Monday 19 March 2018

There's nothing half-baked about JK Rowling's crime drama...

Lovingly evoked: Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke in Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling
Lovingly evoked: Holliday Grainger and Tom Burke in Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling

John Boland

With RTÉ gone on its summer holidays and Channel 4 showing viewers how to bake cakes, thank heavens for Strike: The Cuckoo's Calling (BBC1), which reminded us that well-plotted dramas with interesting characters are hard to beat.

Adapted from a thriller JK Rowling wrote under the name Robert Galbraith and executive-produced by Rowling herself, this three-parter ends tomorrow night, and anyone who watched this week's opening episodes won't want to miss its denouement.

It's hard to define why it's so good because there's certainly nothing new about the conventions it embraces, not least in the person of Cormoran Strike, a dishevelled private eye doggedly seeking the truth about a model's plunge to her death from the top of her London apartment building.

Yet as played by Tom Burke, he's an entirely winning character, gruff but kindly, and with an intriguing backstory - his father, from whom he's estranged, is a famous rock star and he himself has a prosthetic lower leg courtesy of a soldiering stint in Afghanistan.

He also has a terrific accomplice in office secretary Robin (a luminous Holliday Grainger), who's only doing temp work for him but who becomes increasingly involved in the murder case and is no slouch at sleuthing, either.

From the outset, you really like these people, and the villains are good, too (Martin Shaw is splendidly obnoxious), while the cafés and bars of a less-familiar London are so lovingly evoked that you immediately want to go there. I just hope that the final episode isn't a let-down.

The BBC probably hoped that Channel 4's version of The Great British Bake Off would be as calamitous as its own recent revamping of Top Gear, but to a disinterested observer (make that uninterested) it's just as effective as the format pioneered by the Beeb.

Okay, I don't really get Sandi Toksvig, but then I never got Sue Perkins in the BBC version, either, though co-host Noel Fielding seems to me preferable to Mel Giedroyc, even if this is a neutered version of the amiably quirky comic. And new judge Prue Leith is a bit more bearable than the frosty Mary Berry, whose status as some kind of prissy national treasure in the UK I never understood.

Nor do I quite understand the show's hold on the viewer. In the same way as Strictly Come Dancing, the competitive element is obviously part of its appeal, but there's something peculiarly English about the notion of a baking contest that commands the loyalty of so many viewers - just as the enduring affection in which the late Bruce Forsyth was held by the British public remained somewhat baffling to outsiders.

Meanwhile, the programmes marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana's death continue. I thought that everything had been said a few weeks ago in Channel 4's Diana: In Her Own Words and ITV's Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, but not a bit of it.

This week we had Diana: A Love Affair (TV3), a tawdry effort with star-struck reminiscences from Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and other luminaries, followed by the two-part Diana: The Last 100 Days (also TV3, though made by US network ABC) and Diana, 7 Days, a BBC1 production that was also screened by RTÉ1.

Both of these latter films were structured in the form of countdowns, with Diana, 7 Days detailing the week between her death and funeral. This aimed to be a serious chronicle of what happened, with Tony Blair recalling the queen's reluctance to engage with the public mood until pressured to go with the flow, and with spin-doctor Alastair Campbell adding his own tuppence worth about who did or did not come up with Blair's sentimentally memorable tribute to "the people's princess".

Most striking, though, was the fury expressed by Diana's sons at tabloid intrusion into their mother's life - William recalling how he had to comfort her after days in which the paparazzi had shouted and spat at her to elicit a reaction; Harry expressing revulsion that the photographers who'd pursued her into the Paris tunnel then took pictures of her as she lay dying in the car.

Diana: The Last 100 Days was trashier, both in tone and in content, but it was luridly watchable as it detailed her passion for heart and lung specialist Hasnat Khan, whose reluctance to become embroiled in her celebrity world sent her into the arms of Dodi al-Fayed, and inadvertently to her death.

Chief among the tittle-tattlers here was her former butler Paul Burrell, whose creepy confidings to presenter Martin Bashir (the man who had conducted that famous 1994 Panorama interview with Diana) about things she had privately told him struck me as loathsome.

In the second part of From Russia to Iran: Crossing the Wild Frontier (Channel 4), explorer Levison Wood and guide Rasheed continued their arduous trek across the Caucasus, saying a touching farewell to each other at the Azerbaijan border, where ex-soldier Namin took over the guiding duties.

It was goodbye also to the barely inhabited mountain villages of Dagestan and hello instead to the Azerbaijan capital, Baku, a shiny city that Wood deemed "dripping with oil money". But it was only a stopping off point on his way to Iran, and I'll certainly share his further adventures tomorrow night.

In the 'Imagine' profile, Margaret Atwood: You Have Been Warned! (BBC1), Alan Yentob interviewed the 78-year-old Canadian writer about her work. As author of The Handmaid's Tale, on which the recent TV drama series was based, Atwood is currently back in vogue, but she didn't have a lot to say in this uninvolving film.

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