Tuesday 12 December 2017

Television: It's hard to get a rise out of soap opera Rebellion and War and Peace improves

Period drama: The cast of War and Peace — which has been compressed into six episodes
Period drama: The cast of War and Peace — which has been compressed into six episodes

John Boland

The second episode of War and Peace (BBC1) was much better than the lack-lustre first, but Rebellion (RTÉ1) got a good deal worse.

It wasn't just the speechifying by everyone in Rebellion, though that continued unabated, with potted history lessons thrown in for good measure. "Why are they doing it?" a visiting Belfast woman inquired of her fiancé as street battles raged. "To free Ireland," he responded. "From what?" she asked. "From British rule," he replied.

Useful to get that learnt, I suppose, and also to hear firebrand schoolteacher Frances instruct her pupils that "this generation must show itself willing to make the sacrifices and strike the blow for Gaelic Ireland" - even if a few minutes later Patrick Pearse was consigning her to the kitchens of the GPO, his argument being that "we revere women as purer than men and hence we must protect them".

This while, the naked body of Frances's pal, May, was being revered in a hotel bedroom by her British government lover, Charles, though they were rudely interrupted by some rebels who came crashing through the door. "I beg your pardon!" an affronted Charles exclaimed at this breach of social etiquette.

And while all this was going on, well-bred Elizabeth, who was due to be married to an army man that morning, was still in her wedding attire while dodging gunfire on rooftops, tending to the dying at the gates of Dublin Castle and snogging working-class socialist Jimmy, the guy she'd always really fancied, in basement rooms.

In other words, welcome to '1916: The Soap'. Last week it had seemed like a clever idea for scriptwriter Colin Teevan to centre his historical saga around three fictional female characters, but by last Sunday night's instalment it had become merely foolish - viewers being invited to ignore the fate of the nation and to focus instead on the personal perils of three rather silly women who never actually existed.

Nor did most of the characters in War and Peace exist, but Tolstoy's greatness as a novelist was to make you believe they did and to place them in a historical setting that provided a crucial context both for their individual and their related lives.

Andrew Davies's overly-compressed adaptation (a mere six episodes when his version of Pride and Prejudice was deemed worthy of the same length) leaves a lot out and involves some crude juxtapositions - as when Pierre's declaration that his wife is "otherwise engaged" was immediately followed by a scene of her humping on a kitchen table with his best buddy. But in the second episode there was splendid playing from Jim Broadbent as the irascible Prince Nikolai and from Irish actress Jessie Buckley as his timid daughter Masha, and in overall terms a drama series that had seemed underwhelming at the start has already developed considerable momentum, and with characters worthy of anyone's attention.

The same can't be said of hospital drama Code Black, which RTÉ1 has been promoting as if it's just acquired this decade's ER. It hasn't.

Set in the emergency room of a Los Angeles infirmary, this bog-standard series began with every cliché known to scriptwriters - from the ferociously hardbitten but inwardly caring main surgeon to her know-it-all but inexperienced new interns, all of them spouting incomprehensible medical jargon as lives were constantly being saved and lost.

It can be hard going in hospital dramas, especially for the viewer, who may want to seek some laughs from Tracey Ullman's Show (BBC1), in which the British-born comedian returned to her native country after fame in the US, where her comedy show spawned The Simpsons.

This is an old-fashioned sketch show, lacking in real bite but with some brilliant impersonations from Ullman. Her cranky, drink-fuelled Angela Merkel was very good, as was her Maggie Smith, but the real hoot was her take on Judi Dench, who got away with shoplifting and maliciously destroying co-stars' iPads because no one would believe this national treasure capable of such behaviour.

Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central) reintroduced the American comedian at her most transgressive, her act neatly summarised in this week's opening episode by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, who asked: "Are you that girl from the television who talks about her pussy all the time?"

Not just that, but bottoms, too, in a filthily funny song about men's obsession with women's rear ends and the other more basic function of these extremities.

Dreyfuss, Tina Fey and Patricia Arquette were also on hand to lament reaching the age when, unlike men, they were no longer "f**kable".

Schumer at her best can be viciously amusing.

In Sugar Crash (RTÉ1), Finnish weight loss and diabetes expert Eva Orsmond lectured us for an hour on the evils of our saccharine addiction.

I thought it woefully short of helpful details about particular offenders (are some smoothies worse than others?) and I soon wearied of her hectoring manner.

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