Bene, someone’s very spoiled. Straight off the bat in my new job as Observer television critic, I’m gifted the garlanded Stephen Daldry directing Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, Divorce) and James McAvoy (Atonement, X-Men) in Dennis Kelly’s one-off BBC lockdown drama Insieme. The twist? McAvoy and Horgan play a warring couple who are only staying together for the sake of their young son (Samuel Logan). When lockdown strikes, they attack each other, treating the camera as a form of doomed couples therapy, arguing about anything and everything: class, politics, values (“Let the virtue-signalling begin!"), just the fact he hates her face. “I think of him as a cancer,” snarls Horgan. “Not skin or testicle, one of the really bad ones.”
It’s significant that the couple aren’t given names. They’re an everycouple in a universal bad relationship: “He”, with the obnoxious attitude and man-bun; “She”, with the box-tick liberalism and jaunty dungarees. The pandemic is represented by the rising toll of infections and deaths, eerie silent shots of The Outside, a blurted admission that they’re having lockdown sex. When her mother becomes infected in her care home, Horgan has to bear witness to her dying moments on FaceTime.
At moments, Insieme hit its stride as a kind of lockdown Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with added social commentary – but, considering all the talent involved, I expected more. Sometimes the dialogue just wasn’t sharp enough – having co-written Pulling with Horgan, Kelly must know that if you’re going to “go nasty”, you can’t plunge the blade in halfway. Ancora, there was something living and breathing in the couples’ warped, combative codependency. You believed McAvoy and Horgan as they dangled from their psycho-emotional barbed wire, torn, battered but somehow still together at the end.
GB News launched like a fever dream featuring an old-style urchin paperboy: “GET YER UNION JACKS AND ANTI-WOKE ERE!” What was the deal with the dark, cheap-looking set – was it from a home clearance of a 1970s swinger? While the GB News chairman and big beast main draw, Andrew Neil, stormed through his Churchillian opening manifesto (“We’re proud to be British – the clue is in the name”), he must have raged at all the technical glitches. Regardless of whether GB News is needed (as a British Fox News?) in our predominantly right-leaning UK media climate, a news channel can’t position itself as the voice of the people when the sound isn’t working half the time.
Another big name, Alistair Stewart, will host a weekend show, and elsewhere, presenters include Kirsty Gallacher, Nana Akua, Simon McCoy, Mercy Muroki and the former Labour MP Gloria de Piero. While there’s no Piers Morgan, they have the MailOnline’s Dan Wootton, who smiles like a vampire who has fully embraced tooth-whitening and, judging by his three-hour show, fancies himself to be quite the provocateur (happens to the best of us, Dan, try staying out of the hot sun for a few days).
Can it be dismissed as “Gammon” TV? It would be unfair to judge any channel on its launch, or the odd spittle-flecked boor as a guest (the ever-needy Nigel Farage appeared to remind us that he knew some guy called Trump once, honest!). Initial viewing figures were healthy, but they need to endure, and the merely curious could soon melt away. Backstage, GB News suffered setbacks – allegations of other broadcasters blocking access to footage; advertisers such as Ikea and Kopparberg withdrawing. Onscreen, the major problem was the near-relentless droning about metropolitan mindsets, cancel culture, Meghan and Harry (the bad fairies at the GB News christening), virtue signalling, and the like. Three days in, they were still obsessively carping about the delaying of “Freedom Day” and footballers bending the knee. Christ, guys, at least try to move on! Far from the bracing alternative it promised to be, GB News seems to have inadvertently revealed that dreary repetition is inbuilt in the “anti-woke” mindset.
After that, it was a relief to observe scientists on the Horizon Special: The Vaccine. This painstakingly thorough 90-minute documentary started following scientists across continents when they first began working on finding a coronavirus vaccine, revisiting the teams (Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna et al) at different stages.
The result was compelling, with everything explained (in my case, idiot-proofed) for the scientifically illiterate: the different kinds of vaccines, and how they work – all those spike proteins, molecular clamps, and mRNA – and the role played by big pharma and governments; the logistical difficulties of trying to get 7bn-plus people in the world vaccinated, and all those ongoing concerns, from rare complications such as blood clots via the appearance of new variants to rising public complacency.
There was personal sacrifice too. The speed at which scientists had to work was unprecedented – they had to achieve in months what would typically take 10-15 anni. One member of the AstraZeneca team’s mother died during all of this (not of coronavirus) – the scientist’s neck reddened and her voice shook as she spoke of it – but she had to keep working. In definitiva, the scientists were proud they’d made their collaborative global effort, even if that did mean the odd postponed Freedom Day.
Check out We Are Lady Parts, which is five episodes in now. It started life as a “Blap” (a Channel 4 comedy short), created by Nida Manzoor (Doctor Who), and has ended up as Spinal Tap incontra Derry Girls, featuring an all-female Muslim punk band.
Nerdy microbiology student Amina (Anjana Vasan of Mogul Mowgli) is torn between two worlds: being a respectable Muslim who gets married, or playing guitar for Lady Parts, whose members are played by Sarah Kameela Impey, Faith Omole and Juliette Motamed, with Lucie Shorthouse as a manager who vapes through her hijab.
La settimana scorsa, Lady Parts found themselves exploitatively marketed as the “bad girls of Islam”. Throughout, the series is rowdy (“Fucking fuck fuck, do you want to waterboard me about it?"), with genuinely startling song titles: Nobody’s Going to Honour-Kill My Sister But Me and Voldemort Under My Headscarf. It’s culturally textured, audaciously surrealist (Brief Encounter pops up) and controversial (social media accounts were taken down when it was first shown). Lady Parts is unhinged, unashamedly and entertainingly so – new comedy turned up to 11.
Peter Taylor: Irlanda Dopo Partition (BBC Two)
Peter Taylor reflects on 50 years of reporting on a divided Ireland. With interviews and evocative archive footage (Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren visit Wales together), the documentary marks the centenary of the partition.
Gods of Snooker (BBC Two)
Last month’s documentary series on the 1980s heyday of British snooker is still available. Alex “Hurricane” Higgins, Steve Davis, Ronnie O’Sullivan and more. Fag-ash, booze, waistcoats, perfection and rebellion. An absolute treat.
Time to rewatch the first two series of the drag-ballroom drama that pulses with LGBTQ history and heart. The third and final series just ended in the US, so it should land here soon.