SS-GB (S1, BBC1)

A lone Spitfire soars over London, landing gracefully in front of Buckingham Palace.  But the Palace is a bombed-out shell, and the swastika hangs from its gates.  Its 1941. The Battle of Britain has been fought – and lost.

Though there may be Nazi jack boots marching down the Mall, life goes on.  And Detective Archer has a murderer to find.

Focussing on the ordinary characters caught up in a mad, complex situation is a nifty way of bringing us into what is a pretty surreal setting.  Archer is a believably capable detective, but no superhuman.   He has a vague grasp of how things are playing out, at least enough to stay alive, but the bigger game is always beyond him.   It keeps things personal, the losses and choices have a real weight to them.  Big ideas like patriotism and duty seem remote compared Archer and Harry’s friendship and loyalty.

This does have the effect of making Sylvia a rather unappealing figure.  Her black and white view of things comes across as rather juvenile, even petulant.   Her willingness to put herself repeatedly in danger felt to me more a lack of pragmatism than bravery.   Not that she seemed stupid, just rather unconcerned with realities.  When she and Harry were put into the holding camps, it was him who found food for her.   Barbara is more interesting, gallivanting about the world looking for a story.  But her distance makes her chilly and difficult to trust.  What’s she up to?

Perhaps this is more to do with person taste than I realise.  Fervour is the stuff of heroes, after all.  Sylvia was at least genuine, and consistent – deriding the collaborators for selling out their neighbours for ‘a more comfortable life’.   Did she think more of the Nazis than the collaborators? They at least fought for a cause.  Her hero’s death seemed fitting; she would become a beacon, a rallying point for British resistance.  Some viewers may have been affected by her sacrifice.  Though I couldn’t help but feel that her final gesture was just that – a gesture.  Like throwing a lit cigarette into the crate of yellow stars that Jewish locals would be forced to wear – it was defiant and heartfelt, but didn’t really accomplish much.

Eternity belongs to heroes, but the world belongs to swindlers.  Mayhew’s double-cross was brilliant in design (and ruthless in execution). I did wonder if the King knew he was never going to make that plane… Austere Huth came a cropper too.  His focus was his weakness, not his strength.  It was adaptable, genial Kellerman who came out ahead.  For now at least.

The pragmatic tone carries through to the ending- optimistic, but hardly celebratory, with no great patriotic fanfare.  It’s not as though Britain won by noble means, let’s be honest.  In fact, they’ve hardly won at all.  The future looks rosy (or at least less grim than it did), but Britain remains very much occupied.   Still, I liked the sense of moving forward, resolute and just a bit crafty.  Britain won’t win because they’re better, or more noble.  They’ll win because they’re wily and stubborn.

And because they adapt.  SS-GB was written in 1978, when Britain was well and truly on its arse, still struggling with the exhausting effort of WW2 and a rapidly diminished place in the world.   Survival comes from facing realities, and putting your efforts into building for the future.  Early in the series, the Nazis and Soviets made a big show of exhuming the remains of Karl Marx to be dispatched back to Russia with great pomp and ceremony.   Their ‘friendship’ is based on the past.  By bringing about the destruction of Nazi efforts to build the A bomb and offering key research in this to the US, Britain is forging a new friendship and a new future.

Still, this isn’t a story about big events, and the small scale is echoed visually, with few big set pieces.   The opening scene was nicely done and the final fight at the aerodrome was thrilling, but the important stuff goes on in the sitting room, at a game of cards,  down the pub.   Politics and warfare isn’t just armies and ministers, it’s out on the street, how you treat your neighbour.  Would you inform on someone for a bag of potatoes?  For the life of your son?

Early on, Archer talks about keeping his head down and maintaining law and order because the Germans won’t be around for ever.  But I didn’t really buy that – he (quite sensibly) just doesn’t want to get involved.    But the real cruelty of the Reich isn’t the wrong flag above Westminster; it’s a headmaster carted off to the camps for no reason, prostitutes rounded up and abused in the street, men shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Thoug, if evil is small scale, so is bravery.  Sylvia and her plucky companions are principled enough, but they won’t win the war.  America looms large, but it won’t get involved for no reason.  Somewhere between the two, sits the ordinary people.  Only when they care enough to make those small acts of defiance – when  Archer starts to make those little moves  – can the much bigger pieces fall into place.   Starting from such a striking premise, it’s an oddly predictable resolution.  But it makes for a great story.

What did you think?  I haven’t seen The Man in the High Castle, how does it compare?  Did you find yourself warming to Huth in his final scene?   Did you just want to give Harry a hug the whole way through? Let me know!

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River, S1 (BBC1)

‘There should be more than one word for love.’

So, I’ve finally stopped sobbing long enough to cobble this together, after watching the most brilliantly heart breaking bit of telly I’ve seen all year.

Detective River (Stellan Skarsgård) is an odd bloke, but he gets on well with his partner, Stevie (Nicola Walker).  Even when a mishandled pursuit ends in the death of a suspect, Stevie is there for him with a smile and a quip.

But then – shocking reveal – Stevie is dead, and River is actually talking to a figment of his own imagination.  Yet these strange imaginings – his manifests – may be the key to finding out who killed her.  As River slowly digs away and the truth about Stevie’s death emerges, River not only gets to the truth, but starts to connect with the world around him after a lifetime on his own.

I liked the way that River’s condition was treated as genuinely debilitating, rather than just some personality quirk.  It can help him get to the truth of things, but really limits him socially, leaving him painfully isolated.  And it’s always been this way.  He was abandoned by his mother, and raised by his gran, who called him ‘The Mumbler’.

While River (understandably) lacks emotional expression, there is a great sense of down to earth humanity and warmth.  Mostly from Stevie: ‘You donut!’ Frequent references to Weight Watchers.  Ira’s missus berating River for leaving him alone.   These small, often awkward moments keep everything nicely grounded.  And painfully believable.  I was so invested in these characters, desperate to get to the truth but afraid of what the fallout might be.

The music is part of this, big emotional disco tunes filling in for all the things that River can’t say.  It’s definitely striking – I imagine some could find it jarring – but I absolutely loved it.  It works because only the pure, uncomplicated joy of music can counterpoint so much sadness, so many utterly awful people.  I always suspected twinkly-eyed Michael would be a wrong ‘un, but I didn’t see just how irredeemable the entire Stevenson clan would turn out to be.  Even poor Frankie.

And the breakdown of Chrissie’s marriage was horribly believable.  I loved the scene in the supermarket where she rails against the unfairness of it all: a lifetime’s work undermined, the gnawing fear that pursuing a career means that she let her family down.  ‘I hate you’ she spits at River, but she follows him back to the station anyway.  Down but not out, I’d like to think.

The performances were all faultless.  Adeel Akhtar had tricky job as the decent, unshowy Ira, bemused by his peculiar partner, but also determined to get the job done.  Sorcha Cusack was marvellous as Bridie.  Initially just a stereotypical Irish mammy, but by the end she made your skin crawl. Amazing job, particularly in that interrogation scene.  The way she just shut down.  Wordlessly showing that she knew exactly what was going on, and made the choice to protect the family.  Nicola Walker was also wonderful.  Warm and cocky, River’s perfect foil, then slowly becoming less matey, more flawed and vulnerable.  And that final dance with River … *sniff*

Stellan Skarsgård was marvellous.  Not an easy role, but he does so much with so little.  The aura of sadness around him was palpable.  I liked how, even though he could lash out, you felt that he was far more a victim than a (potential) perpetrator.  There is a lot of talk about ‘the mentally ill’ and how society should ‘deal’ with them.  But River’s strangeness helps him understand people.  He sees things no one else would, and his isolation means he understands the value of kindness.  There’s no big finale here, he just has a quiet word with Frankie.

The concept of manifests showed how much we just don’t know about mental health, or about how the mind works in general.  When does being a bit different become mental illness?  If someone can cope on their own, are they sane?  In fact, doesn’t everyone have manifests?  Aren’t we all building up images of the people we encounter inside our heads?  We all know bits and pieces about each other, but there will always be a side to people that we never see.

And River isn’t the only one that’s isolated. London has never looked so full of life and yet so uninviting.  Concrete jungle, artificial light, junk food, barely a tree in sight (except the one a teenager hangs herself from).  The whole story is full of failed or stunted relationships. Maybe we could all stand to reach out a bit more?  Be a bit kinder?  It’s so difficult to talk about the way we connect to each other without being maudlin or crass.  Yet this story manages to do that in a way that is not only intelligent, but beautiful.

Much as I loved this, I sort of hope it will be left as a one-off.  The story feels finished.  We got our resolution  and are left with the quietly hopeful sight of River saying hello to little Hank. And, honestly, I’m not sure I could survive another series…

Were you as broken as I was by the end?  Would you like to see more of River?  I must admit, I wasn’t fully convinced by the identity of the killer – what did you think?  Let me know!

Unforgotten, S1, ITV1

*Big plot spoilers below!*

A skeleton is unearthed on a building site in London, landing DCI Cassie Stuart and DS Sunil Khan with the unenviable task of trying to solve a murder that took place almost 40 years ago.

The opening episode was a genuinely brilliant bit of telly, illustrating the difficulties of investigating events that took place decades ago.  There are doubts as to whether there should be an investigation at all – very time consuming and expensive, key details may have been forgotten, evidence lost.  Is it solvable? Is it worth the effort?  When does a case become ‘historical’?  Cassie reasons that if there is someone still alive who suffered because of that crime, then the police have a duty to investigate.

Through some very nifty forensic work, we discover the identity of the deceased: 17 year old Jimmy Sullivan, a Liverpool lad who came to London in hope of a better life.  The show does a very fine job establishing all the major players, showing their disparate lives before pulling them all together as potential suspects in Jimmy’s murder.  It’s a lot to cram into an hour, but it was very deftly handled and left me desperate to discover how it would all pan out…

The script is excellent, but the quality of the cast just takes it up a level.  There’s an amazing scene of Claire (Gemma Jones) being interviewed by Cassie (Nicola Walker), pushing a photo a Jimmy back and forth as Cassie tries to coax a confession, while Claire gives nothing away.  Is she lying, or has she genuinely forgotten?  My money’s on the latter, but the tension is breath-taking.

The identity of the murderer may sound silly on paper, but was wholly convincing on the screen.  The entire cast has been excellent, but Gemma Jones and Tom Courtney (Eric) have been particularly marvellous.  They showed a lifetimes worth of bitterness and regret; two people who have caused each other so much pain, yet remain bound together.   Claire’s visible deterioration was pitiful – so much fear in her eyes – and Eric was by turns loathsomely deceitful and pathetic.

The link between Claire’s dementia and Jimmy’s murder – the past lurching forward and dominating the present, eating away at her self-control and peace of mind – could have been clumsy, but I thought it was gracefully done.  And it emphasised the way everything gets blurred by the passing of time.  There are no neat resolutions for Claire and Eric. Or for Maureen.  She gets to lay her son to rest, but no trial.

The resolutions were mostly satisfying.  Sir Phillip finally gives up when his shady past catches up with him.  It fitted his character to try and control the manner of his departure, avoiding the shame of a murder conviction, and denying his many enemies the chance to finish him off.

But Father Greaves got off far too easily in my book.  He was the biggest hypocrite in the story, and never showed any remorse.  He was sorry he got caught, but I was never convinced that he regretted what he’d done.  Maybe the family just found it easier to forget and move on, but it did feel a bit contrived.

I enjoyed the Lizzie strand the most.  The idea that you can move beyond past mistakes, even if you can’t undo them.   She had done awful things, but you got the sense that she truly felt guilty.  That she had developed a moral centre, and her actions became repulsive to her.  She lied because she was ashamed, because that was not who she wanted to be.  So, Beth became Lizzie.  Powerful image of her getting ready in the morning, benign face in the mirror, putting on rings to cover the Skinhead tattoos on her fingers.   I liked the idea that it was Curtis and Ray that brought her back into the world, that love was stronger than hate.   Yeah, bit neat, but it was heart-warming all the same.

This was a real strength throughout the story – the way you can’t help but pity people, even while you know that they have done terrible things.  Motives are complex, and sometimes people really do change.   Don’t they?  Sir Phillip was arrogant and violent, still happy to order a hit if it got him out of trouble.  But he maintained that he did what was necessary to escape a world of poverty and coercion.  He wanted his children to have a better life than him, and he succeeded.  That says a lot about him, but it says a lot about the world we live in too.

The story was also great at showing the way events ripple out, effecting people even years afterwards.  And how lies stack up.  In most murder mysteries/police dramas, only the killer has secrets.  But here (like in the also excellent Broadchurch), everyone has something to hide, and uncovering the ‘truth’ can be devastating even for those who haven’t done anything wrong.

It makes you realise what a slippery concept justice can be.  Is it trying to undo the wrong that has been done?  Reducing the damage?  Preventing further harm? Does punishment always contain an element of vengeance? Is Claire’s ‘situation’ punishment enough?

Both thought provoking and satisfying, then.  What more could you ask for?  But what did you think of Unforgotten? Did you enjoy the performances?  Did you like the neat endings, or feel short-changed? Let me know!