Tomorrow, STV, 9pm
Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm
The Thick Of It
Today, BBC2 9:45pm
From The Prince And The Pauper to Ringer (Sarah Michelle Gellar’s daft twin-swap series) to this week’s one-off ITV drama The Scapegoat, characters are constantly finding it a complete breeze to impersonate each other with very few suspicions being raised, despite massive personality differences, and they always find out that the grass is indeed greener on the other side.
For what these lifeswap dramas are really about, surely, is the fantasy of changing one’s life, righting one’s mistakes and having no responsibility for past sins. It’s the ultimate guilt-free redemption, for although to everyone else you look exactly the same, you alone know that you are quite a different person from the one who did all those bad things. If only it were that easy.
In Charles Sturridge’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel (filmed once before with Alec Guinness), the chaps swapping places are played by Matthew Rhys, who’s from Wales but made his name in America. He’s John Standing, a diffident teacher of Ancient Greek made redundant by a changing age: it’s 1952, nobody needs fusty old stuff like that anymore. He’s also Johnny Spence, a shady and smarmy guy who’s failed to manage either his family business or, indeed, his unhappy family.
They run into each other, they swap jackets and before Standing knows it, he’s ensconced in Spence’s mansion and trying to navigate the complicated love and business affairs which his double is involved in.
In du Maurier’s 1957 original, an Englishman swaps with a French aristocrat (luckily he’s perfectly fluent); here it all takes place in Britain which at least makes the suspension of disbelief mildly less massive, while the religious subplot is dropped. But – without giving anything away – the most interesting change is the story’s ending, which is given a more definite, thriller-ish outcome than the book’s internal, downbeat drama. Perhaps that’s inevitable in adapting a book for the screen, but it may also be to do with our modern insistence that personal transformation is possible, that it’s all just a matter of will. We no longer want ambiguous stories which suggest that things may be out of our control.
It’s a bit of a shame that the story has to go to the usual action-packed climax, because Matthew Rhys is good enough to have carried off the subtler ending. Without doing anything obvious to differentiate his two characters – because, after all, no one’s supposed to notice the difference – he gives indications of Johnny’s hollowness and John’s loneliness.
The adaptation also makes much play of its time period, between the death of King George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, with a shoehorned-in metaphor about how she wasn’t meant to be queen (until the abdication) but found her place, just like John. It’s the sort of thing that sounds good until you give it a moment’s thought.
Much like the premise of The Audience, Channel 4’s peculiar new reality show in which people with a dilemma (in the opener, it’s a man wondering whether to give up his struggling family farm) are followed around by 50 random strangers, who cram into their personal space nosing around, asking questions and – in the end – giving their collective advice about what to do. The idea is that there’s wisdom in numbers, but the production team have rather obviously set up the situations that the crowd observe to produce a particular result. And there’s an inherent comedy in the visual of 50 people awkwardly hanging around watching supposedly intimate moments. It’s almost impossible to stop yourself focusing on the ones caught off-guard by the camera, who have lost interest for a minute, while the subject is having an intense discussion.
Also guided by a multitude of voices are the politicians of The Thick Of It, making a welcome, belated return for what looks to be its final series. The Coalition are now in power and Peter Mannion, introduced in Opposition as an old-school wet Tory with a distaste for modern politics, is now in office, alongside a thrusting young LibDem. The civil servants are the same (as, confusingly, is advisor Glenn, who seems to have conveniently switched parties between series). And the fearsome Malcolm Tucker: well, he’s out, leaving an anger – and swearing – vacuum.
Tucker and the hapless Nicola Murray reappear in the second episode, but even there he’s a muted version of himself and the show seems softer, less scabrous without his manic presence. Which is probably completely deliberate: creator Armando Iannucci seems to have rethought the show’s satirical emphasis as well as the new political framework. The politicians on both sides seem almost vulnerable, but so do their advisors, none of them really having any clue about what they’re doing anymore.
It’s still very, very funny and the cast are all perfectly pitched. Roger Allam, as Mannion, has such delicious comic timing that a simple line about a Twix made me rewind three times just to savour it again. One could quibble with the sheer amount of vituperative nicknames that the characters hurl around at each other – you have the impression that they must all be sitting up at night drafting new ones for the next day – but at least they make sense, unlike their policies.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 25 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 14 mph
Wind direction: South west