Television: The spoiler is in the title in dramas that borrow from real life

Review: Murdered by My Father; Undercover; Crainn na hÉireann; Prison in Peru: Michaella’s First Interview

Adeel Akhtar and Kiran Sonia Sawar in Murdered by My Father Adeel Akhtar and Kiran Sonia Sawar in Murdered by My Father

Adeel Akhtar and Kiran Sonia Sawar in Murdered by My Father Adeel Akhtar and Kiran Sonia Sawar in Murdered by My Father

 

No spoiler alert needed for Murdered by My Father (BBC One, Tuesday), the drama about a so-called honour killing in an immigrant Asian community in a British city. The first scene shows us what happens to the father (this is a spoiler): after murdering his daughter in a truly harrowing scene he jumps off the balcony to his death.

The drama then flashbacks to how the protagonists, widowed father Shahzad (Adeel Akhtar) and teenage daughter Salma (Kiran Sonia Sawar), arrive at this shocking finale through exploring the rigid value system in their community and family. The cultural jolt is how such an alien mindset can exist in such a familiar setting; how a seemingly typical British teenager tethered to her mobile phone, doing A-levels, has been “promised” at birth to the son of a family friend.

She has bought time by bargaining with her strict father, promising to marry when she finishes college. In accepting this, he seems almost progressive, and in this oppressive, tightly prescriptive culture, he is. Meanwhile, Salma has fallen in love with another boy – it’s a very sweet, clandestine romance – and so brings shame and disgrace on her family and herself.

Watching fact-based dramas with a message can be exhausting. There is that feeling of being prodded in the chest with a pointed finger, and this drama, made with input from charities fighting honour killings, could have been painfully didactic. The credits tell us there were 12,000 “honour-based” crimes reported in the UK since 2010 with an estimated 60 murders.

But Murdered by My Father succeeds as a vivid, absorbing drama for many reasons. The acting is strong – Sawar in particular is magnetic as the daughter torn between duty and freedom – and the drama deftly reveals the world of a culturally closed, wilfully non-integrated but otherwise highly visible immigrant community. The ending is problematic though. Shahzad killing himself seems nearly sentimental – diminishing the tragic outcome for the daughter.

Another drama series that borrows heavily from news reports, and with a spoiler title, is Undercover (BBC One, Sunday), the classy, quality offering to fill the Sunday slot recently occupied by The Night Manager and War & Peace. Maya Cobbina (Sophie Okonedo) is a liberal-leaning barrister blissfully married to Nick (Adrian Lester) with three teenage children, a fabulous London house and another in the country. That they are a black family is by-the-way – or is it? Maybe race does matter

It is difficult to figure out what is going on in episode one (of six) of Undercover. We first meet Maya in Louisiana, where she is involved in a last-ditch effort to save a prisoner on death row minutes before his harrowing execution. The scenery shift to the heat and wide-open skies of the US seems a gratuitous opportunity for some cinematic eye candy – or maybe not. Maybe it’s crucial, we don’t know.

We do know, though, the prisoner connects to a bigger case she has been working on for a long time, since perhaps when Maya met the handsome Nick in the 1990s on a protest march. And she’s about to be named Director of Public Prosecutions, which seems a stretch – why would the establishment promote such a high-profile thorn in its side.

Still though, it’s all happy families (uh oh) until house-husband Nick takes off his wedding ring. He’s visiting his dying father (a very touching scene), who doesn’t know Nick is married. That’s the first clue towards the end of the episode in which all is not as it seems. Then the pace quickens when a dodgy bloke stages an improbable dognapping to make contact with Nick when he could have just phoned. He tells Nick, now revealed as an undercover policeman, that he must spy on his DPP wife. After 20 years of silence? Would the police really have dragged him back in?

Undercover’s writer Peter Moffat also wrote the tightly plotted legal drama Silk, so there is hope he’ll be able pull all these knowns and unknowns together. The very fine Okonedo and Lester deserve it.

Much more relaxing, visually gorgeous even, is Crainn na hÉireann (TG4, Tuesday), a 10-part series presented by Manchán Magan, who travels around Ireland focusing on one native tree per programme. It’s an engaging idea for a TV series and very well executed. Directed by Luke McManus, episode one looks at the Scots pine. It died out 500 years ago and was reintroduced 100 years later in Donegal from seeds brought over from Scotland.

The scenery in Crainn na hÉireann is lush and the anecdote-filled stories about history are as interesting as the botanical ones. A favourite image is the beach in Cleggan where the 2012 storm washed away the sand to reveal the spooky remains of a 4,500 year-old pine forest.

Magan roams through leafy glades and chats easily to experts who are all so relaxed you start thinking that maybe tree hugging should be compulsory for our well-being.

The documentary Michaella, Peru and the Drugs Run, screened two years ago on RTÉ, painted the Dungannon woman as quite the victim. Her mother and sister featured, both displaying an odd lack of curiosity as to how Michaella McCollum ended up as a drug smuggler in Peru.

She, of course, was absent in the documentary, being in prison, and many questions hung in the air. It was a frustrating watch, but much less so than the hastily scheduled Prison in Peru: Michaella’s First Interview (RTÉ One, Sunday), where there is the reasonable expectation that hard questions might be at least be asked if not answered. Basic stuff such as: how much was she to be paid for smuggling the drugs? or, how did she meet the drug boss? The sort of questions that those of us who can easily understand any young person making a “mistake” (as McCollum calls it), but can’t quite understand how that mistake could involve becoming an international drug smuggler might find enlightening.

It isn’t a surprise to see her on TV in a post-prison interview – our culture makes instant transient celebrities of people for the most questionable of reasons, and a pretty young woman, fresh (she did look rather well) from a stint in a south American jail on a cocaine conviction is broadcast bait (the viewing figures were huge).

The problem is the eye-poppingly soft questioning from experienced journalist Trevor Birney. If there were editorial constraints on the interview (was it as scripted, as it comes across? Were some questions off limits?), viewers should have been told.

Instead, we get what feels like an airbrushed, dull and ultimately pointless Hello type interview serving only McCollum.

Ones to Watch: Mystery and history

The crime novelist Harlan Coben moves to TV with The Five (Sky One, Friday; right), a drama about four 12-year-old friends and the disappearance of one boy’s five-year-old brother. Flash-forward 20 years and the missing brother’s DNA is found at a crime scene.

My Generation, a year-long season charting the history of pop, kicks off with People’s History of Pop: The Birth of the Fan (BBC Four, Friday). Unearthed treasures include John Lennon’s first recorded performance with The Quarrymen, on the day he met Paul McCartney.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

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