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This Week in British TV: The Television Aftermath of the Royal Wedding

By Caspar Salmon | TV | May 6, 2011 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | May 6, 2011 |

Like the band The Hives, I hate to say I told you so. But I did! In these very pages I speculated that no programmes were making it onto our TVs because we were in the run-up to (whisper it) the Royal Wedding and that “Doctor Who” would prove the catalyst for the return onto our screens of quality fare. And lo and be-bloody-hold, what should happen but that I be proven a prophet in my own country? Scanning the guide for the telly-box at the start of this week, upon returning from my Must-Somehow-Escape-Wills-and-Kate holiday, what did I see but a veritable trove of hammy British actors all strutting their stuff: John Simm and Jim Broadbent getting all family-drama! Brenda Blethyn and Gina McKee doing some scenery chewing! Olivia Williams, er, acting! Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston! In something that’s trying to be “The Wire”! And meanwhile, we recently saw the (magnificent) end of “Masterchef” and gaily await the return of “The Apprentice,” and who should be popping up again on our screens but cult comedian Stewart Lee!

So what are we going to chat about? Well, at the time of going to press bed, I still haven’t seen the Olivia Williams programme or the Chiwetel Ejiofor show, and I think I’ll leave “Doctor Who” until next week as (and I realise this could actually get me fired from Pajiba) I’ve never seen it before and need to put in the hours. So let’s talk about those other ones what I actually watched, eh?


vera_blethyn_1883917c.jpgBrenda Blethyn, though I felt delighted to see her big pale face on our screens, is a massive over-actor, isn’t she? My all-time top three favourite instances of her overacting are Secrets & Lies, Pride & Prejudice and Little Voice. And true to form, she is hammier in “Vera” than Jon Hamm eating a ham sandwich during a performance as Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” While dressed as a pig.

Vera, the title character in “Vera”, a new crime prog on ITV, is a kind of old bag lady detective, all squeaks and squawks and horrible coats, waddling around a grim-up-north landscape and solving crimes with the aid of her good-looking young sidekick.

In the first episode of the programme, we got right into the thick of it with a strange, ritualistic murder happening to the son of Gina McKee (who is what I would call, conversely, an under-actor), whom she finds dead in a bathtub, surrounded by a funereal lay-out of flowers. There ensued, at the police office, at least three scenes with people boringly having this conversation, over and over:

Police officer: Interestingly, these flowers don’t seem shop-bought.

Police officer 2: Are they hand-picked then?

Police officer 3: They don’t seem from round these parts.

Police officer 4: Where can you get flowers like that, I wonder?


Police officer 5 (running in): We’ve had them tested! They’re not shop-bought.

Meanwhile, Vera started uncovering some seedy little goings-on — dirty little trysts between inhabitants of the little seaside town (well photographed, with very wet colours), and getting to the heart of the murder. It was all resolved in a slightly pat, rather unexciting finale — an old woman is never going to be the one doing the chasing, so they have to find other ways — and by the end of the programme it felt a little as if the star quality and ambition of the show had been left by the wayside somewhat, and that standard ITV cop drama stuff had won out. But there is also some good stuff here - Blethyn, despite the rampant over-acting, and wielding a nightmarishly terrible Geordie accent apparently modelled on (sigh) Cheryl Cole, is quite convincing in the role, and it was refreshingly moody. I might watch another episode some time, while I’ve got a stew on the boil and need to pass the time. You never know.


Exile-john-simmlast-night-007.jpgOK, now this was more like it! John Simm, playing an angry, tearaway, lawless young journalist at odds with his Alzheimers-suffering father (Jim Broadbent), was back on our screens in “Exile,” a programme devised by the wonderful Paul Abbott of “Shameless” fame, and written by Danny Brocklehurst, also of “Shameless” fame and a few other quite good things. Brocklehurst can certainly write, that’s for sure — you see the quality of his writing in every scene of “Exile,” appreciating not just the dialogue and plotting, but the way the characters interact and the way each scene looks and feels; the atmosphere and every movement seems to have been thought through and delivered at every stage. The dialogue fitted snugly into each little time capsule that was each scene, sounding different in the mouth of each character yet finding similarities evocactive of the shared history of families. It was a weapon in Simm’s voice, lashing out in blind fury at his angry, forgetful father, yet with notes of tenderness creeping in progressively even as he struggled to find his own identity throughout the three episodes; it was a harsh, begging plea in the accent of Olivia Colman as the sister whose life has been subsumed into their father’s — with every sentence, she inveighed against her brother while longing for a chance to live fully; and Jim Broadbent’s wobbly tones, crying out in incomprehension at the loss of his former life and with the terrible memories that are slowly dying within him, cannot hide the obstinacy of an old cuss who thinks he’s always right.

My favourite line of the show, spoken by Broadbent in a rare moment of conspiracy between him and his son, about a colleague: “He thinks he’s such a great writer. He couldn’t write ‘fuck’ on a dusty blind.” It was a wonderful line because it drew parallels between the father’s and the son’s iconoclasm, and allowed them to revel in their own cearthy superiority to the gits who run the world. In such freewheeling moments, bursting with candour, Brocklehurst shows he’s going to do great, great things one day.

Meantime the programme was ingenious, hinging on unearthing a terrible secret from the past, which one of the main characters will not, or cannot, bring himself to remember. It pertains to a sex scandal in a mental home that Broadbent was investigating years back, which made him shut down completely and beat up his son. Simm, playing the son as a grown-up, beautifully played the bitterness of the child towards his father, while getting gradually more worked up about the secret and forgiving of his father’s misdeeds. It was pretty blooming enthralling, with so many brilliant scenes standing out: Colman and Simm in a terrible karaoke bar; Simm and Broadbent sitting in a bath together; Broadbent playing the piano, pretty much the only thing he can remember to do. It was beautiful.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle

stewart lee.jpgA programme surprisingly returned to the BBC this week - “Stewart Lee’s comedy vehicle”, the programme which is basically just an excuse for the cult, anti-establishment comedian to do a stand-up routine and weave in a couple of shitty little sketches to make it seem like a TV show.

Now, I love Stewart Lee. I love him for his ranting, enraged, thoughtful, liberal, engaging stand-up comedy. I love him for calling out “Top Gear”, the Daily Mail, and Ben Elton. He exists to speak truth to power, to think about serious things, and to hold up a mirror to society and his own audience, often subverting the whole process of comedy while he’s at it.

And in this new late night outing for BBC2, he opened with five blistering moments of stand-up comedy in which he talked about not wanting to do jokes (in an interview with Armando Iannucci right at the start), and how this episode would feature four jokes. He then started with a very long, involved, and not very good joke about his father living in a nest. It didn’t make much sense, and he immediately asked the audience how it had gone down, and wondered out loud how it might have been perceived by viewers at home, finally - and unconvincingly - begging, “Please don’t turn over.”

He then launches into a routine about crisps (cut back to the interview with Armando Iannucci, saying “You’re not going to go on about fucking crisps for the rest of the episode, are you?”, and Lee says, “Yeah, I am”).

Which in my book is a great start - all very awkward and angry, managing to get a dig in at terrible stand-up comedians (“Remember Britpop?”), and with Lee’s trademark wry delivery (“My grandfather loves all the flavours of crisps. (Long, long pause) Plain. (Pause) All the flavours of crisps.”) - but somewhere along the way, I think he kind of lost track of his style, and he adventured into a weird and not very involving disquisition on his grandfather being attacked by a large moth. I don’t want my comedians to make stuff up, and I don’t want them to do zany - especially not Lee. I want him to keep subverting comedy, taunting his audience, making an art out of twisting his own humour. He does it on occasion in this new episode, at one point upbraiding his audience for laughing at something that isn’t a joke, “I’m better than that. (…) Calm down. Not everything’s a joke, that’s what you’ve got to realise. (Pause) Not in this show.”

In summary, it’s great to have him back, because even the tiniest, most impromptu moments in his programme are better than anything by other stand-ups. In fact, pretty much every throwaway line is wonderful - but the format, the rather flat routine, aren’t up to his standards. But he really isn’t adapted to TV, and there are some contrivances here that don’t sit that well with his style and character. Still, I’m definitely going to keep watching, just for the occasional good bits.

Caspar Salmon is going to try and watch “Doctor Who” for next week, promise. I started watching this new one and realised I had to read a Wikipedia entry or two before getting started. Time travel is so confusing.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.