Monday 19 March 2018

The spy who baffled me, and a jazz star who sang like an angel

Bridge too far: Keri Russell as Elizabeth in The Americans.
Bridge too far: Keri Russell as Elizabeth in The Americans.

John Boland

In the opening episode of The Americans (RTé Two/UTV), two Russian spies masquerading as a US couple and living in a leafy Washington suburb had a defector tied up in the boot of their Oldsmobile while they wondered what to do with him.

Then a neighbour, who just happened to be an FBI counter-intelligence agent and who just happened to have moved in across the road from them, rang the doorbell and asked to borrow jump leads for his car.

After that, the scene got truly daft. The Russian hubby, rather than say "Hold on, I'll get them for you", invited the FBI guy into the garage, opened the car's trunk and rummaged for the leads under the bound and gagged captive, who didn't even try to grunt or kick or otherwise alert the outsider to his presence.

But if credibility was entirely shattered in that scene, it had been strained throughout the whole episode, not least because the basic premise didn't quite add up.

After the discovery of Russian sleeper spies in the US a couple of years back, the notion has an intriguing topicality, but the embedded agents in this series aren't just gathering information for their Soviet masters, they're actively engaged in all sorts of unlikely skullduggery, some of it actively murderous.

It doesn't help that wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), despite almost two decades of impersonating an all-American housewife with two teenage children and despite the fact that she'd been sexually brutalised by a KGB master back in the USSR, remains a fanatical believer in the communist cause. (Husband Philip, played by Matthew Rhys, is more persuasive as someone partly enticed by the American dream).

And there's little sense conveyed of the early 1980s setting. There's talk of Ronald Reagan and of dangers to democracy but it comes as tokenistic, while the actors seem to inhabit a geographical and social vacuum. Certainly you get no real feeling for the period, either through its fashions, its cultural signposts or its underlying assumptions. Mad Men it isn't.

This series has got a lot of praise from US critics, but it will need to up its game very quickly if it's to merit this praise.

Espionage was also the subject of Spying on Hitler's Army: The Secret Recordings (Channel 4), the eavesdropping carried out by British intelligence in three stately homes which had been turned into detention centres for German prisoners of war.

The voiceover made extravagant claims for this elaborate bugging exercise, deeming it not just "the most ambitious surveillance operation ever attempted" but also of huge "importance to the war effort". But what did it achieve in terms of lives saved or altered military tactics? Nothing, as far as I could make out.

Yet the transcripts of casual conversations between prisoners were chilling evidence that most German soldiers knew exactly what was being perpetrated by Hitler and his executioners and were more than willing to go along with it – one junior officer nonchalantly reminiscing: "I had an hour to spare, so we stopped off and slaughtered 1,500 Jews."

Seeking refuge in comedy, I happened upon Up the Women (BBC4), created and written by Jessica Hynes, who was wonderfully good as binge-eater Cheryl in The Royle Family and should have won a Bafta a couple of weeks back for her inspired turn as the purveyor of PR twaddle in Twenty Twelve.

She won't, though, win any awards for this sitcom about wannabe suffragettes, which is so creakingly old-fashioned and obvious that it makes Are You Being Served seem cutting-edge. I didn't even manage a titter.

Not that laughs were to be abundantly had from Psycho Bitches (Sky Arts), though it was undeniably clever in its imaginings of famous women revealing their insecurities on a psychiatrist's couch. These included an intolerably needy Audrey Hepburn, a self-obsessed Eva Peron, three foul-mouthed and sexually frustrated Brontë sisters and a Sylvia Plath who tried to alleviate her suicidal depression by adopting the persona of Pam Ayres.

These were arrestingly perverse vignettes but perhaps too smart-arsed for their own good, though I did titter on at least two occasions. No guffaws, though.

But I got most pleasure this week from the BBC4 documentary Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer, which chronicled the career of a vocalist more admired by her musical peers than she's known to the general listening public.

O'Day, who died in 2006 at the age of 87, was that rare entity in jazz – a white singer who was so prodigiously gifted and so adept at improvisation that she commanded the unconditional respect of her black colleagues.

They probably also marvelled at how she managed to live into her 80s given that, despite looking as wholesome as apple pie, she was a heroin addict for almost two decades, had a serious drink problem, was incarcerated for drug offences and suffered a couple of nervous breakdowns.

But she sang like an angel and one of this film's joys was that it offered extended sequences of her in full sonic flight.

In the last decade of her life, she ended up in a trailer and was prone to physical accidents, but in the year of her death she returned to the studio to record an album that was aptly called Indestructible!.

Irish Independent

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