Last night's viewing - Shameless, Channel 4; Words of Everest, ITV
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014, and is currently judging the Aesthetica Magazine new writing prize.
Wednesday 29 May 2013
"There comes a time in a man's life when he has to sit back, take stock of things and ponder that old philosophical chestnut, 'How the fuck did I end up here?'" So Frank Gallagher welcomed in the beginning of the end with his usual dry wit as he was led out of his prison cell and back to the sink estate from whence he came. After 10 years and 11 series that made stars of several actors (James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake et al), Paul Abbott's Bafta-winning drama Shameless is no more. But, before that, its final hour… Duff returned as the disapproving daughter, Fiona, but it was David Threlfall who stole this swansong as the shambolic benefits scammer, Frank, here trying to break free from the nagging brood of Gallagher kids he has fathered over the years, but being drawn back in a Pogues-style "Fairtyale of New York" admission of mutually destructive love for them (or possibly because he couldn't afford the bus fare for the runner).
There has been growing criticism of Shameless in recent times, particularly for its focus away from the Gallaghers and on to the lives of the more cut-throat Maguires. Here, the story began and ended with the Gallaghers – a sort of family psychodrama about childhood, motherhood, fatherhood (and the lack of it) – grit and bitterness joined together with great gags, bare-teethed intensity and irreverence (in a particularly zesty moment, Frank referred to Jesus as the man who "had no wife, no kids and his dad was God. Born with a silver spoon up his arse, that one").
This fond farewell reminded us of all that was great – and groundbreaking – about Shameless when it first burst on to our screens with its shiftiness, its chaos and its ability to draw a comedy around the working classes with no hint of condescension or contempt for them. There was the jerky camera-work with its perfect comic timing and characters talking to camera that could be forgiven for its heavy-handedness because the writing was so good. Frank's soliloquy this time about the "towering horrors of family life" was angry, anguished, deep and daft, rather like that of a down-at-heel, drunken modern-day Hamlet.
Plotlines over the years have involved cocaine dealing, gay prostitution and teen pregnancy. There was nothing half as hardcore here, just a funeral for an aborted foetus and a punch-up down the pub (after Monica had delivered a baby down there earlier). Yet this finale was as good as any of the best. It's not as if Shameless ever got bad: it just got old, and, even then, it didn't go out limping.
Ironically, Words of Everest was as much about pictures as words. Or footage, to be more precise. Rare, unseen, and astonishing footage of two historic climbs up Everest – George Mallory's doomed expedition in 1924 and Edmund Hillary/Tenzing Norgay's conquering of it 29 years later, with grainy film of men trailing up mountain sides or crawling up icy walls. A particularly hairy shot showed them teetering over a crevice with only a narrow plank of wood protecting them from the snowy oblivion below.
A cast, including Stephen Campbell-Moore, John Hannah and Toby Jones, read from the diaries, lectures and letters of the two. This "thesping" seemed too staged and stilted for television, and it was only when their scripts became voiceovers to the footage that the documentary reached sublime heights. Among the many words exchanged between Mallory and his wife, Ruth, as well as Edward Norton, who accompanied Mallory and who likened the snowy slabs on the top of Everest to "tiles on a roof", it was Sherpa Tenzing's words that captivated the most. This mountain has "given me everything", he eulogised, and as he climbed to the summit, it turned from that cruel, inhospitable place that had claimed Mallory's life to a rock that was warm, friendly, living, "like a mother-hen", taking in her surrounding mountains like chicks under her wing.
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