The South Bank Show- Jed Mercurio (Sky Arts 2019) A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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With fortuitous timing, later on the same evening that BBC1 scored the largest television audience this year when 9.1 million tuned into the Series 5 “Line Of Duty” finale, Sky Arts opened its new series of “The South Bank Show” with a profile of writer Jed Mercurio in conversation with Melvyn Bragg.

I haven’t watched “The South Bank Show” for years, certainly not since it was revitalised on the Sky Arts Channel seven years ago.  Most of us will remember it from its original run from 1978 until it was axed by ITV in 2010.  I tuned in because I wanted to know more about this man who has had us on the edge of our seats with “Line Of Duty” and “Bodyguard“.  I was both heartened and a little depressed that the opening music taken from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Variations” was still intact, even if in a slightly different version from the one I remember and depressed because it brought me back to Sunday nights of my teenage years when it signified bed-time and the end of the weekend and back to school on Monday.

Even though I have been avidly glued to every episode of “Line Of Duty” and to “Bodyguard” I realised I did not know much about the man who has put pen to paper and given us these examples of very high standard writing for television.  I do have an unread copy of one of his novels “American Adultery” (2009), which I recently obtained, sat on my shelves but that was really about it.

southbankshowMelvyn Bragg and Jed Mercurio

We began with a montage of clips from the shows that have elevated him up to the highest category of TV writing and was told by Melvyn Bragg that Mercurio’s work is known for exploring the “dark side of institutions and the morally questionable characters that hold them up.”  This certainly holds true for his two most famous productions as well as two hospital dramas, his debut work for television “Cardiac Arrest” which I don’t remember and “Bodies” which began in 2004, which I do.  What Mercurio wishes to challenge is the “drama of reassurance” which is what most TV  police drama has traditionally been.  Cleverly, with “Line Of Duty” he has achieved this by focusing on the arm of the organisation which is exploring the corruption, if he had shown just the corruption he feels so strongly about there would have been outcry from the police and politicians.  By having AC-12 as the investigating body he certainly does not have to water down any message he wishes to get over about the state of our institutions.

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The hospital dramas which came first were written from an insider’s point of view.  Mercurio was brought up in the West Midlands, the youngest son of Italian immigrants and went into medicine after being inspired by a contestant on TV’s “Blockbusters”(!)  He went to medical school in Birmingham as well as joining the RAF and training as a pilot.   He experienced the difficulties of life in an NHS hospital, which all of us who have read Adam Kay’s “This Is Going To Hurt” will certainly know about and responded to an advert in the British Medical Journal from a TV production company looking for a different story from the one we were used to in hospital soaps (which is largely that “drama of reassurance” again).  The success and recommissioning of “Cardiac Arrest” led him to drop medicine and to come out of the Air Force to be a full time writer.

We were told this was not an easy move “The Grimleys” was a 1970’s West Midlands set comedy which lasted a couple of series and using the name John MacUre he penned the six part BBC science fiction series “Invasion Earth”.  He hit big again by returning to the hospital wards in an examination of negligent practises, “Cardiac Arrest”, which was a success and from what I remember a pretty difficult watch.  “Line Of Duty”, the series which has certainly kept his name to the forefront and generated so many column inches and workplace discussions began its run in 2012 and between this and “Bodyguard” there has been a TV hospital drama for Sky “Critical” which was a little too much for me and a  TV adaptation of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.

There were interviews with cast members (was I the only person not to know that Martin Compston who plays Steve Arnott speaks naturally in a Scottish accent? It took me completely by surprise as it did by how young he looked in the first series) who spoke highly of Mercurios’ total involvement in bringing his dramas to the screen, which he himself acknowledges many writers do not get the same opportunity for this level of on-set participation. It fell into place for him when he became Medical Advisor for “Cardiac Arrest” thus giving him a hands-on role which most writers who don’t know what has been done to their work until the production is finished can only dream of.

This was a very interesting hour in the company of Jed Mercurio and Melvyn Bragg shows why he has been at the top of his own personal game for decades by asking the questions that viewers want answered.  I certainly wouldn’t add “The South Bank Show” as a Series Record on the Sky Planner but I am very pleased that it is still going strong and if the subject matter appeals as much as this one did I will certainly watch.

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The South Bank Show: Jed Mercurio was first shown on Sky Arts on Sunday 5th May.  It is available to watch on Sky Catch-up services.

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Line Of Duty – BBC1 (2019) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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I was a bit late to the party with this, which I can now acknowledge as one of the best ever police dramas on British TV. I don’t know how the first few series passed me by and it was really only when the fourth series starring Thandie Newton started gripping the viewers of “Gogglebox” and picking up awards that I realised I had missed out on something special. Thanks to Netflix which has had all the series available to view I have caught up, bingeing on episodes (unusual for me) because I couldn’t wait to find out what had happened.

I’m glad I watched this first episode of Series 5 before Friday’s “Gogglebox” as this was heavily featured with the sofa-sitters open-mouthed at the twists, even on occasions when even I’d rumbled what was going on, they were shouting at their TVs in amazement at the proceedings.

Since the last series which first aired in March 2017 writer Jed Mercurio’s profile has really ascended due to his gripping of the nation over 6 successive weeks in the late summer with “Bodyguard”, a huge ratings hit, but this is very much his bread and butter work, a less showy, superbly plotted and scripted tense hour which is a great antidote to the general cosy feel of Sunday night TV.

Its main quality is its sheer unpredictability which over the five series has seen astounding plot developments no-one could possibly see coming, major characters bumped off and the best scripted police interviews ever. AC-12 is the department set out to investigate police corruption and its three leading lights prove a tight ensemble which is another hallmark of the show.

 

Neither Vicky McLure as Kate nor Martin Compston as Steve are especially familiar to viewers in other roles and so fit in perfectly as the young guns in the AC-12 department overseen by Adrian Dunbar as Hastings.  Compston is particularly excellent as the tenacious but increasingly world-weary Steve whose position in the Department we’ve invested in since the very beginning.

The opening twenty minutes or so are always essential in a Mercurio plot (remember the bomb  on the train in “Bodyguard”?).  It’s often a big set piece out from which ramifications continue to rumble for the whole series.  Here there is a hijacking of a lorry stuffed with drugs under police guard and one of the perpetrator’s actions towards an injured officer causes questions to be asked.  There is a leak somewhere and AC-12 are out to plug it.

Plot threads from previous series are picked up efficiently.  Member of the team and series regular Maneet was seen in a couple of compromising situations in the last series before taking early maternity leave.  Now back at work suspicions have not gone away with astounding consequences.  Almost everyone would have been caught out by at least one of the three or four major twists in this opener and it is this which is likely to keep the 7.8 million (making it the most watched TV show of the year so far and registering its highest ever viewing figures) who tuned in for the first episode on the edge of our seats on a Sunday night to find out what this superior television event has in store for us.

fivestarsLine of Duty Series 5 is shown on BBC1 on Sunday evenings at 9.00pm. The first episode was transmitted on 31st March and is currently available on the BBC I-Player.

 

The Bodyguard (BBC1 2018) Vs. Vanity Fair (ITV 2018) – A What I’ve Been Watching Review

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The evenings are only just drawing in and the battle for weekend ratings have started.  In a couple of weeks we’ll see the Clash of The Titans when Saturday night juggernauts “X Factor” and “Strictly Come Dancing” (I’m not counting last night’s non-essential “pairing” show) come face to face in what will no doubt be a very one-sided affair but much is also being made of these two newcomers on Sunday evening schedules in which a clear winner also appears to be emerging, both critically and ratings-wise.

“The Bodyguard” had a one week head start and decided to go consecutive nights for the first two episodes to draw us in, “Vanity Fair” did the same a week later, a strategy which no doubt we’ll be seeing more and more.  “The Bodyguard” had much of its audience hooked within the first fifteen minutes with a breath-sapping bomb on a train scenario.  Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere must have been depleted as the viewing population drew in a breath and held it.  (Yes, I know it’s biologically more complex than that but I’m making a point).

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I had very high hopes for writer Jed Mercurio’s latest series as I have only recently got round to watching (on Netflix) his “Line Of Duty” and have spent the last few months bingeing on this extraordinary police drama.  I’ve watched three series but haven’t seen the one everyone really talks about starring Thandie Newton (that isn’t on “Netflix” but  remain hopeful that it will appear), so no spoilers please.

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What makes “Line Of Duty” such gripping television is its sheer unpredictability.  It is unusual to watch TV in this day and age with no idea as to the direction it will go and Mercurio has certainly achieved this again with “The Bodyguard”.  Each of the three episodes I’ve seen so far will have rooted audiences to their seats by its dramatic shifts.  (That barometer of public taste “Gogglebox” returned this week and one of the highlights of opener was the looks of complete disbelief on assorted faces as episode three revealed its twist).  Keeley Hawes who became the ultimate victim in “Line Of Duty” despite being a tough and uncompromising character may very well be revisiting these traits as Home Secretary Julia Montague with her Thatcherish sharp edge yet the very human weakness for the man detailed to protect her.  And Richard Madden’s turn might just make Sunday night viewers forget that Aiden Turner’s “Poldark” and Tom Hiddleston’s “Night Manager” ever existed.  I know some opted to give this a miss fearing a re-tread of Costner and Whitney scenarios but the relationship, although central, is just one small facet of this television diamond.  There is so much going on and whilst we know what is happening when it happens (unlike many TV dramas with a political slant) we have no idea as to the direction this will go in and that makes for essential television.

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So, how can we compare this to “Vanity Fair”? They are polar opposites yet their scheduling and their respective channel’s confidence in them is demanding comparisons be made.  With “Vanity Fair” of course we know the direction it is headed from its existence as a novel and the number of previous adaptations.  I love the book although I haven’t read it in a long time.  It seems that every time I plan to re-read another version comes along making it seem less of a priority.  Here I think the show has been a victim of its pre-transmission publicity which suggested something youthful, vibrant and edgy.  Younger actors have been cast in main parts and we were told to expect modern music.  I have so far been aware of Madonna’s “Material Girl” at one point which seemed too obvious a choice and somewhat clunky in its scene.  I was expecting this version, created by Gwyneth Hughes to up the cool factor in much the same way Baz Luhrmann did for Leonardo DiCaprio in old Will Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” back in 1996.

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I don’t think this has happened.  It hasn’t sparkled in anything like the way I was expecting.  I did enjoy the opener more and yet the scenes in Vauxhall Gardens which had the potential to display the series’ wares felt surprisingly low-budget for a channel hoping to push this as the new “Downton Abbey”.  Some of the casting doesn’t feel quite right.  I’m not totally at ease with the younger male characters, especially Dobbin nor Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt Crawley.  I do like Olivia Cooke who is playing Becky Sharp but she seems to be playing her as more opportunistic than manipulative and I’m not sensing the joy that was in the best portrayal I’ve seen by Reese Witherspoon in the 2004 film version where Julian Fellowes’ screenplay aimed for a more sympathetic character but Reese didn’t lost the glint which is so essential.  This version also has a great set of portrayals from the likes of James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Rhys Ifan as the stolid Dobbin.

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By Episode 2 I was wilting, Frances De La Tour’s arrival boded well but I was still wondering whether I’d actually last the course of five more episodes.  Perhaps I should just re-read the book for my dose of Thackeray.

It seemed as if Sunday nights were going to be superb for television with the launch of these two highly-anticipated shows.  One is certainly proving this, the other is showing room for improvement.

Here are my ratings for the first three episodes of  “The Bodyguard” and first two for “Vanity Fair”

fivestars   (The Bodguard)

threestars (Vanity Fair)

Both Vanity Fair and The Bodyguard are shown at 9pm on Sunday evenings.  Catch up editions are available on the ITV hub (VF) and BBC I-Player (Bodyguard)