Euan Ferguson’s verdict on a brilliant week for BBC drama
It’s a hat-trick for the BBC, with three superb new dramas exploring wealth, corruption, espionage and bloody history
Hope you had a just dandy and howdy-doody summer but are now firmly camped, legs tucked, in front of the screen, because last week was most probably the high-water mark for new drama this year. More importantly, hope you’ve paid your licence fee: three of the best came courtesy of the BBC. Apparently millennials are shunning the Beeb in their squillions, just as they snub hangovers, fights and knowing how to change a tyre. They’ll rue… some of that, one day.
Trust opened stylishly, as one might have expected from a duo with the pedigree of Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle: a sunny, swimmy mansion high in the Hollywood hills, gauzy with the impossible dream of California, 1973. As we pan under and through the pool, through the party, to a man killing himself with a barbecue fork, the strains of Pink Floyd’s Money cash-register themselves into our consciousness. It is only as Dick Parry’s sax solo kicks in (and the tines pierce flesh) that we realise the band fleetingly glimpsed were, surely, meant to be Pink Floyd themselves, for this is Danny Boyle, not above that nice kind of nod, but, more importantly, this was Getty money.
George, the suicidee, was the eldest son of J (Jean) Paul Getty, who in 1957 was named the richest living American. In this lush, sly 10-part adaptation, Getty is played by Donald Sutherland, which means within minutes you won’t believe he could ever have been played by anyone else. This patriarch lives as parsimonious a life as one can in a Surrey mansion with a harem of girlfriends and a lioness (and a payphone), and scribbles stingily in a notebook when the Times goes up by tuppence, and rails against his druggy, wastrel and wasted brood. Few can dispense the line “perfumed fucking wasters” with such despairing scorn as Sutherland’s twisted, honeyed Canadian mouth.
The story, when it gets going proper, will be nominally about the kidnapping of the flaky grandson, John Paul III, a tale long mired in conspiracy, triple bluff, mafia double-dealing and the twin cynicisms of international oil and politics, but at heart it’s all really a tale (a la Succession) of the hopeless dysfunction that squalid wealth can impose on a family and all those around them. It’s chic, fun and brutal, immensely watchable – and we haven’t yet got to Getty père’s security supremocum-fixer, the ex-CIA man James Fletcher Chace, sent to Rome to negotiate with the kidnappers. Onetime heart-throb Brendan Fraser plays him gloriously, all good-Ol’ Testament wrath coiled inside immense southern bonhomie. It’s
The women rip up our screens of a Saturday evening and hand them back to us, laughing
like watching a boy-band exile suddenly all grown-up, hefty, and singing like Sinatra.
Finally, too, we have something to stay in for on Saturday nights. We’ve waited long enough, and I am delighted to report it’s been more than worth the wait. More than delighted: proud, by proxy; for Killing Eve, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, comes originally from the Codename Villanelle novellas of Luke Jennings, whom you’ll find on page 41 in his other life as the Observer’s dance critic.
With all that, the sainted Fleabag creator and an esteemed colleague, it would have been… tricky had I hated it. I didn’t. I didn’t, with passion, and dry laughter, and delight. Killing Eve has a (at first sight) frumpy, bored MI5 deskjock, the sublime Sandra Oh, pitted against one of the finest creations in modern thriller espionage, the impossibly chic, needy, savagely psychopathic Paris-based assassiness (I know we don’t normally do gendered professions, but in this case assassiness is sweetly apposite) Villanelle. We have Jodie Comer as Villanelle, utterly lovable, utterly unforgivable – obsidian heart meets cochineal frippery – and, when she and Oh’s Eve Polastri lock horns across continents it’s going to be a love-hate duel, stoicism and fury and mutual attraction, and seafresh wit and pulse-fresh gore. And, generally, an absence of men: David Haig is great, as is Kim Bodnia (how lovely to see Martin from The Bridge back), but, in general, the women (Fiona Shaw’s there too) rip up our screens of a Saturday evening and hand them back to us, laughing. I want to tell you not to binge-watch – the whole series is available now through BBC Three – but don’t have the stony heart. Snowflake, me.
All this (plus Bodyguard! And is she really dead?) for 41p a day – and we haven’t even got to Black Earth Rising, Hugo Blick’s magisterially grown-up war-crimes outing, unashamedly political. It might best be described not as a thriller or a drama, but as a brain-trembler. As always with Blick, it makes you think, and leads you to no easy answers. On the surface it’s an ethical dilemma: should lawyer Eve Ashby (the ever-fine Harriet Walter) take on the prosecution of a Rwandan “criminal” – he ended much of the genocide, is counted as a hero, but has since traded in blood diamonds and child soldiers – or, as is urged by friends and family, consign history to history. Walter plays Eve as a woman who has drunk too long at the fount of intelligence and longs for the sweet, sober solace of empathy, illogic, victimhood, lack of rigour, subjective learning.
Her daughter, Kate, a Rwandan adoptee, is played by Michaela Coel, who dominates every scene in which she appears – with looks, with cheekbones, with flashy anger, with hurt, with caustic yet undeniable love for her unlovable mother, who insists on seeing the past objectively. This is as about as good as political drama will ever get: it’s searingly fine, yes, but obliges us also to confront hugely vexatious dilemmas. What is the international war crimes court for? And should there be African solutions for African problems?
In the face of all last week’s fine drama, John Simm, despite being John Simm, stood little chance with a clunkily written visit to Hong Kong to attempt to track down, in Strangers, his bigamous, possibly dead, wife. Or is she? Hmm. Hey-ho. Pass the beer nuts.
Similarly, Matthew Goode and Owen Teale, both bags-of-character actors with magnetic faces, appear to be slumming it, a little, in Sky’s
A Discovery of Witches. This reworking of Deborah Harkness’s books is absolutely grand, as far as it goes. It features an unwilling witch, the fiery new Aussie Teresa Palmer, and Oxford, and vampires. It’ll do splendidly until the next Potter/Morse/Twilight derivation comes along.
‘Utterly lovable, utterly unforgivable’: Jodie Comer, far left, in Killing Eve.Sid Gentle Films Michaela Coel, left, in Black Earth Rising, ‘dominates every scene in which she appears’. BBC
‘A tale of hopeless dysfunction’: Donald Sutherland, Anna Chancellor, Amanda Drew, Sophie Winkleman and Verónica Echegui in Trust. FX