‘Riviera is the new Night Manager,’ I read somewhere. No, it’s not. Riviera (Sky Atlantic, Thursday) is the new Eldorado — except, unlike the doomed early 1990s soap opera in which Tony Holland attempted to recreate the success of EastEnders on the Costa del Sol, it has at least been glamorously relocated to Nice, Monaco, New York etc.
The settings are the best thing about it. Those Mediterranean palaces with sun-bleached brick-red plaster and bougainvillea and shimmery blue pools and the sun-loungers arranged just so by invisible but discreetly attentive staff: we’ve most of us had the experience at some time or another, either because we’ve lucked out and been invited by an uber-plutocrat friend or, more likely, because we’ve paid through the nose for a weekend at one of the myriad hotels that now specialise in recreating that Onassis in the 1970s experience.
And when we’ve had it we’ve all thought to ourselves, ‘Yes. This is it. This is exactly how my life is going to be when I win the lottery/write my bestseller/cash in my small hedge fund.’ Then we’ve gone home and realised, ‘Actually, no, my life is shite and always will be.’ So watching a series about tanned women with sunglasses who’ve never had to work and men with linen suits, Ferraris and Vertu mobile phones becomes our next best thing.
Which is fine if all you want Riviera for is the equivalent of that computer screensaver of all the pretty tall islands coming out of the water, as featured in that James Bond movie. But not if you want anything resembling an exciting, involving plot with credible dialogue and interesting characters.
Sky drama can do better than this. It knows it can because it made the brilliant Mad Dogs, a series where the rich man’s villa in a gorgeous bit of Mallorca wasn’t an end in itself but merely the MacGuffin for a white-knuckle ride of paranoia, panic, fear, betrayal and violence.
This one, on the other hand, feels like it was sketched out on a napkin after too many Bellinis at a U2 promo party on some friendly oligarch’s superyacht. As perhaps it was. It’s ‘based on an idea by Paul McGuinness’ (he’s their ex-manager) but despite the script input of two of the Murphia’s leading literati, Neil (Crying Game) Jordan and John (he won the Booker Prize, remember?) Banville, its dialogue and plotting are barely a notch above the kind of Mexican soaps they used to satirise on The Fast Show.
McGuinness must have been very taken with a conversation he appears to have had once with someone somewhere who told him that ‘fine art is the last unregulated market’, because the phrase crops up again and again, sometimes voiced by a fraud-squad investigator, sometimes when it needs to be explained to the recently widowed heroine/ingenue (Julia Stiles, who, like all the cast, deserves better than this) as she begins to discover just how in deep she got when she married a mysterious billionaire banker in the south of France.
This art connection is also used to give the series a turd-polished veneer of sophistication, with its knowing references to Malevich (every oligarch wants one, apparently; he’s just great!) and its cod-learned disquisitions on Claude Lorrain’s ‘Juno Confiding Io to the Care of Argus’. But we’re not fooled. We’re just thinking, can they get on with it and deliver Night Manager II, with maybe a bit less of Le Carré’s evasive, dishonest, sub-Edward Said version of Middle Eastern politics, this time, if you don’t mind, thanks, but with lots more of Elizabeth Debicki in the bath.
Tell you what was much more exciting: Wife Swap: Brexit Special (Channel 4, Thursday), which pitted a couple from Canvey Island with Cross of St George bunting fluttering outside their council-estate home and one from a boutique farm in Nottinghamshire, where the man had an accent like Mellors’s but looked and dressed like Bryan Ferry, and a German-born wife (or, more likely, ‘partner’) who worked as a psychotherapist and Green party campaigner. Can you guess which was for Leave and which was for Remain?
It’s not often I’d accuse Channel 4 of right-wing bias but here the Remoaners — more specifically, the ghastly German woman and her even ghastlier right-on, disapproving friends who wanted to pin racism on anyone who didn’t share their narrow, bigoted views — came off so badly and the salt-of-the-earth Essex types so well that it felt like a political broadcast on behalf of Nigel Farage.
I’m not a Remoaner myself, you may have inferred, but if I were, and I’d seen that programme, I would definitely have retired to my study afterwards with a bottle of whisky and my service pistol. Well, I would, obviously, if Remoaners were ever capable of doing the decent thing, which, unfortunately, by definition, they never can.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.