Taking my cue from a remark made by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan in the final episode of the excellent PBS documentary The United States Of Television (re-framed and shown here with added Yentob on BBC2), this week’s Telly Addict sets out to prove that the best TV drama is better than Hollywood movies, with specific reference to Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, both at episode seven in their respective seasons on Sky Atlantic at time of writing; also, a tiny leap from Oliver Stone’s Untold History of America, also on Sky Atlantic, to The 80s: The Decade That Made Us on National Geographic (first time on Telly Addict for the channel – ripple of welcoming applause); plus, The Fall, on BBC2, an excellent new police drama from BBC Northern Ireland that punches it weight with the American occupiers; and a strange signal from Hannibal on Sky Living. A packed programme tonight, as the Ronnies used to say. And better than The Great Gatsby, for sure.
On this week’s Telly Addict, we bid farewell, or au revoir, to three dramas that came to an end last week. The Village on BBC1, whose first chapter took us from 1914 to 1920, took a bow via a lovely closing shot of the entire village gathered around the new war memorial; Endeavour on ITV, whose fourth mystery was called Home, scattered lots of delicious clues to future events which we have already seen, on Morse, and left Detective Constable Endeavour himself with the threat of a limp “in middle age”; and Boss, on More4, whose first season operated at such a high pitch of corruption and venality, it was a surprise to see the delicate visual flourish that I have chosen as my clip to illustrate what has been a terrific run. There’s also a peek through our fingers at The Apprentice on BBC1, whose launch episode drew its lowest audience since 2007, and something almost as horrible, NBC’s Hannibal, on Sky Living. I also find time to commend the accessible documentary Bankers on BBC2, which lines up plutocrats in suits and supplies fruit to throw at them.
So, we’ve reached 100 and nobody’s taken us off the air yet. This is the centennial of Telly Addict. I wrote and read out the first one in May 2011, and have done so pretty much every week (except occasional public holidays and the week I had off when the insanely ambitious Stuart Heritage siezed his opportunity) ever since, for 100 weeks in total, not including the Bake Off special I did at Christmas. That’s a lot of first episodes of a lot of TV programmes that I never watched again, assessed in a pithy and I hope lenient manner while sat at a diagonal from the camera, straining at the Autocue, and taking care to rotate my shirts so that the same one doesn’t appear more often than once every six weeks. (Don’t go back and check, nerds, as I’m more vigilant on this score now than I started out being, and anyway, a lot of those black shirts are different black shirts.)
The big celebration is just a normal Telly Addict, except with a rare clip from one of the first shows I reviewed, which I feel sure you’ve all forgotten, Exile on BBC1. From the modern day: the final moments of Broadchurch on ITV; The Politician’s Husband on BBC1; The Wright Way on BBC2; Playhouse Presents: Snodgrass on Sky Arts; Masterchef on BBC1; and a couple of quick nods to Mad Men, and Da Vinci’s Demons.
What interesting connections we can make on this week’s telly on Telly Addict. Brushing Up On … British Tunnels with Danny Baker on BBC4 is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States on Sky Atlantic (from Showtime in the US) is essentially a middle-aged man reading out words he has written between some archive clips; in Panorama: North Korea Undercover, easily the most talked about TV show of last week, reporter John Sweeney attempts, as does Stone, to get under the skin of a country whose propaganda is all-powerful (and in both cases, Stone and Sweeney risk excommunication from the nation which they criticise); 30 Rock‘s Season 6 finale, on Comedy Central, includes jokes – aired in May 2012 on NBC – about the totalitarian quirks of the North Korean regime; Modern Family, an imported US comedy not given to inter-textual cross-media jokes that are the stock-in-trade of 30 Rock, tries one on for size with a coda based on The Godfather on Sky1; and I also review new ITV three-parter The Ice Cream Girls, which has no link whatsoever with the other shows. Ah well. You can’t join everything up.
Finally, a review of the start of Season Three of Game Of Thrones, although this week’s Telly Addict will, of course, start looking old and off the ball again by Wednesday, when Mad Men returns to Sky Atlantic for Season Five. You’ll have to wait until next Tuesday morning for a pithy summation of that. I do recognise that not everybody had Sky Atlantic, whether for fiscal or ideological reasons, and I do my best to sidestep spoilers in my reviews of these imported classics that may not arrive on DVD for a year (and the same with the clips I choose). But it’s a cold, hard truth that we must all learn to work with: some of the best telly in the world is on Murdochvision. Also this week, on telly-for-everybody, The Great British Sewing Bee on BBC1; The Village on BBC1; and The Intern on C4. Hooray.
This week’s Telly Addict has been brought to you by Into The Woods, a bracing new book about screenwriting, with particular emphasis on the craft of storytelling for TV, by my former boss John Yorke, who produced Collins & Maconie’s first ever radio programme in 1993, Fantastic Voyage, and then became my executive producer on EastEnders some years later, and then Head of Drama at the BBC (he’s now hopped it to the private sector). Anyway, it’s published in April, I’ve been devouring a preview copy, and it currently infects the way I view TV. Henceforth, take copious notes as you view my analytical reviews of the monomythic Masterchef on BBC1; In The Flesh on BBC3; Prisoners’ Wives on BBC1; and It’s Kevin on BBC2. There is no masterplan here, they just happen to be all BBC shows. (I say there’s no masterplan, but as John’s book proves, all stories subconsciously adopt the same structure, so even Telly Addict has a quest, a midpoint, an inciting incident, a protagonist and antagonists, a prize, a resolution and a symmetry between beginning and end. Check it out.
This time last Monday, ITV premiered a major new drama, Broadchurch, the first of an eight-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community revolving around the death of a child. What I’m supposed to say now is that, on the same night, at the same time, in the same slot, ITV’s arch ratings rival BBC1 broadcast what was the second episode of a five-part whodunit set in a small, close-knit English community, Mayday (shot I believe in Dorking, but never specified as Surrey). Actually, it’s impossible not to the say all of that, because it is factually correct. If I add that both major new dramas were produced by Kudos, the production powerhouse whose reputation was built on Spooks, Hustle and Life On Mars (and with whom I have worked in my capacity as Q&A host and, once, as TV presenter), again you won’t need to hold the front page. These facts are now self-evident, and old news.
However, I’ve worked up some kind of unifying overview now. I watched Mayday through to its bitter end – it ran over five consecutive nights, which is always a risky strategy, as to exploit boxset-binge orthodoxy you’d better have the goods to back it up – and saw the new, award-winning British film Broken over the weekend, which isn’t about a child murder, but hinges on our grim fascination with children in peril.
Now, the murder mystery dates back to the 19th century in literary terms, with a boom in the whodunit in the first half of the 20th, and has been a fallback option in film since the silents. There is nothing new in a TV serial being predicated on a crime being solved. Indeed, take away the crime and police drama from contemporary and you’re left with a pretty patchy looking set of listings for the terrestrial channels, and a blank screen with a white dot in the middle on Alibi and ITV3.
The publicity for Broadchurch has been very effective, from hoarding to cinema advertising (a brave excursion into the dark for any TV show), making the most of its largely original setting, Dorset’s magnificent Jurassic Coast – which I know well from visits to Billy Bragg’s house and walks along the fossil-filled beach with his old dog, Buster. The limestone cliffs make a thrilling backdrop for David Tenant, Olivia Colman and the rest of the fine cast, plus some police tape. (We are also initially led to believe that the victim, 11-year-old Danny, fell to his death from the cliff.) Chris Chibnall, the writer, who was instrumental in Law & Order UK and wrote the superb single drama United, has lived in Bridport for ten years, which has acted as a template for Broadchurch itself (although filmed in Avon, not Dorset).
With Danny, and the pivotal disappearance of 14-year-old “May Queen” Hattie in Mayday, this was TV drama risking that all-too-common hazard: the news overtaking fiction. Had a boy or girl gone missing in similar circumstances, or been found murdered, it’s feasible that both “major dramas” would have been pulled from the primetime schedules for reasons of sensitivity, or over-sensitivity, arguably. (Ghoulishly, a 16-year-old girl, Christina Edkins, was stabbed on a bus in Birmingham, but this happened on the Thursday morning, and was clearly adjudged to be different enough from the more ethereal events in Mayday, where pagan ritual was certainly implied in the build-up to the reveal of the murderer.)
I guess that “every parent’s worst nightmare” is frequently used as a hook for popular drama because of the fact that children are all too often victims of violence or abuse or abduction. It seems to me – and I’m not an expert – that the “classic” literary whodunits generally involve the murder of an adult, and not a child. But there’s nothing more dramatic than an “innocent” in danger. Why else would the disappearance of Madeleine McCann capture the world’s imagination so? Why else would we all have heard of a place called Soham? Or named a law after Sarah? We live in a world where the spectre of school shootings in America are matched here only by an all-engulfing paranoia about marauding paedophiles, grounded or otherwise.
Broken, directed by Rufus Norris and written by Mark O’Rowe (Boy A, Perrier’s Bounty), hints at this, as a grown man with unspecified mental problems is – in the opening scene, and in the trailer, to be fair – attacked by a next-door neighbour while cleaning his car in the suburban London cul-de-sac the main characters share. This, to borrow a phrase from screenwriting manuals, is “the inciting incident” and it happens almost before anything else has been established, other than a young girl lives on the same street at the childlike man.
I won’t divulge any specifics, as Broken has only just been released, and it’s better if you don’t have too much foreknowledge. But the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl, Skunk, one seemingly much less “adult” than Hattie the May Queen in Mayday (who is played by a 20-year-old actress, and at no stage convinces as a 14-year-old – she plays her surviving twin sister, too). Skunk is played by the actually-14-year-old Eloise Laurence, a real find, and she conveys as much as anything else a sense of sensitive resilience, which is handy, as the street she lives on seethes with resentment and violence. Where Mayday revolves around a creepy forest (the screenwriting manual, or meta-manual, I am currently reading is called Into The Woods, after the Joseph Campbell mythic concept of the dramatic “journey”), where all manner of unsavoury events either occur, or are rumoured to occur – voyeurism, dogging, assault, murder – Skunk’s refuge is a vacant hulk of a caravan in the back of a breaker’s yard. No picturesque woodland or limestone cliffs for her, although this publicity shot suggests otherwise.
Because Mayday has finished, I will mention some of the specifics of its plot, so if you haven’t seen it, please look away now. Hattie disappears, and her body is not found until over halfway through – there’s a red-herring item of clothing in a lake, but that’s all it is – so the absence of a body absolves the writers of having to deal with the usual, formulaic procedural detail, and one assumes this was a deliberate de-cluttering of the form. It’s clever, as the mystery of abduction is in many ways more potent than the mystery of who murdered her. There’s also a red-herring “sighting” of her, alive, on the news, which again is a simple sleight of hand, and a bit of a swiz. There are plenty of false leads and loose threads in Mayday, which is a shame, as five nights of your life is a big commitment, as I’ve stated. Also, without a detective – except for Sophie Okonedo’s retired policewoman, who doesn’t really count – there’s no plodding investigator to tie up the leads.
Broadchurch, of which we’ve only seen one episode, looks far more conventional, and Chris Chibnall told me it was “aggressively plotted” to every ad-break, and it already shows. I’m guessing Mayday was commissioned as a five-night feast, as one-a-week series don’t usually get commissioned in fives, and it’s an unforgiving brief, as there’s no time for audiences to forget anything, hence higher expectation about continuity and pay-off. It had some really nice writing in it, not least the opening scene in which Lesley Manville’s developer’s wife found out that her husband, Peter Firth, wasn’t in fact walking their fat dog for two hours each night after the dog had been subjected to tests at the vet’s. What an original and clever way of her suspicions that he was “up to something” to be aroused.
Because we know that Danny in Broadchurch was out at night, on his skateboard, when he should have been tucked up in bed – or, at least, the police currently think he was – we don’t yet know what to think about his death. Forensics already shows that he didn’t fall at the point where he looked to have fallen from. So murder is suspected. (Unlike Madeleine, he wasn’t abducted from his bedroom window; we always think of Madeleine now.) In the unnamed village in Mayday, no reporters descend, and the police take a seemingly peripheral role, while the villagers search the woods and threaten lynch-mob justice. In Broadchurch, it’s already all about the media, local and national, and their muddying of the waters of truth.
We fear our children going into the woods, or out onto the cliffs, or, in the case or Broken, into derelict caravans in breaker’s yards. We are told we must always know where they are, but we don’t. Do we mollycoddle our kids and wrap them in cotton wool, and thus leave them unprepared for the big, bad world they will inevitably have to enter? (The symbolic “woods” we must all at some point have to enter, like Campbell’s mythic protagonist.) There are three sisters in Broken who are worldy and streetwise, and yet disruptive and abusive, and old before their time. They bully and they swear and they shout across the cul-de-sac. And yet, through the cleverness of the plot (which, by the way, is utterly depressing in its depiction of ordinary folk), we feel sympathy for them, and their violent dad (Rory Kinnear), as they have lost their mum.
The scene in episode one of Broadchurch where Andrew Buchan, the father, is called upon to identify the body of his son, Danny, is harrowing, and beautifully acted, and will haunt any parent watching. (“He’s only little,” he observes.) I’m not even a parent and I can see the hurt, so acutely is it written and played. We who are not parents are children, so it’s universal stuff.
Sometimes, I wonder if British drama, whether urban, suburban or rural, isn’t just a little bit depressing? Death is so often the driver of the narrative. Violence so often the inciting incident. If a TV series reliant on corpses turning up on a weekly basis, whether it’s the pitch-black Silent Witness, or the more bucolic Lewis, they only use a dead child as a real trump card. It’s obvious why. A dead adult is a tragedy, but at least they’ve lived some of their life. A child? So much life left to live. (How shocking was the beginning of Utopia when an innocent child in a comics shop was gassed to death by hitmen? A trump card played so early! It also had a school shooting that was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen on television for years – and stunning for all of that.)
The epic tragedy of Broadchurch. The concentrated, mystically informed tease of Mayday. The painfully raw reality of Broken. A small town, a close-knit community, a cul-de-sac, all “wrapped up in secrets” and bound in police tape. Don’t go into the woods. Don’t go into an alley. Don’t go near that cliff. Don’t go into that comics shop.
Don’t have nightmares.
I apologise for the late running of the plug for this week’s Telly Addict. I’ve been busy. At any rate, it’s been up all day, and within it, you will see my nice new haircut, a shirt I haven’t worn very often and some considered, erudite, witty reviews of – plus some controversially throwaway remarks about – the adorable 1973 John Betjeman documentary Metro-land, shown again last week on BBC4; the similarly locomotive Great British Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo on BBC2; the perhaps unfairly maligned Mr Selfridge on ITV1; the quite horrible World Without End on C4; and the return of Silent Witness to BBC1 for its 16th series! I’ve already found myself in a titanic struggle with a persistent man over at the Guardian website, should you have more time on your hands than sense. You’re more than welcome to discuss these shows here, in a friendlier environment. I always reply.
We’re back, for Year 3 of Telly Addict, and, after an unprecedented two-week break, during which I allowed all the germs of the season to infect me while my immune system was off guard, my voice is on the way out. Thankfully, we managed to squeeze the last few drops out of my larynx before silence set in, and thus, here is an unplanned BBC-only review, with Borgen‘s welcome return to BBC4; the arrival of Ripper Street to BBC1; a very good documentary series, Queen Victoria’s Children, on BBC2; and finally, the latest Attenborough epic, Africa, on BBC1. I accuse Sir David of “husky hyperbole”, but wrote that, during the day, when I had no idea how husky my own voice would turn out to be. I hope you can hear the words I am saying, and that you feel my pain. Normal service will be resumed next week. And a haircut, I think.
(My full review of Seasons Three and Four of Breaking Bad will follow separately.)
Well, I’ve certainly put the hours in this year in terms of TV. My first full calendar year of writing and recording Telly Addict every week: that’s a lot of percentage in the Sky+ tank. Because I am now duty-bound to review all the exciting new stuff – and that means stuff I wouldn’t normally watch, like Red Or Black, TOWIE and The Apprentice – I find myself watching and analysing the first episode of everything, but not always bothering to watch the second episode. There are only so many hours in the day etc.
This, if you run a finger down my final list, accounts for the fact that Secret State, which I wasn’t sure about to start with, makes the list, and The Town, which I was sure about, doesn’t. I saw the former through to the bitter end, which means something, and I found myself unable to summon up the enthusiasm to see how The Town turned out, which also means something. My enthusiasm for The Great British Bake Off was entirely sincere: I couldn’t wait for the next episode. This is how I feel about the re-runs of Friday Night Lights: can’t wait. (Although the Guardian erroneously claimed that I judged The Bake Off to be “the best TV show of 2012″, when, in fact, it was simply my favourite.)
It seems obsessive and random to put these fantastic shows in any kind of qualitative order, so I’ll leave them in the order that they occurred to me. I’m not sure whether or not I ought to apologise for the proliferation of shows on Sky Atlantic. The channel has a deal with HBO; ergo, it’s where all the best imports turn up. Sorry (There, I apologised.) Oh, and by the way, I enjoyed some of the Olympics on the BBC, and Euro 2012, on the BBC and ITV, but found Gary Lineker a bit irksome on both.
The Great British Bake Off, BBC2
Line Of Duty, BBC2
Game of Thrones, Season 2, Sky Atlantic
Boardwalk Empire, Season 3, Sky Atlantic
Hunderby, Sky Atlantic
The Fear, C4
Fresh Meat, Series 2, C4
Friday Night Dinner, Series 2, C4
Michael Portillo’s Great Continental Railway Journeys, BBC2
Sherlock, Series 2, BBC1
The Bridge, BBC4
Homeland, Seasons 1-2, c4
Twenty Twelve, Series 2, BBC2
Inside Claridge’s, BBC2
The Thick Of It, Series 4, BBC4
Eastbound and Down, Season 3, FX
The Walking Dead, Season 3, FX
American Horror Story: Asylum, FX
Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, E4
Friday Night Lights, Seasons 1-3, Sky Atlantic
Girls, Sky Atlantic
Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partidge, Sky Atlantic
The Newsroom, Sky Atlantic
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Secret State, C4
Top of the Pops, 1977, BBC4
Man About The House, Series 3-5, ITV3
Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss, BBC4
Loving Miss Hatto, BBC1
Downton Abbey, Series 3/Christmas Special, ITV1
Mrs Biggs, ITV1
Celebrity MasterChef, BBC2
Modern Family, Season 4, Sky1
Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, ITV1
The Bletchley Circle, ITV1
Feel free to nominate shows you loved. I fell out with Downton during Series 2, but was surprised to find myself back onboard with Series 3. I also thought that Gates, on Sky Living, came out very well, but since I was one of its writers, I am unable to trust my own judgement. We must try Sky Living’s judgement, though, and it won’t be returning for a second series.