Utopia series 2, Ch4, with Alexandra Roach, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Neil Maskell

Pietre in Channel 4's Utopia series 2
Mad about the boy – young Pietre in Utopia 2. Pics: Ch4

Rating: ★★★★

Ch4: July, date and time to be confirmed

Story: How did the Janus project to save humanity begin during 1979’s Winter of Discontent? And, in the present day, what has happened to Jessica, Arby, Ian, Grant and Becky…

NO SOONER has Fargo been put into cold storage than Ch4 has another drama for viewers needing something a little, shall we say, outre

Utopia‘s first series last year was certainly on the excessive side, with teeth-gnashing violence and a stunningly off-kilter conspiracy tale.

It’s great to see it return with its surreal style, quirky soundtrack (by Cristobal Tapia de Veer) and nightmarish mood.

Utopia series 2 Fiona O'Shaughnessy as Jessica Hyde
Where is Jessica? Locked up…

Utopia returns with a double-bill

Series two launches as a double-bill over consecutive nights, with the opener being an hour-long

flashback to the origins of the whole mad Janus conspiracy. We see how scientist Philip Carvel (Tom Burke) dreams up a plan with security agent Milner (Game of Throne‘s Rose Leslie) to save the world from overcrowding by secretly sterilising 95 percent of the population.

In the time-honoured tradition of know-it-all scientists from Dr Frankenstein to Dr Strangelove, the best laid plans – ‘We’re creating Utopia’ – go awry as Carvel and Milner’s relationship fractures.

In addition, Carvel fears for his daughter Jessica – yes Jessica Hyde, protagonist of series one – whom Milner is threatening, while also consumed with guilt over his experimentation on his toddler son, Pietre.

Rose Leslie as Milner in Utopia 2
Rose Leslie as deadly agent Milner

Neil Maskell, Fiona O’Shaughnessy and Adeel Akhtar

With the little monster child, writer Dennis Kelly’s sadistic humour flourishes again. Carvel’s deranged bid to use the boy as a guinea pig for a treatment to inhibit violence turns the lad into a mini-Hannibal Lecter instead.

The opener is a wonderful evocation of that period of 1970s industrial mayhem, political paranoia and conspiracy incontinence. Thrown into the mix are Margaret Thatcher, Airey Neave (played by Tim McInnerny), the IRA, Aldo Moro and much more.

Episode two reunites us with the old gang who became embroiled in the conspiracy last time round – Jessica (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who’s been held captive by latter-day Milner (Geraldine James), Arby (Neil Maskell), Ian (Nathan Stewart Jarrett), Grant (Oliver Woollford) and Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar). The story rumbles on with news of the Network and its plans for ‘V’ Day…

Without ever trying to make a coherent case about the political shenanigans of the past 35 years, Utopia remains an engrossing and distinctive mashup of paranoia, dark suspicions and black humour. When it comes to conspiracy yarns, the drama is – to borrow the title of the 1979 Madness album – one step beyond.

Check out these links…
Utopia series 1 review
The music of Cristobal Tapia de Veer
Utopia Channel 4

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The Great Train Robbery, BBC1, Luke Evans, Jim Broadbent, Neil Maskell, James Fox PREVIEW

Robbing the mail train. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
Rogue mail – the Great Train Robbery in action. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★★

BBC1: Wednesday, 18 December, 8pm

Story: Part one is called ‘A Robber’s Tale’, and follows Bruce Reynolds and his gang as they plan and carry out the £2.6million robbery of a mail train. The second film, ‘A Copper’s Tale’, will be told from the viewpoint of DCS Tommy Butler and his elite squad of investigators.

ALONG WITH the assassination of President Kennedy and the pilot episode of Doctor Who, 1963 was famous for the Great Train Robbery, a startlingly audacious bit of blagging that shook Britain when the news of it came out in August that year.

For channel honchos at the Beeb, the attraction of dramatising it is obvious – it’s based on a true event (ITV are playing the same game with soon-to-be seen Lucan), and it’s got period clobber and old cars, a must every other drama these days.

Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS) Great Train Robbery BBC1
Ambitious Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans)

For the writer Chris Chibnall, who also wrote this year’s major crime drama Broadchurch, he was fascinated by the crime as ‘piece of modern folklore’ and the attraction of exploring the ‘huge untold story’ of the Flying Squad officers who tracked the robbers – which he does in episode two.

ITV took an interesting take on the crime with Mrs Biggs last year, and Phil Collins played Buster Edwards in the 1988 film Buster, but considering how much newspaper ink the police, the escapes and escapades of this bunch of crooks generated, Chibnall and the BBC would seem to have plenty of untold story to explore.

Luke Evans is charismatic as Bruce Reynolds

And they tell it really well. It is tinged with nostalgia but also captures the element of class aggro

The gang celebrates its haul. The Great Train Robbery BBC1
We’re in the money!

involved, with gang leader Bruce Reynolds – the focus of the first of two 90-minute films – out to get rich while taking on the establishment.

The establishment definitely noticed, as Reynolds and his crew shocked themselves and the whole country with a then monstrous haul of £2.6million from the overnight mail train from Glasgow (equivalent to £41million today). The first film is full of a young generation of actors as the robbers, such as Neil Maskell, Jack Roth and Martin Compston, with Luke Evans outstanding as Reynolds.

Reynolds’ appetite for a big robbery is fuelled following the poor takings from a well-planned and stylishly filmed airport robbery. After getting a tip from a mysterious Ulsterman that the mail train is a sitting duck, with no police or guards protecting it, Reynolds is hooked on devising a heist.

‘It’s Her Majesty’s mail, mate,’ says Buster Edwards (Maskell). ‘Nobody would have the nerve – that’s how they see it.’

E-Types, Jags and beehives

Reynolds pulls together a 15-strong team with near military precision to halt the train and offload it.

DCS Butler (JIM BROADBENT) Great Train Robbery BBC1
In part 2 we meet DCS Butler (Jim Broadbent)

Good heist stories always have plenty of adrenaline and tension, and this one doesn’t fall short. But it also has some laugh-out moments.

Such as the scene in which Gordon Goody and Reynolds, trying to teach themselves how to drive a train – they will have to move the mail train once they’ve captured it – steal a train from a depot and then can’t find the brake. They finally leap from the speeding train into the snow, leaving the runaway engine to plough on into the night.

The period is sharply invoked here, with E-Types Jags and beehives and music from Nina Simone and Sinatra. It looks good and is a fascinating story, right up to the moment the gang in their farmhouse count the huge piles of used banknotes.

Jim Broadbent and Robert Glenister

The irony is that all it bought them was a life on the run (see what happened next to the robbers here: What Happened to the Great Train Robbers). As Reynolds says, ‘It’s too much.’

Great Train Robbery BBC1 The robbers. Gordon Goody (PAUL ANDERSON), Brian Field (DEL SYNOTT), Roy James (MARTIN COMPSTON), Buster Edwards (NEIL MASKELL), John Daly (JAMES BYE), Bruce Reynolds (LUKE EVANS), Charlie Wilson (JACK ROTH), Alf (BILL THOMAS), Roger Cordrey (NICHOLAS MURCHIE), Ronnie Biggs (JACK GORDON), Tommy Wisby (JORDAN LONG)
The gang’s all here – Bruce and his lads

An older generation of actors – with Jim Broadbent as DCS Tommy Butler, leading the likes of Robert Glenister, Tim Piggott Smith and James Fox – will steal the spotlight in the second part of the story, A Copper’s Tale, which should be particularly compelling, if Chris Chibnall is on the money, as it were.

As one of the robbers says, ‘We kicked the establishment up the arse.’ And the pressure to nab them after that was immense.

Cast: Luke Evans Bruce Reynolds, Neil Maskell Buster Edwards, Martin Compston Roy James, Paul Anderson Gordon Goody, Jack Roth Charlie Wilson; Jim Broadbent DCS Tommy Butler, Robert Glenister DI Frank Williams, Nick Moran DS Jack Slipper, Tim Piggott Smith DS Maurice Ray, James Wilby John Wheater, James Fox Henry Brooke

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Run, C4, Olivia Colman, Lennie James, Jaime Winstone, Neil Maskell PREVIEW



Rating: ★★★★

Channel 4: Monday 15-Thursday 18 July, 10pm

Story: Four seemingly unconnected stories about people at crunch moments in their lives, including single-mum Carol, whose sons are wanted by the police, and illegal immigrant Ying…

HATS OFF TO CHANNEL 4 for steering clear of the period dramas and cop procedurals we see so much of on the other sides.

Last year they gave us the thought-provoking Murder: Joint Enterprise (which will return), earlier this year we had the jaunty but not entirely successful Utopia. Now C4 is stripping this new rough-edged, four-part drama through the week.

Olivia Colman

Outside of Jimmy McGovern, most TV dramas steer clear of working-class life these days. Run, however, is an honest attempt to bring talented established stars and newcomers together to tell four linking tales that take a walk on the poverty-stricken side of Britain that goes on all around us.

Olivia Colman ditches that nice detective persona from Broadchurch to play a foul-mouthed single mum, bringing up two teenage boys who have few redeeming features. Dean batters his girlfriend Tracey, while Terry tags along.

Carol herself is the kind of woman who is vilified in the media these days for not being middle-class enough. She is coarse, ignores Dean giving Trace a ‘slap’ and nicks stuff from the warehouse where she works. She lives on an estate, is separated from her psycho boyfriend, played sublimely by Neil Maskell, and is fighting to hold her life of tears and fags together.

Carol discovers her sons’ secret

It is while Dean is dragging Trace around by the hair in a car park that a passerby sees him, and carries on passing by. Being a nutter, Dean wants to know what the stranger is looking at, before joining forces with his brother to beat the man to death. Downton Abbey it ain’t.

Carol has an inkling that something’s wrong when she finds the boys’ bloody clothes in the laundry. When she suggests to their father they should tell the police it was an accident, Kieran – whose normal mode of communication is with his fists – punches her.

Run is created and written by newcomers Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan and succeeds in

getting us to see the world through Carol’s eyes. It’s brutal, and the language will make your eyes water at times. But for all its bleakness, it finds the traces of humanity that still bind people together despite their poverty and lack of opportunities.

Part two follows up with Ying’s story. We’ve seen her buying stolen goods from Carol, but learn that Ying (Katie Leung) is an illegal immigrant facing a painful future in debt to a Snakehead gang. Wednesday’s story is about struggling heroin addict Richard (Lennie James), and Thursday’s about Kasia (Katharina Schuttler), a Polish woman in London who is struggling to make a living while contending with her gambling-addict boyfriend.

Hard-hitting and affecting, the stories are well-acted and refreshingly frank.

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Utopia, Channel 4, with Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, James Fox

Assassins Arby and Lee are chasing The Utopia Experiments. Pics: C4

Rating: ★★★★½

Channel 4: starts Tuesday, 15 January, 10pm

Story: When a small group of previously unconnected people, who have met on a forum, take possession of the original manuscript of a fabled graphic novel, they find themselves relentlessly pursued by a shadowy unit called The Network.

Utopia is about a mysterious graphic novel, and the thriller is off-kilter and slyly witty enough to have been based on a cult comic itself.

Instead, it’s the work of writer Dennis Kelly, best known for the sitcom Pulling and co-writing Matilda The Musical. His attempt at a conspiracy thriller could be one of the most distinctive and talked-about dramas of 2013.

Becky’s pub drink ends in a run for her life

The Utopia Experiments lead to violence and terror
A group of young, unconnected individuals – including an IT worker, a student, a conspiracy nut, an 11-year-old tearaway – meet on a forum and find themselves in possession of the manuscript of The Utopia Experiments, a legendary, mystifying graphic novel. Very quickly they are pitched into violence and terror.

Two nonchalant assassins are after that manuscript, and we meet them as they brutally wipe out the nerds and customers (including a child) at a comic shop. Arby and Lee, played by Neil Maskell and Paul Ready, are pretty disturbing, with Arby droningly and mysteriously asking each victim, ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’

Wilson Wilson comes eye to eye with Lee

Alexandra Roach as Becky
The offbeat band on the run are beautifully cast, with Alexandra Roach as Becky the student, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as the stroppy IT guy Ian, and Adeel Akhtar as the barmy Wilson Wilson. ‘I don’t drink tea,’ he tells a detective. ‘Caffeine was invented by the CIA.’

The group meet in a pub for the first time in the hope of encountering forum member Bejan, who claims to have the original artwork for the graphic novel. However, he gets a visit from Arby and Lee, and the manuscript is swiped by young hooligan Grant, another forum member.

Wilson Wilson tortured by Arby and Lee
All kinds of horrors are then visited on the forum members, with various trumped-up charges of sexual deviancy from the police hitting Becky and Ian, and Wilson having chili, sand and bleach rubbed into his eyes during a gleeful torture session by the deadly duo.

Meanwhile, civil servant Michael Dugdale is being blackmailed by a Russian-sounding hood over his getting a prostitute pregnant. After an intimidating meeting with two corporation honchos played by smiling, menacing Stephen Rea and James Fox, Dugdale hoodwinks his minister into buying a Russian flu vaccine on behalf of the government.

Danger boy – Grant has the manuscript

The Network
This is crux of the story, with themes of manufactured diseases and an alarming group called The Network, represented by Fox and Rea. Does The Utopia Experiments have coded messages about some vast conspiracy?

Utopia is stylishly shot like an indie film, with an atmospheric, chiming soundtrack. It also mixes moments of dread that will make some viewers flinch, with offbeat humour. There’s a disastrous sex scene, and Wilson Wilson is always a pleasure, even when blindly aiming a gun at his torturer.

Terrific cliffhanger
The schedules are littered with series that get off to a good start in setting up an intriguing story, only to descend into dross with each subsequent episode. Here’s hoping that Utopia, the first instalment of which concludes on a fine cliffhanger, keeps up the pace and surprise of this opener for the remaining five episodes. That will be a sight for sore eyes.

Cast: Paul Higgins Dugdale, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett Ian, Alexandra Roach Becky, Neil Maskell Arby, Fiona O’ Shaughnessy Jessica, Adeel Akhtar Wilson Wilson, Oliver Woollford Grant, Michael Smiley detective, Paul Ready Lee, plus James Fox, Stephen Rea

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