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
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