Monday, 29 April 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27th April 2013.

Monday, STV, 9pm

Monday, STV, 9:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

No-one would've believed, in the early years of the 21st century, that human credulity would be stretched to breaking point by the arrival of a sitcom power-hour on primetime ITV. But it's true, it's here. It's happening. In a turn of events so shocking and bizarre it's actually quite frightening, the notoriously laughter-shy broadcaster – whose pantheon of classic sitcoms amounts to piddling single digits – has decided to take comedy seriously again.

Given the BBC's total domination of the field, it's long felt as though ITV were simply unwilling to compete, preferring instead to concentrate on glum thrillers, cloying dramas, and Ant & Dec's pension plan. But the huge mainstream success of BBC sitcoms such as Miranda, Outnumbered and Mrs Brown's Boys has obviously spurred them into belated action.

What's even more remarkable – staggering, even – about this dedicated comedy offensive is that one of their new efforts, VICIOUS, is actually very funny. You may wish to take a moment to process that information.

A studio-bound, single-set, multi-camera sitcom, it's a gratifyingly old-school farce in which thespian deities Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi have a char-grilled whale of a time as an incessantly bickering homosexual couple. Sealed within their sepulchral Covent Garden abode – they shriek like vampires when the curtains are accidentally opened – pompous actor Freddie (McKellen) and retired bar manager Stuart (Jacobi) tussle waspishly over decades of perceived slights, while never missing an opportunity to mock each other's supposed decrepitude.

Now, these are hardly original comic creations – the vituperative, hammy old queen has long been a staple of popular culture - and there is nothing especially notable about the premise. But that simply doesn't matter when the execution is as strong as this.

Resembling a startled, wounded guinea pig, Jacobi squeals and frets amidst a knowing flurry of camp mannerisms, while McKellen booms fresh insults in that oak-lined voice of his. He also pulls some of the funniest “Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!” expressions this side of imperial phase Frankie Howerd. It's an impeccable dual assault of seasoned comic timing.

Enjoyment is magnified by the addition of Frances de la Tour as their dotty, man-hungry pal. Famously, she starred in Rising Damp, one of ITV's few great sitcoms, and it's tempting to view her presence here as a deliberate nod to the past. Not that her involvement is merely symbolic – she's a peerless comic actress – but you could argue that she's essentially playing lonely Miss Jones thirty years on. Even the dingy brown set recalls her most celebrated role.

Broad and boisterous in the best possible sense (i.e. it's nothing like that aforementioned avalanche of horror, Mrs Brown's Boys), Vicious is jam-packed with gags, hitting the ground running with an impressive opening episode which establishes set-up, character and backstory with consummate ease.

A co-write between acclaimed playwright Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, a former executive producer on Family Guy and Will & Grace, it revels in its camp bluster with such benign relish, I doubt it'll get into too much trouble for reinforcing stereotypes. It's obvious that Freddie and Stuart are blissfully happy in their enmity, and it's that undercurrent of warmth – the spoonful of sugar beneath the barrel-load of bile – that make these characters so engaging.

I'm no soothsayer – I've never said “sooth” in my life - but I predict that Vicious will be huge. A hit sitcom! On ITV! Nurse, the smelling salts...

The madness continues with THE JOB LOT, which, while nowhere near as sharp as Vicious, is a perfectly amiable and amusing sitcom set in a drab job centre (is there such a thing as a bright, welcoming job centre?).

Despite being a single-camera comedy with no laugh-track, it's essentially a traditional sitcom populated by dysfunctional characters and daffy situations. It is, however, blatantly influenced by The Office, not because it's a workplace comedy – Gervais and Merchant didn't invent that genre – but because of the exceedingly Tim-like lead played by Russell Tovey. A bright, likeable everyman trapped in a job he detests – his feelings for an attractive female colleague stop him from leaving - the similarity is compounded by the fact that Tovey appears to have partially based his acting style on Martin Freeman.

While Tim-bot 2000 is mildly distracting, he doesn't detract overall from a show which, given the danger inherent in its recession-fuelled premise, mercifully refrains from sneering at the unemployed. Granted, one of the regular job-seekers is portrayed as a harmless oddball, but it's significant that the villain of the piece is a rude, sadistic and actively obstructive job centre employee played by the excellent Jo Enright.

This character has an obvious antecedent in the monstrous Pauline from The League of Gentleman. She also shares a few genes with Little Britain's “Computer says 'No'” grotesque. And yet despite these visible origins, Enright imbues her with a distinctive, deadpan venom.

What this all adds up to is a derivative yet serviceable sitcom with a smattering of potential. But it undoubtedly succeeds in being an ITV sitcom that's Not Appalling. I still can't quite believe it and Vicious exist at all.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

TV PREVIEW: Endeavour/The Ice Cream Girls/Doctor Who

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 13th April 2013.

Sunday, STV, 8pm

Friday, STV, 9pm

Today, BBC1, 6:15pm

Paul Whitelaw

Try as I might, I've never quite managed to adjust to the meandering tempo of ITV detective dramas. The peerless Cracker aside, they've never captured my interest. Even the much-loved Inspector Morse, which continues in perpetuity via afternoon repeats, failed to grab me. An indisputably classy production, it's something I always admired from afar, but never fell in love with as so many others did. Call me a blundering philistine – you wouldn't be the first – but I just can't engage with melancholy detectives solving crimes slowly.

So it's hardly surprising that I was underwhelmed by ENDEAVOUR, the 1960s-set prequel in which the precocious Constable Morse first makes his mark on the death-caked streets of Oxford. Again, there are aspects of it I admire, from Shaun Evans' subtle, well-observed evocation of John Thaw's distinctive speech patterns, to the understated chemistry he shares with the great Roger Allam as his pipe-smoking boss. Indeed, any drama which unites Allam and that other fine character actor, Anton Lesser, must have something going for it.

But the interminably convoluted storyline, involving the mysterious death of a young woman and the murder of a doctor in a public lavatory, is, while mildly diverting, hardly the stuff of great drama.

Recently promoted, with his deductive genius and antisocial quirks already in bloom, Morse uses the case to prove his abilities to Lesser's sceptical commanding officer. I actually find this aspect of Endeavour, the character-driven plight of an alienated young man, more interesting than the cases themselves. There's nothing more frustrating for a critic than reacting to something with indifference, but Endeavour doesn't excite me in either direction.

Following a successful pilot last year, this inaugural series will almost certainly do well. It's not for me, but it's there if you want it.

What is it with ITV and murder mysteries? They're like the broadcasting equivalent of the serial killer-obsessed David from Psychoville, forever offering up stabbed and strangled corpses for our morbid delectation. They're at it again with THE ICE CREAM GIRLS, a drab thriller which, a la Broadchurch, takes place in yet another picturesque coastal community. But whereas Broadchurch compels with its addictive central mystery, The Ice Cream Girls is just another middling ITV potboiler.

A po-faced saga of guilt and retribution (coming soon to ITV: Lynda La Plante's Guilt & Retribution), it begins with Serena, a successful middle-class woman, moving her family back into the house she grew up in, so as to care for her sick mother. Haunted by a terrible incident from her past – “It was seventeen years ago!” bleats her sister, helpfully – she's terrified of the police, as well as the prospect of her husband and daughter discovering her secret. “I think this move might be a good thing for me!” beams the former, betraying a tragic ignorance of ironic foreshadowing.

Meanwhile, another woman, Poppy, is released from prison – after seventeen years – and returns to the same town. Her life in tatters, she's determined to track down Serena. So what's their connection? Told via conveniently prominent newspaper cuttings and intermittent flashbacks to the 1990s, the story introduces a slimy schoolteacher played by Scots actor Martin Compston, and his inappropriate relationship with the doe-eyed young Serena. Suffice to say, things don't go well.

The pedestrian nature of The Ice Cream Girls is enlivened somewhat by an arrestingly unsettling performance from Compston, and Jodhi May playing the vulnerable Poppy as the physical manifestation of a repressed scream. Their combined screen presence holds the attention, even while the story trundles along familiar lines.

Last glimpsed in 1974 adventure The Monsters of Peladon, classic DOCTOR WHO baddie The Ice Warriors make an effective comeback in Mark Gatiss' Cold War. Guest-starring a curiously underused David Warner as – wait for it – an Ultravox-obsessed scientist (the episode is set in 1983), it finds the Doctor and Clara landing inside a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine harbouring something potentially far more dangerous in its belly.

Making good use of its claustrophobic setting, it's an Alien-esque thriller which also recalls the base-under-siege yarns of the Patrick Troughton era. Of course, Alien was itself influenced by the classic 1950s sci-fi film The Thing From Another World, which in turn inspired classic-era Doctor Who stories such as The Seeds of Doom. Gatiss, who is famously a Doctor Who uber-fan and horror aficionado, is clearly having fun with this never-ending feedback loop in an entertaining – and somewhat surprising – addition to the canon.

Talented chap though he is, the former League of Gentleman star and Sherlock co-creator is hardly one of the most inspired authors of 21st century Doctor Who. But Cold War is undoubtedly his strongest effort since The Unquiet Dead back in 2005. And the fact that the imposing appearance of the Ice Warriors has barely been altered since its first appearance in 1967 (their leader played by Bernard Bresslaw, fact-fans) is testament to one of the most distinctive creature designs in Doctor Who's history.