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Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: Babylon, Suspects, Fleming and The Life of Rock

After mentioning the multitude of crime dramas that were populating our screens in the last instalment, this week we welcomed even more. As well as the superb Line of Duty, which you can read about elsewhere on the site, two other crime dramas debuted this week.

Thankfully Babylon wasn't sticking around for a full series as we were offered a pilot episode ahead of a full run later in the year. Written by Fresh Meat duo Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, Babylon is best described as a drama with satirical elements. Although Babylon featured a few overlapping storylines, its main plot saw American PR guru Liz Garvey (Brit Marling) come over to the UK to work at the Metropolitan Police Department. Her appointment came after the department's Chief Constable Richard Miller (James Nesbitt) saw one of her motivational videos online. Her presence at the office is instantly met with criticism not less from current media relations employee Finn (Bertie Carvel). Elsewhere, the presence of the media within the police department is explored via the use of a TV camermann (Daniel Kaluuya) who is currently riding along with a group of police officers tasked with controlling the crowd at a local rally. One of the officers (Adam Deacon) is portrayed as a bit of a livewire and his colleagues are concerned about the fact he'll soon be training to use weapons. Elsewhere, Officer Warwick (Nick Blood) has just returned from a leave of absence following a serious incident. Though he plays the incident off with his friends, it's clear that Warwick is still traumatised and this fact is later explored throughout the episode. All of these stories begin to collide during a day in which a gunman starts shooting and killing people outside Uxbridge Tube Station. These shootings give Liz her first taste of what it's like working behind the scenes of the Metropolitan Police and how some people will even exploit a tragic incident to further their own careers.

I've always been a massive fan of Bain and Armstrong's work and in particular I appreciate the way in which they make their comedies feel real. So it pains me to admit that I really wasn't a massive fan of Babylon and found it was muddled from the very start. The opening scene, which is played very much as a comedy, is contradicted in later segments especially those concerned with the shootings. Indeed, the trailer made Babylon appear to be The Thick of It for police officers and it used several of the comedic lines to illustrate this point. But, in fact I feel that it's easier to describe Babylon as a drama that had a few moments of comedy, some of which worked and others that didn't. The central problem is that the writers really didn't appear to know what they wanted Babylon to be. At times, especially during the fly-on-the-wall filming scenes, this appeared to be a parody of how the media is increasingly infiltrating every area of society. However, the story concerning the shootings was presented in a deadly serious manner and it appeared sorely out of place in between the sniping and witty banter shared by the characters. Despite this imbalance in the tone of the plot, Babylon did have some positive elements. Liz Garvey was an incredibly well-drawn character and was played with zest by the brilliant Brit Marling. Her confrontations with Bertie Carvel's Finn arguably provided some of Babylon's bright spots and should be better exploited when the show returns for a full series. Danny Boyle's direction was also incredible as he coupled brilliant cinematography with some inventive editing to make Babylon seem like a big-screen action movie. Babylon has already been recommissioned for a full series at some point in the near future, but I feel that Bain and Armstrong need to go back to the drawing board and decide exactly what they want to make. Should Babylon be a parody, a dark comedy or a drama that occasionally makes people laugh? I'm not sure and neither were the writers, which meant that Babylon ultimately felt like a confused mess.


Though it dealt with a police investigation, Channel 5's Suspects was completely different in every other respect. The channel's first homegrown drama commission in eight years focused on a trio of detectives led by DI Martha Bellamy (Fay Ripley). Unlike other cop dramas, we aren't ever given any information about the lead characters and instead all of the focus is on the case of the week. This opening episode presented a particularly harrowing story in which the team were tasked with finding a missing two year old girl who'd seemingly been snatched from her father's house. In keeping with the show's title, Martha's team soon lined up a row of suspects including the girl's alcoholic father, her formerly negligent mother, her bible-bashing grandmother and the former convict who works in the local off-license. On their heels every step of the way are Martha and her team as we see them interview their suspects, survey crime scenes and sprawl over hours' worth of CCTV footage. In a way you have to applaud Channel 5 for doing something different with Suspects and from the visuals alone it looks completely different from the likes of New Tricks and George Gently. The stripped-back style of the filming is coupled with a semi-improvised script meaning the three central performers have to act naturally throughout. This gives Suspects the feel of an observational documentary rather than a drama and that sets it out from the pack. I actually really enjoyed this intense filming style and appreciated the different camera angles we were given throughout the course of the episode. The improvisation did work a treat, though sometimes it did result in the actors struggling to consider what to say next. The major problem for me is that there was nobody to care about or root for, primarily because the producers have seemingly decided not to give any of the police officers a back story to speak off. While this is refreshing, its also frustrating as the episode really hangs together on the strength of the central investigation. I do feel this is a mistake especially considering Suspects is a ten-episode series as viewers tend to return to characters who they have some fondness for. Due to his lack of connection, I have to say that Suspects is a drama that I appreciated rather than actually enjoyed.

Offering something a little bit different was Sky Atlantic's Fleming, a miniseries that has been co-produced with BBC America. The four-part drama follows the adventures of the young Ian Fleming (Dominic Cooper), the man who would later be famous for penning the James Bond stories. Aside from an opening scene in which Fleming desperately types his Bond novel while on holiday in Jamaica, the majority of Fleming is set during World War II. From the outset Fleming is presented as a something of a flippant cad who cares little about the global economy or his own job as a stockbroker. He is seemingly jealous of his more successful brother (Rupert Evans) and an embarrassment to his haughty mother (Lesley Manville). Indeed, his need to get his hands on the first edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf soon gets him in trouble with the authorities. But, rather than arrest him as a traitor, he is given a mission by the navy to work undercover alongside Rear Admiral Godfrey (Samuel West) and First Officer Monday (Anna Chancellor). The other part of the plot looks at his pursuit of the beautiful aristocratic Ann O'Neill (Lara Pulver), a young married woman who catches Fleming's eye the moment he sees her. As we learn at the start of the show, Fleming eventually marries Ann but it appears as if the course of true love never ran smooth. There's no denying that Fleming is incredibly well-filmed and is bolstered by some exquisite period detail. But at the same time it appears as if the writers are trying to put in as many nods to James Bond as humanly possible. There were plenty of Bond references scattered through such as the skiing scene mimicking that of The Spy Who Loved Me to the fact that Godfrey and Monday are blatantly the basis for M and Moneypenny. The characters themselves are incredibly thinly-drawn and even Fleming comes across as a bit of an arrogant snob. That's not to say Dominic Cooper doesn't try to add some suave charm to the role, but I feel that he's swimming against the tide of an underwritten character. Supporting performers Manville, West and Chancellor try to add some life to the show but this is ultimately a great-looking show that has little below the surface.

I do feel I've been awfully negative throughout the course of this instalment, so I'll end with something I particularly enjoyed. The Life of Rock with Brian Pern was the first of many original comedies that will air on BBC4 and definitely was aimed at the channel's key demographic. The Life of Rock was essentially a parody of the music documentaries that populate BBC4 on a Friday night and I feel it got the tone of these shows spot on. Host Brian Pern (Simon Day) is essentially a parody of Peter Gabriel as we're told he 'invented world music' and was the first person to use plasticine in music videos. The first episode looked at the origins of rock music and saw Pern join historian Dan Cruickshank to explore cave paintings relating to the first ever musicians. However, the programme really got going when looking at Pern's own band Thotch and hearing from its two most prominent members Tony Pebble (Nigel Havers) and Pat Quid (Paul Whitehouse). More than anything else, The Life of Rock kept me laughing throughout as Day employed a serious tone which added to the overall feel of the pastiche. His delivery was totally deadpan and I feel that's where the majority of the comedy came from. More obvious laughs were provided by the supporting cast such as Reeves and Mortimer (as folk duo Mulligan and O'Haire) and Matt Lucas (as pretentious music producer Ray Thomas). The programme itself ended with a 'Behind the Scenes' feature which I don't really think worked and appeared to be slotted in to fill time. I did also find that at points the comedy relied on how many of the music references you got, some of which were fairly obscure. But at the end of the day this was an enjoyable parody which felt like a mix of Lucas and Walliams' Rock Profile and The Fast Show. Ultimately, this was a comedy that made me laugh and you sadly don't really get many of those on British television any more.

For more of my views on TV follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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