TV review: Jesuitical roots and cop-out crime dramas

Alan Sugar’s sidekick reveals his Clongowes past, a show about female entrepreneurs falls flat and three new police series get under way

Personal account: Nick Hewer’s Irish background was analysed on Who Do You Think You Are?

Personal account: Nick Hewer’s Irish background was analysed on Who Do You Think You Are?

Fri, Aug 30, 2013, 12:23

So we can add “Jesuitical” to “flinty- eyed” and “lemon-sucking” when describing Nick Hewer’s style as Alan Sugar’s sidekick on The Apprentice. It turns out, from the genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One, Wednesday), that the former PR man is a Clongowes boy. His mother’s Irish-Catholic background prompted enrolment at the Co Kildare school. Hewer says he is regarded as Irish in Britain and British when in Ireland – which is a surprise, as he comes across on TV as posh home counties.

The Who Do You Think You Are? format has endured remarkably well, possibly because it appeals to our sheer nosiness, and for this week’s episode Hewer spent the first half in Ireland tracing his grandfather Oswald Jamison, a Belfast man. He was a painter and decorator and a Falls Road Catholic who married a Protestant, got into local politics and became high sheriff of Belfast in the 1920s – an unusual feat given his religion. Spotting an opportunity in the Free State, Jamison moved south to establish a fridge business with a handsome £10,000 government grant.

That was the programme’s first half. The second traced a distant relation. There was a lot of poring over ancient manuscripts and discovering arcane details about battles fought in the 1640s by his nine-time great-great-grandfather.

Hewer did his best to put a lively spin on the dry facts, but this retracing of a family tree was rather bogged down in general historical events. It seemed an oddly impersonal episode of a series that thrives not just on unearthing juicy shockers such as a jailbird grandma or a serial bigamist but also on the emotional reaction of the celebrity – and not Hewer’s cool, measured, almost Jesuitical response.

The omens for the documentary She’s the Business (RTÉ One, Tuesday) weren’t good. It was slipped into the schedule at 10.45pm after an evening of repeats, so presumably something could have been shifted – or it could have been bigged up as part of RTÉ’s very thin summer offering – if it had been worth watching. And what a silly name. It was about four female entrepreneurs, but why the romcom title? Would anyone call a programme about male entrepreneurs He’s the Business and then go on, as this did, to spend a disproportionate amount of time showing scenes of children being tucked into bed or being fed; random, emotionally charged reminisces about growing up; and personal details such as relationship break-ups?

The frustrating thing is that the women were serious about their start-ups and were excellent communicators, even if two of them weren’t ultimately successful. The message that starting a business is hard came over loud and clear. But there were too many gaps in the stories, too much incidental personal information and not enough solid financial detail about how their businesses worked – or why they failed. Without that clear editorial perspective there was little point to this meandering, ill-conceived programme.

We were spoiled for choice on the police-procedural front, with three new series starting on Sunday. A Touch of Cloth II (Sky One) is a spoof on the standard-issue TV crime genre, although Vera (UTV) and What Remains (BBC One) are so heavy on cop-drama cliches they could, with a little tweaking, also be spoofs. None was laugh-out-loud funny – though only Charlie Brooker’s A Touch of Cloth was meant to be, and boy did it try hard.

The performances, especially those of John Hannah, Suranne Jones and Julian Rhind-Tutt, were spot on in their straight-faced earnestness, and the writing was a superclever, cliche-smashing dissection of the TV cop-crime genre. But I didn’t laugh once, feeling steamrolled by the gags – some recycled from the first series – which were packed tightly into every moment of the script. It was particularly disappointing as the first series of A Touch of Cloth was hilarious: you couldn’t risk eating or drinking while watching for fear of snorting coffee down your nose or spraying biscuits across the room. Brilliant genre spoofs – think movies like Naked Gun and Airplane! – are funniest when they’re fresh and new. Sequels inevitably struggle.

Vera, with Brenda Blethyn as the eponymous DCI Vera Stanhope, is simply daft. A bit like a creaky old episode of Miss Marple but with even less believable crimes and a whodunnit you’ll have solved before the first ad break. Vera is eccentric. We know this because she wears a horrible hat and several layers of clothing, drives an old Jeep and calls everyone “pet”. She is more of a theatrical creation than a character likely to exist in the real world. And she’s never swayed by the many red herrings flung at her feet to pad out each overlong episode.

Readers who have recorded a drama for later viewing complain when I give away the ending (and rightly so), but in this week’s Vera, the first in a new series, it was the posh wife of the smarmy man having the affair wot did it. You don’t have to watch it now. I’ve saved you from it. Be glad.

What Remains is a much better bet, although it too, in the set-up at least, does a good job of ticking the crime-cliche boxes. David Threlfall is DI Len Harper – lonely, obsessive, drinks – who on his last day in the force works on a case he can’t let go of. Threlfall has scrubbed up a bit since his days as Frank in Shameless, but his Harper is scruffy, with grey stubble, a defeated stoop and a distracted mutter. And so Threlfall is, if not a convincing senior copper, then at least a convincing character with little else in his life but a murder to solve.

A body has been discovered in the attic of a large Victorian house divided into flats. The dead woman lived on the top floor, and the other residents look as if they have something to hide. There’s the limping weirdo maths teacher in the basement, the scary, glamorous lesbian in the middle flat who flushes a goldfish down the loo, the suspiciously ordinary bloke in flat two with the creepy teenage son, and the nice young couple who have just moved in.

But just as Harper has left the force, by the end of part one – there are four parts – its writer, Tony Basgallop, had shifted What Remains from a bog-standard police procedural deep into suspense-drama territory. It’s less about whodunnit and more about the strange occupants – a much more satisfying whydunnit.

Ones to watch
Say her first name, Myrtle, to anyone in Ireland interested in food and they’ll immediately say Allen (right) – she’s had such a major influence on how Irish food is perceived at home and abroad. Myrtle Allen – A Life in Food  (Tuesday, RTÉ One) is a documentary charting her life. 

No point ignoring it, The X Factor (UTV, TV3 tonight) is back. Which can only mean one thing: we’re in the run-up to Christmas.

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