Burn Up, BBC2

by | Jul 26, 2008 | All, Reviews

Did we like it?

An updating of the myth of St George of the Dragon, that was in turn gripping, dull and absurd but ultimately thrilling, even if in questioning the dubious ethics of the global community it was itself guilty of propagating a suspect morality.

What was good about it?

• The two male leads – Rupert Penry-Jones as naïve oil boss Tom and Bradley Whitford as cynical, expedient murderer Mac – and they had to be as Tom was as probable as a maths teacher made from toffee, while Mac had fewer facets than a shard of cardboard.

• Penry-Jones made Tom believable as a character, and despite his myriad flaws made you care about him. The problem with Tom was that for someone in his late-30s who has rapidly ascended to the throne of one of the world’s biggest oil companies he was about as naïve as Father Dougal McGuire.

• Sure, he had been well drilled in his impunity to the bleating of the green brigade, but he wilted when exposed to the torment of people’s suffering, instigated by the self-immolation of Inuit woman Mika and some scientific evidence from an old mentor. In this world, and perhaps in reality, oil bosses aren’t human, they had that burnt out of them long ago, and once his learned ignorance of green ideology was breached Tom wasn’t saved from a compassionate response by the moral vacuum which existed within the chest cavity of his contemporaries.

• But this was Penry-Jones’ triumph, he conquered these inconsistencies enabling the story to crack along so you cared far more about his voyage of discovery than you did about his anomalous, malleable ethics.

• Whitford had a similar struggle with Mack. For pretty much two-and-a-half-hours he was little more than a rapacious automaton who was setting was jammed on ‘thwart non-capitalists’. In the best tradition of villains, Whitford made you dread his appearance; whenever there was a glimmer of salvation, Mack would grimace irascibly and send an underling with a scrap of paper upon which was scrawled some slanderous or coercive missive that discredited scientists or threatened doom on little countries who dared to stand up to America.

• But essentially, he was the devil sitting on the shoulder of Tom urging him to adhere to his oily roots (Holly was the angel on the other shoulder), and this hampered him as a character as he had no background, no explicit motivation (except an unconvincing plea to Tom that the US welcomed global warming as it weakened their competitors “last man standing”, and Tom pointed out the stupidity of this philosophy).

• But one of the few traits Mack possessed was put to brilliant effect (and perhaps justified his role as a cipher) when he pledged to pass on the world-economy nuking data, that Tom was carrying, to the green brigade. His loyalty to his country was compromised by his loyalty to his best friend, and this also made sense of his futile efforts to save his nemesis and Tom’s lover, the prickly Holly, from her doom at the hands of his shadowy superiors.

• A superior supporting cast featuring the underused Marc Warren as British diplomat Phillip, Neve Campbell as the allegorical representation of the green brigade, Holly and David Calder as Sir Mark, Tom’s predecessor.

• Oddly, for a drama centred on oil, when oil was out of sight and mind Burn Up was at its best. While it had all the hallmarks of furtive exchanges, government sponsored assassinations of typical thrillers the way in which the data that Masud had smuggled out of Saudi Arabia was kept out of reach until quite near the end ensure that the tension was always high outside the dull conferences and economic verbiage.

• And there were also a number of more subtle scenes in which the plot was propelled intelligently, such as when Tom explained Mika’s suicide to his young daughter and diluted it stripping it free of facts and context, which was parallel to the way in which governments reported the gravity of climate change with parties complicit to the catastrophe trying to distil everything down to the general population suffering because lack of energy will damn humanity to take a few steps back to a more socialist era.

• Another pleasing moment was when the inert efforts of the politicians aiming to get the US and China to sign up to ‘Kyoto 2’ was only kick-started when a US insurance conglomerate fretted about the damage to its profits and share prices caused by the climate change symptoms of the flooding of New Orleans. So rather than altruism, hope was enacted through the concerns of capitalists – and that such a decision lay in the hands of a few uber-wealthy moguls rather than the wider population.

What was bad about it?

• Despite appearing in almost every scene, Rupert Penry-Jones was relegated to third billing behind the American duo of Bradley Whitford and Neve Campbell. And Tom’s otherwise impeccable middle-class English accent was stained by his pronunciation of “proz-ess” rather than pro-sess”.

• Oil is incredibly dull and writer Simon Beaufoy deserves credit for assembling a decent drama about such a cerebrally crippling subject. Watching the dreary exposition on the state of the world’s oil was almost as vexing as watching those puff-chested entrepreneurs and smirking economists sermonising about the credit crunch safe in the knowledge that even in the worst case scenario they’ll lose only one of their 63 houses.

• Objectively, the plot was a liberals’ wet dream. America was the dragon that must be slain; everyone wanted them to sign to ‘Kyoto 2’ – the delegates at the conference in Canada, the protestors gathered in the street and probably the man on the moon – all the evidence for global warming was delivered by dignified scientists or despairing native peoples, while the bogus substantiation against further emissions cuts was secreted between golf playing buddies.

• The worst part was during the climactic conference where America’s refusal to sign up brought forth a chorus of jeers and slow handclaps so monstrously risible we thought we’d changed channel to Jeremy Kyle.

• The mix of fact and fiction were uneasy bedfellows. The way in which actual evidence of climate change –melting ice caps, rising temperatures, hurricanes – was segued seamlessly into the narrative of Burn Up – Professor Langham’s research on methane in the North Pole, the oil running dry in Saudi Arabia – was done so as if to blur such fiction into fact, and casting a shadow over the morality of the drama. A similar technique is used in newspapers to make readers, for example, associate immigration with crime and homosexuality with paedophilia.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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