TV review: A living nightmare in Rillington Place and greener grass from George Lee
Irish expats in Hong Kong might be ‘Better Off Abroad’ and ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ proves grooms never learn
Deadly digs: Ethel Christie (Samantha Morton), John Christie (Tim Roth) in Rillington Place
We’re seeing a lot of programmes these days about Irish people living the good life abroad, with portraits of expats making big moola in Australia, Canada, California, Dubai and – most probably in the pipeline– a freshly terraformed Mars. Is RTÉ trying to make us jealous of these prosperous Paddies? Or maybe the broadcaster is hoping we’ll up sticks and follow these emigrants to the promised land so it won’t have to put on children’s programmes to entertain our brats. As we huddle in our threadbare armchairs in our cold, damp, negative equity gaffes, it’s hard to ignore the siren call of suntanned expats standing in front of a stunning skyline and looking as if they own the bloody place.
George Lee hops on a jetplane to meet the Hong Kong Irish in the second of a two-part series, Better Off Abroad (Sunday, RTÉ One). There’s an implied question mark there – we’re asked to consider whether the 5,000 Irish people living in this bustling Asian hub really are “away on a hack” or are they losing something out of the deal. We meet Ann Coughlan, an executive with one of Asia’s biggest insurance corporations, AIA. With big designer handbag in hand, she shows Lee the many fabulous shops just a high-heel’s clack away from her office. Art and finance broker Bill Condon greets Lee on his big cabin-cruiser, and shows him round his luxury pile in a tranquil suburb away from the fast pace of life in Hong Kong. It’s probably not his fault he comes across as a bit smug. Lee also travels to Macau, Asia’s gambling mecca, 60km west of Hong Kong, and meets Ciaran Carruthers, senior vice president of the sprawling Venetian casino, who’s on to a winner here.
The money might be good, but the downsides are high property prices and rents, expensive schools and choking pollution. And you better come home before you hit 65 because the Chinese government isn’t going to look after you in your retirement. Then there’s the great uncertainty hanging over the city – Hong Kong is halfway through its 50-year transition to full Chinese rule, and who knows what the future holds for this hugely westernised hub?
Even journalists get well paid in Hong Kong (seething jealous rage) but, as Ann Marie Roantree, who is bureau chief of Thomson Reuters, points out, freedom of the press is a serious issue here. Lee brings us to the chained-up offices of Causeway Bay Books which sold politically sensitive books and whose five staff members “disappeared” in 2015, some turning up in custody in mainland China.
When Lee moves away from the cosy expat lives to focus on the realities of Hong Kong, it feels more real. We meet the Filipino domestic staff who work for a pittance to prop up their employers’ high-flying lifestyles, and the Hong Kong Chinese priced out of the rental market and living in cramped squalor in the city’s poorer areas. When you see the reality for ordinary people in Hong Kong, you don’t feel the expat envy so strongly.
Rillington Place (BBC One, Tuesday) is aptly titled. The BBC’s new three-part drama about British serial killer John Christie stars Tim Roth as Christie and Samantha Morton as his long-suffering wife, but it’s the house they live in which grabs the limelight – and also sucks up all available light, like a terraced black hole.
Number 10 Rillington Place was where John Reginald Halliday Christie murdered several women during the 1940s and 1950s, burying some of the bodies in the tiny, scrappy backyard, and concealing others behind the damp, peeling walls of this tenement in the heart of war-torn London.
And the house lives down to its star billing. From the moment Christie opens the front door to his and Ethel’s new home, the place practically swallows them up in its dank, musty maw. The floors creak, the pipes drip, the bed squeaks, but underneath it all is the low rumble of evil. Or maybe that’s just the ominous electronic soundtrack. It’s the sort of place that would make the crew of Changing Rooms pack up their swatches and flee. “It’s only temporary, a stepping stone,” Christie assures his wife. Alas, as we know already, she won’t be going anywhere.
The first episode follows the story as seen through Ethel’s eyes as she settles into a gloomy life with Christie and slowly begins to suspect she may have married a monster. She and Christie are trying to rebuild their marriage after a nine-year separation, but they’ve picked the wrong place to rekindle the flame. This house has “passion-killer” written all over it in mouldy scrawls. Soon Ethel discovers that her husband is visiting prostitutes, but he’s also doing strange things with hammers in the middle of the night. It’s all very creepy and claustrophobic, not to mention grimy.
Eventually, Christie shows his hand – by putting it around Ethel’s neck and almost strangling her after she has the temerity to catch him out in a lie. From that point on, Ethel is firmly in Christie’s malevolent grip; when a pretty young neighbour goes missing, and her distraught husband recognises her coat in the hallway of number 10, Ethel finds herself covering for Christie by claiming the coat is hers.
Roth and Morton may be playing mere supporting roles to this grim house of horrors, but they give towering performances – particularly Morton as the doomed spouse who cannot escape her stoic, mustn’t-grumble social programming. Roth pulls from his trusty working-class northerner repertoire – but adds a bit of menace. When the episode ends, it’s like having a sack taken off your head, and you can breathe normally again.
In Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise must follow the Prime Directive, which includes non-interference in the affairs of other species. They have to let emerging civilisations make their own mistakes and learn from them. The makers of Don’t Tell the Bride (Thursday, RTÉ One) seem to be following the same rule – why else would they not step in and advise the groom he’s about to make a total Uranus of his wedding day?
The show is in its seventh series so there is obviously no shortage of brides-to-be willing to entrust their lesser halves with planning the big day. And there’s clearly no shortage of Ellie Goulding songs to soundtrack the whole fiasco – if Goulding herself stepped out from behind a curtain with a mic in her hand I wouldn’t be surprised.
The first couple to allow their big day to be ruined are 22-year-old Paulina from Poland and 24-year-old Eduardo from Brazil. “I’ll plan his funeral if he gets it wrong,” she warns. From this moment on, Eduardo is a dead man walking. She wants a wedding fit for a princess, but Eduardo has more of a Rio carnival theme in mind. Paulina wants horses; Eduardo gets a giant inflatable horse – with stripes. “It’s a zebra,” observes Paulina. “No, it’s a horse,” insists Eduardo. Either way, it’s a dead horse.
Paulina dreams of a banquet in a stately house with chandeliers, Eduardo books a nightclub in a shopping centre, with burgers and finger food. “Eduardo has blown it,” informs the voiceover, stating the obvious. So much for the Prime Directive.
Ones to Watch:
This is Us (Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm). A heartwarming family drama with a mindblowing twist, this hit US series tells the story of five seemingly disparate people trying to get along in the modern world. Of course, their lives are connected, but you’ll never guess how.
This is Ireland with Des Bishop (Monday, RTÉ Two, 10pm). The Irish-American comedian tackles the world of Irish politics in this satirical show in front of a live audience, with help from a crack team that includes Blindboy Boatclub from the Rubberbandits.