New British TV Show Reviews

November 15, 2013

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Ade in Adland (11/13)
Adrian Edmondson presents this ITV documentary series that not only highlights famous adverts but puts them into context with how cultural changes over the decades affected Britain and the products it wanted to purchase, particularly food.

Atlantis (11/13)
The latest fantasy series from BBC Wales following in the footsteps of Merlin and aimed at the Saturday evening family audience.  A modern day young man named Jason searching for his missing father suddenly finds himself washed ashore on the fabled island in what appear to be ancient times. Quickly he is introduced to an oracle (Juliet Stevenson), King Minos (Alexander Siddig), a nerdy young Pythagoras, and Hercules (played here by Mark Addy as an overweight lazy coward) all of whom speak what sounds to us like contemporary English.  Jason has some connection to Atlantis which the oracle frustratingly refuses to divulge, and like his namesake is pretty good in the hero department and slaying minotaurs.  So far it's not as compelling to me as Sky1's similar Sinbad series last year.

Bad Education (11/13)
Jack Whitehead co-wrote and stars in this BBC-3 comedy as Alfie, the cool, hip, but mostly incompetent teacher to a classroom of misfits at a second-rate school. The head of his department (Mathew Horne) is bonkers, while the Headmistress (Michelle Gomez) loves to torment Alfie. After she fakes her death in the second season (with Alfie's help), her replacement (Samantha Spiro) starts graphically getting it on with Alfie's dad (Harry Enfield), much to his horror. ABC is about to do an American remake that will star Whitehead as a transplanted Brit in San Diego. I'm not sure if it's the Britishness that makes Bad Education work as a format (as opposed to a "fish out of water" concept) but it's worth a try.

Badults (11/13)
Ben Clark, Matthew Crosby and Tom Parry play three young men with the same first names who are housemates with a serious case of arrested development in this BBC-3 comedy. Their misadventures bring to mind the zaniness of The Young Ones with frequent cutaways or fantasy sequences right in the middle of a scene. Jack Docherty turns up as well as Ben and his sister's boss, and he's just as nutty. Aimed squarely at the twentysomething demographic of BBC-3, the energy and comic creativity of the series make it a success.

Big Bad World (11/13)
Blake Harrison (Way To Go) stars in this UK Comedy Central series who is desperate to get back with his ex-girlfriend (Scarlett Johnson, Pramface) but must first move back in with his reluctant parents (James Fleet, Caroline Quentin).  Harrison has perfected this sort of twentysomething bumbling idiot who can never cut his losses and see what's right in front of him. 

Big School (11/13)
David Walliams co-wrote and stars in this BBC comedy at a dysfunctional comprehensive school as Mr Church, an anally retentive chemistry teacher (with a creepy assistant played silently by Julie T Wallace) who is smitten by Miss Postern (Catherine Tate), the new French teacher. They are sort of into each other but Church's pathological need for one-upmanship causes a lot of friction in their relationship. Other staff include Philip Glenister as the crude mouth-breathing PE teacher who also has his eye (and another body part) on Postern; a large Welsh teacher who is bullied by the students; and Frances de La Tour as a chain-smoking Headmistress who greatly dislikes shenanigans. Harmless but not in a league with Jack Whitehead's similar Bad Education.

Blackout (11/13)
Chilling Channel 4 TV movie that has an extended power outage in Britain begin to break down society when it appears no end is in sight after several days.  A number of characters are followed including a family head by a survivalist equipped with a generator and food who finds out the hard way when the veneer of civilization is stripped away from his neighbors.  The gimmick of the movie is it's done in the style of "found footage" shot either with camcorders or mobile phones that document the entire story piece by piece all the way to its tragic conclusion.

Burton and Taylor (11/13)
BBC TV movie docu-drama about the reunion of Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West) in a 1980s revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" on Broadway.  Having famously had an affair on the set of "Cleopatra" decades earlier, as well as several notorious marriages (and divorces), the press can't get enough of this, and audiences flock to the theater to see what will happen each evening. Taylor is a huge prima donna of course, but Burton thinks he knows how to tame her, but then discovers she has the wrong end of the stick when it comes to their relationship.  Much of this has to be speculation, as many scenes occur with just the two of them alone in a room where there were no witnesses, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to wonder just what went on.

By Any Means (11/13)
Tony Jordon co-created this overly slick BBC police drama about an elite "impossible missions" force of cops who get assignments from Gina McKee to go after baddies the regular police can't touch.  The influence of Hustle is very strong here, as our gang plan an elaborate ruse to trap their victim, it appears to all go wrong near the end, but SURPRISE, thanks to scenes we weren't shown earlier, they planned ahead for the disastrous contingency and win the day.  And this happens every single week without fail. I suppose on one hand it's no different than paying to see a magician perform where there's a tacit agreement between him and the audience that even though we know he is fooling us, we allow ourselves to be entertained by the spectacle and not knowing how it's done. But as a TV drama, I remain unconvinced.

Chickens (11/13)
Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet co-wrote and star in this Sky1 comedy series set in 1914 just after the war breaks out, as the last men in the small village of Rittle-On-Sea. Cecil (Bird) is medically unfit to serve, George (Thomas) is a conscientious objector hanging on to his fiancee by a thread, and Bert (Sweet) is just an amoral idiot. The fiercely patriotic women of the village despise these men who stayed behind and make their lives hell.  For some reason, perhaps owing to stiff-upper-lipism, the boys continue to endure this abuse in a world now run by women, often to comic effect.

Count Arthur Strong (11/13)
Steve Delaney has played the titled character for years on radio, and here it was loosely adapted for TV along with writer Graham Linehan for the BBC. Strong is a former vaudevillian double-act whose late partner's son Michael (Rory Kinnear) wants to write a book based on their lives. What Michael doesn't realize at first is that Arthur is insane, an easily-befuddled and distracted talentless old man who always gets the wrong end of the stick when he isn't rambling off-topic about something. He mostly hangs out in a nearby cafe, and Michael soon becomes one of the regulars there. The episodes are about their misadventures together. The highlight for me came when Arthur goes to a talent competition audition (with a borrowed dog) only to go on a tear about their intelligence, "I mean, dogs don't have much of a brain, do they? If they did, they'd be ruling the world, riding round on horses with machine guns, like the monkeys did that time. Glad all that's blown over," he muses. Of course, nobody else in the room has a clue what he's talking about.

Dates (11/13)
Channel 4 series about a series of first dates that at first go spectacularly wrong but then head off in an unexpected direction. It appears to be an anthology series with a different set of characters each week, but then old ones come back and we realize we're seeing one interconnected universe.  The cast included Ben Chaplin, Will Mellor, Andrew Scott, Oona Chaplin, Greg McHugh, Gemma Chan and Sheridan Smith.

Father's Day (11/13)
Ray Winstone, Charles Dance and John Simm star in this ITV4 short film which introduces a great deal of characters and situations and makes us guess at how they are all connected.  Spoilers: Turns out the theme is prostate cancer.

The Ginge, The Geordie and the Geek (11/13)
Hilarious sketch comedy from Scotland (where all is made clear with the subtitles turned on). Some bits are less than 30 seconds, getting to the joke and moving on, others such as Scottish warriors riding brooms instead of horses, last several minutes as they ride off to battle. The hits-to-miss ratio is pretty darn high, making this an entertaining series.

The Guilty (11/13)
Three-part ITV mini-series in the mold of Broadchurch about a small town where a young boy has been missing for five years. Suddenly his body is found and it reopens the investigation (and old wounds) for the family, neighbors, and the police. Now in charge is a police inspector played by Tamsin Greig who finds the case makes her worry about her own son.  The father (Darren Boyd) remains a possible suspect, and there are plenty of red herrings to uncover before the the truth finally comes out.

Jo Brand's Great Wall of Comedy (11/13)
UK Gold brings a number of celebrities together to talk about classic TV comedy, with clips, interviews, and even some messing about in the studio in front of a live audience. The perfect show for a nostalgia channel like UK Gold.

Lawless (11/13)
A pilot on Sky Living starring Suranne Jones as a newly minted judge (technically a recorder) dealing with the issues in the court and in her personal life.  Her former mentor who opened a lot of career opportunities for her has grabby hands and is not above exploiting his knowledge of her when appearing in her court. A number of subplots are also introduced, presumably to be taken up should this advance to a series.

Love and Marriage (11/13)
ITV comedy series about Pauline Paradise (Alison Steadman) whose three children have all grown and she realizes one day she's married to a bore and walks out on him. She moves in with her sister (Celia Imrie) a former model who lives life to the fullest. The Paradise children are keen to get their parents back together, but they all have family problems of their own. A familiar TV cast along with Steadman's always impeccable performance (Pauline pathologically carries a shopping bag with her at all times) gloss over some of the cliches that are encountered.

The Mill (11/13)
Based on the people and history of the Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, this Channel 4 19th Century drama shows what life was like for "employees," (more like slaves) who signed on to work at the mill as kids to avoid living in grim Victorian orphanages. In return for room, board and a basic education until they turn 19, they were expected to work 12 hours a day, six days a week without complaint. A trade union movement to reduce work hours is bitterly opposed by the mill owners who have hired an engineer to work on a automated loom that will eventually usher in industrialization. While the overseers are mostly portrayed as dark-souled villains (particularly Kevin McNally), the family that own the mill believe in their hearts that they are giving a better life to children who otherwise would be starving and suffering. But sometimes, sacrifices must be made.

Pat & Cabbage (11/13)
Barbara Flynn and Cherie Lunghi play lifelong middle-aged friends in this ITV comedy. Pat (Flynn) is a widow with two grown daughters, while Cabbage (Lunghi) is a free-spirit former model who got her nickname from a famous photo she once posed for. Pat takes a shine to another parent (Peter Davison) where her grandson attends school, but it's been so long she's forgotten how to court properly. It's mostly about women in their 50s getting into hijinks, which I suppose is harmless enough.

Peaky Blinders (11/13)
Cillian Murphy stars in this intense and stylish BBC drama series set in 1920 Birmingham. He plays Thomas Shelby, a young man back from the trenches of WWI and now the ambitious family patriarch of gangsters specializing in illegal gambling. Their gang gets their name from their trademark caps which have razor blades sewn in which they use as weapons in fights against rivals. As Shelby is building his empire across the city he stumbles upon a cache of weapons which he promptly steals. This brings the attention of not only the IRA who are keen to get their hands on the guns for their incipient revolution in Ireland, but also Winston Churchill who deploys a ruthless police inspector (Sam Neill) with orders to recover the weapons at any cost. The inspector's secret weapon in his cat-and-mouse game with Shelby is Grace (Annabelle Wallis), an Irish undercover agent posing as a barmaid at his local.  Shelby also is dealing with a war with a rival gypsy gang, trying to do business with the syndicate that controls the race tracks, and keeping his own family in check including a sister who is in love with a Communist (Iddo Goldberg), a matriarch aunt (Helen McCrory) and several brothers.  Steven Knight wrote the series which is stunningly realized by director Otto Bathurst, every episode looks like a movie. The Weinstein Company has already picked up US distribution rights for three seasons of Peaky Blinders, clearly putting a great deal of faith in this period drama.

The Psychopath Next Door (11/13)
In the first of a series of pilots on Sky Living, Anna Friel plays the title character, Eve Wright, who has apparently stolen the identity of a therapist, moves onto a suburban street, and begins wreaking havoc with her new neighbors. The first episode is all set-up, it would be in subsequent stories whether we see if she succeeds like Dexter, or finally gets her comeuppance.

Run (11/13)
Four episode dramatic mini-series from Channel 4 that each week focused on a different character who were loosely connected and how they made a decision to alter their lives. The first was about Carol (Olivia Coleman) who trades in stolen phones and whose sons murder a stranger. Then Ying (Kaie Leung) who received the property from Carol tries to break free of the Chinese gangsters she's indebted to, only to involve a black barber. One of his clients, Richard (Lennie James), a former drug addict tries to get enough money to buy his estranged son a computer after stealing a car. The woman who owned the car, Katarzyna (Katherina Schuttler) turns out to be the fiancee of the dead man the boys killed and who owed a lot of money to the Russian mob. 

Sound of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies (11/13)
As a huge consumer of movie soundtracks, this BBC-4 documentary series was right up my alley.  Presented by Neil Brand, he interviews composers and uses generous clips from films (thanks to blanket BBC licensing agreements) to illustrate the evolution of music in movies from the silent era to today, and how styles have changed over the years.

Southcliffe (11/13)
Four part Channel 4 mini-series about a town that is the victim of a shooting spree. Much of the timeline is jumbled up which makes it a bit hard to follow, but eventually the focus falls on David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear), a BBC reporter who grew up in Southcliffe and is forced to reconnect with a difficult past when he returns to cover the story. Other residents were played by Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan.

Stephen Fry's Key to the City (11/13)
Stephen Fry takes advantage of his honorary "freedom of the City of London" to explore parts of the Square Mile of the capital not often seen by either residents or tourists in this breezy one-off ITV documentary. I'm not sure how much access is due to Fry's "freedom" or just having a film crew and the National Treasure status he has attained that allows him to interview all sorts of people around the city, but it's a great travelogue.

That Puppet Game Show (11/13)
It's a BBC celebrity quiz show where all the presenters are puppets made by The Jim Henson Company, except for the two human contestants. Half the show have the players doing various games and competitions egged on by the puppets, but the other half is the backstage of the show with the lives of the puppet characters. It's almost like Executive Producer Brian Henson misses the days of "The Muppet Show" and the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, and they've brought it back here.  Clearly aimed at a family audience on a weekend, I would have ditched the humans and the game show aspects entirely and focused just on the puppets.

Time Travelers Guide To Victorian England (11/13)
A three-part BBC Open University documentary series presented by Dr Ian Mortimer that has the unusual premise of showing what the 19th Century was like if you were able to go back and visit. Each episode focuses on a different social class: the common people, the rich, and the newly created middle class, and how their lives were so much different than ours. 

Up The Women (11/13)
Jessica Hynes (Spaced) wrote and co-stars in this brief BBC Four comedy set 100 years ago in a small village. Women's suffrage has yet to come to England, and progressive Margaret (Hynes) must convince the more reluctant members of the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle to support the cause, including Queen Bee Helen (Rebecca Front).  The entire series is set in the village hall the Circle meet in, and there are occasional male characters introduced as well.  Low-key but charming.

What Remains (11/13)
Tony Basgallop wrote this complicated BBC suspense mini-series set in a residential building with different tenants on each floor. It begins with the surprise discovery of the body of the woman from the top floor who had been dead in the attic for months without anyone having noticed she was missing.  This intrigues the about-to-retire detective Len Harper (David Threlfall) who begins to investigate the neighbors and ferret out their stories.  This includes the lesbian couple with a secret, the newspaper man with a creepy son, the young married couple about to have their first baby, and the fastidious school teacher in the basement flat who supposedly lives alone. Over the course of the four episodes, we find out how they were all connected with the dead woman (seen in flashbacks), and Harper continues the investigation even after he leaves the force without mentioning it to anyone. You can try to guess whodunit, but you'll probably be wrong; it's the twists and turns that are entertaining here.

The Wipers Times (11/13)
Ben Chaplin and Julian Rhind-Tutt star in this fact-based WWI drama about a subversive satirical newspaper that was published in the trenches by soldiers who found a printing press in a destroyed French village (the title comes from way many British tommies pronounced Ypres as "wipers"). It's done anonymously but their old-school commanding officer is not amused, but fortunately a sympathetic general (Michael Palin) provides cover and lets them get on with it. The man most responsible for the paper was Captain Fred Roberts who despite the paper's success with fellow soldiers is unable to parlay it into an actual journalism job after the war and went back into mining in North America for the rest of his life.

The Wrong Mans (11/13)
Mathew Baynton and James Corden wrote and star in this BBC comedy/drama as two doofuses working for the county council who get wrapped up in  an elaborate web of deception involving assassination, kidnapping, Chinese gangsters, Russian spies, and a femme fetale.  Baynton plays the reluctant Cary Grant-like character who would prefer that it just all go away so he can return to his boring life, but Corden dials it up to 11 as is his wont, overeagerly jumping in even when it might be life threatening.  The closing titles are actually more interesting than the opening ones, rare for a BBC series (co-produced by Hulu and available to watch now on Hulu Plus).

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Written and maintained by Ryan K. Johnson (
November 15, 2013