It’s nearly ten months since the first national lockdown here in the UK. Before you know it, we’ll have been at this lark of warding-off Covid-19 for a whole damned year.
As a result, many of us have been spending more time than we should in front of the television set. In conditions that are unprecedented, I think that’s all right. But what to watch?
As a self-confessed telly addict – terrestrial and other worldly – I’m going to give you the benefit of my limited wisdom each week to tell you what I think is worth watching and what isn’t. I’d love to hear from you about your recommendations and why.
Line of Duty (BBC 1)
The-long awaited sixth series of Line of Duty dropped into our lockdown laps on Sunday night, with millions of viewers glued to their TV sets for early clues in a story that looks set to be long and winding and shocking and baffling. We hit the thick of it early on with a police team all geared up to unmask the murderer of a journalist and then being diverted by a suspicious armed robbery, delaying their arrival at the suspect’s house only to find a young man with Down’s Syndrome under an assumed name. This is Terry, the same young man who in series five had been manipulated into criminal activity and had a body in his freezer. DI Kate Fleming has left the anti-corruption unit (or has she?) and is now working for the murder investigation team, whose boss is frowner extraordinaire DCI Jo Davidson who diverted the team to the armed robbery, the delay allowing allowed the real suspect to get away. Her boss DS Ian Buckells makes a paperwork ‘error’ giving the real killer a three-and-half-hour head start on his pursuers. Are the two coppers in it together? Who knows. Meanwhile, Hastings still has his job but is being snubbed by those at the top and Steve Arnott is sporting a beard almost as big as he is and quaffing beer and tablets for his bad back. Acronyms said really quickly pop up like old friends and add to the fog. Will we be any the wiser after episode seven? Probably not. I’m still trying to fathom the first series. I fully expect Lindsay Denton to turn up like the ghost of Banquo. She could do yet.
Blinded by the Light (Netflix)
This coming-of-age comedy film is set in, of all places, Luton during the late 1980s. Against a backdrop of clashing cultures, racism and the gulf between parents and their children, it tells the story of a young British Pakistani man who longs to be a writer, against the wishes of his traditionalist father. The boy is buoyed up by the music of Bruce Springsteen, to which he is introduced by his Sikh schoolfriend. He finds romance in the shape of a bohemian classmate, much to the dismay of her aspiring middle class parents. I’m not a Springsteen fan but there is plenty of other music from the era to move this lovely, feelgood, albeit predictable story along. Some beautiful cinematography, creative use of Springsteen’s lyrics as graphics and a funny cameo by Rob Brydon in an 80s wig. Highly recommended.
A New Life in the Sun (All 4)
My guilty pleasure is watching property programmes in which people make life-changing choices. Escape to the Country and A Place in the Sun make me wallow in the scenery and then scream at the television when the couples are rude to the presenters or the presenters are so off-target with the choice of properties you wonder how they got the job in the first place. Having done the Sunday chores, we were filling time before Line of Duty started when we stumbled across an episode of A Place in the Sun. Mike and Louise were trying to find a holiday home near Barcelona. She hated pretty much everything she saw, apart from the first property, and he was equally sniffy. There was a strange, unspoken chasm between both of them. I thought she might have been after him for his money as it was clearly not his personality, although, to be fair to him, she was being a bit of a female dog. It was fascinating to watch, wondering what might be being said off camera. It was obvious to me there was no love loss between them. ‘They’re not going to choose anything,’ Mr Grigg said. ‘They’ve just gone for the jolly in Barcelona.’ But then, at the end of the programme, Ben Hillman announced the couple had decided to make an offer on property one. Well, as they say up north, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs. As the credits rolled, the voiceover added that after returning home, Mike had had second thoughts and decided not to buy the property. Louise, however, had decided to go for it on her own. So what happened? What went wrong? Were they on the verge of splitting up anyway before the production company whisked them off to Spain? Will we ever know?
We caught up with this two-hour crime drama on the ITV Hub. Based on a novel by Peter James, it follows DS Roy Grace’s race against time to find a missing bridegroom in Brighton. What appealed to me was John Simm in the title role and the fact that it was a self-contained drama that didn’t span six to eight episodes. It was a twisting tale with unexpected pit stops along the way until it reached its inevitable conclusion. I found the dialogue a bit weak and some of the plot rather preposterous but, hey, it’s a new crime drama and is well worth watching. An adaptation of another book in James’ series is due later this year so it’s likely more will follow. We found it an easy, gripping way to while away two hours without feeling robbed of time. It’s no Life On Mars but an okay drama with a nicely-developing back story for the protagonist.
The Hundred Foot Journey (Sundance via Netflix)
We subscribed by mistake to a trial version ofSundance through Netflix in our search to find this film, which we wanted to watch again. Set in sumptuous south west France, in and around the pretty riverside town of St Antonin-Noble-Val, this is one of those feel-good films that pits cultures against each other. Like the river, it twists a bit, only for things to end happily ever after. It involves the joy of food, romance and a clash between Indian and French haute cuisine. The solid cast includes Helen Mirren and the late lamented Om Puri, supported by a wonderful soundtrack by A R Rahman. Some lovely comedy moments and glorious countryside. Predictable, yes, but we can all do with a bit of predictability these days. Highly recommended.
Calm with Horses (Netflix)
Set in rural Ireland, this is the story of a broken former boxer who now acts as the enforcer for a dysfunctional crime family. Known as ‘Arm’, the strong and often silent lead character is the brawn called in to mete out violence to those who cross the family’s path. He also has an ex-girlfriend and a young son with autism who becomes calm with horses, hence the enigmatic title. The Arm is a conflicted soul whose misplaced loyalty to the ‘family’ and desire to be a good father threatens his very existence. It’s a moody, violent, menacing film set against a backdrop of bleak landscape and grubby interiors, and quite a lot of silence. Strong performances, direction and cinematography. But not many horses.
Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam (BBC)
This documentary charted the disruption of the annual beauty pageant by a group of committed feminists in a co-ordinated attack with flour bombs, leaflets and water pistols in the Royal Albert Hall. It was a fascinating insight into the politics and cultural climate of the time, including protests by the anti-apartheid movement and an explosive incursion by The Angry Brigade. I don’t know about you, but Miss World was required family viewing in our household. As a child, I saw it as glamorous. For days after the competition, we’d re-enact the show in the primary school playground, the assertive ones pretending to be the likes of Miss Sweden or Miss UK (who always seemed to win), and me being Miss Yugoslavia (who one year tripped over her long dress). But it was clear from the documentary that even then the competition was becoming an anachronism. I found myself cheering for the feminists for pulling off such a brilliant stunt in an age free of social media and mobile phones to gee up the troops. But at the same time, the outcome of the competition was also a triumph.
What’s to like: the candid interviews from people on all sides, the guts and determination of the eventual winner and her runner-up, the simple animation linking the key events as the plan unfolds.
What’s not to like: the reminder of the sexist attitudes of the time (exemplified by guest compere Bob Hope) and the overt racism in the UK, both of which are still a stain on daily life to this day.
Behind Her Eyes (Netflix)
We are partway through this psychological thriller which is set in London and focuses on the relationship between a hardworking single mum and her therapist boss and his wife. It’s a weird one this, and very gripping, with lots of twists and turns and it’s really difficult to work out what’s going to happen next. Compulsive viewing.
What’s to like: the realisation that a working class, high-rise flat, can be made a beautiful home, great acting, particularly from Simona Brown, who plays the protagonist, and her little boy (Tyler Howitt).
What’s not to like: I’m finding Tom Bateman rather creepy as the boss. Equally, Eve Hewson as his wife is similarly weird. But it all adds to the suspense, so what’s not to like?
One Night in Miami (Amazon)
Four black icons – boxer Cassius Clay (before he became Mohammed Ali), activist Malcolm X, singer songwriter Sam Cooke and American football legend Jim Brown – get together in a motel room the evening Clay won Heavyweight Championship of the World in 1964. They couldn’t celebrate at Miami Beach because of racist Jim Crow laws. Apparently, the meeting between these friends really took place but who knows what was said behind closed doors. Directed by Regina King, this film delves into the characters and motivation of four black men who made such an impact on the lives of others. So many of the issues resonate today and it is fascinating to hear the characters’ differing views and experiences and the feeling that, in the words of Sam Cooke, a change is gonna come.
What’s to like: excellent ensemble cast, the evocation of the charged atmosphere in the US in the 1960s, the music.
What’s not to like: Heavy on conversation, not much action and feels like a stage play adapted for the big screen.
We’re now into episode two of this Sunday night police drama set in Northern Ireland. It’s a tense thriller, produced by Line of Duty creator Jed Mercurio. After a former senior IRA member, now a businessman, goes missing, connections are made into the disappearance of four people prior to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. Inevitably for most police drama these days, one of the team has a personal link to the cold case. Already, there are a number of unexpected plot twists to keep us glued to our screens until the end of this four-part serial.
What’s to like: twisting and turning plot, the backdrop of the recent Troubles, evocative and desolate landscape.
What’s not to like: I’m not a James Nesbitt fan (sorry) so there’s that, an ever-increasing cast of villains is confusing, plot devices which are too obvious.
The true story of the man who wrote Citizen Kane, the classic film which is very much seen as the masterpiece of Orson Welles, as co-writer, director and leading actor. Our very own Gary Oldman takes the title role of Herman J Mankiewicz in a black and white film full of style, wisecracking dialogue and a cast of well-known actors, many of them young and British. The film is a stylish, fascinating study of the Hollywood of the 1930s. Beautifully directed and the acting of Amanda Seyfried, best known for her roles in the Mamma Mia!, is a revelation. I loved it, but not to be slipped into lightly if you don’t know Citizen Kane.
What’s to like: the acting (Tom Burke, he of Cormoran Strike fame, is a dead-ringer for Welles), the fast pace, the depiction of California in the 1940s.
What’s not to like: the flashbacks, some incoherent dialogue and lack of colour. Black and white is great to set the scene but I would have liked the film to become colour imperceptibly after about twenty minutes.
I was attracted to this film drama because Tom Hardy is in the lead role. ‘Who the hell’s Tom Hardy?’ Mr Grigg said. I tried to explain, using a loud one-tone, shouty Tom Hardy voice and then going on about Taboo and all that but he was still none the wiser (we should be on Gogglebox). He said Hardy looked more like a purple potato which Jamie Oliver suggests you put in focaccia. So then all I could think of what the focaccia are we watching this for? It’s pretty grim, focusing on a syphilitic Al Capone remembering his glory days. We gave up and switched to something equally terrible called Project Power starring Jamie Foxx. We suffered ten minutes of that and grabbed the remote to instead watch two more episodes of After Life.
What’s to like: the prospect of gazing at Tom Hardy, the lure of an Al Capone biopic, the potential of all those Mafia family relationships.
What’s not to like: Tom Hardy masquerading as a purple potato, incoherent dialogue, rambling scene setting.
The long-awaited fourth series of this excellent crime drama began this week. It focuses on cold cases, although I did wonder if this had been taken to the extreme when the investigation opens with a body found in a freezer. By the end of the first episode, the viewer learns there are a number of suspects in the running and what it is that connects them. It’s now up to the crime team to track down these people and build up a picture of what happened and who did it. Already, interesting sub-plots are beginning to develop, not least those involving the lead detective and her deputy.
What’s to like: the wonderful acting of Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar – truly a police partnership made in Hendon – the many yet believable strands unravelling to reveal the layered storyline, and the victim placed sensitively at the story’s centre rather than added like some gruesome appendage.
What’s not to like: Nicola Walker’s mouth and witnessing the rapid mental deterioration of her father, played by Peter Egan. And why was the cold case team called to a crime scene which was not yet a cold case?
After Life, Netflix
This British black comedy was uncharted territory for us as Mr Grigg can’t stand Ricky Gervais. However, it’s been recommended by several people so we are now on episode number 3 of the first series. Gervais stars as an angry, foul-mouthed, suicidal features editor of a local newspaper who cannot come to terms with the death of his wife. Recurring characters and situations look set to provide continuity and light relief, although we’re not warming to it just yet. Some laugh out loud lines for sure, but quite a lot of that awkward feeling of unease you get when watching anything Gervais has written. (And in the past twenty years I have never seen a local newspaper office – especially one for a freebie – so well-staffed and unproductive.) Sorry, but the jury is still out.
What’s to like: local newspaper office banter, well-known British actors, characterisation.
What’s not to like: the continual use of the ‘C’ word and I don’t mean cancer, Ricky Gervais’s teeth, the dog’s diet.
News of the World, Netflix
Call me old fashioned but I love a good Western. And this Western is definitely old fashioned. Anything in which Tom Hanks stars almost always guarantees quality and this film is no exception. Hanks plays an American Civil War veteran, now reading aloud stories from newspapers to paying customers in far-flung settlements. His trials begin when he decides to return a young girl taken in as an infant by Native Americans to her last remaining family. It’s a (mostly) gentle, epic journey that takes on mythic proportions as Hanks and the child travel across the country, encountering various obstacles along the way. Helena Zengel who plays the child is a joy to watch as her character unfolds. There might not be enough action in this film for some, but I found it breath-taking with its nods to modern themes of belonging, xenophobia and fake news.
What’s to like: beautiful cinematography, sterling performances, musical score.
What’s not to like: I liked it all.
The Serpent, BBC iPlayer
This crime drama is based on the true story of a serial killer who preyed on backpackers on Asia’s hippy trail in the 1970s. The eight-part serial captures the coldness of the protagonist and the authorities’ indifference to his crimes. The script makes the most of pitting The Serpent against the chain-smoking Dutch diplomat whose painstaking work finally brought him to justice, creating a tension that perhaps might not have surfaced had the story been told in a purely linear fashion. We were hooked.
What’s to like: the 70s fashions, the dramatic tension, the exotic locations.
What’s not to like: the flashback narrative, the worry that the real-life killer is pleased everyone is now talking about him, the brutal horror of his crimes.
Us, BBC iPlayer
Author David Nicholls’ story of a mismatched couple whose marriage is falling apart. This sad yet funny drama sees fruit fly expert Douglas (played by Tom Hollander) and his art facilitator wife, Connie (Saskia Reeves), on a final fling, a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, with their teenage son in tow, headphones on his head and hormones raging. This four-part serial was also scripted by Nicholls, the author of One Day and screenwriter for the recent film version of Far From The Madding Crowd. A great script, as you’d expect, and a thoughtful, sensitive telling of a doomed relationship but with laughs and great set-piece scenes thrown in.
What’s to like: lovely locations, great script and acting squeezing out the comedy and pathos of family dynamics, evocative recreation of Douglas and Connie when they first met.
What’s not to like: the inevitable sadness to come, the reminder that teenagers aren’t interested in history.
What Happened to Monday, Netflix
This science fiction action film is set in a dystopian yet not-too-distant, overpopulated future when families are limited to one child each. Siblings are rounded up, ostensibly to be put to sleep and woken when things get better. The Monday of the title is the first of seven identical sisters (all played by Noomi Rapace) who are named after the days of the week and kept hidden in a top-floor apartment by their grandfather (Willem Dafoe). The girls are smart and learn to live their lives by going out only on their allocated day of the week, pretending to be the same person. But the story becomes silly, with lots of look-away violence, and there are enough plot holes to sink a movie. By the end of it, we really didn’t know what day of the week it was.
Things to like: the plausibility of the premise, a female lead outwitting the world, the baddie played by a chilling Glenn Close.
Things not to like: Glenn Close’s face, gory violence, hammy script.
Military Wives, Netflix
I’d avoided this film so far, expecting it to be a rather twee take on the true story of the Military Wives choir. It’s the kind of comedy drama perfect for an afternoon showing at the Lush Places film club. Gentle, undemanding and very, well, British. Having grown tired of Mr Grigg’s recent choices of all-action films featuring wooden male leads, extensive military hardware and lots of blood, I plumped for this. And we were very glad I did. The ice queen character of Kristin Scott Thomas thawed as the film went on, and provides great dramatic contrast to her nemesis played by Sharon Horgan. The film is a feel-good, moving movie, revealing the healing power of music and how women can be so much stronger when they work together.
What’s to like: female camaraderie, the joy of singing, Greg Wise in uniform.
What’s not to like: stereotypical characters, predictable, undemanding.
The Masked Singer, ITV
The latest series of this lowbrow yet cult TV show comes to an end tomorrow. Thank God for that, some of you will be thinking. Indeed. Light entertainment, especially when it comes to so-called celebrities, usually leaves me cold. Gone are the days when a good Saturday night in meant watching Blankety Blank and The Generation Game. However, we watched this a few weeks ago after hearing that former England footballer and manager Glenn Hoddle had been unmasked as the voice behind the Grandfather Clock. We found ourselves tuning into the show the following week . Late arrivals to the ball but we’re hooked. It’s a completely bonkers show, in which a panel of judges have to guess the celebrity singer behind the outrageous costume. The participant with the fewest votes is unmasked at the end of each episode. The celebrities are people you have actually heard of, such as Lenny Henry, Morten Harket from Norwegian pop band A-ha, Scary Spice and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. So who will be the winner of the Masked Singer? Tune in to find out.
What’s to like: family viewing, singing, amazing costumes.
What’s not to like: celebrity TV, the cut-away sequences to the annoying judges, the ‘take it’ off chant which sounds like the chorus to a gang bang.
Marcella, ITV Hub
We very much enjoyed the first two series of this crime thriller in which Anna Friel reprises her role as the emotionally-damaged and blackout-suffering police officer, Marcella. This time, she is in Northern Ireland, working undercover, investigating a crime family led by Amanda Burton, whose trademark scowling smugness annoyed me so much I wanted someone to kick away her walking stick, especially as she clearly doesn’t need it, scuttling along as she does like a mountain gazelle in sensible shoes. After multiple killings in the first quarter of an hour of the programme, we managed to sit through the opening episode to its conclusion. We felt we had to, if nothing else but as a mark of respect for ITV Drama which has brought us some thrilling belters in recent years. At the end of the programme, we looked at each other and agreed this latest series of Marcella was so ludicrously far-fetched with so much blood and nastiness we wouldn’t bother watching the rest of the series. So there.
What’s to like: twisting and twisted plot, constant surprises.
What’s not to like: dead body count, Marcella’s accent, lack of empathy with characters.
The Bay, ITV Hub
Having missed the first series when it was originally on our television screens, Mr Grigg and I have now binge-watched both 1 and 2 in swift succession.
This is a very watchable crime thriller set in Morecambe Bay. If I was a local resident, I probably would have wished the seaside resort had been given a fictional name, like writer Chris Chibnall did when he dreamed up Broadchurch. It’s all a bit tawdry and bleak but with some sweeping shots of that treacherous beach.
What’s to like: the characters, the photography, the cliffhangers.
What’s not to like: The overuse of the word ‘hey’ as a tentative greeting, the theme music (much improved when you improvise over it with out-of-tune groaning) and the dreadful sponsorship ads for Seat cars in the intervals.
The Dig, Netflix
Anything starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes has to be worth watching. This charming, gentle, slow-burning retelling of the discovery of the Sutton Hoo treasure is a lovely, easy-on-the eye way to spend a Sunday evening in front of the telly.
What’s to like: the delightful first half, rural landscape, acting.
What’s not to like: the unnecessary romance sub-plot, no big reveal on the beauty and enormity of the hoard, Ken Stott’s nose.
The White Tiger, Netflix
I’m a sucker for anything set in India. Based on a Booker-winning novel, this clever film had us rooting for the wronged hero in his bid to climb the insurmountable ladder of class. Best film I’ve seen in ages. But be warned, there is violence and some foul language.
What’s to like: acting, script, humour and pathos.
What’s not to like: I liked it all.