Last Night's Television - Nurse Jackie, BBC2; The Good Wife, Channel 4; Mrs Mandela, BBC4

At the end of the rainbow

It was heartening, on the evening that yet another high-class American import arrived (the excellent
The Good Wife, of which more later), and in the week that the sublime Mad Men returns, to be reminded that when it comes to truly electrifying drama on the small screen, Britain still gives as good as it gets.

Mrs Mandela was essentially the story of how Winnie Mandela, between 1964, when Nelson was jailed, and his release in 1990, became as brutal and tyrannical as the regime that tormented her, a process that concluded with her part in the murder of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi by her thuggish bodyguards, otherwise known as Mandela United FC. It was sensationally good, with a crackling pylon of a performance by Sophie Okonedo in the title role; indeed, she might as well start clearing space on her mantelpiece for the awards that are bound to follow. Hats off too to the writer and director, Michael Samuels, not least for his courage in investing so much in a single performance. A lesser actress than Okonedo could have made the whole thing look overwrought.

Technically, it was no easy task, either, to present Winnie both as the provincial ingénue of 1964 and the embittered, brutalised cynic of 1990, as well as at various points between. A fat suit helped, as did some padding in the cheeks, which only once or twice made her look like an angry hamster, but mostly it was a triumph of extraordinarily subtle acting. Heaven knows, it must be hard to achieve subtlety and intensity at the same time, but she pulled it off.

In some ways, David Harewood had an even trickier challenge in the supporting role of Nelson: with Winnie's character development practically the stuff of Shakesperean tragedy, how could he convey Nelson's steady resolve and moral toughness without looking like a less interesting human being? In truth, Harewood didn't quite succeed, partly for the prosaic reason that he simply didn't age as convincingly. And this in turn rather undermined the scenes in which Nelson returned to the marital bed after 26 years away, to find Winnie none too thrilled to have him back. I could see what Samuels was trying to do; beyond the bedroom door, the whole world was rejoicing at Nelson Mandela's release, so how ironic that there was such ambivalence in his own home. Yet these were the only scenes that looked stagey.

On the whole, though, Mrs Mandela was a tour de force of fine writing, stylish direction and superb acting. It was Okonedo's gig, but David Morrissey was no less excellent as the pitiless police interrogator Theunis Swanepoel. I know Morrissey a little and like him a lot, so I cannot claim total objectivity, but by any judgement his versatility is remarkable. He seemed perfectly cast as kind-hearted Colonel Brandon in a very decent Sense & Sensibility a couple of years ago, and yet I can't think of anyone who could have been any more terrifying as Major Swanepoel.

Anyway, between Winnie Mandela and Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife, wifely travails were all the rage on telly last night. Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, has been repeatedly cheated on by her husband, a prominent Chicago politician (played by Chris Noth as more or less the sleazier identical twin of Mr Big, his character in Sex and the City). When he is jailed for corruption, she tentatively resumes her career as a lawyer after years as, in that ikky American phrase, a home-maker. And after some initial hostility from new colleagues, she proves herself to be quite the courtroom star by getting an innocent woman off a murder rap.

So far so predictable, but The Good Wife – executive-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, no less – is another classy package, with strong performances all round and a clever script. It reminds me a little of the brilliant Damages, or at least of the first series of Damages, before it disappeared up its own labyrinthine fundament, and in the beguiling Margulies it has a female lead to run Glenn Close, erm, close.

It was as the wondrously efficient Nurse Hathaway in ER, of course, that Margulies first came to widespread attention, and here she is playing the wronged wife of a well-known scoundrel, which is precisely the path taken, but in the opposite direction, by Edie Falco, once of The Sopranos and now the star of Nurse Jackie.

I confess to being slightly allergic to hospital dramas, but Nurse Jackie has me hooked, and that is mostly down to the brilliance of Falco, who is manifestly having the time of her life in such a multi-dimensional part. Last night, her precarious double life – heroic nurse with doctor boyfriend by day, doting wife and mother by night – began to unravel, although there is doubtless plenty of unravelling to come. Addicted to adultery and painkillers, Jackie is the most morally flawed eponymous hero of a TV series I can remember, with the possible exception of Bugs Bunny.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there