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.

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