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Saturday, 6 January 2018

Matt on the Box: McMafia, Girlfriends, Derry Girls, Inside No.9, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong and Grandpa's Great Escape

So, after that festive instalment I'm hopefully back full time casting a wry glance over the week's TV highlight and offering my always irrelevant insight. This week we bridge the gap between Christmas and New Year as I look at the big new shows that the main channels feel will start 2018 off with a bang.


BBC One have released the big guns early by airing episodes one and two of McMafia on the first couple of days of the New Year. Based on the non-fiction book by Misha Glenny, the drama focuses on Alex Godman (James Norton) a City fund manager whose parents were both exiled from Russia several decades earlier. Now living in London, Alex's father Dmitri (Alexey Serbryakov) is still pining for his motherland whilst his uncle Boris (David Dencik) is intent on getting revenge on the man who was originally responsible for the Godman's exile. We see this revenge enacted in arguably McMafia's most exciting sequence as a car bomb is strapped to the vehicle of Vadim (Merab Nindize) and explodes in the episode's opening minutes. Later, Alex's finds himself under scrutiny after a rumour is made about his fund losing money which may force him to partner up with one of his rivals. Alex is then introduced to a rather shady Israeli politician Semiyon Kleiman (David Strathairn) who wants to use his financial expertise to launder money inside his organisation. However, when Alex discovers that Boris is responsible for starting the rumour he goes to confront his uncle only to witness his grisly murder at the hands of Vadim's goons. Boris' assassination was the only other part of the episode that made me sit up and pay attention to the action as Alex found himself cornered in his uncle's house. Luckily, he was able to get out with his life and in the final third of the episode he agrees to team up with Kleiman in order to avenge his family's honour and as the title suggests becomes an unlikely participant in the shady world of organised crime.


It's clear that the BBC are hoping that they've found a replacement for The Night Manager with McMafia and to an extent they do share some similar features. Both feature normal chaps being thrust into the criminal underworld and both feature some rather glamorous international locations but that's where the comparisons end. One of the biggest issues that McMafia has is the lead performance from James Norton who appears to be sleepwalking through most of the episode. Whilst Alex is supposed to be the down-to-earth protagonist in a world of Russian emigrants and charismatic gangsters; Norton's performance didn't really give me much of a reason to care about him. In fact, at times, Norton looked visibly bored as he listened to paragraphs of exposition delivered by the other characters around him. David Strathairn at least tried to inject some personality into the character of Kleiman but I felt he was wrong for the character and in fact would've been better suited playing a character working against the Godman family than one of their allies. In my opinion, the only actor who injected personality into their character was Top of the Lake's David Dencik so it was a shame when his character was killed off halfway through the episode. However, the performances aren't McMafia's only issue as I found James Watkins' direction to be quite static and, despite the glamorous locations, a lot of the drama felt quite cheap. Meanwhile, Watkins and Hossein Amini's adaptation of Glenny's book was littered with exposition and was full of scenes set in London's financial sector that I found extremely dull. Maybe I'm being a bit too harsh judging McMafia from its opener alone but it's odd for a drama to start with a whimper before developing into something more substantial. Although I'm sure some will disagree with me, I found McMafia to ultimately be a disappointing drama that didn't give me any strong reason to stick around for another seven episodes.


This week's other big drama was brought to us in the form of GirlfriendsKay Mellor's first ITV drama series since 2006's Strictly Confidential. The drama begins with meeting the three girlfriends of the title; happily-married Linda (Phyllis Logan), career-driven magazine features editor Sue (Miranda Richardson) and put-upon lollipop lady Gail (Zoe Wanamaker); who is in the midst of her second divorce. The drama begins with Linda and her husband Micky (Steve Evets) enjoying a cruise holiday that has been engineered by their two children (Chris Fountain and Daisy Head) both of whom are employees on the liner. However, the evening soon ends in tragedy when Micky goes missing and is presumed to have fallen into the sea from his cabin. Although the body is never found, a memorial service is held for Micky which both Linda and Sue are getting ready to attend. It appears as if Sue hasn't kept in touch with her two oldest friends primarily as she's attempting to stay young to garner the favour of her boss and the father of her son John (Anthony Head). However, when John decides to replace her as features editor she realises she has very little in her life especially as the lease on her flat is in his name. Meanwhile, it appears as if Gail's divorce to husband Dave (Adrian Rawlins) has been caused by her constantly doting on her careless son Tom (Matthew Lewis). Coupled with that Gail also must deal with looking after her elderly mother and help in the upbringing of Tom's son Ben. It was quite clear from this first episode that the circumstances in the lead characters' personal lives and in particular their dire financial situations would push them back together which just happened to be the case. In fact, by the final scene, Sue has not only moved in with Linda but was sharing a bed with her although the latter had more problems to deal with when a stranger turned up at her door with a strange accusation.


In the past I've not been a massive fan of Mellor's dramas as I feel she goes too far in creating an interesting backstory or personality trait for not only her protagonists but for the second characters as well. To an extent this is true of Girlfriends, with Sue's son Andrew (Philip Cumbus) having a secret boyfriend whilst Tom has just been released from jail despite his mother claiming that he'd been selling timeshares in Thailand. There was also a certain predictability to some of the storylines for example I knew when Tom was fitted with an electronic tag that he'd been arrested for breaking curfew by the end of the episode and similarly I'd figured out Andrew was gay after Sue's line about wanting to plan a wedding for him. However, at its heart, Girlfriends has a lot to say about growing old and how, even as you reach sixty, life can change when you least expect it. Mellor certainly made two members of the central trio feel believable from the opening scene with Gail's predicaments feeling like something a lot of women her age have to suffer with. Whilst, although Micky's disappearance was a bit far-fetched, Linda's subsequent realisation that he'd been reckless with their finances rang true. It was only Sue who I initially struggled with partially as I felt Miranda Richardson's over-the-top performance wasn't in keeping with the more down-to-earth turns from Phyllis Logan and Zoe Wanamaker. However, I warmed to Sue in Girlfriends' final act when she properly reunited with Linda and Gail, with the trio voicing their regrets and looking forward to the future. One element that I liked about Girlfriends was that Logan, Richardson and Wanamaker had a great chemistry and were believable as old friends which is crucial to the authenticity of the plot. Whilst I still find Mellor's storytelling over-the-top at times, I thought the characterisation of the three leads in Girlfriends made it into a drama that I found to be an enjoyable watch. Moreover, with characters who seemingly have plenty of stories to tell, I can see Girlfriends doing well in the ratings and turning into the sort of successful drama series that ITV desperately needs.


Another set of female friends made their TV debut this week in the first instalment of Lisa McGee's semi-autobiographical sitcom Derry Girls. Set in the early 1990's, the series focuses on Erin (Saoirse Jackson); an aspiring author whose inner most thoughts are communicated via her diary. One of my favourite gags in the entire episode came early on when we heard an exert from Erin's diary only to learn it was her younger cousin Orla (Louisa Harland) who was reading it out loud. Completing the gang are pious Claire (Nicola Coughlan); who is participating in a 24-hour fast in this opening instalment and foul-mouthed troublemaker Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell). One of the big plot points in episode one is the introduction of Michelle's English cousin James who has become the first ever male pupil at the quartet's all girls school as they feared that he would've been beaten up had he attended a neighbouring boys school. Whilst there were elements of Derry Girls that I enjoyed, I found the humour to be quite basic in some places especially in one specific set piece. The most interesting piece element of the comedy is the historical backdrop and I felt that part of the plot was handled quite well. McGee makes it quite clear that the girls are used to having their bus ride diverted by bomb threats and seeing armed soldiers on a daily basis. As a child of the 1990's, I enjoyed the nostalgic references to Macaulay Culkin and Murder She Wrote as well as the period soundtrack. The parts of the first episode that I enjoyed was the interactions between Erin and her parents (Tommy Tiernan and Tara Lynne O'Neill) as this is where the dialogue felt more realistic. However, the dialogue between the girls didn't have the same ring of truth about it and at times felt quite cliched. The punchlines to the central gags were quite obvious with James complaints about the lack of boys' toilets ending with him relieving himself in a bin while Claire broke her fast by chewing on the sandwich of a recently deceased nun. As I think it's quite harsh to judge a sitcom by its first episode alone, especially as this opener was only 22 minutes long, I'm think I'm at least going to watch Derry Girls' second episode before I dismiss it entirely. This is due to the glimpses of promise I saw in the family scenes as well as the references to the early-1990's which appeal to someone like me who grew up during that time.


A different type of comedy was provided by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith as Inside No.9 returned for its fourth series this week. The anthology nature of the series allows the duo to experiment with different styles and in the opening instalment, entitled Zanzibar, they've decided to tackle Shakespearean farce. Set in the ninth floor of the titular hotel, we're introduced to a group of guests who participate in various room swaps and cases of mistaken identity throughout the half hour running time. Based on A Comedy of Errors, one of the Bard's plays that I'm unfamiliar with, the crucial part of the plot sees Rory Kinnear take on dual roles; a powerful prince and a man about to propose to his disinterested girlfriend. Throughout the piece we're also introduced to the prince's devious bodyguard (Shearsmith), an amnesiac pensioner and her camp son (Marcia Warren and Pemberton), a suicidal Scotsman (Bill Paterson), an open-minded call girl (Tanya Franks) as well as a flippant stage hypnotist (Kevin Eldon). Providing key exposition throughout the piece are the Zanzibar's bellboy (Jaygaan Ayeh) and his chambermaid girlfriend (Helen Monks) who help to participate in the confusion. I personally thought the decision to perform all of Zanzibar in iambic pentameter would get annoying quickly but instead I relaxed into the flow and ultimately felt like the decision paid off. After the initial set-up, the gags began to flow, and I found myself laughing out loud at least three times throughout the piece thanks mainly to the quick-witted nature of the dialogue and the comic timing of the ensemble cast. Praise must go to Warren for portraying a doddery old dear who takes on a thankless task and to Kinnear for convincingly playing two very different characters. Furthermore, I felt that both Eldon and Franks shone in smaller yet vital roles and Ayeh held his own against many more established comic players. Zanzibar put me in mind of prior Inside No. 9 openers Sardines and Couchette; which also took place in a confined setting and were full of big laughs rather than moments of subtlety. However, whilst both of those instalments ended with a rather dark denouement, Zanzibar contained a rare happy ending that you won't find in many Inside No. 9 episodes. Whilst I enjoyed the experimental nature of the episode and found it kept my attention, I prefer when Pemberton and Shearsmith go a little darker with their material therefore I'm looking forward to seeing what awaits me in coming weeks as the fourth series of Inside No. 9 continues.


Whilst some of this week's programmes signalled the start of the New Year, I still have a few hangovers from Christmas to cover. The most obvious example of one of these shows is A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong which is The Mischief Theatre Company's follow-up to their first TV special Peter Pan Goes Wrong which aired last year. The set-up for this special sees the fictional Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to get themselves back on the BBC but hijacking a live dramatisation of A Christmas Carol starring Derek Jacobi as Scrooge. Taking over the role of Scrooge is Chris (Henry Shields) who sees himself as slightly better than the rest of the group and feels himself superior to Robert (Henry Lewis) who also wanted the leading role. The feud between Chris and Robert, with the former's assertion that he'd only give up the role of Scrooge if he were incapacitated is the basis of one of the show's running gags. Another brilliant joke is that Jonathan (Greg Tannahill) has once again forgotten all his words and so his lines have to be written on various props during his portrayal of Bob Cratchitt. Alongside Jacobi, the other famous face in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong is Diana Rigg who agrees to narrate the play as her niece Sandra (Charlie Russell) is one of the players. We also learn, via footage from a party that is accidentally played over the green screen software, that Charlie is going to dump her boyfriend Max (Dave Hearn) once the production is over and later at the same party we see her smooching Chris. Just like last year's offering, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong is a brilliant farce where the jokes come thick and fast thanks to props malfunctioning and actors forced into playing other roles. I personally thought that the show was one of the funniest comedies of the years and I found myself laughing consistently throughout the piece. One element of the show that I didn't feel was needed was laughter from a studio audience as it took away from the authenticity of this being a live performance of A Christmas Carol that had been hijacked. Furthermore, I felt at times that the story was a little rushed and given another ten or so minutes the Mischief Theatre Company could have provided even more laughs. But these are minor quibbles for a show that I believe should have had much more of a prominent position in the festive schedules. After two strong specials I hope that we get to see the Cornley Polytechnic invade our screens every December and I'd like to see these shows become a permanent fixture of the Christmas schedules.


Talking of permanent fixtures of the festive schedules, New Year's Day saw the fifth BBC adaptation of a David Walliams children book in the form of Grandpa's Great Escape. Set in the 1980's, the hour-long film was told from the perspective of Jack (Kit Connor) who had a strong bond with his grandfather (Tom Courtenay); a former spitfire pilot in World War II. The rather episodic tale saw Grandpa's battles with Alzheimer's Disease as he was eventually forced to move in with Jack much to the chagrin of his parents (Walliams and Samantha Spiro). After an incident at the British War Museum, Jack's parents decide to put Grandpa in the ominous Twilight Towers Retirement Home run by the totally corrupt Miss Dandy (Jennifer Saunders). As the title of the piece suggests, soon we see Grandpa leading an escape mission from the home, which Dandy runs as essentially a prison camp, before Jack realises that his hero may actually be in a worse condition than he actually thought. The final few minutes of Grandpa's Great Escape stretched credibility somewhat, but the final takedown of Miss Dandy and her cronies was well-executed. I've been a fan of these Walliams adaptations in the part, particularly Mr Stink and The Boy in the Dress, so I was disappointed to find Grandpa's Great Escape quite underwhelming. Whilst I appreciate I'm not the key audience for this type of programme, I still usually find myself getting caught up in the story but unfortunately this didn't happen here. I feel part of the reason for this is that the story took too long to get the Twilight Towers home and some of the earlier scenes felt a little stretched. There was also a repetitive nature to the plot, possibly that will appeal to younger viewers, that made Grandpa's Great Escape a frustrating watch. Furthermore, I expected more from Tom Courtenay whose performance here wasn't as great as it could have been apart from in the scenes where he portrayed Grandpa's battles with dementia. In fairness, he did have believable chemistry with Kit Connor; a young actor who did his best to anchor the entire film. Meanwhile, Jennifer Saunders put in a scenery-chewing turn as the antagonistic Miss Dandy and Walliams himself was unimpressive as Jack's father. In my opinion, it was Samantha Spiro as Jack's Avon lady mother who had the most fun with her role and I personally would've liked to have seen her on screen more often. Whilst younger viewers may have enjoyed Grandpa's Great Escape, I can't say the same which was disappointing as it was one part of the festive schedules that I was rather looking forward to.

Something I can look forward to is the first full week of 2018 which will include two big new dramas as well as plenty of weekend entertainment to keep me busy in my next column which is when I'll speak to you guys next. Until then thanks for reading the article and I'll see you soon.

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