The return of the implausibly moreish Borgen

A decade ago the unthinkable happened: a subtitled TV drama about people agreeing with one another went global. On paper it bore the hallmark of a barrel-scraping pitch from Alan Partridge. Somewhere between youth hostelling with Chris Eubank and monkey tennis, he might easily have proposed a new ne plus ultra in implausible entertainment concepts: Danish coalition politics. Yet Borgen caught a thermal and soared. The show took its name (which, correctly pronounced, sounds like a Cockney saying ‘Bolton’) from the so-called fortress in the heart of Copenhagen where state business is conducted. It featured Birgitte Nyborg, a moderate heroine who snuck into Denmark’s highest office through a small centrist

A gentle soap opera with nudity and book chat: Conversations with Friends reviewed

It’s official: television has a new genre. Its features include leisurely half-hour episodes, plenty of literary chat, several scenes set in libraries, not much humour and lots of close-ups of the thoughtful faces of clever young Irish women. It would also have presented a serious dilemma for teenage boys growing up before the internet, in that there’s not a great deal of exciting incident but there is a reliably high quotient of sex. The genre in question is, of course, the Sally Rooney adaptation – which, having laid the groundwork in 2020 with Normal People, has now cemented its new-genre status with Conversations with Friends. Sure enough, the first episode

The nightmare of making films about poets

Television and film are popular mediums. Poetry has never been popular. This is Sam Weller’s father in Pickwick Papers, when he discovers his son writing a valentine, alarmed it might be poetry: Poetry’s unnat’tral; no man ever talked poetry ’cept a beadle on boxin’ day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some o’ them low fellows; never let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. In 1994, I made a short film about Kipling. The director, Tony Cash, a man with a first-class Oxford degree in Russian, objected to a two-second reference to Aristotle’s ‘pity and terror’ in my script. ‘If you mention Aristotle, they [the TV audience] will

The best TV spy drama since Smiley’s People: Apple TV+’s Slow Horses reviewed

How thriller writers must miss the Cold War! Early John le Carré and Len Deighton had it easy when trying to create a convincingly menacing enemy: the Soviets, obviously. But their successors are forced to go through all manner of desperate contortions to generate their bad guy McGuffin. They can’t do Muslims because that’s Islamophobic; they can’t do the Chinese because the entertainment industry (like everywhere) is too in thrall to the CCP. So they end up promoting paper tigers like ‘right-wing extremism’, as Mick Herron does in the first of his Slow Horses series. Herron has been rightly hailed as the new Le Carré. His black-comedy novels about a

Lacks the bite and bracing malevolence of Call My Agent!: Amazon’s Ten Percent reviewed

In theory, it should be a perfect match. John Morton – the man behind the brilliantly assured sitcom W1A which so gleefully skewered the BBC – gets to give us the English version of Call My Agent!: the brilliantly assured French lockdown hit which so gleefully skewered the Parisian showbusiness world. In practice, at least judging from the first two episodes, Ten Percent feels surprisingly uncertain of what kind of programme it wants to be. At first, it looked as if we were in for a straight remake, using the same plots and characters and with the original cast replaced by British lookalikes (except, oddly, that the French agent who

If you’re tired of Netflix’s agendas, turn to BritBox’s new Agatha Christie

Netflix’s share price has collapsed and a major factor, people are saying, is its relentless pushing of agendas. I think I have the solution. Perhaps it should follow the BritBox model and instead of making dramas it feels that audiences ought to like – e.g. the very creepy-sounding He’s Expecting, a Japanese series about a man who gets pregnant – it should instead capitalise on our growing yearning for a lost age of chocolate-box innocence and relative normality. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? is a good example. Written and directed by Hugh Laurie, it’s the kind of Agatha Christie adaptation they don’t make any more: fairly light on discordant, anachronistic

Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge problem

Is Steve Coogan a one trick pony? It’s a question that has dogged the Mancunian actor’s career ever since his preening Partridge flapped into the nation’s affections over thirty years ago. Since then, with a couple of notable exceptions (his turn as Stan Laurel was a triumph), Coogan’s projects have been little more than variations on a theme but without the genius of the source material. No matter how hard the actor tries to shake off his past with glossy Hollywood fodder, his polyester-pullovered alter-ego is never far from the surface.  It’s not just Coogan’s diffident northern twang or the shifty owl-like eyes, it’s the whole essence of the man – Hollywood can doll

How a phone call from Boris inspired me to write Anatomy of a Scandal

News of the Anatomy of a Scandal billboards on Sunset Boulevard sits in my DMs while I shepherd my teens through the preschool chaos. It’s the morning I drive my youngest to school. ‘Have you seen my goggles?’ he calls, while I covertly flick to the Insta app on my phone and see that one of the executive producers of the Netflix show based on my thriller has sent me four messages. My heart trips. I may have written an international bestselling novel developed by the Big Little Lies dream team, but imposter syndrome rages; my default response that I’m about to be found out. Only, there they are: photos

The chief characteristic so far has been nervousness: Chivalry reviewed

Chivalry – written by and starring Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan – is a comedy drama about post-#MeToo Hollywood life. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the show’s chief characteristic so far has been nervousness. Somewhere inside it, you feel, lurks an impulse to really let rip. But if so, Thursday’s first two episodes successfully resisted it. Now and again, we did get some jokes that might just frighten the admittedly neurotic horses of the new Moral Majority. The overall effect, though, was of a game of How Far Can You Go? in which the contestants’ answer was a firm ‘not very’. Still, even this level of unorthodoxy seemed unlikely

How did he even fool the Duke of Edinburgh? Netflix’s Jimmy Savile – A British Horror Story reviewed

The only impersonation I can do is my Jimmy Savile impersonation. This is not uncommon among people of my generation: if you were a child or a teenager in the 1970s and 1980s, Savile was quite possibly the most famous person in your entire world. His show Jim’ll Fix It was the most popular on TV with weekly audiences of 20 million. From Top of the Pops to his endless chat-show appearances promoting his relentless work for charidee, he was excruciatingly ubiquitous. Also, with his long, helmet–shaped, wig-like white hair, his garish tracksuits, bling jewellery and extravagant cigars, his catchphrases (‘Now then, now then’; ‘as it ’appens’) and his distinctive

Netflix vs Apple: which streaming subscription offers best value for money?

Amid rising energy bills, the announcement that Netflix will hike its prices – with its basic package increasing by £1 a month to £6.99 – seemed to pass without too much fuss. But, as the cost of living crisis hits, many households will be looking at which subscriptions to prioritise. But with more of us subscribing to multiple streaming services (thanks, in part, to those spontaneous lockdown purchases) these extra costs have a habit of adding up – until you suddenly find yourself shelling out more than £50 a month on entertainment. All of which begs the obvious question: which streaming service gets you the most bang for your buck? Interestingly

If you want to avoid intrusive anachronisms on TV, you have to go foreign

The iron law of TV these days is that if you want to avoid series that are suffocatingly right-on the only way to go is foreign. Any TV emanating from the Anglosphere is guaranteed to be chock-full of intrusive anachronisms. Bridgerton,which reinvents Regency England as a melting pot of diversity, is an extreme example of this, but even previously immune series have been infected. Season five of The Last Kingdom now has a resident black monk, whose ethnicity no one notices, though such a phenomenon, you might think, would have been considered quite remarkable in 10th-century Wessex. Vikings, too, I gather, has allowed its shield wall to collapse and has

Relentless and shouty: BBC2’s Then Barbara met Alan reviewed

BBC2’s one-off drama Then Barbara Met Alan (Monday) told the true story of how two disabled performers on the cabaret circuit of the 1990s fell in love and campaigned together successfully for disability rights. Most of the cast and a lot of the crew were people with disabilities themselves, and the programme provided a startling reminder of how recently Britain was still a country that made little provision for the disabled – and, even more startlingly, of how controversial the idea of such provision then seemed. The central performances were rivetingly good, and the overall sense was of a heartfelt tribute being paid to a couple who did much to

Unhurried and accomplished whodunit: ITV’s Holding reviewed

A couple of years ago, I happened to read Graham Norton’s third novel Home Stretch. Rather patronisingly, perhaps, I was surprised by how accomplished it was, especially in its sympathetic but melancholy portrait of life in a West Cork village. Yet, judging from ITV’s new adaptation of his first novel Holding, this was something he’d pulled off before – because, here again, it’s pretty clear both why Norton would want to write kindly about the kind of place he grew up in, and why he would have wanted to leave it. Monday’s first episode efficiently established the rural-Irish setting with shots of fields, cows and wind turbines. We then saw

What’ll happen next – or what’s happened so far – is anybody’s guess: The Ipcress File reviewed

ITV’s new version of The Ipcress File began with a close-up of a pair of black-rimmed glasses just like those worn by Michael Caine in the 1965 film. They were then put on by their owner (Joe Cole), thus transforming him into Harry Palmer – but also neatly establishing the kind of show we were in for. Sunday’s first episode did a fine job of setting up an impeccably twisty (i.e. confusing) Cold War plot. It spared no effort in its quest to show us that the Britain of 1963 was on the Brink of Social Change. And yet, neither of these things really got in the way of its

Enthralling and unusual – even if you don’t care about Kanye: Netflix’s Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy reviewed

The most disappointing pop performance I’ve ever seen – and in the course of my 15-odd years as a music critic I saw an awful lot – was Kanye West at Glastonbury in 2015. Perhaps he was making some kind of ironic statement on the nature of celebrity and fan expectation: blinding lights all focused on himself; no attempts to engage with the crowd; relentless, mechanical rapping but with most of the amusing samples and catchy hooks removed, the better to punish us all by ordeal with loud, righteous verbiage. But I still admire this irritating genius hugely because besides making often very addictive albums he refuses to play the

The enduring appeal of Peaky Blinders

What’s the next step for a macho gangland drama that’s already built a fanbase in some 183 countries worldwide? That’s right: a collaboration with one of the highest regarded companies in UK contemporary dance. When it opens in September at Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre, The Redemption of Thomas Shelby – a 20-strong dance production from the South Bank’s Rambert Dance Company – will mark yet another cultural milestone for Peaky Blinders: the BBC’s historic drama about a gang of Brummie ruffians who ran parts of the city between the two world wars. Since it premiered back in 2013, Peaky Blinders has not only gone to conquer Netflix (becoming, according to one analysis, the

Amusing and entertaining – though not very taxing: Amazon Prime’s Reacher reviewed

Jack Reacher is back on the screen and aficionados of the hugely successful Lee Child airport thrillers in which he appears must be hugely relieved. This time he is played not by pint-sized Tom Cruise but by someone much closer to his 6ft 5ins height: a musclebound giant called Alan Ritchson. Not having read any of Child’s 100 million-selling oeuvre (probably because I’m bitterly envious: he’s a Midlands-born ex-media type, like me, but has a slightly larger bank balance), I can’t tell you how true to the original Ritchson is. But he plays him as if he’s on the autistic spectrum — a loner uncomfortable with too much dialogue or

The medical equivalent of The Responder: BBC1’s This is Going to Hurt reviewed

According to the makers, This is Going to Hurt is intended as ‘a love letter to the national health service’. If so, however, it’s certainly not a soppy one. Few non-British people who watch it will, I suspect, find themselves wishing they had an NHS of their own — where the mission statement could easily read: ‘We Aim to Muddle Through Somehow, Despite Everything.’ Adapted by Adam Kay from his own phenomenally successful memoir of life as a junior doctor, the programme opened with Adam (Ben Whishaw) realising he’d slept in. On the plus side, his journey to work wouldn’t take long, given that he’d woken up in his car

Horrifying but gripping: Netflix’s The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman reviewed

It’s 1993 and you’re studying at a top agricultural college with a bright future ahead of you, perhaps in farming or land management, when a chance conversation with a barman all but ruins your life. The barman tells you that he is an agent working for MI5, spying on an IRA cell in college, one of whose members happens to be your flatmate. You might be sceptical but the agent is very persuasive; and besides, someone from your college has indeed just been arrested for supplying bomb-making equipment to the IRA. When the agent warns you that you and your flatmates are in serious danger and must go on the