TV preview: Birdsong | We’ll Take Manhattan | Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy

Birdsong.   Photographer: Giles Keytes
Birdsong. Photographer: Giles Keytes
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By Paul Whitelaw

Seeing as it’s not a biography of a dead comedian, and therefore outside my sphere of literary interest, I haven’t read the exceedingly popular Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

But I can only assume there was something in his prose that made this wartime romance come alive on the page, because good God in gravy, the TV adaptation is calamitously lifeless.

It comes from the prolific pen of Abi Morgan, who seems to be everywhere at the moment. With two films currently in cinemas – Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady and director Steve McQueen’s Shame – and with a second series of her enjoyable 1950s period drama The Hour in the offing, it’s hard to shake the suspicion that she’s spreading herself too thin. Birdsong certainly does nothing for her reputation, with its limp characters, turgid plotting and dialogue straight out of the “Big Book of World War One Banter”. I’ve no idea if the source material is at fault, but judged on its own terms, Morgan’s adaptation misfires badly.

Bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim, Eddie Redmayne stars as an emotionally scarred British army officer serving on the Western Front. I know he’s supposed to be aloof and war-damaged, but he delivers such a monotonous performance it’s like watching a perplexed monarch cast adrift at an out-of-control costume party.

He’s persistently visited by flashbacks to picture-postcard peace-time France, where he falls in love with an equally bland married woman with whom he shares not one iota of chemistry. Like a pair of inert Edwardian dolls, their affair consists of gazing at each other blankly for what seems like an eternity, before indulging in the inevitable Mills & Boon sex scene. Fatally, we’re given absolutely no reason why we should care about these characters, which is simply bad writing on Morgan’s part.

The only arresting thing about Birdsong is its grim evocation of the claustrophobia, mud, blood and gore of trench warfare. Otherwise it’s just another handsome but dull British drama about boring people falling in love in the olden days.

Unfortunately, We’ll Take Manhattan, about the supposedly explosive affair between pioneering fashion photographer David Bailey and iconic 1960s model Jean Shrimpton, also suffers from a lack of chemistry between its leads.

Karen Gillan, in her first major role since playing Amy Pond in Doctor Who, barely makes an impression as Shrimpton, although to be fair, the script mostly requires her to pout and pose rather than act. It’s very odd, especially as the final act tries to argue that she was more than just a clothes-horse who got lucky. So why portray her as exactly that for the most part? Strikingly beautiful, Gillan certainly looks the part, but she’ll need stronger roles than this to prove that she has much range outside of Doctor Who (it also doesn’t help that her English accent keeps slipping).

She’s completely overshadowed by co-star Aneurin Barnard, whose cocksure turn as the chip-shouldered Bailey dominates this rather lacklustre film about a pivotal moment in western culture. Set in 1962, one year prior to the Beatles invasion, it presents Bailey as a rebellious emblem of the working-class generation who stormed the barricades of the post-war establishment and set the world a-swinging. Despite his hair being far too long for the period – he looks more like an NME cover-star than an early-1960s hipster – Barnard certainly makes for a convincing upstart; he may well be a name to watch in future.

A (cough) zany sketch show set in a darkly childlike fantasy world of its architect’s devising, Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy will doubtless appeal to anyone who’s enjoyed the erstwhile Mighty Boosh man’s work in the past.

But I must admit that everything he’s ever done has left me not so much cold as frozen to the point of death. It’s not that I don’t “get” his humour – on the contrary, I understand perfectly well what he’s trying to achieve – it’s just that as an absurdist comedian he’s so painfully uninspired and laboured.

Nevertheless, I honestly tried to approach this with an open mind, hoping that left to his own devices Fielding would prove that he’s capable of more than pedestrian student whimsy. But as ever I was left bewildered as to how anyone could ever fall for this charmless rubbish.

Undeservedly self-regarding, he patently thinks of himself as a mind-blowing surrealist bursting with astonishing ideas (A sentient chocolate finger! A Noo Yoik cop with a talking wound!). But in reality he’s the tiresome equivalent of the unfunny office clown persistently proclaiming how “mad” he is, but without ever once backing up his claims of comic ingenuity. His wide-eyed wacky dream-weaver shtick wouldn’t be so embarrassing if he was actually funny, but at the age of 38 he just comes across as an overgrown adolescent attention-seeker with delusions of iconoclasm. Boasting a gaudy melange of deliberately amateurish animation, set design and costumes, his show certainly looks quite nice, and it’s agreeable in theory to see something on television with a distinctive aesthetic. It’s just unfortunate that Noel Fielding is in charge of it.

BIRDSONG

Sunday, BBC1, 9pm

WE’LL TAKE MANHATTAN

Thursday, BBC 4, 9pm

NOEL FIELDING’S LUXURY COMEDY

Thursday, E4, 10pm