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Friday, 20 May 2016

Matt on the Box: The Eurovision Song Contest, Love Nina, Going Forward, Louis Theroux: A Different Brain and Undercover

Welcome to another week of TV highlights and an instalment which offers up one of the most mixed bags that we've ever had.


We kick off with what I personally consider to be one of the biggest TV highlights of the year, I'm talking of course about The Eurovision Song Contest. I'm personally a big fan of Eurovision and am not ashamed to admit that I also viewed the semi-finals on BBC Four ahead of Saturday's final. This gave me a good perspective of what to expect from the main show and that I should probably steer clear of watching the screen when Georgia's strobe-tastic performance occurred in fear that I may suffer an epileptic seizure. I do admire the United Kingdom's hope going in to the contest each year as we're always optimistic that we're going to succeed despite not winning in almost two decades. This year's entry 'You're Not Alone' was a pleasant enough tune sung by Joe and Jake who were both participants on The Voice UK last year. The biggest problem with our entry was that there was no real thought put into the staging of the song on a night where so many acts go out of their way to put on a big show. Joe and Jake's other problem was the fact that they lacked a certain charisma another strong aspect that a lot of their other competitors possessed. So by the time we got to our entry, which was pretty late on in the evening, I think the voters at home had already seen enough to make up their minds on who they wanted to win. The presumed winner of the show was Russia's Sergey Lazarev who combined a rather catchy number with a computer-screen heavy production which saw him literally walk up the wall. According to the experts, Sergy's only competition was Australia's 'Sound of Silence', a pleasant enough ballad from a country who many thought shouldn't be in the competition to begin with. However a surprise hit on the night was the Ukrainian entry '1944' performed and written by former opera singer Jamala and based on her grandmother's extradition from the Crimea during Stalin's reign in Russia. Obviously the politics behind the song angered some countries in particular but on the night the crowd in the room seemed to really take to it. If you're interested my favourite numbers of the evening were those that evoked memories of 1990s dance hits such as Belgium's 'What's the Pressure' and Malta's 'Walk on Water' although I also had a soft spot for Austria's lovingly old school entry 'Loin d'ici'. On the other hand I do have to question why our juries gave twelve points to the aforementioned blinding Georgian entry although I do have inkling to why our top phone votes went to the acts from Lithuania, Poland and Bulgaria.



Unusually for a Eurovision Song Contest, it was the other bits of the telecast rather than the singing itself that was more memorable for me. From the opening fashion show-style introduction of the acts it was clear that the Swedish team behind the event were going to go all out to impress. That was especially evident during the interval, a time usually reserved during my watching of the show for loo breaks and drink top-ups. However the spoof Eurovision song 'Love Love, Peace Peace' performed by last year's winner Måns Zelmerlö and his co-host for the evening Petra Mede was both spectacularly staged and brilliantly written. Måns and Petra also managed to overshine the star of that evening's show Justin Timberlake, who was the first global superstar ever to make an appearance at the event. Although initially he seemed pleased to be there it appeared as if JT was phoning it in especially during a performance of his new single 'Can't Stop the Feeling' which was very underwhelming indeed. More fun was provided by a supercut of the history of Swedish music as well as an appearance from Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi who probably performed the funniest ever scene that we'll ever see from ITV sitcom Vicious. This year's voting system had also changed significantly with representatives from each country only reading out the jury votes before the hosts revealed how each act had scored in the televotes. Although we were never going to win the show, it seemed hopes were high for the UK especially after garnering a score of twelve points from the Maltese jury. Whilst at the top of the table it seemed like a slam dunk for Australia who gained at least eight points from almost every jury. However the phone votes spelt out a very different story indeed and sadly for the UK it was an early shower as Joe and Jake only managed to get support from three different nations on the night. Meanwhile the Polish act, who languished in last place after the phone votes, managed to jump up the table after getting the fourth most phone votes of any nation. However it was at the top of the table where everything changed as Ukraine's Jamala ended up on top after coming second in both the jury and telephone votes leaving favourites Australia and Russia in second and third place respectively. This definitely jazzed up what is usually the most boring part of the song contest and I've got an inkling that the voting procedure will continue this way until the audience become sick of it. In my opinion this was one of the most enjoyable Eurovisions in a long while which jazzed up by a fun interval act and a tense final vote. However the highlight of the evening had to be Graham Norton's classy tribute to a man that is synonymous with the contest; the late Terry Wogan. Norton getting the whole country to raise a glass to Wogan was a lovely touch and enhanced what was already a fun TV broadcast.


Moving away from Stockholm we travel back to the 1980s for BBC One's new comedy drama Love, Nina. Set in 1982, Love, Nina is based on the real life letters that Nina Stibbe sent home to her sister which have been adapted here by Nick Hornby. The first episode is structured around one of these letters as we hear Nina (Faye Marsay) tell her sister about the failure she experience after being interviewed to be the potential childminder to two young boys. The interview is shown in all its awkwardness as Nina meets her two new charges Max and Joe (Harry Webster and Ethan Rouse) as well as their mother literary review editor George (Helena Bonham Carter). After initially being turned down for the job Nina is hired five months later when the original childminder quits her job with her reasons being revealed later on. From there Love, Nina becomes a series of connected interludes as the boys argue about nuclear war, George finds out about one of her neighbours having a certain type of disease and Nina's cooking is constantly being criticised by haughty Scottish neighbour Malcolm (Jason Watkins). Hornby also seems to be shoeing in some sort of love interest for Nina in the form of the cutest boy in the neighbourhood who already thinks our heroine is a bit of an idiot. But this first episode is firmly set around Nina being the northern outsider in a community full of soppy, slightly irritating southerners and therefore I could sympathise with her situation to an extent. Love, Nina is quite a breezy affair with Hornby keeping up the pace of the programme so no one scene outstays its welcome. However this is both a blessing and a curse as everything that happens in Love, Nina feels quite anecdotal and there's no real memorable scenes in this opening thirty minutes. Another issue I have with the show is that it's really hard to define what it wants to be and at first glance it seems to be another new comedy especially seeing as it's been awarded the slot directly following Have I Got News For You? However I wouldn't categorise Love, Nina as a comedy nor is it a drama therefore it lies somewhere in that grey area of the dreaded dramedy. The one element of Love, Nina that I enjoyed and which may make me stick around for the second episode is the central performance of Faye Marsay. She brings a bit of substance to the role of Nina that may be lacking in the script and her likeability and forthrightness makes you sympathise with the protagonist even more. Great support is provided by both Jason Watkins and Helena Bonham Carter the latter of whom offers a surprisingly toned down turn as George. Ultimately I can't say I wasn't a little disappointed by Love, Nina, especially considering that Hornby was involved, as I found it to be an underwhelming show that was hard to define and was only saved by a great central turn from Marsay.


Moving on to another programme that could just about qualify in being a comedy we having Going Foward, the sequel to the brilliantly downbeat sitcom Getting On. Jo Brand returns as former nurse Kim Wilde, who has now left the NHS and is currently working as a carer for the fictional Buccaneer 2000. Going Forward, which is set over three consecutive days, also follows the rest of the Wilde family most notably Kim's husband Dave (Omid Djalili) who works as a driver for a private hire company. The majority of this first episode, which is co-written by Brand and Getting On producer Geoff Atkinson, splits its time equally between watching Kim at work and seeing Dave's rather inane conversations with his colleague Terry (Tom Davis). Going Foward also introduces us to the Wilde children; teenage father Max (Ben Colbert) and high achieving schoolgirl Kelly (Imogen Byron), neither of whom have a lot to do in this first episode. Whilst I wasn't expecting Going Forward ever to live up to the standard of the flawless Getting On I wasn't expecting to be as disappointed as I was. I think  the problem with having the character of Kim anchoring this series is that she sort of the straight man of the central trio in Getting On. Having her headline the show means that the more overt comedy has to be provided elsewhere as it was in Getting On thanks to Jo Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine's performances. However the characters of Den and Pippa are essentially replaced by Dave and Terry who are two men that I didn't really care for all that much. Their conversations about former colleagues who've done well and the positives of working in Iraq weren't that funny and outstayed their welcome very quickly. Atkinson and Brand also weren't sure if they wanted Going Forward to continue in the same observational vein as Getting On or being a more out-and-out sitcom. This a led to a very awkward scene in which Kim, Dave and Max were squeezed into his work car with one of his clients alongside one of her regulars and his dog. This scene typified to me everything that was wrong with Going Forward; a programme that did have moments of genuine promise. Most of these moments were those which saw Kim caring for the older patients and were those that were the most reminiscent of Getting On. For example the scene in which Kim helped one old lady write a birthday card for her son was both realistic and incredibly touching. Brand is also on form once again as a performer however I found her and Atkinson's writing a little inconsistent which was the main problem with Going Forward. That being said I will be going forward with Going Forward primarily due to my love of both Jo Brand and the character of Kim Wilde.


Moving to something altogether more serious now with another programme from one of my favourite documentarians; Louis Theroux: A Different Brain. Following on from his extremely powerful programme about alcoholism his second, and at this time final, show from the UK looks at how brain traumas change people. Primarily concentrating on patients in specialist units in Leeds and Liverpool, Louis once again found several sympathetic subjects all of whom had a different story to tell. There was Earl who, since suffering an injury in a car accident he caused, has had an entirely different personality and struggles to connect with his mother Patricia. Then there's Natalie, who has been on the unit for fifteen years after taking an overdose of insulin that resulted in serious brain damage. A slightly different story was told via Dan, a man who had been living on the unit but desperately wanted his own independence. Every time Louis met with Dan we could feel his frustration and despite getting a job volunteering at a rescue centre couldn't prove to the staff that he'd be better off on his own. But the most poignant story was that of Rob and Amanda, the latter of whom suffered a brain injury after falling from a horse. After some time in a unit in Devon, the couple were reunited at their home albeit with Amanda now living in an annex at their home. Every time Louis went to visit the couple it appeared as if Amanda wasn't willing to fit into family life once again as her Rob didn't have a marriage any more whilst her relationship with their two young sons was frosty at best. Throughout the documentary the narrative was clear, brain injuries change people and affect relationships with loved ones in one way or another. One thing Louis did do was prove how much life there was still in these people with Rob and Earl both seemingly living quite normal lives despite their circumstances. Even Natalie showed glimpses of the woman she was before and there was a lovely little scene in which her family celebrate her birthday in Wales. Just like he did in Drinking to Oblivion, I felt Louis got more involved in the action than he used to do in his America-based documentaries. This was most evident to me in a scene in which Earl was attacking Patricia after entering his family kitchen and seeing her in tears whilst talking to Louis. Earl's outburst was quashed by Louis who identified the root of the young man's anger and even got him to apologise to his mother. It's small scenes like this that make me upset that we won't be seeing any more UK-based documentaries featuring Louis for the time being. Both Drinking to Oblivion and A Different Brain were excellent pieces of TV and I'm hoping whatever Louis does next can be as memorable and thought-provoking as his last two outings.


Also airing on Sunday night at the same time as Louis Theroux was the final episode of a drama that has proved incredibly divisive especially during this concluding chapter. I'm talking of Peter Moffat's legal thriller Undercover, which ended its run with a very frustrating final act that did little to explain things to an audience who'd invested six hours in the drama. The biggest mystery at the heart of Undercover was why the shady organisation that was employing undercover cop Nick (Adrian Lester) to spy on his wife Maya (Sophie Okonedo) was so interesting in her in the first place. Unfortunately this, along with certain other questions that the series had posed, wasn't answered leading me to believe that Moffat is confident that he'll be awarded a second run. Another issue I had with Undercover was the fact that the story was divided into two parts with Nick's investigation of Maya's involvement in the murder of Michael Antwi feeling totally separated from her defence of death row inmate Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert). The highlight of this final episode was Maya's speech to the Supreme Court which was both superbly written by Moffat and excellently played by Okonedo. However elsewhere the drama left a lot to be desired with one piece of the plot involving the couple's autistic son Dan (Daniel Ezra) being particular far-fetched. The final sequence in which the entire Johnson family discovered that Nick wasn't who he said he was felt like it could've been done several episodes ago as could the cliffhanger in which Maya asked her husband what his actual name was. During Undercover's six episode run I've felt the drama has definitely had more hits than misses and it genuinely felt it was heading somewhere exciting. But in not revealing what the cover-up was in aid of, especially seeing that involved some high ranking government officials, I think that Moffat angered several members of the audience including yours truly. The highlights of Undercover have definitely been the performances of Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester who've both tried their hardest to make the series as memorable as possible. But I feel this last chapter has let it down even though it's provided the only real talking points of a series that's lacked any sort of social media buzz. Whilst I wasn't a fan of this episode I would like to see a second series of Undercover but unfortunately I don't think this is on the cards due to mediocre ratings and a lack of critical buzz. This is a shame as I still feel that Moffat is one of our most talented TV writers and combined with this fantastic cast I think Undercover really could've taken off given a second run that I sadly feel will never materialise.

That's your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you soon.

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