To quote a classic of modern literature “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And boy is that true of the absolute shit-show that is Britain in 2019 (we officially lost the Great in 2016). At times like these the nation needs a joyful distraction, or just a way of putting our problems into relief with a a few jokes and this year we have been spoiled. Phoebe Waller-Bridge served up the last series of Fleabag and Ricky Gervais returned with After Life on Netflix, both contentious in their own way but both with devoted and vocal fan bases. Here’s a couple of new shows that I think we should also be talking about.
Ghosts is a long-awaited sitcom from the team who brought us Horrible Histories, and pleasingly it’s broadcast in a post-watershed slot, so while they don’t push it they have the rare opportunity to get away with more creative language and storytelling (Fanny is relating a tale of her husband’s proclivities “I caught him ‘pon the groundskeeper with the butler ‘pon him.” “It’s actually known as a Moroccan tea party”) Essentially it’s a flatshare sitcom with what looks to be a pretty enormous cast.
This is a full review of episodes 1 and 2 of Trapped so don’t read on unless you’re up to date.
Trapped Series 1 was an extraordinary bit of television, the first ever Icelandic drama broadcast on British TV. The first series was the highest rated series ever on RUV, watched by 86% of TV households in Iceland. In the UK it passed 1.2 million viewers on BBC Four. Safe to say then that series 2 has quite a bit to live up to. I’m hoping it’s worth getting excited about.
Bearded man-mountain Ólafur Darri Ólafsson reprises his role as chief police inspector Andri now back in Reykjavik when he is entrusted with an extremely high-profile case. In classic nasty Scandi style we have an immediately gripping immolation opener which is fascinating even as you recoil in horror. Gisli an impoverished sheep farmer from the Icelandic Highlands sets himself on fire in front of the government building, trying to kill the Minister of Economic Affairs who just happens to be his twin sister. Andri is back on top again – a rise so meteoric I’m surprised he doesn’t have a nosebleed. From zero to hero thanks to his hard work and persistence in Series 1. In the first five minutes he’s already chatting to Iceland’s Prime Minister who cuts right to the heart of all Scandi noir motivations – was this attack personal or political?
Vikingur (early contender for best name of the series) is Gisli’s son, working at the controversial aluminium plant up north. As in the first series we get a break from subtitles thanks to the international element here in this industry; something that right-wing Icelanders like the Hammer of Thor group are protesting against – who profits from the devastation this plant causes to their landscape and their livestock? Vikingur already has a lot on his plate before his father’s horrible suicide – he’s in a relationship with Ebo, a black colleague who seems like he’s in the country illegally.
Danny Dyer’s National Television Award’s speech was dedicated to Harold Pinter, his unlikely theater mentor ,with typical passion and flair. “He believed in me when no-one else did. I’m getting all fucking emotional, I don’t now what’s the matter with me, for fuck’s sake,” he said. Underneath that geezer posturing he’s built a career on, he’s got a serious but uplifting message; “To all you young kids living out there in poverty, who don’t think they have a right to hope or dream or believe, do not let where you’ve come from define where you’re going in life. You can be whoever you want to be.” Sure Danny has got the swagger in spades, but what he’s got to say is worth listening to. And despite his humble upbringing he’s got quite a story to tell.
Last week we saw the first episode of his Right Royal Family a spin-off documentary series thanks to his outstanding turn on Who Do You Think You Are in 2018. His reaction to finding out his unbroken ancestral line leads back to royalty was a TV highlight of the year. This two-parter sees him expand on that royal pedigree and pick out the most interesting royals from his lineage in what he promises to be a right nutty royal caper.
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!
Christmas is a time for giving and receiving, and spending a lot of money on presents that may not be exactly what the recipient really wanted. Do you have friends and relations who give great gifts or have you been in training for weeks to perfect your thank-you face? Shining eyes under a paper cracker crown, broad grin, scrabbling around in the box hoping they’ve included the receipt? “Thanks very much for the 6 pack of pan scourers Nana!” Does that sound familiar at all?
The new Watership Down adaptation showing on BBC1 and Netflix made me think they should have kept the receipt. This was one of the early festive highlights with a rumoured budget of £20 million for state-of-the-art CG animation and seems to have put the flop in Flopsy Bunny with very mixed reviews across the board. And it’s not just the ‘we should never do remakes’ crowd feeling grinchy towards these cottontails.
In Search of Science iPlayer (first episode available until 27 August)
This Brian Cox fronted series was first shown but unfortunately missed back in 2013. Yes it’s all about scientific wonders, but as it deals with the history of British science pioneers there are fewer gorgeous desert sunsets and less opportunity for attractive lens flare than in most of his TV shows. The fascinating stories highlighted here show how science and public perception have often been at odds with each other. It was just Darwin and his monkeys offending public sensibility. The lesson here for all is the importance of proper public engagement – sharing knowledge and showing the benefits of new scientific breakthroughs to assuage any misgivings about strange and startling discoveries. Science needs good PR, and that’s just as true now with the outcry over GM crops as it was with Professor Giovanni Aldini whose research on corpses inspired Frankenstein.
Thankfully Alice Roberts, Professor of Public Engagement in Science at the University of Birmingham, is here to build the perfect female form – part science, part sci-fi and all nightmares. With doctors, sculptors and SFX experts she rebuilds her own body from scratch, and fixes the flaws that natural selection has embedded in our collective DNA. Her intentions are the best; making giving birth safer, solving the problems of our bad backs and giving us excellent sight and hearing. She unveils the life-size model in London’s Science Museum to gasps of amazement, but certainly not delight. Part elf, part bird and part kangaroo I think I’ll stick to human 1.0. Thanks all the same Alice.