Watched #27
We’re 26 minutes in and here it is: “You might say that, I couldn’t possibly say that.” Er, hold on. Do you want another go?

House of Cards (Drama Saturday, 7pm) isn’t quite what it was. Andrew Davies’ 1990 Westminster melodrama is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the genre, but something I remembered as resolutely razor sharp doesn’t seem nearly so cutting today. Twenty-four years is a long time in politics. Back then, it seems our lords and masters came and went to the accompaniment of an arm-swinging musical score. Rotund, clubbable chaps shuttling off to Pall Mall, or wherever, ruled over a land of shareholders. These were men, as Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart says, “who have been bred and educated in a tradition of public service and have proved their reliability over long years”. Some of that still holds true now, but although they come from the same stock, today’s political animals are sleeker, more aggressive. Where once FU was a lone predator at the watering hole, today he’d be scrapping with hyenas rather than feasting on ungulates.

This realisation of a different, tamer Westminster makes the character’s kills seem less impressive than they were back in the day.  All it takes to alienate the PM from his allies is to whisper in his ear that the traitor “may be someone very close to you”. Nevertheless, the character of FU still sparkles – despite that odd interlude when he lacquers his hair black and pops on a false moustache to run a mission against the prime minister’s brother. In part we can thank Richardson’s interpretation, which is a morphine drip of charm. For almost all of episode one, there is a smile on his face and an avuncular tinge to his voice. As viewers, we long for those moments he addresses us directly. It’s kind of thrilling being wooed by the old assassin. Through this, we understand the potency of Urquhart’s powers. Davies’ script is also wise to instill a sense of propriety in FU. He is a well-mannered man. A man who sometimes wears a trilby but, nonetheless, has an acquaintance with whoring and heroin. That contrast, in fact, still cuts through.

It’s tempting and mischievous to imply that Netflix’s latter day remake of the concept now out-flanks this old dear, but I don’t honestly think that’s true. Mano-a-mano, Francis would have Frank’s arm twisted up against his back. And, anyway, in 24 years time, Underwood’s Washington will seem as quaint and understandable as Urquhart’s Westminster. Time will take from both of them. But even if a little aged, there’s still something about FU and at 28 minutes, he takes another run. “You may think think that, I couldn’t possibly comment”. He wasn’t as quick as we’d recalled. But still sharper than the rest.

I enjoy political drama, but I’ve recently discovered its close cousin, conspiracy thriller, now turns me off. I came to this realisation when I failed to watch the first series of Utopia (Channel 4 Monday, 10pm). I guess my prejudice boils down to this: In fiction, a conspiracy equates to no more than the script writer withholding information until that arbitrary time comes when they then choose to share it1. Now, that’s a stupid opinion to hold, because all fiction rests on arbitrary revelation. If I continue along this thought, I might turn against everything that doesn’t involve a fixed rig camera and real people going about their real lives. So… into the conspiracy then2.

Happily my scant knowledge about Utopia‘s back story – something about putting shit in someone’s eyeball and a mysterious graphic novel – didn’t impede my enjoyment. I’ll be straight with you, that it was set in the 1970s and presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio had me onside early. The shape of the story, too, felt very much of that decade – albeit subverted. How often did that era present one-off cautionary tales of an idealistic young couple  preyed upon by sophisticates, who’d sap their innocence? Except in this case Milner on one side, and Carvel on the other, are the malevolent forces. I also appreciated the originality in having Tom Burke’s biologist passionately idealistic about something so bleak as genocide. And the bins! Litter, everywhere, 1970s London as it must always be remembered. All in all, it was a finely judged portrayal, to the point the scientists working on the Janus project were sufficiently hairy, but not hairy enough to look like an Open University parody.

Yes, I enjoyed Utopia very much indeed. But I think that’s all I’ll watch. I’ve still no time – no literal time, the hours in the day, the number of thoughts in my head – for fictional conspiracies.

Some other silly bias has also kept me away from The Mimic (Channel 4 Wednesday, 9pm)3 I’m assuming its own story-so-far is less involved… but in fact when I watched this second series opener, my main reaction was to wonder why the show existed at all? What is driving this series? A profound sense of listlessness seeps out of the understated performances, incidental music, direction, script. It was genuinely baffling. Who is the eponymous character Martin? Perhaps he’s supposed to be so resolutely anonymous because he’s always trying to morph into other people. “Imagine if Morgan Freeman was in The Hobbit, though,” he said, teeing up yet another party piece, like a man who’s learnt to juggle and now insists on raiding any fruit bowl he encounters. Oh dear.

The time-jump came. It was “12 hours later” in the final episode of 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) and, as he always does, Jack was finishing up by being kidnapped by one of the many enemy states who have a beef with him. That was a long way from being the best thing about this final hour. The best thing was President Heller – until then a bland amalgam of everything conservative America would hope for in their leader – reflecting on the death of Audrey and his own slow demise to dementia. Two brilliant, devastatingly economic lines. “I won’t remember anything that happens today. I won’t remember anything, period”.

  1. I think it was that spate of high-concept US shows about six or seven years ago that tipped me over – with everyone expected to scurry around, digging up fictional clues to a fictional thing that could potentially change on the whim of a programme’s production team.
  2. Albeit only because an unlikely named fellow tweeted OTT to suggest I try.
  3. The same guy from the above footnote also suggested I look at it.

Watched #24
There was once a time when telly tried to standardise how everything appeared. I don’t mean by giving everyone the same hairstyle. I’m talking about something far more boring. I’m talking about how it treated footage that came from disparate sources, squidging it and colouring it so it all looked the same. On the occasions a documentary was forced to utilise something that had been caught on home video, it would apologetically hang a caption over it.

But some time recently that stopped being an issue, and now you’ll find shows made up of back-to-back 144p resolution YouTube video. In some cases, the variance in stock has become positively fetishised. That was certainly the case with Storyville‘s screening of the 2013 feature-length documentary, The Battle of the Sexes (BBC4 Sunday, 9pm), with cine film trims rattling away between clips, conferring a sense of authenticity upon them. The unwholesome greenness of the NTSC footage had a similar effect. Here we were, way back when.

In 1973, in fact, when Billie Jean King consented to play Bobby Riggs, the man who, in 1939, bet on himself to win the triple at Wimbledon and then did. By the 1970s he’d become a kind of John McCririck figure, referring to himself in the third person and chuckling as he took potshots against women’s rights. At no point did he ever seem to possess any conviction in being a chauvinist, it was more he found it a gloriously funny way of appearing contrary and – more importantly – courting attention.

But this was in a time when Billie Jean King was only considered to be pursuing her tennis career because “as yet [Larry has] not put his foot down about [his wife’s] future”. An age when she (and eight other players) were excommunicated from the United States Tennis Association for setting up the first ever professional women’s tennis tour. And when Billie Jean or Margaret Court would have to smile nicely while being asked, “What’s it like to be a spinster on the tennis court?”

Riggs’ huckstering had to stop.

The match between him  and King – a 55-year-old man vs a 29-year-old woman -became the most watched tennis encounter of all time. I’d never heard of it before, but as the lime-hued, 525-lined footage revealed, even John Wayne was there. Alas, on this stage the mix and match approach to film-making finally got under my skin. You didn’t need Hawk-Eye to spot the bits of newly shot fare dropped in between the perfectly serviceable original video of the game. Suddenly there was Billie Jean’s racket in crisp close-up, or the back of Bobby’s head. Coughs of unreality, interrupting the flow. For no real reason.

But there’s me criticising a terrific documentary on the tiniest of details. Like moaning about the ball boy’s posture during a Centre Court final. So let’s cut to the good new which is – SPOILER! – King proved victorious. However, with tennis still being the only sport wherein both genders are now paid equally, I imagine she would say she still hasn’t really won.

Film and video nestled nicely together in a repeat of The New Statesman (ITV Sunday, 10.30pm) as tribute to Rik Mayall. How glorious to begin a sitcom with a grainy film-stocky sweep across the Yorkshire countryside. As Alan B’stard, Mayall feels apiece with the Cameron government; the big hair and the good, gesturing, fist-clenched left arm, punching home the rhetoric. Other bits were pure 1987, including Alan Hawkshaw’s obviously synthesised music and this comment from our antihero: “A whole Jeffrey?” says B’stard. “That’s £2000!” Applause.  But what a treat to recall Mayall at his most majestic. And the time he shared comedy scenes with Peter Sallis.

When I started up this website again – such a day! – and before I hit upon the not-so-high concept of just reviewing some TV shows each week, I lurched it into first gear with a something about Changing Rooms. A programme as influential on others in its genre as any Buffy or Broadchurch. The concept of eeking out jeopardy from the undertaking of home improvements has been a prevalent one on TV ever since. And now one of the big beasts returns to the plain; Linda Barker who hosts the undynamically titled Brand New House for 5K (Channel 5 Wednesday, 8pm).  It’s the same old, but none the worse for that… Actually, that’s not fair. There is a slight tweak. In a knowing conceit, a lot of weight is assigned to the fact  the £5k budget has genuinely been supplied by the homeowners, and nothing is blagged for free in that usual telly way.

And so off we go, with the scurrying and hurrying. Linda a little shrill, a little nervy (that loud laugh) but basically likeable. Often she’s her own disciple, as this week’s couple – Mervyn and Sam – lose  faith in her crazy-tiling plan for the kitchen. It worked out fine in the end though.

If there was one thing I particularly liked about the show, it was Linda’s rough relationship with her builder, the inexplicably nick-named ‘Pooch’. “I need him to be more resourceful,” she confided to camera while he moaned about the project’s lack of funding. In the end she went £33.95 over budget and everyone was basically happy. Except, in my imaginings, Graham Wynne who – I fantasise – was watching along at home, wondering why all the fuss, why it wasn’t him and then making for the door with an “Oh you!” roll of his eyes.

“This isn’t about the drones!” Of course it’s not. 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) is now two-thirds done, and there are rules that have to be adhered to. In addition to every episode having some talk about going “dark” and what “play” is available, this is also the point in every series where the current threat gets nicely wrapped up and a new B-story terror emerges. So Jack throws Margot out of a window in Dalston and then finally gets credit from all the governmental types who’ve been doubting him. “I’m safely in my office and I have you to thank,” says the president. Copy that! Now get on your phone again, Jack, and start running…

Watched #19
A long, long time ago, I used to watch TJ Hooker. Despite the fact it was the 1980s and, apparently, we were all less sophisticated, my brother and I still noticed how everything that went right in the show had to be credited to Hooker. There was one episode where, at the end, William Shatner was busy elsewhere so Heather Locklear threw her nightstick at an escaping perp. Thwwp! It spun through the air, then roundhoused into the guy’s legs, bringing him down. Adrian Zmed was understandably impressed by the move. “Hooker taught me,” she said.

24: Live Another Day (Sky1, Monday and Wednesday) brought this memory thudding back. As it ever was, Jack Bauer’s sheer righteousness must prevail. In the opening episode (first one back after four years, now in London, but you know all this) his character was set up as legend. The man himself didn’t even need to speak for half an hour. Instead, Yvonne Strahovski’s Kate Morgan was presented as his analogue – a CIA agent at odds with the organisation, whose last-minute hunches are destined to be both correct and unheeded by the suits. Although the story places her at odds with Bauer, mark my words, there will come a point where she will defect to his side. And another point where she’ll pull off a nifty manoeuvre of a ‘Hooker taught me’ ilk.

That all sounds like criticism, and it is. But it’s not major criticism. I should make it clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this new series, much as I’ve enjoyed (nearly1) every preceding instalment. The real-time element and split-screen stuff be damned, there’s nothing particularly fancy about 24. It’s just super-solid, value-for-money entertainment, each edition straining to offer up as many thrills and twists as possible. As a result, Jack himself speaks almost nothing but plot – “Take me to her now,” is his first line – meaning those few moments when he offers something of his character are usually quite affecting. So it was towards the end of the first hour, Kiefer Sutherland blinking, head drooping: “I don’t have any friends”. I could have wept.

I don’t care either way about this series’ themes exploring the morality of “free information” or America’s use of military drones. They’re a completely ancillary element – as if someone were to comment on the font this review is written in. What I care about is the reliability of 24. That’s what will keep me here for the duration. There was a great bit where we were given a glimpse on a computer screen of Jack’s record, or more specifically his list of kills over the years. Someone on the Fox staff has lovingly compiled this; that or there’s a website. Ah, those names! Andre Drazen, Victor Drazen. At number 18, Nina Myers! More to follow…

TV is good, at the moment, for taciturn, bloody-minded men. Look at all the hunks in the picture I’ve bodged together above. Prey (ITV Monday, 9pm) aired its second episode this week. I came to the show late, deciding only to watch the first on Sunday. It was enough to secure my return the next day. Kind of like 24, there’s nothing fundamentally high-concept about this drama, following John Simm’s wrongly-accused DS Marcus Farrow as he attempts to find the person who murdered his wife and son. But, unlike 24, there’s a mass of added-value in the details. The fact that show is – and I don’t mean this unkindly – unglamorous and middle-aged. Rosie Cavaliero is given a brilliantly real character in Susan Reinhart, someone who, unlike CIA: London’s Kate Morgan, isn’t gifted with super intuition. Or masses of wit. Or anything other then a bit of determination to do her job properly. The additional layer revealing she’s obsessed with her ex, Tony, and does silly, slightly intense things like show up at his house with pastries or mess with his Facebook, really fill her out.

There are also little feints in the plotting that confound our expectations. The aggressive mob on the bus never deliver on the threat their presence promises, and Marcus doesn’t work out what the password is on Sean’s computer. There’s real verisimilitude in that and the dialogue which, rarely for a thriller, sounds like the kind of things people actually say: “He brought one down from, the attic but it didn’t have a USB or anything.” It means that when the show does shift gears, like the twist at the end of this second episode, it’s quite thrilling. Marcus is betrayed and into the soundtrack drifts Radiohead’s Karma Police: “This is what you get when you mess with us”.

Here’s Bear: “Twenty-first century man has come a long way from our hunter-gather origins…” Cut to beardy bloke: “Can I have a latte?” Bear again: “I wanna find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his very existence”. This is the pretext for The Island With Bear Grylls (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm), a five-part series in which 13 ‘ordinary’ men are dropped off on an island and left to get on with it. Bear’s role in all of this is simply to squat down in places on the mainland and deliver the odd bit of commentary. Otherwise, it’s all about the fellas, who aren’t nearly so gung ho as we might have feared. Tony, 71, missed his mum, Agnes, 91. Plus there was a lot of fretting about wee. “I’m not pissing on my own face,” declared Sam, after being stung on the cheek by a jellyfish. “My piss was the colour of Guinness,” shared Rupert, later. We got to see it in a pail. Why he was going in a pail, I’m not sure.

This show, it’s… it’s okay, but Bear’s Bond villain ambitions don’t really lend it sufficient impetus. It feels like Survivor without the game play, leaving us with aimless men trying to make fire and piss in and on things.

The second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) already seems like a less contained piece than the first. Silly comment, perhaps. This run is going to be six episodes, twice as long as before. But the small-town element is what has worked best about the show and that feeling the whole thing could have been based on a Barry Hines novel. I’m not so sure about the inclusion of a quasi-religious cult, a further element of heightened reality that could potentially capsize this well-judged zombie drama. But we’ll see.

If I hadn’t come to the show with those kind of worries, expectations preloaded by its brilliant debut, then I would have been more obviously impressed – because this is still a terrific programme. Its greatest quality is found in leading man Kieren (Luke Newberry) who doesn’t actually conform to this week’s theme of goal-orientated alpha males. Instead he’s a gentle portrait of a young guy who isn’t the hero of any kind of story, and nor does he want to be. He’s shambling through life. But, not like a zombie shambles.

  1. Obviously, the year with Jack’s letters-missing-brother Graem and non-Donald Sutherland dad, Phillip, was dreadful