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Saturday, 24 February 2018

Matt on the Box: Life and Death Row, 24 Hours in Police Custody, Girls on the Edge, Hold the Sunset and Mum

Welcome back once again folks to my weekly column as this time I've decided to do something a bit different and lead with three documentaries that have all been highlights of the past seven days.


I'm kicking off with the latest series of Life and Death Row; a BBC Three documentary strand that has been promoted to prime-time BBC Two for its latest run. Subtitled The Mass Executions, this four-part run looks at the case of eight men who are due to be put death in Arkansas during a ten day period. The primary reason for this run of executions is because one of the drugs used in the process, Midazolam, is running out and, with its makers being uneasy about it being used in conjunction with the death penalty, the Arkansas authorities aren't sure when they're going to be able to obtain the medication again. What I liked about the first episode is the way it presented a ticking clock down to the first double execution of Bruce Ward and Don Davis, whose stories were partly told during this instalment. As Ward has lived in isolation for the past ten years and has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, it was Davis's murder of Jane Daniel almost thirty years ago that had more time dedicated to it. Although we only heard Davis's voice through recordings, we spent time with Jane's daughter Susan who discussed how she's was looking forward to seeing justice finally done after years of seeing her mother's murderer rotting on death row. Counterbalancing this story was that of the third man who was intended to be executed, Stacey Johnson, as we heard from his wife and daughter both of whom were sure he didn't commit the murder he'd been charged with back in 1993. Life and Death Row was more dramatic than a lot of the recent dramas I've seen as the defence attorneys for the prisoners and the representatives of the state attempted to get stays of execution and appeals before the date of Ward and Davis's executions. Furthermore, we spent time with Arkansas's governor Asa Hutchinson who was keen for the executions to go forward, as well as with anti-death penalty protest groups who marched outside his residence. It's clear that these executions were very emotional matters for all involved but the documentary helped unpack the facts and explain why Ward, Davis and Johnson were all facing lethal injections. It also went into detail on the controversy surrounding Midazolam's use in the execution process, something I'd never thought of before. It's a testament to the film-makers that by the end of the episode I was on the edge of my seat to discover what the final verdict would be and am already looking forward to the next episode to witness the fate of both Johnson and the other man set to be executed next.


Staying with the theme of law and order, Monday night saw the return of 24 Hours in Police Custody for its sixth series. Similarly to Life and Death Row, the series six opener featured a ticking clock as the Major Crimes Unit attempted to track down the person responsible for blackmailing a family man who'd visited a prostitute. DS Will Taylor was initially put in charge of the case with the team eventually deciding to get the victim to produce the £1,000 blackmail money in order to catch the perpetrator red-handed. The episode took an unexpected turn about halfway through when the blackmailer was revealed to be Gareth Suffling; a DC who had prior relationships with some of the documentary's regular characters. Many of the staff at Luton Police Station had previously worked with Suffling and had nothing but praise for his work on a prior sex abuse case. As the investigation continued, and the custody clock counted down, the team discovered that Suffling had become disenfranchised with police work and was hoping to become a private investigator. Subsequent evidence suggested that Suffling wanted to use the blackmail money to pay off a loan even though he later claimed in court that he wished to use the cash to help the prostitute involved turn her life around. 24 Hours in Police Custody is one of those documentaries that retains the same formula but delivers in terms of delivering a more dramatic hour than most police procedurals can muster. However, I would've preferred not to have known the twist about the blackmailer being a copper ahead of time, a luxury that the programme information on All4 didn't provide me with. That being said, this was still a compelling story thanks to the likes of Luton Police Station employees DS Will Taylor and DS Tom Hamm both of whom found themselves linked to the case via their relationship with Suffling. One final twist in the tale was the fact the police appealed Suffling's original eighteen month sentence for being two lenient with the appeal doubling his time served to three years. As ever, 24 Hours in Police Custody provided a fascinating snapshot into the daily lives of our detectives and sometimes turns up unexpected stories such as this. Whilst its traditional narrative style wasn't as appealing as the one employed in Life and Death Row, this series six opener was still utterly compelling and showed how the police react when it's one of their own who turns out to be the guilty party.


The third and final documentary on the list is Girls on the Edge; a look at three teenagers dealing with mental health issues all of whom are patients at secure facility Fitzroy House. The documentary's initial focus is Jade; who has been at Fitzroy House for eighteen months and is determined to leave before her upcoming eighteenth birthday. Jade's desperation to leave the facility is based around the fact that she doesn't want to be moved into an adult unit as she feels she'll become more institutionalised if she does so. However, as the film progresses, and we hear Jade's inner thoughts it becomes more likely that she'll eventually have to continue her path into an adult facility. Meanwhile, another Fitzroy House's patients seventeen-year-old Jess is contesting her section but it's clear that of the documentary's three subjects her issues are the most severe. In one of the programme's most memorable moments Jess gets distressed whilst at Fitzroy House's prom and has to be calmed down by staff who use ice cubes to revive her. One of the main take aways from Girls on the Edge was how much travel some families must undertake just to see their loved ones with Jess's family journeying 300 miles every weekend just to visit her. Additionally, I got quite emotional listening to the stories from the families who'd seen their daughters attempt to take their lives, sometimes on multiple occasions. My only major criticism of Girls on the Edge is that I'd wish it'd have been longer, maybe even stretched to two parts as I don't feel we spent enough time with the film's third subject sixteen-year-old Erin. Equally, I would've like to have spent some time with the staff at Fitzroy House who are doing a marvellous job at attempting to get these young girls to think differently about themselves. But those are minor quibbles in a documentary that I found engrossing and one that gave me a real insight into how horrific it must be to attempt to deal with these sorts of issues at such a young age. It was also incredible heartening to see that all three girls were on the path to recovery with Erin's release having been documented in the programme. I feel that this is the sort of documentary that the BBC should be producing more often and is one that will stick with me over the coming months.


For something a bit lighter I turned to BBC One on Sunday night as the channel aired a brand new sitcom in the form of Hold the Sunset; a show that had been primarily promoted as John Cleese's big return to TV. Cleese stars as Phil; a slightly crotchety gent who has been in a relationship with his neighbour Edith (Alison Steadman) for several years after their respective partners passed away. The opening of the episode sees Phil attempt to propose marriage to Edith who eventually accepts this along with his offer to move to sunnier climes. However, their future happiness is halted by the arrival of Edith's son Roger (Jason Watkins) who has left his wife to move back into his childhood home and quickly regresses into a childlike state. Later, Roger's wife Wendy (Rosie Cavaliero) arrives at Edith's to confront her husband, however her kindly exterior frustrates her mother-in-law who quickly snaps at her. So, begins the start of a six-week journey where Roger will no doubt get angry about Phil's relationship with his mother and will probably attempt to sabotage it. For a sitcom that was promoted as Cleese's return to the BBC, he has very little to do here once the plot kicks in and Roger arrives back. Phil is presented as somewhat of a stick-in-the-mud but one that stands back and lets the drama unfold rather than doing anything about it himself. Cleese's chemistry with Steadman isn't strong enough to make me believe that the pair have known each other for decades and want to spend their twilight years together. The stand-out performance in Hold the Sunset comes from Jason Watkins who provided the sitcom's only laugh-out-loud moments, however Roger is such a petulant character that it's hard to sympathise with him. Similarly, Rosie Cavaliero's Wendy should be a sympathetic character, but she's painted as such a passive woman that you feel Edith's frustration towards her. Charles McKeown, who's best known for his work with Terry Gilliam, crafts rather obvious comedy situations which feel very tired by 2018 standards. This is best exemplified by the closing set piece which sees Roger getting stuck in the shed window whilst trying to escape an awkward confrontation with Wendy. Hold the Sunset reminds me of David Jason's The Royal Bodyguard, as both were created as star vehicles for comedy legends and both have fallen flat at the first hurdle. Despite a fine comic turn from the always-reliable Watkins, Hold the Sunset failed to make me laugh or sympathise with the characters, so suffice to say I won't be tuning in again.


Although completely different in terms of quality,  Stefan Golaszewski's Mum shares similarities with Hold the Sunset as both feature women-of-a-certain age trying to balance relationships with their sons with the idea of new romances with men they've known for years. Now in its second year, Mum reunites us with Cathy (Lesley Manville) on her sixtieth birthday as her family prepare to take out for a carvery at a local pub. Golaszewski quickly reunites us with all of the series' main players most notably Cathy's dimwit son Jason (Sam Swainsbury) and his ditzy girlfriend Kelly (Lisa McGrillis) who surprise her with a collection of banners and balloons adorning the house which inform the neighbours of her age. What I love so much about Mum is the small conversations that Golaszewski is so brilliant at crafting including Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson), the partner of Cathy's brother Derek (Ross Boatman), asking her about what a carvery involves. Snobbish Pauline is a brilliant creation and her trying to figure out what the three types of potatoes served at Cathy's birthday dinner provides one of many hilarious moments. Also on hand to celebrate Cathy's 60th is Michael (Peter Mullan); one of her late husband Dave's best friends and someone who is clearly besotted with her. The last series of Mum built up to Michael and Cathy holding hands, and it appears that this series will focus on whether these long-time friends will begin a romantic relationship. However, it appears as if Michael is still reticent about whether he will reveal his true feelings for Cathy especially as Jason doesn't seem to be his biggest fan. The other big storyline throughout this series appears to be Jason and Kelly's search for a new flat and the fact that this will result in Cathy living alone. The brilliant thing about Mum is that it's set over a year meaning that Golaszewski can create realistic reasons why the main characters would be in Cathy's house all at once. It also allows the central stories to move along quite quickly with the audience having to fill in the gaps of what's happened to the characters since the last episode. Although not up there with some of the best episodes of series one, the series two opener of Mum still had some funny moments whilst also setting out the big stories that will populate the next five weeks. Manville continues to be brilliant in the lead role whilst Mullan's subtle performance as Michael is beautifully realised and Atkinson steals almost every scene she's in as the ghastly Pauline. Overall, Mum is a well-observed and brilliantly written series and I'm so glad that a third series has already been announced as I just love spending time with these characters.

Once again thanks for reading and I'll be back again next week with another mixed bag of TV highlights.

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