Television review: The Town | The Fear | Madeley Meets The Squatters

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It’s hard to talk about The Town without revealing the basic premise, which ITV have asked to be kept secret. What can be said is that it’s about a young man, Mark – played by Andrew Scott, Sherlock’s Moriarty – who returns to his home town after ten years away in London.

He’s a sort of nebulous figure, struggling to reconcile being back among the scenes of his youth without reverting to teenage angst. His old friends have stultified, still drinking in the same pub (“It’s just that everyone’s older and fatter”) and nursing old grudges and feelings. His family are semi-strangers, caught up in a mystery. Meanwhile, Douglas Hodge plays an enigmatic policeman and Martin Clunes – because ITV has some sort of rule about letting a month go by without his presence on their channel – is the town’s troubled, drunken Mayor.

If that description doesn’t sound exactly thrill-packed, that’s partly because the central plot can’t be revealed, but also because – well, it isn’t, really.

Scriptwriter Mike Bartlett comes from a theatre background, establishing a reputation at London’s Royal Court theatre for edgy plays examining contemporary Britain, using techniques borrowed from TV like short, intercut scenes and characters more likely to Tweet than deliver a soliloquy. So it’s surprising that his first TV project is so conventional: at times the “everytown” look of the show even brings to mind Midsomer Murders and, after the surprising start, things settle down into a very languid pace and you wish they’d all just get on with it.

Where Bartlett’s theatre background does show, perhaps, is in the weirdly artificial way that people react to things; Mark’s old pals are crushingly insensitive to his situation, in a way that surely no one would really be; his teenage sister meets a boy in circumstances so absurdly clichéd that surely any self-aware modern kids would remark upon it; and his gran, played by Julia McKenzie, has to suddenly announce in front of a total stranger: “Your granddad went with prostitutes”. Though the acting is fine, I didn’t really believe any of it for a minute, though maybe in a stage play you could get away with this heightened reality.

That said, there’s something more interesting about The Town than most of ITV’s dramas: it’s a mood piece, trying to reflect on modern Britain (or at least modern Middle England) without settling down too neatly into a genre pigeonhole. And Scott is unusual casting for the lead – though I’m not a particular fan of his past work, the one thing you can say about this actor is that he’s not a bland, middle-of-the-road presence – while Clunes brings a seedy and sinister edge which reminds you that there’s more to him than Doc Martin or insurance adverts.

There are fewer surprises in Channel 4’s equally generically titled The Fear, which is a more robust and confident drama. It stars Peter Mullan as a gangster patriarch based in Brighton, who in recent years has been building a more respectable façade and is even funding the regeneration of the pier. He has two sons, a bright one played by Harry Lloyd (interviewed on page 16 of this issue), and a dopey one played by Paul Nicholls, who – in Mafia tradition – finds something dead in his bed when a deal goes wrong.

Well, normally Mullan’s Richie could easily sort this out, but he makes a series of apparently stupid moves. Something is wrong with his head; perhaps dementia. And when your life and empire have been based on total control, when you start to lose it even a little, things

rapidly fall apart. Mullan is, of course, effortlessly good in both ruthless badass mode and vulnerable confusion: there’s one

moment when he delivers the line “I just want a cuddle” so perfectly that it changes your perception of the whole character. There is plenty of tension, some truly nasty violence and a

brisk pace.

But it’s far from an enjoyable watch. Everyone’s just so unredeemingly nasty; everything’s so horribly grim. Brighton’s cheerful beach and pretty architecture are absent (partly as it was filmed in Eastbourne, I expect) and it becomes a dark, foreboding place of prostitution, murder, bad art and shady clubs. Between the crime story and Richie’s mental disintegration, there’s no light relief and it makes it hard to care about the characters when they’re all so

entirely awful.

Rather more fun is Madeley Meets The Squatters, a documentary clearly inspired by Alan Partridge and with luck to be the first in a series: surely Madeley Goes Youth Hostelling must follow? I have an unashamed, unironic love for Richard Madeley. Much mocked, his insistence on asking what others might think an overly obvious question can, just occasionally, produce a gem of an answer. And, unlike slicker TV presenters, he always seems genuinely curious about the subjects he takes on.

“The thought of squatting has never filled me with anything other than repulsion,” he informs us, brilliantly: as if any of us had ever imagined he fancied it! Some good comedy moments follow: arguing with a defiant squatter who repeatedly calls him “Richard Medley”; he goes dumpster diving and comments on the quality of the bread; challenging another campaigner he comes up with the bizarre image of a “family of 2.4 children going on holiday” and returning to find squatters “drinking their wine and frying up their bacon”. Their bacon!

Those fiends!

The Town - Wednesday, STV, 9pm

The Fear - Monday-Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm

Madeley Meets The Squatters - Thursday, STV, 9pm