 Euan Ferguson on TV

The BBC’s lat­est Le Carré was a won­der­fully gloomy trip across the globe, Sean Penn shone on a mis­sion to Mars, and the right baker won

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the Royal Court

The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl BBC One The First Chan­nel 4 House of Cards Net­flix Hitler’s Holo­caust Rail­ways Chan­nel 5 Black Earth Ris­ing BBC Two The Great Bri­tish Bake Off Chan­nel 4

The Night Man­ager,” in­toned the con­ti­nu­ity, breath­lessly, “or even if you didn’t, you will not want to miss this.” Sorry, but what are you ac­tu­ally talk­ing about, man? “Even if you didn’t…”? In which case, why men­tion it at all? Still, I sup­pose it breaks the monotony of hav­ing to in­tone that dreary “con­tains some scenes some view­ers may find dis­turb­ing/up­set­ting/mildly chal­leng­ing/in­ter­est­ing” be­fore ev­ery sin­gle pro­gramme that is not air­ing on CBBC or Nick­elodeon.

Other than the fact, then, that both were stamped with the Corn­well/Le Carré im­pri­matur,

there was lit­tle to link to The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl. Where Man­ager was glossy and span­gled and camp as Christ­mas, this is set in 1979 and, in the hands of South Korean di­rec­tor Park Chan-wook, re­fresh­ingly stripped of all glitz, won­der­fully sub­fusc, to the ex­tent that it some­times ap­pears that the en­tire year com­prised only var­i­ous hues of tan and dun.

And fright­ful ag­it­prop the­atre in Lon­don, and fright­ful Ber­liner “rock” mu­sic, and fright­ful ter­ror­ism, back when they had to be at least mildly cre­ative with their lies. As did the spies, the Mos­sad in this case. And so we en­ter a world of bat­tered orange type­writ­ers, ten­sion, smok­ing, mous­taches, hard men and hard women and hard com­pro­mise. And hard sac­ri­fice.

The teth­ered goat in this in­stance is young English­woman Char­lie (Florence Pugh), who plays her with a mix of sass, suss, gulli­bil­ity and squalidly en­ti­tled priv­i­lege, which is mag­i­cally, per­cep­tively right for those years, even though Pugh wasn’t born un­til 1996. When the plot fi­nally jumps to Greece – Tel Aviv also fea­tures – the di­rec­tor fi­nally al­lows some colour and you get a vivid sense of the sparkling warm free­doms for the young on a de­serted beach circa 1979, all gui­tars and hitch­hik­ing and in­tel­lec­tual toes in wa­ter.

And yet it’s only a brief respite for Char­lie, be­fore be­ing lured by her hor­mones into the clutches of the Mos­sad’s blue-smoked mous­taches and their un­for­giv­ing, dirty, nec­es­sary wars against those who are sworn to rid them from the Earth. It has none of the glam­our, lit­tle of the charm, of

The Night Man­ager, for this is not about money but sur­vival, salty, rough-dug sur­vival, with cordite and fin­ger­nails, and I’m im­mensely look­ing for­ward to work­ing out what the hell’s ac­tu­ally go­ing on.

There was a cer­tain aw­ful in­evitabil­ity in Chan­nel 4/

Hulu co-pro­duc­tion The First, al­most from the off, about the fact some­thing was go­ing to go cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong. Griz­zled su­per-as­tro­naut Sean Penn has been bumped, you see, from lead­ing the first manned 30-month mis­sion to Mars, and when you see him cool­ing his heels in civil­ian world (ac­tu­ally run­ning, bare-tor­soed, with bouncy labrador, on the shores of Lake Testos­terone) you re­alise the flight’s doomed: they couldn’t pos­si­bly go to Mars with­out ol’ doggy chops on board. From then on in it’s all over bar the flight crew’s mi­nus­cule back­sto­ries and a hu­mon­gous, Chal­lenger-like ex­plo­sion.

There are some very nice touches – the fran­tic rush, say, to strip the hangar/ball­room at the re­cep­tion cen­tre of bal­loons and cham­pagne, for the fam­i­lies are now meet­ing in the ear­li­est stages of grief – and there’s un­doubted guts from show run­ner Beau Wil­limon (House of Cards) in fram­ing the series in this way. Much of the con­cen­tra­tion is per­force on the guilt, the re­crim­i­na­tions, the cop­ing, the blame, the rush to get back on track. I don’t think it’s un­til the eighth episode that they fi­nally get into space proper.

And Penn, for all my snark, is a grand lead­ing man. Natascha McEl­hone, too, does a bang-up job as aerospace mag­nate Laz In­gram – think Elon Musk with, as­ton­ish­ingly, fewer so­cial skills – and, all in all, this is shap­ing up rather well as a three-way bat­tle be­tween cor­po­rate am­bi­tion, tech­nol­ogy and lives. It’s hardly edge-of-the-seat-of-thep­ants stuff though: too much gaz­ing wist­fully into night skies while sonorous po­ems are not so much read as tolled. Per­haps I was just want­ing, shal­lowly, more ex­plo­sions.

To the (de­layed) re­turn of House of Cards – and, my good­ness, how very much I didn’t re­alise how very lit­tle we would miss Kevin Spacey. Robin Wright has stepped sub­limely up. She dom­i­nates by sim­ply in­hab­it­ing, as did Fran­cis, ev­ery scene in which she ap­pears, and one sees the skull be­neath the skin through­out, rather than in snatches.

The series be­gins with aides’ so­cial me­dia anal­y­sis of her first 100 days as pres­i­dent. She is ter­rif­i­cally un­pop­u­lar. “God never in­tended a woman to rule this land. Also, she is a Jew” is, if any­thing, the mildest. It’s grim lis­ten­ing, if mar­vel­lously on the but­ton in terms of the po­larised New Amer­ica. This is the last series, dammit. Bring it, hor­ri­bly, on; the writ­ers would seem to have an un­shak­ably ro­bust grasp on what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing in real life. The death of the fic­tional Fran­cis re­mains tan­ta­lis­ingly un­ex­plored, un­til later, but there are hints.

I was, for once, hugely im­pressed by Chris Tar­rant. His jour­ney around Hitler’s Holo­caust Rail­ways – and isn’t Chan­nel 5 com­ing up with the goods in terms of doc­u­men­taries now?

– was wise, sober and sober­ing, in­cluded en­thralling tes­ti­mony and re­vealed, among much else, how the Nurem­berg ral­lies and its train sys­tems – such a beau­ti­ful city! So much dumb-as-pig-shit mob ha­tred! – were es­sen­tially, four years be­fore the war, and with gleam­ing young Nazis, a dry run for the es­sen­tial lo­gis­tics of mass move­ment of Jews by train to the camps. The think­ing be­hind the So­lu­tion be­gan in 1935.

of­ten by ma­chete, in Rwanda. Black Earth Ris­ing, Hugo Blick’s phe­nom­e­non, ex­plored all of this and more and also, al­most in­ci­den­tally, gave us one of the finest and most sub­tle, win­nowy ex­plo­rations of mod­ern African pol­i­tics yet vouch­safed to screen by any writer, white or black. It has been slow, of­ten con­fus­ing, but ul­ti­mately ter­rific. It should be high on any­one’s 2018 list, and re­minds us that some­times, if only some­times, screen­writ­ers should be per­mit­ted a claim to high art.

Rahul, hav­ing un­der­done the con­fi­dence through­out to the de­gree that I fret­ted just when he would de­cide to be­come qui­etly scared of his own shoelaces, as usual over­did the baking, to a joy­ful and gor­geously flavoured ex­tent. And won. Of­ten less is more: watch­ing the end of Bake Off un­der a can­died Oc­to­ber moon, this was a re­minder that, just some­times, more is more. A brave and loopy and geeky win­ner, and the first male win­ner for a long while, and lost, at the end, for floury words. Not all in to­day’s Bri­tain need to preen and shout; some­times, be­ing a re­search sci­en­tist and win­ning a baking thing and be­ing kind is per­mit­ted to say it all.

Where The Night Man­ager was all glossy and camp, this was free of glitz, in hues of tan and dun

Sean Penn, ‘a grand lead­ing man’ in The First; and Bake Off win­ner Rahul Man­dal with judges Paul Hol­ly­wood and Prue Leith. Hulu; C4/Love Pro­duc­tions

Alexan­der Skars­gård, Florence Pugh and Michael Shan­non in The Lit­tle Drum­mer Girl. Na­dav Kan­der/BBC

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