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Remember Me

Remember Me, BBC One

If there are two  genres we love here in Britain, it’s crime and period drama. We can’t get enough of them, the former proving particularly prolific recently. Usually rooted in gritty realism, our crime dramas of late (think Broadchurch, The Fall, and Happy Valley) have been disturbing, unrelenting – and utterly addicting. But despite their compelling qualities, it’s nice once in a while to move away from realism and into the realm of the supernatural.

Cue Remember Me, a three part ghost story penned by Gwyneth Hughes, that provides Michael Palin with his first straight television role in more than twenty years. Set against a backdrop not unlike that of Happy Valley, Remember Me is refreshing in its shunning of realism and wholehearted embracing of the ghostly genre. Palin plays Tom Parfitt, on the face of it a perfectly unassuming pensioner. Underneath his jovial temperament, however, lurks something altogether more sinister. There’s also something lurking in his house – specifically the surprisingly sizeable attic room – that makes him determined to leave, feigning a fall in order to be granted a place in a nearby old people’s home. It’s here that he meets Hannah Ward (Jodie Comer), a young carer, who is drawn unknowingly into Parfitt’s troubles.

Hughes makes use of a number of ghost story tropes in this first episode: dripping taps, a black and white photograph ripped down the middle, an old mill, and plenty of howling wind. That’s not to say that the story is as obvious as the devices used. In fact, after this first episode, it’s anyone’s guess where this plot will take its characters, who remain equally in the dark (in more ways than one). We’re left with a number of components: Jack himself, the attic of doom, a mysterious veiled woman who makes a habit of infiltrating dreams, and a chest full of sheet music – specifically of the traditional folk song, Scarborough Fair. The song itself provides an effective motif throughout the episode, from the haunting, childlike rendition during the opening credits, to the single line played on the out-of-tune piano later on. Ruth Barrett’s score is sparse, but extremely effective, as are the sound effects that raise the tension level several notches – all loud creaks and ominous thuds.

Whilst the ghostly happenings (present from the get-go) are not exactly subtle to begin with, they perhaps become slightly over the top at the climax of the episode. However, well-pitched and sympathetic performances from Palin, a dishevelled Julia Sawalha (as Hannah’s mother), and especially Comer herself, ensure that Remember Me remains intriguing and chilling to the end.

Carrie

Homeland 4×01: The Drone Queen

N.B. I’m watching Homeland on UK time, so apologies if you’re already streets ahead of this. And by ‘streets’ I mean ‘two episodes’

I spent the first two seasons of Homeland with my eyes glued to the TV and my heart in my mouth. The third season, however, was spent staring slightly incredulously at the screen and uttering ‘Ugh, Carrie, really?’ and ‘Seriously, Brody, seriously?’ at various points throughout. That doesn’t mean that I am one of those people who would rather see the back of Homeland. Nor am I one of the people who for some reason were of the opinion that the entire series was carried by Brody, and couldn’t possibly go on without him. On the contrary, one of the worst episodes of Homeland I have sat through was the one that solely featured Brody, practically dead in a tower block in Venezuela, being administered heroin by a doctor resembling Michael Jackson. That, in my opinion, was Homeland’s low point. So I was actually not sorry at all to see the back of Brody. It has always been the brilliance of Claire Danes’ portrayal of Carrie that has kept me watching. I was never really 100% invested in the Carrie/Brody relationship, and the whole thing was drawn out far too long. When Brody made his exit at the end of last season, I was hopeful. Homeland was now free to reset the clock, wipe the slate clean, leave the Brodys (including, thank heavens, Dana – not to mention poor, inexplicably mute Chris) behind.

And much about Homeland is new as it moves into its fourth season. New locations, new characters, new conflicts – even a new baby. It’s certainly a departure for the show, which until now has taken place largely, as the title might suggest, on US soil. But as Carrie – or, as she is termed by her colleagues early on in the episode, ‘the Drone Queen’ – returns to her sparsely furnished Kabul apartment, pours a large glass of white wine and washes down a pill or two, it’s clear to see that old habits die hard. The same can be said for Saul (Mandy Patinkin), all the way back in New York, stuck in a private sector job and visibly itching to return to a world where his opinions have a larger effect than merely jeopardising a contract.

Homeland will never be as gripping as it was in its first season, when there were so many unknowns surrounding all characters, including our unpredictable protagonist. Three seasons on and we’re now at the stage where we get Carrie and how she operates. Her rash decisions are par for the course, and are more likely to induce an exasperated eye-roll than a tension-filled gasp. What’s interesting is that the writers now seem to be using this to their advantage. Instead of capitalising on our sympathy for Carrie (something we had in spadefuls in season 1 but that has since been wearing dangerously thin) they are instead causing us to question her choices increasingly. Carrie is now Station Chief in Kabul, rather than Istanbul as was originally the plan, and it is strongly hinted that the choice of Afghanistan over Turkey is related to the fact that the former is far too dangerous a place in which to raise a baby. It says much about Carrie that she would choose to become the Drone Queen rather than care for her own child. This repositioning of the audience’s feelings towards the protagonist is an interesting decision by the writers, and I’m curious to see how it pans out. There are many points in which Carrie’s responses to the consequences of her actions – especially the inadvertent killing of forty civilians in a poorly-timed attack that becomes the focus of this episode – cause us to feel as uncomfortable as we do seeing the words ‘The Drone Queen’ iced delicately onto a birthday cake. Luckily, not everyone in Homeland is completely devoid of a moral compass. Peter ‘Cheekbones’ Quinn (Rupert Friend) is still strongly questioning his role in the conflict playing out in the Middle East, and he’s not about to let Carrie off lightly either. Apparently, for now, he is the new Saul – concerned by Carrie’s behaviour, and ready to play devil’s advocate if need be. Not that Saul is oblivious to Carrie’s actions even all those miles away – as a (pointedly ignored) phone call suggests partway through.

This episode, on the whole, was slow to get going and quick to wind up. It felt like the action was only just beginning when the credits began to roll. Showtime chose to air the first two episodes back to back in the US last week, and it’s a shame Channel 4 didn’t follow suit. Having said that, I’m not ready to give up on Homeland just yet. We were left with a lot of questions: who was the mysterious ‘X’ on Islamabad Station Chief Sandy’s phone? Would Sandy (played by an enigmatic Corey Stoll) survive to see another episode? What is the significance of the young medical student who survived the wedding party attack ? And just how long can Carrie keep avoiding a) her baby and b) the emotional consequences of her role – especially when people keep turning up to remind her that she should be feeling guilty? I don’t just mean Quinn – I’m referring also to King Arthur from Merlin (Bradley James), who pops up in uniform halfway through the episode, and actually turns out not to be King Arthur, but First Lieutenant J.G. Edgars, who regretfully – on Carrie’s orders – flew the mission into Pakistan that has everyone in a tizzy.

Instead of showing remorse following Edgars’ confrontation, Carrie merely acts annoyed. But then when has she ever been one to listen to other people?

This term I get to ramble about television fortnightly in the form of a TV column for Varsity. Here are the first two. The first is the latest, and the second is now about two weeks out of date. So soz about that.

Less of the novel, more of the novels

From issue no. 776, published 31/01/14. Here’s the link.

Mr Selfridge

Last week the ebullient Mr Selfridge flounced back onto our screens. If you missed the relatively mediocre first season, Mr Selfridge is essentially what Downton Abbey would look like if Mary Portas were the producer. Strangely, the man behind the screenplay, Andrew Davies, is responsible for some of the best costume dramas to grace our screens: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and the famous BBC Colin-Firth-in-wet-shirt adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Mr Selfridge may look as sumptuous, but when it comes to substance it pales in comparison. Perhaps Davies should stick to what he does best – adapting novels, rather than attempting to be novel. Adaptations trump vapid original representations of history (Mr Selfridge, Downton Abbey) for several reasons:

They actually have plots – not surprising, given they’re the work of storytelling greats such as Austen, Dickens and the Brontës.

They force you to read the original. I feel guilty about watching adaptations of novels I haven’t read, so I usually attempt to do so before they hit our screens. Who says TV doesn’t make you cultured?

You can pretend you’ve read the original. Obviously my well-meaning enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to action. But hey, no one need know, right?

They’re not all obsessed with ‘The War’. According to Julian Fellowes’ recent projects, history consists of WWI and the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately, at the end of episode one of Mr Selfridge, poor old Franz Ferdinand was shot again, which means we’re no doubt in for more sanitised depictions of trenches and wholesome representations of Home Front life.

They inspire debate. When dearly loved characters and plots are reconstructed on our screens, it gets people talking about the original text and why this new interpretation is completely unfounded/wonderfully understated.

Adaptations of classic novels have been thin on the ground lately. Perhaps these things come in waves – ITV had an Austen Binge a few years ago, around the time that the BBC were particularly enamoured by Dickens. Even so, there are plenty of lesser-known titles that have inspired some brilliant dramas in the last few years, primarily the BBC’s Parade’s End, based on the works of Ford Madox Ford, which saw Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch give sensational performances. Yes, ok, it was partially set in the war, but unlike dear old Downton, 85 per cent of the script didn’t consist of references to this fact.

There’s good news for adaptation fans though – Davies has a six-part version of War and Peace in the works for 2015. I’d better get reading.

* * *

The Rise of the TV Detective

From issue no. 775, published 17/01/14. Not online.

Broadchurch

Maybe someone’s laced our tea, infiltrated the TV scheduling, or employed Derren Brown to hypnotise us on a street corner, but currently we are all infatuated with detectives. Investigateur extraordinaire Hercule Poirot may have said his final farewells last year, but there are a million more surreptitious sleuths lining up to take the place of the much-loved Belgian eccentric, sneaking stealthily into every available timeslot. There are, it seems, plenty more where Poirot came from (I’m talking figuratively here – they’re not all Belgian).

Subtle as they may be on screen, the plentiful presence of private eyes has not gone unnoticed. Quite the opposite – we can’t get enough of them. It’s not just the smooth Sherlock-types, but the complex Luthers and the whimsical Lewises too, not to mention the maternal, empathetic ones and the surly ones with heart conditions, à la Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and David Tennant respectively. So smitten are we that the brains behind this year’s National Television Awards have created an entirely new accolade to accommodate them. Among those lurking in the ‘TV Detective’ category are Colman and Tennant, Luther’s Idris Elba and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch. To quote the latter, the game is (very much) on.

It seems a shame, however, to have to compare characters similar by occupation and yet so different in every other respect. Will they be judged on crime-solving prowess or performance? If the award is ‘best detective’ then I’m going with Cumberbatch. If it’s on best performance, then I’d pick Colman (although it’s a close call). Yet pitting Colman and Tennant against each other is a shame too. Their characters’ dynamic was an important part of Broadchurch. It seems wrong to compare their performances when each complemented the other so well.

Subsequently, the drama performance category is looking a bit empty, even after clubbing male and female performances together. We’re left with the usual suspects: Smiths Matt and Maggie, and previous winner Miranda Hart. Perhaps the re-categorisation is understandable. Given our obsession, any of these nominees would surely be robbed of a win – and this time the crime-solvers would be the culprits.

Obviously, due to the nature of a public vote, the awards favour performances from actors in popular programmes – meaning standout performances in more niche offerings are likely to miss out. Consequently, my investigator-of-choice didn’t even make the longlist. Top Of The Lake was an exquisitely shot and scripted six-part drama that saw Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the disappearance of a pregnant schoolgirl. Moss tracked Robin’s increasing fragility beautifully throughout, giving a devastatingly well-pitched portrayal of her subsequent emotional breakdown as her past caught up with her. It was a performance worlds apart from the frenzied brilliance of Cumberbatch, but every bit as captivating in its own right.

Picture: Radio Times

Sherlock – BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

That’s it then. Sherlock has gone as quickly as it came. Quicker, maybe – it got off to a bit of a shaky start. But this third and final instalment of series 3 was right back on form. The much sought-after ‘actual plot’ that many lamented the absence of in previous episodes finally materialised. And there was a fabulous cliff-hanger to boot.

We finally got to meet the man belonging to the pair of icy blue eyes that stared out at us on New Year’s Day as Watson sautéed on the bonfire: Charles Augustus Magnusson (a thrillingly evil Lars Mikkelsen), sole retainer of a gigantic amount of incriminating information on everyone he’d ever come across, and also a massive creep. When he wasn’t licking people’s faces, he was busy blackmailing the entire country. But not for much longer. Enter Sherlock.

A slightly squalid Sherlock, actually, hiding out in a drug den – supposedly for a case. ‘Stay out of my bedroom!’ he ordered once he’d been dragged home and scolded by everyone (not to mention slapped a few times by the wonderful Molly, who hasn’t had nearly enough to do this series). Sherlock was clean, it turned out. So what was he hiding in the bedroom? Only the flirty Irish bridesmaid from last week! Watson’s incredulous response to this ‘relationship’ was priceless – Martin Freeman is the king of reaction shots. But Sherlock had morphine pumping through his veins soon enough, this time in hospital: he’d been shot. The culprit? None other than Mrs Watson.

Oh, Mary! What a dark horse, stringing us along in your jovial manner! We saw the word ‘liar’ on the screen alongside ‘bakes own bread’ when Sherlock first met Mary, but we chose to ignore it because she was just so nice. Yet suddenly here she was, putting a bullet through him. It was a clever twist, and credit to Amanda Abbington for making us invest so much in her character in just a few episodes that the big reveal, when it came, was a genuine shock.

A series of confrontations followed, amusingly interspersed with Christmas at the Cumberbatches (with Benedict’s parents reprising their roles as Mr and Mrs Holmes). It was thrilling, but perhaps not to the extent of previous finales. Two years ago, Sherlock was the sharpest thing on TV. This year it knew it, and veered dangerously towards self-indulgence a few too many times. But you can’t fault its intelligence. There were lines in this episode that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sitcom, but as always they were woven around a much darker story – in this case one that played to very current fears of surveillance and exposure. Beneath all the panache, Sherlock remains a beautifully crafted drama.

After a final rendezvous with Magnusson (in what appeared to be the Tellytubby house crossed with Kew Gardens), Sherlock was on a jet headed for certain death in Eastern Europe. Not again. But oh, how they toy with us! Just as the credits began to roll, a voice piped up: ‘Did you miss me?’ And there he was in all his mad glory: Jim Moriarty. As quickly as it had taken off, Sherlock’s jet was landing. Yes, Moriarty! We did miss you! Come back and engineer some real crimes! Blackmail and face-licking are one thing, but not a patch on the havoc you used to cause! Let’s just hope your mayhem isn’t another two years in the making.

Picture: Guardian

Death Comes To Pemberley, BBC1 – read review on Varsity here

If Sherlock, Downton Abbey (last year) and Eastenders (most years) are anything to go by, we love a bit of dramatised death during the festive season. And we love a period drama any time of year. So take the cast of the mother of all period dramas, Pride and Prejudice, add a murder mystery, and set them against a backdrop of stately home porn in the form of the Chatsworth Estate, and you’re onto a winner.

Death Comes To Pemberley was an adaptation of the P. D. James novel of the same name, in which Austen’s beloved creations find themselves embroiled in a murder case involving infamous Regency love-rat, George Wickham. Early on, Wickham is seen dragging the body of Captain Denny through the woods at Pemberley, and the rest of this three-part drama was concerned with piecing together the chain of events leading up to that moment.

Despite the whodunit aspect, Death Comes To Pemberley still made time to explore more personal dramas, primarily the fight for the affections of Georgiana Darcy (Eleanor Tomlinson) between young lawyer Henry Alveston (James Norton) and Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), now considerably more embittered since the events of P&P. We also saw some tension in the marriage of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, as the two had trouble seeing eye to eye where Georgiana was concerned.

Anna Maxwell Martin was a marvellous Lizzie, more mature than previous incarnations, but still possessing the same spark and wit, shown to best effect in her exchange with the interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (soon-to-be-Dame Penelope Keith). Also worth noting is Jenna Coleman, who softened the simpering, showy Lydia by adding a refreshing fragility to Austen’s rather one-dimensional character. Matthew Rhys was a sober Darcy, but the strain caused by the return of Wickham in such unfavourable circumstances became clear throughout his performance. However, given their history, and the damage that Wickham’s dilemma could have had on his reputation, Darcy was surprisingly patient with his childhood friend – almost polite – which was not easy to swallow.

All things considered, the acting was stronger than the plot. The murder mystery was well paced and intriguing, but my parents managed to predict the denouement before the big reveal. (Not me, though. I’m a bit slow.)

When all was well again, the writers couldn’t resist a bit of period-drama schmaltz. “I’m so happy!”, laughed Lizzie, as Darcy spun her around in front of Pemberley’s Olympic-sized water feature. I would be, too, if I lived in that house.

Picture: Guardian

Sherlock, BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

It was the question on everyone’s lips: why did Watson feel the need to grow that moustache? Oh and also, how did Sherlock manage the whole roof-jumping, death-faking thing in the second series finale two years ago? The Empty Hearse – the long-awaited and much-hyped opener to series three – promised to reveal all. And for the most part it did. But did it match the brilliance we became used to in the first couple of series? That’s up for debate.

At the beginning of the episode, Sherlock is ‘dead’. Watson is grieving, but also preparing to propose to his new(ish) girlfriend. Mrs Hudson is angry at his lack of contact, thrilled by the news of his upcoming nuptials, and once again surprised by his sexual orientation. Anderson has apparently turned into one of those people who make YouTube videos about how Sherlock threw himself off a building without dying. (All very meta, I know).

Ah yes, the roof-jumping. Finally, we were going to find out what actually occurred behind that lorry full of bin bags. But not, it seemed, until we’d sat through a couple of red herrings. It’s a shame that they were red herrings, because I quite enjoyed the plan that hinged on Derren Brown hypnotising an already-concussed Watson. In the end, though, Sherlock survived with a giant blue bouncy castle, a dead ringer (literally) and a couple of dozen homeless people. That’s what Sherlock tells a slightly deranged Anderson, anyway. As for the moustache? Still a mystery.

Back to the present, and Sherlock is being tortured in Serbia, until Mycroft casually steps in and summons his brother back to London. The reason is an imminent terrorist attack on the capital. But that can wait. First, we need a few emotional reunions. Except that Sherlock doesn’t do emotional. He prefers dressing up as a French waiter and crashing a marriage proposal: much more dramatic. As always, it was Sherlock’s endearing lack of social and emotional tact that made for the most entertaining moments of this episode. Where plot was concerned, though, it fell short.

The trouble was that this episode felt aimed towards diehard Sherlock fans, and less towards people who just like watching good TV. Time was spent poking fun at fangirls when it should have been used to move the story along. As a result, the Guy Fawkes-inspired plot to blow up Westminster using the Underground felt rushed and was resolved all too quickly and simply. I’m now wondering how many films and series of Homeland could have ended sooner with the knowledge that bombs have ‘off’ switches. Overall though, it was an enjoyable episode, with the usual razor-sharp script and top-notch acting we’ve come to expect. Now that Sherlock is firmly installed back in Baker Street, the upcoming episodes will hopefully be back to usual form.

Just one more niggle: I could have done without the edgy shots of the Underground. The Tube is not that cool. And it’s never that empty.

Picture: Telegraph

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

Another review for Varsity. Find the original here.

Aside from the usual lectures, supervisions and (ahem) ‘keeping up with my dissertation’, the main focus of my attention in the past two weeks has been attempting to persuade as many people as possible to catch up on Peaky Blinders. It seemed that no one really knew what I was talking about when I asked if they’d been watching the series. It’s a shame, because, as the breath-snatching finale confirmed on Thursday, this really has been a drama worth watching.

Whilst the finale didn’t quite match up to the brilliance of episode five, it is still every bit as classy, and every bit as tense. It opens on the morning of the Peaky Blinders’ final confrontation with Billy Kimber – and the gang are being rallied for battle by their leader, Tommy (Cillian Murphy).

Divine bone structure aside, Murphy has carried the series effortlessly in his portrayal of the damaged and disillusioned protagonist, conveying Tommy’s fierce love and sense of responsibility for his family whilst maintaining a cold, indifferent exterior. It’s moments when this facade softens that make us sympathetic to Tommy, despite his dubious and often brutal behaviour; but his attitude can switch in a millisecond. His scenes with Grace in this episode perfectly display this fluidity – tenderness turns to realisation and regret in the hardening of a gaze, a clenching of the jaw.

The crux of this episode was of course the Western-style showdown with Kimber and his men. But Aunt Pol’s altercation with Grace was far more threatening in its subtlety. Helen McCrory as Aunt Pol sheds all the vulnerability she displayed earlier on when revealing the fate of her children to Ada, pours a drink, and delivers ruthlessness-with-a-smile to a defenceless Grace. It’s these one-to-one scenes – including Tommy’s icy confrontations with Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) – that make Peaky Blinders such a compelling watch.

Grace herself (Annabelle Wallis), who up until now has been harder to read than James Joyce, finally seems to show some genuine remorse. ‘Tommy, I’ve done something terrible to you,’ she whispers through her tears, as it’s revealed that Tommy’s plans have been foiled. I almost felt sorry for her. But it’s testament to Wallis that we’re left doubting Grace’s sincerity right until the very end.

The cliffhanger at the close of the episode has stirred mixed feelings amongst viewers. Generally, I prefer definite endings to dramas – but if it means we’re going to get a second dose of Tommy & Co. then I’m willing to let it slide. Beautifully shot, impeccably acted (despite a few questionable accents), and with a script that makes Downton Abbey sound like the Teletubbies, Peaky Blinders has been one of the strongest dramas the BBC has delivered in a while.

When it came to my persuasive efforts I’m pleased to say that one friend ended up cramming in five episodes over a period of three days. The series is still online for a couple of days – I urge anyone else who’s missed out to do the same.

Homeland, Channel 4

It’s been a while since Homeland last graced our screens, so the hefty recap at the beginning of this episode was most welcome. Once we’d got our heads round the not-so-recent chain of events (which culminated in the detonation of a car bomb at Langley, and a resulting 219 casualties in a nail-biting season finale) we were plunged straight back into the action, a mere 58 days later.

Well, I say plunged, but compared to what we’re used to with Homeland – unflagging drama interspersed with excruciating tension from start to finish – it was more of a light paddle. The only real moment of tension was the Wizard of Oz-themed (it was more tense than it sounds, I promise) operation involving the ever-enigmatic and ruthless Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). First episodes of new seasons are always difficult, though, because they do require a certain amount of scene setting.

Much of the episode focussed on the reaction of Brody’s family to his disappearance and framing as the culprit for the Langley attack (in case you’d forgotten, Brody did a runner at the end of the last season when the car containing the bomb turned out to be his own.) Dana, in particular, has suffered heavily the consequences of her father’s fall from grace. In this episode she has just returned from therapy after an attempted suicide. We witness her mother, Jessica’s (Morena Baccarin) worry as she struggles to come to terms with her new situation. She’s applying for accountancy jobs while Dana (Morgan Saylor) is in her room sending nude pictures to a boy she met in therapy. Whilst I have enjoyed the subplots involving the Brody family in previous seasons, I’m not sure how I feel about their stories dominating an episode as they did on Sunday. They work well as supporting characters but I can’t see their scenes sustaining similar amounts of interest to those involving Brody or Carrie.

Carrie (Claire Danes) is still scribbling intensely on notepads and creating hugely intricate wall displays (can I hire her to decorate my new room?). Citing ‘alternative medicine’, she’s off the lithium again and supplementing her daily 6 mile run with copious amounts of tequila, which she picks up (apparently in addition to random strangers) from the off-licence round the corner. Throughout this episode Danes once again proves that she is entirely worthy of the numerous awards she has won for her portrayal of Carrie. Her meltdown in the restaurant certainly packed a punch, whilst her reaction to being let down by Saul at the close of the episode was especially poignant.

What of Saul himself? He’s busy trying to save any ounce of CIA credibility he can alongside the sinister Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), who we met last series (and who I can’t remember anything about, except that he was shady – I think a quick Wikipedia visit is due). Saul suspects Adal of leaking information about Carrie and Brody to the inquiry, something Adal denies (but doesn’t necessarily disapprove of).

On the whole, it was a slightly slow start to the new series. But it was classic Homeland in the sense that the viewer can trust no one. We’ve also seen nothing of Brody (Damian Lewis) yet, and limited amounts of Quinn and Carrie. Hopefully the pace will pick up next week – I’ll definitely be watching.

Picture: The Guardian

Top of the Lake, BBC iPlayer

This piece comes fairly late because I came to Jane Campion’s crime drama Top of the Lake fairly late. It was one of those programmes that I kept hearing about and kept meaning to watch. Finally I got round to it, watching over four nights (one episode a night for three nights, with the other three episodes crammed greedily into one sitting). Reading various reviews (and comments underneath reviews) I’ve noticed complaints and criticism that this drama was too far-fetched and too implausible. Therefore I’ll start off with a disclaimer: generally, I’m not too bothered about realism in dramas (I watch Downton Abbey for goodness’ sake). As long as the action is executed well, it won’t worry me that a drama is not a perfect representation of real life. And Top of the Lake was unquestionably well executed.

First of all, the setting. The backdrop to the fictitious town of Lake Top is the wild and vast New Zealand scenery. The lake, of course, plays a key role. A character in itself, it is perpetually calm, but always threatening. The very first scene, in which the tiny figure of schoolgirl Tui (Jaqueline Joe) processes slowly into its waters cements the idea of the vastness of the scenery that prevails throughout. But the despite being bombarded with imagery of the huge open lake, towering mountains and sprawling forests, you’re still left with a sense of claustrophobia after every episode. The area is immense, but it’s isolated. It’s as if the towering mountains are gradually enclosing on the small community, hemming it in.

Top of the Lake reminded me a lot of the 2010 film Winter’s Bone, and indeed it worked on the same premise: a woman navigating her way through a community governed unofficially by lawless, violent men. There is unnerving acceptance of manipulation and violence within the Lake Top community, and a reticence on the part of the police to do anything about it. Suspicious suicides, boating accidents and hit and runs are pushed to one side by the male-dominated police force, headed up by the suave Al (David Wenham). He’s genial and approachable, but there’s a instant feeling that you wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side.  He runs a department that is seemingly lacklustre, and overtly sexist.

It’s clear from the first episode that domineering patriarch Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) has an unspoken stake in the running of Lake Top, although the exact nature of his hold on the town is not revealed until later. Nevertheless, bearded and ragged, with narrow, dark eyes, Mitcham is fearsome from the beginning, a sadistic manipulator who frightens people (his own sons included) into compliance.

In the middle of all this is Robin (Elisabeth Moss), on leave from her Detective position in the Sydney police force whilst she visits her dying mother in her hometown. She’s drafted in to the local police force when Tui, five-months pregnant and living in fear of her father Mitcham, goes missing.

Moss holds her own in this lead role, just as Robin holds her own amongst this array of alpha males. Al calls Robin his angel. He asks her to marry him. She smiles, changes the subject, a hint of incredulity flickering in her eyes. Whilst the huge presences of characters such as Mitcham and Al pulsate from the screen, Moss has a subtle but enduring strength. So it’s disconcerting when, as the series progresses, this endurance begins to falter.

As Robin becomes more and more involved in the search for Tui, memories (and indeed people) from her blighted childhood in Lake Top begin to resurface. If Tui’s ordeal is anything to go by, not much has changed. Top of the Lake doesn’t do a lot for the reputation of men. They’re either rapists, sadists, paedophiles, drug dealers or absent fathers. But some redemption is offered in the characters of both Jamie and Johnno, who go to great lengths to protect Tui and Robin respectively.

The seemingly male-dominated town is juxtaposed with the all-female commune of ‘Paradise’, where women keen to leave behind certain aspects of their past congregate and hang off the words of their revered, enigmatic leader, GJ (Holly Hunter). I didn’t really understand GJ – although I’m not altogether sure we were meant to. But her advice (if you can call it advice) seemed to consist of accepting that there is nothing you can do about anything that happens to you and that, quite frankly, shit happens. “We’re living out here in a place called ‘Paradise’,” she pronounces sardonically, “how’s it going, perfect?” Ironically, in the end, GJ becomes tired of accepting the status quo, and ups sticks. Interestingly, she is the only character to get out of the area by a medium other than death.

Top of the Lake has been criticised for having too ‘neat’ an ending, but this is definitely not a bad thing  – there’s nothing worse than a strong drama being left with loose ends, just for the sake of suspense. It’s not particularly hopeful – it leaves you feeling a bit disillusioned. But that’s surely only testament to its power as a drama.

Broadchurch, ITV1

Broadchurch is a close-knit community. Everyone knows everyone – and we’re shown this from the get-go. The tracking shot that follows Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) down Broadchurch high street as he greets every single person that walks past him by their first name reminded me of one of those adverts in which Joe Bloggs is applauded and congratulated by every random passer-by because he chose the right car insurance/mortgage/credit card.

Nevertheless, any good feeling is diffused rapidly by the discovery of the body of Latimer’s 11 year-old son, Danny, sprawled on the beach beneath a high cliff. Thus begins a police investigation in which the negative implications of the close-knit nature of Broadchurch are thrown into stark relief. DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) struggles to balance her professional role with her personal response to the death of her 11-year old son’t best friend. Colman delivers a perfectly-pitched performance, her anguish clearly visible as she tries to come to terms with the tragedy and what it means for her family and friends, whilst being forced to proceed objectively with the formal investigation.

David Tennant’s portrayal of DI Alec Hardy, a policeman sent to Broadchurch to lie low, after his involvement in controversial murder case, perfectly compliments Colman’s fragility. His stoic professionalism doesn’t often falter, although we’re given a brief glimpse of his true emotions on the beach when he is confronted with the sight of the young boy’s body.

But the tragedy is brought into the sharpest focus during a scene in the Latimers’ living room when they are informed of Danny’s death. Beth Latimer’s (Jodie Whittaker) raw devastation and shock at the news about her son is truly heartbreaking.

As the episode progresses, the viewer begins to form opinions of certain people based on first impressions: the unfriendly-looking woman smoking a cigarette outside her home above the beach; the older owner of the newsagent on the beachfront (David Bradley); even Danny’s father at times. They could all be innocent  but we have a natural tendency to judge people and assume that anyone who exhibits behaviour outside the norm is automatically a suspect. Broadchurch plays on this, and it makes for uncomfortable but effective viewing.

The invasive side of the media was a prominent theme. We meet Olly (Jonathan Bailey), the aspiring journalist working for the local rag but with his sights set on the national papers. He’d received a rejection from the Daily Mail, but watching him reveal the identity of the victim on Twitter before it was confirmed officially, I’m inclined to think he’ll go far. Murdoch will snap him up – he appears to have what it takes. Broadchurch, it seems, is not on the side of national media. Whilst the editor of the Broadchurch Echo (Carolyn Pickles) supports members of the community and apologises for Olly’s behaviour, the journalist from the Daily Herald is portrayed as goal-driven and heartless as we witness her removing the soft toy from the beach, placed there by Danny’s sister as a tribute to her brother.

The sending of the tweet causes us to consider the implications of social media, too. ‘Bloody Twitter’ exclaims Hardy as Olly’s tweet reaches national newsdesks within minutes, and the family of the victim are left to cope with the pain of unavoidable exposure. It raises important questions about the role of social media in reporting criminal investigations. Is it a powerful medium that can relay current affairs stories rapidly to a wide audience? Or is it merely a vehicle for speculation and gossip? It’s topical stuff: only in the last month have similar questions been raised in relation to the reporting of murder charges against athlete Oscar Pistorius.

Some last-minute twists as the episode drew to a close left me craving the next instalment. Overall, Broadchurch made for some darn good viewing. A strong cast, an intriguing plot, plenty of suspicion, and all topped off with some gert lush West Country accents. I await next week’s episode with great anticipation.