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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New Tricks series 9 PREVIEW

Dennis Waterman, Amanda Redman, James Bolam, Alun Armstrong
Dennis Waterman, James Bolam, Amanda Redman and Alun Armstrong. Pics: BBC

Rating: ★★★½ 

BBC1: starts Monday, 27 August, 9pm

Story: Jack Halford’s behaviour – secret calls, personal appointments and an obsession over an outstanding case – is causing the team some concern. But nothing can prepare them for the bombshell he’s about to drop. Halford is quitting UCOS.

In critical terms, New Tricks is bomb-proof. This comfy old cardie of a show is about to begin its ninth series and it doesn’t matter what the critics say about it, viewers like it a lot – the last series hit a new peak averaging nine-million – and a 2013 season has already been commissioned before series nine is even shown.

Having such a distinguished bunch of players is surely the major ingredient in the success of what is a rather low-key drama – the Beeb doesn’t make that much of a fuss about its return these days. Even the cast feel it has become a little bland, with Amanda Redman, Alun Armstrong and Dennis Waterman all voicing criticisms in a recent Radio Times.

End of an era on New Tricks

Denis Lawson
Denis Lawson as Steve McAndrew

But for many viewers, fond memories of classic series no doubt return on watching the ensemble of Dennis Waterman (The Sweeney, Minder), James Bolam (Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, The Biederbecke Trilogy), Alun Armstrong (Our Friends in the North and dozens of other films and dramas) and Amanda Redman (At Home with the Braithwaites). That’s a lot of terrific television DNA for one series.

However, all this is about to change. As this opener, A Death in the Family, reveals, Jack Halford (played by 77-year-old James Bolam), is about to retire for good this time. Denis Lawson will be introduced during this series as his replacement. Amanda Redman and Alun Armstrong are also leaving after next year’s series.

Tim McInnerny as the sneering secret agent
Why Jack is going is revealed at the end of this opener, which starts disconcertingly with a Victorian murder scene, a young woman being stalked through foggy London. Naturally, the curmudgeonly investigators think that the intelligence officer demanding they reopen the case should instead ‘shove it’, as Jack puts it.

Tim McInnerny
Tim McInnerny as Fisher

Tim McInnerny is the high-handed intelligence man, and he’s great value when butting heads with the team, particularly Sandra.

Double mystery
‘Grumpy lot, aren’t they?’ he says to DAC Strickland, a sentiment probably shared by the scriptwriter Julian Simpson, who has hit back strongly at the cast’s criticisms of the show’s writers.

Anway, the victim Abigail Padua was a maths whiz, a ‘computer’ in Victorian parlance. Her murder was made to look like robbery but it seems there may have been more of a conspiracy around her killing.

James Bolam
James Bolam as Jack

Perhaps the creative tensions between the actors and writer/directors bore fruit, because this is a cracking opening to the series. The two mysteries – Victorian conspiracy and Jack’s departure – are filled with humour, intrigue and regret – and, at least this week, are not remotely bland.

Cast: James Bolam  Jack Halford, Amanda Redman Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman, Alun Armstrong Brian Lane, Dennis Waterman Gerry Standing, Anthony Calf DAC Strickland, Tim McInnerny Stephen Fisher 

Upcoming episodes:

  • 3 Sept: Old School Ties – The team re-investigate a teacher’s disappearance. Guest Susannah Harker
  • 10 Sept: Queen & Country – A cover-up and a suspected suicide

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