Thursday 8 December 2016

Vinyl's OK but Scorsese should have called Saul

John Boland

Published 21/02/2016 | 02:30

Commanding: Bobby Cannavale as Richie and Olivia Wilde as his wife, Devon Finestra, in Vinyl.
Commanding: Bobby Cannavale as Richie and Olivia Wilde as his wife, Devon Finestra, in Vinyl.

This week's pilot of Martin Scorsese's much-hyped Vinyl (Sky Atlantic) provided a retread of familiar tics from the master's most famous movies, as if he were paying weary homage to his former and better self.

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The confiding voiceover from GoodFellas? Check. Mean Streets' slow tracking shot along customers in a bar? Check again. A car bonnet gliding through Taxi Driver's rain-washed night-time streets? Check once more.

And in the manner of Mean Streets, the scuzzy New York of an earlier era was also recreated, along with the bad clothes, terrible hair, testosterone-fuelled sexism and casual obscenities of a male-dominated set-up - this time the record business rather than two-bit mobsters, not that it was easy to tell the difference.

The series, which is co-produced by Mick Jagger, is full of tired old macho tropes, and it was hard not to feel during this two-hour pilot that neither Scorsese nor the Rolling Stones frontman found these strutting creatures as risible or repellent as the viewer did.

How, for instance, were we meant to take the confidings of main man Richie, who told us at the outset that his label's success was due to the fact that he had "a golden ear, a silver tongue and a pair of brass balls"? Were we being encouraged to laugh at him or to applaud?

There was some fun to be had during this opening episode, not least at a meeting with Polygram executives ("Nazi bastards") who Richie and his colleagues hoped would buy their ailing company, and during a confrontation with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, who gestured towards a group of female hangers-on and told Richie that later on "I'll be doing to those birds what your label is doing to me".

I liked, too, some of the performances, especially Bobby Cannavale's commandingly volatile Richie and Juno Temple's star turn as the young office gofer who was more wise to new trends than any of her swaggering male superiors. But a frantically overheated tone remained throughout, making you wonder if you weren't just being fed yet another lurid soap opera.

You never got that feeling with the terrific Breaking Bad or with its quirky successor Better Call Saul, which began a new Netflix season this week. Jimmy McGill hasn't yet become Saul Goodman but in the brilliantly-conceived backstory dreamt up by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and co-writer Peter Gould, the viewer can already see how he achieved that transformation.

There wasn't one predictable shot in this arrestingly-filmed opener and no predictable storyline, either, as Jimmy dithered over taking a secure law-firm job and continued yearning for his legal pal Kim - a yearning that found fulfilment after they both scammed a business blowhard who'd been booming into his cellphone at a nearby bar table and from whom they pretended to seek financial advice.

The writing, as throughout last season, was terrific, especially the performances of Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy, Rhea Seehorn as the sardonic if somewhat bemused Kim, and Jonathan Banks as taciturn enforcer Mike, who'll eventually become Walter White's stealthy hitman in Breaking Bad.

There was no violence in this second-season opener, which was almost sweet, and often very funny, about the foibles and aspirations of its participants, but mayhem promises never to be too far away as Jimmy pursues his dangerous destiny. Wonderfully good.

Last week's TV3 election debate was a shouty bore, with neither Colette Fitzpatrick nor (surprisingly) Pat Kenny able to put manners on the fractious political leaders, but on Monday night's RTÉ1 Leaders' Debate, Claire Byrne was having none of such nonsense.

"There is only one rule here tonight," she told the seven participants at the outset, and that was to "be respectful to each other, to the studio audience and to the people at home". And lest they didn't get the message, she spelt it out: "There's no need to shout at each other, and if you leave the jargon out it's bonus points."

And she meant what she said, curtly declaring "That's banned" when Richard Boyd Barrett used the ghastly buzzphrase "fiscal space" and walking away from a slanging match between four of them with a dismissive: "All we're hearing now is nothing actually."

She was a terrific moderator even if, after declaring "no jargon", she forgot to add "and no platitudes, either", which would have made for a very short debate.

Decadence and Downfall: The Shah of Iran's Ultimate Party (BBC4) was a typically excellent Storyville documentary about the 1971 desert bash in which royalty from around the globe, along with other heads of state, paid homage to 2,500 years of Persian rule.

The whole thing was so tacky as to defy belief and meanwhile ordinary Iranians were living in a repressive state where poverty was the norm and protests were brutally snuffed out.

Hardly surprising, then, that a few years later the vainglorious Shah fled into exile as fanatical Muslim clerics put their own manners on the unfortunate citizens of Iran.

At least, the Queen of England had the good sense to decline an invitation to attend, sending Philip and Anne instead.

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