The Night Watch, BBC2, Tuesday
Double Lesson, Channel 4, Friday

A Sarah Waters story told backwards is more doom than va-va-voom

Another literary adaptation rolls around, and The Night Watch seems to have all the right ingredients.

Sarah Waters' novels work on television, as the many who enjoyed her lusty lesbian historical romps – such as Tipping the Velvet – will testify. Plus the cast of The Night Watch is a kind of bonnets'n'bustles best of, Claire Foy and Anna Maxwell Martin having both previously taken the lead in Dickens adaptations.

But The Night Watch saw Waters breaking out of the Victorian vein, setting her story in London after and during the Second World War. And yes, in that order: it begins in 1947, jumps back to 1944, and then to 1941, the reverse chronology allowing a slow unspooling of character connections and enjoyable penny-dropping moments. This structure works on screen, and the use of fast rewinds, rattling through scenes in reverse is a neat device.

We track the interweaving lives of four young people, initially meeting Kay (Maxwell Martin) wandering the streets like a ghost, and pretty, wide-eyed Helen (Foy) living with a woman in the first of a knot of bed-hopping relationships. Jodie Whittaker plays Viv, who's having a strangely lacklustre affair with a married man, while Duncan (Harry Treadaway) is a damaged chap – swiftly established as gay by his proffering of a cottage-shaped tea cosy – who's mysteriously been in prison.

Actually, they're all damaged; everyone is in this forlorn, war-torn world. As the 90-minute drama develops, we learn what exactly caused their wounds, but somehow it never feels that gripping. Maybe it's all just too glum: the relationships are tangled and trauma-filled, bringing the violence of war down to a human scale, set against grey streets and claustrophobic interiors. The music, all sawing violins and plonking piano, is also dreary. I'm not hankering for "we had the time of our life eating Spam in a bomb shelter" Blitz spirit, but The Night Watch goes perhaps too far in the other direction. The acting – particularly from the three female leads – is excellent, however; Whittaker and Maxwell Martin can tell you everything you need to know with a twitch of an eyebrow.

We finish with a rather rushed 1947 coda, and sudden new opportunities springing up for them all. Kay's voiceover – used so infrequently it feels like an impertinent intrusion – comments: "Someone once said a happy ending depends on where you decide to stop your story. Then again, it could be when you realise your story is not yet over – you are only at the end of the beginning." Shame, then, that this end feels clumsily stapled on.

Double Lesson makes pretty bleak viewing too. It's part of the First Cut series, which usually showcases documentaries by "up-and-coming" film-makers, although director George Kay here uses testimonies from real teachers to form the backbone of a half-hour fictional monologue. It's delivered straight down the lens by Phil Davis, who plays David, a teacher who lost his temper with a pupil.

It's an unflashy but affecting piece. As it ought, the script rings true, from David's acknowledgement of his very ordinary suburban life – how he and his wife "built an extension and ruined the bathroom ... the sort of things people like us expect to do" – to accounts of his students' constant niggling jibes. These are painfully believable, even when they extend to joking about another teacher's suicide or his wife's breast cancer.

But one thing teachers are definitely not expected to do is lose control and turn on their pupils. Davis's mild-mannered performance begins to crack too – he trembles and twitches as he recounts the blinding effect rage has on his judgement. The film itself apparently sets out "neither to condemn nor condone". But you'd have to have a hard heart not to feel sorry for David – if anyone could use a rewind, it'd be him.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor