Tuesday 15 October 2019

John Boland's week in TV: Rollicking romps and the Virtues of some grittier dramas


Intense: Stephen Graham, who shone in the last season of Line of Duty, in The Virtues
Intense: Stephen Graham, who shone in the last season of Line of Duty, in The Virtues

John Boland

With Line of Duty ended for another season, what better to replace it on Sunday nights than a rollicking romp about a lesbian landowner in 19th-century Yorkshire?

Gentleman Jack (BBC1) comes with impressive credentials, specifically those of Sally Wainwright, who previously created both the bittersweet love saga Last Tango in Halifax and the gritty crime drama Happy Valley and who picked up many deserved accolades and awards in the process.

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Now she has turned her attention to Anne Lister, globe-trotting adventurer and maverick heir to a ramshackle family estate near Halifax, whose decoded diaries showed her to be a maverick in other ways, too, not least in her defiance of sexual norms.

Suranne Jones, who was a compelling lead in the somewhat bonkers psycho drama, Doctor Foster, gave the character real oomph throughout the first episode: driving a runaway stagecoach into town, summarily evicting tenants who had failed to pay their rents, calmly shooting a horse that needed to be put down and generally performing crucial tasks that were considered to be the province of men.

Oh, and going to bed with other women, too, though these lovers had opted for marriage and the respectability that went with it as a prudent way of concealing their true desires. Not the bold Anne, though, whose flamboyantly upfront and imperious personality made you wonder how she got away with it in the Yorkshire of the 1830s.

Maybe this element will seem less unlikely as the series progresses, when hopefully the makers will also dispense with the main character's gimmicky Fleabag-style asides to camera. But there was no denying the verve of this first episode and if it's a sumptuously costumed period and enjoyable lark you want on a Sunday night, this should fit the bill.

You certainly won't find any jollity in Shane Meadows's four-part drama The Virtues (Channel 4), in which the life of middle-aged Joseph (Stephen Graham) unravels when his ex-wife and young son emigrate to Australia, leaving him to his long-unresolved demons - which go back to an abused childhood in a cruel Irish care system.

Graham, who was singled out by Jodie Comer as a mentor when she won her Bafta last week for Killing Eve, is a remarkably intense actor and his turn as the tormented undercover cop in Line of Duty was by far the best thing about that drama's recent season.

But he's not a showy actor and his farewell scene with his son in the first episode of The Virtues was wrenchingly underplayed, as was the subsequent pub scene in which he craved both companionship and the oblivion of drink. I'll return to this powerful series at the end of its run.

The 2015 Hatton Garden jewellery robbery in London has already been dramatised in two movies, including last year's King of Thieves, with such stellar actors as Michael Caine, Tom Courtenay, Jim Broadbent and Michael Gambon playing the hapless elderly robbers.

It wasn't very good, and this week Hatton Garden (Virgin One) had another go at the story, this time telling it over four nights and featuring Kenneth Cranham and Timothy Spall among the cast.

I watched until the second ad break on Monday night , at which point I wondered: do I really want to spend four hours of my life watching a gang of cranky old geezers snarling at each other? I decided I didn't.

Instead, the second episode of Years and Years (BBC1) continued to fizz both with fun and with provocative notions, as the close-knit Manchester family grappled with a world in which nuclear threats, the deportation of a loved one and banking calamities were among other setbacks.

Creator/writer Russell T Davies effortlessly blends the dystopian and the domestic: indeed, his fondness for his characters in all their frailties and foibles is what grounds this drama, along with the exuberance and wit of his various storylines. And in this week's instalment, Emma Thompson once again revelled in her role as the terrifying populist seizing her political moment.

Dead to Me (Netflix) is also a pleasure, with Christina Applegate as Jen, a 40-something Californian estate agent who's grieving the death of her husband in a hit-and-run accident and becoming friends with Judy (Linda Cardellini), who's mourning the death of her own spouse.

All, though, is not as it seems. We soon learn (spoiler alert) that, unknown to Jen, Judy had been the hit-and-run driver and that Judy's own spouse is not, in fact, dead. And over the show's 10 half-hour episodes we also learn that Jen's husband had been far from the saintly guy she'd assumed.

There are plot twists galore in this inventive and amusing series, with Applegate (who'd been so good as the stroppy teenage daughter in Married with Children three decades ago) finally getting a real part as the cranky, impulsive Jen, bewildered first by grief and then by anger at whoever caused her grief - all of which she manages with real flair.

She's matched by Linda Cardellini as Judy and creator/writer Liz Feldman is very adroit at capturing the nuances of female friendship, however precarious they may be and whatever their outcome. It's a smart and funny series and frequently quite poignant, too. Give it a look.

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