Archives for category: drama

It is often hard to work out who school-set dramas are pitched at. The teenage characters’ heady hormones are distant memories to many parents, while it is hard to imagine the younger generation being interested in storylines concerning the private lives of teachers. Both groups would feel that 50% of the show is uninteresting and a distraction from the stories that they do want to see.

Yet they are popular. The current horse from that stable is Ackley Bridge. It shares some key features with its predecessor Waterloo Road. Troubled school in a northern town. Plotlines that are soapy to the extreme. Relationships between teachers being every bit as rocky as those between the kids.

But Ackley Bridge is on Channel 4, so therefore is a little, but only a little closer to the edge in the social commentary it offers. For a start, this isn’t a comprehensive, but an academy. How much they explore the influence of ‘sponsors’ on how education is delivered remains to be seen, although there have been hints at it.

The big theme though is multi-culturism. This academy is formed from two previously segregated schools (not deliberately, just as a result of the postcode lottery our education system creates), one from a predominantly Asian community, the other largely white. The cultural conflicts form a major thrust of many of the storylines, whether it is exploring LGBT relationships in BME communities or the tension between assimilating into a nation whilst being proud of your religion.

There is some debate as to how much we should put these kind of issues through the soapy treatment shows like this create. It feels as if these issues are almost too big to be reduced to be mixed in with others plots like affairs. At the same time though, not everyone is going to watch a hard-hitting drama or searing documentary series, so if telling them the story through a slightly more trivial medium allows the message to spread wider then it is all to the good.

Of course, none of this matters if the show is rubbish. Well, it isn’t. Granted, I don’t love it. The headteacher-husband-sponsor love triangle is a bit too predictable, and I do wonder if there is perhaps one plot too many, making it hard to grasp on to any of the characters. But there are worthwhile storylines as well. Nasreen exploring her sexuality with the help of her friend Missy seems a strong seem to follow, and I’m intrigued enough to see where the Jordan Wilson plot goes to keep investing. Plus there is Sunetra Sarker playing the sassiest dinnerlady ever created.

At just six episodes, the first series may be too short to do it justice. But if it gets a second one, an extended run could help the show find its legs.

A while back I wrote about the first season of House of Cards. I was not impressed by it. I found the cynicism of the characters wearying and it was heaping yet more reasons for me to be concerned about the then forthcoming US election. Frank Underwood represented the worst of the career politicians that plague us both sides of the Atlantic. Success was for his ego, not the good of the country.

Since then, I have polished off the second season and got halfway through the third, and my view has altered somewhat. No doubt the drama of the real-life election being absent has helped, but I also feel I understand Frank and Claire more.

Take one of the smaller arcs from season 2 – the rise and fall of Freddie at the hands of Raymond Tusk. He is one of Frank’s few friends, and his destruction allows Frank to have a motivation that is more than about himself. From that point on, no matter how despicable he acts, we know Frank has an ability to be human. This buys him enough of your support to be more anti-hero than villain.

Likewise, season 3 has seen Claire’s character become more fleshed out. True, there were always more reasons to sympathise with her anyway – she seemed to use her ability to calculate against others more for good, and she is a rape survivor. But this season is the one where she truly stops just being a wife. She wants to make her mark on the world. Frank is driven by power, Claire by legacy. The most recent episode I viewed saw her hurt affected by the suicide of a gay activist. She throws politics overboard and shows an anger at injustice that is more than skin deep.

Of course there are other wheels turning. Heather Dunbar is on the rise as an opponent to Frank and we have Stamper aiding her cause. Then there’s the tracking down of Rachel through Gavin Orsay, although I am missing his scene-stealing guinea pig. One of the things I have come to like about Netflix’s shows is they aren’t afraid to ignore a major plotline for an episode, knowing their audience will patiently wait for it to return to the centre ground.

The one that is piquing me most at the moment though is Frank writing his autobiography. This, more than anything else, tells us who he is. He has come from nothing, and used ruthless ambition and eye for an opportunity, plus old-fashioned hard work, to get to the top. You still don’t like the man, you are never meant to, but you are forced to admire his journey. Maybe I can stick with this show after all.

I currently feel spilt for choice in terms of TV. Bar Saturday nights, which rarely show anything of quality in my opinion and have therefore become sky+ nights, I have at least a solid hours’ worth of great telly.

Even amongst this packed field, there are some highlights. Near the top of the list is legal drama The Good Fight, the spin-off from The Good Wife. I love this show for the same reasons I loved its predecessor: it is smartly written and well plotted with characters that are three-dimensional from the off, even relative bit part players. It isn’t afraid to engage with topical issues or to wear its liberal heart on its sleeve.

The show primarily follows Diane Lockhart and Maia Rindell, two lawyers at opposing points of their career but both impacted by a Ponzi scheme: Diane the victim who must put her retirement on hold and become a partner at an African-American dominated legal firm, Maia the daughter of the supposed creator who is starting her career at the same firm, plagued by rumours and trolls.

Whilst these are over-arching plots, which will now doubt move closer to centre stage as the season progresses, it is the individual cases and some of the sub-plots that really elevate this show. The intricacies of the legal system fascinate me, as opposing sides battle for their interpretation to be held valid or some obscure law that was never repealed to come to their aid. Likewise, the latest subplot, Mike Kresteva targeting the firm for it pursuing police brutality cases, is a further layer. There are so many spinning plates but the team behind the show never let one drop.

Besides Dianne Lockhart, there is a smattering of returning cast members. Cush Jumbo is back as Lucca Quinn, more spiky and whip-smart than ever. Marissa Gold, a bit-part player in Wife, is given a meatier place in the cast here, which I think is great, as she always brought extra zing to the few episodes she was in to the mother show. No doubt others will appear, in some cases maybe only briefly.

Of course, there is the question of what happened to Alicia Florrick, the wife of the original series. We have had hints – she doesn’t appear to be working in the law anymore for a start. Whether she is being primed by Eli for politics or is merely chasing Jason still is unknown. I’m not sure if this blank space helps or hinders Fight. Maybe the writers will throw us a bone and drop a few more hints.

Regardless, it is a pleasure to watch something that is well crafted and willing to grant its audience some intelligence. When something is this good, you do wonder, why isn’t every show trying to reach this level?

Adapting a novel for the screen, big or small, must be one of the most challenging projects on TV. It’s all very well having the plot nicely written for you, but this becomes a hindrance. Do you stick to it rigidly, digressions and all? Do you focus on just the main strands but axe some minor characters, who could actually be the most interesting of them all? Do change the ending to suit your ‘vision’?

However you answer these, you are bound to ruffle feathers. Be too close to the book and you risk making something pointless – after all, people may as well just read the story and get the full flavour unless you do something original. Lose a minor character and you remove potentially some of the best moments or give them to someone entirely unsuited. Change the ending or a major plot point and people will howl at the moon if you even put the slightest foot wrong with the change.

When it’s a book you love, you feel very protective of what is created. You have your vision and woe betide anyone who doesn’t go along with it. So I was nervous about the recent adaptation of Decline and Fall, a book I read as a precocious teenager. Or, at least I was nervous, until I realised I couldn’t remember most of it. I definitely recollect enjoying it and finding it funny though.

I suppose then, that this adaptation’s one and only test was to be funny. It stood a good chance with Jack Whitehall in the lead role of Paul Pennyfeather. Yet I was surprised by how lifeless he seemed to make the character. Of course, that is partially due to the nature of the story – the pitfalls that occur are caused by others’ actions on to him rather than his own agency. Even so, book Paul always seemed more robust than TV Paul. This could be partially due to a reader having more access to an inner monologue and the narration, where the satire is probably sharper. It could also be a faulty memory of mine.

Nevertheless, quietly politely rarely carries a story well, so it falls onto the supporting cast to give the story its life. They do this admirably, in particular Vincent Franklin as agnostic minister Prendergast and Douglas Hodge as Grimes, a man who is nearly always ‘in the soup’.

There are hints at the satire that Waugh was aiming for in his novel. The Bollinger Club and the government officials who manipulate their way to the top and stay there, largely by passing blame on to those underneath. The ‘trendy’ approach to maintaining discipline in prison. An education system that focuses on please parents over teaching children. All as true now as then. I can’t help feeling it couldn’t have been more savage though. This was satire with gloves on. What it needed was for a brick to be hidden in it.

I tend to find that the talked-about TV that has people salivating tends to clash with one of my more mundane pleasures. It’s not that I’m opposed to challenging TV, I just tend to want it to be a source to wind me down rather than rev me up. This is why I miss the big BBC dramas in favour of an animated comedy or panel show on some remote cable channel.

Line of Duty was one such show. Until now. Series 4 started recently, and with nothing clashing with it, I decided to give it a try. And how glad I am I did. Two episodes in and I’m already obsessed with it, to the point where I long to find the first three series and catch up so I can appreciate every twist and turn.

Not that I really need to. The new series is, in many respects, a blank slate, with many long-running threads from previous story arcs now tied up. This makes it ideal for people like me to start following anti-corruption task force AC-12. A promotion to BBC1 shows the faith being placed in writer Jed Mercurio to deliver the goods – no more is this show a cult concern.

One of the things I love is that it indulges my love of detail. A good crime drama for me always has a healthy dose of ‘procedure’ – I always want to see the bureaucracy that detectives face. Whether it be the careful recording of evidence, the team huddles where the SIO lays out the day’s agenda or the interviews that are conducted like a game of cat and mouse, I adore it. Things like this are far better than throwing in a car chase or ludicrous plot twist.

Not that this show shies away from twists. There are plenty, and all excellently executed. It’s just that they are part of a bigger picture. Clearly the audience appreciates it, otherwise we wouldn’t be coming back for more each week.

As for the cast: sublime. Thandie Newton as our villain is par excellence, playing DCI Ros Huntley, allowing pressure from above to lead to her arresting the wrong man and digging herself into an ever greater mire the more she covers her tracks. Her paranoia over her head and hand wounds give her a Lady Macbeth quality, even when she is perpetrator of the crime rather than just the encourager.

Martin Compston, Adrian Dunbar and Vicky McClure are all equally fantastic as the investigators trying to chip away at Huntley’s defences. Compson, in particular, exudes a quiet determination to get to the truth, even if he lets personal feelings cloud his judgement.

Normally, I would find a weakness or flaw, something undeveloped or not quite sitting right. But I can’t. This is as close to perfect as TV can get. Thank whatever is out there that I found it before I was too late.

American viewers would probably find several aspects of British TV strange, not least the fact that we often have to wait a long time for our shows to come back. In America, a series can end in May and be back September/October. Here, due to shorter season lengths, a show can run in January and February not be back until the same time next year, or even longer.

Take Broadchurch. Season one was out in March 2013. We then had to wait until January 2015 for number two, and the third only commenced in February of this year. Our friends over the pond wouldn’t tolerate this. But then, they have shows put together by teams, whilst many British ones are one-man band operations.

Furthermore, it is worth the wait. This series, the focus is on the rape of Trish Winterman. It is actually a good snapshot of the complexities of such a case. The perpetrator is known to the victim. The victim is traumatised and is only regaining her knowledge of what happened slowly. The shame she feels telling others, as if she was to blame. The muddying of the waters by her own recent sexual past – newly divorced and rediscovering single life. The incredulity of some of the officers on the case.

What creator Chris Chibnall does so well is slowly release drips of information and emotion. The tension isn’t created by fast-paced chases, but by the slow enveloping of the fog around people, for it to clear away at a similarly glacial pace. All this is punctuated by small explosions of emotion. Tempers are lost and then steadied. It is often the pushing down of emotion, as opposed to the unleashing of it, that drives the energy.

For example, the sub-plot of the aftermath of the events of the previous two seasons is handled beautifully. The parents of murdered Danny Latimer have gone down separate paths. Beth has rebuilt her life as a counsellor for sexual abuse victims, being the emotional pillar she so needed those years ago. Mark is on a path to destruction, angry at the lack of justice and wanting revenge. The scene where he is confronted by Beth is harrowing, not least the end where Beth walks away, denying she still dreams of their son. Her ‘no’ is almost choked, because of course she does, but she cannot carry on grieving.

In lesser hands, the ‘guess the rapist’ plot at the centre of this could be tacky. But it is the realness of it all, the fact that everyone is given convincing light and shade, that none of the men under suspicion are without darkness but also not pure monsters, that makes this show rise above it.

It goes without saying that the interplay between David Tennant and Olivia Coleman is as good as chemistry can get. Both playing out their own domestic dramas as they tackle the case. He, fearing his daughter’s every contact with a man, she, scared of her son following his father’s violent past. It’s telling how good this show is that, even with these two in it, plus the likes of Sarah Parish and Lenny Henry, star power never detracts from the strength of the stories.

This is to be the last series, which is sad. But also, it is the right thing to do. After a ropey second series, it is back on a high, and can bow it with its reputation of being a show that is both mainstream and challenging intact.

Sunday night TV is, broadly speaking, an unchallenging affair. The BBC have gone against that recently, with both Apple Tree Yard and now SS-GB in the ‘last thing you watch before you face the strain of being back at work’ slot. Even Call the Midwife isn’t as full of rose-tinted nostalgic whimsy as people expect.

ITV, on the other hand, has gone full ‘comfort TV’ for its Sunday night slot. The Good Karma Hospital taps into the current fascination with India sparked by The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Presumably, there is some kind of pseudo-nostalgia at play, watching a culture where family and community are still key and spiritual enlightenment away from a smartphone is just around the corner.

In Good Karma, we have British doctor Ruby escaping her relationship woes by starting here career again in a slightly madcap hospital, led by imperious matriarch Lydia Fonseca. Medical mysteries get solved (nothing too taxing, mind, this isn’t House), families get happy endings and everyone, especially Ruby, learns some lovely life lessons. It is, overall, diabetes-inducing sweet.

The big problems lie in its lack of tension and its predictability. The former is neatly represented in episode two, when Dr Varma has to fetch some anti-venom from another clinic, only for a traffic accident to destroy most of it. But what’s this? One small packet of it survived? Oh thank god, the writers must have remembered at the last minute no-one can die in this TV slot without some deep emotional speech before hand.

As for the predictability, if Ruby and Dr Varma aren’t married by series 4 (if it gets that far), I’ll streak through my local town centre naked. Sure, one or the other will briefly be with someone hideously unsuitable, but the giant flashing signs of ‘they need to be together’ are flashing above this couple. No doubt they will teach other things and soften each other’s character flaws – her becoming less of a wet lettuce, him discovering you can smile more than once a month.

There is one bright spot, which is Amanda Redman as Dr Fonseca, who appears to have strong armed the crew into giving her the best lines, which she then delivers with a delicious relish. Shame that she is given little over to do then descend into a scene, issue a bon mots, and then waft back out again. Someone like her deserves a meaty back story. What I have seen so far suggests the writers will be too scared to give it.

Maybe ITV is only doing what it set out to do – provide a jolly, sunny antidote to BBC’s darker edge. But, as Death in Paradise proves, this doesn’t mean you have to be dull and obvious. If you are going to make a drama, give us drama. We are adults, we can cope with it. Even if we are facing work the next day.