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John Boland's week in TV: A Suitable Boy is no jewel in the crown of BBC drama


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Forbidden love: Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) and Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) in A Suitable Boy on BBC1. Photo by Milan Moudgill

Forbidden love: Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) and Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) in A Suitable Boy on BBC1. Photo by Milan Moudgill

BBC/Lookout Point

Forbidden love: Kabir Durrani (Danesh Razvi) and Lata Mehra (Tanya Maniktala) in A Suitable Boy on BBC1. Photo by Milan Moudgill

Vikram Seth's acclaimed but mammoth novel A Suitable Boy has been on my bookshelves since it was published in 1993 and for the past three decades it's been staring back at me in rebuke.

I've taken it down a few times, with the intention of actually reading it, but I've always caved in, mainly because it runs to 1,350 pages and I simply haven't been able to face the prospect of such a long haul.

Now, though, it's been adapted into six hour-long episodes by Andrew Davies, the man who performed a similar feat with War and Peace a couple of years back. So you can wallow in A Suitable Boy (BBC1) for the next five Sunday nights as university student Lata discovers that the path to true love doesn't run as smoothly as she would like.

That's because she belongs to a Hindu family in post-independence India and the object of her affections is a dashing young Muslim - and, thus, a most unsuitable boy as far as her mother and other Hindu elders are concerned.

The series has an entirely Indian cast, yet it has all the hallmarks of a BBC production: lavish sets, spectacular visuals and the fact that the dialogue is almost completely in English, with snippets of Urdu and Hindi as fitful gestures towards authenticity.

It's hard not to be reminded of that landmark 1980s ITV series The Jewel in the Crown or, indeed, of The Far Pavilions from the same period, though both of those had more interesting characters (and actors) than the somewhat wan lot that were to be encountered in the opening instalment of A Suitable Boy.

In short, I was underwhelmed, despite the spirited playing of Tanya Maniktala as Lata and Danesh Razvi as her unsuitable admirer. The best I can say about it is that at least it's not The Luminaries, with which the BBC tortured us on recent Sunday nights.

Anthony (BBC1) was something else, though, a wrenching imagining of the life of Merseyside 18-year-old Anthony Walker, who was murdered in a local park by racist thugs in July 2005.

The murder was depicted with dreadful impact in the film's second half, but creator and screenwriter Jimmy McGovern chose to begin with a what-if scenario in which the sweet-natured Anthony was a 25-year-old lawyer doing good for people around him. Then it tracked him back through the years in which he met teacher Katherine, married her and had a baby daughter, and back further until the ghastly night in question.

This could all have been contrived and soppy, with Anthony depicted as a saintly figure, but McGovern (Cracker, Hillsborough, The Street, Broken) is far too good a writer to opt for easy sentimentality. The people he offered to us were as complicated and flawed as all of us are. There were tremendous performances from Toheeb Jimoh as Anthony, Rakie Ayola as mother Gee and Julia Brown as Katherine. This was yet another outstanding drama from McGovern.

Speaking of television drama, I'm cheered that Normal People has got four Emmy nominations but, like most other observers, I'm baffled that Daisy Edgar-Jones's wonderful playing of Marianne wasn't acknowledged in the best actress category.

However, she's in good company. The marvellous Rhea Seehorn, so crucial to the success of Better Call Saul, has never been nominated for an Emmy, despite all the other Emmys lavished on that show down through the years. Nor, this year, were Toni Collette and Merritt Wever for Unbelievable. Go figure.

The Young Offenders (RTÉ1/BBC1) is back for a third season and I wish I liked it as much as its admirers - indeed, most British critics deeming it the most hilariously Irish TV comedy since... well, since Derry Girls, which I've never been mad about either.

Yes, there's some knockabout fun to be had from The Young Offenders, but the set-ups are so implausible and the slapstick is so crudely executed that you keep thinking it could all be so much better. But don't mind me.

Still, it's a lot jollier than Ghosts (RTÉ2), a sitcom acquired from the BBC, who were probably glad to get rid of it, as it sank without trace across the water last year. Made by the people behind Horrible Histories, it's a witless farrago of bad jokes performed badly by bad actors.

And what are we to make of Gay Byrne's Late Late Moments (RTÉ1)? There were many such memorable encounters down through the decades, but none of them featured here, unless you count Gaybo simpering over Sinead O'Connor in 1990 and recalling a previous show in which "you fell for me". "Well, I think it was vice versa, Gay", she retorted.

That wasn't bad, but we also had to endure an interview with preening Kerry footballer Pat Spillane, humdrum chats with Brendan Gleeson and Maeve Binchy and some hoofing from Michael Flatley and Jean Butler. "Golden nuggets", the voiceover called these various segments. Leaden, more like. Younger viewers must have been wondering what had been the big deal about Gay Byrne.

In the engrossing Nazi sa Ghaeltacht (BBC2), Caoimhin MagAoidh was in south-west Donegal, trying to find out whether German Celtic studies professor Ludwig Mühlhausen had used an academic sojourn there in 1937 to spy for the Nazis. By the end of the film, I learned that he certainly had.

The final instalment of The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (BBC2) was mainly about Fox News and about Rupert Murdoch's favouring of Donald Trump in 2016. Riveting, if frightening, stuff.

Indo Review