First up is a programme that I’ve been looking forward since it was announced at Edinburgh last year and thankfully National Treasure didn’t disappoint. Jack Thorne’s four-part drama starred Robbie Coltrane as Paul Finchley; the less successful half of a famed comedy double act and the national treasure of the title. Finchley’s arrival on screen at the start of Tuesday’s opener was one of the best character introductions I’ve seen on TV in quite some time. The two minute sequence in which he is led through an old prison sees us meet a man who is past his prime and using a stick to get around. He is clearly nervous about going out on stage but when he is introduced to present a lifetime achievement award to his old comedy partner, the showman in Paul is clear for all to see. Despite being in the twilight of his years Paul still has a pretty good life, hosting a teatime quiz show for Channel 4 and is recognised constantly by cabbies who want him to perform a myriad of impressions from his glory days. The only trouble Paul really has in his life is that his daughter Dee (Andrea Riseborough) is a recovering drug addict meaning that he and his wife Marie (Julie Walters) look after their grandchildren when they’re not with their father. Paul’s life changes completely when the police arrive at his door informing him that a woman has come forward claiming that he raped her twenty years ago. Paul’s predicament is something completely familiar to us and indeed, when the press get a hold of the story, he feels that he’ll soon be mentioned in the same breath as Jimmy Saville. One thing I really liked about National Treasure was the way in which Thorne tells us that Paul is anything but a saint and has cheated on Marie numerous times in the past. Indeed one scene sees him spend the night with a prostitute something that he freely admits to his wife afterwards. The first episode concludes with the revelation that six women have come forward with historic sex abuse allegations including one who worked as the Finchleys’ childminder. The fact that this girl was underage at the time again leads Paul to draw the Saville comparison and for us to wonder whether he actually committed the acts he’s being accused.
Actually though I do feel that we’ll never find out whether or not Finchley committed the acts but instead National Treasure looks on the damage it does both to his family and his career. I applaud Channel 4 for actually portraying themselves almost as the villains of the piece as executives from the network inform Paul that he’ll be replaced as host of his game show until the investigation finishes. What made the drama work for me was that it had a certain air of authenticity about it for example a scene in which Paul meets with his comedy partner Karl and worries that this latest scandal will hurt their residuals. The aforementioned awards scene also has a sense of realism thanks to the appearances of Robert Webb, Alan Carr and Frank Skinner who are all quick to cite their love of Paul’s work. Ironically National Treasure has also been able to assemble a cast of national treasures with Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters and Tim McInnerny all delivering tremendous performances throughout. I felt that Coltrane here was the best he’s been in years and he was absolutely convincing as the loveable comic and game show host who has an incredibly seedy side to his character. He was able to show the audience both the public and private face of Paul and in doing so make us question what really happened back in the 1990s. Meanwhile Walters portrays Marie as every inch the caring wife albeit someone who knew exactly what she got into when she married the entertainer. In fact one of my only criticisms of the first episode of National Treasure was that Walters wasn’t in it for longer but I have every faith that Marie’s time will come in future episodes. Meanwhile I loved the scene in which Coltrane broke down in McInnerny’s arms as the two men were able to convey the great relationship that Karl and Paul had developed over the years. However my favourite scene in the opener had to be the one in which Paul visited Dee in her halfway house to discuss the press stories. I found Andrea Riseborough to absolutely mesmerising as she talked about an odd dream she’d had and I found that this scene told me all I needed to know about the fractured relationship that Paul had with his daughter. I think it’s always hard to dramatise a controversial subject like this but National Treasure has handled in both a sensitive and realistic manner. All the key performances, direction and writing are excellent and if the other three episodes are anything as good as the opening instalment then National Treasure may well turn out to be the best TV drama of the year.
The same will never be said for this week’s other big drama, ITV’s Paranoid which fell into the category of forgettable crime series almost instantly. I say almost instantly because Paranoid had incredibly strong start in which a mother pushes her son on a swing in a playground before a hooded man comes from nowhere and stabs her. Unfortunately this attention-grabbing scene was the high point of what quickly became a rather bizarre police procedural with a group of coppers who seem to stumble into each witness interview with either tact or any semblance of personality. The only vaguely sympathetic character is Bobby Day (Robert Glenister) an ageing copper who is suffering from panic attacks. Bobby develops a seemingly inappropriate relationship with the major witness to the key murder kooky Quaker and cafe owner Lucy (Lesley Sharp) who probably has a more sinister agenda than she’s letting on. Bobby’s colleagues meanwhile are thinly drawn stereotypes like whizz kid Alec (Dino Fetscher) or so in the background they disappear such as boss of the group Michael Niles (Neil Stuke). The character that really got under my skin though was Nina Suresh (Indira Varma) an irritating woman who spends her time berating her colleagues or bemoaning the ticking down of her biological clock. In one scene her long-term boyfriend breaks up with her in car park and instead of taking the news like a grown-up spends the majority of the rest of the night sulking in the car. It’s not like this lot are even particularly good coppers as they stumble upon most of the information and go out of their way to cause as much havoc as possible. Things get even weirder when the Germans get involved as it turns out the murder victim’s husband currently lives in Berlin. There does seem to be the suggestion that writer Bill Gallagher, who has previously be known for period pieces such as Lark Rise to Candelford and The Paradise, wants to make Paranoid into a British Nordic noir. This is certainly evident when Bobby starts receiving postcards from another person who is investigating the case who our central trio stupidly dub ‘the ghost detective’. There’s very little I can say in Paranoid’s defence other than I really liked Lesley Sharp and found her character to be the most interesting by a long distance. It feels to be that Gallagher’s only research before writing Paranoid was watching other crime dramas as his drama just seems to rip off elements from other series which were a lot better. With poorly written characters, unbelievable plot developments and shoddy acting from the wooden Dino Fetscher I can’t possibly see how Paranoid’s story is going to stretch across another seven episodes and I’ve really got better things to do with my life than find out.
At the same time that Paranoid was airing on ITV, Channel 4 had a much more gripping game of cat and mouse occurring involving real life characters in the second series of Hunted. The format has been slightly simplified from last year’s critically acclaimed series as all of the faux fugitives start their journey at the same time and in the same location. That location is in a bunker in Birmingham and this where were are introduced to our intrepid ten who are out to evade capture from a team of intelligence experts for thirty days. The workload for the audience is a lot more manageable this series as in total we only have six groups of people to follow; four duos and two people who are going it alone plus there is also more of a motivation this time round thanks to the incentive of a share of the £100,000 prize money. The majority of this first episode centred around former military men Kirk and Jez, who had both been wounded in battle, who felt that they could easily outrun the teams who had been sent to capture them. However their main issue was that Kirk had left a myriad of information on his various electronic devices that the hunters had no difficult in unlocking. He’d also arranged a surreptitious meeting with his family in the middle of an isolated field in order to wish his son a happy first birthday. Judging by what was going on Kirk’s son had no idea who the man decked out in camouflage was never mind why there was a camera pointing at his face. As the days of the experiment wore on, Kirk and Jez felt that they’d been able to get away with it and by day five they felt they were totally unrecognisable after getting their hair dyed blonde. But thanks to the info found on Jez’s phone the hunters tracked them down to Blackpool and specifically a curry house where they’d planned a meeting to arrange the next leg of their journey. Here the hunters got eyes on Kirk and Jez but instead of just going in and getting the early win that they wanted they decided to lurk about in the foyer pretending to reserve a table. This allowed Jez and Kirk to make a getaway thanks to the help of the manager of the eatery who let them escape through the back exit. Whilst this did annoy some members of the audience, including several of the Gogglebox crew who watched it on Friday, I feel that the stage management of this scene helped amp up the tension even more.
I think anyone going into Hunted wanting some sort of 100% realistic programme is going to be disappointed as this falls straight under the heading of ‘factual entertainment’. Although the programme makers want to keep the show feeling as realistic as possible at the same time they want to create as much drama as possible and by allowing Kirk and Jez to disappear they provided an excellent cliffhanger to episode one. In my opinion Hunted definitely succeeded where Paranoid failed as it provided plenty of compelling and interesting characters who you wanted to invest time in. On the side of the hunters we met former Scotland Yard detective Peter Bleksley who felt like the grizzled detective type that you’d expect to see in most crime dramas. Bleksley was a great leader, applauding their team for their efforts and at the same time never losing sight of the mission at hand. Even though I did find Bleksley to be an endearing character, Hunted still placed me on the side of the fugitives all of whom had different reasons for competing in the show. For Kirk and Jez it was all about proving that they could still go despite the fact that they were both amputees meanwhile best mates Anna and Elizabeth were doing it for the money so both could get their feet on the property ladder. Possibly the most endearing character of the whole piece for me was Nick, a house husband who wanted to prove that he could bring some money to the household where his GP wife is the sole breadwinner. I was a little disappointed when it seemed that Nick was going to be captured quite easily after he started his journey via bicycle along the canal paths of Birmingham. However he was able to keep just one step ahead of the hunters early on and then, like many of the other fugitives, he just faded into the background. The other intriguing coupling were Hamish and Mikaela who initially assumed were married before later learning that they were just friends. However, judging by their flirty banter, it seemed that their Hunted experience may result in a Romancing the Stone type situation in so much as they become romantically involved at the end of the twenty-eight days. With compelling characters and a thrilling scenario, Hunted is better plotted than most modern crime dramas and I was on the edge of my seat from beginning to end. I’m already anticipating the next episode just to see if Jez and Kirk are able to remain on the run and if any of the original ten will be caught when the show returns on Thursday.
Alongside Hunted and National Treasure, Channel 4′s other big debut of the week was a celebrity version of The Island with Bear Grylls which was being held as part of the network’s Stand up for Cancer telethon. All of the participants on the show were donating their fee to the charity which had special meaning for a couple of the islanders as they had relatives who had suffered with cancer in the past. One of the issues I had with the show is, although there were ten celebrities, only three or four had predominant roles in the opening episode. Initially Dom Joly was presented as the wise old man who’d had experience at these sort of things, having previously been a runner-up on I’m a Celeb, and a lot of the younger contestants seemed to go to him for advice. Joly was then elected as leader of the island and set about deciding where they should camp and sending out various search parties for water and a permanent place to stay. The search for a permanent source of sustainable water was the only real story of this first episode and towards the end I’d given up caring whether or not several of the camp would die of thirst. Made in Chelsea’s Ollie Locke and Towie’s Lydia Bright made sure they went on all of the hunts for water in order to dominate the camera time in episode one. Ollie in particular was on screen more than any of his other campmates and had several over-the-top emotional moments in order to be the centre of attention. I do feel in casting stars that have made their name in constructed reality means that they will overpower the rest of their fellow contestants as they’ve made a living out of knowing what the cameras want to see. To this end I forgot that stars such as ex-rugby player Thom Evans and presenter Zoe Salmon were even on the island to begin with. Meanwhile the islander that I was most looking forward to following, Mark Jenkins of Channel 4′s excellent The Hotel, was presented as the antagonist of the piece as we saw him criticising the leadership style of Dom several times. By the end of the episode they’d thankfully found the water supply although it had taken two calls to the SOS team in order to do so. However former JLS singer Aston already looked like he’d had enough and was worried that his voice would be affected by the lack of water, news that some of us didn’t take all that badly. While I do applaud the ten stars for giving up their time and appearance fee, nothing that happened on the show was particularly entertaining and I found there to be a lack of a proper storyline outside of the tiresome hunt for water. As much as I love the bog standard series of The Island, I was ultimately disappointed with this celebrity incarnation and as a result won’t be tuning in for any future instalments.
Finally this week in an autumn full of reunions and remakes we have another returning sitcom which has been running on and off for almost thirty years. I’m talking of course about Red Dwarf which returned to Dave after four years away for its eleventh series. Whilst I can’t claim to be the biggest fan of Red Dwarf I did enjoy it in its early years on the BBC and also found the last series on Dave to be a real return to form. Therefore I was rather anticipating the start of series eleven however I have to say I was pretty disappointed by the results. It does appear that this time round the cast and creator Doug Naylor have a lot more money to play with which resulted in plenty of elaborate costumes, sets and special effects. However I found that these elements were exaggerated in favour of any of the wit or simple storytelling that provided the charm in series ten. The basic plot saw the crew of Starbug follow a gang of Simulants to Planet Earth of the 1950s in which all technology had been outlawed. The style of the world in which the quartet found themselves was similar to that of 1920s prohibition America with science and technology being outlawed to underground speakeasy-style clubs. A lot of the humour came with a visit to one of these clubs and a meeting with scientist/hooker Harmony de Gautier whose list of what she’ll do for money was a gag-filled piece which didn’t raise a chuckle from me at all. In fact I found myself sitting stony-faced throughout the piece which I found to be predictable, rushed and quite anticlimactic as the end came very suddenly. On the plus side I found the chemistry between Craig Charles, Chris Barrie, Robert Llewellyn and Danny John-Jules to be as spot on as ever. In fact I did appreciate the fact that they were on screen together for the majority of the episode and the early scene which reintroduced us to the characters was probably one of this instalment’s best. However the opener of Red Dwarf XI couldn’t help feeling like a cast reunion party where the actors looked to be having more fun than I did watching it. This is a shame as Red Dwarf can be a tremendously funny programme when it wants to be however judging by this first episode it looks like this new show will be one just for the fans who’ll stick with the show regardless. But for casual viewers like myself there was nothing really to grab on to and I’m in two minds whether I’ll stick with the rest of series eleven of a show which has lost a lot of what made the 2012 series on Dave so fun to watch.
Next Time: The Fall, The Level and Damned