The Weekend's TV: Stolen, Sun, BBC1
Secrets of the Pop Song, Sat, BBC2
Captivated by these superb young actors
Monday 04 July 2011
Now I'm not one to casually bandy about accusations of bigotry, but Hollywood has a real problem with ginger blokes.
Seriously, Redford and Caine aside, why aren't there more redhead male film actors? Flame-haired David Caruso sank without trace in the cinema after quitting NYPD Blue, only to be thrown a televisual lifeline by CSI. To get himself a movie career, strawberry-blonde Ron Howard had to start directing instead. And poor, auburn-tressed Eric Stoltz was fired from playing Marty McFly after a full month on Back to the Future, to be replaced by the brunette Michael J Fox. So I'm far from surprised that Damian Lewis failed to catch on over there.
Before The Wire, of course, Lewis was the pre-eminent example of a British actor striking it lucky on US TV, with his leading role in Steven Spielberg's HBO war-epic Band of Brothers. And there is, surely, some parallel universe in which he was also cast as The Wire's McNulty, the role that propelled his fellow Old Etonian chum Dominic West to fame. It could have worked, couldn't it? But instead, he spent two years starring in Life – an interesting but ultimately forgettable LA cop drama – before that was canned, and he wisely returned to our cooler climes. Back here in Britain, we look after our gingers. Just ask Rupert Grint. Or Julian Rhind-Tutt.
Stolen, BBC1's one-off child-trafficking thriller, was a project worthy of Lewis's talents. Written by Stephen Butchard (House of Saddam, Five Daughters) and directed by Justin Chadwick (Bleak House), it had impeccable provenance and, sure enough, even the title sequence squeaked with quality: lovingly composed photography, gorgeously bleak production design. Thanks, too, to some judicious editing, we were introduced within minutes to each of the wretched protagonists: Rosemary, a young girl fresh off the plane from Lagos on her way to domestic slavery; Georgie, an androgynous tyke condemned to clean up after the workers in a sandwich factory, and for no reward; and Kim Pak, a Vietnamese teen dreaming of escape from his gangmaster's suburban marijuana farm.
The filming in Manchester seems to have been fortuitously scheduled soon after a snowfall, which only enhanced the chilly mood. And bravely for BBC1 prime time, Stolen also contained a large helping of subtitled dialogue. It may have lacked the moral ambiguity that characterises many of the best modern cop dramas, but then child trafficking doesn't strike me as a grey area. There's no analysis of its causes that could make me sympathise with the perpetrators.
Lewis played DI Anthony Carter, whose investigations tied together the three children's tales. But notwithstanding the actor's natural charisma, the character was a blank page. Like any old TV cop, he occasionally neglected his family for his work, but he lacked much in the way of an inner life. Yes, he had a wife – but she existed only to be threatened by a sinister trafficker. He had a daughter, but she was little more than a dramatic device to be juxtaposed with her less fortunate contemporaries. The real star turns came from the young non-actors playing those trafficked children. Gloria Oyewumi, as Rosemary, was supposedly cast just three days before production began, and she was remarkable.
Still, I feel almost guilty to be judging Stolen on its strengths as a drama (substantial though they were), since it felt so much like one of those "issues" films that I'm assured people used to make in the 1970s. Hence the glaring Unicef stats informing us that the global market in trafficked children is worth $12bn per year. And just in case I still wasn't feeling guilty enough after being gripped by these sorry lives from the comfort of my sofa, the credits came to a close with a quote from Nelson Mandela: "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way it treats its children." Having been exiled to the street, Georgie the Ukrainian boy was finally stabbed in broad daylight by a passing British youth. Which was not, I suspect, intended as a positive reflection of this particular society's soul. But maybe that's just Manchester for you.
Like Damian Lewis, Robbie Williams is a Brit who failed to break America, but that didn't prevent his songwriting partner Guy Chambers from buying a large house in the Hollywood Hills with the proceeds from "Angels" et al. Which is where we found Chambers putting the finishing touches to a ballad he'd composed with singer Rufus Wainwright, for BBC2's Secrets of the Pop Song. The object of this three-part documentary, which comes replete with insights from some of the great songwriters of the past half-century – Neil Tennant, Don Black, Brian May, Sting – is to illuminate the songwriting process. And so we'll see Chambers creating a different track, with a different artist, each week.
The interviews yielded some interesting nuggets, but the programme's USP was the song being written before our eyes. You might think, therefore, that after an hour of enduring the same now-tedious piano riff, and Wainwright's un-airbrushed vocal noodling, over and over and over again, we'd get to enjoy at least one uninterrupted airing of the final, polished track, entitled "World War Three". But no: a couple of influential radio pluggers listened to it instead, then talked over the top of it, informing us that it was a future megahit. Thanks chaps, but I'll make up my own mind – if I ever get to hear it, that is.
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