Thursday, 21 April 2016

ORPHAN BLACK Series 4, ‘The Collapse of Nature’ review

We needn't have worried about Orphan Black's fourth series. It's more than back on form - it's back to breaking new ground.

Hang on to your ego. (Image copyright: BBC America)

Or, to be more accurate, cleverly looking at the ground you thought you already knew from a different perspective. You’ve seen all the characters here before, but in a way you’re seeing them for the first time. They’re viewed from the point of view of the clone Beth, the police detective who started Sarah Manning’s journey into the moral murk of corporate conspiracy by committing suicide in front of her.

Sarah’s brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris) is there – hurrah! – but is dismissed in a short scene as a charmingly mouthy London rent boy being cautioned in the police station; the normally lugubrious Art (Kevin Hanchard) is seen as an attentive friend and single father, while Beth’s boyfriend Paul (Dylan Bruce) is a cold hearted bastard who doesn’t have the guts to end their toxic relationship – not surprisingly, as he’s a clone monitor employed by the DYAD Institute. It all fits around and illuminates what’s already been established skilfully and beautifully. The story forges forward too with the reveal of another clone, the slightly autistic M.K., living a solitary and paranoid life behind a (Dolly the) sheep mask, while informing on the sinister Neolution organisation to Beth.

There are cameos from the clones Alison and Cosima pre-Sarah, but what really impresses is Tatiana Maslany’s portrayal of the fragile Beth. Pills and booze are the only things holding this woman together. It’s completely understandable: she’s learned that she can’t have children, has an extended family of genetic duplicates and an emotionally withdrawn partner, as well as discovered that scientists are implanting maggot-like organisms in the cheeks of Neolutionists. If I had to endure all that I’d probably shoot someone in a panic, the tragedy that finally pushes her over the edge.

Put like that, the catalogue of disaster that befalls Beth sounds laughably melodramatic, but Maslany completely sells it with her believable realisation of a young woman worn out by events and emotional and moral insecurities. Beth’s collapse into sleep in M.K.’s caravan, because she has nowhere else to go, is a low key but telling coda to Beth’s story, particularly if you know what’s going to happen to her.

It’s the sign of a bold and confident series that it can spend most of the opening episode of an eagerly awaited fourth season concentrating on a character barely seen before, as well as looking back over four years to the beginning of the storyline. ‘The Collapse of Nature’ succeeds brilliantly not just because of considered, intricate and focused plotting: Orphan Black spends as much time developing its characters as it does spinning out it’s stories, so you never lose touch with the flawed, but on the whole likeable, people at the heart of its sometimes unwieldy web of conspiracy. For a series that’s always promoted the strength of family, that’s as it should be.

Roll on ‘Transgressive Border Crossing’. This could be a vintage year.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016


I got myself back to work without any help from the Department of Work and Pensions. Quelle surprise.

'Some people work very hard, but still they never get it right...'

I’d never have thought I’d be happy serving in a shop. Then again, where I’m working sells Doctor Who DVDs, DC and Marvel comics and Lego figures. If ever positive proof was needed that you should go for employment you have an emotional connection with, there it is.

Since my first ‘Unemployed at 50’ post on a dreary Thursday January 28, my circumstances have improved more than somewhat. Things started to take a turn for the better when the Department of Work and Pensions passed me on to SEEC, the Social Enterprise Employment Company. This very worthwhile charity was set up specifically to help people with mental health issues get back into work – a much more constructive approach than forcing them to work for free for ASDA and Sainsbury’s, which was the much bleaker alternative I was presented with. Thanks to some very constructive advice and guidance by one of their work advisors, within a week, literally, I’d been shortlisted and had an interview. I didn’t get it – it was outside my normal area of work experience and I was probably a bit rusty at interview technique, but even so…

Compare that with the deafening silence I had for nigh on two years following the advice of Resources Plus, one of the DWP’s other out-sourced employment organisations, and you come to the conclusion that as one of the UK's unemployed you really are playing Russian Roulette. The lack of communication between all the different bodies related to the DWP, and within the DWP itself, is farcical. Despite signing on every couple of weeks for over two years, not once did the nice lady at the Job Centre suggest that I contact SEEC, even though my bipolar disorder is a matter of record with the DWP. When I found out that SEEC had been running since 2012, I got rather angry: Resources Plus must have known they existed and hadn’t mentioned them because, I assume, if I’d transferred over to SEEC’s care earlier, RP would have lost the commission they’d get from the DWP if they’d eventually put me back into work.

Not only that, but I could well have ended up on a soul-destroying work placement if I hadn’t jogged the DWP’s collective memory about my mental health condition after my two years with RP was up. Some people aren’t as open about it as I am, and I can imagine them enduring one of these things and their mental health deteriorating further because they’re sensitive about disclosure. In fact, it was because of my fear of this happening that I reminded the DWP lady that I was bipolar. ‘Oh,’ she said, and you could almost see the light bulb belatedly going on over her head: ‘SEEC might be good for you.’

This has got to stop. Over two years of my life doing spirit-crushing daily job searches could have been avoided. OK, you could argue that I should have been searching for organisations like this myself – I was, and didn’t find them; don’t know why – but government services clearly need to be more proactive and responsible in the way they consider people’s welfare. I’m reasonably together most of the time and this happened to me, so just imagine what could happen if you aren't. In fact, I remember being surprised to see someone at RP who had severe schizophrenia and had been a long-term user of MIND’s services in Bexleyheath. There was clearly no way he’d ever be able to hold down a full-time job, yet there he was. It’s not an isolated case, either.

So you’ll be wondering by now how the shop work mentioned above fits into this tale. The crashing irony is it came about through a chat with someone I’ve known for a while. The interview went exactly like this:

‘Do you want the job?’
‘OK, it’s yours.’

After endless tedious form filling, cover letter writing and CV tailoring, it came down to simple trust in the capabilities of the individual. I was a key-holder from my first day in the shop and was left alone to get on with it. Unsurprisingly, that did more for my self-esteem than being made turn up at RP every two weeks, and have one of their work advisors tick off the minimum of three jobs I’d applied for.

Things started happening all at once: suddenly I was getting more writing commissions, as well as finding a responsible, well-adjusted lodger who could cover the mortgage. Wages for the week to week shop work may not be much more than I used to get on Job Seeker’s, but the compensations are peace of mind and the feeling that I have options again. Not to mention a life.

I enjoy the shop stuff and I could go for it long term: it fits in with the writing really well. Sadly, though, not everyone who’s at the mercy of the DWP is going to be offered a soul-saving way out like I was.

They bloody well should be.

SEEC can be contacted @

Sunday, 10 April 2016


One of the best current TV series, Orphan Black is about to begin a much anticipated fourth year.

Sisters doing it for themselves. (Image copyright: BBC America)

It’s an enthralling genre chameleon of a series. A BBC/Canadian co-production, Orphan Black has been running since 2013 but I’ve just got caught up with it on the eve of its fourth season, which starts next week. It’s built around the impressive acting abilities of Tatiana Maslany, who plays a variety of clones. The story engine is Sarah Manning, a punky con woman, while Tatiana’s other main characters are Cosima, a dreadlocked science student; Alison, a repressed suburban mum; Helena, a brainwashed killer and Rachel, a ‘pro-clone’ who’s also a corporate boss.

From the start, Sarah and her foster brother Felix Dawkins (Jordan Gavaris, looking like Anthony Valentine playing Marc Almond) are charismatic and appealing, and part of that appeal is that they’re not very nice people. Sarah uses sex when fleecing her targets, while Felix, or ‘Fe’, is a rent boy who’s not above lying, spiking drinks and robbing either. The change is a slow one: well into the first series, Sarah and Felix are thinking of absconding with the $75,000 they steal from a dead cop, Beth, the first of her clones Sarah discovers.

The reason they don’t is because Sarah has a dawning sense of responsibility when she discovers that someone’s is killing off her clone sisters; impersonating Beth puts her in the ideal position to help. This is the theme at the heart of Orphan Black: commitment to family, whether biological or otherwise – Felix and Sarah may be adopted, but when the chips are down they stand by each other, largely because she has her own daughter, Kira (cute Skyler Wexler). In Series 2, this theme gets really twisted with the addition of a religious cult ‘family’, whose leader punishes his daughter by sewing her lips together and locking her in solitary confinement. All for her own good, of course.

It’s fascinating watching how the clones develop. To begin with, ‘soccer mom’ Alison Hendrix’s strand of Orphan Black looks like a dig at the aspirations of suburbia. Uptight and paranoid, she’s popping (illegal) pills, hitting the bottle and her marriage to Donnie (the wonderful Kristian Brunn) is in trouble. As the series progresses, not only do Alison’s appearances become highlights – particularly in the way she strikes up an unlikely friendship with Felix: when he comes to baby sit, he gets her kids cross-dressing – but in the way she becomes a mother-figure to all her sisters. The relationship between the clones works the other way too, as Alison moves on to manslaughter, dealing drugs and hiding corpses.

Even more of a revelation is Helena, the indoctrinated Ukranian trained to kill off her clone ‘abominations’ by Prolethians, religious fanatics. Starting out as the villainess of the piece, she evolves into a tragic figure as her background of abuse and loneliness is revealed. Helena’s lack of social skills also makes her unexpectedly and enjoyably funny, particularly when she says in all seriousness she’s ‘very good with children.’ However, this volatile infant woman is never completely de-fanged: just when you’re getting comfortable with Helena, the writers deliver a sequence when she takes gruesome revenge on the man who artificially inseminated her. The unpredictability of the characters is part of the reason you keep coming back.

Jordan Gavaris: Valentine playing Almond.
(Image copyright: BBC America)
The collisions of genre, roughly represented by each clone – domestic black comedy, police procedural, conspiracy, scientific politicking, serial killer thriller – is also one of the joys of Orphan Black. When the genres converge, you’re seeing the series at its best. In episode 6 of the first series, Alison drinks one glass of wine too many at her house party and Sarah has to impersonate her. At the same time, her criminal ex-boyfriend Vic (Michael Mando, great) turns up thinking she’s running a new scam. He gets locked in the garage by Paul (Dylan Bruce, chiselled), a deep cover government agent who staples Vic’s hand to a chair with a nail gun. Meanwhile, Felix has put on a sweater and is vamping it up as the gay barman, which makes the suburbanites think they’re living on the edge. It’s priceless, incredibly clever black farce and this approach continues from series to series, through Alison’s spell in rehab and election campaign as her local school’s trustee.  

With the latter, the series takes a dip into Breaking Bad territory when Alison decides to take over her drug supplier’s business to augment the family coffers. Just as you’re getting annoyed with the series for lapsing and ripping something off so obviously, the writers make Donnie say the couple are hiding their supplies in a storage locker ‘like on Breaking Bad.’ It’s hard to argue with a series that openly owns up to its sources, and the same goes for references to Dexter, Frankenstein and The Island of Dr Moreau (with the exception, oddly, of Blade Runner). Then again, Orphan Black doesn’t spoon-feed the audience with its references to Graeco-Roman mythology, Leda and Castor. You either get them or you have to look them up.

When the conspiracy thriller becomes the dominant genre over Series 2 and 3, you do worry that with all the shifting of allegiances, the story is going to congeal to a halt. Compared to the brisk, edgy pace of the early episodes, later on there are a lot scenes of people standing around speculating about what’s going on. That’s a sure sign that the on-going story is getting a bit unwieldy, so it’ll be interesting to see how Series 4 develops. Orphan Black is one of those series where the main cast are so good that if one week’s storyline is a bit duff, there are always compensations in the performances. With his bitchy asides, Jordan Gavaris steals every scene he’s in – his English accent is the best I’ve heard a North American actor do, even with the occasional, wide-of-the-mark turn of phrase like ‘Well, aren’t you an odd duck.’ You wot, mate?

It goes without saying that Tatiana Maslany is superb. In a fascinating online interview, her dialogue coach explained that for each clone, they started with the accent or speech syntax and built the character up from there. It’s a straightforward but brilliant way of working, as Alison’s constrained, prim way of speaking is extended into precise but tense body language. The uneducated, but not stupid, Helena holds herself self-consciously, reflecting her limited English, but she can unexpectedly flare into violence or life-affirming glee, memorably so when she dances with all her sisters at the end of Series 2 (and just how did they do that?). Sarah and Cosima are less showy roles as they carry more of the story, but Maslany has a remarkable way of apparently, and subtly, changing the shape of her face to reinforce the idea you’re looking at separate people. When the sisters share a scene together, you really think you’re looking at different actresses.

Here’s hoping Series 4 maintains the high standard. We’ll find out next Thursday.