THE new Saturday night ITV drama import for summer is set at the intersection you never knew existed: the point where Homeland meets Mr And Mrs Smith meets – blimey – Dick Emery.
The Americans - STV, Saturday, 10pm
Hebrides: Islands On The Edge - BBC1, Monday, 9pm
Up The Women - BBC4, Thursday, 8.30pm
The Americans has got the US under threat from a deeply embedded enemy cell. It’s got a married couple of trained assassins with a serious amount of tension between them. And it’s got Matthew Rhys plucking a wig from an attaché case of disguises to charm secrets from FBI secretaries that is so comedy-bad you think it can only have come from the great Dick’s dressing-up box.
To paraphrase Emery: “You are American… but I like you.” Rhys is Philip Jennings, a KGB agent who’s been behind his white picket fence in a Washington ’burb for so long he sometimes forgets all about Mother Russia. His wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) doesn’t, not ever, and sometimes has cause to report back to the Soviets about Philip’s weakness for a newly opened capitalist-imperialist shopping mall where he’ll try on cowboy boots. Not surprisingly, she denies him sex and he’s reduced to listening to cassettes of her bonking classified info out of their Cold War foes.
Yes, cassettes. It’s 1981, Ronald Reagan’s in the White House and America is worried about reds under the bed (under it, not on top, shagging). So the US stockpiles weapons and also soft-rock. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk blasts from the soundtrack at such volume that a Russky would be powerless to do anything but defect. The Jennings have a defector hidden in the boot of their car. Philip wants to turn him in to the FBI, which would mean they’d swap sides. “America’s not so bad,” he reasons. “The electricity works all the time, the food’s pretty great, and look at all the closet space.” Elizabeth seethes. She wants their children to grow up good socialists. The defector must be sent back to Russia, to die.
As with Homeland, you’re staggered at the klutz-iness of the FBI, who include an almost grizzled John-Boy Walton – though a vaguely competent agent has just moved in across the street from our couple. The Americans isn’t as smart as Homeland – viz, the clunky shot of seething Elizabeth’s reflection in a bread knife – but if the risible rugs can be sorted out it’ll do until Carrie and Brody return. At the end of the first episode, Philip killed the defector. Elizabeth was so impressed she suggested they sort out their bedroom issues in the back of the car – to the accompaniment of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, gorilla drums boom-boom cranked up to the max.
Hebrides: Islands On The Edge, which has just finished, might have been a nature series for these staycation times but it was a good one. Stunning aerial photography making the sandiest islands look positively Caribbean and stunning up-close stuff of puffins with mouthfuls of sprats. Craggy rocks and craggy faces. Ewan McGregor on voiceover duties and no sign of Charley Boorman. It’s true that the same shot of a basking shark – open-mouthed, vacuuming everything – seemed to come round every week, but no matter. As Coll crab-fisherman Innes Henderson said: “They’re fantastic, graceful, beautiful creatures. I feel privileged to be in their sea.”
The last instalment was about how the people and the wildlife of the Hebrides have come to depend on each other for survival. Every year, 40,000 barnacle geese from Greenland try to eat their way through Isla. The coos turn querulous, and farmers like James Brown are left counting the cost in grass-seed while awaiting compensation. But the geese, when they blacken the sky and cackle madly, are a tourist attraction. “I wouldn’t want to kill them all,” said James. “They earn their keep and we might as well try to exploit them.”
The Glenelg-Skye ferry is kept going in part by the wildlife enthusiasts keen to see the white-tailed eagle swoop for fish in the Kylerhea Narrows. Over on Mull the value to the economy of the great bird – hunted out of the Hebrides a century ago; reintroduced from Norway recently – is calculated at £5 million. If you want to see a corncrake you must go to Oronsay, where kinder farmer methods leaving the nettles behind are boosting numbers. Meanwhile the puffins of Treshnish have negotiated a good trade-off: they’ll pose for tourists’ photos because the presence of humans keep predatory ravens away.
Up The Women, a comedy written by Jessica Hynes who also stars, made a slow start, in keeping with the struggle to persuade the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle that votes for women is a good thing. They’re resistant to change of any sort, with one sighing: “We don’t need electricity, where’s that heading? Electric hats? Electric shoes? Electric chairs?” «
This week Aidan will be watching
PICK OF THE WEEK Bobby Womack: Across 110th Street
BBC4, Friday, 9pm
Feted by the likes of Damon Albarn in his Indian summer, veteran soulman Womack’s story goes all the way back to segregated black America six decades previously, in the ecstatic gospel churches of 1940s Cleveland. “These weren’t places where people tried to be reserved,” says Bill Withers, surely due the BBC4 treatment himself any day now. Womack reckons the most important thing he learned from church was “how to relate spiritually: if you don’t reach people’s hearts, you don’t reach
them”. The family didn’t
have much money and a prized possession was his steelworker father’s guitar. “Bobby had more nerve than the rest of us,” remembers brother Friendly. “He wasn’t supposed to touch that geetar but he went and played it.” He went on to strum for Janis Joplin and pen a Stones hit, a one-man musical history.
BEST FACTUAL David Walliams: Snapshot in Time
STV, Thursday, 9pm
I was fed up with him for a while but Walliams has been a big, fat enjoyable presence on Britain’s Got Talent, bringing much-needed macho-ness to proceedings (joke). Here he returns to his alma mater clutching a photo intent on persuading old schoolfriends to don dresses again, like they did for a production of All The King’s Men that inspired his own career choice.
BBC2, Monday, 9pm
Officially the most-watched BBC2 drama for eight years, Allan Cubitt’s thriller reaches its penultimate episode with Stella Gibson still bombing up and down the hotel swimming pool. She’s officially TV’s most prolific swimmer since David Walliams. The Belfast polis don’t exactly need a corruption case as they hunt for the serial killer but that’s exactly what they’ve got.