New British TV Show Reviews

March 7, 2013

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Being Eileen (3/13)
This gentle BBC comedy series by Michael Wynne is a spin-off of Lapland, centering on newly widowed Eileen (Sue Johnston), her grown children (Dean Andrews, Elizabeth Berrington), their spouses and the grandkids. Eileen doesn't really know what do with herself now she is on her own, but peace and quiet are never close at hand when the family descends on her, as they do in every episode.  It's very sweet, dramatizing how the people who drive you the most crazy are the ones you love the most.

Blandings (3/13)
Over-the-top BBC adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's stories about inbred gentry getting into scrapes only Wodehouse could imagine. Timothy Spall stars as the pig-obsesssed patriarch, so dim he gives Berty Wooster a run for this money. His sister (Jennifer Saunders) is forever on his case, or trying to prevent his son or a niece from marrying "the wrong sort." Mark Williams plays the usual unflappable butler to the Blandings.  The 30 minute time is the perfect length for these light-weight tales to run their course without overstaying their welcome.

Bob Servant Independent (3/13)
This BBC Scottish comedy is about a former food van owner (Brian Cox) who decides to run for parliament as an independent during a by-election.  Aided only by his best friend as manager, Bob wasn't necessarily popular with residents before this (his tasteless remodel of his house being a major sore point) and he manages to put his foot in this mouth every single time. There is something tragically fascinating about watching a no-hoper try to achieve his dream, even when he is own worst enemy, with a stunning lack of self-awareness.

Common Ground (3/13)
A series of shorts for Sky that are loosely interwoven but essentially self-contained one-off dramatic comedies.  Like Little Crackers, this is a staging ground for possibly launching new series, but also shows the economy that one can create an entire world full of characters in just 10 minutes.  My favorites include Charles Dance as an irresponsible aging roady grandfather, and two friends who are desperate to create the Next Big Thing.  Paul Kaye plays a creepy loan shark who appears in about half the episodes.

Complicit (3/13)
Channel 4 TV movie about a black MI:6 analyst Edward Ekubo (David Oyelowo) who has been passed up for promotion but finds a link between a British Muslim and terrorists in Egypt. Sent there to follow up on the arrest, he finds the shackles placed on him by government policy and the cleverness of his subject too much to stand. Violating orders, he has the Egyptian security services do what he can't: to extract information using torture, but it ultimately blows up in his face.  Clearly the movie wants to make the point that Jack Bauer-ism, ends-justifies-the-means torture is not the way to go, but Ekubo is keen to prove himself, especially when he finds evidence that a sarin attack is going to happen in Britain but nobody on his side seems particularly worried or anxious. But short-cuts have consequences, it's too bad, he probably would have done pretty well in Bush's American during the last decade.

Dancing On the Edge (3/13)
Stephen Poliakoff wrote and directed this ambitious BBC mini-series set in 1930s London about the rise and fall of the Louis Lester Band, jazz musicians who eventually play for the Prince of Wales. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Louis, a British born bandleader who comes to the attention of music magazine writer Stanley (Matthew Goode) who promotes the band and eventually gets them an ongoing gig as permanent residents in the posh Imperial Hotel. At first their jazz music is not well-received by the establishment, but patrons (including Anthony Head and Jacqueline Bisset) who are eager to experience the next new thing help them open the right doors, meet the right people, and eventually even get on the staid old BBC. But Poliakoff also examines the racism of the era, though not as bad as America at the time, most of the characters (admittedly upper class) treat Louis and his band as equals, at least when everything is going well.  But when the lead singer (Angel Coulby) is discovered dead and Louis suspects the young protege of mysterious American tycoon Masterson (John Goodman), things turn ugly and Louis isn't sure who, if anyone, is still his ally.  Louis sometimes is a bit too paranoid for his own good, although based on his experiences, not entirely unjustified.

Doors Open (3/13)
Stephen Fry plays an art historian who has curated a vast collection owned by a bank that needs to liquidate.  Horrified, he organizes a gang of friends to substitute fakes for the originals before the collection is broken up in this light-hearted ITV TV movie. Many familiar TV faces fill the cast including Douglas Henshall and Lenora Crichlow as former lovers.

The Fear (3/13)
Channel 4 mini-series about a Brighton-based businessman (Peter Mullen) who begins to suffer dementia just as he's trying to expand, as well as dealing with ruthless Eastern European gangsters. His explosive temper often picks the worst times to come to the surface, and it's not helped by the fact he often can't remember the episodes afterwards. As his haunted past begins to blend with his grim present, it becomes a battle of survival not helped by the activities of his two sons.

Jonathan Meades: The Joy of Essex (3/13)
Essex, a county just east of London is to Britain what the Jersey Shore is to the United States. At least that's its reputation, which commentator Jonathan Meades is happy to dispel, at least when not knocking somewhat questionable architectural decisions which are his bread and butter.  Like all of Meades' films for the BBC, impeccably shot, narrated and informative.

Loving Miss Hatto (3/13)
Alfred Molina stars as William Barrington-Coupe, a somewhat dodgy entrepreneur who stumbles upon shy piano prodigy Joyce Hatto in the 1950s, and becomes her promoter and husband in this BBC TV movie based on a true story. Joyce peaks early in her career and only makes a few recordings.  Years later, now retired, William discovers that Joyce's music has been rediscovered and there is a huge demand for new recordings. Alas, her talent has passed, but he (as alleged in this movie) uses digital technology to pass off other performances as those of his wife's.  Sales are great until a snoopy reporter from "The New Yorker" uncovers the deception, which Barrington-Coupe denies to this day (Hatto died in 2006). 

The Making of a Lady (3/13)
ITV TV movie about a middle class working girl in the 19th Century who gets a chance to join the gentry when she marries an older military officer despite the objections of his aunt (Joanna Lumley). Taken to his country manor, he is then posted abroad, leaving her to deal with the family servants as well as a some friends of her husband's with sinister intentions towards her.  Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Mr Selfridge (3/13)
Jeremy Piven co-produced this lavish ITV/Masterpiece series that he also stars in as American department store entrepreneur Harry Selfridge in London of the 1920s.  Andrew Davies developed the series, which follows the exploits of Harry, his family, and the staff at the store on Oxford Street (it's still there), through various familiar soap tropes. Piven plays Selfridge, like many of his other characters, as driven to succeed, even as he indulges in mistresses, gambling, and trying to make the British upper class comfortable with his style of accomplishing things.  ITV was hoping for another Downton Abbey-like success, and although the ratings were respectable, it was handily beaten by the BBC's Call The Midwife.

Old Jack's Boat (3/13)
This children's TV series is similar to the long-running Jackanory, with someone basically telling a story.  Here, modern digital effects are combined with "old salt" Bernard Cribbins as the titular character, who lives in a small fishing village, and hangs out on his boat telling his dog children's stories.  It's a charming conceit, and it looks like the BBC spent some money on it.

Panto! (3/13)
Comic John Bishop gets to star in this Christmas-themed ITV TV movie about a regional DJ who gets the lead in a local panto with a collection of characters including a diva-ish soap star (Sheridan Smith). It's opening night and as you might imagine, it's a familiar comedy of errors, but all's well that ends well.

Privates (3/13)
The BBC regularly schedules original dramas set in the mid-Century in a Monday-to-Friday afternoon slot, even though they are perfectly appropriate for prime time.  I guess nobody cares about the 1950s any more. In this five-episode series set in November 1960 conscription is coming to an end in the British Army and the last class of involuntary recruits are forced together in a familiar basic training setting.  One way posh boys could get out of service was by running for parliament, which one attempts to do, only to see a middle class rival try the same trick. We also see the drama between a sergeant major having an affair with his commanding officer's wife.

Restless (3/13)
BBC two-part WWII espionage thriller about a Russian woman (Hayley Atwell) recruited by English spy Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) in pre-war France, which is crosscut with her in 1970 telling her story to her daughter (Michelle Dockery) in order to find out what happened to Romer and if he's still a threat to her. A great, tense drama which spans two eras and two generations.

Ripper Street (3/13)
This expensive BBC co-production is somewhat similar to "Copper," another 19th Century police procedural that ran on BBC America last year.  This time, Matthew Macfadyen plays the lead, Edmund Reid, a tortured detective inspector who recently lost his daughter, abetted by a loyal (if somewhat thuggish) sergeant (Jerome Flynn) as well as an American "crime surgeon" (Adam Rothenberg) with a shady past.  It's a bit "CSI: Victoria," with much of the detective work being done in the lab, with brilliant leaps of logic by Reid that would be worthy of Sherlock Holmes at times.  Alas, Jack the Ripper is a no-show in the series (his six murders have already occurred by the beginning of the show), but nevertheless his shadow looms over the proceedings.

The Spa (3/13)
Sky 1 comedy starring Rebecca Front as the terrible manager of a posh spa and her somewhat dodgy staff.  Written by Derren Litten (Benidorm), The Spa doesn't really provide any new insights into the workplace drama, or having to deal with an utterly incompetent and self-centered boss.

Spies of Warsaw (3/13)
David Tennant stars as a French spy in this BBC drama set in Poland just before WWII.  Despite the title maybe leading you to think there is a whole team of spies, Tennant is very much the leading man here, in nearly every scene, and getting to do plenty of running around, saving pretty French girls, and killing the occasional Nazi.  He even pulls off wearing his rather boxy 1930 French officer's uniform without looking completely ridiculous, though most of the time he's dressed like a typical Pole, the better for snooping around.

Stephen Fry: Gadget Man (3/13)
In this fluffy Channel 4 series, Fry shows off his joy at gadgets old and new, and how they might revolutionize daily life. Many are of the "Gee, I'd love to own that variety," while others aren't quite ready for our modern world.

The Town (3/13)
ITV mini-series ostensibly about the tired mayor of a city (Martin Clunes) but also a multi-arced story featuring many characters who all interact. It beings with a double suicide of a couple which leaves their two children, one a teenager, and her older brother (Andrew Scott) who moved to London years ago and is forced to return home, to take care of each other and their gran. But was it suicide? And how is it connected to the mayor?

Utopia (3/13)
This violent but thought-provoking Channel 4 mini-series has a number of odd characters chasing after the missing manuscript to a graphic novel that could cause the end of the world. On one side you have a group of fans who just want to see what happens in the sequel, but stumble upon a conspiracy involving vaccines, mad scientists, assassins, and a mysterious woman who stays off the grid.  On the other, is a civil servant who is blackmailed by forces unknown to approve a cure for a fake Russian flu virus, a corporation that seems part of the government, and a plot that could alter the future of humanity.  Stylishly shot (by two directors), Utopia gives new meaning to "paranoia."

Way To Go (3/13)
I love telling people this is BBC sitcom about three idiots who start a euthanasia business. Scott (Blake Harrison) works at a vet hospital and is hired by an elderly neighbor to assist him in a suicide. Using stolen drugs and a machine whipped up by his buddy Cozzo (Marc Wootton), Scott performs the deed in order to pay some bills and help his deadbeat gambler half-brother Joey (Ben Heathcote).  Yes, this could seem tasteless, but running on BBC-3, their client base is unlikely to have ever even seen the channel.  Scott's love life is a mess, and it's made more complicated when he begins seeing the daughter of his first client (the deaths appear like natural causes so nobody knows about the assisted suicides).  Cozzo's ditzy pregnant police officer wife also remains blissfully unaware of her husband's sudden source of income, although she has her suspicions.

Yes, Prime Minister (3/13)
The classic 1970s BBC comedy is updated for the 21st Century with a new cast (David Haig, Henry Goodman, Chris Larkin) playing the familiar characters in a plot devised by the original writers for the stage, with 2013 issues woven in.  Running on cable channel Gold, clearly this was aimed at nostalgia buffs.

A Young Doctor's Notebook (3/13)
Daniel Radcliffe took this on as a personal dream project, adapting his favorite book for three episodes on Sky 1.  He stars as the title character, a Russian doctor whose first posting is in the middle of the Siberian winter in a tiny hospital. Meanwhile, we see an older version of himself (Jon Hamm) in 1930s Moscow, looking back (and actually interacting) with his younger self as we see what caused him to lose his way. Radcliffe's doctor is extremely terrible and inexperienced, nearly every case causes him to flee to his office to consult medical books he obviously never studied that well in school. Seeing him abuse patients is almost painful, but also hilarious.

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Written and maintained by Ryan K. Johnson (
March 7, 2013