"Peep Show," "Newsnight" with Christopher Hitchens, and "Accused"
Hoowee! I don’t know what you lot have been up to in the last few days, but this week I’ve been getting down and dirty with British television. On Friday night, British TV strutted up to me in my sitting-room, whipped off its trousers, performed a sexy-yet-comical dance while singing ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road,” and then rubbed up against my chest, breathing, “You and me, Caspar. What’s it gonna be?” Since then: Well, I’m not going to go on about it, but it’s been pretty, pretty hot, let me tell you. The things I’ve seen!
I’m talking, of course, about the great return of “Peep Show,” back for a brand spanking new seventh (seventh!) season on Friday, but I’m not just talking of that! There was a majestic episode of “Newsnight” on Monday, with an extended interview of Christopher Hitchens by the great Jeremy Paxman, which verily tickled me in my secret spot, and then today I caught up on this week’s episode of “Accused,” which brought me to my knees. Seriously, I’m exhausted. Oh British TV, you cruel, relentless lover!
So, on with those sexy, sexy shows, shall we?
As the peerless, sensational, brain-molestingly brilliant “Peep Show” returned on Friday, we found the two main characters — the perennially mismatched bromance of our times, stuck-up social nightmare Mark and charming slacker arse-bag Jeremy — in hospital, where Mark’s albatross on-off girlfriend Sophie is due to give birth to his child. There, we assist in open-mouthed astonishment as Mark fails to act the supportive partner to the agonised Sophie, and Jez shamelessly macks on the girlfriend of a comatose patient. Out of these grotesque situations, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (of In The Loop and Four Lions writing credits fame) weave a web of pure gold. It’s a wonder to behold.
I’m trying to think of my favourite moments, the best lines, to give you a flavour. But the whole show is jam-packed with storming lines and with brilliant situational hilarity; how to pick? There’s the whole running gag of Mark being more preoccupied with his broken boiler and trying to contain his worry so as to appear sensitive to Sophie, who has bigger fish to fry. There’s the incredible joke about snipping the umbilical cord, which was absolutely repulsive and snort-inducingly hilarious. There’s Sophie talking more in wonder than disgust about the nurse checking her dilation level: “She put her whole hand in! I didn’t think she’d put her whole hand in!” There’s Mark reading FHM to the comatose patient so as to appear supportive to the man’s girlfriend. I suppose the top bit, for me, came when Jez was contemplating an old man sitting in the waiting room of the hospital, and we heard his inner voice -
Jez: God. How did he get so old? I’ll never let myself get so old. I mean, you have to get old up to a point (close-up on the man sitting bent in his chair) — but that’s ridiculous.
But the whole show is bursting with brilliant lines. Here’s Mark talking about Jeremy: “Of course. Comes in, brings the ghastly music, then leaves. He’s like the 1980s” Here’s Mark psyching himself up to ask a nurse for a birthing pool for Sophie, which he finds embarrassingly new-agey and stupid. “Right. I don’t believe in it but I’ve got to sell it. I’m Clare Short supporting Iraq! I’m Trinny and Susannah endorsing Nescafe!” I think the brilliance came from picking three women to compare himself to, but also from the eclecticism of the references, and how wildly they veer from very important to entirely trivial. These insights into Mark’s mind, which behaves, like Jez’s, according to an entirely warped yet totally believable rationale, are absolutely priceless.
This episode also showed how deft “Peep Show” is at doing real emotions: the loveliness of Mark’s real pride as he gazes at his newborn by the end of the episode, is entirely truthful and touching — because it is married to his fatalism and his usual prosaic concerns: he is just as happy at his boiler having been repaired, and his grand dreams for his newborn are sweetly midling: “Maybe my son can sort climate change! He might figure out cold fusion! Not as one of the main guys, that’s unrealistic, but as an administrator!”
“Peep Show” is one of the great shows of our time, and it bizarrely seems to keep improving. As you can tell, I’m thrilled it’s back. So are you! Of course you are! I’m tempted to substitute the words “Peep Show” for ‘the sea’ in Jean-Paul Belmondo’s famous line from A Bout de Souffle: “If you don’t love the sea… go fuck yourself”
It’s difficult to explain Jeremy Paxman to American people. He’s an opinionated, intellectual, unflinching news presenter, who is essentially Jon Stewart-esque in his anti-bullshit style, with the relentlessness of Bill O’Reilly but none of the stupidity. He is also a very underrated interviewer, who relishes a challenge and who can display a genuine sweetness and humanity when interviewing someone he respects and connects with.
This was the case for his half-hour interview with Christopher Hitchens on Monday: there was a real warmth between them, and you could see Paxman admiring Hitchens’s unapologetic chutzpah, his take-no-prisoners brashness of thought, and his easy intellect. It was also a very difficult interview to pull off, tonally, because Hitchens is at death’s door, completely bald and seemingly rendered very frail by his almost certainly lethal cancer. But he is also combative as heck, and Paxman beautifully walked a very thin line between challenging and respectful as he asked Hitchens how he felt about his impending death; there was no kowtowing.
Hitchens was on regal form: hearing him pondering this parasite in his body in such straightforward language, and talking about his thoughts on death as an atheist, was a thing of beauty. It made me want to grab someone nearby and shriek, “Listen! Listen to this!” What was delightful (to me, certainly) was how little Hitchens has lost of his edge: he persisted in his attacks on Mother Teresa, Islam and religion, and argued his points brilliantly. He elicited a snort of laughter from Paxman when he voiced his fear of living on, past his death, “in this body.” There was also a perfectly delightful moment when Hitchens, asked about his plans for now, what with the spectre of death looming above him, said, “Oh well. KBO,” and Paxman gleefully supplied, for the audience’s benefit, “Keep buggering on.”
It’s seldom that you get to watch two people kick back, take their time, and have a proper conversation about important things. Seeing this thoughtful, respectful interview — and I must add that I don’t agree with Hitchens on everything; I’m with him on religion and its over-exalted place in society, but do not agree with his position on Iraq — made me yearn for more searching, forensic interviews like this. Fabulous.
The delights continued with “Accused,” the new great drama on the BBC block. After the pretty great opener with Christopher Eccleston, the series whopped out Mackenzie Crook of The Office fame for a second episode, and then in this third episode, which was really freaking marvellous, they got hold of the great Peter Capaldi. MALCOLM TUCKER!
I watched that episode, thanks to Channel 4’s catch-up service, over a train journey from London to Birmingham. Here is my advice to you, dear reader: do not, as I did, watch this episode on a train. I repeat: do not watch it on a train. I started crying roughly seven minutes in, then choked up again on average every ten minutes for the next fifty or so, and was a complete mess of tears by the end of the episode. Do NOT watch in on a train. Big mistake.
This episode of “Accused” centred on Helen, played by the always awesome Juliet Stevenson (Truly, Madly, Deeply), whose son dies in a forklift truck accident at work, and whose marriage (to Capaldi) begins to disintegrate as she seeks to find out who was guilty for the accident. The episode, as with all episodes of this drama, opens with the main character in the dock for a crime she committed - something which keeps the show very tight and suspenseful. Throughout, we watch in terror as Helen crumbles and wonder how low she will sink in her fight against her son’s bosses.
Everything about this episode was superb, with brilliant acting from Stevenson, and excellent support from Capaldi as her loving husband, driven to alcohol as he fails to cope with his son’s loss and the lack of support from his crusading wife. Stevenson is so thin, with a funny long face and snub-nose that turns to steel or suddenly melts; she’s winsome, but with a reserve of harder emotions at her disposal, which sort of wind you. She had great chemistry with Capaldi, who generously took a back seat while nevertheless turning in some raw, brilliant scenes that show there is so much more to him than Malcolm Tucker. Seeing him break down while ironing a shirt, or turn up to court dressed as a clown and singing ‘Desperado’ (trust me, it’s incredible), you know that he’s one of the greats of our time.
The whole thing was full of superb moments that felt absolutely right: a quaver and a rise in Stevenson’s voice as she struggles to control her tears; a character’s comment that a sign saying ‘Beware of the dog’ was “just there to keep the crackheads at bay”. There was a breathtaking scene where Capaldi comes home loaded with booze and heads to the kitchen; Stevenson is in the sitting-room, and the camera films them each in their own room, from the side. Then Capaldi suddenly shouts at her, and you realise there’s a hatch between the two rooms, and they had both been able to see each other; the subtlety of it, the analogy for their marriage, the surprise of it too: I was overjoyed at the technical brilliance.
I won’t spoil the (slightly unbelievable) ending, but it ends with them in court and it tore me to shreds. Watch it.
Three more things, quickly: my friend Max was indeed wrong about “Misfits”, as so many of you pointed out last week; I found the second episode pretty great (although it had a harder time reconciling the psychological verisimilitude with the supernatural themes, with a crowbarred-in character who never quite earned our love), and I’m really looking forward to catching up on ep 3. And “The Apprentice”, which I mentioned in my first (I think) column on British TV for Pajiba, is getting to the stage where they’re trying to portray the idiot candidates as capable, intelligent specimens, since one of them is going to win it in a few weeks’ time. It’s all great fun, but don’t be fooled: these are still enormous morons, and there are still huge laughs to be had at their expense. The revolting Stuart Baggs in particular is proving to be almost Dickensian in his ghastliness, and the producers are clearly only keeping him in because he is TV magic. I’ll report back when it concludes. And finally, “Any Human Heart” continues to be a self-regarding barrel-load of arse, which I definitely won’t watch again, but does anyone else want to see a spin-off programme where Gillian Anderson and Tom Hollander reprise their roles as Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor? I’d happily watch that all day.
Caspar lives in London and bravely considers himself to be in his late twenties. He enjoys many things, the listing of which would make him sound like an unbearably pretentious douche.
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