Last Night's Television: Five Days, BBC1
Thursday 04 March 2010
Best line of the week so far? No contest, I think, though obviously my survey hasn't been absolutely comprehensive. The scene was a brief and tangential one, a minor character in the drama staggering away from a heavy night on the ale and puking convulsively on to the pavement. After wiping his mouth he wearily takes a swig from the can of beer in his hand and says, in a scouse accent, "Can't wait till I've had enough." It was the last thing you saw in the opening episode of Alan Bleasdale's GBH, currently being repeated on the cable channel Yesterday, and it was a reminder that, at its best, British television drama can (or perhaps could) compete with anything the Americans can do. You'd have to have watched the whole episode to understand how good that detail was – how it gave a gleeful, sardonic flick to Bleasdale's theme of thirst – for revenge and power and gratification. And, regrettably it's the kind of thing we've learnt to expect from buy-in American drama rather than the home-grown product.
Mad Men is among the shows that are to blame for that cultural cringe – not an HBO product itself but treading the path cut by that broadcaster. As this week's episode demonstrated again, Mad Men never seems fearful of being charged with pretension. Don, under pressure to sign a contract with Sterling Cooper, went off on an odd bender, picking up a draft-dodger and his girlfriend and ending up in a motel stoned out of his head on bourbon and phenobarbital, at which point his father appeared, nursing a jar of moonshine and mocking Don's every achievement: "You grow bullshit!" he slurred contemptuously from the corner of the room. I was reminded of something that you could once take for granted in British television drama – an understanding that what shapes character may have happened 30 years earlier (as is the case in GBH, where the childhood flashbacks of Robert Lindsay's crooked city official deliver the emotional hook that keeps us watching). Don's vision doesn't have a flatly functional purpose in the narrative, any more than Betty's purchase of a Victorian fainting couch did later on. They added to our sense that we don't fully understand these characters yet and might want to stick around until we do.
Not that there any particular grounds to be gloomy about British talent. As Five Days has been demonstrating for the last three nights – if you actually give it a bit of room to move it stretches in very interesting ways. Five Days isn't GBH, of course. The corsetry of the police procedural is still a little too tightly laced to allow for that. And it doesn't have the historical scope of Mad Men, or its luxury of letting the characters do nothing but be themselves. At the moment, there's a sense that every vivifying loose end in the opening episodes will eventually be traced back to a significant knot, which may be impressively craftsmanlike, but comes at the cost of a certain believability. Even so what lifts Gwyneth Hughes's script above the routine is the way that you feel you could travel further in every direction and find proper depth, rather than just bumping into stage flats. There was a nice case in point last night, when a significant advance in the investigation was delivered by a nosy old lady. She didn't just deliver the necessary information and leave, she was fully there, with her prejudices against callow young male coppers and her slightly unseemly desire for the kind of excitement you see on telly cop shows. "What's the point of calling the police if they won't bash the door down?" she asked in aggrieved tones when Suranne Jones's policewoman declined to break into her neighbour's house. No need for that little gesture of character at all, in terms of the cogwork of the plot, but then it's the unnecessary stuff that usually makes a drama worth watching.
Damages is pretty much all mechanism, constructed with an almost ruthless focus on snagging your attention and getting it inextricably tangled. There are points when you momentarily think it might surprise you with character, as when Patty's estranged husband came round to return the dog and the couple seemed on the point of reconciliation. Then, just after he'd asked for a second chance, Patty laughed in his face, dropped the temperature of her voice until it could liquidise oxygen and said: "I don't need you anymore and I certainly don't want you." The monster we love was back in place – Grendel in Manhattan. No Lily Tomlin this week, sadly, but the barbs on the hooks continue to multiply. I rolled up my cuffs and put my hair in a net before I approached episode one of this new series, determined not to get snared by its rapidly moving parts. But I'm afraid I have to report another workplace injury. I expect to have freed myself in another 10 episodes.
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