Matt on the Box: Undercover, Marcella, The Durrells, The People Next Door and Drive

by | Apr 8, 2016 | All, Reviews

Another week has passed in TV land and that means its time for another look back at the biggest shows that have graced our screens in the last seven days.

In my opinion we’ve been a little spoilt this week as a number of new dramas have begun their new runs and we start with BBC One’s latest offering Undercover. Undercover is written by Peter Moffat who previously brought us one of my favourite dramas of the last few years, legal saga Silk. Undercover does have a few similarities with Silk in that one of its lead characters is a pioneering female lawyer who loves to champion the underdog. Whilst not quite up there with the brilliant Martha Costello, Maya Cobbina (Sophie Okonedo) is still a complex character who has been fighting for black rights most of her life. For the past twenty years she has been fighting for the release of American prisoner Rudy Jones (Dennis Haysbert) who was falsely accused of the murder of a prominent politician. The first episode begins with the day of Rudy’s execution and focuses on Maya’s last minute attempt to organise another appeal. After she’s unsuccessful in her attempt, Maya believes her relationship with Rudy has come to an end until she discovers that the administration of his lethal injection has been botched and rushes to save him once again. Although I found this first half of Undercover’s opener quite compelling, I was more intrigued about what happened in the second half of the episode. This is because the drama switched its focus to Maya’s husband Nick (Adrian Lester) who up to this point had simply been waiting at home for news of his wife. Nick was presented as an even more complex character than his wife as we saw him remove his wedding ring before going to visit his terminally ill father. The drama also flashed back to show when Maya and Nick first met which was the same time when young black rights activist Michael Antwi (Sope Dirisu) was killed. Whilst Maya has been fighting for justice for Michael ever since, Nick knows more about the event than he’s letting on. The final sequence saw Maya try to decide whether she wanted to the first black Director of Public Prosecutions whilst at the same time following Nick as we saw him return to his role as an undercover police officer. 

Even though this twist wasn’t as big as the ones that have been served up by dramas such as Line of Duty, the final moments of Undercover’s first episode at least changed the dynamic of Nick and Maya’s relationship. Moffat appears to suggest that Maya had no prior knowledge of her husband’s career and therefore the revelation that he was working for the police when they first met will evidently put a strain on their marriage. Moffat also presents us with several opening questions such as why did Nick remove his wedding ring before visiting his father and what exactly did happen to Michael Antwi. Inevitably for a first episode there was a lot of establishment to get through so I don’t feel we got to spend as much time with Nick and Maya’s three children as I would’ve liked. In fact the only one of the three that we really know anything about is the couple’s son Daniel (Dan Johnson) who suffers from severe learning difficulties. Additionally there were a couple of clichéd moments during the first episode such as Nick’s dog going missing only to be returned by a sinister looking figure and later Maya’s uncertainty about entering her house only to discover that her family were throwing her a surprise birthday party. However these small issues can be overlooked when the majority of the episode was so compelling with both the scenes leading up to Rudy’s execution and those in which we learnt about Nick’s past. Furthermore I like how Undercover sees Moffat tackle the subject of race and at the moment I feel he’s only just scratched the surface of what will happen in future episodes if Maya does indeed decide to take up the DPP job. Aside from Moffat’s script, Undercover’s other key positives are the two stunning lead performances from Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester. Okonedo really shines during the opening twenty minutes or so as we see Maya campaigning for the human rights of Rudy especially after his execution is botched. Okonedo brings a passion to the character of Maya and as a result its easy to sympathise with her and the people she campaigns for. However I think that Lester gave the better performance of the pair as Nick was much more of a multi-layered character, allowing the actor to explore different sides of the undercover cop. Every time he was on screen I felt that Lester was absolutely spellbinding and it was hard not to invest in Nick’s dilemmas thanks in part to the actor’s fine performance. Although it’s not perfect, Undercover does have a lot going for it and has presented me with plenty of reasons to keep tuning in over the next five episodes. The performances from Lester and Okonedo were great and the story was gripping from the outset but more than anything else it’s just great to see Moffat doing what he does best; creating grown-up, thought-provoking drama.

I felt this week’s other big new drama, ITV’s Marcella, would be presented in a way to Undercover and be as thought-provoking as its BBC rival. On paper Marcella should definitely been one of this year’s best dramas as it comes from The Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt and has a rather impressive cast. Unfortunately I feel some of what Rosenfeldt wanted to bring to his drama got lost in translation and what was offered up was a dark crime drama that didn’t quite have the depth I was looking for from the master of Nordic noir. Leading the cast of the show is Anna Friel as the titular Marcella Backland, pronounced with a ch rather than a c, who is a former detective who left the force following the birth of her second child. As you would expect, Marcella is soon lured back to the force after a visit from DI Rav Sangha (Ray Panthaki) who wants her advice on a case she worked on back in the 1990s. The case in question involved the murder of several young women who were asphyxiated and found with their hands tied behind their back. The case has now been reopened with one of Marcella’s old colleagues (Nina Sosanya) overseeing the discovery of two new bodies. It’s not long at all until Marcella is back on the job however for some reason Rav has it out for her almost instantly and keeps giving her rather menial jobs. As well as focusing on the case itself Marcella also looks at our protagonist’s relationship with her husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock) who at the beginning of the episode informs his wife that he no longer loves her. This sees Marcella go on a quest for vengeance of sorts, keying his car and later blacking out in the middle of attacking him. Any signs that Marcella was written by Rosenfeldt are found not in the crime story but in the fact that other plots are occurring at the same time. One of these stories involves the family building firm which Jason works for and in particular his romantic relationship with his boss’ daughter Grace (Maeve Dermody). Additionally we are given the story of a young webcam girl Cara (Florence Pugh) who is prone to both bouts of violence and petty crime.

As Marcella is an eight-part drama I’m not going to judge it too harshly at this early stage as one of the things that Rosenfeldt is best known for is knowing how to pace a story well. However what I can say about Marcella is nothing in it really grabbed me and if I didn’t know who was behind the drama then I would’ve simply described it as rather a clichéd ITV police drama. There are hints that Marcella is something more than just a police procedural though most notably in its exploration of the central character herself. One of the most interesting scenes in the entire episode occurred during the fight Marcella had with Jason in which she blacked out and came round not knowing what exactly had happened. This scene bore a great similarity to the one that aired both at the start and end of the episode in which Marcella emerged from a bath not quite sure where she was or how she got there. Unfortunately this is the only interesting thing about Marcella who isn’t the most sympathetic character in the world and often comes across as antisocial and violent. Whilst the anti-social aspect worked for Rosendfelt’s most famous creation Saga Noren we were at least given a reason why The Bridge’s heroine acted that way. I do feel the main problem with Marcella is that, even though some of the characters are interesting, I don’t really have any emotional investment in them. The cast don’t help matters very much as a few of the primary players are guilty of giving rather large performances that lack the subtlety needed to make a drama like Marcella work. I was particularly disappointed with Anna Friel, whose work I’d previously rated, as she did little to make me care about her character. The looks of disdain on Marcella’s face throughout the programme didn’t endear me to her to the extent that I didn’t blame Jason for leaving her. Sinead Cusack gave a rather theatrical turn as Jason’s boss Sylvie although, unlike Friel, I did find her very watchable. In my opinion the two best performances came from members of the supporting cast namely Maeve Dermody as the sultry Grace and Florence Pugh as the intriguing Cara. Whilst it’s early days at this point, Marcella’s first episode didn’t do a lot to convince me that this was something worth sticking with. I do feel it’s my love of Rosenfeldt’s previous work that’s making me give Marcella the benefit of the doubt at this stage. However if next week’s episode fails to win me over then I’ll probably give up on Marcella as so far it just hasn’t lived up to the high standards I expected from the man who brought us Saga Noren and Martin Rodhe.

For those who prefer their drama served without a side order of grit, ITV has you covered with a gentler offering for Sunday nights. The Durrells is an adaptation of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy; memoirs on how he and his family moved from their Bournemouth home to a ramshackle house on the Greek island. The focus of most of the drama is on Louisa Durrell (Keeley Hawes) the family’s widowed matriarch and guardian of four unruly children. Her oldest Larry (Josh O’Connor) is a frustrated novelist, her second son Leslie (Callum Woodhouse) is obsessed by guns and her only daughter Margo (Daisy Waterstone) is beginning to discover the inequality between the two sexes. Rounding off the brood is Gerald (Milo Parker), the writer of the novels and a lover of the animal kingdom which is a fact that sometimes gets him in trouble at school. With every member of the family in a rut in England, Louisa makes the rash decision to relocate in the hope of a better life for everyone. It’s not long before everyone is finding their groove in Corfu whether its Larry’s completion of his short story or Leslie’s new love everybody seems to have found what they need in their new house in the sun. Simon Nye, who has adapted Durrell’s original novels, has distilled the essence of the books perfectly combining elements of both comedy and drama to great effect. By focusing on Louisa, Nye has a protagonist who is incredibly sympathetic but at the same time is a strong, independent woman who rejects her children’s attempts to find her a new husband. The younger Durrells don’t feel like they’re as fully developed characters as their mother however I think that Nye has plenty of stories for them coming up. What The Durrells does having going for it is a fantastic performance from Keeley Hawes who adds another string to her bow here as Louisa. Hawes types into the feisty side of her personality whilst at the same time giving an accurate depiction of what it was like to be a lonely housewife in the 1930s. Of the younger cast I feel that Milo Parker was a superb choice to play the young Gerry as he brings a lot of enthusiasm needed to perfectly encapsulate the role. The only thing puzzling me about The Durrells is its scheduling as it feels like a piece of drama that is perfect for a bit of winter escapism due to its fantastic sunny locations and easy-to-follow plot. But despite it being on after the clocks have gone forward I still think there’s a lot to like about a drama that may be a little twee but still contains a fun well-paced script and a fantastic central turn from its leading lady.

Channel 4 also presented us with a new drama although at times The People Next Door wanted you to believe that it was more of a documentary. The one-off piece came from writer Ben Chanan who’d previously penned Blackout and Cyberbully with The People Next Door having a similar tone. The focus of the drama was on young couple Gemma and Richard (Joanna Horton and Karl Davies) who have just moved into their new home in preparation of becoming parents. Chanan doesn’t wait too long though before letting us know that Gemma and Richard are going to have no end of bother with their new neighbours. In fact we soon learn that it doesn’t end well as The People Next Door is mainly told via flashbacks as both Gemma and Richard are interviewed by the police. The reason they’re interviewed doesn’t become clear at first especially when it seems as if their rowing neighbours are in the wrong. However things change when the youngest son of their neighbours briefly appears in their house with Gemma beginning to worry that the child is being abused. Trying to prove her point, Gemma is able to bring a nanny cam into the house next door after giving it as a present to her neighbour. But inevitably things soon take a turn for the worst and the neighbours press changes against both Richard and Gemma. Just like with his previous two Channel 4 films, Chanan presents The People Next Door in a unique fashion with the entire piece being presented through found footage. The majority of the action is seen through the cameras that Gemma has set up in the house whilst the scenes in the police station are all filmed from the point-of-view of the cameras in the interview rooms. I feel the found footage element of The People Next Door makes it feel almost like a horror movie with Chanan making us doubt the screams and smacks that Gemma feels that she’s hearing. The fact that her pregnancy is giving her paranoia is a theme that’s explored throughout and is a rather interesting one with Chanan keeping the audience guessing until the very last scene. The performances from Horton and Davis were absolutely great with the former particularly impressing as a woman who feels there’s great injustice going on next door and wants to stop it. In fact there was very little wrong with The People Next Door and the last scene in particular left me on edge. Based on the evidence here and in his previous two films I’ll be very interested to see what Chanan comes up with next as he is one of the most innovative writer/directors working in TV today.

Finally from the sublime to the ridiculous we switch back to ITV for their latest celebrity-based reality show Drive. Drive essentially sees eight famous faces drive around a course in various vehicles each week before one is voted out. To be fair to ITV the level of celeb is pretty high here with contemporary music stars Professor Green and Elle Eyre joining the likes of Angus Deyton, Louis Walsh and Johnny Vegas on the track. In fact the only one of the eight that I didn’t particularly recognise was Laura Tobin who apparently presents the weather on ITV. The general theme of Drive seems to be that these famous faces get to play around in various vehicles for days on end before occasionally racing against each other in order to make the TV show make sense. This first episode centred round bumper racing and it was clear that Colin Jackson and Professor Green were the ones to watch whilst Louis Walsh could barely drive let alone have his car rammed into. In my opinion the only interesting part of the episode came with these first two bumper races in which Jackson and Green both had problems whilst Vegas and Eyre won and earned a spot in next week show. I felt the second third of the episode was cobbled together as the remaining six competitors were chained together and forced to compete once again. In the end it was Jackson and Walsh who ended up competing in the dreaded night race which host Vernon Kay had been promoting all night. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the epic finale that I’d believed it to be and instead both competitors seemed to have no problems completing the course with the hopeless Walsh doing the best he’d done all episode. As a celebrity-led programme Drive neither boasted the charm of Sugar Free Farm or the weirdness and danger of Bear Grylls: Mission Survive. It wasn’t even in the same so-bad-its-good-category that contains the likes of Flockstars but instead Drive was just very dull. The trash talk between the celebs before the races felt forced and the races themselves got very repetitive very quickly. In fact the most entertaining portion of the first episode involved Louis Walsh grinning his way through the show and trying his best to actually get his car out of first gear. But with Walsh gone after one episode there seems very little reason to keep watching Drive and I’m guessing I’m not the only person who’ll be giving up on this tedious show after watching what happened in week one.

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

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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