Television: Strong women? Tick. Baby stuff? Tick. Great television? Er . . .

A great cast can’t save ‘In the Club’ from its obvious plots, which lack the ingenuity of ‘The Honourable Woman’

Bumps a-daisy: Jill Halfpenny, Christine Bottomley, Katherine Parkinson, Hermoine Norris, Taj Atwal and Hannah Midgley in In The Club.

Bumps a-daisy: Jill Halfpenny, Christine Bottomley, Katherine Parkinson, Hermoine Norris, Taj Atwal and Hannah Midgley in In The Club.

Sat, Aug 9, 2014, 01:00

It’s an original drama written by Kay Mellor, of Fat Friends and The Chase, but there’s a lot of box-ticking in In the Club (BBC One, Tuesday). Watching it is like being trapped between the gooey pages of formulaic chick lit. Women love TV drama with strong female leads, so In the Club has six – tick – and they’re pregnant. Call the Midwife, One Born Every Minute: women love that stuff – tick. There’s an older woman (Hermione Norris, who can’t have read the clunky dialogue before she signed up), a teenager from the tower blocks, someone who’s not white, a lesbian . . . I could go on with this box-ticking thing, but if you laboured (groan) through the first episode (of six), it’s blindingly obvious.

The women’s backstories and plotlines are straight from the screamer headlines of those melodrama-packed magazines at supermarket checkouts: “I ran off with a man half my age”; “My husband doesn’t know the baby isn’t his”; “I gave birth in a car park”; “My lesbian lover fell for the father of our child”.

In the Club is jaunty sometimes, but it would be more fun if it fully embraced its soap-opera potential and stopped trying to also be a serious drama. Like a muddy boot in the door of the powder room, grim messages keep appearing: when a husband loses his job there’s a lecture on the death of traditional industry, and just as the teen from the tower block gives birth (it’s a girl, ah bless) her father is in a traffic accident. He survives (hurray, good news). Next week we’ll discover he’s severely brain damaged (oh . . .).

Part of the reason In the Club is such an infuriating disappointment is that it has a fantastic cast. Not least Katherine Parkinson, seen also this week – and, somewhat disconcertingly, also pregnant – in the still gripping, still tense The Honourable Woman (BBC Two, Thursday). She’s possibly the least fleshed-out character in Hugo Blick’s thrilling spy drama – the only flaw I can pick so far – but she is the only one without a secret, which may be significant. The many interwoven storylines in play and the shifting character perspectives – is Uncle Shlomo a good guy or a baddy? – have taught us not to assume anything.

At least this week she has something to do other than lurk watchfully in doorways, even if is just shout at her emotionally crumbling husband, Ephra (Andrew Buchan), when she learns the price he paid for the release of his sister, Nessa (Maggie Gyllenhaal), from captivity in Gaza eight years before. It was a taking-stock episode, the sixth of eight (no spoilers), so we know who kidnapped the boy, the involvement of secret agent Monica and, most crucially, the role, unknown to Nessa, that the Stein corporation has been playing in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That revelation did what The Honourable Woman has been doing so brilliantly since it started: meshing the personal and political and exposing the impossibility of being neutral in the conflict. “This secret owns you,” Nessa screams at Ephra when she discovers his sellout to the Israeli side.

The opening scene, in which Nessa is viciously assaulted and debased – echoes of her captivity in Gaza and the only flashback this week – is so powerful and horrific it could have derailed the entire episode. But it doesn’t. Blick is too clever for that.

At heart The Honourable Woman is a spy yarn, with mysterious calls to hit men, secret meetings and wiretaps, so Stephen Rea’s role as MI5’s outgoing Middle East expert is growing. As the end nears, his mouth gets ever more pursed and his enunciation more deliberate. He’s terrific.

There’s a scene in the second part of My Great War (RTÉ One, Monday and Tuesday) that I pause and replay because it’s so striking and eerie and such a good use of archive footage that in one fleeting shot it encapsulates why this two-part documentary is a well-thought-through and powerful piece of storytelling.

Waterford man Mike Grey is on a train heading to the Somme, talking about his grandad who fought in the first World War and whose steps he is retracing, when the green fields outside the window are briefly replaced with grainy footage of hundreds of soldiers apparently rushing towards the train, waving at it, smiling just as they did to some other passing train 100 years ago. For an instant they are a real presence, brought to life just as My Great War, directed by Brain Hayes and Philip Gallagher, deftly creates vivid portraits of Irish participants in the war: six soldiers and one nurse.

The simple device of getting their mostly twentysomething relatives to uncover their stories by talking to historians, visiting war memorials, and looking at old documents and photographs establishes a clear picture of why these and the other 200,000 Irish people joined up. It shows what their war might have been like – there are stories of death and shell shock, and footage showing trenches filled with rotting corpses – and examines their experience of coming home to a country where most were regarded as traitors.

Commemorative films run the risk of glorification, but My Great War is determinedly anti-war. “It was somebody else’s war, it was somebody else’s history,” says one of the relatives, going some way to succinctly explain why Irish first World War stories have remained buried. “But our people fought in it, and we should recall, in so far as we can, their history.” In a very human, accessible and engaging way My Great War does just that.

“I’m ganaching my buns,” says lovely grey-haired Diana, and that can only mean one thing: The Great British Bake Off (BBC One, Wednesday) is back for a fifth series, with double entendres and bun puns galore and exactly the same format as before. Why tamper with such a phenomenal recipe?

The contestants appear to be the usual random bunch, but I suspect choosing them is a precisely measured business. Iain, a 31-year-old beardy hipster, is this year’s Irish contestant. Amazingly, after the mess he makes of his mini-sponges, he gets through to the next round. Though if he escapes without the perfectly groomed judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, warning him about the dangers of facial hair in proximity to fast-moving electric whisks, I’ll be amazed. tvreview@irishtimes.com

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