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"Lip Service," "David Attenborough’s First Life," and "Spooks" Reviewed

By Caspar Salmon | TV | November 11, 2010 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | November 11, 2010 |

Lip Service


Oh, “Lip Service,” how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. 1. You’re completely terrible and I love to laugh at you. 2. Oh dear, there’s only one way, and it’s that one I just listed. The laughing-at-it way. But honestly, it really is genuinely hilarious and I suppose, if I’m honest, it has picked up since its first episode which, thanks to the BBC’s re-watch service, I can now watch over and over and over to make myself laugh.

It all starts when Shane… sorry, I mean Frankie. It’s a completely different character to Shane from “The L Word,” completely different. She’s called Frankie, for a start, which is a totally different name to “Shane” — and she’s a sexy butch dyke with a short, choppy haircut, jeans, a leather jacket, dark eye make-up and slouchy body language. Oh yeah that’s right, now I think about it she’s 100 percent a shameless Shane rip-off. Anyway, so it all starts when — let’s call her Shankie, a “cool photographer” living in “New York” (signified by a terrible-looking warehouse apartment with white walls, an Apple computer and some designer furniture — blatantly a studio in West London), receives news that her aunt has died, which impels her to return to Glasgow, the town where she lived two years ago with her girlfriend, Cat. We know that Cat and Shankie used to be an item and that their will-they-won’t-they love affair will be the central plot of the show, because every other character is given hilarious exposition dialogue to say, along the lines of, “Won’t it be hard for you to see Shankie again? You two went out for years before she dumped you in an acrimonious way two years ago before departing for New York and only returning now for the funeral of her aunt, who was her only living relative!”

In the start, “Lip Service” also suffered — apart from clunky script and L-Word-itis — from a tendency to try to be too modern. There were scenes where people would be on Facebook and talk about being on Facebook (“She untagged my photos, the bitch!”; “Stop checking out her profile, yeah?” etc), and the cringe factor was almost too high to make it tolerable. Also: the sex scenes, I’m afraid to say, I personally found unrewarding, which is another problem. I hate to get all graphic on you, and I’m a couple of sexualities removed from the intended core audience so I could be wrong, but is there really always that much frigging on the lesbian scene? I know there’s definitely not that much bed-hopping and not so many one-night stands in general, and that most lesbians enjoy a quiet night in with their girlfriend — but this show is also drawing on “Queer As Folk” as an influence, with Shankie taking on some traits of Aidan Gillen in that programme, and I’m happy for it to take liberties with reality as an excuse to show some hot lesbo action. But it’s this frantic frigging that bothers me. Is it really that common, or worth it? I certainly wouldn’t want my clitoris to be roughed up like that. If I had a clitoris.

Anyway, it’s got a lot better since the start, and there’s actually been a fairly satisfactory storyline about Shankie’s true genealogy. I’m fairly fond of Laura Fraser, who plays the sweet Cat, and I think her steady girlfriend, a policewoman, is who I’d go for if I were a lady-loving lady. Yeah, she’s definitely got it going on — and the actor is, I note from Wikipedia, actually a lesbian, which is probably why she’s the only character who makes sense. Elsewhere, there are problems with sexualities ringing false. There’s a strange sub-plot where a man fancies his lesbian friend — except that the dynamic they have is completely gay man/fag-hag, not straight man/lesbo. So the whole thing falls flat.

The latest episode — episode 5 — had some good moments and some good lines, including one where the characters were going to a gay cowboy night, starring “Kenny Rogered and Billy Gay Cyrus.” I’ll keep watching for the dodgy sex and the cringe factor, but “The L Word” needn’t fear too much.

David Attenborough’s First Life


There’s a problem with writing about David Attenborough. Critics always retreat into a default fawning mode, because, really — here I go — David Attenborough is a wonder of television, a small legend of the screen and an innovator in wildlife documentaries. His enthusiasm is infectious and his life is admirable — you get a tingle from watching him observe the world around him and tell its story; his voice only richer and more oaky with time. He’s one of those people you can’t criticise, like Michael J. Fox. Except that unlike Michael J. Fox, he’s not got an annoying face and has had a brilliant career. BOOM!

This new two-part series sees the great Dave, after a life-time making glorious programmes about life on earth, set off in search of life’s origins themselves. It’s a beautiful end to his career — and this two-parter does feel like a conclusion to his life’s work — because it makes sense of everything he’s done before. It also, in my view, constitutes the much-needed stand that atheists like myself have been hoping Attenborough would take, as one of the most prominent and respected people in British public life. Attenborough would never be so coarse as to deny the existence of a god, but everything he says in this series, it seems to me, refutes the possibility of a deity, in showing how complex forms evolved from simple, base origins.

In this series it’s a treat to see him, now aged 129, ivory comb-over flapping in the breeze, draping himself over rocks to point at intricate fossils, or to watch him breathlessly hobble up to the camera, or comment over startling computer reconstitutions of now-fossilised life. It produces a feeling that’s rare in other programmes — Christina Hendricks’ ass is also a purveyor of it — which is one of wonder.

Attenborough could have rested on his laurels, but even now he is innovating, using brilliant technology to get to the heart of life — and observing his delight in science-revealed-by-science, you get a greater sense of his purpose than, at times, in his wildlife documentaries, which sometimes revelled in animal cuteness; here, you get the bigger picture of the common constitution of life on earth, what links us all, and the great big miracle of the beautiful accident of life on earth.



“Spooks” concluded its 9th (!) series this week, and honestly, like “Lip Service,” I’m afraid to say it shows (in my view) that y’all Americans do this sort of thing much better. “Spooks” (known as “MI:5” in the states) — the programme about Britain’s modern secret services and their constant attempts to prevent people from attacking London — laboured, in its infancy, under comparisons with “24.” As well it should, given that it cynically burglared the whole time-counts and split-screens thing from the K-Suth prog. But it also showed, from the get-go, that it meant to do business. I was so excited when, in the first series, Lisa Faulkner’s character, who had been presented as a main character for the whole series, got brutally murdered in a deep fat fryer in episode 3. God that was good! That was when “Spooks: got its balls out on the table and announced it wanted to play.

Since then, I’m not sure the series has had that many highlights. In fact, there was a particular lowlight a few years back when it turned out after a whole season that the mole at MI5 had been the woman who plays Bridget Jones’s mum. Gemma bloody Jones! She should be resting at home eating scones, not conspiring with the Russkies! Hardly Nina Myers stuff. Still, I stuck with it, on and off, for a couple of years, depending on which actor was playing the James Bond-with-a-heart central role at the time, and had pretty much given up until this year, when I thought I’d revisit it for this column.

Meh. I’d already seen a couple of episodes with the new main guy, this Richard Armitage chap, who plays the enigmatic main spy, Lucas North. And watching this new season just confirmed, in my mind, that Richard Armitage is one of the worst actors to (dis)grace the TV screen. He can barely say his dialogue. Which is a problem when your last season on the show hinges on (SPOILER ALERT!) the mystery of whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy who’s been playing a double game. If he is a bad guy, what is it that he wants and when is he going to turn against MI5? This is a pretty good storyline, and it’s obvious the BBC had put some work into it — although “Spooks” fans will be pleased to hear that there are all the usual plot-holes and contrivances this year, too — but it would be so much better if the main man was capable of uttering a single line without bringing to mind Jack Nicholson at the end of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. He doesn’t even have any presence! Keanu Reeves can’t act, but you notice he’s there, at any rate! Also, Armitage used to be kind of good-looking, in a glowering-by-numbers way, in a sort of very obvious hunk kind of manner — but he isn’t aging well and looks very blank and taut in this last season. Has he over-plucked his eye-brows? It’s distracting.

This latest series of “Spooks” had been announced as the last, and then BBC executives denied it vehemently, and I’m happy-ish to announce that, at the end of Series 9, it looks all set to return next year. I just hope they can get rid of some of the clunky dialogue next time round. I wrote down what might be my all-time favourite line of exposition from this series, which came in episode 1 as the hero is about to board a ship in order to take down a rebel who has commandeered it. One of his bosses speaks to him on the phone: “I don’t need to warn you how dangerous he is. (Pause) He’s the African head of Al-Qaeda. (Pause) Be careful.” Wouldn’t they have discussed this in a couple of board meetings beforehand?

On the plus side, they should definitely bring back Nicola Walker next year. She’s really very, very good — a realistic actor, who naturally commands attention and sympathy. She’s been great throughout the show, but she was particularly excellent in the last episode. In a startling scene with charisma-vacuum Armitage, she was so convincing with her screaming — a close-up, harrowing enactment of terror — that I got goosebumps. What is she doing in “Spooks”? Actually, don’t bring her back — give her another show.

I’m a bit stuck because I really don’t want to give plot details away from this season, if any of you have missed it and want to see it still, but trust me that the tension gets pretty highly ratcheted. “Spooks” has big production values, lots of twists and turns, a very high silliness quotient and some decent-looking types; it just lacks a bit of pizzazz, I find. We’ll see if it returns, and with what intentions.

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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