Dirk Gently PREVIEW

Digging the Dirk: MacDuff, Gently and Susan (Pics: BBC/ITV Studios)

Rating ★★★½
BBC Four, Thursday, 16 December, 9pm

It’s easy to have low expectations for a new comedy adaptation, particularly from as distinctive and cultish a writer as Douglas Adams, who can be deadened by a flat treatment (2005’s Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, anyone?). Nothing fails like a keenly awaited comedy that leaves your face resembling an Easter Island statue throughout.

Happily, the Beeb’s new Dirk Gently will have most viewers’ laughing gear moving in the right directions. It’s succinct at one-hour long, has a fine cast and is a good production all round, with a jaunty Sixties-tinged, crime-movie score.

Helen Baxendale and Stephen Mangan
Stephen Mangan as Dirk recaptures the oddball verve he showed in the excellent Green Wing. He’s the detective who thinks all evidence is interconnected, that ‘every particle in the universe affects every other particle’. Mangan switches easily between shifty and charmingly eccentric.

Helen Baxendale is attractive and fun as Susan, who feels Dirk’s holistic theories are ‘crap’. And Darren Boyd is suitably gormless and questioning as Susan’s boyfriend and Dirk’s sidekick, MacDuff.

Dirk is actually a mini-universe of chaos all on his own. He has a fridge delivered to his office because he is in a ‘cold-war stand-off’ with his cleaner, who has padlocked the one at home. He pays a schoolboy 200 cheap cigarettes to do a bit of computer hacking for him.

Douglas Adams’s far-out humour
Broke, manipulative and driving a 30-year-old yuk-brown Austin Princess, his first client is an old lady, Mrs Jordan (a wonderfully dithering and malevolent Doreen Mantle), who wants him to find her Henry – ‘He’s all I have.’

Henry, of course, is a cat, and the start of Dirk’s attempt to pull together seemingly incoherent pieces of evidence, including the factory that he and MacDuff escape from before it blows up and Susan’s ‘affair’ with missing ex-boyfriend Gordon.

There are some nice sight gags, but most of all Adams’s absurd, imaginative humour comes through nicely as the conventions of crime fiction are playfully tweaked (much credit should go to writer and Bafta-winner Howard Overman). Where Sherlock Holmes deduces, Dirk Gently reduces the universe’s chaos to a unified theory of guilt.

Great fun.

• Crime Zapper – Justice, A Touch of Frost •

• The Beeb has a new daytime drama called Justice coming along in Spring 2011. It focuses on events at a  local community justice centre and its judge, Patrick Coburn, who is ‘mysterious’, which sounds almost supernatural. He is played by Bob Pugh (of Doctor Who and West Is West renown). Gary Mavers (Casualty, Peak Practice) is his right-hand man, prosecutor Joe Spencer, and Gillian Kearney (Casualty, Shameless) plays local reporter Louise Campbell. Jake Abrahams (Holby City, Lock Stock) will be local criminal Jake Little. Kerb crawling and shoplifting are among the issues dramatised in this five-parter, which started filming in Liverpool this week. Justice will be part of a week-long strand looking at criminal justice.

• While 2010 closed the case files for Heartbeat, Foyle’s War (apparently), The Bill and A Touch of Frost, ITV are giving the latter’s fans another chance to see the detective inspector’s final outing, shown earlier this year. If Dogs Run Free goes out on Tuesday, 14 December, on ITV1 at 8pm, and is about Frost’s attempt to convict Gerry Berland (played by Adrian Dunbar), a dangerous crook pretending to be a businessman. The emotional stakes are high for Frost as well, as he finds himself falling for RSPCA officer Christine Moorhead (Phyllis Logan), who is involved as a witness. The series finale was not just emotional for Frost and his fans but for Sir David Jason too. He said, ‘On the final day of filming there were moments in the script when I had to find tears and let’s just say those tears weren’t hard to find. I think everyone on set had the feeling something really special, which had been a big part of all our lives, was finally coming to an end. But we were starting to think, “How long can we keep going realistically?” In the police force these days you can retire at 50 and it’s compulsory by the age of 60, and yet here was Frost being played by me, an actor who is now 70.’

Happy bloody New Year!

Rufus Sewell as Zen (pic: BBC/Left Bank Pictures)

Christmas is not the season for brutal murder and new crime series on TV, apart from the cosy Agatha Christie staples of Marple and Poirot. So I’m looking in the crystal ball to see what’s new on the crystal box in January instead.

The New Year will kick off with one major new detective onscreen – the BBC’s Aurelio Zen, played by Rufus Sewell. Set in and around Rome, the three feature-length dramas should be very exciting for fans of the late Michael Dibdin’s suave Italian detective.

Rufus Sewell
Dibdin’s first Zen novel was Ratking, which won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1988. The author wrote a further 10 Zen novels. Ratking is one of the BBC dramas, along with Vendetta and Cabal. Zen is at times a shadowy, unknowable police hero in the stories, which capture much of the intricacies and corruption of Italian life, and Sewell will certainly bring a brooding masculinity to the character.

He says, ‘I’m thrilled to be part of this project with the opportunity to play such an intriguing, complex and likeable character.’

Zen has been made by Left Bank Pictures for the Beeb, the people who produced Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander and the recent DCI Banks drama for ITV.

Ashley Jensen
Ashley Jensen, fresh from her US roles in Ugly Betty and Accidentally on Purpose, will turn up with Max Beesley in a two-part thriller for ITV called Helter Skelter (though the title may change).

Harassed single mum Sally is faced with a grisly proposition here. She turns up at a swanky lawyer’s office to hear she has been left £5m – but can only have the dosh if she kills a ‘man who deserves to die’. The kind of thing that happens every day…

Meanwhile, crime channel Alibi has two new (to the UK) dramas from the doyenne of forensic crime fiction, Patricia Cornwell, starring Andie MacDowell as an ambitious district attorney.

Andie MacDowell
Patricia Cornwell: At Risk (Alibi, Sunday 2 January, 9pm) sees MacDowell’s character trying to re-open an unsolved 20-year-old murder case when a shocking moment of violence throws her and her colleagues into chaos.

The actress returns as DA Monique Lamont in Patricia Cornwell: The Front (Alibi, Saturday, 8 January, 9pm). This time she takes on Boston’s most famous criminal.

Don’t know how these went down in the US, but Alibi has a knack for uncovering some good new but often overlooked little gems.

• crime zapper •

• Two of Britain’s most watchable actors, John Simm and Jim Broadbent, have just started filming a new psychological thriller called Exile, created by Paul Abbott and written by Danny Brocklehurst (The Street, Sorted and Clocking Off). The drama, which is being filmed in Manchester, will unfold in three hour-long episodes and follows Tom (Simm) as he returns to his hometown to delve into the truth of events that occurred between him and his father, Sam (Broadbent). Tom is a journalist whose life and career are in ruins, and his once formidable father has Alzheimer’s, and is being cared for by Tom’s sister, Nancy (Olivia Coleman). Trying to prod his father’s failing memory, Tom wants to unearth what really happened 18 years before, only to uncover a devastating crime. The cracking cast is boosted by Shaun Dooley, Timothy West and Claire Goose. Paul Abbott has written some of the boldest and spikiest dramas on UK TV in recent years, including Shameless, State of Play and Touching Evil, and Exile promises to be a must-see drama. Abbott says, ‘Creating the series came from looking at the effect events have on families – and how that changes lives forever. Working with John [Simm] again is always a pleasure, he does seem to have turned into a muse of mine, and I’m delighted that we have the calibre of Jim [Broadbent] alongside him.’ Simm, who before appearing in the recent hit Life on Mars was excellent in State of Play, says, ‘Danny’s written a great script, it’s a wonderful cast, and I can’t wait to start work.’ Exile will go out on BBC1 next year.

• If you hate Mondays, Radio 4‘s Charles Paris mystery Murder in the Title should raise a grin. Bill Nighy returns as the waster actor-cum-sleuth. This is a lively and fun four-parter, and Nighy is appealingly reckless as the out-of-work thesp easily distracted by women and booze. When a small role in a terrible play in Rugland comes his way, his ‘semi-ex-wife’ Frances virtually boots him out of the door. Soon nasty accidents befall cast and crew, and ‘unprofessional’ Charles falls foul of the various pompous has-beens in the ensemble, before he is nearly stabbed through a canvas screen… Written by Jeremy Front from the novel by Simon Brett, Murder in the Title is on Monday, 22 Nov, at 11.30am. Or catch it on iPlayer.

• crime zapper •

• Funniest man at the Galaxy Book Awards was easily Paul O’Grady, there to present an award. He pricked the ceremonial side of things bantering with host David Baddiel, saying he was disappointed with the student protests and was going to reissue Lily Savage’s pamphlet on How to Conduct Yourself in a Riot, and demanding to know where the free Galaxy chocolate was for the guests, which had the sponsor momentarily flustered. The free bars came at the end, and that was all the consolation there was for the crime writers in attendance such as Lee Child, Kate Atkinson and Peter James, who all went away empty handed. Hilary Mantel added Author of the Year for Wolf Hall to her Booker prize, which I’m ploughing through at the moment. It’s a bit slow, to be honest – the trouble with literature is that unlike genre fiction it has no plot. Anyway, here’s the full gong list: TESCO BIOGRAPHY OF THE YEAR The Fry Chronicles by Stephen Fry (Penguin Group); TESCO FOOD & DRINK BOOK OF THE YEAR Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (Random House); NATIONAL BOOK TOKENS NEW WRITER OF THE YEAR The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (Random House); MORE4 NON-FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR  The Making Of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr (Pan Macmillan); SAINSBURY’S POPULAR FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR One Day by David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton); WATERSTONE’S UK AUTHOR OF THE YEAR Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (Harper Collins); GALAXY INTERNATIONAL AUTHOR OF THE YEAR Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Harper Collins); WH SMITH CHILDREN’S BOOK OF THE YEAR Zog by Julia Donaldson & Axel Scheffler (Scholastic); OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT AWARD Terry Pratchett; OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT AWARD Martin Amis.

• So farewell, Lucas North – you dirty stinking traitor. Spooks fans loved you, but you betrayed them by doing a murderous deal with the Chinese. Last night Lucas, or should we call you John, finally bowed out after a rather outrageous character flip-flop from his being number two in Section D into a bit of a psycho who somehow had evaded MI5’s vetting process. Exciting, yes, but convoluted and slightly daft. Judging by the response from the vast online Spooks communities, season nine was thrilling, implausible but better than season eight. Some felt Lucas (a heart-throb to many) had been character-assassinated. One thing’s for sure, Spooks generated a huge amount of traffic for crimetimepreview, and I was amazed how many people follow its every twist and nuance. The Spooks Forum alone has clocked up a total of 36,000 posts on the show down the years. That’s a lot of pressure for whoever writes season 10…

Sherlock has been nominated for five gongs at the Royal Television Society Craft and Design Awards, including one for David Arnold and Michael Price for their superb original score. The awards, which celebrate creative design in television production, take place in London on November 24. Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, has been recommissioned by the Beeb for a new series.

• Good news for Foyle’s War fans. No, not a new series, but a whole week of classic episodes on ITV3. From Monday, November 22, to Friday, 26 November, the channel will present at 9pm one top episode from the series, which was created by Anthony Horowitz and became an international hit, particularly Stateside. Most recently it picked up the People’s Dagger at the CWA Crime Thriller Awards, the gong being voted for by viewers. Episodes during Foyle’s War Week are A Lesson in Murder, Eagle Day, Fifty Ships, Among the Few and War Games.

• Are you a Spooks fan? Or did you prefer the stylish modern makeover for Sherlock? Perhaps you were captivated by Michael Kitchen’s Foyle? So vote for your fave now on the crimetimepreview poll of 2010’s best UK crime series at the top of the column on the right.

Garrow’s Law PREVIEW

Garrow, Lady Sarah and Southouse
(Pics: Graeme Hunter/Twenty Twenty Television)

Sunday, November 14, 9pm, BBC1

Rating ★★★★

Traditionalists who long for simpler times when the authorities really had zero tolerance for criminals must absolutely love Garrow’s Law.

The 18th century was a time when sodomy was a hanging offence and a ship’s captain could legally throw slave men, women and children overboard at sea if there wasn’t enough drinking water to go round. And, of course, most of the ‘criminals’ were what we’d today simply call poor and disadvantaged.

Series one, which first got us interested in the pioneering exploits of barrister William Garrow, was almost funny in showing us how bloody awful and iniquitous the Old Bailey was at the time. You half expected Blackadder and Baldrick to pop up every week.

Royal Television Society award
After the success of that season, inspired by the contemporary records from the Old Bailey that are now available online, and with a Royal Television Society award on the mantelpiece, co-creator Tony Marchant’s series and his starry cast are back.

And it kicks off with an extraordinary story about 133 slaves being dispatched overboard from the cargo ship The Zong. Not that the charge is mass murder, of course, but rather a legal squabble between the insurance company and the ship’s captain, whom the insurer’s think is trying to fiddle them.

As the lawyer opposing Garrow remarks, it’s a ‘case of chattels and goods, the same as horses being thrown over’. Did Captain Collingwood act so inhumanely to save the rest of the crew (after his blundering gets them lost at sea), or is there some corrupt reason for his brutality?

Andrew Buchan and Rupert Graves 
As Garrow, played once again by Andrew Buchan, the closest thing Britain has to James Stewart, searches frantically for a moral dimension to the case, his private life is in turmoil.

Lady Sarah Hill, newly returned to London with her infant son, is turned on by her jealous husband, Sir Arthur (Rupert Graves), who suspects the child might be that of her one-time admirer, Garrow. Sir Arthur and his high-ranking friends, unable to defeat Garrow in court, are determined to ruin him and Lady Sarah.

It’s a compelling mix of plotting and emotion, but the series’ magic is in the window it offers into a time when the legal process was extremely primitive. Before Garrow was re-examined in the recently posted online archives, he was obscure (not even a mention in the Oxford Companion to the Law).

Inventing the art of cross-examination
Thanks to Garrow’s Law we can glimpse this extraordinary man, years ahead of his age, outspoken and boldly anti-establishment during this phase of his career (he went on to be Attorney General and an MP).

Garrow argued for the right to put the case for defendants and virtually invented the art of cross-examining prosecution witnesses. Until then the judge or even the jury chipped in with questions. As depicted on-screen, the courtroom was chaotic, resembling a public debating chamber rather than a legal forum.

High-class lawyers were disdainful of representing the rabble dragged to court by shifty thief-takers and bounty hunters, who often gave evidence against the poor slobs they were paid to haul in.

Alun Armstrong and Lyndsey Marshal
The cast are all good, some with faces so characterful they look as though they’ve stepped out of the late 1700s (no names mentioned). Alun Armstrong is fatherly as Garrow’s mentor, Southouse, while Lyndsey Marshal manages to be strong but vulnerable as Lady Sarah.

It’s good to see this series returning. Each week’s story is dramatic and fascinating, with intrigues about the implications of being gay, about women and property, and the mistreatment of disabled sailors all to come.

If Garrow at times seems too saintly here, you still wonder what this man, so out of synch with his contemporaries, must really have been like.

Someone so dogged that he would cause uproar by calling Gustavus Vassa (actor Danny Sapani), a freed black man, to give evidence to a disbelieving court. Garrow was a man who could  really make enemies, and it’s great to watch him doing it.
• Tony Marchant has done an interesting blog about dramatising Garrow’s Law on the BBC site.

Accused, new crime drama PREVIEW

Christopher Eccleston as Willy (pics: BBC)

BBC1, Mondays from 15 November, 9pm

Rating ★★★★

In Jimmy McGovern’s Accused there is no opening shot of a murder scene, no serial killers and no detective with regulation sidekick.

The stories in this series of six are crime dramas with the emphasis on drama, exploring how ordinary people end up in the dock. Are they guilty, innocent or victims of circumstance?

Christopher Eccleston, who became known via McGovern’s Cracker before appearing in other works by the writer, including Hillsborough, is light years from Doctor Who in this opening episode. He plays Willy, a plumber with a family who wants to clear off with his younger lover.

Pookie Quesnel, Marc Warren, Juliet Stevenson
Just as he’s about to drop his bombshell to his other half, Carmel, his daughter announces she is marrying her boyfriend. His marriage split delayed, Willy finds he can’t finance his daughter Laura’s wedding when his bank card is declined. The building firm that owes him thousands for his plumbing work has gone bust.

Later, in the back of a mini cab he finds the apparent answer to his problems – £20,000 in a Jiffy bag. Loyal Carmel, played movingly by Pookie Quesnel, wants him to hand it in, but despite his best intentions, events take a disastrous turn.

McGovern, a champion of excellent drama with successes such as The Lakes and recently The Street, steers clear away from the norms and cliches of your typical cop show. He says, ‘No police procedure, thanks very much, no coppers striding along corridors with coats flapping. Just crime and punishment – the two things that matter most in any crime drama.’

Future episodes will see Mackenzie Crook (right) as a corporal in a story about not obeying orders; Juliet Stevenson and Peter Capaldi as parents of a fatally injured son; Marc Warren as a dad who acts against his better judgment; and Naomie Harris and Warren Brown as parents whose row causes reckless actions.

Wants to leave his wife for ‘firmer flesh’

Willy’s Story is a good drama, though Willy, with his chippyness and selfishness, is not that sympathetic a protagonist. Eccleston describes him as a loving family man, but if that was the intention, somehow it didn’t come across in the execution.

Certainly, many women will be hard pushed to root for a man who impulsively wants to dump his wife because he fancies some ‘firmer flesh’, as Willy tells the priest who gives him unwanted advice.

But the point with McGovern is often about people in glass houses. And perhaps the strength of Willy’s Story lies in something revealed about this production by Eccleston.

When the actors’ read-through of the script was finished, a vote was taken among those present on whether Willy should go down. The vote was split.

Spooks series nine finale PREVIEW

Is it the end for Lucas and Maya? (Pics: BBC)

Monday, 8 November, 9pm, BBC1

Rating ★★★½

That hall of funfair mirrors that is Spooks has been distorting the identity of Lucas North throughout series nine, and in the tumultuous last episode the twists keep coming right up to the end credits.

Spooks has long specialised in shock set-piece episodes for its major characters, and the fate of Richard Armitage’s troubled agent has certainly kept his large fanbase buzzing on internet forums.

Is there any way out for MI5’s most dashing and skilled spy? Is he a traitor? Or is he playing a dangerous but brilliant double game with the Chinese that will see him welcomed back to Section D with congratulations from his boss, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth)?

Danger for Ruth

This climax lives up to the high standards set in previous series, being an assured mix of suspense and emotional tension. There’s Lucas’s love for Maya (Laila Rouass) at stake. Then Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) is placed in appalling danger, which of course frays the devoted Harry’s sense of duty.

A new element in the mix is Harry’s enlistment of ex-internal affairs specialist Alec White, played with great insolence by Vincent Regan. Arrogant, aggressive, lazy and alcoholic, the grizzled White is still the man Harry needs to ferret out his fugitive agent, and he is a spiky recruit, suddenly making the rest of the team (Lucas aside) look like a bunch of goody two shoes.

When Harry offers him three months’ salary for his services, White demands six, to which Harry replies, ‘No, three should do it. I’ve seen your bank balance.’ Checkmate.

Cliffhanger for Section D
Like its American near relation, 24, Spooks fires so many twists and identity switches that we rarely have the time or inclination to examine the plot holes or character somersaults.

But while it has survived  changes in cast and several controversies to win a large and devoted following since launching in 2002, it will be interesting to see how Spooks develops in series 10, if it gets the green light (and things are left delicately balanced here for more adventures).

How many more hostage situations, plots to blow up London and betrayals before Spooks suffers its own identity crisis?

In the meantime, hang onto your armchairs. In this finale there’s a surprise round every bend.

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