Death and the Politburo

In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.

The Death of Stalin

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Doctor Noo

Confession time: before this summer I’d dabbled in Doctor Who, but only very occasionally. A couple of Chris Eccleston episodes here, the occasional David Tennant or Matt Smith one there – and most of the time I came away from it thinking that it’s like Marmite in that you have to have grown up with it to have a chance. It always felt too much like an in-crowd thing, like a more British and less sex-obsessed Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Daleks instead of Tim Curry in suspenders. (It gets even worse, and this may just get me ostracised by any Whovian friends: while Doctor Who didn’t click for me, I really enjoyed the “Children of Earth” arc on Torchwood, the much-reviled spinoff series.)

Then again, give me a Scottish accent and I’m anyone’s – so the news that flappy-handed Smith would be regenerated as Mr Scary Eyebrows himself, Peter Capaldi, led to me checking out Capaldi’s first outing and staying for the rest of the season. Am I a convert to the Church of Who, though? Not entirely.

Don't mess with the Doctor

There’s still an element there that for me (and, I’d imagine, for most newcomers to the series) is difficult to get into, and that’s the weight of worldbuilding the series carries around with itself. It’s one thing not to know who the Daleks or Cybermen are, but if you see your first Dalek episode less than a year before you turn 40, it’s not easy to get around the fact that, well, they’re more than a little naff. One man’s revered iconography is another person’s incredulous “And we’re supposed to find these scary?” – Which leads to a related issues I had, on and off, over the course of the season, and that’s the issue of tone and intended audience. “Is Doctor Who a children’s series?” seems to be one of the big questions in human existence, alongside “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where shall we have lunch?” From my newbie perspective, the series seems to want to have its child-friendly cake and eat it in a decidedly more adult way. I’m okay with children’s stories being sad and frightening, but at times the tone of the season’s episodes veered so much between make-believe fun for the kids, with a randomness and lack of coherence that can be liberating in storytelling but that can equally make it difficult to suspend your disbelief, that it was difficult to believe in the emotional reality of the stories and characters. Added to which, Doctor Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily make for better storytelling than its more theological cousin.

In spite of this, though, and in spite of some uneven writing, I was surprised to find how much the season’s core relationship, between the Doctor and his companion Clara, pulled me in. In the couple of episodes I’d seen starring Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, I felt there was often something too self-aware to the respective actors’ performance, a knowing wink to the audience. Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t a muted, realistic character, and he does enjoy his broader moments, but I bought the character, and I bought the not always entirely healthy but always interesting interplay between him and Clara.

Doctor-Who--Death-In-Heaven_article_story_large

There would be more to say about the individual episodes and about the season-spanning antagonist, Missy, who in theory I would’ve liked if she hadn’t felt so exceedingly like a regeneration of another Moffat baddie, namely James Moriarty as played by Andrew Scott, and like Sherlock‘s Moriarty I felt she overstayed her welcome. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed an outing featuring a mummy, that most hoary and least frightening of monsters,  and on the whole I’d say that while I’m not a full convert I’m definitely seeing the potential in the series, its setup and its set of characters. Admittedly, though, half of that may be due to the accent, the eyebrows and the memories of one Malcolm Tucker – at this stage Capaldi seems to be turning the air blue even when he’s delivering perfectly PG-rated lines. So perhaps that’s the solution to my issues with those laughable Daleks and Cybermen: make them Scottish.

Just don’t mention Auntie’s MPD!

In its many years of service, the Beeb has done some terrific drama. The Singing Detective, Edge of Darkness, Pride and Prejudice, or, going back to the ’70s, I, Claudius. Its recent output has been all over the place, but I enjoyed last year’s Page Eight and The Hour (in spite of some flaws).

The second season of The Hour finished a couple of days ago. The series kept some of its problems, mainly the uneven quality of the writing, with some scenes very effective and others rushing headlong into hamfisted melodrama, clumsy exposition or silly cliché. Nevertheless, it was a definite improvement on the first series – exciting, engaging, and every scene with Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor a revelation. Come Awards season, if Auntie doesn’t pat itself on the shoulder for putting those two on a sound stage together and letting them show what they’re capable of, I hope that Malcolm Tucker unleashes hell on the people responsible.

One of these you don't want to be stuck in an elevator with...

So, that’s BBC at its… well, perhaps not best, but definitely good. If this is the standard of British television drama, I think Britain could do a whole lot worse.

Cue Hunted.

It’s easy to see what they were going for: an entertaining, fast-paced yet moody spy thriller set in a world of shifting allegiances and moral ambiguities. What they got was one of the most half-baked, clichéd TV shows I’ve seen in a long while. Laughably bad writing – the premise should have been a warning, with the main character, Sam Hunter, becoming (dun dun DUN!) the hunted! The aesthetics were all early 2000s gone HD, but the plot and characterisation were on par with your average ’80s series, except this didn’t even have the giddy sense of fun that some of those shows had.

And this may reveal me as sorely lacking in testosterone, but I’d rather watch Peter Capaldi go OCD on his desk for an hour (pun only semi-intended) than Melissa George trying to infuse her undercooked character with personality by bringing out her most potent duck-faced pout ever. I’ve seen George do much better work with stronger material, but her Sam Hunter is insipid, as are most of the characters, whether they’re played by veteran actors or not. Someone should have told the makers of Hunted that conflicted doesn’t equal dour, dour doesn’t equal glum, and glum doesn’t equal moodily bored.

In the end it’s a race: what does the series in? The one-dimensional characters? The charmless acting? The glossy yet drab visuals? The writing that’s either done by idiots, for idiots or both? The final episode that provides less resolution than an episode of Eastenders? Or the BBC, deciding that Frank Spotnitz would have a better chance taking his pet project somewhere else?

Just pucker up your lips, 'cause this blows...

Who are you “Oh aye, laddie”-ing, you ****ing ****?

If The West Wing occupies one end of the galaxy of TV shows on politics, The Thick of It is pretty much at the opposite end. The two shows share a couple of things, not least of which their complete insistence on being about words first and foremost – but if The West Wing maintains a fundamental idealism about politics, The Thick of It is the horrific Mr Hyde to its Dr Jekyll.

It is also one of the most witheringly foul-mouthed, funniest comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

Watching an episode of each series side by side, it’s difficult not to come down with a case of TV whiplash: the BBC series practically squelches with cynicism towards British politics, the political establishment and the individuals who make it up. Whenever there is a moment where a character’s fundamental decency comes through for a moment, it’s soon covered with generous lashings of craven baseness, selfishness, cowardice and stupidity. I’ve rarely seen anything as misanthropic, and as sweary, as this series.

The strange thing is: usually I would avoid any such programme like the plague. I tend to find genuine cynicism facile and tedious, I’m way too much of a pinko liberal do-gooder wannabe, and swearing for the sake of it bores me. Yet The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker, one of the most memorable television creations… well… ever – he elevates swearing to an art form. Watching him have a go at someone makes me dream of an operatic duet between Peter Capaldi’s Tucker and Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. It’d be fucking Verdi. People used to say that David Mamet (God bless his little converted-to-the Tea Party socks…) uses swearing as if it were a jazz riff – well, working from that, Malcolm Tucker is Charlie Parker. He knows when to improvise like a nightingale on speed and when to go for the kick-in-the-nuts simplicity of the oldest put-down in the book.

In fact, I was so dazzled by his verbal-vulgar dexteriarrhea that it took me several episodes to realise that he isn’t smarter than everyone else in the series – he’s simply a potty-mouth virtuoso with the instincts of a shark.

Even with Malcolm Tucker as its main asset, the series is not flawless. Any individual episode is basically identical to any other episode – the plot details change, but they don’t matter. It wouldn’t work in 40-minute instalments – the episodes are short enough for the audience not to register that everything’s caught in an eternal loop. (Ironically, In the Loop is the title of the series’ movie spin-off, and that one works pretty well at way over 40 minutes.) The series knows, though, why it works and it plays to its strengths, at least for the first season. (I’ve yet to watch, or even obtain, any season beyond that. I saw and enjoyed one episode from season 3 on a long cross-Atlantic flight and vastly enjoyed it, almost choking on the god-awful British Airways food trying not to laugh too loudly.)

It’s best, though, to end this with a few choice words from the Master himself.