Sarah Kennedy’s small-screen highlights of the past month, featuring epic heroes and anti-heroes, short and snappy formats, and stories of resilience forged in childhood, and a quick look at December’s highlights.
SAS Rogue Heroes (iPlayer)
Despite appearances, SAS Rogue Heroes (iPlayer) is not a Channel 4 reality show presented by Bear Grylls. It’s a lavish period drama based firmly in fantastical history, developed and written for TV by Steve ‘Peaky Blinders’ Knight. Set during the Northern African Campaign of WWII it’s a rather jolly look at the formation of the parachute regiment and the horrors of war.
The military top brass are about as useful as the generals in Blackadder, and charismatic toff David Stirling is furious the British Army under siege in Libya have not been rescued. He sets about recruiting for his crazy plan – to set up a rogue regiment, commandeer equipment and attack the German port positions by stealth from the air. All the action and momentum hinges on Connor Swindells broad shoulders, but this young actor (who you’ll remember from Sex Education) is up to the task. Alfie Allen is strait-laced God-fearing Jock Lewes already banking on parachutes as the solution. Whether or not he can operate one is a minor detail. Bullish bravado is all that’s required; these men have seen enough of war to know they have to make their own luck. Paddy Mayne (Jack O’Connell) is the fierce Irish man, here to denigrate the upper classes and write poetry. Paddy is the bitter, desperate soul of the show after suffering a devastating loss.
The show is slightly down because of the lack of female roles. Sofia Boutella as a French spy is the only female speaking role not involved with belly dancing in the swinging clubs of Cairo. Transgressive spy Dominic West is worth your time in episode two and by then you’ll be hooked. The ‘dad rock’ soundtrack works so well; ACDC and Black Sabbath at their most groovy (no War Pigs yet although it feels inevitable). There’s quite a bit of romantic poetry about death and everyone makes grand speeches, but don’t let that put you off. This story could have been stupidly gung-ho but in fact strikes a smart balance between heroism, failure and the grim realities of young lives cut short. Plus, there’s a lot of British actors really enjoying themselves, playing out their swaggery rock-star fantasies.
Another show I found so moreish that it should come with a health warning is Wednesday (Netflix). Who doesn’t have a warm place in their cold heart for The Addams Family? This is a mysterious and spooky treat to see us through the miserable end of the year. It’s especially welcome since the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina turned into a full-on miserable slog. It’s fantastical escapism; sometimes the good guys need to win!
Teenage Wednesday has a lot to deal with. Expelled after an ingenious attempted murder with piranhas she arrives at the Nevermore boarding school, the place where her parents met. She’s determined to defy her doting family’s expectations but how does a gothic outcast rebel in a school built for outcasts? She must find her feet in this new environment with all the usual teen troubles, while plagued with visions, struggling through court-ordered therapy sessions, butting heads with the fabulous Principal Weem (Gwendoline Christie looking presidential), solving a family mystery, and tracking down a murderer scattering body parts across the woods.
She’s also plagued by the affections of her roommate Enid, a dayglow werewolf. She’s apparently allergic to colour so she gets to keep her iconic black and white aesthetic even in school uniform. Goth-chic.
Jenna Ortega commands the lead role, channelling Aubrey Plaza at her grumpiest. I loved everyone in the supporting cast, especially Catherine Zeta-Jones as Morticia. She and Luis Guzman as Gomez are Charles Addams’ illustrations brought to life. Gwendoline Christie and the tragically underused Christina Ricci are both having an absolute ball. Tim Burton’s name on the marquee is impressive, his aesthetic aligned perfectly to Addams interior design, but in fact he only directed four episodes.
By the time Wednesday rips The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black a new one with her terrific cello version you’ll be totally enamoured of her. With a beloved character living up to expectations and Netflix actually giving the audience what they want, this unexpected success may be another roadblock to originality. Not all characters need a spin-off, but then, not all spin-offs are this good.
BBC New Comedy Awards (iPlayer)
Everyone has that one friend like Amy 😅😳
— BBC Three (@bbcthree) October 22, 2022
Need something short and snappy? How about the BBC New Comedy Awards (iPlayer)?
A nation-wide search for new voices in stand-up comedy with 1000 entries and 30 finalists. Heats across the country give us five comics per show doing a tight five minutes each, playing for a place in the grand final.
And there are plenty of new voices. These heats are lacking diversity when it comes to age with everyone here 35 or younger. Is stand-up a young person’s game? The perspectives are fresh, even if some of the gags are well-worn.
The comics play with identity and expectations. Dee Allum is a trans man talking about how much they like Halloween because it’s the only night of the year when people are allowed to say “What have you come as?”. Of course, they were Wolverine because they’re an ex-man. Chin Wang, a Chinese national, talks about her British boyfriend taking over spaces in her flat as he moved in; “Which bit looks like Hong Kong to you?”. Dinesh Nathan is an Asian man often mistaken for black who did a show for black history month; “Like my hero Martin Luther King used to say 200 quid is 200 quid.”
Every judge talks about the importance of stage presence as if it’s something they themselves have newly discovered. But fair play to them; it’s heartening to find three comedians who will happily laugh at other people’s jokes; comedians being notorious nodders. If you can make just one professional comic laugh out loud, you might be onto a winner.
Alexander Armstrong in South Korea (Channel 5)
— Channel 5 (@channel5_tv) October 28, 2022
Is speed the essence in the modern travel documentary? Alexander Armstrong in South Korea (Channel 5) is like Jenson Button at Brands Hatch. This is light, fast and fluffy TV. Watch Alexander boggle at Gangnam’s crowds and neon signs, be in awe of a Mukbang YouTuber and her competitive noodle slurping skills. The wide-eyed innocent abroad does the absolute minimum to scratch what he himself admits is a “synthetic surface”. There’s no time to sit and think in this hustle and bustle, which is a shame as South Korea seems like a fascinating microcosm of capitalism in action. It’s a workaholics paradise, developing on speed from one of the poorest countries in the world in the 1960s to one of the global top 10 today. A staggering 26 million people live in Seoul, in comparison a paltry 9 million call London home. but a bit more history and a bit less playing at being in a K-pop band would have been nice. But then even the light and fluffy format can’t be trusted. Kitsch cuteness is contrasted with one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. To do his part Jeong Yong–mun runs the Death Experience School where meditations on life and death aim to provide a powerful new perspective on life. “You are dying today. You will be reborn” It’s an affecting moment, Alexander’s real emotions are high as he climbs into a coffin, the lid closes and Jeong hammers the imaginary nails.
Alexander Armstrong is professionally charming and enthusiastic. He’s warm and very watchable, but don’t come to this looking for depth.
How to Survive a Dictator (All4)
Let Munya Chawawa provide some proper insight. TikTok star and Taskmaster alumni Munya has spent his adult life in the UK, his family having left Zimbabwe 17 years ago. His entertaining documentary How to Survive a Dictator (All4) drew criticism from some quarters about whether a silly comic could present this sort of documentary and stretch his legs into journalism, investigating Robert Mugabe’s crimes. It’s an incredibly snobbish and reductive point of view especially given Munya’s personal connection with the country. Are Michael Palin and Sue Perkins no longer welcome to present travel documentaries because they’re both comics? Unsurprisingly, the negative write-up was in the right-wing press so I’ll let you decide what it was about the young, successful, black host that they really disliked.
As Munya puts it, this is Mugabe’s origin story; how a well-educated man fighting for civil rights becomes a dictator.There’s a ridiculously funny Supermarket Sweep parody where Cecil Rhodes grabs African countries off the shelf, sweeping them up into his shopping trolley; “If you can grab them you can have them!”. It’s a skill to be light-hearted and engaging about a topic so disturbing people might otherwise avoid it.
Munya doesn’t shy away from meeting the main players, however terrifying they are. It’s fascinating how people can hang on so fiercely to their version of the truth, however perverse, however much the facts deny it. Mugabe’s nephews have drunk the Kool Aid; “His biggest weakness was forgiving. He was a peacemaker”. How Munya listens to this with a straight face I’ll never know. This is well-balanced between history and entertainment, not especially detailed, but an excellent beginners guide to Zimbabwe’s story.
His Handle With Care (ITV)
Join us & thousands around the globe in celebration!
— Jimmy Akingbola (@JimmyAkingbola) November 9, 2022
Another successful black man reconciling himself with childhood adversity is Jimmy Akingbola (recently seen in the Fresh Prince reboot Bel-Air). His Handle With Care (ITV) autobiography details his time spent in the care system and shines a light on the wildly different experiences of children of colour.
His affecting personal story seems on the surface to have a happy ending, but feelings of abandonment are something he’ll have to deal with all his life. Aged just two, his mother left him at a social services office. His father had already disowned them both due to his mother’s poor mental health, and his mistaken belief that Jimmy wasn’t his son. Until the age of 16 he lived with a white foster family, who we meet. They didn’t talk much about their differences, ignored to make him feel better. Over fish and chips his adorable foster mum explains “I don’t think I did anything special; I just loved a little boy”. Jimmy was often abused and bullied but didn’t want to tell his siblings. In turn, he was trying to protect them too.
He connected with black actors and athletes on screen, seeing them as role models, which his Mum encouraged. In this show he meets other black celebrities who lived in care, some stories much more negative than his. Kris Akabusi listing what happened to the children he lived with is hard to forget. Jimmy felt out of place but at least he was loved. They consider the importance of racially appropriate foster families in helping children to establish roots, learn about black history and culture, and just the simplicity of not being stared at or questioned on family outings. He also gets a different perspective on his biological family, and an appreciation for how difficult it was for his siblings living with his father when Jimmy and his mum were cut from their lives, never to be spoken of again.
Some elements are laid on a bit thick; Jimmy staring up at the Hollywood sign as he considers his future, and a child actor, underused, as his inner child. But I’m glad he’s told his story. There are half a million children in the care system in Britain today and they need role models too.
On my to-watch list:
Netflix’s 1899, with four spoken languages and a mysterious code it’s designed to keep you from dual screening
Expensive-looking playground game turned game show The Traitors (aka Mafia, aka Wink Murder, aka Werewolves and Villagers) with imperious Lady of the Manor Claudia Winkleman in charge.
Coming up in December:
David Tennant as poisoned Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko heralds ITV’s streaming reboot in Litvinenko
The welcome return of Happy Valley to BBC1 on New Year’s Day
His Dark Materials wraps up its mysteries in its final instalment
Sheridan Smith is back in comedy with Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything on Sky