Father and Son, ITV1
Big Brother, Channel 4
A gripping drama rises above demands for a British version of 'The Wire'. Oh, and 'Big Brother' is back
Sunday 13 June 2010
Our TV-makers must be terribly weary of people asking why they can't produce "a Wire", as if it were a one-size-fits-all template for quality drama.
Watching Father and Son's opening, however, it seemed its creators had taken such criticisms rather too closely to heart. With its parade of newspaper headlines, mug-shots and bluesy Americana theme, it was so redolent of HBO's saga you wondered if it wasn't the work of Tory gaffer Chris Grayling, offering subliminal justification for those ill-received comparisons between Manchester and the series' Baltimore slums.
But don't judge a programme by its credits, for the late Frank Deasy's script was its own beast. Where the Greatest TV Show EverTM was crime drama as state-of-the-nation novel, this pretty great TV show was a far more straightforward proposition, a thriller that played to genre conventions even as it reinvigorated them.
Thus it all began with that old chestnut, the ex-con trying, and failing, to go straight: Dougray Scott as ex-Mancunian kingpin Mark O'Connor, his quiet life in rural Ireland shattered by the news of estranged son Sean's arrest for a gang shooting. Drawn back to his old patch, he didn't so much confront his demons as have them tied back on to him like so many tin cans, courtesy of ex-comrades, police nemeses, and the shadow of his murdered first wife.
From thereon in, the narrative construction was faultless: Byzantine but never befuddling, with a steady drip-feed of twists and the breadth to allow even secondary characters their own trajectory, from the compromised innocence of O'Connor's doting girlfriend to the emerging femme fatalism of Sean's blinged-up one. Holding it all together was an inscrutably weatherbeaten Scott, who previously occupied a space in my brain somewhere between Julia Ormond and Joseph Fiennes among the next big things never to be, but here suggested middle age might just become him.
As to whether it cut any deeper than that, I'm not so sure. Some have praised its topicality in reference to gun crime and gang culture, and one particular scene of a small boy brandishing a gun in a primary school was indisputably stomach churning. But mostly its interest in sociological realities was tangential at best, with little sense of a world beyond the characters' personal dilemmas, some over-ripe villains and a climactic revelation that served as an over-literal comment on the generational legacy of violence.
So it wasn't the British Wire, or indeed Sopranos, but it was intelligent, affecting prime-time programming, and after a week in which the same slot was occupied by end-of-the-world variety acts that left even Mr Cowell glazed over, that will do just fine.
Moving hypocritically on, while I've been decrying the grotesquery of Britain's Got Talent, I've been keenly waiting for the final run of its forebear Big Brother, which began on Wednesday. For though recent series have suffered from chronic format fatigue, I was hopeful that the producers would be able to work some end-of-an-era alchemy this time round.
Things started promisingly, the circus theme displaying a certain self-referential glee while the twist of selecting housemates live on air offered up a spectacle of self-congratulation and rictus-grinned disappointment that evoked the Oscars by way of turning-out time at Mahiki. But then, as Jordan lookalike followed Beyoncé lookalike and token hunk followed token posho into the house, that sinking feeling returned. I may eat my words, but my present hunch is that I'd be better off watching my own housemates debate about whose turn it is to buy toilet roll. Oh well, to paraphrase Bogey, we'll always have Nasty Nick.
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