The Gold – BBC iPlayer
Sunday nights are made for gripping dramas. This is London, 1983 and we’re about to see the biggest ever gold heist, which, ridiculously, all happened by accident. Thieves hit a trading estate at Heathrow hoping for one million in foreign currency but steal £26 million in gold bullion. The older security guard has the measure of things; “This is either a lot of luck or no luck at all”. That’s far too much loot to get away with. There are no celebrations because no one knows quite what to do.
Kenneth Noye provides that plan, the only thief in South London not daunted. Played by Jack Lowden (almost unrecognisable from his pretty useless Slow Horses character), people know him as a builder who deals in fake watches but he’s much more than that. One of the villains calls him low-key and questions his credentials; Kenny responds “You only hear about people who get caught”.
The plan comes together quickly out of necessity. Kenny’s contacts will add impurities into the gold in a garden shed, cover their backs with fake paperwork and then invest in a sizable redevelopment of London’s Docklands via Edwin Cooper (Dominic Cooper from Preacher). Dirty gold goes in and clean money comes out. Edwin is a well-respected solicitor struggling with his posh in-laws and their old-school ways of doing things. He’s raging against the rigid British class system; it’s To The Manor Born, but with violent criminals.
The coppers are Nicki (Charlotte Spencer sparkles on screen) and Mike Wozniak’s moustache twin Tony (Emun Elliot seen recently in Guilt). They have an excellent good cop/bad cop routine together and it’s great to see Hugh Bonneville in quite a different role as DCI Boyce, brought in to lead the investigation. He’s still warm and fatherly but his interrogation scenes are a wonder to behold. The suspects crumble like broken biscuits. Like Edwin, Nicki is flipping the script on her upbringing, determined to leave her past behind if only someone would take her skills seriously.
1980s South London looks grey and drab, with shades of The Sweeney and Life on Mars; the only brightness is the gold itself reflected in people’s faces like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The cast are almost faultless, but a word of warning; the first episode is slightly confusing. A series of sketches about very different people, families and groups that don’t really begin to link up until the end. It’s a little ploddy and the pre-credits info dump feels like homework. But having seen a handful of episodes now, I can confirm it’s fantastic when it hits its stride and well worth your time.
Better – BBC iPlayer
Comparison is the thief of joy. New BBC cop drama Better suffers under the weight of Line of Duty and Happy Valley and not being either of those shows. How do you follow those juggernauts? The Beeb presses on regardless. As Ted Haistings never said: There’s only one thing I’m interested in, and that’s watching bent coppers.
The twist here is we know exactly who the bent copper is within the first ten minutes as DCI Lou Slack ditches her husband in a Leeds bar to break into a crime scene and retrieve a gun for her friend Col. She re-gifts it wrapped in a literal bow at his birthday party, strongly suggesting this is the worst thing she’s done for him and she’s not comfortable. She’s especially haunted by the dying man she finds there. Don’t forget him. She certainly can’t.
Lou is Leila Farzad, BAFTA nominated for I Hate Suzie. She’s a big deal in organised crime, in both senses of the phrase. She’s benefited financially throughout her career by being on the payroll of local gangster and drug lord Col McHugh, played by Andrew Buchan, who plays a good bad guy; kind, generous, loyal, funny and just the right amount of sinister. Although his Irish accent here has divided opinion. He spends the majority of this first episode rolling his eyes at his idiot underlings while Lou tries to make his problems disappear.
Lou has a very busy life with her career, her family and being a bent copper. Her husband Ceri knows what she’s up to, to some extent. He doesn’t like that she’s at Col’s beck and call but he directly benefits from it.
The dying man in the drug den pricks at what little is left of Lou’s conscience, as does a very serious situation with her teenage son. Grief and guilt conflate the two moments in her mind and she swears to do better, to break away from Col and his growing crime empire, if her little family survives unscathed.
On screen together Col and Lou are entirely believable as affectionate old mates living complicated lives. They share cigarettes and share confidences but are both rightly cautious around each other, masking their true intentions. I also enjoyed the silly moments punctuated with dark humour; more comparisons here to Happy Valley’s straight-taking coppers and scrotes.
It’s not necessarily a stone-cold classic of the genre but it’s very watchable as we see the ties that bind are finally unravelling. And it’s praiseworthy for being shot entirely on location in Leeds with a British Iranian lead.
Funny Woman – Sky Max/ Now
Speaking of no-nonsense northern women, Gemma Arterton plays Barbara Parker, the Blackpool Belle beauty queen of 1964 in an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 2014 novel Funny Girl. When threatened with a year of opening supermarkets she escapes to London before the very 1960s credits have rolled. Austin Powers may dance into view at any moment. Yeah baby!
Even leaving behind her fiancé, “the best-looking butcher in Blackpool”, doesn’t bring her down. She pitches up at a job in a high-end department store; think Are You Being Served? with the complex hierarchy of Mean Girls. Marjorie (the excellent Alexa Davies from Raised by Wolves and Detectorists) is her new friend and roommate who will guide her through the social pitfalls. And, as we are frequently reminded, she’s from oop north and reet down to earth. Social embarrassment abounds but she’ll brush it off and carry on regardless.
Her dad, a confectioner and cliché specialising in Blackpool rock, is fine with her having ideas above her station. He’s loyal to a fault and his belief in her warms the heart. Inspired by their shared love of radio comedy and her watching Lucille Ball as she waits in the laundrette, she knows she wants to entertain, but exactly how to get started eludes her.
The set-up is reminiscent of Amazon Prime’s The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, which is no bad thing, but unlike Miriam, Babs wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She’s a classic underdog, selling hats to rich women and despite her good looks, which seems like an advantage, you can’t help but root for her.
Pretty girls in the mid-60s entertainment industry aren’t exactly respected. Marjorie says “My dad says that an actress is no better than common prostitutes!” and Barbara answers “Is your dad a vicar from Victorian times?” Her self-belief serves her well, especially when her sugar daddy date tries to commit an act of sexual violence. “I’ll get what I paid for” he growls.
On that same horrible night, she meets a very theatrical talent agent played by Rupert Everett, who likes her looks and her attitude but can’t understand why she would want to go into comedy. She sneaks into a radio show audition and her superfan credentials makes her stand out in a dull crowd. But it’s not an immediate rags-to-riches success. Convinced she’s failed the audition she has to take a job as a dancing girl in Soho, right back to the bikinis she swore she’d never wear again.
Despite the themes of everyday sexism and violence against women, this is a warm and comforting show mainly thanks to Gemma Arterton’s performance and her character’s intelligence and relentless positivity. And it looks really nice too.
Inside Our Autistic Minds – BBC iPlayer
Chris Packham, naturalist, autism campaigner and all-round good guy, helms this worthy BBC project to help bring the autistic experience to life. Four people are given the chance to make their own short films and present them to their loved ones to give their friends and family a startling and authentic insight into what’s going on inside their heads.
There’s an estimated 700,000 autistic people in the UK and this format does a very neat job of showing how the stereotypical autistic experience isn’t universal and every autistic person is an individual. We meet Flo and Murray who couldn’t be more different from each other.
Seemingly extrovert Flo discusses masking; the years of camouflaging her true self in front of people to make her behaviours more typical and less ‘rude’. She keeps stigmatised behaviour like rocking, holding her head in her hands and seeming vacant suppressed. Startlingly she says “I’m never speaking my native language”. It sounds exhausting and it is. When she and Chris meet they’ve both very conscious of making eye contact because they’ve been taught it’s the right thing to do.
The experts Chris meets say girls are more socially motivated than boys and learn to mask so well this contributes to the late diagnosis of women, if they are ever diagnosed at all. Thanks to the film she makes, Flo is able to be honest with her mum; “I’m worried you’ll think I need fixing”.
Murray, aged 20, doesn’t speak and communicates slowly and purposefully with a keyboard. When he’s nervous, he self-sooths by rocking and keeps his headphones on to minimise sudden noises; the behaviours that Flo masks. He’s quiet, easy to overlook, but as a thoughtful people-watcher, he’s got the most amazing insight. What he writes is poetic and profound. As his dad, the DJ Ken Bruce, says every word should be treasured.
Chris, not normally sentimental, is very moved by Murray and his desire to speak up for nonverbal people, like a translator between two worlds. It’s a pleasure to see his message on film, making him better understood by people who would normally be too quick to give him a chance. His simple plea resonates with everyone who has ever felt marginalised; “Hear us”.
World’s Most Dangerous Roads – Dave/ UKTV Play
It’s nice to see Dave reviving a pre-pandemic travel show format from back when the only obstacle was time and money, not cancelled flights and closed borders. Astonishingly the first series was broadcast way back in 2012, but maybe it feels more recent thanks to Dave’s fondness for repeats.
This isn’t exactly aspirational travel. These are trips you may not necessarily want to take, because of the locations and activities, not just because Leigh Francis doing his Keith Lemon character is your road trip buddy. Celebrities in uncomfortable predicaments is a perennial genre, see also Sue Perkins: Perfectly Legal on Netflix, which offers far more jeopardy than watching Richard E. Grant check in at another five-star hotel.
In this series we have pairings of long-term buddies and people who’ve been put together for the show. Pleasingly the dynamic works both ways.
Friends Zoe Lyons and Joe Wilkinson are made for their trip around Eastern Turkey. He is very domesticated and doesn’t want to drive at all. Zoe says “I’m going to bring the adventure”, Joe says “I’ll bring the panic attacks”. Risk averse sofa pals Phil Wang and Pierre Novellie find themselves exploring Lesotho, reluctantly camping and driving through the snow. Comedian Lara Ricote and actor Stephen Mangan who don’t know each other at all drive through what can only be described as muddy plunge pools to Cape York and the tip of Australia. They’re novice adventurers but very pleasant travelling companions.
Sliced – BBC iPlayer
This sit-com made for Dave is now available on iPlayer. Maybe because Samson Kayo and his adorable high voltage smile has been most recently seen in iPlayer favourites Famalam and Our Flag Means Death. He plays Joshua, a moped-driving delivery driver at South London’s premier cheap pizza shop.
We meet him and best friend Ricky (Theo Barklem-Briggs) sitting amongst Joshua’s belongings in the street having been thrown out of the house. Joshua’s indomitable mother keeps an immaculate home and expects rent from her son. “At 5-years old you are my son.
At 30 years old you are my tenant!” Joshua is the kind of man who gets threatened by teenagers and bullied by a bank helpline assistant “I can make you poorer in 30 seconds!”.
His heart of gold can’t be denied, and he’s not as daft as he looks, rescuing the suicidal Scott (a recurring character played by Phil Daniels) from an evil scheme concocted by poor Scott’s neighbour to get herself his nice big flat.
He’s the smart one of the man-baby friends-since-school duo. Ricky’s get rich quick scheme involves selling fidget spinners years after their novelty sell-by-date. “When have I ever let you down?” he pleads regularly. “Twice a day every day since reception” says Joshua.
This is a classic comedy pairing of loyal male friends, going nowhere and doing nothing together. But it’s not all about the boys. Naomi, the new girl, is the straight woman, and we meet the scheming Nahmeea in the second episode.
There are mentions of the UK’s institutionally racist society; stop and search is “the black man’s burden”, but it’s delicate and handled with a great deal of humour. The set up made me think of Channel 4’s Phoneshop, a perfect TV sitcom, even before Martin Trenaman turned up as a luckless security guard. Now that’s a mark of quality.
The Piano – Channel 4
After the success of The Traitors at the end of last year, Claudia Winkleman is backing her more familiar good guy role. This is an unusual Channel 4 competition to celebrate creativity, passion, music and second chances. Train stations across the country feature love-it-or-hate-it public pianos for anyone to bash out a tune to a passing audience. A piece of furniture you
may normally hurry past with your headphones on. But these people are good enough to miss your train for. It’s Nocturne in B flat minor here, not Chopsticks. And, most importantly, they don’t realise they’re part of a contest.
Our piano players are aware of the cameras and lovely Claudia but not that they’re being judged until they’ve played, removing that stress. The judges, hidden away in vacant shops and left luggage lockers, are quite an unusual pairing; Europop singer-songwriter Mika (remember that squeaky Grace Kelly song from 2007?) and world-famous classical musician Lang Lang. We meet nurturing parents and child prodigies, people whose careers or family lives stopped them playing, and people who picked up and ran with a lockdown hobby. All styles, all stories, all inspiration.
13-year-old Lucy’s terrific performance is the clip you’ll see on Gogglebox and rightly so, because she is incredible. The judges are genuinely lost for words as we learn about her non-speaking developmental delay and blindness. She learns by touching her teacher’s hands. It’s astounding. Seeing people celebrate their passion and use their ability to spread joy among the joyless commuters is enormously uplifting. There’s a prize but everyone is having so much fun together it doesn’t really matter all that much. But let’s hope there’s no nerves for the winner at their Royal Festival Hall gig and that the performances don’t get interrupted by a tannoy announcement about the 14:35 to Cardiff.