Three reasons why I hardly ever review TV drama: 1) the length, 2) the politics, 3) sheer bloody laziness. I suppose the last one is the main reason but the others aren’t just excuses. It really is too depressing when, three hours into one of those Sunday and Monday two-part dramas, you suddenly realise that you’ve already wasted one evening and you’re about to waste another, but that you can’t bail out now because you’re in too deep — and what if something good and exciting suddenly happens?
Almost all TV drama is too long and the reason for this is that the more screen hours you fill the bigger your commissioning budget. So any ambitious director who wants to make a halfway decent-looking drama has to pad it out till it’s as bloated as a foie gras goose. This, of course, builds up expectations which the dénouement cannot possibly hope to fulfil. Especially not when — as is invariably the case, given the political sympathies of 99.99 per cent of people in TV — the twist turns out to be that the baddie wasn’t after all the innocent black crack dealer or the misunderstood Islamist or the fundamentalist eco-loon but, yes, yet another of those secretly evil, white middle-class males who make our world such a terrifyingly dangerous place.
Anyway, I’ve only seen part one of Blood and Oil (BBC2, Monday) and, though all of the above may yet hold true with part two, I’m enjoying it immensely so far. The set-up simply couldn’t be bettered: a young British telecoms engineer working for an oil company in Port Harcourt is captured by rebels from a militant group called Mend (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta). His wife (Jodhi May) flies out, panic-stricken, till the oil company reassures her that this sort of thing happens all the time. Once the ransom has been (secretly) paid, the hostage will be safely released. Then comes fantastic news: he’s going to be released at dawn tomorrow.
May goes upriver on the boat to meet him, accompanied by a pampered, attractive London PR girl of Nigerian extraction (a superb Naomie Harris) on attachment to the oil company, who thinks it will make the most brilliant photo op. She has a cameraman film young Jodhi as the boat rounds the bend in the river to within sight of where hubby is waiting, ready to capture her anxious face bursting into joy. And she sees...Aaaargh! Three white men, hanging dead by their necks.
For a brief moment you think the Mend rebels must have done it — and yearn for some Arnie-style vengeance. But then you remember how they were portrayed in the opening scene: quite sympathetically, really. A bit trigger-happy, maybe, but the wise-looking old man watching from the shore seemed to approve of them; as did the soundtrack composer Trevor Jones, who merged their war chant into an uplifting score, suggestive of noble causes and battles against oppression and stuff.
Yes, that’s right: all is not what it seems. The baddies may well be goodies; the goodies are probably baddies; there’s a hidden laptop with film of hubby hinting at dark conspiracies; there are witnesses to be tracked down — preferably before they’re killed as some of them are bound to be. It’s a mishmash of every conspiracy cliché you ever loved — Edge of Darkness relocated to the Heart of Darkness — but none the worse for that a) because it’s so beautifully acted (apart from the obviously London-y black actor who can’t quite do the Nigerian accent), b) the fake-location atmosphere (South Africa doubling for Nigeria, for fairly obvious reasons) feels so sweatily authentic and c) conspiracy thrillers are just the best.
Until the annoying, disappointing dénouement, that is. I’m guessing evil white middle-aged men in the pay of Big Oil. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed, just in case.