Wednesday, 15 January 2014

REVIEWS: The 7.39, Benefit Street, Breaking Bad, Sherlock

It's only the 14th of January and there's already been some splendidly thought-provoking and inventive television, while over on DVD, Breaking Bad's last two series continued to amaze.

You’ve got to pick a pocket or two
Hard times on Benefit Street. (Image: BBC)
First up on the Fairclough Towers viewing schedule was Benefit Street. A documentary about James Turner Street in Birmingham which houses a high proportion of unemployed, the Channel 4 programme’s participants looked like the cast of a Dickens novel given a 21st century reboot. Among the residents were ‘Fungi’, a habitual relapsing drug addict who had “lost the will to help himself”; ‘White Dee’, the single mum bringing up two kids with the support of benefits alone who also acted as the matriarch of the street’s workless inhabitants; ‘Black Dee’, another single mum who had been out of work for six years and the sour Becky, one half of a young couple who considered the government’s slashing of benefits “a f***ing piss take”, demanding “how are we supposed to live on £50 a week?” It was could have been Hard Times 2014.

There was a lot of coverage in the media in the show last week, from the predictable “We told you so” finger-pointing of the Daily Mail, always keen to do its best to encourage intolerance of minorities, to the mildly amusing report of Benefit Street’s contributors’ threatening to sue Channel 4 for misrepresentation. You can see why the opposite ends of the social spectrum said what they did about the documentary: although the programme did its best to be a matter of fact record of unemployed people’s lives, James Turner Street did unfortunately come across as a ghetto for the work-shy stereotypes the government and the Daily Mail are keen to demonise.

I expected more of Channel 4, as the unemployment situation isn’t that simple. Writing as a highly skilled art college graduate with a degree who’s been out of work for a year, and who has a mortgage and lives in a nice area, I expected a more even-handed approach. On the evidence of the first programme, it was disappointing to see that the producer had opted for a sensational approach not a million miles away from The Only Way Is Essex or Big Brother.

Train of love
Commuter love: Morrissey and Smith.
(Image: BBC)
Clashing annoyingly with Benefit Street on BBC1 was the The 7.39, a drama about the flipside of unemployment, namely the spirit-crushing daily train commute from suburbia to London and back again. Set among the landmarks of commuting to the capital such as Charing Cross Station, the London Eye and the South Bank, The 7.39 speculated on what would happen if a man and a woman broke out of the commuter cocoon and got to know each other, with the inevitable romantic results.

Written by One Day author David Nichols, another story of middle class melancholy and frustration, the two-part story was helped immensely by the mature playing of its two leads David Morrissey (as property manager Carl Mathews), adding to his impressive gallery of angst-ridden middle aged men, and Sheridan Smith (health club worker Sally Thorn), an actress so natural and comfortable in whatever role she plays that it doesn’t look like she’s acting at all – a rare quality. Although The 7.39 concentrated on Morrissey and Smith, equally impressive actors had been attracted to the smaller roles: Sean Maguire as Sally’s body-fascist control freak fiancée Ryan and national treasure Olivia ColmanTM  as Carl’s kind and supportive wife Maggie.

You could argue that The 7.39 trod a predictable path of affair/discovery/split/reconciliation, but that wasn’t the point. Here were two characters, both lost in different ways, who knew that their blossoming romance on the railways was going to lead to heartbreak and hurt for their respective partners but, as both were quietly desperate people, they went ahead anyway, a scenario that felt realistic. The story was pleasingly non-judgmental about their liaison too, even if Colman was allowed one of her virtuoso, hurt tirades when she discovered Morrissey’s infidelity. The bitter-sweet moral appeared to be that in an increasingly homogenised and isolating society, if you get the chance to make something beautiful, however short-lived, you should go for it then grit your teeth and deal with the consequences later. The 7.39 was an accurate, if depressing, assessment of the emotional landscape of modern Britain.

The Master Blackmailer
Sherlock: back on form. (Image: BBC)
After a wobbly two weeks it’s heartening to report that Sherlock was back on form on Sunday. Following the nebulous-to-the-point-of-invisibility villains of Series Three’s first two instalments, Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) was matched by the worthy opponent of newspaper magnate and blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, brought to life in a wonderfully repellent performance by The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen.

After the preceding two misfires, ‘His Last Vow’ got it just right. This series’ increasing interest in the private lives of its characters paid off with revelations about Mary (Amanda Abbington), the wife of Doctor Watson (Martin Freeman) and satisfying psychological insights into both Holmes and Watson. What was especially pleasing was that all this was done in a way that intrigued the viewer, added depth to the characters and – crucially – progressed the story.

Stylistically it was great fun, too. Extra tension was added to Holmes being shot by an extended sequence in his ‘mind palace’ in which various people he knew, from the devilish Moriarty (Andrew Scott) to the ever attentive Molly (Louise Brealey), commented on how he could survive or give in to death. Playfully self-aware, this complemented the non-linear experiments with the narrative, as different characters’ interpretations of events jumped back and forth along the spine of the story. In terms of genre, ‘His Last Vow’ was somewhere between a mash up of James Bond, the Bourne films and The Avengers, offering a villain with an unpleasant physical characteristic, a la Ian Fleming, a CIA assassin with a new identity and a house that was all façade with one long, thin room inside, a surreal touch played up by director Nick Hurran. This debt to The Avengers was tacitly acknowledged by the plea of Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss) to his brother “You’re needed”, a paraphrase of the request that summoned John Steed and Mrs Peel into action in the 1960s. I’d expected the final twist through all three episodes and I won’t give away here, but it was great to see nonetheless.

Almost as great was seeing our old bete noir the Daily Mail on Monday give over almost as many column inches as they had to Benefit Street in trashing ‘His Last Vow’. The reason for this was for this was prompted by comments Sherlock supremo Steven Moffat had made in the past criticising the government’s current policies and the questionable influence of press barons on policy making, to the point where Moffat had apparently delivered a villainous media tycoon as part of a subversive left-wing agenda. The character's mantra regarding the truth? “I don’t have to prove it, I just have to print it”. Touched a nerve, perhaps? BBC-bash all you want, Daily Mail, but I think the record 8.8 million viewers Sherlock attracted for its Sunday timeslot proves that your pathetically right-wing, paranoid views might just be in the minority.

An American Tragedy  
The endgame for Jesse and Walt. (Image: AMC)
Before and after Sherlock, I was monopolising the Fairclough Towers sofa as I watched the final two seasons of Breaking Bad. There aren’t many series that can keep me up until 1 the morning, and the final chapters in the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) confirmed my opinion that this TV series is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Watching each episode is like reading a new chapter of a great novel.

Walt’s downfall is so epically ironic that the show could be subtitled An American Tragedy, the title of Theodore Dreiser’s book that charts the dissolution of Clyde Griffiths, another US anti-hero. Everything important in Walt’s life, from his drug-making to his relationship with his family, slowly disintegrates as the American justice machine slowly closes in on him. Although the show continues to champion great performances, unfussy direction and straight-forward storytelling, stylistically the tonal shift in the last third of the series is visually conveyed by the interior of the White house becoming a permanently dark, brooding place. By contrast, throughout the last 16 episodes the desert outside Albuquerque is lit in a vivid, blood orange under the glare of the sun, suggesting, perhaps, that everything is slowly going to hell.

I won’t give the details of the plot away as I know there are people out there who haven’t seen the whole series yet, and the many twists, turns and shocks are an essential part of its viewing experience. What I will say is that the most remarkable thing about Breaking Bad, which the last two episodes illuistrate particularly well, is that despite Walt’s transformation from a mild, frustrated middle-aged man into a truly manipulative and vile monster, you never lose empathy for him. That’s a tribute to both the actor who played him and how well Walter White was written, to the point where he can sit alongside icons like King Lear, Willy Loman and Rodion Raskolinkov, as a character who offers illuminating insights into the failings and weaknesses of the human condition.

Not bad for an ex-writer on The X-Files, huh?

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