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This Week in British TV: An Endurance Contest, With A Prize For The Winner!

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 3, 2011 | Comments ()

By Caspar Salmon | TV | March 3, 2011 |


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Holla! This week I bring you the final episode of the majestic "The Promise," get back to grips with "Skins" and find it worth sticking with, and -- saving my vitriol for last -- wonder what the hell is happening to the world as I attempt to watch "Mrs Brown's Boys." It's a mixed bag, to say the least.

The Promise

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"The Promise", Peter Kosminsky's riveting and painful examination of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1946 and the present day, concluded on Sunday. It has been by far the best programme of the year, and for quite some time that I can think of. It is one of those shows in which every detail feels perfectly researched and created, and everyone brings a fierce, convincing commitment to their roles. Everything was at the service of an immaculate, difficult, long and devastating series that successfully shed a compassionate light on a very tangled matter.

To recap, Erin (beautifully played by Claire Foy) is on a break in Israel, reading the diaries of her grandfather Len(Christian Cooke), who was there just after World War 2 and was involved in the creation of Israel as a member of the British Army. He, in his stay in Haifa, is involved in some sort of betrayal that has ruined his whole life, and Erin sets about trying to repair the wrong that was done. I can't ruin the story for you, but it involves carrying out a failed promise, made many years earlier by her grandfather. When Erin finally got to do so, in a moment played with supreme brilliance by Foy, I became a huge blubbing wreck.

The programme, beyond the narrative framework on which it bases its investigation of violence, also alludes to other kinds of promise. How, for instance, an idea that was once so promising (creating a haven for an oppressed people) could have been so defiled in the name of feudal religious hatred. How, also, the promises made to the Palestinian people were neglected in the wake of the conflict. Where the show made it mark was in the human scale it brought to the conflict, examining it through the eyes of two innocent, hopeful characters whose ideals are gradually shattered; through, too, the story of a humble and kind Palestinian family whose lives are torn apart. The modern narrative also lent immediacy to the section of the programme set in the past. Both strands were allowed to elapse slowly over episodes of an hour and a half, unfurling so many levels of ambiguity, so much measured analysis and evidence, so many true and beautiful moments between the characters, that it was a privilege to watch.

Some have complained of the programme that it is unbalanced, that it whitewashes terrorist crimes in the name of a Palestinian state. I must say I'm unconvinced by this argument, since "The Promise" lays out its polemic in the most considered terms possible, showing violence on all sides and explaining that despair and tyranny are often twins. Len's words recorded in his diary as he leaves the country are bold: "this precious state of theirs has been born in violence and cruelty to their neighbours. I'm not sure how it can hope to survive."

Please, for goodness' sake watch it. It's heavy-going but richly rewarding and powerful.


Skins

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Time that we checked up on "Skins" again -- which has improved, as I had hoped, since the occasional wobbles in the first episode of this fifth season. The trouble with "Skins" is that, because episodes take turns in centring mostly on one character while the others take a back seat, it relies too heavily on the talent of its individual performers. And considering that almost all the kids in this are new to acting and are required to interpret some fairly deep stuff (abuse, anorexia, bullying, being cheated on, family rifts, you name it), there is sometimes a gap between its ambitions and its success. The last two episodes have been successful because they were held up by two bold, engaging actors: Laya Lewis, playing Liv (the one who everyone thinks is a dumb slut but actually has a thin skin and tender heart) and Sean Teale, playing Nick (as above, but replace slut with jock). Other actors, playing the other various misfits in this new generation, haven't fared nearly as well.

We pick up the story where Nick and Liv have been doing it behind the back of Nick's girlfriend and Liv's best friend, the anorexic bully and school queen bee Mini. Liv runs away from home when things get too heavy, for a night of drugs and hedonism, and meets a wild devil-may-care sexy drop-out with whom she hangs out and gets romantical. It turns out, when they both return to Bristol, that he is Matty, Nick's long lost older brother. Tuh duh DUH! In Nick's episode, following this one, Nick is feeling suffocated by the return of his cool brother and his easy inclusion in the group of friends (where Nick feels awkward), and by his own reputation as a gallumphing sportsman. So he too runs away, after having a breakdown and smashing some shit up in his Dad's kitchen. He then returns home, quits the rugby team, confronts the coach, confronts his Dad, makes up with his brother and has a bonfire of all his old crap.

So far so standard - but Laya Lewis had a lovely, natural delivery and enough depth in her acting to reveal the sense of insecurity and sadness of her character, while Teale displayed killer comic timing and whoomph in his early scenes, generating terrific empathy that largely carried him through the more emotional scenes (which he proved slightly less good at). In these instances, you can forget that the "Skins" formula hardly ever changes and consists of: 1) showing every character's façade at school, 2) puncturing the façade with some confrontational scenes at home, and then 3) putting the character through a terrible, crying, drinking, screaming binge of nightmare hell that leads to 4) a resolution of sorts by the end of the episode.

In the meantime, besides the sometimes heavy-handed treatment of 'issues', the script has a wonderful line in comedy, with ace throwaway characters and lovely lines, such as this one, where Nick's father is threatening Matty: "I've got my eye on you. Every move you make. Every step you take... (Pause, as he realises he's erred into Sting. He bravely carries on, but with a feeble voice) I'm watching you." Teale also had a brilliant moment where, as Nick is giving a rousing speech of pre-match encouragement to his team, involving a metaphor of roughing up the opponents and doing bad things to them, he gradually lapsed into the most disgusting and filthy sort of imagery, to an embarrassed silence from everyone. These are the moments that make "Skins" so winning, so full of nerve and sweetness.

Mrs Brown's Boys

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Reader, I tried watching "Mrs Brown's Boys." For you, I went to the BBC website and looked up the new 'comedy' show on the catch-up service. For you, I ignored the tell-tale animated opening credits and silenced my inner scream when I saw the studio audience; for you I suppressed a spine-long shudder of shock at the tawdry comedy set and rode out a sphincter-pucker of distaste at the initial entrance of Brendan O'Carroll in drag as Mrs Brown, the hilariously foul-mouthed matriarch of a family of lovable Irish layabouts. (Please insert your own inverted commas everywhere in that last sentence)

But reader, the prospect of winning your love and respect by enduring the whole program was not enough to - erm - make me endure the whole program. I lasted 14 minutes and 17 seconds, which equates to roughly half the show's half-hour duration, i.e. a fricking eternity. Half an eternity, that's not bad going. So I hereby set you a challenge: go and dial up an episode of "Mrs Brown's Boys." Go on. See how long you last. A friend of mine to whom I mentioned the show managed 3 minutes and 47 seconds, and said to me, "that man coming in dressed as a penguin was the point where I gave up. On life." The person who is able to beat my hard-won record of 14 minutes and 17 seconds will earn, on top of the obligatory nervous breakdown, a hand-printed t-shirt with a picture of Brendan O'Carroll and the caption, "The four horsemen have been downsized." Just specify your size and I'll put it in the post. Good luck. And sorry.

I didn't think the BBC could top "Miranda" (sorry, I mean 'bottom' "Miranda") - heretofore the worst piece of 'comedy' since Prince Harry got invited to a fancy-dress party and decided he would rummage through Heinrich Himmler's dressing-up box for inspiration - but this new series really takes the Garibaldi. Would you like to hear the set-up? You've already heard that there's a lobotomised audience watching a man in drag playing a lairy old woman in a comedy waster family in a rickety studio set. But wait, there's more. You should also know that 'comedian' Brendan O'Carroll talks to camera very often, either in the guise of his comedy alter ego, with anvil-heavy asides about modern ways, or sometimes just breaking character, because what could be funnier than a comedy stereotype breaking the fourth wall? Oh yeah, that's right: anything. Bear in mind, too, that the opening episode centres largely on the hilarity of retrieving something from an old man's anus. You've heard about the character dressed as a penguin. What else? Brendan O'Carroll's wife plays his daughter. She can't act, and is saddled with some catastrophic storyline about a date gone awry. Everyone, including her, just sits about and corpses while O'Carroll camps and flounces and gurns, and everyone says things like, "Oh Mam!" or "You don't mean that, Mam!" Meanwhile, the whole wretched, lumbering, stinky vehicle is stuffed with resolutely bullshit "men are pigs, women are headstrong"-type gender politics. Rarely has Ricky Gervais' satirical, fake sitcom from Extras, "When the Whistle Blows", seemed more relevant and hilarious. This show is as fresh as Miss Havisham's wedding dress and as burningly topical as phrenology.

So how has this been allowed to happen? How can something that makes "Two and a Half Men" look high-concept and Wildean have been allowed to air? In 2011! Why did the BBC import something that would make people born in the 80s yearn for the egalitarian, zingy 70s once more? How in Thor's name could something so toothless, decaying and bedraggled get given a slot even on a regional channel in the Faroe Islands, let alone prime time on a worldwide institution? Welcome to Cameron's Britain, everyone - grimly scaling back on health, education, charity, aid, the arts and comedy. Enjoy the credit crunch everyone!


Caspar Salmon: I've just realised that, in my accent, "sauce-pot" and "sore spot" sound exactly the same.



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