Saturday 17 March 2018

One stage is enough for Dara and Ed's amiable adventure

Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne on their grea big adventure across America
Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne on their grea big adventure across America
Mark Rylance

John Boland

Homeland was derived from an Israeli drama series and, in its first season anyway, was a good deal better than the original - more spooky and unsettling, more globally relevant in its concerns and more arrestingly played, too, especially by Damian Lewis as the supposed hero returned from Iraqi incarceration and by Claire Danes as the volatile CIA operative convinced that all was not as it seemed.

The American-made Hostages, which aired in 2013, was also a version of an Israeli series, but its tale of a woman surgeon who, with her family under lethal threat, is ordered to kill the US president by botching a routine operation was cack-handedly executed, and not helped by the hammy playing of Dylan McDermott as the glowering chief home invader.

Now, though, BBC4, which has long been the home to so many offbeat crime dramas- whether Scandinavian, French, Italian or Australian - has started to screen the original Israeli series, and on the evidence of last weekend's opening two episodes, it's a lot more impressive than its American remake.

That's largely because this Hostages bothered to introduce its principal characters before the main action began and so we got to know the surgeon, her shifty husband and her two troublesome teenage children in such a way that they became real to us. We got to know something about the main home invader, too, in a tense pre-credit sequence where, as a special forces commander, he rescued a man who'd been taken prisoner, and so we wondered what had subsequently turned him into a villain.

All of this was conveyed with the minimum of histrionics but with a fine build-up of menace and was persuasively played by a cast intriguingly unknown to most viewers. It certainly merits revisiting.

That's more than can be said for The Casual Vacancy (BBC1), whose second episode was no less cartoonishly satirical than the first and which doesn't feature even one vaguely likeable character, or for Indian Summers (Channel 4), which merely makes you long for the good old days of The Jewel in the Crown, when elegiac ruminations on a waning empire registered as fresh rather than a ragbag of clichés.

As it happened, though, it's been a week for surgeons, who took centre-stage in the opening instalment of Sky One's ambitious new 13-part drama, Critical. Here the setting is a state-of-the-art trauma centre where medics race against the clock to save the lives of those who've been hideously injured.

First up was a man who'd been in a road accident, and lovers of gore will have found more of it here than in Tarantino's entire oeuvre, with chests carved open in unsettling close-up and with surgical hands rooting around among the bloodied entrails.

Indeed, the camera was so busy burrowing through the victim's body that the drama's human stories got somewhat sidelined - chief surgeon Claire Skinner vanishing halfway through the episode, possibly in search of her ghastly kids from Outnumbered; while the formidable Lennie James, playing a veteran surgeon traumatised by a stint in Iraq, didn't appear until two minutes before the end.

Still, dramatic strands have been intriguingly introduced and if you can stand the operating table carnage you might find the series a riveting experience.

RTÉ having provided critics with no previews (so what's new), I came late to Dara and Ed's Great Big Adventure (RTÉ1), in which comedians Dara Ó Briain and Ed Byrne are re-enacting a 4,000-mile road trip down the Pan-American highway - a trip that was first undertaken 75 years ago by three adventurous Americans, one of whom kept a journal that was later published as a book which the two Irish funnymen are using as their basic guide.

So nothing new there, then, and nothing new either about a format which encourages lots of bickering and bantering from people thrown together on an epic journey by a commissioning editor who's convinced that nothing could more delight celebrity-smitten viewers - think Charlie Boorman and his mate, Sue Perkins and her pal, David Beckham and his chums, Jeremy Clarkson and whoever can put up with him.

On the evidence of last week's first of three episodes, Ó Briain and Byrne are an amiable pairing, Ó Briain declaring at the outset that Byrne was his "closest friend" and that being "beyond small talk" was a "useful thing" for travelling companions.

Certainly there was an easy vibe between them, even if they felt the televisual need to get cranky with each other every so often, and they seemed genuinely interested in what they encountered along the way.

A Mexican suspension bridge over a gorge was "exhilarating" for Byrne, though "really scary" for Ó Briain, who refused to get out of the car to marvel at the view. Both of them marvelled at hair-raising dives into rocky water off a parapet by some locals, while in an interminable Mexico city traffic jam, they paid a Mariachi band to serenade them.

All of this was agreeable but I wasn't persuaded that I wanted to accompany them on the next two legs of their journey.

Comedy's a divisive art and I confess to remaining stonefaced during the second season of Count Arthur Strong (BBC2), written by Steve Delaney and Graham Linehan and starring the former as an out-of-work former variety star with delusions of grandeur.

But if that character seemed so over-the-top as to be utterly wearisome, he was nothing compared to Bob Servant in the sitcom of the same name that's just finished on BBC4. Brian Cox, whose Hannibal Lecter was quietly chilling in Manhunter, chewed the scenery so shoutingly that he gave me a migraine.

Meanwhile, Catastrophe (Channel 4) also came to a close, though with a deserved second season currently being made. The main duo got unexpectedly rancorous at the end, though they'd built up enough audience goodwill for us to forgive them. Why, though, were Sharon Horgan's Irish family portrayed as so stereotypical and unlikeable?

A masterclass from a great actor

Until his hypnotic playing of Thomas Cromwell in the wonderfully good Wolf Hall (BBC2), Mark Rylance was only known as a name by those who've never seen him on the stage, whether with the Royal Shakespeare Company or at the Globe theatre.

Now, though, he's rightly famous to millions and he was the subject of The South Bank Show, Melvyn Bragg's long-running arts programme that was axed by ITV but has found a new home on Sky Arts 1.

He proved just as absorbing here, with engrossing and often wry things to say about his craft and about his reluctance over the years to appear in movies or on television.

And there was riveting footage, too, of some of his stage performances.

However, he's been signed up for Steven Spielberg's next two films, so we'll be seeing a lot more of this extraordinarily talented and intelligent actor.

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