Back to the real business of telly: sex, drugs, drama and murder

Sat, Aug 18, 2012, 01:00

TV REVIEW:THIS WEEK’S FEAST of TV drama was just the thing for telly watchers coming down from all that real-life Olympic drama, with a Ruth Rendell two-part thriller starting on Monday, Sean Bean in full drag in the new Jimmy McGovern on Tuesday, and an uplifting sepia-toned biopic of the founder of the Paralympics on Thursday.

Thirteen Steps Down (UTV, Monday) was shot around Dublin and in Bray, Co Wicklow this year, the seaside town’s looming Victorian piles standing in for London’s Notting Hill for the purpose of the adaptation of the Ruth Rendell thriller. Luke Treadaway played Mix Cellini, a lodger in the vast crumbling pile owned by batty old Gwendolen Chaucer – “Don’t call me Gwen, so common,” she sniffed – in a lovely turn by Geraldine James. Cellini was obsessed with the career of Dr Christie, a serial killer who lived in the same street, and with a glamorous model he spotted at the gym where he worked fixing the treadmills.

It’s not hard to speculate where this might be going and how the two obsessions might come together, but in this week’s opener he bludgeoned his girlfriend to death in the kitchen and hid her under the floorboards. Being a Dr Christie expert, he should know this is a terrible idea.

The TV adaptations of Rendell’s Inspector Wexford stories were the sort you could safely watch with your maiden aunt and a nice cup of tea, and you were guaranteed a good night’s sleep. This adaptation was less subtle and psychological and more “get it out there”, featuring abortion, sex scenes and docker language, and the murder of the young woman was particularly violent and gruesome. Really, though, she should have copped that her new boyfriend was dangerous: Treadaway’s character was so unsubtle that he couldn’t have been more obviously unhinged if he had “murdering psycho” tattooed on his forehead. It was an irritating flaw in the drama.

JIMMY MCGOVERN’Sseries Accused (BBC One, Tuesday) is back for another run, a sort of whydunnit where each standalone drama opens with a courtroom scene and an accused person in the dock. The story then tells in flashback how he or she ended up in court. In this week’s first drama Sean Bean played both he and she. By day he was Simon Gaskell, a mild-mannered, introverted English teacher; by night he was Tracie Tremarco, a gobby transvestite trawling the clubs of Manchester looking for love dressed, as he said, “like every man’s fantasy of a woman, a tart and a whore”: blonde wig, layers of slap, short spangly skirts and high heels.

It’s rare for an actor to stray quite as far from type as Bean had to here: usually he’s the chiselled hard man or running around in an assortment of pelts in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. He’s not someone you could easily envisage in a dress, or see carrying off a performance as understated, believable and moving as he did.

And Stephen Graham as Tony, a married, ordinary, working bloke who surprises, bewilders and terrifies himself by falling in love with Tracie, turned in a performance of such power and subtlety it was a perfect foil for Bean. Another actor in a less brilliantly directed drama would have struggled not to be upstaged. If there’s one quibble it was with McGovern’s neat ending that included a not entirely convincing speech by Tracie. A defence of “Would I set out to bury a body in these heels and with these French-polished nails?” was as likely to get an accused person off as “It was the drink that made me do it”.

THE STORY OF Dr Ludwig Guttman, who founded what became the Paralympics, is such a gift to scriptwriters it’s a wonder his story hasn’t been told many times over. A German Jew and a neurologist, he fled to Britain during the second World War. There, he was eventually asked – there not being any other spare doctors around – to head up the spinal unit treating wounded soldiers in Stoke Mandeville hospital. Against fierce resistance from his colleagues he revolutionised the treatment of paralysed war wounded, based on his then-radical belief that disability was no bar to living a full life and that sport would build physical strength as well as self-esteem.

In a classy period drama The Best of Men (BBC Two, Thursday), the character actor Eddie Marsan stepped out of his usual background roles and took the lead as Guttman, while the ubiquitous Rob Brydon, in one of his rare straight roles, played one of the patients. It was as much a script device as anything else: as a patient everyman he followed a typical arc, at first resistant to Guttman “the Kraut”, but by the end he was out of hospital in his wheelchair and filled with hope and ambition. The drama ended with the first Stoke Mandeville games in 1948, and mixed in archive footage for added authenticity. It was a well-made, historically authentic – down to the Fair Isle pullovers – and inevitably moving piece of work that managed not to slide into schmaltz.

IT’S HARD TOargue with personal experience, and Russell Brand made a compelling case for a rethink on the treatment of heroin addicts in his searingly honest documentary From Addiction to Recovery (BBC Three, Thursday). Ten years ago the actor and comedian was broke, addicted to heroin, and sabotaging his career. A treatment programme got him clean and he’s a confirmed believer that the only way to treat addiction is abstinence from all substances that might be addictive. Prof David Nutt, an expert in drugs and one of the few people in the programme who didn’t seem slightly starstruck, described how drugs affect the brain and how some people are more susceptible to addiction than others.

Presenting his argument to the British home-affairs select committee with his skinny jeans, long hair and jangly bracelets, Brand looked every inch the star from a different world to that of the suits he was talking to. He spoke, with an honesty that was almost frightening, about how he loved drugs. He would rather, he said with disarming candour, be an addict again if it were not for the abstinence programme.

The death of Amy Winehouse, whose music played throughout, prompted him to explore the causes of addiction and to promote his belief that addiction is a disease, not a choice. His argument, shared by many of the professionals he spoke to, is that addiction is a health issue and not a judicial or criminal one, and that methadone treatment simply replaces one addiction with another. “If you’re on methadone you’re still on drugs, it’s like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Get stuck into . . .This superior-looking period drama Parade’s End stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall (left) in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Edwardian masterpiece. (BBC Two, Friday)

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