There are times when the announcement “Familiar Middle-Aged Character Actor X to star as Detective Y in a new crime series based on the popular book series by Z set in picturesque location A” is enough to make me sigh with ennui.
Tomorrow/Monday, BBC1, 9pm
A HISTORY OF SYRIA WITH DAN SNOW
Monday, BBC2, 9pm
Wednesday, Channel 4, 10pm
You can invent your own variations as a party game: Rupert Everett as DI Eddie Everarch solving crimes in Ellesmere; Kathy Burke as DCI Wilma Workington who works out of Wooton Bassett; Paterson Joseph as Superintendent Sly Peeps on the trail of a serial killer in Somerset. They’d all be fine, no doubt, well made and well-acted, perfectly watchable. And they’d be basically the same as all the rest we already have: the damaged loner hero, the grisly autopsy scene, the exposition. Enough, already.
And yet … There are many good things about Shetland, in which Douglas Henshall stars as Detective Jimmy Perez in a new crime series based on the popular book series by Ann Cleeves set in – guess where.
Henshall is a solidly effective actor, recently freed from the green-screen-and-tennis-ball-on-a-stick constraints of the ridiculous Primeval. It’s hard not to be pleased at the sight of him in a nice chunky jumper, sanding a boat outside an old stone cottage. And his pained, creased face and sad eyes are perfect for close-ups of him reacting to untimely deaths, while his soft growling whisper makes sentences like “I want you to tape off this area, set up a common approach path and put up a windshield” sound delightful.
Also pleasing are scenes, familiar to anyone who knows the Highlands and Islands, of Henshall’s Jimmy Perez having to go up a hill and strain to get a mobile phone signal, or having to use a phone box so he can report in. There are good supporting actors, the islands look beautiful but real (the vast lowering skies are often as grey as the stone, shots pan across trenches of grassy slopes and there’s a quiet scene shot in twilight that’s as pretty as any noir). In Up Helly Aa it has the perfect backdrop for a dramatic conclusion and there’s potential in the idea that, in small, hard-to-reach communities, any murderer must be someone you know intimately.
But there are a lot of clichés too: widowed Perez has a sassy teenage stepdaughter, as well as a female Glaswegian colleague who’s feisty and cheeky (invented for the series) and an earnest young PC. There’s ongoing tension with his old mate who wants to modernise the islands while Perez just wants everything to stay the same (“Most people here don’t lock their doors and I’d like it to stay that way”). There are buried secrets and more red herrings than the pelagic factory at Lerwick.
There’s even a cute scruffy dog. So it’s exactly as you’d expect and exactly as watchable, if you like this sort of thing.
The sad truth about A History Of Syria With Dan Snow is that it’s only been made because of the civil war going on there; although Britain has had many connections with the country in the past, most of us probably didn’t take too much notice of it or its history until recent events explosively forced it into the news. And so, understandably, Snow’s attempt to set everything in context skips fairly briskly over the Roman period, the Islamic empire and the crusader era, so that he can get to 20th century stuff.
“If you want to understand what’s happening in Syria and this region at the moment, there’s only one place to start,” he says, “and that’s in the past. You’ve got to ask yourself not what’s happening, but what’s happened.” Fair enough and this Syria For Beginners does a decent job of trotting through the basics of the regime of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, initially regarded as a potential reformer – partly on the basis, according to American professor David Lesch, that he was known to like the music of Phil Collins (haven’t these people read American Psycho?).
I’m not quite sure if the likeable Snow was the best person to present this, his usual field being modern European warfare rather than current affairs, but we seem to be stuck with the system where someone regarded as an expert in one specific area is trundled out to present anything vaguely similar (and at least it wasn’t Professor Brian Cox). He seems more comfortable with the earlier bits where he’s walking purposefully through ruins while gesturing emphatically, than with the political intrigue which relies more on news footage and talking heads. Still, he narrates clearly and the documentary is a useful primer.
After the grisly sentiment of Derek, the phrase “heartwarming Channel 4 sitcom” may induce shudders. But hurrah: The Mimic is both endearing and gently funny, Even though it features an impressionist – Terry Mynott, previously in Very Important People, who was discovered via a home-made YouTube clip of him imitating celebrities. Here, he plays Martin, a gormless, shy chap who amuses himself with his voices: Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn debate his problems; Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones keep him company watching TV. The show takes a relaxing low-key approach: a scene where he tricks some teenagers is allowed to play out softly, without overdoing it, and his discovery of a potential grown-up son isn’t milked for cheap sappiness (yet). Ironically, the whole thing’s rather original.
SMALL SCREEN MOVIES
MADE IN DAGENHAM
* * * *
Today, BBC2, 9pm
Unusual twist on the usual feelgood Britflick, inspired by the true story of the 1968 struggle of the female Ford car factory machinists to win equal pay to their male colleagues. Sally Hawkins is the shy girl who becomes their leader, with Miranda Richardson as the battling politician Barbara Castle, who became involved with their cause. It’s less overtly political than a Ken Loach film, say, but perhaps its message gets across better that way. And young women inspired by the film may well be surprised to learn that there’s still a gender pay gap, 45 years on. Jamie Winstone, right, and Bob Hoskins lend support.
* * * *
Tomorrow, Channel 4, 9pm
Clever sci-fi movie starring Bradley Cooper as an average man who gains superior brainpower after taking a new drug. Great – but soon everyone’s after him, including Robert De Niro’s sinister businessman. Maybe it’s not such a good idea.
ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ * * * *
Tuesday, Film4, 11.10pm
Classic prison break movie, with Clint Eastwood attempting to bust out of The Rock to get away from sadistic governor Patrick McGoohan. But how?
THERE WILL BE BLOOD * * *
Thursday, BBC2, 11.20pm
This oil epic harks back to an older style of
Hollywood film-making and stars Daniel Day-Lewis, now officially – according to the Oscars – the bestest actor of all time, ever. It’s perhaps not to all tastes, but his scenery-chewing performance is something to see. Also starring Paul Dano.