On Sunday night, Holliday Grainger was on two terrestrial channels at the same time playing a possibly smitten sidekick of a gruff but kindly detective with a beard. Even so, she needn’t worry too much about getting typecast. In BBC1’s Strike, she continued as the immaculately turned-out, London-dwelling Robin, who uses such traditional sleuthing methods as Google searches. On Channel 4, not only was she dressed in rags, with a spectacular facial scar and a weird hairdo, she was also living in an unnamed dystopian city, where her detective work relied on a handy capacity to read minds.
This was the first and highly promising episode of Electric Dreams, which has set itself the ambitious task of adapting ten sci-fi stories by Philip K. Dick, each with a different writer, director and cast. Sunday’s programme opened with a demonstration understandably protesting against a new law that all citizens must have their minds read by the mutants known as Teeps — as in telepathics. Unfortunately for the protestors, a Teep called Honor (Grainger) was already deploying her psychic powers to identify the ringleader for the cops. And once she had, it didn’t take her long to discover either his most shameful secrets or his co-conspirators. Her reward was to be made the assistant to Agent Ross (Richard Madden) in his quest to root out more anti-government, anti-Teep subversives.
At first, it seemed as if the pair had risen above the mutual suspicion between ‘Normals’ and Teeps — who’ve been banished to their own ghetto. The longer the episode went on, though, the less certain this became.
Dick’s stories, written during the Cold War, are already famous for their ability to resonate in any era. And here — without the programme ever stinting on the thrills — the parallels with our anxieties about state and corporate surveillance, the death of privacy and the fear of minorities (justified or otherwise) came across in a way that managed to feel both unignorable and unforced. It was also nicely tricky to work out whose side we were on.
My only slightly sheepish reservation is that the ending was one of those inconclusive ones, where the final revelation — in this case, the real nature of Ross and Honor’s relationship — was left unrevealed. As ever, you could appreciate how smart and grown-up it was to let us make up our own minds. But as ever too, in a less sophisticated part of the mind, there was a definite twinge of disappointment at being left dangling.
The other big new programmes of the week were all sitcoms — which I’ll take in ascending order of quality. On Wednesday, ITV brought us Bad Move, co-written by and starring Jack Dee as a man who’s moved to the countryside with his wife — or at least to that version of the countryside generally found in sitcoms. Cue rude shopkeepers, smug neighbours who announce their visits with a hearty ‘Coo-ee!’ and much anguish about the lack of internet access. The result isn’t wholly terrible, but it is distinctly plodding, as if Dee had given himself a creative writing assignment in which the aim was to reproduce as faithfully as possible all the elements of a bog-standard prime-time sitcom.
Far better, and far more idiosyncratic, is Porters (Dave, Wednesday), a pitch-dark show featuring a group of hospital porters who vary between the unpleasant, the deluded and the psychopathic. Subjects for hilarity on Wednesday ranged from mental illness to a bloke smashing a dead rabbi on the head with a mobile phone.
This is not, then, a programme for those who like their comedy lovable. On the other hand, the plotting is inventive (at times alarmingly so), there are plenty of good lines, and, as in Green Wing, the heartlessness somehow ends up being bracing rather than mean-spirited.
And so to the best of the lot: BBC2’s W1A, now back for a third series. The makers claim that their feelings towards the BBC are a mixture of exasperation and affection — but on Monday, once again, the exasperation was much easier to spot.
We rejoined the BBC management team as they launched a new initiative that requires ‘finding what we do best and doing less of it better’. (Incidentally, in my intermittent experience, the people most depressingly fluent in BBC bollocks are the ones who’ll have been promoted next time you see them.) Meanwhile, the more cutting-edge types have decided that ‘nobody watches television any more’ and that the future lies with ‘BBC Me’, where viewers provide content for the corporation instead of the outmoded other way round.
As usual, enjoying W1A’s pin-sharp, side-of-the-angels satire was undercut by just one thing: the thought that somewhere in the real BBC there’ll be people wondering if all this doesn’t sound like rather a good idea (going forward).