How to manipulate time… and people

Richard Curtis, I’ll happily admit: your 2013 film About Time made me smile, laugh and shed a manly tear. Okay, not quite, but I found myself touched and moved. It also made me want to shout obscenities and throw things at the TV, and not in good ways: About Time can be witty in one scene and trite in the next, it has moments of poignancy and others that are saccharine, and it manages to come off both charmingly self-effacing and smug under the disguise of glib humility.

Perhaps it’s difficult to imagine how such an overtly inoffensive film could leave me so angry when I’d actually say that I enjoyed a lot of it. About Time is that most common of genres, the time-travel rom-dram-com, and the way it brings together its outlandish conceit may be one of the things I liked best – like all the men in his bloodline, the main character Tim (played by Domhnall Gleeson) can travel back in time within the limits of his own life, making changes as he sees fit. Why? Dunno. How? He just needs to go and stand in a dark cupboard, clench his fists and concentrate. In one of many lovely father-and-son scenes, Tim’s dad (Bill Nighy, as charmingly odd as ever) basically gives his son a Curtisian version of Looper’s diagrams-and-straws speech which boils down to this: shh, it’s silly, let’s have some fun with this, okay?

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The past is a foreign country…

… they do things better there.

Or at least Paul Abbott did. I’ve obliquely alluded to my dissatisfaction with his recent BBC miniseries Exile before – very obliquely, so much so that I was hardly able to find the reference – and out of the recent spate of BBC drama it was the weakest. In spite of a good cast and great first episode, it was predictable, lazily characterised and didn’t do anything we hadn’t seen before. This was especially disappointing because eight years ago Paul Abbott had written another BBC miniseries, also starring John Simm, and that one was smart, exciting and kept me guessing pretty much throughout. It was called State of Play, and yes, if that title rings a bell, it’s because Hollywood turned it into a movie remake.

I’m currently re-watching State of Play and can attest that it stands up well even at a second viewing, where Exile didn’t even survive a first viewing intact. It’s got a great, varied cast both of old hands and fresh faces (and bringing together John Simm and Philip Glenister years before Life on Mars), and it was directed with pace and style by a certain David Yates who would later bring out the gloomiest in the halls of Hogwarts.

The series isn’t perfect – I can’t remember how it ends, but I do remember that the ending fell somewhat flat when we first watched it a few years ago. (I also remember a number of episodes of Cracker that started much better than they ended, while I’m at it.) But in terms of zippy, clever entertainment produced UK talent at the top of their game, it’s well worth watching. And hey, it’s got Polly Walker, Kelly McDonald, James McAvoy, Bill Nighy… Definitely something for most tastes – plus, at least Amazon.co.uk is selling it for £4. At this rate you need a very good excuse not to give it a try, eh?

This advertising was brought to you by a guy who wants the Beeb to do as well as they’ve shown they can, over and over. Because, as much as I like HBO, every now and then I bet those Brit actors are quite happy to head home, visit their families, have a cuppa with their ageing mum and use their original accents.

P.S.: I can’t say anything about the film version’s quality, but at least they decided to stay stylish when they replaced the editor-in-chief played by Bill Nighy with the Queen of British acting herself, Helen Mirren. (Isn’t it time for her and Judi Dench to star in a buddy cop comedy or in anything, really, since their last co-operation seems to have been a Peter Hall Midsummer Night’s Dream?)