TV preview: The Americans | Les Dawson: An Audience With That Never Was

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as undercover Russian agents in The Americans. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as undercover Russian agents in The Americans. Picture: Craig Blankenhorn
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It’s clear that ITV have spent much of their time of late gazing enviously at the successes of their rivals, before pilfering their strategies for themselves.

THE AMERICANS - Saturday, STV, 10pm


LOVE AND MARRIAGE - Wednesday, STV, 9pm

QUEEN’S CORONATION 60th ANNIVERSARY - BBC/STV, various days and times

So, after the success of the BBC’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, ITV commissions an unabashedly old-school sitcom for themselves in the shape of Vicious. And now, with US drama THE AMERICANS, they’re obviously hoping to emulate the ratings bonanza enjoyed by Channel 4’s Homeland.

But will they succeed? The pilot episode is certainly quite promising, as it introduces a pair of KGB agents working undercover as a married American couple in the suburbs of Washington DC. Their cover is so deep, even their kids don’t know the truth.

Played by British actor Matthew Rhys (so that’s a British actor playing a Russian playing an American) and the feline Keri Russell, they’re intriguing protagonists, working as they do against the usual Cold War stereotype of the villainous Russki. Her loyalty to the Motherland is sturdier than a hammer and sickle, whereas he entertains treasonous thoughts of defecting and settling down into an ordinary life in this sunny nation of affluent capitalist pig-dogs. Both trained assassins, this leads to some rather fraught confrontations in the kitchen.

Although the opening chase sequence, with its 1980s fog and neon and parping synthetic score – which is so overbearing it’s like being beaten over the head with Harold Faltermeyer - suggests The Americans is some sort of cheesy pastiche, it then switches tone, rather jarringly, into a relatively serious drama with darkly comic undertones. It dispenses with the clunky ironic foreshadowing so common to period dramas set in the recent past, and never sniggers at 1980s fashions and mores, opting instead for an understated evocation of the era. But it doesn’t yet feel like it’s decided what it wants to be: the use of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight over a supposedly dramatic scene towards the end comes across as inadvertently camp and comic.

But the ever-watchable Rhys is an interesting presence, as he goofs off with the kids while privately struggling with his conscience and dealing with his wife’s volatile devotion to the cause. Their double life is rather brazenly symbolised by the presence of a kidnapped KGB agent in their garage, with the decision of what to do with him forming much of the episode’s dramatic spine. The question of whether the couple’s secret will be uncovered is heightened by the introduction of their new neighbour, who – wouldn’t you know it? – happens to be an FBI agent specialising in Counter Intelligence.

Although quite slow to start, The Americans becomes gradually more involving once more is revealed about these characters’ backgrounds (cue flashbacks in which they speak in heavily eggs-scented English). But one does wonder if, like Homeland, the storyline can be sustained over more than one season. The threat of dark secrets being exposed is all well and good, but it tends to lose dramatic impact if exploited for too long.

ITV’s bold new experimental phase continues with what sounds like one of the maddest programmes in the entire history of television. In LES DAWSON: AN AUDIENCE with THAT NEVER WAS, the late, great comedian is reanimated as, it says here, a “staggeringly realistic” 3-D hologram performing in front of a celebrity audience. Preview copies of this remarkable happening were unavailable at the time of writing, but one fears that digital Dawson will be an unnerving creation marred by the uncanny valley effect. But I can’t wait to see how this pans out, as it sounds positively avant-garde. And let’s face it, we’ll all enjoy ourselves immensely if it turns out to be a disastrous folly.

ITV find themselves back on more traditional territory with the cuddly comedy-drama LOVE AND MARRIAGE, in which – and steel yourselves here, because this sounds like an outright parody – Alison Steadman stars as a retired lollipop lady and matriarch called Pauline Paradise. The sort of whimsical confection where nary a scene goes by without chortling musical accompaniment, its “hook” is the device of having the various members of the extended Paradise clan speak directly to the audience from their sofas, much like those old Prudential adverts. Other than that it’s nothing you haven’t seen before: family strife presented as an ultimately positive cavalcade of blunders and hugs.

The 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation is celebrated with a few programmes this week, with the BBC, as is its loyal wont, rolling out the largest amount of bunting. Their first tribute is by far the most intriguing, as it’s the actual archive footage of THE CORONATION OF QUEEN ELIZABETH II from 1953 shown in its entirety on BBC Parliament tomorrow. Famously responsible for a huge spike in the sale of television sets – and therefore the instigator for telly’s first golden age – it’s been scheduled to follow the exact times of the original broadcast, meaning it begins at 10:20am and finishes just after 5pm.

On Monday on BBC1 at 9pm, David Dimbleby presents THE PEOPLE’S CORONATION, in which he talks to people who celebrated and took part in the event. It’s obviously a very personal trip for Dave, seeing as his father, Richard, was one of the BBC’s commentators during the Coronation.

Finally, STV presents CORONATION YEAR IN COLOUR at 5:30pm tomorrow, in which archive footage tells the story of everyday Britain in 1953.


Small screen movies


* * * *

Satruday, Channel 5, 5:25pm

Kirk Douglas is on imperial form in this nostril-flaring adventure drama from 1958. He plays a ruthless one-eyed Viking hell-bent on securing the vacated throne of Northumbria, which throws him into violent conflict with his half-brother, played by Tony Curtis, who eyes the same prize for very different reasons. Shot in gloriously lurid Technicolor, it leaves no Viking cliché unturned – indeed, it arguably invented some of them –and is all the better for it. The great Ernest Borgnine is also on hand as the warring siblings’ father.


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Sunday, Film4, 4:40pm

This classic 1972 disaster movie stars Gene Hackman as an heroic priest tasked with leading survivors through the carcass of a capsized ocean liner. The soggy cast also includes Shelley Winters and – that man again – Ernest Borgnine.


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Sunday, Film4, 1:05am

Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, this affecting social realist French drama follows a year in the life of a teacher and his pupils in an often troubled Paris school.


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Sunday, BBC2, 10:30pm

Based on the Pulitzer-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, this powerful 2009 drama stars Viggo Mortensen as a man struggling to protect his son in a dangerous post-apocalyptic environment.