‘The ABC Murders’ – BBC1

Spoiler warning: details about the murderer lie below!

Mustache-twirling Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is a beloved character in literature, in cinema and on TV. Recently he’s been re-imagined as a Hollywood action hero by Kenneth Branagh in a slightly strange but ultimately well-received version of Murder on the Orient Express. So now to the BBC’s Christmas drama schedules, a big part of which has been Agatha Christie adaptations by Sarah Phelps. Over the past few years she’s brought us Ordeal by Innocence, And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution. Ginger and restrained adaptations are not Phelp’s style. How do you rip up the rule book but stay true to the source material?

It turns out all you need to do is wait. The passage of time makes characters different people, more fragile and sympathetic, more human. John Malkovich portrays the great detective as a weary yesterday’s man – the ying to David Suchet’s dapper and self-important yang. He’s dismissed as just another nosy parker by the young and very serious Inspector Crome (Rupert Grint). The world has moved on since Poirot’s celebrity heyday. This is all done in an extremely heavy-handed fashion as Poirot’s retired police pal Japp literally drops dead in front of him. Alright, alright, we get it – everyone is mortal. Poor old Poirot is lonely; in desperate need of a Scooby gang – despite first appearances he’s no good at coping with life alone and forgotten.

Enter the murderer who remembers Poirot at the height of his powers and wants to play a game. By letter he tells him he’s off to kill a series of people throughout the UK whose names start with each letter of the alphabet in turn and it’s up to Poirot to figure out the connection between the seemingly random victims stop him. What an effort from the murderous mastermind to troll Poirot pre-Twitter. Think of the expense in stamps alone!

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‘Doctor Who – The Woman Who Fell to Earth’ BBC 1

“I’m a traveller” says Jodie Whittaker’s newly regenerated Doctor. You and me both, love. I missed the fanfare for the new series last night as I was stuck on a train somewhere outside Bristol Parkway. Yes I know it’s 2018 and I could have watched it on my phone but the wifi was horrendous and there were no ancient alien adventurer ready to help me in my time of need as far as I could see.

But who knows what they look like theses days? Other than awesome coats in common they could look like anyone. This regenerating alien character who assumes human form is no longer the privilege of men. As the adverts cleverly said, it’s about time. So we’ll have no more creepy paternal romances with a subordinate companion figure, thank you very much. But she retains the benevolent feelings towards humanity in general and her mission is still helping people in distress – the universal fourth emergency service. And this time with the Tardis being MIA it won’t feel quite so odd if the stories end up being relentlessly earthbound, although we can but hope she and her big blue box are reunited soon.

There was much to love in this first 60 minute episode.  Jodie’s character seems to strike all the right notes; the wonder, the restlessness, the silliness and the dependability that are cornerstones of the show. I loved her costume when she finally chose it, and that it came from a charity shop junk pile. It was great watching her bodge together her own DIY sonic screwdriver. The cinematography was gorgeous and the way that Sheffield didn’t have to pretend to be London was very welcome indeed (poor Cardiff, you were cheated – South Wales deserved more than a being stand-in).  And it’ll be interesting to see how her Scooby gang, their characters and their relationships will develop over time. I predict Tosin Cole as Ryan will be a much more confident and capable young man in no time at all.  I was very disappointed that easily the brightest person we met, and the one most enthusiastic about adventures with the Doctor was killed off, but tragedy is a effective if rather blunt tool to cohere the team around.

Bradley Walsh seemed much more at home with the serious parts of the script than the attempts at humour, as if he’d left his cheeky chappie persona on the set of The Chase and resumed work as a dour policeman on Law & Order UK. This is fine, and a good reminder of the proper acting he’s capable of, but I had high hopes for him carrying the comedy here. The humour in general seemed badly timed and a bit off throughout.

Tonally it all felt a bit flat and to my mind the pacing of the whole episode wasn’t great. There’s got to be a balance between madly, breathlessly running around a spaceship occasionally pausing to yell “There’s no time to lose!” and this amble through Sheffield at night that the first episode presented us with. It’ll be good to see Jodie on an intergalactic battlefield trying to talk both sides down from the brink of war – we’ve yet to see her stretch herself or make any really inspiring dramatic speeches. The writer Chris Chibnall and director Jamie Childs seemed to have that extended episode time at the forefront of their mind, and even with a murderous alien on the rampage picking off innocent humans there was no massive sense of urgency in any of the action.  I’m extremely hopeful about this series and quite willing to watch another episode, but I hope someone rigs up a car battery quickly and gives it that electric shock it needs.

Stuck somewhere in need of entertainment? Got a better wifi connection than the average Cross Country train? Then watch the first episode of the new run now on iPlayer and let me know in the comments or on Facebook what you thought.

‘Bodyguard’ – BBC1

Jed Mercurio’s new six-part drama has been teased by pretty much all of the journalists and bloggers who were lucky enough to catch previews this week. He’s riding high with the continued success of Line of Duty, the next series of which was delayed Bodyguard – a timely story about trust, fear and terrorism. As promised, the first 20 minutes were edge-of-your-seat action hero stuff, but is there enough here to maintain interest for five more episodes?

Richard Madden is David Budd (looking about 600% more macho than the late lamented Robb Stark he played on Game of Thrones), a traumatised soldier back from Afghanistan. His brave and selfless actions foil a terrorist plot to blow up a train filled with passengers, including his own children. Both terrorists are also unharmed, again thanks to him. Desperate brainwashed Nadia (we find out her name a long way into her and David’s conversation – I thought textbook negotiation tactics are to get people’s names as a priority) is talked down from pressing the button on her suicide belt by stony-faced Dave. He then embraces her to keep the army from shooting her dead. Interestingly, everyone on the train ready to pull the trigger and make a mess is female. He’s in the nurturing role, caring for his children, for poor confused Nadia and trying to keep the peace. Everyone escapes, traumatised but alive. Well of course – not even Mercurio is going to blow up his main character in the first episode. Or at least, not this time.

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Eurovision 2018 – the Grand Final

Well I told you it’d be a vintage year and well worth tuning in for, but I did not expect that. What a night! Let’s try to put some of the craziness in context. I’m not even sure where to begin.

So Eurovision 2018 gave us a huge variety of music with many genres represented. In my lifetime I never thought I’d see anyone stage dive at Eurovision! The way the initial jury voting went the field wide open with any of 6 or 7 songs that could have won. There was pop, metal, dance, ballads, opera and loads of different languages on show, mainly by people who all looked the same. So much for diversity, but baby steps. We also had four female presenters, none of them particularly gifted in comedy or the essential schmoozy green-room chat, but fully female-fronted is a big deal. This was especially obvious as creep after creep giving the jury votes commented on their appearance, hilariously the Portuguese man was the absolute worst. He made my ovaries cringe and shrivel up inside me. Ick.

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‘Britannia’ – Sky Atlantic

Britannia is the much discussed and much trumpeted new Sky Atlantic drama. It’s also the first co-production between Sky and Amazon. It’s written by Jez Butterworth, who seems to have theater and screenwriting experience in spades, but not much on the CV for telly. Not like our collective expectations are set too high, but it’s been bandied about that Sky are in desperate need of something substantial in the swords and bloodlust category as the wait for Game of Thrones will be glacial. But the people who have seen it already are split into two camps – either it’s brilliantly bat-shit or terribly confusing. Well, which is it then?

Set in 43 AD this is about the Roman conquest of Britain. This is the second time around, as Julius Cesar went home with his tail between his legs in 54 BC, and boy, despite the man being long dead, do we hear a lot about that. We meet General Aulus Plautius, played by David Morrissey, not worrying in the slightest about his accent or where in the Roman Empire he hails from. To misquote Doctor Who, a lot of countries have a north. Aye up legionnaires!

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‘Witnesses’ – Series 2

As you may have noticed I’m still waiting on the next big Euro drama to cross my path. All the Scandi stuff recently has me feeling a bit flat, with fairly promising starts leading to confused middles and ‘meh’ endings. It’s fine to have a beautiful backdrop of lakes and mountains, but you need to populate it with original characters leading interesting lives. The story needs to be multi-layered, but not too complicated; zoning out and playing with your phone is the absolute death knell for a subtitled drama. Both the good guys and the bad guys need to have clear motivations that we can relate to.

So with a Gallic shrug it might well be time to bid au revoir to the northernmost corners of Europe and see what France might have to offer; after all, the daddy of the noir resurgence in the past decade has been the Emmy award-winning and much loved Spiral. The most memorable dramas I’ve watched recently have been French, or part French; the balls-out action heros in Braquo, stylish super spies in The Bureau and the best character in Midnight Sun was the deeply troubled French detective.

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‘In the Dark’

This formulaic drama would have passed me by, but some interesting casting turned my head and I decided to check out episode one. Female copper Helen Weeks (MyAnna Buring) is haunted by childhood tragedy so returns to the sleepy Derbyshire town of Polesford which must be twinned with Happy Valley – the odd array of accents certainly place it much further into the vague north than Derbyshire. She’s back just in time to help support her childhood friend (wife of the lead suspect in the disappearance of two girls) and rub up the local police force the wrong way as they hunt for a murderer.

First, the plus points. There’s an excellent supporting cast. I love to watch comedy actors stretch themselves in drama. Helen’s friend Linda Bates is played by Emma Fryer who is so perfectly funny in Channel 4’s Phoneshop and BBC’s Ideal. Her character is proud, angry and defiant. Her man Stephen could never be the murderer – by sheer force of will she’d keep him on the straight and narrow. It’s a great performance but I’m expecting her to roll her eyes or stick her tongue out at any second. And another great spot from Ideal was Sinead Matthews seemingly playing another nice but dim character.

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