Sarah Kennedy walks us through all the good TV you might have missed in the month of July, but not to worry, there’s still time to catch up on these gems.
The Control Room – iPlayer
Gabe (Iain De Caestecker best known for Agents of SHIELD) is a call handler in Glasgow’s ambulance control room. He receives an emergency call and realises he knows the caller because of her use of his childhood nickname. This caller, who he’s sure is a woman called Sam, confesses to killing a man. We assume the man is someone she’s been in an abusive relationship with.
Gabe is not the kind of guy who likes to go home but makes the trip in search of Sam. His mother died when he was a child, and his father is distant to say the least. Some dark act in the past hinted at and the significance of a Christmas tree farm, the Scottish version of a spooky field of maze for children to run through.
His troubled childhood is scattered throughout in flashbacks. We see a shack burn down in his mind’s eye. The remains of this shack are significant in his relationship with Sam and this is where she pops up desperately pleading for his help. Sam is trouble with a capital T and we know this because she turns up in a fake fur coat and too much jewellery. She’d be a shoo-in for a job on the market in EastEnders. He wants to convince her to do the right thing and confess to the police. She wants him to move a dead body to prove his love for her, and he looks daft enough to do it. He’s still a boy desperate for warmth and affection. De Caestecker’s beaten- down performance is very natural and quite affecting. He’s a furrowed brow of a man. With his voice breaking with emotion he begs his friend Alfie for his silence; “She isn’t just anyone.” He’s convinced, very easily, Sam is the real victim.
The interior of this shack in the woods is distracting because it looks so much like a stage set. But the way the production design plays with light is impressive. Noir-inspired long shadows, off-kilter Dutch angles, the shock of bright coloured squares in the gloom. All Gabe needs is a detective agency and a trilby because in Sam he’s found his femme fatale.
The Control Room is delightfully creepy and much more worthy of your time than first appearances suggest. Plus, it only needs to maintain pace and enough story for three episodes. Win-win.
Joe Lycett Summer Exhibitionist – iPlayer
Birmingham’s own Travel Man and provocateur of industry and government is the perfect presenter for this programme having himself been selected to exhibit in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition back in 2018. He’s in his element as an affable presenter putting the public at ease as he rifles through their bags, peels back the bubble wrap and has a nosey at the art they have poured their heart into. He also has an axe to grind for comedic effect as nothing that he submitted was selected for the 2022 exhibition.
From a staggering 15,000 online submissions the judges whittle them down to 1,500 in-person submissions, and that’s where Joe comes in.
Via him we meet the strangest, most wonderfully creative people and get swept up in the emotions of their successes and failures. Kevin from Birmingham is an absolute one-off with his scary dolls. By day he’s a web designer for Wolverhampton City council but by night an artist. I adore Miah’s beautiful ceramic lips, and the tension of unveiling Charmaine’s glass sculpture is almost too much to bear. Jamie’s hand sewn dragons are another highlight. We learn about these people and their lives albeit briefly, but we care about them immediately and we’re willing them to succeed. The courage on display, to be able to put yourself forward and be judged, is inspiring. The big question from the amateurs is “Can I call myself an artist now?”. Putting something on the wall in a prestigious exhibition can’t quite outfox imposter syndrome. Lycett himself wants to celebrate making as something that everyone can do. He says making art “clicks your brain into a different space”. And that’s not a feeling that should only be available for the elite.
Summer Exhibitionist did exactly what it needed to do. I’ve booked my ticket. It’s a great advert for the Royal Academy and the joy of creating.
How to Build a Sex Room – Netflix
I’m all for learning more about your sexual needs and desires, exploring and pushing boundaries in a relationship, but I didn’t expect to learn so much from what is essentially Changing Rooms. This is an interior design show for American couples in need of high-end pleasure rooms and fancy boudoirs. It seems like a niche Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen should have – ahem – filled back in the 90s. I’m already envisioning a British remake coming soon to Channel 5.
Designer Melanie Rose has a classy English accent which, as any Brit abroad can confirm, helps you get away with almost anything. It gives her nanny vibes somewhere between Supernanny Jo Frost and Mary Poppins. This comes in very handy as she has frank and revealing discussions with her clients about their pleasure and how exactly they will use their rooms. She says that the word sex has grubby and seedy connotations and she’s right. The word ‘sex room’ makes me shudder and reach for the antibac wipes. Something sticky this way comes. Sex basement, as in episode one, makes me want to bleach the whole house, including myself. Melanie is adamant that she’s trying to get away from that sort of discourse, and show her work is valuable and actually quite sophisticated, so of course, what do Netflix choose to call the show? Yeah.
They’re playing with the juxtaposition of all-American suburbia with Brady Bunch style exteriors with each couple’s intentions for their interiors. Two projects start in the first episode, but we only see one to completion, which is a naughty way to set up episode two. Couple number one made me worry we’d see nothing but young beautiful people bragging about their amazing physical relationship. So thankfully couple number two are a bit adrift from each other and need help with basic loving intimacy, not just reinforced brackets for chandelier swinging. Either way, Christian Grey has a lot to answer for.
Sneakerhead – Dave
This new workplace comedy from BAFTA winning Gillian Roger Park reminds me of 2010s Channel 4 hit Phoneshop in all the right ways. Our setting is a grim high street in Peterborough.
Long-suffering Russel, played by Hugo Chegwin, is losing at life and stagnating at a popular sports retailer known for their crap trainers and massive mugs. No, not that one, but it’s awfully familiar. Russel’s horrible girlfriend Claire tells him that he is “a waste of a life at Sports Depot”. Surely you mean wasting my life, he says. She shrugs and dumps him walking off wearing his expensive Yeezy trainers. His colleagues are all like him; hopeless, underpaid, and demotivated, apart from the sociopaths who will do anything to scramble to the top. The team are surviving on banter and good-natured teasing, the very definition of demotivated, which may have something to do with every break spent up on the roof smoking weed, or, when times are tough, sage and onion.
This is a great cast working hard to make their broad comedy characters distinctive. The brief conversation about sexting between Jemma and Amber is packed with great lines and killer delivery “I want sex to be romantic. I don’t want to feel like a post-box”.
This has a similar spirit to it as People Just Do Nothing and The Young Offenders. It’s so painfully close to the reality of retail it’s almost a documentary. Watching the decay around them Russell tries to convince Malenga (played by Big Zuu branching out from presenting to acting), “Ah! But you can’t recreate what we do online” “Yeah, wait… what?!” it’s not even satire, it’s just bare facts. And what can you do in the face of hopelessness but laugh?
How To Change Your Mind – Netflix
Professor Michael Pollan is a journalist who writes about botany and humans’ evolutionary relationship with plants. This new series explores four different mind-altering drugs, their complex histories, current research and future uses. It’s based on his 2018 book about psychedelic therapies. The show is packed with science and history, with thankfully very little in the way of crystal healing and patchouli oil. It’s very pro-drugs, barely acknowledging the negatives. There’s only the briefest mention of the importance of taking LSD in a controlled hospital environment to guard against the chances of a psychotic break.
But after decades of negative press, since the 1960s when “The research escaped the laboratory” causing moral panic and a fierce backlash to the detriment of science, maybe this is striking a refreshing balance. From a useful therapy for depression, to peace and love, to a CIA bioweapon and back to healing, LSD is going full circle. A trip is described as not intoxication but transformation, a healing experience. Could it ever be looked at as truly therapeutic, like yoga or mindfulness? In Switzerland and other countries where trials are now legal LSD is used to treat serious pain (cancer, cluster headaches, etc), anxiety and depression. It’s giving hope to people who were suicidal when nothing else had worked for them.
Pollan is a very academic host, but thoughtful and engaging. He has a lovely turn of phrase too, like a poet “Strong emotions passing through me like weather systems”. There’s moments of bright animation where we see volunteers describe how LSD felt for them while stars shimmer and colours radiate throughout their body. And after much research, he’s willing to try these drugs for himself.
My favourite historical tidbit was the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, the “father of LSD”, and how having taken way too much (0.25ml when it should be measured in micrograms) he hops on his bicycle to get home. How incredibly European. What a trip.