Midnight Man, ITV
Shrink Rap, More 4
Clarissa and the King's Cookbook, BBC4
The Thames rose and we watched, helpless, as writers' careers sank: ITV had a week of disasters, and James Nesbitt as a reporter fighting dark forces did little to turn it round
Sunday 11 May 2008
As disaster movies go, Flood was of the method school. Its first release date was a calamity. So was its second. A blockbuster-style drama about flooding in the UK, it was meant to go into cinemas ... last summer. It washed up instead on ITV this week, of all weeks. To get through
Flood, you have to put all thoughts of its topicality from your mind.
The script sprang leaks immediately. The fine cast (Tom Courtenay, Nigel Planer, Robert Carlyle) were at the mercy of its banalities, clinging for life to lines like "What kind of wave would do that?" (Just try saying that. It sounds awful which ever word you stress.) The actors showed amazing fortitude, treading water in two inches of dialogue. It was the writer and directors' careers bobbing away over the Thames Flood Barrier.
Ideally the first victim of a disaster movie should be someone of whom we have grown relatively fond. A wisecracking taxi driver, perhaps, or a small child and her faithful labrador. Here it was a man whose face we had barely seen, whose only character trait was angry management of a steering wheel. Still, we were expected to mourn him at some length, as news of his demise reached the other characters, who were heartbroken. Irwin Allen would never have stood for this. I'd rather have the slick professional sentimentality of his Towering Inferno any day. Flood had pretensions to better things, but it was a cut below the classic disaster movie.
Occasionally it showed glimpses of how a good modern disaster movie could be. In one brilliantly contemporary vignette, survivors screamed with relief when a helicopter came their way – but were left stranded when it turned out to be only a rolling news crew, coming to film them, not to rescue them. An acerbic moment, gracefully resolved: they were air-lifted to safety soon after. Rescue teams follow where media lead.
Other moral questions were raised – evacuate prisons and hospitals? Or the inhabitants of Chelsea? – and then discarded. Comic bathos was meant to come from two rude mechanicals (Tom Hardy and Angus Barnett) working on the Tube tracks below the city but these scenes were played timidly. Soon you were welcoming the friendly waters: come, drown this film! Seeing the Millennium Dome floating like a crouton in soup, it was hard not to cheer. David Suchet as the Deputy Prime Minister gave a one-note performance: compassionate and concerned. Well, someone had to be.
James Nesbitt is Midnight Man. He is a disgraced journalist with a phobia of daylight. His wife is keen to recap the facts for him. "It's called phengophobia, in case you've forgotten." You have to relish dialogue that clumsy. It's such a badly disguised way of telegraphing information to the audience it's practically postmodern. Meanwhile Nesbitt is prowling about by night, rifling through bins. He's meant to be looking for tabloid scandal, but what's this? He's stumbled upon a massive government conspiracy. It promises to be a relaxing sort of series, free from realism or originality.
It's a cliché of psychiatry that patients fall in love with their analysts. Tony Curtis talking to Pamela Connolly on Shrink Rap settled for mild but heartfelt flirtation, peppering his self-revelation with "beautiful lady" and "my dear". "I'm 83 and I'm still screwed-out" he told her. "Did you mean screwed-up?" said Dr Pam. "'Cos screwed-out could mean something totally different ..."
She is growing into this gig, week by week. "Gimme five!" he said. She did, and he held on to her hand to kiss it. The psychotherapist Rhine Maiden beamed and twinkled. In psychobabble terms, they ended up going all the way. Her: "You're a remarkable man". Him: "I'm so blessed I had this chance to talk to you". Strangely, this orgy of mutual affirmation wasn't embarrassing so much as rather wonderful.
That's because it's Tony Curtis. When you first see him on screen, your head turns. He's Marlon Brando's Mr Kurtz, with better access to cosmetics. But after he's talked for 10 minutes you begin to think he's still beautiful. He was a perfect subject for televised psychotherapy, committing to the project immediately and speaking from the heart and with eloquence – you gotta love the cadences of that New York Jewish accent – about his abusive mother, his relationship with Marilyn Monroe ("We taught each other how to be men and women – the subtlety of a look, a touch ..."), his drug addiction and, of course, his childhood. When Tony (then Bernie) was 12, he told his younger brother Julius to go away and stop bothering him. Julius wandered off and was run over by a car.
Tony, in his suffering, started doing dangerous stunts and pratfalls. He swore to himself he would be nice to people for the rest of his life. The compulsive flirtation with Dr Pam begins to make sense. As the show concluded he even thanked the cameraman.
All praise Clarissa Dickson Wright, jewel among TV presenters. In Clarissa and the King's Cookbook she told us, straightforwardly and without patter, all about the 700-year-old cookbook, Richard II's The Forme of Cury. Inevitably, she stuffed a goose using one of the recipes. "It's a dish I've chosen to cook because I think it will reveal how contemporary their food was," she said. A simple statement, but I liked it. It's rare for presenters to use the words "I think".
She also managed to reel off a list of medieval kitchen staff with an (almost) straight face. quite a feat given they sound like the habitués of a particularly debauched nightclub. At work in Richard II's kitchen were: mincers, boners, spit boys, and roasters. Bona butch jobs indeed.
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