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!

Advertisements

War & Peace (BBC1)

Adapting one of the longest (and least read) Russian novels for a western TV audience was always going to mean cuts and simplifications.  But has too much been lost in the translation?  Or does this 6 part series do the Tolstoy epic justice?  Having never read the book, I had no idea what to expect, but it pulled me in brilliantly.

It is 1805, and Pierre – favourite bastard son of the Count Bezukhov – returns to Russia after being educated abroad.  At the salon of Anna Pavlovna he awkwardly mingles with the highest in the land.  But as he unexpectedly inherits his father’s title and fortune, war with France is looming, and the lives of Russia’s elite look set to change forever.

The first episode did a fantastic job of establishing the setting and numerous characters.  There are a lot of players and the volley of people and names was a little disconcerting at first. But Anna’s salon succinctly displayed the luxury of life as a Russian aristocrat, and the vacuity and corruption it creates.

The show made the most of its stunning locations in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.  The palaces were vast and opulent, and looked so solid somehow- like they had been there forever.  It quietly hinted at the hauteur of the elite, their concern with appearances and their disconnection from the rest of society.  This contrasted with the beauty and majesty of the natural landscapes, with their vibrancy and constant changing rhythms.  The use of music was excellent too, giving a sense of time and place, as well as giving the characters nuance.

Of course, the story does suffer a bit in being compressed.  I think that the multiple coincidental meetings are supposed to reflect how much fate – rather than free will – controls our lives.  But on the screen, it does feel a bit too neat.  Such as the benign peasant who pops up to share some wisdom with Pierre, only to die when he has served his purpose.   And the pace does mean that details and intentions aren’t always clear.  Did Anatole die from his wounds?  Does Helene mean to kill herself, or is she only desperate to induce a miscarriage?  Did Boris actually marry his rich heiress?

Oddly enough, while the last episode was the longest – 80 minutes, rather than 60 – events felt more compressed than ever.   It seemed that Andrei was barely laid in his grave before Pierre was proposing to Natalia.  Which may be why the cosy bucolic finale left me cold.  After all the suffering and growth of the characters, it seemed they only learned to go have some kids and sit out in the sunshine –  a bit of cop-out, if you ask me.

But in fairness to the series, I think that the things I disliked (and there weren’t that many, honest!) are actually issues with the story itself, rather than choices made by the programme makers.  I found the whole ‘destiny’ thing rather tiresome.  Sure, many things are beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make choices and take responsibility for them.  Andrei didn’t die because of fate; he died because he refused to take cover when the shell landed.  Presenting events in this way might be consistent with Tolstoy’s vision, but it did sap tension from the tale. Characters felt like they were floating along, rather than active agents in their lives.  This was especially galling as they were so privileged.  Nikolai balking at his family’s reduced circumstances when he himself gambled away a big chunk of their fortune made me want to throw something at the screen.

But the quality of the performances pulled me back in.  Everyone in this massive cast did well, but Jessie Buckley was outstanding as long-suffering Marya.  Her reaction when her father died, and later when Nikolai ‘proposed’ felt so genuine.  She was glowing with happiness by the end, and it was wonderful to watch.   Paul Dano was also great in a difficult role, making ingenuous, hopeless Pierre believable.

There was also some brilliant story-telling here.  I was never once lost as to who or where or when, which is no mean feat in a story this complex and a cast this big. There were some lovely visual touches, and the costumes were excellent (if a little anachronistic at times).  Helene was pretty irredeemable, but the sight of her pregnant in that wholly-misjudged frock showed both her lack of self-awareness and her vulnerability.   The war scenes were impressive, and strangely beautiful.  Used sparingly, they conveyed the devastation and wastefulness of war, but also the strength of humanity that such horror can throw into relief.  The scene where Pierre goes to retrieve some shot from the munition dump was brilliantly handled.  I also loved the image of the retreating French army; a great line stretched across the landscape, tiny figures dwarfed by the vast, white landscape.

As events drew to a close we got a more philosophical feel, our leads grew and leaned the value of love and forgiveness.  Andrei at peace with the word on his deathbed; Natalia beside him sounding much more grown up, and much more Russian: ‘To suffer with you would be the greatest happiness for me.’  Even Pierre starts to develop, learning to savour life’s simple pleasures, rather than barrelling through looking for an answer that doesn’t exist.  ‘Where there is life, there is happiness.’

All in all, a compelling, brilliantly made series that really brought Tolstoy’s epic to life. I’m even tempted to give the book a go.  Have you read the novel?  How does it compare?  Some have argued that this is the definitive adaptation- do you agree?  What will you watch on your Sunday nights now? Let me know!

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!

Wolf Hall, Three Card Trick (BBC2)

Adapting not one, but two Booker winning novels is no easy task, but judging from this opening episode, the Beeb could well have a classic on their hands.

Things move swiftly in the world of Wolf Hall.  It’s 1529, and Lords Norfolk and Suffolk ride to meet the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to demand he relinquish his position.  A quiet man in black buys the Cardinal a day’s reprieve.  We then learn how the Cardinal came to lose his way, and how Thomas Cromwell came to be the man stood next to him.

Based on the novels Wolf Hall and Bringing Up the Bodies, this six part series follows a fictionalised account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmiths son from Putney who came to be advisor to King Henry VIII himself.   While not told in the first person, the novels closely follow Cromwell’s thoughts and memories.  I loved the books.  They felt immediate and alive, and conveyed Cromwell’s intelligence and humanity very well.  Historical Cromwell has his fair share of critics – one historian referred to him as Alistair Campbell with an axe – and he certainly comes across as a man you wouldn’t like to upset.  But above all else he is clever.  His mind is constantly at work, dissecting the world and people around him, drawing on his diverse experiences.  I wondered how a TV series could convey this successfully.

Dialogue, mostly.  Cromwell is witty, and gives us constant reminders of the fact he is an outsider.  He asks yokels for nutmeg and saffron, makes a subtle dig at Anne to her bustier sister, and asks goodly Thomas Moore if his recent appointment to Lord Chancellor was a ‘fucking accident?’  He even talks down the king with a particularly deft combination of honesty and flattery, ‘Your majesty can form your own opinions.’

Not that it doesn’t look good.  It’s every bit as beautiful you’d expect from a BBC drama.  The costumes and set design were excellent, and with the naturalistic lighting, served to pull you into the world brilliantly.  The dialogue is easy to follow, almost entirely in modern English.  This maybe a fictionalised account of historical events, but it still holds a mirror to our own world.  Nothing changes.  Yet there were beautiful, almost lyrical moments that really add to the emotional punch of the programme- the image of little Grace walking away from us in her angel wings would have touched harder hearts than mine.

Performances were all superb, genuinely no weak links, which is remarkable for a cast this size.  Bernard Hill was perfect as limited and ill-tempered Norfolk, a medieval man in an early Renaissance world.  ‘God damn it, Cromwell.  Why are you such a- person?  It’s not like you can afford to be…’ Class concerns abound here -Boleyn bristles at the reminder that his ancestors were in trade, and Wolsey is delighted to finally meet someone of more humble beginnings than himself.  Jonathan Pryce was great – not a physical match for the well-fed Wolsey, but brilliantly displaying the ingenuity and wits that saw a butchers’ boy rise to Cardinal and Lord Chancellor both.    Not really surprising that he and Cromwell should form such a bond.  Damian Lewis makes an excellent King Henry.  We don’t see much of him, but then we don’t need to.  He looks like a king, and when he finally speaks to Cromwell, he sounds like one as well.  ‘I can.  I will.’ (This reminded me of Henry IV Part 1, ‘I do. I will.’ –  bit of foreshadowing perhaps?)

Also have to mention Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.   Only on screen for about three minutes, but she certainly made her mark.  The character of Anne Boleyn has been represented and reimagined so many times, I worried she might come across as an awkward amalgam of all those earlier versions.  But, it felt fresh.  And it certainly bodes well for further entertaining exchanges with Cromwell.  She likes a fight, does Anne.   And yet you can’t help but worry for her.  Because for all her artifice and controlled rage, you do get the sense that Anne is one of the few characters to explicitly state her intentions.  Wolsey’s destruction was just a fortunate by product- it’s a crown she wants.  And it seems that the only people who do well in this world are the ones that keep their cards close to their chest.

And so we come to Cromwell.  Mark Rylance is too old and too slight to be Cromwell.  And yet, having seen him here, I honestly can’t imagine anyone else in the part.  The slightly awkward way he removes his hat, the way his faces shows everything and nothing, and the voice most of all- perfectly correct English, yet somehow suggestive of low birth and foreign travels, gruff and measured at the same time.  It was flawless.

If I’m honest, the jumps in time could have been more deftly managed. If I hadn’t read the books, I think I would have been confused as to exactly when we were.  Probably a consequence of trying to do so much in so short a time, as well as the nature of the source material, but I can’t help but feel it could have been handled better.  It wasn’t a deal breaker, but I wonder how non-readers got on.

Still, that’s my only grumble.  Cannot praise this highly enough.  I’m just glad the rest of the series goes out the day after Broadchurch, or I really would be torn.

So, what did you think? Interesting to me that, while the series will cover the first two novels, Mantel is still working on the third and final book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.  Should the showrunners have waited until this book is finished, and then have done a definitive series?  As a historical drama, we already know (or can easily find out) the eventual fate the real-life characters depicted here.  Does this impact how you react as a viewer, or does it not matter? Do let me know.

Doctor Who, Mummy on the Orient Express, BBC1

I’ll admit it. I was worried there for a while.

I feared that Series Eight would be when Doctor Who finally lost its magic for me.  But after a shaky start, Capaldi’s Doctor has finally come into his own in this genuinely thrilling episode.

It’s not that this series has been terrible. Time Heist was good fun. And Listen was whirring along quite nicely, sticking to the trend of Doctor Who being at its best with a low budget and a cracking script, though the resolution really let things down.  So, while the first few episodes have been alright, they have lacked that certain something that distinguishes good from great.

That all changed with ‘Mummy on the Orient Express’ which, naff title aside, was a classy, well-paced piece of work.  A rich old lady on a luxury train is killed just 66 seconds after encountering a creepy Egyptian mummy.  However, she was the only one who could see him.  A hallucination produced by her oxygen-deprived brain, perhaps?  Well, the train is actually a space ship and this is Doctor Who, so my money would be on no.

First praise has to go to writer Jaime Mathieson, who has done a superb job helming his first episode.  (I can’t help but feel relieved this was a Moffat-free zone.) Putting a time limit on events can seem a cheap way of creating tension, but here it worked really well, with how different people reacted to their final countdown giving neat little insights into their character.  The whole episode was well structured, and the resolution was both clever and just a little bit affecting.  I especially enjoyed the Doctor’s conversation with Clara on the beach, and the Captain’s shock at learning that his best waiter was, in fact, a hologram.

The performances were uniformly excellent, with GUS proving to be the most effective villain we’ve encountered for a while.  Frank Skinner also pops up as an engineer who knows more than he’s telling.  Some have criticised his acting, but I honestly thought he was fine.  Though, I’ll admit, I was relieved when he declined to take a trip on the TARDIS.  Capaldi has been solid all series, but was on particularly cracking form here, and seemed to relish the opportunity to finally take centre stage.

The production values were excellent.  I loved the Bioshock-esque 1920s feel and the attention to detail.  The costumes were also great, particularly Clara’s stunning black and gold beaded dress.  The Doctor’s outfit was beautifully balanced: genuinely smart evening suit teamed with an anachronistic and slightly silly neck tie.  Also thought the jelly babies in a cigarette case was a lovely touch.

Issues? Well… Clara is still annoying.  Seriously, woman, are you staying or going?  And, fundamentally, I just don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about her.  I assume we’re meant to sympathise at the human cost of being a Companion.  But to be honest, I’m finding all that to be just a little bit tedious.  I want all of time and space, and thrills, and (yeah) a bit of whimsy.  Instead I’ve got a Guardian-reading schoolmarm telling snide jokes and stopping to give a lecture every 15 minutes.  She started off as plot device, and for me, that is precisely how she’s stayed.    Just a few episodes ago, Clara was willing to annihilate her very existence to save the Doctor.  But we’re now meant to believe that she – for, as far as I can tell, no real reason – is angry enough with the Doctor to contemplate leaving for good?  It just doesn’t ring true.

I can cope with wonky sets and wonkier science, but I need characters I care about.  Preferably flawed, likable and occasionally brilliant.   But, most of all, they have to be capable of growth, and I don’t think Clara is.  Every companion I’ve met has been forced to grow up by their time on the TARDIS.  Rose fell in love, and then lost it.  Martha matured enough to walk away from a situation that could only cause her pain.  Donna saved the universe and paid a terrible price.  The Ponds love for each other was tested, and found to be true.  But has Clara grown at all?  She has met the Doctor as a child.  She has told Danny she loves him.  She has seen a T-Rex in the Thames, and an alien hatch from the Moon.  But, for all her fine speeches, I’m not convinced that Clara has changed at all.  Which, for me, is a problem.   And it could also be the reason that, rumour has it, this is to be her final series.

However, whatever my reservations about Clara, they were nowhere near enough to detract from what was real return to form for the Doctor.  With my faith restored, and Mathieson penning next week’s episode as well, I will most definitely be tuning in again.

PS.  Frank Skinner as the almost-companion made me wonder…

As a child of the 90s, all the Companions I’ve seen have been female (Rory only stayed for Amy, so he doesn’t count).  How do how do you think a male Companion would get on?  Has it worked in the past?  What would the dynamic be?  And am I on the money about Clara, or just writing nonsense?  Do let me know your thoughts!

Peaky Blinders, S1, BBC2

With series two starting this week, and having missed it first time round, I decided to catch up on series one of Peaky Blinders.  This was a good plan!

Cillian Murphy heads up the cast as Tommy, second son of the Shelby clan; small time gangsters from Birmingham.  Just returned from WWI, Tommy and his brothers are trying to settle back into their lives when a shipment of heavy artillery is ‘misplaced’.  Chief Inspector Campbell is sent over from Northern Ireland to trace and reclaim the guns before the IRA can get their hands on them, but Tommy has other ideas…

First things first; the writing is superb. With the possible exception of Ada- who seems to exist only to be annoying, get pregnant, and then be annoying some more- everybody convinces as a genuine, complex character.  Almost all of them are flawed somehow, with their own motives, and each responding to situations in a convincing way.   The script made the most of its time and place as the men struggled to shake off the horrors of war and return to their former lives, and the women they left behind try to readjust to a world where they are no longer in control.  The Troubles impact on the lives of these English gangsters, and there are powerful gypsy and Italian families also vying for control.  In lesser hands, it could all have been a bit too much, but here you just get a sense of a complex, shifting world where moral absolutism doesn’t really apply.

Ideas of morality and loyalty run through the whole story.  Is Tommy taking control for selfish reasons, or for the good of the family?  Does the end justify the means, as Campbell seems to feel?  Is it right to follow your heart if it may destroy everyone around you?  Should you be loyal to causes, or to people?  It’s all fascinating stuff, and all played out so brilliantly here.  It’s got an epic quality but operates at a human level at the same time.  Even the supporting characters feel fully realised.  You get the feeling they all go about their lives when you aren’t looking.   It doesn’t hurt that the performances are uniformly excellent.  Cillian Murphy as a lot of work to do, playing this damaged, ambitious and clever man, but he makes it looks easy.  I liked that the women get a look-in too, with Helen McCrory doing a great job as Poll: ‘You know the words.  The baby will be a bastard and you’ll be a whore.  But there’s no word for the man who doesn’t come back.’

The whole thing looks fantastic as well; all dark, satanic mills and squalor.   Almost the only bit of grass you see is at the cemetery.  You can almost forgive the Blinders for their law-breaking ways in an environment so harsh and unforgiving.  The period details are excellent, with actual sawdust on the pub floor and pints being served from a bucket in the snug.  I also loved Grace leading a sing-song with the punters, at least ‘til the Blinders walk in…

The use of music was particularly clever.  Grace declares that her singing ‘…made the men cry and stop fighting’, and you can almost believe it.   Annabelle Wallis does a wonderful job with the songs; including a beautiful rendition of what I think was ’Carrickfergus’, and a heartbreaking version of ‘Black Velvet Band’.  This could easily have been cheesy, or just badly done, but it really works.  I think this is partly because of the quality and emotional resonance of the singing, but also because it is incredibly stripped back, with no accompanying music or fancy editing.  It feels very raw and real; a powerful contrast with Tommy’s emotional restraint.  It also works strangely well with the programmes’ modern soundtrack; I recognised  Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and various White Stripes tunes.  This looks set to continue next series, with Johnny Lee Hooker’s ‘Bang Bang Bang Bang’ accompanying the season two trailer.  It gives the whole programme a distinctive edge, setting it apart from other historical dramas, and yet it never feels like a gimmick or a distraction.  All of the music seems to have been really well thought out, and even the modern stuff never jars.  On the contrary, it seems always to contribute to the meaning and power of a scene.

Any criticisms at all? Well, the accents were occasionally a bit wonky, often sounding more Scouse than Brummie to my ear; and Sam Neill’s Northern Irish accent didn’t quite convince.  However, the overall quality of the show more than made up for any such slips.  And given that series two is only days away, it would seem that the BBC didn’t mind that much either.

What did you think?  Did the accents put you off?  Did you enjoy the soundtrack, or find it irritating?  Any ideas if Grace or Campbell will make it to series two?  Have I missed anything of note? Let me know below!

PS Given that I box-setted this on iPlayer (cheers, Beeb!), do you think watching a show this way impacts your understanding or enjoyment? Do you love to binge, or do you prefer a weekly dose?

100 Seconds to Beat the World: The David Rudisha Story (BBC4)

Some moments are just so perfect they linger in the memory for ever.

The 2012 London Olympics was filled with memorable moments, but the stand out for me was David Rudisha’s astonishing win in the 800m Men’s final.

I enjoy athletics, but I’m not a middle-distance fan. This particular race, however, was unusual. The pace was so staggering, that the athlete that finished last in this race would have won the last three Olympic golds. And the man who won, took four seconds off his own world record.

Just in time for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the BBC presents the inspirational story of Kenyan athlete David Rudisha and the Irish missionary who trains him.

We see a lanky 16-year-old David arrive at St Patricks High School as the only pupil from the Maasai community. Head Master and Irish missionary, Brother Colm O’Connell, welcomes the new class: ‘You are special to us. We take care of you… and you mean something to us.’ Faith, family and community run through the programme as a source of strength and inspiration. The programme refers to both men as ‘David’ and ‘Brother Colm’, suggesting the strong bond between them, as well as Brother Colm’s warm and informal style. The school aims to develop young people as individuals, not just athletes, and school work and prayer are as important as training. After a period of unrest in Kenya, which claimed the life of a close friend of David’s, Brother Colm reiterates the cohesive effect athletics can have as people from different communities work together to represent their country. Its worth noting that the programme makes great use of music to create a sense of place, reflecting the dynamism and confidence of Kenya.

Both David’s talent and his commitment are shown from the start as the show follows key points in his progress. Each point in the story is allowed to unfold naturally, with the story structured with screen inserts rather than voice-over, which feels less invasive. David’s father won silver in the 400m relay at the 1968 Olympics, and David initially runs the same distance. Brother Colm suggests he change to 800m, where he excels. He later wins the World Junior Championships and then enters the difficult transition from junior the senior level. However, injury and a poor showing at the 2009 World Championships threaten to hold him back. This prompts the second biggest change in his sporting career- a shift in tactics to front-running.

Growth, both physical and psychological, is seen in David. The distinction between the relaxed, smiling, softly spoken man we see talking to camera and the focussed, disciplined athlete on the track becomes ever more distinct as time goes on. While he may have been expected to take on a new coach as he moves up to senior level, David sticks with Brother Colm. Living so far from his family, David values Brother Colm’s almost paternal support, as the latter explains the need for psychological as well as physical strength in athletics.
All leading up to that race. Sometimes sport can be done so well, can just look so good, that all attempts to describe it are useless. You just have to see it. The show wisely lets the running do the talking for the crucial race. Everyone in that field acquitted themselves admirably, with many achieving personal or even national bests. In the last 200m, they were all pushing hard, most looking a little ragged, right on the edge of their limits. But David looks so calm and determined, head up, eyes forward, knees high. Racing from the front, the only battle is for second place as he continues to pull forward until he crosses the finish line. The the board flashes up: ‘1.40.91 New WR’ and his hands go up in celebration. It’s the greatest 800m race in history.

The programme could easily have finished there, but it takes the time to close with a real sense of pride and optimism for the future. David proudly shows off his father’s silver medal alongside his own gold from London, before his little girl takes his medal and puts it around her neck with a grin. The training programme at St Patricks continues to thrive, with Brother Colm at the helm. I really enjoyed the sense of continuity that was created, and how the final word was that there is no easy trick to creating an Olympic athlete, and that there is still ‘life after Olympic gold’. The training is all part of Brother Colm’s mission-work to help young people, and part of Kenya’s wider commitment to maintaining its proud record of athletic success.

This was a beautiful story brilliantly told and there is plenty to love here, even if you’re not a fan of athletics.

Did you see the programme? Did you enjoy it? Is there anything you feel I’ve missed out? Do let me know.