There’s nowt so queer as folk
Forget the glossy ‘Bodyguard’ (if you haven’t already) and raise a toast to TV’s glorious eccentrics, says Ben Lawrence
This year, television offered seductive visions of far-off lands. We have been captivated by the story of two young girls growing up in poverty in Fifties Naples; followed a Python into a country hidden from the rest of the world; tracked a beautiful female assassin across various European countries painted in pleasing pastel shades. And yet the most memorable TV of 2018 looked inwards, to the British psyche and its peculiarities.
A Very English Scandal (BBC One) exquisitely caught the madness of our island nation, and the result was both hilarious and humane. The three-part drama, adapted by Russell T Davies from John Preston’s book, focused on the Jeremy Thorpe scandal of the late Seventies and the attempted murder of his former lover, Norman Scott. A nasty, grubby footnote in political history, you might think, but Davies made you care for all parties concerned. It is my show of the year.
Hugh Grant’s performance as Thorpe avoided portraying the Liberal leader as a pantomime baddy. Thorpe’s instinct for survival may have caused him to commit terrible deeds, but Grant showed the torment that lurked beneath the surface of the Etonian dandy. Indeed, it was suggested he may even have loved Scott, played with a nice dash of unhinged boyishness by Ben Whishaw.
Director Stephen Frears brought out the comedy – the accidental shooting of a dog, the fact that Scott’s would-be assassins confused Barnstaple with Dunstable – but the residual feeling was one of sadness for the crazy things that people do when they are in love (or have fallen out of it).
The extensive dramatis personae of A Very English Scandal – badgerloving aristocrats, austere Surrey matriarchs, kindly old landladies – might have suggested broadbrush strokes, but each character felt rooted in a recognisable reality. Certainly, as TV drama strives for global appeal, this British eccentricity is likely to become lost. Shows such as BBC One’s Bodyguard (undoubtedly the hit of 2018, but nowhere near my list of favourites) and McMafia had a sort of international sheen. Are producers, desperate to flog our wares overseas, anxious that English peculiarities will be off-putting to foreign audiences?
Then there’s the current obsession with perpetuating a fiendishly clever plot. If we are enslaved to complex storylines, then it’s obvious that characters are there merely to serve it. Did anyone really think there was an emotional richness to Richard Madden’s David Budd or James Norton’s Alex Godman?
You could argue that I am being too po-faced; that certain shows are merely meant to entertain and that viewers aren’t interested in any discernible psychology. But another highlight, Killing Eve (BBC One), was a spy thriller that really made you root for its characters – not just its American and Russian leads, played by Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, but also its secondary characters in the British intelligence services. There was Fiona Shaw’s droll, gimlet-eyed head of the Russian section; Darren Boyd’s tightly wound MI5 supervisor; and, best of all, David Haig’s all-too-briefly seen Bill Pargrave – clever, kind, sexually enigmatic, with his own particular brand of public-school mettle.
Eccentricity took a dark turn in another of the year’s best dramas, Patrick Melrose (Sky Atlantic). Based on the sequence of novels by Edward St Aubyn, it starred Benedict Cumberbatch as a heroin addict haunted by the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. The foibles and dysfunctions of the English upper classes, often treated whimsically on screen, were shown to be ugly and self-destructive. At the heart of this was a mercurial Cumberbatch, flaunting his ability to change, emotionally, on a pin. He made lunacy the show’s default setting, and called everyone else’s sanity into question.
The best comedy, much like the best drama, embraced the wild and the wacky. The long-awaited second series of This Country (BBC Three online) probed the Cotswolds to find satisfyingly odd characters who defied the cosy notion of English pastoral. Another of my shows of the year, Inside No. 9 (BBC Two), had a fine grasp of our essential strangeness, best illustrated by the episode “Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room”, a sort of lament for the lost art of end-ofthe-pier-style light entertainment. In it, the double act Cheese and Crackers (played by the series’ creators, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton) tried to heal a rift that had ended their careers 30 years previously. Here were two oddballs, once united in their love for onstage pranks, being forced to confront their pasts and their almost certainly bleak futures. The depiction of Portentous dialogue, ham acting… This swords-andsandals epic about the Trojan War was not even enjoyably bad. The relationship of Paris and Helen proving as sexually thrilling as a weekend in Cleethorpes.
Left, Jodie Comer inright, Ben Whishaw with Hugh Grant in