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The Returned (2012– )
8/10
The Returned (Channe 4) - Review
13 July 2013
Warning: Spoilers
A school bus swerves to avoid a small boy and plummets over a cliff. Everyone dies. Nasty.

On a brighter note, one of the first things we discover is that the small boy looks uncannily like a prepubescent version of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. But that's not important right now.

Before long we learn that when people die in this town it doesn't necessarily mean we'll never see them again. In fact the dead can show up at any moment, usually saying they feel "a bit peckish". Then they simply pop off to bed, as if nothing has happened.

Five minutes into the first episode of this French drama series I had completely forgotten it had sub-titles – such was the show's instantly haunting and melancholic impact.

What currently passes for drama on BBC1 (The White Queen?) is put to utter shame by The Returned (Channel 4). This brilliant new series reminds me a little of Twin Peaks, and a little more of Six Feet Under. It's mesmeric, eerie and crammed with beautiful imagery and fine acting.

Originally called "Les Revenants", the series was shot in France in the stunning mountain village of Annecy. Fabrice Gobert co-wrote the scripts and directed five of the episodes and he is clearly a talent we'll be seeing a lot more of on the international stage.

The first character who forgets to stay dead is Camille (Yara Pilartz), a young teenage girl who was killed in the awful coach crash. Camille shows up four years later to discover that her bitchy twin sister is now a foot taller and father Jérôme is grumpier than ever.

Not only does Jérôme have both an "e" acute and a circumflex in his name, but he is played by an actor called Frédérric Pierrot – a man who is without doubt the most French-looking Frenchman in all of French France.

When elderly neighbour Mr Costa discovers that his much-younger wife has also returned from the dead he's so pleased to see her that he ties her up and burns the house down with her inside. Woh, what kind of a marriage did they have? Then the old feller goes and swallow dives off the top of the dam.

I forgot to mention the dam. For some reason all of this supernatural activity is also affecting the water levels in the lake. Perhaps the dead are rising up from Hell through a deep crevasse in the lake floor? Or maybe it's just global warming.

My favourite performance is by Samir Guesmi as local police detective Thomas. He sits watching as live on CCTV his lovely girlfriend Adèle is bedded by one of the undead. What were the chances of that happening? Until that moment their relationship had been going pretty well. Why he has CCTV installed in his girlfriend's bedroom is another matter. Control freak or what!? Another of the returning dead is a scary serial killer who likes to eat women's stomachs. If this guy's both undead and eats human flesh doesn't that make him a "zombie"? Perhaps. Perhaps not. To call this highly original drama series a mere zombie yarn would do it a terrible disservice. It's so much more lyrical and poetic than that.

Lets' face it, the French do dark, minimalist acting and moody smouldering better than anyone else. Their films effortlessly hold our attention and connect with our emotions on the deepest level, without ever doing anything particularly flashy on camera. You can't see the wires. By comparison, The White Queen looks like Thunderbirds.

My guess is that we'll never truly know for sure why the dead have decided to return from the grave. It's that kind of series. But if you like your TV drama stylish and atmospheric then you should totally catch up with The Returned.

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3/10
The White Queen (BBC1) - Review
10 July 2013
So, some woman called Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson) goes and stands underneath a big oak tree in a forest. Edward IV rides past, take one look, and instantly falls in love with her.

This man is Elizabeth's sworn enemy, and the murderer of several members of her family, but despite this fact she also falls instantly in love with him. For some reason.

I Googled this historical event to see if it really took place under a tree in a forest and it seems it didn't. In real life, they met in a room. But wherever Liz and Eddie ("Leddie"?) first bumped into each other, had this meeting not occurred there would have been no Henry VIII. Because Elizabeth Woodville was fat old King Harry's grandmother. Such, my children, is the role of sex in history.

Set in 1464, during the Wars of the Roses, The White Queen (BBC1) is quite simply rubbish. The writing is woeful, the performances are wooden, and there are more historical errors than you could shake a polystyrene broadsword at.

Max Irons as Edward IV looks more Eton First XI than majestic, and James Frain as Lord Warwick appears to be an evil reincarnation of Gareth Hunt from The New Avengers. This is dark, curly perm acting at its most inscrutable.

Here we have another highly anticipated Sunday night costume drama crashing and burning because the BBC once again stubbornly refuses to spend our hard earned license money on decent scriptwriters. As usual the characters spend the whole time telling each other things they already know. "But he is your five year old son". "But I am this boy's mother." "But Edward, you are the King of England!". "But Sire, she is your twice married sister ." The Beeb still haven't noticed, but people in the real world don't speak like that. There is no sense of reality in this series, no feeling of actually being there. Only an endless, cringe-making string of crass backstory pick-ups, thinly researched historical facts and figures, and the occasional erect nipple to keep us watching.

Scriptwriting for Dummies: Day One: Lesson One: NEVER HAVE YOUR CHARACTERS TELL EACH OTHER THINGS THEY ALREADY KNOW! If you want to see good historical drama writing, I suggest you watch re-runs of I Claudius. The make-up may have been terrible, the sets might have been made out of cardboard, but every script was lovingly crafted by a real, card-carrying author. Not by a dreary, lazy hack writer who would clearly be more at home writing a Wiki page about minor English kings and their mistresses.

Where have all the real writers gone? I'll tell you. They're sitting at home on their own writing novels, because they are sick to the back teeth of having to deal with the new generation of pimply, useless, Excel-driven BBC Drama executives who wouldn't recognise a great script if it jumped out of a jiffy bag on their desk and clamped itself to their face like a newly birthed Alien on the good ship Nostromo.

The person who commissioned The White Queen should go and stand underneath an oak tree and wait for a proper writer to go past.
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The Americans (2013–2018)
6/10
The Americans (ITV) - Review
3 June 2013
Warning: Spoilers
There used to be a lot of Cold War dramas on TV. Then the Cold War warmed up, along with the rest of the planet, and most of them went away. But now the Cold War is back, chillier than ever and once again battling for ratings on Primetime telly.

ITV's new 13 part thriller The Americans exploded onto our screens last week in a blaze of car chases, tub thumping Fleetood Mac and oral sex.

There was a brunette pretending to be a blonde. There was a man with a cupboard full of different wigs and fake moustaches. There was a spy who spent an entire episode gagged and tied up in the boot of a car. (I wonder how that actor's agent persuaded him to go up for that part.)

Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) and her husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) are a typical middle-class American couple, living happily with their 2.4 children in Washington DC. Except they're not. They're really a couple of undercover Russian agents, pretending to be typical middle-class Americans with 2.4 children.

Matthew Rhys is actually Welsh, and proves once again that if you want a smart, sensitive actor to play an American double agent, the best place to start looking is probably the Groucho Club in London.

We're told that Elizabeth and Phillip were introduced to each other for the first time in a dark, dismal government office in Moscow, by a KGB colonel with a penchant for matchmaking. Mind you, in Moscow in the nineteen eighties isn't that how everyone met?

The Americans sees a welcome return to our screens of good old fashioned Kung Fu fighting. Nothing livens up a spy thriller more than the sight of a girl in tight leggings flying through the air and kicking a muscle-bound hit man square in the face. There simply wasn't enough of that sort of thing in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy.

As in Homeland, the show is cleverly constructed to ensure that we root for the bad guys right from the start. It's all very believable and authentic to begin with. But when a new neighbour moves in across the street, and introduces himself as an FBI agent specialising in catching Soviet spies, the plot suddenly becomes about as realistic as your average episode of American Dad. But who cares, because by now we are all hooked.

The Americans was created by Jacob Weisberg – a former CIA officer. If this series is anything to go by I suppose we have to imagine that he spent most of his career wearing false noses, ill fitting wigs, and giving blow jobs to KGB agents. Either that, or he once spent a week tied up in the boot of an Oldsmobile in a garage in Washington.

With its sleazy sex scenes, cheesy Marshall Arts, and dark suburban intrigue, I think this Cold War revival will land big with UK audiences, and is set to become one of the most TiVo-ed shows on TV.

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The Wright Way (I) (2013)
1/10
The Wright Way (BBC1) - Review
11 May 2013
In these enlightened days of clear and prominently displayed health and safety signs, I think I should warn you about this programme right from the start: Danger! Comedy Free Zone!

Ben Elton used to be a bold,funny, intelligent, era-defining stand-up. He co-wrote Blackadder, one of the most finely crafted and hilarious sitcoms of his generation. He wrote books that became instant best-sellers.

So, who is the man behind "The Wright Way", and what the hell has he done with Ben Elton?

I didn't really like Gordon Brittas the first time around, and I like him even less in his apparent reincarnation as Gerald Wright, a stressed-out health and safety executive working at Baselricky Town Hall. But, like Shakespeare's comedies, every episode of The Brittas Empire had at least one laugh in it. The Wright Way has no laughs in it at all.

There's no room for subtlety in David Haig's performance at Gerald Wright. He shouts, he pulls funny faces, he puts on a silly voice. But whatever he does, Haig cannot alter the fact that the script is not even mildly amusing, and the underlying structure of the show is fatally flawed.

The setting feels hackneyed, the characters are badly thought out, thinly drawn, and utterly two dimensional.

There's a mayor who speaks only using backwards sentences. There's a man-eating, middle-aged Asian woman. There's a vaguely camp guy who looks a bit like Alan Carr, and another bloke who doesn't appear to possess any character traits at all, other than the handy ability to pick up any line of dialogue that Elton hasn't allocated to one of the others.

At home, there's Wright's daughter and her lesbian partner. Another box ticked for the right-on commissioning editors at the BBC, who probably spent more time deciding how many gay and ethnic characters there should be in the series than they did actually reading the script.

It all feels very lazy indeed – even the title of the show is indistinct and will be easily confused in the TV listings with The Wright Stuff on Channel 5.

Perhaps Mr. Elton should spend less time listening to pimply comedy executives and focus groups, and more time following his instincts and listening to the little voice in his head that used to tell him the right way to make people laugh. I'm reminded of the old adage that the camel was designed by committee.

Unfunny is too small a word for it. If anyone happens to find Ben Elton's Mojo, please be kind enough to put it in a jiffy bag and post it back to him immediately.

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Vicious (2013–2016)
2/10
Vicious (ITV) - Review
11 May 2013
I so wanted this show to be good. That's why, against my better judgement, I watched the second episode of Vicious (ITV), hoping against hope that episode one had merely suffered from the fairly common condition of "Gratuitous Scene-Set Syndrome". Unfortunately, episode two was even worse.

Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi are undoubtedly two of the finest actors of their generation. Frances de la Tour is probably the best comic actress we've had in this country in the past 30 years.

The CVs of Olivier award-winning playwright Mark Ravenhill and "Will & Grace" writer Gary Janetti speak for themselves. So what in God's name has gone wrong here? What did I just watch? OK, we have an old gay couple who, after nearly 50 years together, both love and hate each other in equal measure. Freddie (McKellen) was once an actor, so I suppose we can forgive him for his overly theatrical, deeply dated, and mildly offensive portrayal of a gay man.

Freddie doesn't belong in 2013, he belongs in the cast of "Round the Horne", somewhere in the early 1960′s. And that's the joke. I get it.

Meanwhile, we're told that Freddie's partner Stuart worked as a barman in a pub in Leytonstone. But despite this less than glittering background, for some reason Jacobi's performance as Stuart is virtually identical to that of McKellen's.

In the character of Stuart, surely there was an opportunity to write a gay character who wasn't an archetype mincing old queen – creating a striking contrast from which conflict could arise, and at the same time exploring the differences between gay culture then and now. Instead, our two central characters are merely a couple of identical, two dimensional "old poofs". They are not Will and Grace, they are Will and Will.

But there's actually something far more worrying than that: Whereas portraying gay men like this 50 years ago was considered hilarious, doing it today tends to lead to a reinforcement of mindless homophobia among the slow-of-thinking classes. Reviving Barry Cryer & Marty Feldman's Julian and Sandy on prime-time ITV may seem like a great idea, but have the comedy commissioners really thought it through? Politics aside, I have yet to meet either a gay or straight person who has managed to raise a single laugh from this sitcom.

Most puzzling of all is the character of Ash (Iwan Rheon) the young man who has moved into the flat upstairs. He knocks on the door, he comes in, he sits down, he drinks tea, he looks a bit uncomfortable and then he leaves. Over and over again. Why? This character does not possess the slightest motivation to visit, socialise with, befriend or be even remotely concerned with Freddie and Stuart – two men with whom he shares nothing in common. Rheon's performance is flat, wooden, without energy and glassy eyed. His character utterly pointless. But then, that's not the actor's fault.

Meanwhile, Frances de la Tour is basically playing Miss Jones from Rising Damp. When she played it in the seventies it was funny. Now it's just sad. Women aren't like that anymore.

Maybe in writing a show that sets back both Womens' Rights and Gay Rights 40 years, writers Ravenhill and Janetti are trying to be post modern. Perhaps it's supposed to be awful. If it is, it has succeeded brilliantly.

I can only assume that the gales of laughter coming from the audience after every single line, can be put down to the fact that the producers are bringing in bus loads of sherry-filled pensioners from a nearby old-people's home, at which the favourite TV programme is the Black & White Minstrel Show.

Oh, and by the way, the opening titles contain the worst music edit in the history of British television.

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The Village (2013– )
The Village (BBC1) - Review
5 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Bloody hell, it were grim up north. Peter Moffat's new six part drama opens on an overcast, depressing day in Derbyshire in 1914, as twelve year old Bert Middleton gets locked in a tiny cupboard by his brutal, hard-drinking father – apparently for committing the terrible, heinous crime of "swimming." Bert escapes, goes to school, and is immediately thrashed by his brutal, hard-drinking teacher for being "left handed". Bit harsh. All this is just a normal day for young Bert. Being tortured and imprisoned is about the only thing you have to look forward to if you live in The Village (BBC1).

Bert's older brother Joe (Nico Mirallegro) is equally trapped in this heavily colour-corrected hell hole. But lucky for him the Great War is about to break out, sending him and his smiley mates off for a nice break in France.

So begins the cheerful tale of 100 years of life in this small Derbyshire village. We look back on it all through the bloodshot eyes of the now grown-up Bert – "the second oldest man in Britain". Sadly, the part of this 112 year old gentleman is played by an actor who only looks about 75. I'm guessing Equity are a bit short on card-carrying centenarians.

Suffragette Martha (Charlie Murphy) arrives on a bus. It's the first bus ever to come to The Village, and people get so excited about it that they momentarily stop thrashing each other. Bert falls instantly in love with Martha, goes into a field and starts touching himself in a special place. Then he climbs onto a roof and looks through a hole in the tiles at a bunch of naked women having a bath. I'm just telling you what happened.

Meanwhile Bert's brutal, hard-drinking father (John Simm) has to bring in the harvest all on his own. No-one in the village likes him, presumably because he is so brutal and hard-drinking. John's long-suffering wife Grace (Maxine Peake) has discovered that the only way to stop her brutal and hard-drinking husband from being brutal and hard-drinking is to stick her hand down the front of his trousers. Which she does to great effect.

Up at the "Big House", Lady Clem Allingham (Juliet Stevenson) looks down on all of this with a quiet detachment. She's much too posh to have to deal with brutal and hard-drinking poor people – her time being exclusively taken up dealing with brutal and hard-drinking rich people. Juliet Stevenson gives great posh.

The Village is well acted and beautifully directed by Antonia Bird, and Bill Jones gives a splendid performance as the younger version of Bert. I'm quite looking forward to episode 2, but I'll take a couple of anti-depressants before watching it.

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Dancing on the Edge (2013– )
5/10
Dancing on the Edge (BBC2) – Review
20 February 2013
Oh dear, the BBC must have blown their casting budget for the entire year on this one. It's positively dripping with movie stars, household names and hot, rising talent – which is just as well, because Dancing on the Edge really has very little edge to speak of.

The period atmosphere, of course, is immaculate. Stephen Poliakoff's five part 1930s drama about the birth of jazz in the UK is set against a background of thinly disguised racism, poverty and extreme right wing politics. There's also a lot of distressed wood and peeling paint, and the producers must have covered up every double yellow line in the West End.

Stan Mitchell (Matthew Goode), is the chain-smoking head writer of a struggling music magazine. Stan discovers a band of black musicians and launches them into London society, helped by bored aristocrat and chain-smoking music fan Lady Cremone (Jacqueline Bisset).

Bisset has been an international film star since the late 1960s, so one does wonder what she is doing playing opposite the likes of Mel Smith. But as beautiful as Bisset is, Smith frequently owns the screen as saggy-faced hotel manager Schlesinger. Mel has always given great saggy-face. His jowls were heading south even when he was a rising star in the nineteen seventies, so here's a role he was born to play.

With callous immigration officials, sinister Freemasons and half the German Nazi Party hot on their heels, the band manage to land a residency at a posh hotel in Piccadilly, and fast become the favourite plaything of the Prince of Wales and his champagne-swilling, chain-smoking buddies.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is hard to say but effortlessly smooth and polished as chain-smoking band leader Louis Lester – a character perhaps partly inspired by real-life, chain-smoking, black band leader Ken "Snakehips" Johnson, who died in the London Blitz in the early forties.

John Goodman (the fat, miserable hubby from Rosanne) plays fat, miserable, chain-smoking millionaire Masterson – a man with so many skeletons in his cupboard there isn't room for his evening suit.

Joanna Vanderham is pointless, vacant, chain-smoking rich girl Pamela. Vanderham does pointless and vacant beautifully, and luckily for her, in this series (unlike in The Paradise) she is not challenged with any tricky accents.

Jenna-Louise Coleman is in it, of course. She's in everything. Coleman plays Mitchell's pretty, chain-smoking assistant, and so far she's managed to uncharacteristically keep her clothes on. Good for her.

Dancing on the Edge is beautiful to look at and the original jazz music by Adrian Johnston is slick and authentically recorded. I just wish the series had been a little more faithful to the actual history of black jazz musicians in the 30s, and that Poliakoff had resisted the temptation to turn it into a tacky Agatha Christie murder mystery. Did I mention that everyone smokes all the time? Read more TV reviews at Mouthbox.co.uk
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Louie (2010–2015)
9/10
Louie (Fox) - Review
8 February 2013
The more television comedy I write about, the harder it is to make me laugh. I seem to have almost become desensitised to mirth – far more likely to quietly and coldly utter, "That's funny," under my breath, than to clutch my belly and guffaw. But I have recently discovered an American stand-up comedian who makes me laugh out loud, consistently and uncontrollably, every single time I watch his show.

It has taken a while for Emmy Award-winning Louie CK (Comedy Central) to establish himself on this side of the Atlantic, and I only wish it had happened sooner. Part stand-up show, part semi-improvised sitcom, this is a quite remarkable series, made even more remarkable when you learn that Louie not only writes, performs and produces this show himself, he also directs it and edits it as well.

Louie CK shouldn't be anywhere near as funny as it is. It covers all the usual barn-door stand-up subjects that we're painfully familiar with: Sex, death, divorce. Jewish Manhattan angst. Seinfeld was churning this stuff out twenty five years ago, and by now it should feel stale and repetitious.

But there's something about the way Louie CK does it that makes you feel like you're watching stand-up comedy for the first time in your life. Because Louie takes honesty to the next level.

It boils down to this: Here's a 45-year-old, divorced white guy with two kids, who knows that pretty soon he is going to grow old and die. There's no escaping it. You can wrap it up however you want but soon we'll all be in a box. Which isn't funny. That's why it's funny.

Louie knows that everything he holds dear is going to decay and fall apart – that the Universe, second by second, minute by minute, is returning to the dark, brutal, miserable, bleak chaos from which it evolved. Which is a truly terrible thought. But when Louis talks about it, it somehow it makes you feel glad to be alive.

Your darkest thoughts and worst fears seem less frightening when some middle-aged, ginger schmuck in a T-shirt pitches up in a basement in New York City, and shares them with a room full of fellow human beings. This is comedy that is worse than self-depreciating. It is self-annihilating.

Humour that ploughs the very depths of the human condition. Everyman comedy that goes right ahead and lays it on the line for every man, woman and beast on this planet, with a clear, central core message that is quite simply this: "We are all screwed. Enjoy."

I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but this guy is as good as Bill Hicks. For all the same reasons. And there's a bonus: Louie is still alive. At least for a while.

This week's episode featured a guest appearance from Ricky Gervais as our hero's wise-cracking doctor – a man who's idea of a joke is to tell you that you've got Aids, then say he's only joking, you don't really have Aids. You have cancer.

Gervais has struggled to make me laugh since the heady days of The Office, but his performance in this episode was quite inspired – almost as if Louie has the magical ability to make the people around him as funny as he is.

Louie CK is not for the faint-hearted. If you're easily shocked or you don't get vicious, gut-wrenching post-modern comedy then give it a miss. But if you're a living, breathing human being with a half-decent IQ, check out Louie CK. It's almost worth staying alive for.

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6/10
Inside Death Row (ITV1) – Review
4 February 2013
Trevor McDonald is a national institution in the UK. Maybe that's why ITV sent him to the States to investigate a great American institution – that of sentencing killers to death, then locking them up for about twenty five years before finally getting around to carrying out their sentences.

If you're a psycho killer in the USA you can be fairly confident that before you're finally strapped into that big chair and pumped with fifty thousand volts from the National Grid, the tax payer will feed you enough junk food for you to gain at least 20 stone in weight.

The State will treat you with dignity, respect and humanity – all the things you carelessly forgot to give to your victim. Best of all, if you're quiet and co-operative you will be given a large, overweight cat to look after.

During this time hundreds of lawyers will earn tens of millions of dollars by appealing against your sentence on an almost daily basis. Hey, it costs a lot of money to get a death sentence commuted to a mere 250 years in jail.

In fact, life would be pretty sweet on death row if it wasn't for the damned interviews. Those endless queues of film crews and journalists who want to know exactly how it feels to strangle your girlfriend then cut her up into little pieces and stuff her into the boot of your car in a plastic bin bag.

I think lovely Trevor meant to ask deep, hard-hitting questions like that while he was in Indiana State Prison. In the event he looked far too uncomfortable and intimidated to get much beyond, "What's the name of your cat?" It was like he didn't want to upset the nice murderer who had been kind enough to welcome him into his cosy little cell.

Reginald Jackson was a sweetie. He'd been in prison for over twenty years after being convicted of killing a mother and daughter at the age of 13. He was sensitive, polite, and was clearly a kind and caring pet owner.

I think Trevor rather liked him, and Reginald talked to Trevor like the network newsreading father figure he never had.

This could have been a fascinating documentary series, but I can't help thinking that McDonald was more than a little intimidated by the subject matter.

Maybe he wasn't the right man for the job. A "take no prisoners" presenter, more in the mould of a Louis Theroux or a Mark Thomas, may have made more of this unique opportunity and would perhaps have got the inmates to open up a little more – offering a deeper glimpse into the mind of a psychopath.

Or maybe they'd have been scared as well. I certainly would have been.

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Blandings (2013–2014)
Blandings (BBC1) - Review
22 January 2013
When the brilliant and inspired Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie did PG Wodehouse's "Jeeves & Wooster" in the 1990's it was a pure joy. Because they didn't appear to be acting. They seemed to somehow miraculously become those two characters. You couldn't see the strings.

The complete opposite is true of the BBC's new six-part adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Blandings Castle stories. As Lord Emsworth, Timothy Spall does little but put on a posh voice and dig in, like a knackered old repertory company actor playing Toad of Toad Hall for the umpteenth time, in yet another tatty production of Wind in the Willows.

As Emsworth's sister Connie, Jennifer Saunders looks equally bored and uninterested, as if she's hurriedly learned the lines for a quickie PG Wodehouse sketch in an episode of French & Saunders.

Worst of all is Jack Farthing as the idiot son Freddie. His upper class accent is about as convincing as a first year American drama student auditioning to play all the Hugh Laurie parts in a bad remake of Blackadder.

Farthing's on-screen strategy appears to be to pull as many stupid grimaces as possible, bump into the furniture, fall over, and hope for the best.

The only member of the company who isn't dismally miscast is Mark Williams, who's Beach the Butler is neatly underplayed, nicely observed, and completely believable – standing head and shoulders above the surrounding gaggle of tiresome, stereotyped, phone-it-in actors.

The pig is good. Very good. His flat, upturned nose can't help but put me in mind of Kevin Bacon (No pun intended. A genuine, physical similarity that is undoubtedly worth pointing out.) Blandings' early evening, weekend time slot makes me wonder just exactly who the target audience are intended to be. The poor slapstick and semi-Pantomine style appear to be aimed at a younger audience. Chuckle Brothers meets Downton Abbey? Yet that age group's unfamiliarity with the Wodehouse genre would surely only lead to utter confusion and bewilderment. I know Wodehouse pretty well and it left me cold.

The only thing that made me laugh during the whole of the first two episodes was the thought of a couple of streetwise urban teenagers accidentally switching on to Blandings and fruitlessly trying to work out who these people were, and what the hell they were all on about. I will not be returning a third time to this particular crumbling pile.

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Spies of Warsaw (2013– )
3/10
Spies of Warsaw (BBC Four) - Review
22 January 2013
Spies of Warsaw (BBC Four) was probably meant for BBC1, but then someone at the BBC sat down and watched it.

As we know, it's not currently very fashionable for BBC executives to take an interest in BBC programmes, but on this occasion it's just as well one of them looked at it before making the mistake of showing it to a larger audience.

Adapted by the usually brilliant Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais from a novel by Alan Furst, the first episode was actually only about ninety minutes long. It felt, however, like it was on the air for about 12 weeks.

Even in the first ten minutes one could have timed the action by calendar. Sorry, did I use the word, "action"? Slip of the pen. At one point, near the end of the episode, I found myself asking the question, "Is this still on?"

It's difficult to say what happened, the plot being revealed at such a painfully leisurely pace.

The gist of it appeared to be that David Tennant – a French spy in bright red pantaloons with stripes down the side – fell very slowly in love with Janet Montgomery, the mistress of a dull, whiskered Russian exile.

Then we were very slowly introduced to a mysterious Countess, who very slowly turned out not to be a Countess, and was then very slowly strangled by some Nazis.

Oh, there was a brasserie with a bullet-hole in the mirror above table 14. I think this might have been significant in some way. Or maybe it wasn't.

There was certainly great attention to period detail, which helped to slow down the action even more. Then there was the usual confusion when it came to who should speak with which accent. The Nazis spoke in German with subtitles in English. The Polish spoke English with Polish accents. The French spoke English with 'Allo 'Allo accents. Everyone spoke very, very, slowly indeed.

Tennant was wasted as the enigmatic, complex and conflicted Mercier. He doesn't really do enigmatic and complex, does he? He does quirky and eccentric. About twenty minutes in, he had a stab at being deep and conflicted, but all we really wanted was to see him whip out his sonic screwdriver and pull one of his funny faces.

Did I mention that it was quite slow? I still have episode two of Spies of Warsaw on my TIVO. I think it's going to be there for a very, very long time.

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Ripper Street (2012– )
6/10
Ripper Street (BBC1) – Review
5 January 2013
It was only a matter of time before we got another Jack the Ripper spin-off. The sport was to try and guess which genre or genres they were going to attempt to combine it with this time.

The BBC have obviously racked their brains over this one, and after diligently flicking around a few hundred digital channels, have come up with the franchise's latest contrived mash-up: Jack the Ripper meets CSI in the Wild West.

With "Whitechapel", ITV have also had a stab (no pun intended) at Jack. But unlike ITV's modern day setting, the Beeb's version is set in 1889 and miraculously resists the temptation of casting the usually ever-present Phil Davis. Ripper Street is set six months after Jack the Ripper began his gory exploits, and everyone is more than a little jumpy.

The "Deadwood" Wild West filming style and heavy-handed, discordant music score make Ripper Street feel like a darker, nastier version of Guy Ritchie's 2009 re-make of Sherlock Holmes, and the programme's brutal, blood-spitting, flesh ripping visuals would be just as at home in a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Jerome Flynn used to be in pop duo Robson and Jerome. I will never forgive him for that, but I have to admit he is rather good in Ripper Street. As is Matthew Macfadyen as Detective Inspector Edmund Reid, a smart, progressive copper intent on dragging the Met out of the Dark Ages and into the glossy, soft focus crime labs of CSI Miami.

This unlikely League of Gentlemen is completed by an American surgeon played by Adam Rothenberg – an ex-employee of the Pinkertons Detective Agency, drafted in, no doubt, to more graphically underline the Wild West parallel.

So, we discover a slaughtered prostitute in a dark alley. She's all slit up a treat, proper nasty-like, guv'nor, and everyone immediately assumes it was Jack. But not clean-cut, modern-thinking Inspector Reid. He pins a load of photos of Jack's previous victims on a great big blackboard and paces up and down peering at them like Mandy Patinkin in an episode of Homeland. Will this method of policing ever catch on? Jack the Ripper has been turned into movies, musicals, TV shows, cartoons and board games. No doubt it will one day be turned into a quiz show hosted by Noel Edmonds or a 'Big Brother"-style reality show set in a police station in Whitechapel. In the meantime, Ripper Street is probably one of the more inventive incarnations of the franchise, and is likely to maintain a strong following, if only among fans of Robson and Jerome.

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The Fear (I) (2012– )
9/10
The Fear (Channel 4) – Review
14 December 2012
The gangsters in Graham Green's 1950's classic Brighton Rock seem almost cuddly and lovable in comparison with their modern day counterparts in The Fear.

Neatly suited and booted wide boys cutting each other's cheeks with razors, and reliable, honest detectives have been replaced by slimy bent coppers and hoards of swarthy, Eastern European thugs setting off car bombs and hacking each other's body parts off with industrial-sized meat cleavers.

Channel 4's latest four part drama opens as local crime boss turned businessman Richie Beckett drives home from a fund raising event at Brighton Pier. When a passing unicyclist (yes, I did say unicyclist) thoughtlessly leans on his nice shiny limo, Richie jumps out of the car and beats the poor guy to within an inch of his life.

Only a few short moments after the attack, Richie seems to remember nothing about it. Is he suffering from memory loss? Maybe early-onset Alzheimer's? Or does Richie just have a pathological dislike of unicyclists? One thing's for sure, this is going to be no ordinary gangster series.

Richie is brilliantly played by Peter Mullan, who has kicked around TV drama for many years and deserves to be a lot better known than he is. You might remember him playing Gordon Brown in The Trial of Tony Blair. Mullan walks a tantalising tightrope between likable vulnerability and terrifying menace, and it's hard to take your eyes off the screen when he's on. There's also a nice little cameo by one of my favourite actors Richard E. Grant as Richie's suave but decidedly dodgy doctor.

Things get nasty when Richie's son Cal (played by former Eastenders regular Paul Nicholls) gets more than a little out of his depth with a bunch of newly imported Albanian hard men who want to take over his dad's seaside patch.

This is bad news for Richie's wife Jo (Anastasia Hille). She thought Richie's gangster days were long gone and she now runs a trendy Brighton art gallery. The last thing she wants is a load of claret being splattered all over her nice expensive paintings.

Cal's brother Matty tries to make peace with the Albanians, and all he gets is beaten up for his trouble. But there is far, far worse to come.

Escalating violence and Richie's rapid descent into a twilight world of frustration and confusion make The Fear one of the most compelling and addictive television dramas of 2012. It's jam-packed with great performances and stunning visuals, and Richard Cottan's script is fresh and original. Michael Samuels directs with considerable flair and style and is clearly a name to watch out for in future.

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3/10
A Young Doctor's Notebook (Sky Arts 1) - Review
12 December 2012
Based on short stories by Mikhail Bulgakov, this new series on Sky Arts 1 follows the adventures of a youthful, innocent doctor in his first job in a small country hospital in Russia. The stars are Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and Daniel Radcliffe. I will refer to Radcliffe as "Potter" from now on, if you don't mind. It's so much easier to remember.

A Young Doctor's Notebook is billed as a comedy. Why? The action takes place in 1917 – a time when Russia was at its most humourless and miserable, and I have to say that watching it made me feel pretty humourless and miserable as well.

I'm a big fan of Mad Men and I really like Jon Hamm, but what on Earth is he doing in this? I'll tell you what he's doing – he's playing second banana to Harry Potter, that's what he's doing.

Hamm portrays Potter's older, wiser self who regularly pops back through time, for some reason, and offers his younger self advice and guidance. On his next visit the first thing he should share with Potter is that he should never, ever have taken this part.

Anyone who has ever seriously studied literature knows that Russian comedy isn't funny. It's the opposite of funny. Maybe at some point in the dim and distant past it was mildly amusing. Perhaps if someone like Stephen Fry had translated the manuscript, some slim semblance of wit may have been salvaged from the original. But 90 years on, and migrated into a very different language and different times, it's frankly a car crash.

Generally the performances are unsubtle, overcooked and far better suited to the stage than the small screen, and the slapstick is clumsy and poorly directed. At one point Potter appeared to examine a pregnant woman's nether regions while she was still wearing her undergarments.

The low point for me in episode one is when Potter, in trying to extract a tooth from one of his patients, manages to dislodge a large part of the man's jaw and yank it out of his mouth – this grisly extraction being accompanied by the sight of a bucketful of blood being projectile vomited across the room by the patient. Ah, those crazy Russians.

It's a pity that Mikhail Bulgakov's short stories weren't a lot shorter.
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4/10
Bring Me Morecambe and Wise (Gold) – Review
23 November 2012
When Steve North, general manager at flagship UKTV channel Gold, proudly announced the start of an exciting new series about Morecambe and Wise, featuring previously unseen material, we all got very excited indeed. What better way to spend a Wednesday evening than to see brand new sketches from these two national treasures of British comedy.

In the first programme there was indeed material we'd never seen before, and it was great to watch it. A real find. Unfortunately, there was also a huge amount of completely unnecessary recapping and repetition of familiar clips. I lost count of how many times we were shown the clip of Eric sitting holding a long, extended prop leg. First, they told us that the clip was coming, then they showed us the clip itself, then on at least two further occasions they reminded us that we had seen the clip earlier. I, for one, never want to see that clip again, as long as I live.

This particular example of amateurish, lazy editing set the tone for the abysmal way the entire programme was put together. Because this masterclass of television comedy was continually interrupted by pointless, vacuous banter from a gaggle of grinning, self-publicising celebrities.

Morecambe and Wise were brilliantly funny. We do not need to see Chris Tarrant laughing at them and telling us how funny they were, over and over again. To make matters worse, many of the "celebrities" who appeared in the programme were people we had actually never heard of.

Comedy is all about timing. So the worst thing you can do with a sketch is to cut-away from it, then cut back to it later. It destroys the rhythm. It disrupts the flow. It makes it less funny. Eric Morecambe would turn in his grave if he could see how UKTV are now mindlessly hacking his finely crafted routines to pieces, just so that we can hear what Tamzin Greig thinks about them.

Producers and editors who don't understand comic timing should not be let anywhere near the BBC's priceless comedy archives. They may think they are breathing new life into this material, but all they are doing is vandalising it in the edit suite, then introducing it to a new generation of viewers in a criminally damaged state. The only way to watch the Morecambe & Wise and Andre Previn sketch is from beginning to end, with no cut-aways. Comedy works in real time, not sliced into little pieces and liberally scattered. Will someone please, please tell that to Steve North, general manager at Gold.

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Secret State (2012)
6/10
Secret State (Channel 4) – Review
13 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
A fictional chemical plant, not dissimilar to Buncefield Oil Depot, is destroyed in a huge ball of fire which takes out the local village. The following day a fictional Prime Minister, not dissimilar to David Cameron, disappears when his private jet explodes over a fictional ocean, not dissimilar to the Atlantic.

Irish deputy prime minister Tom Dawkins (played by Gabriel Byrne) is thrust into the top job. He is a quiet, reluctant hero, controlled puppet-like by Charles Dance – a smooth, handsome Chief Whip who looks far too charming to be rude to a policeman outside Number 10.

Meanwhile, an investigative journalist (played by ballsy Hebburn mum Gina McKee) appears to have already found out who has done what to who and why.

Government spin, the underlying threat of terrorism, industrial cover-ups – all of these elements were crammed into the first two minutes of Channel 4′s new four part conspiracy thriller Secret State. While stretching credibility to its absolute limit, the overall effect was nonetheless quite intriguing.

The plot was further stirred by Sylvestra Le Touzel and Rupert Graves as two slimy cabinet ministers trying to fill the power void left by the PM's untimely death. There seemed to be so much going on in this fictional version of Number 10 that Nick Robinson (the political correspondent who looks like Little Bear out of Bo' Selecta) would be kept busy around the clock.

Something that has always annoyed me about film drama is that when an important piece of news comes on the telly, the central characters always just listen to the very top of the story and then immediately switch the TV off. This simply doesn't happen in real life.

If you heard in the Sky News headlines that the Prime Minister's plane had plunged into the Atlantic, you wouldn't switch off the TV before hearing the rest of the story. This actually happened twice in Secret State, and was compounded when the PM, after being told another piece of earth-shattering news on the telephone, hung up straight away without waiting to hear the rest of the story.

I'll give Secret State another go next week. But I can't promise that I won't switch it off before the...
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Full English (2012)
1/10
Full English (Channel 4) – Review
13 November 2012
Channel 4′s new animated sitcom has been billed as a rival to US shows The Simpsons and Family Guy. But the creators of Full English have abjectly failed to grasp what makes these shows, and the equally popular South Park, so sharp, funny, and well directed.

OK, they've weakly cloned a few of Family Guy's more recognisable characters, but they've utterly failed to clone the skill and expertise behind the execution.

As a nation we love American cartoon series. We pay millions to the US to import them. And yet our own comedy writers appear to learn nothing from them. Family Guy has pace. It's crammed with physical action and visual gags. It effectively uses the fact that it's an animated series – creating story lines and gag set-ups on a huge scale.

You can do anything you like in an animated series. Homer Simpson has been into outer space. Peter Griffin has fought with a giant chicken across five continents. Stewie and Brian have gone back in time and fought against the Nazis.

In contrast, Full English is small scale, unimaginative, unbearably slow, and seems to consist mainly of close ups of talking heads in the living rooms of terraced houses.

Even in the nineteen sixties the Americans were teaching us the skills we needed to make great cartoon series. Top Cat, The Flintstones, these fast moving, pacy shows were laying the foundations for Family Guy and The Simpsons. Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening watched and learned. We didn't.

Alex Scarfe (son of legendary caricaturist Gerald) and Jack & Harry Williams have written an unfunny script that could just as easily have been shot with actors in a studio set. They've effectively penned a live action sitcom and then handed it to some animators and said, "Make it move." And to be honest, the animation looks pretty cheap, drab and shoddy.

South Park has its finger on the pulse. It taps into the zeitgeist – sharply satirising what's going on in the real world in the present day. Full English churned out a lame parody of Britain's Got Talent – a series that's been running on UK television for five years – picking up on the fact that Simon Cowell tends to cash in on contestants' sob stories.

Sorry guys, but I'm afraid the whole of Britain has been taking the mickey out of that since the summer of 2007. What are you going to send up next week? Harold Wilson and the miners' strike?

Richard Ayoade (IT Crowd) and Kayvan Novak (Facejacker) are the two main voice talents, and they, at least, add a touch of class to this deeply flawed and disappointing project.

The people who commissioned this series clearly knew very little about animation, and they have subsequently spent millions of pounds of Channel Four's money making a cartoon series that is not fit to lick the boots of Seth MacFarlane or Matt Groening.

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5/10
Ruddy Hell! It's Harry and Paul (BBC2) – Review
4 November 2012
Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse are back, and it's lovely to see them again. I'm a fan, I really am. But this fourth series goes quite a long way towards proving why the Rule of Three is historically so revered by comedy writers and performers. Because series four of Ruddy Hell is probably a series too far.

As well as delivering his usual range of nicely observed characters, Harry Enfield also directed this series and it's difficult to fault him in that department. There's also nothing wrong with the star-studded cast: Victoria Wood, Simon Day, Kevin Eldon and the delightfully baffled Justin Edwards all give splendid performances as usual. And there's some cleverly written material – scriptwriters like Bert Tyler-Moore and Arthur Mathews need no introduction and both have a list of award-winning credits as long as your arm.

The problem, or "challenge" as the BBC now like to call it, is the script editing. Let me explain exactly what I mean. Repetition is one of my own personal favourite comedy writing tools, and there is always room for one damned good repetition sketch in every comedy show. For example excessive repetition of a single word – such as the word "queer" by two posh old gentleman with large ears discussing the sexuality of Michael Gove.

But why, after only a few minutes, are we then treated to another similar word repetition sketch featuring two posh old surgeons (also with large ears) excessively repeating the word "egg"? Then two Irish-American police officers in a bar repeating the word "cop" in a ridiculous New York accent? Surely, no self-respecting script editor would put all three of these sketches into a single episode? Wouldn't that be a bit lazy? Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane is a massive fan of repetition. But you won't see his writing team using it more than once per show. Because Seth knows it will lose its effectiveness. It won't be funny anymore.

How many times can a single episode of Ruddy Hell sustain Harry Enfield doing his hilarious Cholmondeley-Warner voice? Or yet another parody of a black and white film from the nineteen forties? And wasn't the aristocratic racehorse trainer talking to an unintelligible Irish jockey way too reminiscent of Arthur Mathew's already legendary Ralph and Ted sketch? Enfield and Whitehouse were both instrumental in the evolution of the Fast Show – that most glorious and innovative of sketch series that dragged broken comedy kicking and screaming from the slow-paced world of the Two Ronnies into the super-charged, short attention-spanned generation of MTV watchers.

Why, then, were Harry & Paul's "Question Time" and "Dragons' Den" sketches so interminably long – outstaying their welcome long after the initial joke had landed? There is so much experience in the performing and writing team of this series that I honestly can't understand why the running order and editing of episode one of Harry & Paul was not more expertly balanced in terms of pace, character and sketch selection.

I will, however, be watching episode two. Because compared to the BBC's more recent slate of comedy content, Harry & Paul is pure gold.

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Junior Apprentice (2010–2012)
7/10
Young Apprentice (BBC1) – Review
2 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I like Young Apprentice. But for all the wrong reasons. It makes me laugh. It makes me wince. Occasionally it makes a little bit of sick rise up in the back of my throat.

Lord Sugar is clearly trying to be a little less scary this time around, so he smiled a lot more in this first show than he usually does in the grown-up version of the franchise. He even made a little joke about Angry Birds to show just how hip and "down with the kids" he is.

Since becoming a game show host, Nick Hewer has become rather more show-business than business, and he is fast becoming a tongue-in-cheek caricature of himself. The camera loves Nick. He mugs on command beautifully, and has now perfected his very own unique brand of quiet exasperation. Meanwhile, the camera hates Karren Brady – here is a woman who can clearly muster an ugly sneer without any help from the director or lighting cameraman.

Contestant Sean Spooner looks about 12, with a haircut by his mum and apparently still sporting freckles from this year's summer holidays at Butlins in Bognor Regis. Is this frightened-looking little boy really expected to compete against a hissing snakepit of power dressing, ball breaking teenage girls wearing enough lippy and eye liner to sink a battleship? I find myself feeling a bit sorry for all the boys in this year's series. They look like lambs to the slaughter.

I wondered why contestant Amy Corrigan's dentist was not persuaded to humanely remove her huge orthodontic braces for the duration of the series. Then I realised that Amy was probably wearing them ironically – in a kind of defiant tilt at the other apprentices. Could this industrial scale dental treatment have been designed purely to intimidate and terrify her opponents like Apache war paint? First to be fired was Maximilian Grodecki – who, although clearly some kind of mad genius, appeared to be so aristocratically in-bred that he could barely move his facial muscles, making me wonder if deeply posh people like Max should not be given big badges to put on their cars like disabled people. Max was an expert in pre-Socratic philosophers. Basically, he was so clever he couldn't think.

My favourite contestant, and I suspect everyone else's as well, was Patrick McDowell – a delightfully camp young man wearing Harry Hill's glasses and sporting Gary Linekar's ears. During this week's re-cycled clothes task he decided to sow the top half of a wet suit onto the bottom half of a Japanese kimono – a design Zandra Rhodes would no doubt be proud of. Sadly Patrick was unable to sell the garment, even in Brick Lane – a place renowned for its eccentric and ill-judged fashion statements.

Young Apprentice has always looked to me like a competition for people who are bullied at school, and when they return to those schools at the end of the series they'll probably be bullied even more.

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Hebburn (2012– )
6/10
Hebburn (BBC2) - Review
26 October 2012
Only recently this reviewer was complaining that the BBC's new sitcom Cuckoo was merely a re-working of 1970′s sitcom Citizen Smith. Now, hot on the heels of Cuckoo, comes Hebburn, a not dissimilar series about another family being forced to cope with a new member, unexpectedly parachuted into their lives and armed with a set of very different attitudes and values.

This time it's gritty Geordie mum Gina McKee who has to deal with the flack, as her son Jack returns to the nest with his new Jewish partner Sarah, who he has married while drunk on a business trip to Las Vegas.

Sitcom is a craft unlike any other in the comedy industry. It has its own very specific and complex set of rules for creating character, setting and plot, and when it's not constructed properly it can be disastrous.

So I was more than a little worried when I discovered that Hebburn has its foundations set not in the solid bedrock of sitcom, but in the more transitory and short-form world of stand-up. The show is written by comedian Jason Cook, and Jack is played by another stand-up, Chris Ramsey. Even dad is played by comedian Vic Reeves.

My concerns, however, proved unfounded. Because Hebburn, although a little rough around the edges and basic at times, is quite funny. It's a kind of upbeat Royle Family meets Gavin and Stacey. Or maybe Phoenix Nights meets Bread on the set of Early Doors.

All the usual family archetypes are here, just as they were when Carla Lane was the undisputed queen of sitcom. The strong no-nonsense mother, the adorable old Grannie, the mouthy daughter in a short skirt and the lovable but slightly flawed father.

Jack describes the North East town of Hebburn as "Where dreams come to die." Mum makes bagels for her new Jewish daughter in law by punching a hole through a bread roll using an apple corer. In the final scene a neighbour drops dead in the pub while Sarah is sick into the dead woman's handbag. Meanwhile the pub singer belts out, "I Just Died in your Arms Tonight".

OK, I'll admit these are fairly broad comedic strokes, but even though Hebburn may be a stranger to subtlety, after the sheer Gothic horror of Citizen Khan it's a relief to know that the BBC can still occasionally deliver something resembling humour.
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8/10
Andrew Marr's History of the World (BBC1) – Review
18 October 2012
It's craggy, it's rugged and it looks like it was formed from hot volcanic ash around 70,000 years ago. Yes, it's Andrew Marr's face – desperately in need of dental work but as trustworthy and kindly as your favourite teacher at school.

The History of the World was always going to be a ridiculously ambitious project. But Andrew Marr is tackling it with great flair – as fearlessly as Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar or any of the charismatic historical figures he's introduced us to so far.

Of course, the dramatic reconstructions are a little clunky at times, and some of history's greatest figures do look like they've been cast after a quick flick through the actor's directory Spotlight. But I for one don't care. Because I am loving Andrew Marr's History of the World.

Last night I sat down and watched the first four episodes back to back, and when you cram a potted version of world history into such a short time frame quite a lot of things start to make sense. We kicked off with a look at how the earliest humans spread around the world, mainly, it seems, by balancing their way across precarious narrow stone bridges. Then we explored the great empires of Rome and China – two ancient civilisations who, in the absence of long haul air travel, co-existed for thousands of years without ever knowing of each other's existence. How peaceful the world would be today if the United States and the Muslim World were as blissfully unaware of each other.

My favourite episode so far looked at how the Vikings became the Russians. Apparently they couldn't decide which of the world's religions would suit them best, so they invited the heads of all the world's religions to come to Russia and pitch to them, saying they would choose the one they liked best. They immediately turned down Islam because they didn't want to give up drinking, and finally plumped for the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church, because they liked the style of the paintings and the big pointy gold domes.

Television like this make me wish I'd paid more attention in history classes at school, and underlines the fact that a subject is generally only as interesting as the person who teaches it to you. Presenters like Professor Brian Cox, Simon Schama and Andrew Marr are bringing science and history to life for a generation who previously thought these subjects were dull and boring.

You can catch up with the whole series of Andrew Marr's History of the World on iPlayer, and I highly recommend that you do.

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Homeland: The Smile (2012)
Season 2, Episode 1
9/10
Homeland (Channel 4) - Review
8 October 2012
World politics is these days mostly represented by a single flag: The Stars & Stripes. The Americans wave it proudly while the rest of the world soak it in petrol and set it on fire.

Last night's Homeland kicked off with that very image, as anti-American feeling ran high on the streets of the Middle East – immediately grounding the second series of this acclaimed blockbuster firmly in reality. There's been a noticeable dearth of good new drama on TV recently, so what a relief to see this series back on our screens.

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Homeland is the best drama on TV by a country mile. The characters are believable. The storyline is topical and relevant. The performances are outstanding, throughout the cast.

This series is good for many reasons, but mainly because it is scary. Homeland connects to us on a very deep level – using that part of our brain that fires up just before we go to sleep and keeps us awake through the night with dark fears and complex anxieties.

The recap of series one turns out to be almost as long as episode one of series two. When the backstory finally grinds to a halt we discover Carrie (Claire Danes) recovering from her bipolar meltdown by doing a little light gardening and cooking dinner for the family.

She also appears to be working as a supply teacher and is snowed under by a great big pile of extremely boring marking. When you've worked in the field for the CIA it's hard to immerse yourself in a task which mostly involves using a red Biro to draw circles around spelling mistakes.

Lucky for Carrie there's a girl in Beirut who has information about an imminent attack on America, and she refuses to give it to anyone but her. So it looks like the marking is going to have to wait.

Carrie pops a mouthful of anti-depressants, dyes her hair a fetching new shade, and takes on a brand new identity. Soon she is in Beirut, where men sit in parked cars looking through huge pairs of binoculars and no-one takes a blind bit of notice.

Carrie quickly returns to her favourite pastime – that of running around in crowded markets being pursued by beefy foreign agents. She has to do this, because, as every good promo director knows, it's those shots that make the best series trailers.

Brody (Damian Lewis) is now a congressman and his office is a busy place. In his first meeting of the day he is offered the job of vice president of the United States. In the second meeting he's asked to betray his country by passing on crucial security information. All of this before he's had his first cup of coffee.

Soon we find Brody rifling though a safe and copying top secret documents – not by photographing them, for some reason, but by very slowly and meticulously writing out what he sees in long hand in a little notebook.

I am puzzled by this. Surely even in the nineteen-sixties spies had cameras for copying documents? So why this weirdly retro step? Surely he could have done it way quicker with an iPad? Or have the White House got something against Apple? While all this is going on Brody's daughter (Morgan Saylor) is at the school debating society and accidentally blurts out that her congressman father is a practising Muslim. Strangely, no-one at the school seems particularly bothered about this revelation.

Even Brody himself tells his daughter not to worry about it. But the guano really hits the fan when Brody's wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) finds out. She dashes out into the garage, grabs a copy of the Qur'an, and throws it roughly onto the dusty floor. Careful Jess, Fatwas have been issued for less.

The paths of Carrie and Brody have yet to cross, and it will no doubt be that rekindling of fierce sexual chemistry which will take the tension and suspense to the next level during the coming weeks. I, for one, cannot wait.
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BBC Comedy Feeds: Dawson Bros. Funtime (2012)
Season 1, Episode 2
2/10
Dawson Bros. Funtime (BBC3) - Review
29 September 2012
In the same week the BBC comedy department commissioned a second series of the abysmal Citizen Khan, we are treated to a sketch show called "Dawson Bros. Funtime." Unusual to see a full stop in the middle of a programme title, but this is the least of its problems.

Being a big fan of the broken comedy genre I tuned in eagerly, and was immediately greeted by a send-up of Facebook. I rubbed my eyes, thinking that I must be hallucinating. Wasn't it a little late to be satirising Facebook? Six or seven years late? Social networks may have been legitimate targets for cutting edge comedy in 2007, but in 2012? Even more unbelievably, they OPENED with it.

I took a deep breath and ploughed on. The Sherlock Holmes sketch was a funny idea but way too long. An iPad designed exclusively for horses momentarily changed the shape of my long face. But the item that followed, featuring Jenny Bede and Cariad Lloyd, lamely pretending to upstage each other as presenters, looked for all the world like a couple of self-conscious sixth-formers performing in an end of term review show. The sort of show where you sit at the back, so that you can creep out without anyone noticing and go to the pub – returning at the end to go backstage and tell everyone how marvelous they were.

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I like Mike Wozniak. I have laughed at him many times in Edinburgh. I can't, however, really work out what he is doing in this show, and I don't think he can either. I have no idea who Chris Kendall is. I assume he was cast because he looks like a member of a boy band, and that Funtime are hoping to attract teenage girls in order to boost its audience.

I tried. I really, really tried to keep watching. But after 10 minutes, curled into a ball, hiding my face behind my hands, my gag reflex became so strong that I was literally forced to switch channels. I felt embarrassed for the cast, I felt embarrassed for the writers and I felt embarrassed for myself.

This morning, feeling that I'd been a little unfair for not sticking it out to the end, I Googled The Dawson Brothers and noted that the stand-out writing credits on their CV are series 6 of Total Wipeout and series 4 of Take Me Out. Since I also loathe both of those shows with a vengeance, I now feel a little less guilty for so quickly consigning Funtime to the comedy recycle bin.
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The Paradise (2012–2013)
5/10
The Paradise (BBC1) - Review
28 September 2012
The Paradise is a fictional version of Britain's first ever department store. The place feels like a cross between Liberty and Selfridges, except that it's up north – just outside Sunderland by the sound of it, and all of the staff get to live upstairs above the shop – a staff perk that workers at M&S are very unlikely to ever enjoy.

On the opposite side of a distinctly cardboard-looking Victorian Street, peopled with uncomfortable-looking extras, is Edmund Lovett's sweet little drapery shop – clearly in urgent need of a paint job, having recently been so meticulously distressed by a stand-by chippy. Not surprisingly, poor Edmund is being put out of business by The Paradise, and he's far from happy about it.

When Edmund's niece Denise (Joanna Vanderham) arrives on the scene she immediately faces us with a major challenge – that of trying to work out where exactly she is from. She begins with an Irish accent, quickly switches to Scottish in the next speech, then for a while settles on good old-fashioned English R.P. Then she veers back into Irish for a while, finally settling, via a brief stab at West Country, on Scottish. And she achieves all of this linguistic wizardry while pouting at the camera and glancing seductively over one shoulder.

The Paradise is owned by the smooth skinned, deeply sexy John Moray (played by Emun Elliott). This character, while looking beautiful and managing to successfully wrangle a single accent, insists, however, on playing every single line with exactly the same intonation, as if having a stab at the script for the first time at a table read.

Much to the horror of her uncle, Moray offers Denise a job, and soon her heaving breast becomes very much a part of the furniture in ladieswear & haberdashery on the first floor. My favourite scene was when Moray stroked Denise's face and told her to have just one hair askew, as nothing in life has any business being perfect. This sensual piece of dialogue has been a favourite of mine ever since I heard it spoken almost word for word the first time, by Peter O'Toole in James Goldman's masterpiece The Lion in Winter.

Enter rich and evil pantomime villain Lord Glendenning (deliciously overplayed by Patrick Malahide). As the audience hiss and boo he places his mouth close to Moray's ear and whispers, "If you break her heart, I shall make it my business… to ruin you!" It is probably also worth mentioning craggy skinned Jonas Franks (played by David Hayman) who appears to be in the series for no reason other than to slowly peer around doors. His is a face I'm sure I will see in my nightmares for many weeks to come. Hopefully his character will be fleshed out in future episodes.

This series has the same chief writer as Lark Rise to Candleford, Bill Gallagher. Like millions of others I am a fan of Lark Rise, which appears, at first sight, to be infinitely better constructed, better written, better acted and better directed.

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Room at the Top (2012– )
8/10
Room at the Top (BBC4)
27 September 2012
The BBC hid Room at the Top on BBC4 last night, condemning it to a tiny, niche audience of less than half a million. They say that this disastrous scheduling is because of a cock-up over the book rights, but I'm guessing the decision may have more to do with poor judgement – because Room at the Top was infinitely better acted and directed than the previous night's clunky, cardboard offering on Primetime BBC1 The Paradise.

Being filled to the brim with steamy sex scenes, the show was also potentially a far more commercial offering for the corporation. OK, it wasn't costume drama, but surely BBC1 can occasionally bring themselves to show content that isn't crammed with powdered wigs, pinched waistlines and stiff collars.

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Based on John Braine's classic "angry young man" 1959 novel, Room at the Top is set in a gritty Northern town and follows gritty Northern Lothario Joe Lampton on his gritty journey from gritty rags to gritty riches. More or less everything in Room at the Top is gritty: The scenery, the people, the pubs, and even some of the women.

Best of all, you can smoke anywhere, all of the time. Not only does Joe have a fag lit in every scene, but he puffs on it about 6 times a second. How the poor man doesn't pass out from nicotine poisoning is beyond me.

As a teenager I loved the first television adaptation of Room at the Top, starring Kenneth Haigh, and I love this series too. Basically, every woman that Joe meets wants to have sex with him, from the flirty young girls at the office, to his frustrated middle-aged landlady. And because Joe is so gritty, they don't just want ordinary sex. They want gritty sex. The kind of sex you have standing up against a wall with your clothes on. The kind of sex you have in the front seat of the car having only recently had sex in the back seat of the car.

Joe's pouting love-interest Jenna-Louise Coleman is Dr Who's new assistant. Nice to know that when the country settles down with the kids on Christmas night to watch her making her debut with the Doctor, all the dads will be thinking, "I saw your tits in Room at the Top." In line with the BBC's policy of employing the same tiny handful of actors over and over again, almost everyone in "Room at the Top" is in something else – meaning that you spend a lot of the time trying to remember which other BBC drama you've recently seen one of the performers in.

Matthew McNulty who plays Joe, and his boss Peter Wight both also had key parts in The Paradise last night. McNulty has also been in Lark Rise to Candleford, Cranford, Garrow's Law, Silent Witness and Silk. I wonder when he last had a holiday. Dear BBC, there's this publication called Spotlight with contact details for thousands and thousands of actors in it. Please, please order a copy.

I have already set my TiVo to record the second part of Room at the Top and I'm looking forward to watching it.
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