TV Review: Inside No 9

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Inside No 9

BBC2 Wednesday 10pm

* * * *

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This review first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 11 February 2014

Inside No 9, the macabre new comedy penned by The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton, shares the hallmarks of their last offering, the terrific Psychoville; it’s familiar but uncanny, funny but unsettling, a joy to watch but at the same time ever so slightly distressing.

At the doomed engagement party of repressed Rebecca (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson) and dullard Jeremy, a game of ‘sardines’ takes place inside an antique wardrobe which looms over a bedroom filled with symbolic old baggage. The episode is set entirely within this bedroom, giving a claustrophobic atmosphere which intensifies as each character in turn squeezes into the wardrobe.

The cast is impressive, from Anna Chancellor and Julian Rhind-Tutt’s randy posho couple to Marc Wootton’s ‘Stinky John’, a man so traumatised by some past event that he cannot bear to bathe. Shearsmith is reliably excellent as aggressively gay Stu, slinking about and speaking with a campness bordering on the vicious, making innuendos about ‘having wood’ and ‘secreting himself’. Pemberton’s portrayal of Stu’s closeted lover Carl is a master-class in simmering resentment and suppressed horrors.

Tim Key is quietly brilliant as IT man Ian, looking like a worm in a suit, blinking behind naff spectacles and saying wholly inappropriate things in a creepily butter-soft voice. Key and Shearsmith get the best lines but there is some subtly brilliant physical comedy going on, especially from Parkinson, whose facial expressions steal scenes. Everything about the look of this episode is spot-on, from the hair and make-up to the costumes and set design, and the scratchy violins of the incidental music add to the oppressive, eerie feel of the place.

Each episode of Inside No 9 is a self-contained story, so it’s not really a series in the conventional sense, more like a collection of one-offs. This anthology style mirrors that of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-88), a comically gruesome series with twist endings which clearly influenced Shearsmith and Pemberton. Future episodes are bound to share the same grimly comedic tone, but the introduction of a new narrative each time ensures an unpredictability which suits the unhinged subject matter.

The sting in this episode’s tail is satisfyingly sinister, prompting shudders and smiles in equal measures, a pleasurable combination which has come to be expected of Shearsmith and Pemberton. Long may their creative partnership give us goosebumps.

The Netflix Fix: Portlandia

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This column first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 1st October 2013

http://www.studentnewspaper.org/the-netflix-fix-portlandia/

The UK has never quite managed to produce an equivalent to Saturday Night Live, the riotous US sketch show that’s produced a smorgasbord of star alumni, from Bill Murray and Will Ferrell to Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. One particularly brilliant alumnus is Fred Armisen, who, alongside Carrie Brownstein, writes and stars in Portlandia, a comedy satirising the pretentious ‘hipster’ inhabitants of Portland, Oregon. Like SNL, it’s currently only available to UK residents on Netflix.

So praise the lord for Netflix, because Portlandia is clever, funny and deserves an audience here. Armisen and Brownstein play an eclectic host of characters: the owners of feminist bookstore ‘Women and Women First’, all pinafores, cardigans and unkempt hair, over-sensitive to any hint of misogyny to the point where they abuse and repel all potential customers (including a bewildered Steve Buscemi); restaurant-goers who are obsessive about the origin of their organic chicken; and twee craft designers who craft innumerable items covered in bird print (‘put a bird on it!’) but are horrified by an encounter with an actual live bird.

There are some pretty surreal moments. The Japanese Harajuku Girls skit, featuring a video-game-style day in a coffee shop, is especially trippy. There’s generally a lot of joy and silliness, and Armisen and Brownstein swap genders frequently to great effect. In short, it’s a show that doesn’t take itself seriously. And if you like your celebrity cameos then Portlandia won’t disappoint, with appearances from Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Roseanne Barr, Jeff Goldblum and Matt Lucas, to name just a handful.

It’s the kind of comedy that translates well to a British audience – heaven knows we have enough hipsters here – so it’s a great thing that Netflix is offering the first three seasons for casual browsers to sample; because who wants to fork out for the DVD of an unknown entity? Netflix ‘recommended’ Portlandia to me because I watched a lot of Arrested Development and SNL, and I’m not sure if I would have discovered it otherwise.

That’s one of the perks of Netflix: it tells you what you might like and if you don’t then it’s no big deal – it hasn’t cost you any extra. But if you do then you can rake in a hoard of unknown treasures like Portlandia.

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ | BBC Radio Four

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adrian mole

This review first appeared in The Student, Tuesday 24th September 2013

http://www.studentnewspaper.org/the-secret-diary-of-adrian-mole-aged-13%c2%be-bbc-radio-four/

First broadcast over thirty years ago, it’s surprising how relevant and downright hilarious Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ remains. Nicholas Barnes narrates the Leicester teen’s daily gripes and musings with deadpan brilliance, from his lust for treacle-haired classmate Pandora to his dismay at being an ‘intellectual’ in a sea of plebs.

Despite his conceit and general ignorance, Townsend’s creation remains enormously endearing. He might have moments of stunning pomposity: referring to a bottle of wine as having ‘a pleasant enough vintage’; or loaning a pen to Pandora and reflecting ‘I think she appreciates these small attentions’ (a line taken straight from Pride and Prejudice, a book he casually dismisses as ‘old-fashioned’ a few days previously). But Adrian has many decent qualities. He volunteers to help Communist pensioner Bert Baxter with arduous and grotty tasks, and remains sweetly ignorant of his mother’s affair with a neighbour, despite the glaringly obvious signs.

So many of his agonies remain relatable: his hatred for P.E; his troublesome skin; his ‘erotic dreams’; and his shame at being seen in public with his badly dressed parents. The Tories were in power then and are in power now, unemployment was rife then as it is today, and Adrian’s mum’s attempts to break the mould of housewife and mother is part of a battle many women are still fighting (Adrian hates his mother reading The Female Eunuch because it means he has to do housework and eat boil-in-the-bag dinners).

So whilst it is Abba rather than Kanye West Adrian listens to in an attempt to muffle the noise of his arguing parents, his angst remains as identifiable and entertaining as it did in 1982, and doubtless will do thirty years from now.

Doctor Who ‘Hide’: TV Review

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This review first appeared in the TV section of The University of Edinburgh’s student newspaper The Student (Tue. 30 April 2013)

http://www.studentnewspaper.org/doctor-who-bbc-one/

Doctor Who

BBC One, Saturday, 6.45pm

****

It takes a brave writer to set an episode of Doctor Who in a haunted house after the magnificence of series three’s “Blink” (a favourite of even the most ardent Whovians), but Neil Cross’s “Hide” was an absolute corker.

Set in 1974 in eerie Caliburn House, psychic Emma Grayling (Jessica Raine) and war hero turned ghosthunter Alec Palmer (Dougray Scott) are attempting to make contact with “The Witch of the Well”, a ghost that has tormented the house’s inhabitants for hundreds of years. Enter the sprightly Doctor (Matt Smith) and plucky new companion Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) on a ghost-busting mission with a delicious sci-fi twist.

A tour of the house sees the Doctor and Clara walk through strange pockets of icy air, secretly stalked by a truly horrible blink-and-you’ll-miss-it melty-faced monster. The Doctor soon discovers the “Witch” is not a ghost (of course it’s not, this is Doctor Who) but is, in fact, Hila, a time-travelling pioneer from Earth’s future trapped in a pocket universe which runs through Caliburn House.

Within this pocket, time runs grindingly slow. A second to Hila is 100,000 years to everyone else, hence why her brief scream has demented the house’s inhabitants for centuries. What’s more, she’s running from something: the monster lurking in the house’s shadows. “We’ll need some sturdy rope, a crystal from Metebelis 3, and some Kendall mint cake,” says the Doctor, skipping off to dig something out of the TARDIS.

There are all sorts of incredible moments in “Hide”: Clara moved to tears as she watches the life cycle of Earth from birth to death; Emma warning Clara of the “sliver of ice” that resides in the Doctor’s heart; the TARDIS continuing to hate on Clara; the Doctor telling “impossible girl” Clara she is “the only mystery worth solving”; Alec and Emma’s tormented romance; Alec telling the Doctor “I have killed. And I caused to have killed. I sent young men and women to their deaths and here I am, still alive. It does tend to haunt you”, a line that could so easily have come from the Doctor’s mouth.

And why didn’t the Doctor know where to hang Clara’s umbrella inside the TARDIS? In a series full of references to memory (“Run, you clever boy; and remember”) that certainly felt like one of those seemingly-silly-but-actually-deeply-significant Doctor Who moments, just one such moment in an episode that could well become a classic.

Afternoon Delights: TV Column

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nigella

This column first appeared in the TV section of The University of Edinburgh’s student newspaper The Student (Tue. 26 March 2013)

http://www.studentnewspaper.org/afternoon-delights/

We’ve all had those days when we decide to ‘study from home’ and settle down to catch a quick bit of breakfast TV before getting dressed. Six hours later and you’re watching Alan Titchmarsh interview Bruno Tonioli while you develop bedsores on the couch, eating cold chow mein and a rogue Pop Tart you found in the bread-bin.

When I was an undergraduate (back in the Dark Ages of pre-digital switchover) we only had four channels, and picking up channel 5 on our coathanger-aerial was – if you can credit it – cause for genuine celebration. Getting caught in the No-Man’s-Land of daytime TV was demoralising.

But now – what a cave of wonders daytime TV truly is! This week, I submerged myself in afternoon TV (in the name of *cough* research) and watched a veritable treasure-trove of daytime jewels. On Film4 I watched the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s which I had, bizarrely, never seen.  What a treat to watch Audrey Hepburn in her doll-like outfits, flitting about the astonishingly clean streets of New York while ‘Moon River’ drifted down from the heavens, all at 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

Switching over to Yesterday, I watched Colditz, a classic 1970s BBC drama based on the true accounts of WWII Allied POWs and their many attempts to escape the ominous-looking castle (Harry Potter fans: think less Hogwarts, more Durmstrang). It was brilliant, all theatrical and shouty, with everyone speaking either exquisite cut-glass English or Basil Fawlty German.

I then drooled over Nigella’s juicy pork-chops as Nigella Express appeared on the Food Network. A particular highlight was Nigella rustling up ‘fancy bread-and-butter pudding’ using leftover croissants and home-made caramel, sashaying back to the fridge for a cheeky ‘midnight snack’ after the credits rolled. So much better than Gordon Ramsay’s angry, scrotal face growing crimson above a bowl of linguini on prime-time Channel 4.

A visit to ITV2 produced Millionaire Matchmaker, an astonishingly shallow show in which a big, beefy biatch called ‘Patti’ helps greasy singleton millionaires find a date by lining up women and judging them solely on their appearance. One of the women introduced herself as a pilates instructor. ‘Pilates instructor?’ spat Patti, turning to her obese colleague, ‘did she eat the whole class?’ Exquisite stuff.

Of course, there’s still a hell of a lot of depressing crap on TV during the day (step forward David Dickinson, the Loose Women panel et al), but with afternoon delights like these on offer, it’s a wonder any of us makes it into the library while the sun’s still up.

Black Mirror: TV Review

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This review first appeared in The University of Edinburgh’s The Student TV section Tue 19 Feb 2013 

Black Mirror

Channel 4, Monday 10pm

****

Charlie Brooker’s 2011 Black Mirror trilogy featured the Prime Minister of Great Britain (sadly not David Cameron) having sex with a pig. However horrific that might sound, there was so much more to the trilogy than shock tactics. It was a sharply satirical, bleakly funny, dystopian look at the not-too-distant future, a future that could well become a reality if, Brooker suggested, the human race isn’t careful.

This year’s trilogy-opener ‘Be Right Back’ continues in this vein, set a short time in the future when iPhones are wafer-thin and iPads can be controlled by simply using your hand to manipulate the air surrounding them. Hayley Atwell plays Martha who has just moved into a country cottage with her social media-addict boyfriend Ash (Domnhall Gleeson). When Ash is killed in a car crash, Martha is left alone and utterly devastated.

At Ash’s funeral, a friend mentions a new invention to Martha, a computer programme that can recreate the voice of a deceased person using every comment they’ve ever written on Twitter, Facebook etc. At first, Martha is horrified, but when she discovers she is carrying Ash’s baby she becomes emotionally unstable and seeks solace in the programme.

This is where Brooker’s social satire comes into play. As Martha becomes more and more addicted to chatting to ‘Ash’ on her phone, giving the programme access to all of Ash’s videos, emails and photographs, the danger of sharing too much online becomes increasingly apparent. Ash has given so much of himself to Facebook, Twitter etc. that his whole personality can be reconstructed from his comments even after his death.

When ‘Ash’ tells Martha that the programme can move up a step, she jumps at the chance. A body with artificial flesh is delivered to her door, which she places in a hot bath, sprinkling electrolytes into the water like fish food. The body becomes Ash, missing only a mole on his chest and facial hair. It even has his sense of humour. He can’t feel sexual urges – as this was never recorded online – but he can switch his erection on and off, delivering more sexual satisfaction to Martha than the living Ash ever did.

Except, as Martha quickly realises, there are some things that a computer programme simply cannot replicate. The iAsh is maddeningly compliant and sedentary, and this is one of the most powerful insights made by Brooker: it’s not just the humour and acquiescence of our loved ones that we miss; it’s their bad traits too.

As in the last series, the resolution is far from uplifting, but it’s powerful, thought-provoking and wickedly clever. Black Mirror showcases Brooker’s increasingly assured ability not just as a satirist but as a bona-fide screenwriter.

Toff TV: TV Column

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This column originally appeared in The Student TV section February 5th 2013

*

Watching Chancellor George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics and trying to ‘style it out’ with one of those Mr Bean smiles of his was, I think we can all agree, one of our proudest moments as a nation.

It exposed growing intolerance for our toff-centric government, with its millionaire Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt cutting shapes in the ballroom of his Surrey mansion, to take but one particularly illuminating example. The recent initiation into Oxford’s Bullingdon Club (which boasted David Cameron and Boris Johnson as esteemed members) is reported to have involved burning a £50 note in front of a homeless person. Oh, the gentility!

It’s possibly surprising, then, that we as a (very skint) nation are still prone to romanticising and being in thrall to toff culture. Take the immense popularity of ITV’s Downton Abbey. We can’t seem to get enough of ‘Cousin Matthew’ mooning over vinegar-tits Lady Mary, or Carson the Butler acting like a man who is both severely constipated and battling to conceal an enormous erection. ITV’s Great Houses with Julian Fellowes (Downton’s writer) displays a breathless fascination with toff abodes, and Channel 4 documentaries Claridges and The Aristocrats display similar symptoms of aristo-lust.

Then there’s the more yoof-focussed Made in Chelsea (E4), the stars of which, like, despite their expensive educations, or whatever, like, inflect the end of every sentence as if it’s, like, a question? Add to that BBC 1’s recent caricature-adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings, which offered a jolly, jaunty and wholly affectionate look back at 1920s toff-foolery.

These shows come at a time when a number of apparently ‘groovy’, right-on artists have accepted Honours without any significant (publicly audible) criticism, whilst the likes of Danny Boyle and Ken Livingstone rejecting theirs is met with… well, not much of a reaction at all. Even the decidedly un-simpering Channel 4 News recently reported on Prince Harry in Afghanistan in a tone bordering on motherly affection.

It’s got something to do with the pride we take in our heritage. Whilst we rile at Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith suggesting the weekly 70 quid Jobseeker’s Allowance is too high, then claiming a 39 quid breakfast back on expenses (hungry boy), we still want to celebrate Britain’s past, with all the hierarchy, Empire and slavery that so deplorably connotes.

We also want escapism. Shows like Downton are popular precisely because they are so different from our daily lives. After a long, hard day working in Morrisons you hardly want to come home and watch a drama about somebody working a long, hard day in Morrisons.

Now do excuse me, but it’s been a trying day so I’m off to watch Cousin Matthew peg it.