Watched #14
Ben Macintyre has got his hands on a killer document.

His excellent two-part documentary, Kim Philby – His Most Intimate Betrayal (BBC2 Wednesday and Thursday, 9pm) is anchored to that sheaf of papers. It’s a transcript – “based on extracts from various sources” (according to the second episode) – of an encounter in Beirut, 1963, between Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby; fellow MI6 operatives, old friends and, most importantly, Trinity College alumni. This was the moment Elliott confronted Philby about his treachery.

In truth, this segment of the programme, acted out by David Oakes and William Beck, was its least dramatic. It was no Cracker. Philby didn’t hold out then finally pivot and offer up an emotionally-wrought mea culpa. Instead: “Let’s be gentlemen about this. Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner?” Elliott, subsequently, found Philby collapsed in drink outside his home and put him to bed. And then he retired, allowing the Third Man to defect to the Soviet Union, thereby avoiding what could have been a rather sticky, rather embarrassing trial for the British establishment. It’s what gentlemen do.

Yes, the biggest beat in the story is a bit of a dud, but Macintyre spun the whole thing so wonderfully, we could get by it. In detailing the decades of lies woven by Philby, lies that resulted in Russian death squads ‘disappearing’ hundreds, it’s interesting that the greatest treachery felt like his betrayal of Elliott. A friend he charmed, who guilelessly protected him as suspicion fell, it was painful to learn that when compiling a profile of his colleague for Stalin’s intelligence service, Philby described him as “ugly and rather pig-like to look at.” But then the double-agent, when appraising his own wife, Eileen, was equally chilly: “Bourgeois and philistine.”

 A nicely judged conceit was the way Macintyre himself sloped through both episodes. He delivered his intel into camera as if out in the cold. We saw him drinking alone in members’ clubs, haunting an empty Highgate Underground as a souless train pulled in and treading lonely nighttime streets. Philby, he told us, was the master of the “bland lie”. When Soviet spy Konstantin Volkov offered to give himself up to British Intelligence – with the promise of revealing the KGB operative within their number – Philby maneuvered to ensure it was he who was charged with travelling to Istanbul to receive him. Then he dawdled for weeks, allowing his secret paymasters to move in and liquidate the would-be-defector. To explain his delay he offered this: “Sorry old man, it would have interfered with leave arrangements”. Who would think to challenge an explanation so mundane?

Also lurking in a dark spot was Dr George McGavin  (whom we last saw dissecting a human hand) whose three-part series explores the diversity of our simian cousins. My favourite sequence in Monkey Planet (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm) was set 100 metres underground in a South African cave. This location had become a nighttime bunker for baboons, sheltering from leopards above. Footage of the creatures, silhouetted on the night-vision lens, making their way along memorised routes, was a privileged view of somewhere we cannot be. The thought of rigging up that sequence, getting in the space during the day, cabling, placing cameras… Fastidious and difficult work, no doubt, to make a few minutes within many.

George and his BBC Bristol team didn’t stop there. They were in the jungle canopy too, or in the mountains of Ethiopia, or at minus 20°C in Japan. And thanks to them we could meet the black howler with its 90 decibel roar, the pygmy marmosets of Ecuador who weigh no more than an apple and, in the opening reel, the extraordinary orangutans in Borneo who soap themselves in the river, having seen us do it many a time.

While the monkeys where lathering up, more creatures gathered to observe and possibly learn from each other a few notches up the EPG. The poorly named Invasion of the Job Snatchers (BBC3 Wednesday, 9pm) described itself as “a unique social experiment”. But aren’t they all? The premise here was to send a bunch of unemployed youngsters to Britain’s most silvery town, Christchurch, where greying business owners would take in one each for work experience. As with all these unique social experiments, we were warned there would be evictions along the way, and an ultimate prize – the prospect of a full time job.

The most satisfying coupling was between 28-year-old Carl and punningly-named butcher Robin Lambe. “Robin Lambe?” laughed Carl as they shook hands. “It’s not a job description is it?” Robin was immune to all this. Just moments earlier he was telling the camera how his trade needed “new blood”, no pun noticeably intended. It was great to see Carl and Robin rubbing along nicely, a mug of tea on the go at all times and Carl enthusiastically hacking and sawing. “It’s a man’s job, even though I’m wearing a pinny.” In a past life, Carl had been to prison for stealing £1,000 from a bank where he’d been briefly employed. He spoke about it with a pragmatic regret. His criminal record was now stymieing his attempts at employment. “If you don’t work and you’re working class, what are you? Underclass.”

Not quite so eloquent was Benny, who rolled out of his cab declaring he hoped there was “loads of hot cock” in Christchurch. Almost psychotically ebullient, one can understand why Peek’s Party Store thought he might work out for them. But chairman, John Peek, who runs a no-swearing establishment, seemed to regret the decision, chastising his new start for saying, “thank you, you sexy bitch” to a colleague. “If they can’t take me for who I am, I’m not going to change,” harrumphed Benny, 19. “Oh. I really miss my mum.”

“They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out,” growled Rick Grimes as this series of The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) reached its Terminus. Earlier we’d seen him bite out a man’s throat and then gut another, when it looked as if they were set on killing him and raping Michonne and his son Carl. One of the bloodiest sequence I can recall on TV, but validated by its uncomfortable aftermath; no-one quite able to conceive of what had happened. But then they were outgunned and locked up in a storage container by a group who’d turned cannibal.

Stupid? When they find out what? 

Rick: “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Oh man, what a clunker of a line to take us into the music. A stupid bad-ass proclamation. As if the writers felt they needed to come up with something, some form of punctuation, an exclamation-mark, maybe, to punch-up the ending. It didn’t negate what had gone before, and this run of The Walking Dead has been simply terrific. But still. Rick. After all that’s happened, is this who you are now? A man with a killer line?


Watched #07
Lindsay Denton is a blank slate. One of those people you might work with who, if she ever is in conversation, and you ever do listen in, it’ll be about something disappointingly routine like her commute or Argos. She’s the perfect focal point for the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) which returns minus its leading man, Lennie James. Whereas his DCI Tony Gates was luminous like a firework, DI Denton is a troubling kind of calm. A bleakness. It’s an excellent contrast.

That nonsense I extrapolated about the kind of things she might talk about comes because I believe in the character. From the off Mercurio’s script presents concise details; Denton responding to a crisis, zeroing in on protocol, a colleague sighing: “There she goes.” And in extremis she’s on an unheroic autopilot. Following the opening hijacking sequence, we see her in hospital (that neck brace a perfect metaphor for her constrained personality) sat impassively while out-of-focus chaos continues around her. When her boss asks who the protected witness is, she replies: “I’m not clear that’s something I should be divulging yet sir,” blandly quoting the rule book.

This is a career best performance from Keeley Hawes, who’s measured out the role meticulously. She rarely makes eye contact, continues to talk as if by rote (“Akers, or the individual identifying herself as Akers…”) and even assaults her noise-pollutant neighbour with a calm precision. There’s absolutely no release of tension here – when she does finally go up, it’ll be a far bigger bang than Tony Gates.

In many ways, Denton personifies what’s best about Line of Duty, that the explosions are ameliorated by bickering and politicking. Mutterings about chains of command, someone dropping someone else in it and “non-priority missing persons [who] are being down-processed”. It’s that stuff, plus the lived-in detail – Vicky McClure’s Kate arriving at her lover’s house and wordlessly hanging her bag up behind the door, like she always does – that buys our indulgence of this episode’s preposterously exciting final scene. I mean, that wig…

Suspects (Channel 5 Wednesday, 10pm) followed straight after. A police procedural of the most procedural fashion, its real point of difference is something the programme mostly attempts to obscure – that it’s shot at great pace (an episode every two days),with wholly improvised dialogue and camerawork. The effect on screen is a strong degree of verisimilitude, particularly in the op-doc direction. The effect off-screen is a huge saving in cash, making the project feasible in the first place.

Masterminded by Brookside and The Bill producer Paul Marquess, he’s said he thinks there’s a future in this approach, indeed, an ongoing soap could be made in exactly this fashion. It’s not the first time he’s implemented it. In 2012 his ITV daytime drama Crime Stories starred Ben Hull, real-life former detective Jane Antrobus and a lot of guesting ex Brookside and The Bill cast members all making it up as they went along. The end result felt a bit slack, sometimes a bit directionless. Suspects is far more purposeful, everyone minded they need to be serving the story. It means all the dialogue is functional – no-one daring to weave in a character quirk or some small eccentricity – but that keeps it focused. The three leads (Fay Ripley, Damien Moloney and Clare-Hope Ashitey) are clearly match-fit. Some of the guests less so, often paraphrasing back a feed line as they find their way in, but never so much to be distracting.

The only time the MO really gets in the way is when we have scenes of the police mobilising as a group, with fellow officers having to mouth silently lest they become a speaking, rather than non-speaking, background artiste and bump up their fee.

Woolworth’s! It still exists. In South Africa, anyway. My brother Jack has some weird remit to prove to me the other international versions of MasterChef are superior to the UK original. But he’s wrong. At his request I tried MasterChef South Africa (Watch Monday, 7pm). Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start – this iteration goes with the ‘open audition’-style season debut which the British version sensibly scraped into the offal bin after one year. So it’s probably not indicative of future instalments, and certainly I didn’t get the feel for judges Andrew Atkinson, Benny Masekwameng and Pete Goffe-Wood, each of whom did that thing of making smouldering eye contact with the contestants while silently popping their wares into their mouth. I found those moments to be uncomfortably intimate. Afterwards, returned to their seats in “Shine Studios at the fashionable food distract of Braamfontein” (where there’s a Woolworth’s) they would then give judgement. “Beans: crunch. Mash: smooth. Chicken: moist. Sauce: tasty”. There were a lot of croquettes. 

It just didn’t feel like MasterChef to me, one successful chap running to report back to his family, “I’m going to boot camp baby!”, another providing her own commentary: “Here’s my big cheffy move.” Although, granted, in next week’s episode, someone will vow, “I’m here to change my life,” and there is indeed a lot of that too in the UK series. Enough, in fact, for me.

Airing, now, one day after its US debut, The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) continues to be its own thing, and brilliantly so despite the fact its zombie scenario is one of the most played-out in recent fiction. You never know what shape an episode will take, this one focusing on Rick and Carl, and, in a separate strand, Michonne. It’s weird, but true, that for we regular viewers, undead beheadings are now just a punctuation point in the narrative, with fettered blood flying in between the moments of real import. Something the show continues to do well is the feeling of life having just departed, so when Carl goes hunting for food in an empty house we see boxes stacked on the stairs, as if a family were intending to pack up before fleeing. Another, a sign scrawled in an abandoned shop, is half a story on its own: “Please do what I couldn’t”.

Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln so absorbed into this role I finally no longer see him as ‘Egg’) and Carl find baby Judith? In this series – based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book which regularly and bravely hobbles its main characters – perhaps not. Things really could go anywhere.