Saturday, 18 April 2015

RAISED BY WOLVES review. Mondays, Channel 4, 10pm


Bowie, chips, Watership Down, peach fragrance, Daleks and the sexing up of the Question Time theme. It can only be smart, left-of-field new sitcom Raised by Wolves.

"It's like living with Nick Cave." (Image: C4)

Channel 4 has got a great track record with comedy shows, Toast of London, Black Books and Father Ted among them, but, for me, Raised by Wolves is a cut above. The premise isn’t as immediately engaging as those others – ‘single mum brings up children on a council estate in Wolverhampton with help/interference from their granddad’ – but the quality, originality and intelligence of the new series’ wit sparkles and delights.

It’s interesting that the series, written by columnist Caitlin Moran and her sister Caroline, and apparently based on their unconventional upbringing, should appear at the same time as documentaries like Benefits Street and Skint (and the third series of the latter started this week, immediately before Raised by Wolves). Those series, even though they’re on Channel 4, tend to portray those struggling on the breadline as malingerers and scroungers, in effect a bunch of modern Fagins in hoodies. The Morans’ approach is exactly the opposite, celebrating outsiders and the disenfranchised, and their unique selling point is that you can be bright and working class.   

If you can imagine such a thing, Raised by Wolves is Shameless written by Oscar Wilde. Every character, from granite-hard, Cameron-hating mum Della Garry (the brilliant Rebekah Staton, whose time has surely come), via mouthy Goth Germaine (Lene Lovich-alike Helen Monks) and nervous geek Yoko (Molly Risker), to the girls’ ‘Grampy’, Good Food-obsessed, spliff-mellow Mannie (the perfectly cast Philip Jackson), speak with the same level of wry, sardonic and intellectual wit, creating an exclusive small world. Outside Della’s home-schooled family of individuals, the ‘normal’, emotionally sterile landscape of suburbia is a place to be feared, as in her only-glimpsed mum’s ‘chintz snake pit’ of a house, where ‘what [she] lacked in unconditional love, she made up for with peach fragrance.’       

Not a lot happens in Raised by Wolves – this week, ‘shit nan’ threw Grampy out for being depressed because his mum Joanna had died, so he went to live with Della and co. – but what makes it sing is the sheer cleverness of the dialogue. The strike-rate of smart one-liners really is remarkable. Among many, my favourites this week were:

Della: I’m not having Nike market themselves by the graveside.

Yoko: I used to be scared of the Daleks until grandma told me to call them ‘the Dereks’.

Della: Germaine, you could have put on something less existential than Watership Down!       


Mannie: I like a strong woman on an imperishable format.

Somehow, the Wolverhampton accent makes the dialogue even funnier.

Having Grampy wander around the estate in a depressed frame of mind that he likens to ‘Bowie in Berlin’ is funny because of the association of cardigan with counter culture, but it also made me stop and think. Mannie was a young dude in he 1970s, yet in 2015 here he is as a lovable, if shabby, grandfather delighted to discover in his wallet an ‘emergency fiver’ behind a picture of his daughter and grandchildren, so he can buy some chips and cheer himself up. As someone who grew up at roughly the same time, the ’70s really doesn’t feel that long ago, but this week’s episode reminded me that it is getting on for fifty years. ‘Time takes a cigarette/Puts it in your mouth…’

Before I wander off into the maudlin foothills (as Germaine might say), it’s worth pointing out that the heartening thing about Raised by Wolves is that although Della’s brood might bicker and fall out a lot, when it counts they’re always there for and stick up for each other, an uplifting message in these austere times. The love the actors have for the material also lights up the television, particularly when Germaine discovers an unconventional benefit of the Question Time theme.         

From a hesitant start in the pilot, Raised by Wolves has flowered into something genuinely eccentric, warm and funny. I'd love to see more of Della giving Cameron – or whoever it turns out to be on May 7 – the metaphorical finger.  

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO review. Saturdays, ITV


Happily, Thunderbirds are still go, but a misjudged transmission time could do more to finish off International Rescue than anything dreamed up by the Hood.

International Rescue - the next boy band? (Image: ITV)

Ten years ago, a 1960s family favourite returned to British television. Since then, Doctor Who has sent a lot of ripples through the TV gene pool, resulting in new BBC fantasy shows such as Life on Mars, Merlin, Robin Hood and Atlantis, to name a few. ITV’s best shot at the title was the dinosaur runaround Primeval, but beyond that they’ve struggled to come up with something that’s made a lasting impact.

So you can understand why ITV has looked back to its own 1960s golden age for inspiration. For a generation of children, the science fiction puppet shows made then by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were the ideal complement to Doctor Who. Where the BBC’s series, though often scarily brilliant, was actor-centric and mainly confined to atmospheric (and small) studio sets, the Anderson’s oeuvre offered cinematic visualisations of the future populated by organisations with great, Bond-ish names like WASP and Spectrum, cool uniforms, rousing theme tunes you could sing on the way to school and, above all, stylish, must-have futuristic vehicles that gave the Daleks a run for their money in toy shops up and down the country.

The Anderson series that made the most impact and inspires the most affection is Thunderbirds (1965-66), featuring the square-jawed Tracy family (who, thinking about it, all vaguely resembled John F. Kennedy). Their family business International Rescue operated from an island base in the Pacific, and the Tracy boys did exactly what their secret organisation’s name said on the side of their iconic craft – the Thunderbirds of the title – saving lives in natural and unnatural disasters around the world. Perhaps that’s why the show was the most popular of the Anderson shows, generating two TV series and two feature films and, thirty years later, again taking the country’s toy emporiums by storm thanks to archive repeats on BBC2.

Watching ITV’s 2015 CGI revival is fascinating. Like the new Doctor Who, it’s an instructive exercise in how to update something but retain its original appeal. The producers have kept the theme music and title sequence that got us all so excited on a weekly basis, counting down through each of the Thunderbirds – ‘5… 4… 3… 2… 1!’ – until Thunderbird 1 blasted off into an exciting montage of clips from that week’s episode, just before the brave Tracy lads were each given an on-screen selfie. That’s a brilliant introduction guaranteed to keep anyone watching, in 1965 or 2015.

The CGI itself isn’t so sophisticated that it doesn’t have a charm of its own – the likenesses of the Tracys, bespectacled scientist Brains and arch-enemy the Hood are all recognisable from the original – and the thinking seems to have been that if CGI had been available to the Andersons in the 1960s, this is what they would have come up with. While the endearingly elaborate launch sequences have been kept (Thunderbird 1 from under the swimming pool, Thunderbird 3, bizarrely, through the brothers’ house), this time around, the Thunderbird machines, complete with crash zooms, can move as fast as any ICBM. You can also see how the concept has been filtered through modern action films like Mission: Impossible and Gravity, with International Rescue’s all-in-one jump suits obviously influenced by the X Men and the Marvel Avengers films. Pleasingly, the Tracys run, swim and pirouette in zero gravity as realistically as any human action star.

M'Lady and the guv'nor. (Image: ITV)
Rewarding the faith of the 1960s audience is the return of voice artist David Graham as Aloysius Parker, International Rescue agent Lady Penelope’s chauffer/safecracker/partner in crime. This time he’s sleeker but somehow tougher, and you’re left with the feeling that you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of this particular cockney geezer. Penny herself is voiced by bona fide film star Rosamund Pike and, as in the ill-fated 2004 feature film, you can see that that these two may well shape up to be the best thing about the revival, as they have a devious edge that the clean-cut Tracys lack.

The stories themselves are straightforward enough for kids, with the occasional self-aware touch to keep parents chuckling as they watch alongside their children (if they’re up at 8am on a Saturday, but more of that in a minute). The Tracys can now sit at home watching their siblings’ missions, just like we’re watching them on television, and, in the opening two-parter, the Hood showed the maturity of a latter-day Bond villain when he announced, ‘I don’t want to rule the world: I just want to own it. Let someone else run the place.’

Ah yes, the scheduling. ‘Whaaat?’ Mum squealed, nearly dropping the sponge fingers on that Easter weekend when Thunderbirds are Go debuted in ITV primetime. ‘8 o’clock on a Saturday morning from next week!? Kids are still in bed!’ I’ve no doubt that their parents would like to be too, and it is rather mystifying that having clearly spent a small fortune on a new 26-part series, ITV are relegating the successfully reinvigorated Tracys to the early hours of the weekend. Mum may have enjoyed wallowing in a bit of nostalgia at 5pm on Easter Saturday – she was always reading to me back in the day from TV 21, the comic that Thunderbirds appeared in – but she certainly isn’t going to get up at 8 in the morning to do it, and neither am I. Of course there’s ITV player, but it’s not the same, is it?

Why not have a primetime repeat on ITV (in what’s now universally regarded as the Doctor Who slot) or, better still, just keep Thunderbirds are Go there, particularly as the series revolves around a family working together, a commendable idea that you don’t see much these days in TV fiction (soaps aside).

Anyway: Thunderbirds are still go. Hurrah for that.