Mid-November is a tricky time to navigate. If you took cues from the shops, you would think it was Christmas Eve already – the M&S I pass through on route to the Independent offices has been bedecked in trees, twinkly lights and gift displays for weeks – and that you should have done all your shopping and be sitting on the sofa eating Quality Street watching the Victoria Christmas special.
In reality, we’re in the back-end of autumn and still have over a month left of work, and the majority of must-see telly seems to have finished its run or we’ve greedily binge-watched it, forgetting about the end-of-the-month drought.
While I wait for The Crown series two to start (8 December), Godless fills the new period drama-shaped hole nicely, which I wasn’t sure it would when I heard the premise. Netflix’s latest series is a seven-part western drama set in 1880s New Mexico starring, somewhat incongruously, two Brits: Michelle “Lady Mary” Dockery and Jack O’Connell, who first came to our attention in This Is England then Skins (and was firmly on Hollywood’s radar after starring in the Angelina Jolie-directed Unbroken).
A trigger-happy Dockery plays widow Alice Fletcher – complete with a mostly successful New Mexico accent – an outcast in La Belle, a mining town run by women. You learn what happened to the blokes in this opener and meet O’Connell’s Roy Goode, on the run from his former gang, led by the ruthless Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), who along with his band of outlaws, is looking to get revenge on his former protégé.
It’s written and directed by Scott Frank (Out of Sight), and Steven Soderbergh (the Ocean’s Trilogy) is the executive producer, so there’s some serious talent on board. This is an epic-feeling, thoughtful take on the Wild West. Yes, the corpse count is high but it doesn’t feel like a gore-fest. There’s a slower-burning, nuanced plot amid the cowboy antics that had me immediately wanting to devour the next episode. The dust and dry canyons might not feel like cosy autumn watching, but this offers as much escapism as stately homes and servants’ high jinks.
If it’s reality you’re after, there are some powerful documentaries on this week. Sticking with a historical theme, there’s Blitz: The Bombs That Changed Britain. We all know the oft-told basics of the Luftwaffe’s assault on the UK during the Second World War, but this fascinating four-parter focusses on the repercussions of a single bomb on an area, and how the plight of the affected families helped shape future social policy. In the first episode, it’s the working-class community of east London’s Martindale Road that gets the magnifying glass treatment.
It wasn’t the original (unexploded) bomb dropped on the first night of the assault that killed 44 residents in the street, it was the lack of an emergency plan that led them to shelter in a school that was hit the following night.
Viewers discover the working-class community’s story through contemporary accounts and hearing from relatives of those involved. Those include The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder. He reads from the work of his grandfather Ritchie Calder, a campaigning journalist and socialist author who was certain that the authorities should have seen this human tragedy coming. Lessons may have eventually been learned, but not without huge human cost.
Elsewhere on the documentary front, there’s Britain’s Cycling Superheroes: The Price of Success? It’s billed as chance for former Team GB coaches Dave Brailsford, Shane Sutton and other insiders to give their take on British Cycling and Team Sky’s extraordinary run of dominance in the Olympics and Tour de France in the last decade – and the allegations of wrongdoing. Those accusations include second-class treatment of Paralympic cyclists, sexist comments to female riders and permitting Bradley Wiggins’s use of a medical exemption to allow him to take a corticosteroid during a race.
This is not just an hour for die-hard cycling fans: it’s a frankly quite scary insight into the minds of people for whom coming second is not an option. There are testimonies from the head honchos, team members and riders, among them David Millar, banned for two years for taking performance-enhancing drug EPO, but who came back to help Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish win the Tour de France under Brailsford and Sutton’s pupilage.
Don’t expect a mea culpa from the coaches: they stick by their uncompromising methods and David Millar agrees that, since their departures, British cycling is all “too soft”. To win, says Millar, should be “tough as hell”.
From a team’s story to an individual one in The Search For A Miracle Cure. 50-year-old Mark Lewis is the lawyer who helped 140 phone-hacking victims win their cases against the News of the World. He also has multiple sclerosis, for which there is no cure.
This at times hard-to-watch Cutting Edge film follows him take up a revolutionary stem cell trial in Jerusalem that could help stop his decline. As the medical professionals point out, Lewis clearly has not yet accepted his illness and is convinced, like his opponents in court he will “f***ing well beat it”, while painfully aware that he is taking his frustrations out on those closest to him, like third wife and carer Mandy. This being real life and not one of those escapist dramas, a happy ending for all seems unlikely.
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