Matt on the Box: The Secret Agent, Eden, Child Genius, Man Down, Friday Night Dinner and Fleabag

by | Jul 24, 2016 | All, Reviews

Well the summer’s finally here and we’re still in a bit of slow period for TV however there have been some highlights with Channel Four being the frontrunner when it comes to airing new and returning programming.

But the highlight of the last fortnight has been the debut of BBC One’s new three-part adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. Beginning on Sunday night, The Secret Agent centres on Verloc (Toby Jones), the proprietor of a seedy sex shop in Soho who also works for the Russian embassy informing on the members of an anarchist group that he himself is a part of. Although Verloc’s wife Winnie (Vicky McClure) is aware of his participation in the group she doesn’t know about him secretly spying on his comrades. Things take a turn for the worse when a new head of the embassy Vladimir (David Dawson) comes along and feels that Verloc isn’t doing enough to justify being on the payroll. Rather than just preventing explosions before they happen, Vladimir wants Verloc to send a message by blowing up the Greenwich Observatory and threatens to expose his status as a secret agent if he doesn’t go through with it. Verloc soon enlists the help of an explosives expert simply known as The Professor (Ian Hart) with his plan although he is unsure whether or not he can trust him. Also on the trail of Verloc’s anarchist group is Inspector Heat (Stephen Graham); who is charged with bringing an end to the gang and will obviously try to thwart the imminent explosion. However Heat’s mission hasn’t got off to the greatest start especially after learning that The Professor carries a bomb underneath his jacket. Away from dealing with his life as a secret agent, Verloc also has issues as home as he’s taken on the role of guardian to his mentally handicapped brother-in-law Stevie (Charlie Hamblett) who needs the type of care that he really isn’t around to provide. Following the relocation of Stevie and Winnie’s mother, it seems that Verloc may be using his brother-in-law as part of his plan. Meanwhile there’s more problems with his marriage when we learn that another younger, more attractive member of the anarchist group is sniffing around Winnie although for some reason she’s loyal to her much older husband.

As someone who is unaware of the story of The Secret Agent I was unaware of what I was in store for and in some ways I was glad of that. Adapting Conrad’s story, Tony Marchant let the story play out slowly over time and I felt for the most part he did this rather skilfully. Although at points I thought that there was a little bit too much exposition at times, especially when Inspector Heat was introducing us to the anarchist group, on the whole the actions of the characters spoke for themselves. As you can imagine for a Sunday night period drama, The Secret Agent looks fantastic and I felt at times like I was immersed in the world of Verloc’s seedy shop with its small back rooms perfect for clandestine meetings. Possibly the best element of The Secret Agent though is the cast most notably Toby Jones who is particularly brilliant in the role of Verloc. I feel that Verloc is the role Jones was meant to play as his diminutive stature and slightly nervous energy lends itself brilliantly to the part. Jones also brings a believability to every role he plays and therefore you totally buy into Verloc’s life as a double agent and fear for him now he has to go ahead with the explosion. The other great performance in this first episode came from Ian Hart as the unpredictably dangerous The Professor who was in almost every one of the opener’s best scenes. Hart’s interactions with both Jones and later with Stephen Graham’s Heat were absolutely magnificent and these were the moments that I sat up and fully paid attention to the drama. If there’s one member of the cast who I feel is a little bit wasted then it’s Vicky McClure who deserves better than simply being the stereotypical wife character who has to mind the shop whilst Verloc is off doing his spying. After watching McClure’s brilliantly physical performance in the Line of Duty finale I felt sad seeing her here being given very little to do. I’m hoping that at some point Winnie gets to join in the action as at the moment the character’s plots involving her simple brother and the unwanted attention she’s being given both feel like the drama’s weakest elements. Additionally I found that this first episode ended abruptly and it felt almost as if Marchant didn’t really know where to put the breaks in the story in order to turn into a three-part series. However this is a minor quibble about what I found to be a very involving and grown-up piece of espionage drama and I’m already looking forward to seeing what’s next from Verloc and his group of anarchists.

This week Channel 4 unveiled their new big reality TV experiment show Eden, a programme which should appease those who are nostalgic for the days of the early series of Big Brother. As well incorporating elements of BB, Eden also has touches of The Island, Shipwrecked and BBC One’s original 2000 version of Castaway. The show sees twenty-three strangers travel to a remote area in the highlands of Scotland where they have to live off the land and learn to live with each other. Each member of the Eden team has been chosen due to a certain skill they possess so we have a carpenter, a chef, a couple of doctors, a vet, a fisherman and emm.. a yoga instructor and a life coach. Additionally, just like with The Island, four members of the group are embedded crew and are on hand to capture the emotions of the group when the obligatory fix rigged cameras fail to pick them up. With the group moving to their camp back in March, this first episode documented their first few weeks as they got to know each other and the production team tried to decide which characters they really wanted to focus on. This episode primarily focused on adventurer Anton, who had previously completed several solo missions, and was now struggling to fit into a group situation. Despite it only being March when the group arrive, Anton has already decided that he wants to build a winter shelter for himself with his perceived selfishness rubbing off on some of the other members of the group. Carpenter Raphael, who was one of the elder members of the group, was also shown as a man of very little words who hated the group meetings that the team were taking part in as he just wanted to build what needed to be built. As with all of the aforementioned survival programmes, Eden has all the scenes you would expect with the group achieving a number of small successes but failing to recognise what they needed to do long term. That again was one of the problems I had with Eden is that it didn’t really add anything new to the shows we’ve already seen like this other than the fact that the group will be in their new habitat for a year. Furthermore in picking out volunteers for their skills rather than their entertainment value the team behind Eden have ended up with a group of weak characters. There are attempts throughout this first episode to vilify Anton but I did agree with a lot of what he had to say and sympathised with him as I would’ve been frustrated with the younger members of the camp too. One thing that I was wondering about was how Channel 4 were going to air this, as the group will be in Eden till next March so one show a week don’t seem feasible. Whatever the structure will be I do feel that the audience will quickly go off Eden as it seems to contain very little action due to its lack of characters. Ultimately this was a programme the likes of which we’ve seen countless times before and it had very little new to say about living off the land or trying to survive in the wild.

Channel 4 had much more success with their returning shows particularly the wonderful Child Genius which returned to our screens a couple of weeks ago. It’s mainly business as usual for Britain’s brightest eight to twelve-year-olds as they compete in an ultra-tough contest organised by Mensa. The one new element introduced this year is the presence of Richard Osman as the new quizmaster who is on hand to encourage the youngsters who have a thirst for knowledge. I was sceptical when I heard of Osman’s appointment as I felt that having a famous face involved would spoil what was a quite a quaint format. However I needn’t have worried as Osman doesn’t feature that much out of the quiz arena and the few interview segments he does appear in each episode help to break up the action. The success of the prior series of Child Genius have been in identifying two or three children who have fantastic back stories and then coming back to them throughout the competition. This year is no exception with the fantastic Mog being one of the featured candidates due primarily to the fact that his knowledge base is absolutely brilliant and at the moment he’s the favourite to win. Unlike previous favourites in the competition Mog also seems to be quite a pleasant young man and in the last episode congratulated one of the eliminated kids on getting as far as he did in the contest. Additionally the show’s focus is on the pushy parents behind the competitors in Child Genius which is where Sophia comes in as her mother is in line for the title of pushiest parent. Sophia’s mother acts as her manager in her various endeavours such as her ice skating in which she pairs with her brother who himself is a former Child Genius competitor. Then there’s Christopher whose father Simon has studied the previous Child Genius series for tips on how his son can succeed in the contest. However so far Simon’s tips haven’t helped curb Christopher’s nerves and both episodes have seen him barely escape elimination which just goes to show that you can’t prepare for something as daunting as Child Genius. Although I do feel at times that the programme ridicules a couple of the kids’ parents I believe Child Genius works best as a celebration of the knowledge that some of our young people have. The presence of Osman adds an extra dimension as he also on hand to praise the ability of the children and so he should as the questions they’re asked would stump even some of the brainiest grown-ups.

Moving on to a couple of returning Channel 4 sitcoms with the past fortnight ushering in the returns of both Man Down and Friday Night Dinner. Man Down catches up with sad sack teacher Dan (Greg Davies) as he finally comes to the realisation that maybe he’s chosen the wrong profession. By the end of the first episode, which saw Dan try to break into the school to destroy his personal file, he’d handed in his resignation which suggested to me that the sitcom may be covering new ground. This can only be a good thing as I’d found Man Down had been stuck in a rut for a while now so seeing Dan trying to pursue alternate career opportunities will at least give Davies and co-writer Mike Wozniak something new to work with. Tony Robinson as Dan’s mum’s new beau Daddy, short for Deadalus, who has already made it known that he isn’t a fan of the protagonist’s attitude towards the older ladies in his life. Meanwhile it was mainly business as usual on Friday Night Dinner with more calamity for the family who just can’t seem to have a quite meal together. This week’s comedy of errors saw Paul Ritter’s fantastic patriarch invite round his old uni friend to dinner however it later became clear that he’d got mixed up the two Tonys that he went to university with. Instead of inviting round the guy who he had a lot in common with he was lumbered with Jason Watkins’ unfunny bore whom he tried to get rid of by telling a rather whopping lie. Just like prior episodes of the sitcom, this episode of Friday Night Dinner played out like a mini-farce which ended with a big gag that I for one didn’t find in the least bit amusing. In my opinion Friday Night Dinner is at its best when we just see the family engage in witty interplay as I feel the core cast have developed some fine chemistry over the past four series. However it’s when events get too far-fetched that Friday Night Dinner loses its way and after watching the series four opener it feels that Robert Popper’s comedy has run out of ideas. The problem with Friday Night Dinner is that the entire premise shackles the characters to the same setting every episode meaning that Popper has to find increasingly outlandish things to happen to the family which just don’t ring true. That being said I did find humour in both Man Down and Friday Night Dinner although in my opinion of the two it’s Greg Davies’ sitcom that still has some mileage in it. But it’s good to see that Channel 4 clearly has faith in its comedy department which is evidenced by the fact that the likes of Friday Night Dinner and Man Down keep getting recomissioned.

Finally we have some new comedy in the form of the latest offering from BBC Three who this week debuted Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag on their online service. Fleabag has been adapted from Waller-Bridge’s one-woman show and it’s clear from the first episode that the writer/star has been given free reign over the script. From what I can gather, Waller-Bridge’s titular character is a cafe-owner with an on/off relationship with her boyfriend Harry (Hugh Skinner) and enjoys various one-night stands with characters who are simply described in the end credits as Bus W***er and A**hole Guy. You can tell that Fleabag was adapted from a one-woman show as it has a fairly free-form structure with large portions of the first episode featuring Waller-Bridge addressing the audience head-on. I’m never a fan of programmes in which characters break the fourth wall as to me it just feels like an easy way of introducing characters without having to write scenes of expositional dialogue. The majority of reviews I’ve read of Fleabag have been quite positive so I must be in the minority as I didn’t find it particularly funny and there weren’t any characters who I wanted to spend my time with. The highly sexualised tone of Fleabag reminded me of another BBC Three comedy, Pulling, but whereas Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly made you care about the trio of ladies at the centre of their sitcom I was never sympathetic towards Fleabag’s dilemmas. Although I’m sure some people will identify with the woes Fleabag was going through throughout the first episode I didn’t find anything to laugh about. In fact the funniest moment in my opinion came when Fleabag watched a man getting out all of his electrical equipment from his bag without ordering anything from her cafe. I also didn’t rate Waller-Bridge as a lead and in fact preferred her previous series Crashing where she appeared as part of an ensemble rather than the out-and-out lead. Several big names featured in cameo roles obviously to attract the casual audience but even the likes of Olivia Colman and Hugh Dennis couldn’t save what I found to be a rather boring thirty minutes. What I personally judge any sitcom on is whether I want to spend time with these characters and I have to say I’ve already had my fill of Fleabag after only thirty minutes in her company. Whilst I would like new sitcoms on BBC Three to strive I just found Fleabag to be crude, unfunny and lacking any characters who I either cared for or believed in.

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

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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