This week we have captivating documentaries, spoof rockers and an annual tradition to wet your TV appetite.
But we start with a late contender for best drama of the year in ITV’s The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies. When I saw that the channel were scheduling another fact-based drama in the post-I’m a Celebrity slot I felt we were in for another slow-paced rather dry affair just like we got with last year’s Lucan. I was surprised then that the story of the former headmaster who was charged with the murder of his tenant Jo Yates was such a visually enthralling affair. I personally only remember parts of the story which saw the eccentric Jefferies (Jason Watkins) charged with Jo’s murder even though the police had next to no evidence to go on. One recurring theme of Peter Morgan’s drama was that of perception in that Jefferies was fingered by the police, and later hounded by the media, because of his odd hairstyle and eloquent speech patterns. Meanwhile the real murderer; Jefferies’ other tenant Vincent Tabak (Joe Simms), looked normal enough to evade suspicion for some time. Roger Michell, a former pupil of Jefferies, deftly told the story in a number of engaging set pieces that really made us sympathise with his former head as he went through days of anguish. But, as the drama’s concluding instalment told us, the police investigation isn’t where the story ended as Jefferies’ treatment by the police affected his image in the eyes of those who’d known him for years. The drama’s second chapter focused mainly on press intrusion and Jefferies’ subsequent involvement in the Levenson enquiry, which was made all the more realistic thanks to a cameo from Steve Coogan. Thankfully, the story had somewhat of a happy ending as Jefferies found a new lease of life thanks to his part in the Hacked Off campaign and as a crusader for press regulations.
If I had to level some criticism at the drama then it would be that it felt about ten minutes too long. The final few moments of the two-parter seemed a little contrived as Christopher’s local deli owner (Anna Maxwell Martin) apologised to him for believing what she’d read in the papers. This was followed up by another denouement as Christopher had a brief chat with Jo’s boyfriend Greg (Matthew Barker) who commented on how his former landlord had changed over the past year. Although I found these scenes to be a bit too much, I can forgive The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies its few narrative flaws thanks to what had preceded them. I believe the trio of Peter Morgan, Roger Michell and Jason Watkins were the primary reasons for the drama’s success and provided plenty of highlights over the two nights. Watkins in particular deserves praise for his delicately crafted performance which combines Jefferies’ eccentricities with his more vulnerable side. The opening ten or so minutes, which simply followed Christopher through his daily routine, made the character seem genuinely likeable and as a result I rooted for him constantly. Having watched some of the news footage of Jefferies, I felt Watkins was spot on with his portrayal of the man even if he did enhance certain aspects of his personality. Watkins also perfectly conveyed Christopher’s emotions especially in a rather memorable scene in which he pours over the preposterous articles that have been written about in the papers. I’ll be totally shocked if Watkins isn’t nominated for a TV BAFTA next year and I feel the drama as a whole needed more promotion as it definitely exceeded my expectations. Although it wasn’t entirely perfect, on the whole I would say The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a triumph for all involved.
In the week that the plans were announced for BBC Three’s move online it seemed rather apt for its landmark documentary series Our War to air its final episode. Goodbye Afghanistan was a ninety minute look at some of the series’ most memorable moments as former servicemen reminisced about the good and the bad times they’d experience during the war. With a mixture of talking heads, helmet-cam footage and computer-animated sequences; Our War has always been one of the most engaging documentaries on TV and this final episode was no different. Although hearing from the men about their fallen colleagues was rather emotional, I feel the most intriguing theme of this final Our War was the focus on what the men do once they leave the army. This was best exemplified by Dave Tatlock, who was injured after being hit by one of his own army helicopters, as he scrawled the internet for jobs. As he told the programme, there aren’t many options for an infantry man as they’re only taught to do one thing and that’s to kill. Similarly Matthew Stringer, who’d served for nine years before an IED explosion caused him to lose the majority of his hearing, told us that he did very little with his days. Another interesting element of the episode was looking through the eyes of surgeon Anthony Lambert who wore a helmet-cam as part of a teaching exercise. What I found mind-boggling was the fact that, as well as treating our soldiers, the surgeons working in the field occasionally were forced to operate on members of the Taliban. I’ve always championed Our War and I was glad that it got its final swansong on the TV rather than when BBC Three made the move online. I’m just hoping that the innovative techniques employed in Our War continue to inspire a new generation of documentary film-makers to create similar programmes. More importantly I’m hoping that there’s a channel out there that’s still willing to air groundbreaking documentaries such as this BAFTA-winning masterpiece.
We move now to something a little more light-hearted in the form of Brian Pern: A Life in Rock. Anybody who saw the faux documentary presented by Brian Pern (Simon Day) on BBC4 knows that the frontman of Genesis-esque prog rock band Thotch is a great comedy creation. Director Rhys Thomas, who co-wrote the series along with Day, brilliantly portrays the life of an ageing rocker as he tries to keep himself relevant with a modern audience. The stories of Pern refusing to be in a room with his former bandmates (played brilliantly by Paul Whitehouse and Nigel Havers) were perfectly pitched. The creation of a Thotch jukebox musical was an equally enjoyable subplot especially when the show’s director Kathy Burke decided to cut all of the overly long Thotch songs from the show. I personally enjoyed the final few moments of the comedy as Pern was dragged into the police station in a manner that would suggest he was part of a Yewtree-type investigation. But the punchline itself was brilliantly delivered as was the reaction from Pern’s manager John Farrow (Michael Kitchen). Part of the charm of Brian Pern is the fact that everyone is willing to go that extra mile and, in the case of those playing themselves, send up certain elements of their characters. Martin Freeman is a prime example of this as he tries to capture Pern’s mannerisms in order to correctly portray him in the musical. Meanwhile, a cameoing Tim Rice perfectly sums up his feelings about the Jukebox musical and how they’ve taken away from his type of musical theatre. Although some of the jokes don’t hit the mark, Brian Pern: A Life in Rock is a perfectly constructed mockumentary that owes a massive debt to the work of Christopher Guest. The fact that the sitcom is only three parts means that it won’t outstay it’s welcome and at the same time will leave the audience craving for more from Day’s egotistical prog rocker.
Unfortunately Thotch weren’t a part of The Royal Variety Performance as if they had been it may have been a little bit more enjoyable. Although the word variety is in the title I felt that this year’s show was more singer heavy than normal. As somebody who, for my sins, watches every X-Factor and Strictly results show I’d already heard most of the songs performed by the likes of McBusted, Ed Sheeran and One Direction. Meanwhile the usually reliable Ellie Goulding was outshone by her illuminating dress which made her look more like an art installation than a Brit Award winner. The lacklustre series of Britain’s Got Talent was perfectly summed up by the bland performance given by winners Collabro. I personally feel that the show would’ve been improved if illusionist Darcy Oake had have won BGT but thankfully ITV have given him his own special. It was left to Bette Midler and Dame Shirley Bassey to provide the only singing highlights of the evening with the latter in particular wowing with a number of showtunes. On the whole the comic acts were equally poor especially the woeful Russell Kane who must have compromising pictures of the director as that’s surely the only way he got booked on the show. I personally enjoyed Jack Whitehall’s set which mainly centred around the fact that he went to school with Kate Middleton; who attended her first ever Royal Variety alongside her husband. Keeping the show ticking along nicely was host Michael McIntyre who was jovial throughout, although I felt that he was on stage too much which suggested to me that at least one act had pulled out at the last minute. The cast’s group number of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ was the evening’s top highlight for yours truly as the singing acts tried to outdo each other and I felt particularly sorry for Demi Lovato when she had to follow Bassey. Next year I’d like a little bit more variety in The Royal Variety Performance as this year’s offering was just a little too samey for my liking.
Next Time: Black Mirror, The Choir and the final episode of The Missing