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

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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