Grace Dent on TV: Utopia
I watched two episodes of Utopia – entranced, repelled, confused and in quiet admiration
“Watch Utopia on Channel 4,” Twitter harangued me last week in multiple terrified voices. “It's really disturbing! I couldn't sleep!” Well, this felt like a reason to swerve it, because I love to sleep. Sleep is my Utopia. Damn you domestic hibernating tortoises, wrapped in newspaper, packed in your cardboard boxes for a glorious 14-week shut-eye. Would Mr Tortoise poke his head out of his shell for a grizzly six-hour paranoia-fest featuring an extended eye-torture scene involving chilli, bleach and a dessert spoon? No, he would not. Would he extend a webby paw to series-link Sky+ after watching a shivering seven-year-old boy executed by a maniac with a gas canister? Perhaps if Michaela Strachan was starring in it, but still, no he would prefer a nice piece of lettuce.
I, on the other hand, watched two episodes of Utopia back to back, entranced, repelled, confused and in quiet admiration of writer Dennis Kelly for getting this beautiful, hideous, cerebrally-taxing filth near a screen in the first place. Utopia is a tiny bit Misfits, a scoop of Clockwork Orange, strong whiffs of Shaun of the Dead, Black Mirror and the Kate Bush “Cloudbusting” video, and the overall sensation of being trapped inside a vivid sleep-paralysed cheese-dream.
Neil Maskell, in his portrayal of “Network Henchman”, previously seen being jolly unpleasant in Kill List and The Football Factory, manages to rubber-stamp himself as one of British TV's most affecting psychopaths, purely from ambling through every scene, mouth half open, agog with a blase sort of evil, in search of Jessica Hyde. After two episodes back to back I retreated to bed and dreamed I'd been given a tiny helpless dachshund puppy which I'd promptly lost at an illegal warehouse party then found on a road squashed by a truck. Perhaps I'll never sleep again. Incidentally, no dachshund puppies are killed within the episodes I've watched so far of Utopia, thank heavens. I'll gloss over men, women and saucer-eyed infants being butchered but once fluffy animals are in distress I become as lucid as, say, those imbeciles who call the BBC at 8am on Sunday to complain that a Tweenie reminds them of Jimmy Savile.
The fact the BBC pays heed to lunacy like this says a lot about where it is risk-wise as opposed to Channels 4, Five or Sky. By midday last Sunday the BBC had immediately issued a fulsome and self-flagellating apology about a scene from 2001 where a Tweenie wears a straw coloured wig and stands beside some DJ decks. Note: the BBC is actually listening to these plutonium grade, pissy-panted numpties and cuts its cloth accordingly. The new series of Idris Elba's Luther should be scintillating. “Um yeah, I know Utopia has been pretty gruesome, but can we downgrade this plot with Luther's enemy from 'cutting off the desk sergeant's fingers', to um, breaking into the police station and giving everyone a manicure in a colour they don't like?”
And what is the BBC making? Blandings on BBC1. The show, loosely based on PG Wodehouse, resembles a long episode of Cbeebies' Something Special with Mr Tumble, except with a dozen Mr Tumbles. It makes Downton Abbey look like Eli Roth's Hostel. Nothing to be offended about here. Not even a pig that vaguely resembled Gary Glitter. Blandings is filmed in a hall which, if you think about it, sounds like “Stuart Hall”. Will nobody ban this filth?
When I'm made Director General I will (wo)man the BBC duty log myself, only to finish each call with the triumphant noise of a paper shredder in full thrust. I worry, quite genuinely, what we shall lose access to in the great BBC archive purge of 2013. All those fantastic episodes of Top of the Pops from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s which we're treated to on BBC4 – footage of every wonderful, strange superstar or one-hit wonder who ever graced TV centre – this is our history! The BBC spent your licence fee recording it and now owns all the rights to it and will never be able show it in 2013 lest some berk in Aberystwyth catches sight of Dave Lee Travis and reaches for the burgundy felt tip and the Basildon Bond notelets. I'm not saying these people would benefit from a lumbering visit from Utopia's Network Henchman, but it might reinstall a sense of priority.
Utopia continues for another four weeks, one giant conspiracy theory, wrapped in a ball of Russian multi-million-pound medical deals, government corruption, pregnant prostitutes, gouged out eyes entrails and “put to sleep” corpses. I have little real idea of what is going on, but I shall watch to the end and then, like with all good drama, watch it a second or third time to focus on plot. If it transpires that I'm the person who knows where Jessica Hyde is, I'm in trouble.
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