,” he smiles. “But I never took it for granted that they would say yes. They're certainly not doing it for the dosh.”

A naturally self-effacing sort, Eldon is happy to let his co-stars dominate certain sketches. “I didn't want everyone to be staring at my stupid mug for half an hour non-stop every week. It's about giving the audience some time off. Tomato coriander soup is very nice, but you wouldn't want three courses of it. Not that I'm saying I'm a soup.”

Like most comedy of a surreal, offbeat nature, It's Kevin is unlikely to become a huge mainstream hit. But does he worry that a starring vehicle on BBC2 will still manage to compromise his relative anonymity? “I honestly don't know if it'll slip under the radar or whether it'll do brilliantly,” he says. “I think it'll probably do okay. I don't think it's going to be a complete life-changer. The recognition thing is a double-edged sword - I have a number of friends who are instantly recognisable and quite famous, which can be very nice. But from what I've seen it can also be very intrusive and wearing.”

Although born in Chatham, Kent, Eldon spent much of his childhood in Dunfermline, where his father worked in nearby Rosyth Dockyard. Following three years at drama school in England, he quietly emerged on the early 1990s stand-up circuit, mostly in the guise of his pompous, deluded poet character Paul Hamilton (a Hamilton book is in the pipeline, which Eldon regards as another late-flowering personal challenge). It was there that he became friendly with comedy duo Lee & Herring, who harnessed his talents as a prominent supporting player in their cult radio and TV vehicle Fist Of Fun. And from there he's never looked back, having caught the eye of every major British comedy player from Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, to Simon Pegg and Graham Linehan.

He concedes that his impressive body of work is largely thanks to his careful selectiveness. “I do think that good comedy is hard to get right, and that's why it's fairly rare, in my opinion. So I've got to really like it to be in it. I've made a few mistakes along the way, but I think mostly I've done a pretty good call on it. If it doesn't get me at script stage, then I usually knock it back. Or if it isn't my style, because there's certain stuff that is funny but just isn't really me. So I am quite selective. I think I'm a bit of a snob actually.”

Welcome to the club. So does it upset him when he sees the art of comedy being mistreated?

I get furious about it,” he says, without hesitation. “I get very angry about lazy comedy. But when it comes down to it, it's absolutely a matter of taste. It's very easy to judge, but it's a subjective thing. Stuff that I'd label as lazy gives brilliant, genuine pleasure to lots of people, and you can't knock that. If people are enjoying it, then fair enough, I'll just sit and brood in a corner. But I've got be careful, as there's no mileage in being negative. And yet weirdly enough, there's a lot that I feel extremely negative about! But brilliant stuff is being made all the time, which makes me a happy man. As long as there's stuff like Charlie Brooker or Rev or The IT Crowd, then everything's fine.”

It's hardly surprising that his high standards and passion for comedy bleeds into his creative process. “I'm a perfectionist to the point of slight obsession,” he admits. “It's almost bordering on OCD. So my poor girlfriend, if I'm getting ready for one particularly intricate bit, she will hear it said around the house literally hundreds of times. Especially if it's word-based and fast delivery, you first of all have to learn the muscle memory, and then you have to get the comedy out of it. And you can't really relax until your mouth and brain know it off by heart. Otherwise I feel uneasy. But that doesn't always work in a positive way. By over-rehearsing you can sometimes wring the life out of it.”

All artists are neurotic to a degree, and while the avuncular Eldon hardly embodies the bogus “sad clown” cliché, he's clearly aware of his faults. “I'm rarely completely happy with what I've done,” he says. “But I've tried to change that because someone formed the theory that that's actually a form of massive egotism, that you have this need to be absolutely perfect. But why should you be perfect? Not many of us are perfect. So I've tried to transform that into just doing the very best I can.”

IT'S KEVIN begins on Sunday 17th March on BBC2 at 10:30pm.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

TV PREVIEW: Mayday/Broadchurch/Bluestone 42

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 2nd March 2013.

Sunday to Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Monday, STV, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC3, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Typical. You wait ages for a British drama blatantly influenced by series one of The Killing, and two come along at once. In a shattering week for fictional close-knit communities, independent production company Kudos stands back and watches as BBC1 and ITV pitch their thematically identical Whoddunnits up against each other. Who will win? YOU decide.

Putting aside the curious question of why Kudos produced two such similar dramas simultaneously, we first come to MAYDAY. Stripped throughout the week for maximum “event TV” impact, it's a broiling cauldron of grief and paranoia in which a picturesque English village fails to adequately keep it together following the abduction of its teenage May Queen (She's abducted on May Day. Hence the distress signal “Mayday”. Clever, no?).

Given the pagan trappings, it's inevitably doused in flecks of The Wicker Man. Written by the team responsible for Whitechapel, it also boasts a slightly heightened, skewed atmosphere, milking the underlying dread of the balmy British sunshine for all it's worth.

Like The League of Gentleman without the (intentional) laughs, it delves forensically into a rural community full of dysfunctional locals, including an unhappily married middle-aged couple, a teenage “weirdo” in love with the missing May Queen's emo sister, a cruel, smarmy git played by – who else? - Aidan Gillen (I swear he gets these parts based on his smirk alone), and a man with mental health issues who enjoys climbing trees.

Within hours of the girl's disappearance, the latter's blowhard brother inevitably gathers a vigilante posse – consisting of Phil Mitchell and Hairy Biker lookalikes - and it's not long before escalating torrents of suspicion are aroused behind twitching curtains and the surrounding woods. Why are the menfolk behaving so strangely? What's their connection to the missing girl? Why does the wine-guzzling misanthrope have a hugely symbolic model village in his attic? What's going on?!

Despite over-egged moments of contrived weirdness – dismembered doll parts and leering slow-motion feature heavily – Mayday is a sharply-written, atmospheric pot-boiler bolstered by high-calibre performers such as Sophie Okonedo, Peter Firth and, especially, Lesley Manville.

Despite its flaws, Mayday outdoes its close cousin, BROADCHURCH, in which David Tennant's taciturn beard and Olivia Colman's soggy orbs investigate the murder of a child in a sleepy Dorset community riven with suspicion.

Written by no-one's favourite Doctor Who scribe Chris Chibnall, it makes good use of its coastal location, with the camera sailing ostentatiously over precipitous cliffs, and vast blue skies gazing down at the despair below. Like The Killing, it focuses – albeit rather thinly – on a grieving family and the emotional involvement of the investigating officers. It also tries to say something meaningful about the importance of faith and trust in a Godless universe. If anyone can carry that off, it's Chris Chibnall.

New in town, Tennant's troubled character is strictly by the book, whereas Colman's local police officer is warm and empathetic to a fault. Why, it's almost as if they're a deliberate study in contrasts. The friendly locals, meanwhile, aren't as they seem, which is par for the course in dramas of this nature.

Stretched over eight episodes, Broadchurch does tend to dawdle at times, whereas Mayday assaults the same subject matter with more pace and precision. And with a cast which includes the likes of Pauline Quirke, Vicky McClure, Andrew Buchan, Arthur Darvill and David Bradley, it sometimes feels like a star-studded tourist video for its Dorset setting (tragic murder element notwithstanding, obviously).

Is the war in Afghanistan a suitable topic for comedy? Well, of course. Everything is a suitable topic for comedy, depending on how its handled. The problem with BLUESTONE 42 – a new sitcom about a British bomb disposal unit based in Helmand Provence – isn't that it's offensive, it's that in going out of its way to avoid causing offence it ends up as just another bland, obvious, middling sitcom. That is, unless you're deeply offended by the very idea of an apolitical comedy about an illegal war.

As if eager to get the troubling issue of death out of the way as quickly as possible, it kills off a character within the first five minutes. But he's very deliberately portrayed as a roaring idiot who the rest of the team don't really know or like, thus fudging the issue of whether we're supposed to acknowledge the horrors of war or not. Otherwise, Bluestone 42 is a determinedly light affair focusing on the team's efforts to amuse themselves while stationed at camp.

The amiable Gary: Tank Commander has been here before, of course, as has the estimable M*A*S*H. Suffice to say, Bluestone 42 isn't M*A*S*H. The lead character is a hapless, cocky Prince William/Ben Fogle clone who thinks nothing of exploiting his rank and supposed hero status to clumsily woo the attractive new female padre. A sweary Scotsman and a tough, straight-talking woman are also involved. It all adds up to very little.

But given that it fails to portray “Our Boys” as selfless saints, it will doubtless upset Daily Mail types across the land. So that's something, at least.