Category Archives: Television

Knives Out – London Film Festival

Daniel Craig in Knives Out (Director Rian Johnson)

Cosy murder mystery adaptations are a much loved TV staple, endlessly repeated on ITV3, but in the last 10 years the crime drama has changed dramatically and even the cosy cornerstones of Sunday afternoon television have taken on a far darker hue. The emphasis is now on the gritty and the grisly with gruesome murders often shown in frightening detail – think The Fall, The Killing and Luther. Even the ones that shy away from such excruciating visual assault take a tone of portentous doom like BroadchurchHappy Valley or The Missing, leading the way with multi-episode series that lean on the conventions of psycho-drama with dark subject matter including child abduction, serial killers and rapists.

And that more serious approach has made its way into even the lightest dramas; Midsommer Murders is fun but the inventiveness of the modes of death has always been grim – from death by cheese wheel to a pitchfork to the back through a deckchair. Think too of the more ominous tone that dogged the later Poirot and Marple adaptations as the protagonists were plagued by doubts and worries about the human condition, things that never used to trouble the Belgian detective and St Mary Mead villager so intently. Sarah Phelps’s Christmas adaptations have only continued the trend with a brooding tone to her versions of And Then There Were NoneWitness for the Prosecution and The ABC Murders. 

Big screen adaptations of crime stories tend to suffer from trying to squeeze a sizeable and complex novel into under two hours losing some of the characterisation that makes the story tick. Often, they are forced to bow to Hollywood conventions to liven things up as Kenneth Branagh did with the strange action sequence inserted in his adaption of Murder on the Orient Express that found an extensively mustachioed Poirot dangling from a train. But this intensity wasn’t always the case, serious adaptions of Agatha Christie films in the late 1970s and early 1980s morphed into something a little more exuberant, and by the time Peter Ustinov made Evil Under the Sun in 1982 everyone was having a lot more fun with a genre tipping over into self-parody.

Jonathan Lynn’s Clue which followed in 1985, a cinematic interpretation of the board game, was a hoot with a stellar cast of comedians including Tim Curry, Madeline Khan and Eileen Brennan. But more recently, inspired by Scandinavian dramas, even film outings for murder stories have followed television with the same preference for moody and brutal depictions of crime including The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Snowman with varying success. When did fictional murder stop being fun?

There are fashions in crime writing just as there are in other cultural fields and now Rian Johnson – who was previously at the helm of a Star Wars film – is given free-reign to reverse the trend creating a movie that has all the hallmarks of a much-loved genre which he places in a very modern black comic wrapper. Knives Out is not a spoof, the tone is considerably sharper than that, but it is a loving homage to the lighter crime dramas that Johnson would have watched as a child, including Murder She Wrote which is given a momentary nod as a character watches an episode on their laptop. The film has the momentum of a thriller but the jaunty tone and all the fun of a comedy where the actors are the only ones taking it seriously.

Written and directed by Johnson there is a real confidence in how classic characteristics are integrated into the story of a crime novelist murdered in his country mansion without losing the tone of highly respectful mockery that Johnson maintains faultlessly throughout the film. It all takes place in a big Gothic, faux Victorian pile full of dark wood paneling that gives the setting a claustrophobic and doom-laden feel more redolent of horror films. At the centre of the interrogation room is a chair with a huge halo of daggers and knives pointing to the head of whoever sits in it – very Iron Throne – while in the house the unfortunate Thrombey family gather for a fatal party.

The limited cast of characters restricts itself further, with the most likely set of suspects given the most screentime, all with equally plausible financial motives and all heard to have some form of run-in with the deceased in the days or hours prior to the murder. Stir-in a changing will, some bumbling policeman, a subtle massaging of time and an arrogant freelance detective and Knives Out really hits the mark.

Johnson wastes no time in getting to the point, the murder happens, suspects are introduced with their motives spelled-out immediately and the murderer is revealed to the audience. Seemingly in the know, like an episode of Colombo, it’s now up to the authorities to put all the pieces together while we sit back. Well, not quite because Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeve to entertain and double-cross us, not least in having us sympathise with the perpetrator and the unfolding circumstances that set them running like a scared rabbit, as not only the dapper detective but also the rest of the family come after them without knowing their guilt.

And Johnson isn’t nearly done with us as the sands start to shift revealing more layers to the story than we first supposed and – as all great crime dramas should – recasting the entire problem in an entirely new light. In the meantime there is plenty of humour drawn from the wonderful characterisation and unfolding scenarios that Johnson so skillfully creates. Each member of the Thrombey family is given just enough screentime to suggest the extent of their personality and how the events of the film affect them. Leading an exemplary cast is Christopher Plummer as the victim – mostly seen through flashback – who exudes frustration with his relatives and a stern authority when dealing with their many failings directed at everyone except his sweet young nurse Marta who becomes a close friend and confidant. Plummer is particularly funny during his own murder scene taking notes on the method for use in one of his future plots – such moments of dry humour abound through the film.

Portrayals of his adult children are led by Jamie Lee Curtis as “self-made” businesswoman Linda who prides herself on creating her own firm from scratch and building it into a successful enterprise. There is just enough of Linda to see her tenacity and dismissal of the weakness she perceives in the rest of the family – a trait she wholly shares with her father – but Lee Curtis also shows Linda’s protectionist approach, refusing to be drawn into criticising her family by the goading of the detective, as well as a softer side revealed in a single look towards the end of the film as a crucial revelation is made to her. Don Johnson as her husband is far less principled, outraged by the change of will and leading angry protests to suggest his own double-dealing that he goes to some lengths to conceal.

Michael Shannon as Walt Thrombey Linda’s brother heads his father’s publishing business dedicated to its principle client but the menacing Walt is not as weak as he appears to be. Toni Collette is full of earnest self-delusion as an Instagram Influencer whose online success cannot fund her entitled lifestyle or her daughter’s private school fees, and while most of the junior generation remain largely in the background, Chris Evans’s bad-boy son of Linda and Richard enjoys every minute of his caddish part and the chance to slink-off his goodie twoshoes Captain America image.

But it is the central roles that yield the most joy with Ana di Armas’s nurse Marta as the family outsider whose “good-heart” makes her the perfect aide to the investigation while managing to convey genuine upset at Harlan Thrombey’s demise – the only character who really cares he’s gone. Best of all is Daniel Craig’s hilarious Benoit Blanc, the unusual private detective whose fearsome reputation for solving crimes gives him licence to refer to himself in the third person and adopt a Southern accent. This is one of Craig’s best performances, a rare outing for comedy skills only hinted at during his tenure as the rough tough James Bond who blasts through walls and adjusts his tailoring while leaping from a digger onto a moving train. His deadpan performance in Knives Out is full of great lines and beautifully-timed delivery that result in plenty of laugh-out loud moments. It is a real pleasure to watch Craig showcase his skills for whatever a post-007 world might bring.

Brilliantly managed by Johnson who controls the twists and turns with aplomb while delivering enough new information to keep the audience invested, Knives Out is a celebration of the light-hearted murder mystery with a modern twist. Stylish, hilarious and full of love for the genre, Knives Out is dead fun.

Knives Out is on general release in the UK on 27 November 2019. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

A version of this review was posted on The Reviews Hub website.


Adapting Les Misérables: Psychological Depth and the Period Drama

Dominic West - Les Miserables

The BBC’s adaptation of Les Misérables has been a huge success, gripping Sunday night viewing for the last five weeks offering the first truly comprehensive dramatisation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth novel. Andrew Davies has changed our relationship with the period drama and as a result of an equally epic War and Peace two years ago, and a trilogy of enduring hits two decades before – Pride and Prejudice, Vanity Fair and Tom Jones – he has created works in which the characters feel as rounded, human and as flawed as their original authors intended while making their timeless emotional and intellectual dramas feel contemporary. The success of Les Misérables lies in the psychological truth of the characters with Davies treating Hugo as his most important co-writer.

Reading the novel for the first time aged 17, and countless times since, the scale of this 1200-page behemoth is initially overwhelming and intimidating. A cast of hundreds with the action taking place across the vast geography of France in a 20-year period as the nation agonised over its recent revolutionary past and a political battle between monarchy and republic which led to frequent, violent confrontation akin to civil war.

Hugo’s multi-stranded narrative follows a group of characters who become unexpectedly enmeshed in each other’s lives as the various subplots draws them all to Paris for one explosive and poignant conclusion that neatly unites history, politics and fiction in what is an exceptional achievement in storytelling. Les Misérables is also an incredibly unusual novel taking a sequential approach to its character-histories, linked only by the protagonist Jean Valjean whose own life story is constructed through his appearance in other narratives – there is a book of Fantine, one of Cosette and a book of Marius, but only in the final section does Valjean warrant his own.

Frequently too, the story is disrupted by Hugo’s many digressions lasting for 10, 20, sometimes 100-pages, taking the reader out into a contextual discussion that showcases Hugo’s views on topics as diverse as a particular order of nuns, the construction of the Paris sewers or the penal system. These can be bulky and distracting but are designed to give a complete picture of the world of the novel, one that helps us to visualise particular locations or to understand why individuals choose to act as they do.

For example, more than hundred pages is dedicated to the Battle of Waterloo, a defining moment in modern French history for Hugo’s generation, yet it is not until the final couple of pages that two characters we know – Thenadier and Colonel Pontmercy – are brought together in a way that reverberates through the story. It is no coincidence that this was the starting point for Davies’s adaptation, a startlingly clever move that immediately set the tone while relegating the central character to several scenes hence, just as Hugo himself chose to do – Valjean is a fully-rounded and quietly heroic creation but he is also a cipher for other narratives, Les Misérables, quite deliberately, does not begin with him.

Few other television writers would be as brave and what Davies has done so effectively is to distil all of that text, those sub-narratives, events and detours into a tidy episodic structure that really for the first time does full justice to Hugo’s spectacular and intricate work. With six hours to play with, Davies has included scenes and vast swathes of the text never fully dramatised before, which for lovers of the richly layered novel is such a thrill. The root of all of this is that Davies simply trusts Hugo to tell his own story rather than inventing his own simplified version, and it is a joy to see the reverence this production has for the source material.

Each week, there has been a recognition that the density of Hugo’s writing is deliberate, that the small moments including the cruel abandonment of Fantine as a practical joke in Episode One, to the criminal events of the Gorbeau Tenement as Valjean is lured into a trap in Episode Four, and the even the tender relationship of Marius’s tragic father watching his boyhood from afar, are fundamental to the psychological shape of the story and what each character chooses or is compelled to do as a result.

Les Misérables is richly captivating, lyrically beautiful at points while also fierce, angry and incredibly moving, but what makes it so compelling is the endless compassion for the poor, the destitute and the wretched. Almost all of the principle characters have their story told in full and Hugo offers endless scope for redemption, no one is ever written-off for having once engaged in criminal acts that prevent them from changing their behaviour, on the contrary we see how often their transgressions are driven by desperation and circumstance rather than genuine depravity. Even the monstrous Thenadiers are softened by Madame T’s devotion to her young daughters (a “she-wolf” in Hugo’s description) and, in Olivier Coleman’s excellent performance, a fear of her husband with hints of domestic abuse, while the adult Eponine and teenage Gavroche redeem the family name with their bravery and self-sacrifice.

Valjean is the most obvious recipient of Hugo’s benevolence, and in spite of the bitterness of his incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread (which the novel makes clear was to feed his sister’s starving children) extended to nearly 20-years by repeated escape attempts, Valjean overcomes past hurts to become a respectable and generous man. Dominic West has been superb in a role that evolves considerably in the course of the novel; at the beginning, finally released from prison Valjean is all the things policeman Javert goads him with – coarse, embittered and quick to reoffend, his short temper frazzled by the suspicion and hostility that greet him.

West’s thoughtful performance conveyed the brutality of Valjean in Episode One, broken-down and almost feral, his whole body thrums with fury, dejection and injustice until the Bishop’s act of salvation creates a fascinating dilemma in the reawakened conscience of Valjean that West conveyed exactly. We have watched his humanity germinate and blossom in the ensuing episodes, and West has well conveyed the commanding factory manager troubled by his thoughtlessly harsh treatment of Fantine, and how his instinct after the Champmathieu affair in Episode Two is always to sacrifice himself to protect others, even at the risk of his own incarceration.

It is his fatherly devotion to the protection of Cosette that has been so warming in a man who has never known the simultaneous contentment and pain of unconditional love. A crucial moment in a dress shop in Episode Four was a wonderful example of screen acting from West as Valjean recognises for the first time that he is about to lose his adoptive daughter to the adult world and, still indulging her enthusiasm, a frozen smile with eyes full of sorrow conveys a moment of real heartbreak for the character, one which significant events in Episode Six will demonstrate means he will always sublimate his personal happiness to the greater good.

The idea that a person cannot be defined by a single act pervades the novel, most notably in the upright and steadfast certainty of Javert whose dogged pursuit of Valjean across the years is shown to be both noble and misguided.  The psychology of Javert is calibrated slightly differently to his nemesis, seeing the world through the prism of law and order, where an individual’s approach to rules and expectations determine character and behaviour.

David Oyelowo’s Javert is a tad less sympathetic than in the novel, and his pursuit of Valjean, the affront his freedom represents to Javert’s quite black and white concept of criminality and justice, has been less well explored, but Oyelowo has shown the dogged determination and fervent disgust for transgressors of any kind that fundamentally shapes Javert’s personality. You see him visibly blanch when encountering Fantine as a prostitute and at the residents of the Gorbeau Tenement, seeing only their actions and not the cause, leaving them with few options. This clarity of thought and of how monochromatically Javert sees the world will be challenged in Episode Six in an excellent opportunity for Oyelowo to demonstrate his skills and how well he understands this character.

Hugo’s endless compassion has been very evident on screen, most obviously in the sympathetic, though never mawkish, treatment of Fantine (Lily Collins), capturing her romantic naivety and the inevitable decline from poverty to shame – and how ghoulishly wonderful to see the teeth-pulling in all its horrid glory enacted by a chilling Ron Cook. Davies has maintained Hugo’s complex presentation of characters so even the students who we finally meet in Episode Four led by the dedicated Enjolras, and the romantic awakening of the dreamy Marius (Josh O’Connor), retain their individuality as well as their collective political fervour which during the superb barricade sections ensures you feel for the grandness of the gesture they are making as well as the smallness of its effect in the overall history of France.

There have been many adaptations of Les Misérables but none of them has felt as complete and satisfying as Davies’s approach, given the space to breath and evolve by the BBC across many episodes. From the interior depth of the characters and the grittier choice of locations, to the way in which the series as a whole has captured the politics, the history, the romance, and themes of social justice that unite Hugo’s vast novel, Davies and his team have told the story with a care and attention that has been impressive and very welcome. While much of Marius’s political and personal transformation as well as the context of the student’s experience building-up to the barricades has been sadly cast aside, Davies only fault has been to be so disparaging of the musical which, though decades old and by necessity a much shorter stage piece, had captured the spirit and feeling of Hugo’s words better than any other adaptation by drawing directly from them for the charming solos and rousing company numbers. It’s easy to scorn musical theatre, but Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s love and reverence for the novel shines through every moment of their composition.

It is the psychological complexity of the characters and a respect for the original author that has made Davies work so successful for so long. So many period dramas just tell the story, using the basic plot but without really creating a true sense of the world in which it exists or any credible sense that the characters are as human as we are. The desperation to prove contemporary relevance leads to rewrites, invented backstories and in the case of Agatha Christie adaptions entirely different murderers. You never feel with Davies’s work that he believes he knows better than Victor Hugo, and the original novel is always the heart and soul of each scene – contemporary relevance is stamped all the way through his productions because these novels deal with the enduring struggles of human nature as pertinent to 1832 when the latter part of the novel is set to 1862 when it was written and to 2019. With one final Episode yet to air, it’s clear that Andrew Davies’s adaptation of Les Misérables will be the definitive one for years to come.

Les Misérables is showing on BBC1 and Episodes One to Five are currently available on the BBC iPlayer and will be available for a year. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


TV Preview: The Little Drummer Girl

The Little Drummer Girl - BBC

We are in a golden age for drama and the BBC is at the forefront of a new wave of high-quality, unmissable storytelling, delivering some of the best new content this year, a lot of it in the last few weeks. Killing Eve, Trust, Press and Black Earth Rising, multi-part tales with high-quality performances. And then there was Bodyguard; collectively the nation’s heart stopped every Sunday night watching Jed Mecurio’s tense and twisty tale of politics and terrorism, so if you are feeling bereft by its conclusion then only one writer can even possibly compete, John le Carré.

A little over 2.5 years ago Sunday nights meant only one thing – The Night Manager – a multi-funded game-changer that brought the ambitious production values of film to the small screen with considerable style. Now, the same company have adapted another le Carré novel, The Little Drummer Girl, set in the late 1970s and examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict played-out across Europe as spy organisations interconnect with terrorist cells. The first two episodes were previewed at the London Film Festival ahead of the show’s UK air date of Sunday 28 October, promising a story every bit as gripping, dangerous and obsessive as Hugh Laurie and Tom Hiddleston proved to be. Warn the pubs, restaurants and bars because once again none of us will be going out on a Sunday night.

Episode One begins with a bomb delivered by a beautiful blonde woman and her mysterious companion to a Jewish home in Germany where it explodes killing a family. A Mossad agent known as “Marty” is on the trail of a Palestinian anarchist group targeting Israeli officials and known for recruiting a terrorist network to aggravate the conflict in the Middle East. But Marty needs an agent, enter Charlie, an actress spotted in a ropey pub theatre production of Saint Joan and offered a touring role in As You Like It. She is pursued to Greece by the enigmatic “Becker” who makes his presence known.

With Charlie firmly in their sights, Episode Two focuses on her incendiary political views, colourful backstory and just what they need her to do. Information is drip-fed to her as Marty’s team try to entice and force her help with some murky espionage. Meanwhile a second team has apprehended a key source and must make him reveal the whereabouts of an important meeting. With Marty closely connected to his equivalent number in Germany, just what can a single English woman achieve, and is Charlie on anyone’s side but her own?

Unusual for le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl is one of the few books with an independent female protagonist. Adapted by Claire Wilson and Michael Lesslie who collaborated closely while taking the lead on specific episodes, they have used le Carré’s base to make Charlie a fascinating and complex character with more than a bit about her. That shouldn’t be a surprise in 2018, but Charlie is a multi-faceted creation which in Florence Pugh’s excellent central performance leaves plenty of unanswered questions, proving to be every-bit as slippery and ultimately unknowable as her spymasters.

An intelligent girl living on her wits and an assured sexual confidence, the magnanimity with which she eases from actor on tour to agent-in-training is intriguing, taking it all in her stride with surprisingly little resistance or fear. Despite claims of a difficult background it becomes almost impossible for the other characters or the audience to know how much Charlie is acting and the extent to which she’s always some character or other. No one is ever who they seem in a le Carré, not even to themselves, least of all the supposed heroes, so seeing Pugh explore the edges of her character over the remaining four episodes will be a treat in itself.

Again, no le Carré story is complete without a series of intrigues within intrigues, and already the first two previews have established seemingly rival organisations, a dangerous and unstable political context, the involvement of innocents and a multinational landscape. And all of that gives rise to plenty of questions which the remaining episodes will answer. Do Marty’s two teams know about each other and why is there an English woman (Miss Bach played by Clare Holman) working for Mossad – is she a genuine recruit, a secondment from British intelligence or a plant? What role does “Michel” (Amir Khoury) have in the terrorist network, what is his link to Charlie, why did he plant the bomb and did both his brothers really die for the cause?

There are also links to the German secret service, and potentially to Charlie’s own father who may or may not have “disappeared” depending on which of her stories are true, and are her sun-worshipping actor friends as innocent as they seem? Events move fast in these initial episodes, establishing the various players and setting the scene for what’s to come, but although we are following Charlie, none of that means she or we are on the side of the good guys, but it’s going to be fun finding out.

Continuing his run of darkly engaging TV roles which mostly recently included a pivotal role in Big Little Lies, Alexander Skarsgård plays Becker/ Jose / Peter / Michel, a man who is at least one if not all of his men depending on the day, the scenario and the game. Like the most accomplished poker-player he gives nothing away, a consummate spy, it’s never clear what his motivation might be. By the end of episode two, he proves as complete an actor as Charlie, but strangely abstemious, he is no brooding hero, Becker clearly has secrets.

Skarsgård and Pugh crackle together, like an ever-evolving game of cat and mouse where you can’t tell who is toying with who. Repeatedly he leads her to the brink only to rapidly change the tone, while Charlies responds by trying to outwit him, using her allure to compromise Becker but neither succeeds in besting the other. Setting-out on a mission together, Becker tries to protect her from his superiors but whether their chemistry becomes physical or merely the mutual recognition of two performers knowing they are being played remains to be seen.

Another man with secrets is Marty Kurtz, the Mossad leader who leaves a trail of mystery in his wake as he spins a complex web between his shadowy German contact with furtive meetings over coffee and cake, the recruitment and grooming of Charlie to undertake a secret infiltration, and what we presume are his second team, hidden in a bunker somewhere extracting compromising material. Michael Shannon’s accent may be quite gloopy, but his character is like smoke, a man with his eye on the end result whatever the cost. All of this bodes well from a plot that will twist and shift in the coming episodes.

The Little Drummer Girl has lots to do to visually compete with Susanne Bier’s outstanding work on The Night Manager, a glossy treat that juxtaposed brutal violence with beautiful cinematography and picture-perfect locations. The trick for South Korean director Park Chan-wook is not to bother competing at all, at least not in quite the same way. Using the in vogue 70s aesthetic, Chan-wook uses colour rather than light to tell the story, saturating his images and particular characters with bright Mediterranean colours – vibrant yellow, deep sea blues, spring greens, orange, the occasionally flash of scarlet, and because it’s the 70s, brown. They bring a sensuality to each frame that oozes from the screen, whether set in the cosy autumnal interior of a London pub or the richly sunlit beaches and taverners of Greece.

And there is plenty of dazzling location-hopping to take the audience away from our dark Sunday nights and off to London, Munich and Athens already but with a trail leading across Eastern Europe and potentially to Israel by the end of the series. Chan-wook draws it all together in a carefully controlled visual design that uses wonderful examples of brutalist architecture to graphically marry different locations into one cohesive show.

Similar to the 2012 film version of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, there are plenty of concrete and marbled interiors that represent the 70s so well, sleek, clean and a bit emotionless with hard exteriors that the characters must reflect. And concrete in particular responds so well to the rays of coloured lighting that Chan-wook employs to vary the tone and intimacy of his scenes. The whole concept is richly detailed and should offer just enough exotic allure to keep the nation gripped while we try to work out le Carré’s complex mystery.

Scheduled to air from Sunday 28 October, this version of The Little Drummer Girl is everything you could want from a le Carré adaptation. While updating The Night Manager to the period of the Arab Spring added new resonance, here the 1970s setting still has plenty to say about the complex nature of the secret world in an increasingly fractured Europe. Bathed in shadow, vibrantly coloured with an absorbing plot, characters with plenty of dark edges and abundant intrigue, the nation’s new drama obsession is here. This really is a golden age for television drama, but with this one don’t believe anything you see, keep your wits about you and enjoy!

The Little Drummer Girl starts on Sunday 28 October at 9pm on BBC1. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


TV Preview: Bodyguard – BFI Southbank

Bodyguard - BBC1

A more public role than ever before, we are used to reflecting on the profile and lifestyle of our politicians from every angle. Culturally, there are plenty of examples of work that position MPs and Cabinet Ministers in their wider context; we’ve seen them from their own perspective in dramas like The Deal  and Coalition, we’ve seen them through the eyes of their closest aides and party whips in the original House of Cards, Yes Minister and stage play This House, and we have reflected on their role in broader circumstances as part of ensemble dramas like David Hare’s recent Collateral. Now, acclaimed writer Jed Mercurio adds to this portfolio with his new six-part thriller Bodyguard that pits the Home Secretary against her closest support, her Protection Command officer.

At the premiere of Episode One at the BFI last week with accompanying Q&A, writer Jed Mercurio stressed the importance of subtly grounding his work in the fears, concerns and issues of our age, while structuring work-based scenes around the individual’s need to do their job, and such conversations must reflect the natural interactions that allow people to fulfil their role. Often, the pursuer and the pursued toy with the truth, using silence and stillness as tools to create dramatic depth and credibility. Mercurio’s writing is notably free of excessive exposition and, as audiences have seen in fast-paced dramas Line of Duty and Cardiac Arrest, information is specifically revealed to the viewer at the right time or deliberately unfolded in realistically-constructed conversation.

As one member of the audience inevitably pointed out, the title brings with it a ready-made degree of expectation. But those expecting a brick-wall Kevin Costner-type slowly being thawed by his flamboyant and desirable charge, with tense actions scenes at the Oscar, all the to the strains of ‘I Will Always Love You’ will be disappointed. Bodyguard may share a title and a central male-female dynamic but, so far, there the allusions end.

On the basis of Episode One, which largely established the characters, context and a complicated power dynamic, this TV drama will head in a very different direction, challenging the ability of our two public servants to undertake their roles. And, with a troubled backstory, the show asks questions about a bodyguard’s ability to do his job in compromised political circumstances. As Keeley Hawes, who plays Home Secretary Julia Montague, explained the focus will be on deciding whether the life being protected is worth saving.

Yet, Episode One starts by exploring that idea in quite another context. Mercurio likes a high-tension opener and previous series of Line of Duty have begun with a dramatic police operation that will be repeatedly unpicked in the ensuing weeks. In Bodyguard, Mercurio uses what will (probably) be an isolated incident in the overall story, but one carefully designed to give the viewer an immediate insight into the core context of the drama – an atmosphere of terrorism and suspicion – that ground it in our recognisable reality. It also introduces us to our anti-hero David Budd, played by Richard Madden, whose perspective we will follow for the next six episodes.

Putting him instantly into a tense and carefully pitched incident in a public setting establishes not just his family situation, but almost wordlessly reveals aspects of his personality that will be crucial to the direction and resolution of the core plot later in the show. Without talky exposition, we see a constantly alert David, aware of everything around him, assessing a situation and feeling a duty to help without fear for his personal safety. He takes command, instantly calculating both the wider safety of the public and the humanity of the criminal, balancing his response to the situation, asking us to see him as smart (or reckless) enough to defy instruction where his own reading of a situation differs.

A high-stakes incident on a train full of families and innocent passengers emphasises the normalcy and rather grim condition of public transport in the slightly washed-out visual effect. Here, Mercurio places the viewer in a highly recognisable situation, a contained environment in which travellers have no power to control their speed, direction or immediate circumstances. In around 20-minutes, a fair chunk of Episode One, the writer gives us visual clues about David that confirm his level-headedness and compassion in a situation where most would panic.

As a variety of official security groups attempt to take control – all notably played by women – David only trusts his own assessment of the situation, and his ability to read the behaviour of individuals. How this affects what’s to come remains to be seen, but Mercurio uses this entire scenario as a shorthand introduction to the character we will invest-in over the coming weeks. That whatever else we learn about him, under pressure he kept control of himself.

But, David is not a classic selfless hero, and the scenes that follow are designed to act as a forerunner for the confliction he will encounter in the episodes ahead. From a seemingly happy family life, his personal circumstances are soon shown to be considerably more broken, and his experience as a soldier in Afghanistan will come to define the new role he is about to assume with the Home Secretary. Instantly, our perspective on what we have just seen on the train changes. Madden shows David visibly blanch,  clearly now more than an attempt to quell his fears, and instead it’s a nod to an earlier combat experience – suddenly Mercurio has turned us around, making a couple of easily missed moments of pause on the train make sense in a new way. And, though never explicitly referred to, we begin to understand that a PTSD theme will shape the future of this story.

Crucially, David is advised more than once to seek help for anger and related issues with the term “PTSD” on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but never actually vocalised. Panel Chair Kate Adie noted that there is an average 13-year delay between people experiencing a traumatic event and seeking help, so David sits within that timeframe, still unwilling to admit his experiences are having a damaging effect, or that his responses are now beyond his control. Mercurio explained that an official diagnosis would result in a “career hiatus”, forcing David to take a break from a job he seems to love, and, as Episode One implies, the only stability he has.

Asked about drawing on veteran testimony, Madden explained that few wanted to talk about it openly even among his group, but Bodyguard will deliberately avoid “crass flashbacks”, relying on the strength of Mercurio’s characterisation to reveal the interior life of the individuals he creates. Madden captures David’s inconsistencies extremely well, moving credibly from the anxious but calm control of the train scene to the emotive interactions with his family members, and the curt formality of his engagement with the Home Secretary. “I was attracted to the contradictions within the character… fighting with himself” Madden explained, aptly creating the complexity in David’s character that offers multiple avenues for the story’s trajectory. He uses the silences to grapple with his introspective moments, suggesting a man whose professionalism at work and more destructive personal circumstances will soon collide.

In this first episode, our impression of the Home Secretary Julia Montague, played by Keeley Hawes, is largely through the eyes of her surrounding staff. A subplot with a chaotic intern reveals an almost callous disregard of individuals who fail her, and our early impressions are purposefully coloured by David’s knowledge that she voted for the war he had to fight. Hawes is excellent in a difficult role where her initial purpose is largely to embody the preconceptions the audience has about senior politicians and the complaints of other characters – “I don’t need you to vote for me, only to protect me” she tells Budd coldly.

Affecting a slightly more refined accent suggesting the product of an expensive boarding school and Oxbridge, Hawes’s Julia cuts a powerful figure, determined to be publicly visible and impatient with the trivialities that appear to impede her work, seen in the impatience she displays when David checks her home each night. But Hawes hints at something more beneath this image, a humanity that the ensuing weeks may well reveal, as David comes to understand the person he’s now working for. Nothing in a Mercurio drama is black and white, so we can expect a spectrum of behaviour from this character and the rug pulled from under us as David’s approach to her changes.

There is much to draw upon in this opening episode, which nicely establishes a set of intriguing characters, a context of instability and fear, and a central relationship that could develop in many ways. We’re also promised the arrival of Gina McKee heading a much wider cast, so it’s clear larger forces will soon be at work. Drawing on his medical experience and RAF background, Mercurio’s writing continues to resonate because it takes a new perspective on seemingly familiar public service roles and explores the lasting consequences of corruption, ineptitude and poor decision-making. At the end of Episode One, what’s in store for David and Julia is unknown, but with so many interesting threads to draw on, and compelling lead performances, it’s all set to be a cracking and unmissable drama.

Episode One of Bodyguard was previewed at the BFI Southbank followed by a Q&A with Jed Mercurio, Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes, chaired by Kate AdieEpisode One will air on BBC1 on Sunday 26 August at 9pm . Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


Quiz as State of the Nation Drama – Noel Coward Theatre

Quiz by Johan Persson

When you hold a mirror up to our society what can you see? The obvious things perhaps; an obsession with social media, selfies and surface, the continual loosening of social responsibilities, and a nation divided as its struggles to reconcile its continual attempts to look backwards and forwards at the same time. But look deeper and there are cracks everywhere, in every system, every support service, in every pillar of our social structure, and you start to wonder where did it all go wrong? Our greatest political playwrights have always interpreted the times we live in, and, as Quiz transfers to the West End, James Graham’s insightful reflections on crucial moments in post-war history have fast become a vital resource in understanding who we are.

In a little over a year, Graham has had four highly regarded plays running in the West End, three of which, since September, have been entirely new work. It’s an outstanding achievement, almost without comparison in modern theatre, and after picking up his first Olivier Award last night for Labour of Love (plus a Supporting Actor award for Bertie Carvel’s turn in Ink), this is a good time to reflect on what has been an astonishing year, one in which Graham has found a unique interplay between political purpose and popular style.

This House, which has had a remarkable lifespan since its premiere in 2012 and is currently on national tour, showed us the marked difference between political self-interest and genuine government, where staying in power at all costs outstrips the business of passing legislation for the greatest good. Set in the 1970s at a moment of upheaval that shifted British politics to the right, into Thatcher’s willing arms, and changed it forever, in This House Graham shows us why our democratic system now feels so remote from the people it governs, with constituency representation frequently losing out to individual ambition and Party directive.

This is exactly the theme of Labour of Love, in which Graham pits New against Old Labour in one particular midlands constituency over 20 years to show us the deep division and confliction of purpose that runs through our political parties. When a shiny young man with a bright Ministerial future is parachuted into a safe Labour seat in the mid-1990s, it causes considerable upset for the more traditional left-leaning local constituency office. Over two decades we observe the problems caused by MPs treading water until they can get somewhere better and Labour’s failure to bridge the precipice that still runs down the centre of the Party.

And finally with Ink, Graham explained the rise and rise of the tabloid, and its unshakeable hold on every kind of political and popular thinking. Again, using the crucial period 1969-70 when Rupert Murdoch purchased the newspaper and set its editor Larry Lamb a target to beat its nearest rival, the pair essentially opened Pandora’s Box, unleashing every base and questionable journalistic impulse to create a public appetite for sleaze and scandal we are far from abating even 50 years later. Crucially, Graham shows us, that the fourth estate is an entirely unelected group of people with little but sales figures and click bait in mind, and undergoes almost no scrutiny, but their continual intervention and control of public opinion wields a fearsome power that challenges the independence of many of our oldest institutions.

Collectively, this is a body of work that tells us that much is broken, that the once enviable clarity of our democratic system and freedom of the press have curdled, where the gap between the government and the governed has never felt wider. None of it, Graham suggests is beyond hope, its all still worth fighting for, but that there are crucial moments in history – much like the one we’re living through now – where there is a chance to change things for the better, because getting it wrong will lead to decades of rot. And throughout, Graham asks questions about the power of the individual to effect change, where even the best intentions can forge an unexpected future.

So, to Quiz and the power of the television media to thwart or even misdirect our justice system. Transferring from Chichester where it opened to rave reviews, Quiz is about fluctuating concepts of truth in a world of fake news and trial by television. What does justice mean in this new environment and does it have anything to do with truth and fairness? At the heart of Quiz is a debate about the nature of innocence and the extent to which our legal system, founded on the principle that guilt must be proven beyond doubt, is subject to the highest bidder, where scant circumstantial coincidence can be contorted to suggest an alternative story. Quiz effectively sets the near powerless individual against the might of a TV company with the resources to influence not just the outcome of a trial but also our collective memory of an incident none of us ever saw.

Mention the name Charles Ingram and your first thought will be millionaire cheat. But that perception, Graham argues, has been manufactured by a powerful media of newspapers and television, and embedded by 15 years of mythology. With only a few small tweaks since its Chichester run, Quiz is still as sharp and exciting as it was 6 months ago (see previous review here), presenting the case for the prosecution in the first half and the case for the defence in the second, based on the book Bad Show by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett (well worth a read if you want more detail on the case).

Getting a West End transfer right is not always easy, but director Daniel Evans and designer Robert Jones have clearly thought carefully about how best to bring their ¾ -round production into the proscenium arch theatre. Fitting perfectly onto the slightly adapted Noel Coward stage, which has been turned into a TV studio with onstage seating, Jones’s design reflects the exuberant glitz of the TV game show, a brightly lit world of neon cubes, flashing panels and multiple screens to relay the drama from every angle.

Some additions include a new warm-up act, played by the chameleonic Kier Charles, to start the two halves, reinforcing the falsity of the gameshow set-up, nodding to the mask performers wear in public, while crucially (and finally) delivering those pub quiz answers at the start of Act Two which were absent from the Chichester version. But most importantly, the warm-up act creates the tone of the show, the fundamental purpose of which is to bring the audience into the action from the start. This is no passive West End play where you sit back and receive a performance, but through the pub quiz round, an opportunity to appear in the montages and the chance to vote on Ingram’s guilt using the electronic devices attached to every seat, the audience is constantly asked to play along, to think and pass judgement on what you have seen, much as you would if you read the ‘evidence’ in a newspaper.

And you can certainly feel the auditorium responding to Graham’s dramatic techniques more actively than most West End shows. People engage with each other as the baton is handed back to us to make decisions, but also, given the addictive nature of the Millionaire format, people mutter as they try to answer the questions in the reconstructed TV scenes or in the wonderful section where the Ingram’s test their popular culture knowledge by guessing the karaoke tune and identifying classic characters from Coronation Street, almost as if they were watching a game show at home on the sofa. How interesting an NT Live screening of this play would be – introducing the screen element to a concept that deliberately comments on how we use screens to make cursory assessments of truth and justice.

Graham’s work is always full of wonderfully observed pop culture references and a warm nostalgia for the cultural past, but in Quiz these really come into their own, and you can feel the audience’s delight as Graham walks us through the wider context of the Ingram case. The fantastic gameshow montage is still a high point, and while Brucie may have been excised to make way for other content, there is still so much charm in the recreated version of The Price is Right and Bullseye, now even more poignant given the passing of the great Jim Bowen since the Chichester run. And while you can feel Graham gleefully revelling in his childhood memories, it also evokes the same connection for much of the room, of a simpler time that was clearly the forerunner of the madness of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and our more recent obsession with constructed reality TV.

Daniel Evans’s direction is light and effortless, with the action moving so effortlessly that 2.5 hours speeds by. But the fun elements of the story remain perfectly in balance with the play’s serious purpose, so the tension builds carefully in the Millionaire scenes and there are several poignant moments where the once colourful world is starkly lit by Tim Lutkin as the consequences of the action and the real nature of ‘justice’ are truly felt.

The performances have deepened since the earlier run, and Kier Charles almost steals the show with his hilarious portrayal of a collection of much-loved TV hosts. From Leslie Crowther and Bowen to Chris Tarrant, Charles clearly relishes every moment, amplifying the tics and mannerisms of each of these well-loved presenters with often hilarious results. Gavin Spokes as Major Ingram has found greater depths of emotion in the role, so that now the damaging effects of his time in the hot seat are considerably more poignant, while quiz-loving Diana played by Stephanie Street is a tad more ambiguous.

Two further notable points also emerge from the West End run of Quiz ; first that London audiences are considerably more cynical than those in Chichester, and while there is a swing towards Not Guilty after the second half, the statistics for recent performances show it is far closer to 50:50 than it was in West Sussex; Second, in reality the way justice is dispensed can be wildly disproportionate to the crime committed. While the Ingrams may have been given relatively short suspended sentences to accompany their guilty verdicts with the need for justice to ‘seen to be done’, the wider response was ludicrous. Graham leaves us to question whether they really deserved to be hounded by the press and the public everywhere they went, to have their children bullied at school, to have their pets shot and for Charles Ingram’s much-loved army career to be terminated, all for supposedly cheating on a quiz show? Multiple lives irreparably damaged for arguably a minor infraction?

Like the plays that have gone before, Graham has taken a key moment in TV history and asked us to think more carefully about what it means and why it set society on a new, less worthy, path. Justice doesn’t begin and end in court rooms any more, and while the media can whip up a frenzy and bring the full might of the mob down on the powerless individual, there seems to be little hope of fairness. If you leave this show discussing the case and the way in which we all jump to conclusions, then Graham has done his job because challenging how we all respond to the institutions that wield societal power is the only way to improve them. As for Quiz itself, as a theatrical experience, let’s leave the final word to Jim Bowen – super, smashing, great!

Quiz is at the Noel Coward Theatre until 16 June. Tickets start at £15 with day seats available for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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