The week in TV: Waterhole; The Undoing; Inside Cinema, Raised by Wolves; Red, White and Blue | Television & radio

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Waterhole: Africa’s Animal Oasis (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Undoing (Sky Atlantic) | sky.com
Inside Cinema: Guilt-Free Pleasures (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Raised by Wolves (Sky Atlantic) | sky.com
Small Axe: Red, White and Blue (BBC One) | iPlayer

Is Chris Packham being, rather quietly, groomed to be the new David Attenborough? Certainly he had a newborn gravitas about him in a truly absorbing new three-part programme, in which the Beeb work hand-in-hand with the Mwiba reserve in Tanzania to construct a false waterhole. Broadcasters have what might be kindly described as a chequered history when it comes to fakery and wildlife, yet this short series stands high apart in terms of quality, intention and accountability: it both allows further research, to a microscopic and night-camera’d degree, and goes a little way to counter the vicissitudes of climate change in that arena.

And Packham is good, taking as much fascinated pleasure in the parasite-wasp, which invades his tent, as he does in the lions and elephants who come, and come fast, to drink. One gets the feeling Chris would happily let the wasp, which drops caterpillars into a tiny hole (to be eaten alive, soft organs first, by its wasp-babies), set up nest in his own ear. Co-presenter Ella Al-Shamahi – who has not wasps but PhDs coming out of hers, speaks about 18 languages and leads paleoanthropological expeditions to war-ravaged corners when not being a standup comic – cannot fail but to lend further knowledge.

In short, this is a class production, shorn of frippery and gimmickry and allowed to breathe and fascinate. Would Packham pass the Attenborough test: would he giggle and squirm with silverback gorillas? Yes, he would. My only other thought for the great man’s replacement, Ade Adepitan, would do the same. His addictive, explorative glee might compensate for a lack of biological qualifications, and he’s a fast learner. The BBC has weightier dilemmas before it.

It was fascinating, too, to learn that The Undoing, which ended its run last week with the one twist Agatha Christie never employed – it was the obvious killer what done the killy-thing – was so phenomenally successful. I can’t imagine the moniker of showrunner David E Kelley (Ally McBeal, Big Little Lies) meant much to anyone other than geeks or critics, so it must have been down to the spangled pairing of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, allied to our perennial schadenfreude at the rich and over-encumbered brought down to sackcloth and ashes.

Heavy lifting… Nicole Kidman in The Undoing.
Heavy lifting… Nicole Kidman in The Undoing. Photograph: HBO

It was, in truth, a fairly so-so stodge of a thriller. Sexy Latino married lady with phenomenal breasts bumped off in first reel: court case and troubled posho anguish follow. For five episodes. And it just goes to show how Kelley, and acting skills, and a couple of cliffhangers can raise any production or adaptation to grand heights, as long as it is thoroughly believed in. It was admittedly a gift of a part for Hugh Grant, who got to play complex, witty, serene, troubled. Kidman had the heavy lifting, playing glacial, spoilt, uncaring, humour-free: a testament to her skills that we kept watching such a bore.

Inside Cinema: Guilt-Free Pleasures was one of those entertaining trawls that you could choose to watch in one of two ways: brain engaged, or pleasantly bovine. The second reaped many rewards regardless, as we saw a fat slew of dreadful (and some lauded) films waltz before our eyes. The critic behind this programme, Catherine Bray, was talking about films that were not simply bad, but unforgettably so, and preferably (in the words of Susan Sontag) those possessing a certain “failed seriousness”.

And so we got the cheesy, the mawkish, the laughably hokey, such as 1982’s notorious The Man Who Saved the World (normally known as the “Turkish Star Wars”), and a grim succession of 90s offerings, a frankly eye-popping number of which featured Madonna in some guise. And franchises (Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! was an obvious low point).

Yet Bray’s contention was that, rather than calling them “guilty pleasures”, we should not be forced on to the defensive back foot simply by dint of enjoying the sexy, the camp, the horrific or those featuring gross-out humour. If that’s your bag, hey ho. Rather, a surprising number of films now generally accorded critical nods were in fact cheesy, mawkish, gratuitous, sexist – but, crucially, attained a cachet by having a “message”, most normally setting themselves up as cleverly condemning a societal something (the patriarchy, prejudice, false princess dreams). It was a cogent and fascinating argument, as were so many Bray made.

Where I part ways with her philosophy is over whether the art can be separated from the maker. Much reference to Roman Polanski, and later Harvey Weinstein: should we be watching anything with their dabs on it? Personally I don’t struggle to do that separation in my own head, and can and will watch Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby without thinking of Polanski’s 1977 rape of a 13-year-old. Watching something (I’d argue) produced or directed by a foul individual should not steep or even dip us in the guilt that these men, and possibly enabling coteries, have as their direct due and theirs alone.

Raised By Wolves.
Raised By Wolves. Photograph: Coco Van Oppens Photography

Raised By Wolves is an insanely high-budget and ambitious sci-fi epic from Ridley Scottoffering that is now running on Sky Atlantic. It deserves more than a look, if only to marvel at the scope and scale, and the premise, which is of human children raised by androids on a distant planet after (of course, you’re there before me) the Earth is destroyed by a great war. It has drama, angst, bitterness, high emotion and, given that the lovely, caring android parents have been programmed to be atheistic, much scope for disagreement (and war) with a human drive for belief in angels.

Unfortunately, I’m just not sure whether this is explored in anything more than coldly intellectual fashion, and not even that intellectually: were it a thesis it would merit a 2:2. I was reminded, alarmingly, of concept albums of the 1980s, in which megabands hoped to persuade a world of some vague virtue – kindness, or Zoroastrianism, or double-entry bookkeeping – with 17-minute jazz-zither solos.

The true skill behind Red, White and Blue, the third of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series to grace our Sunday nights, lay in the tremendous subtlety of shift. John Boyega seemed one precise minute to be riding the wave: the true tale of a proud black officer in the community, with a caustic eye for miscreants of any race, yet a kind one, and a general lift to his gait, despite the perennial wars with his father, bitterly unresolved. Then, and suddenly it seemed, he was getting scrawls on his locker, sending urgent backup calls to which white colleagues, rendered toxic by the whines of just one individual, responded with treasonous uninterest.

John Boyega in Small Axe: Red, White and Blue.
‘Tremendous subtlety’: John Boyega in Steve McQueen’s Red, White and Blue. Photograph: Will Robson-Scott/BBC/McQueen Limited

The art of Boyega and McQueen lay in us viewers hardly noticing the shift, between respected black colleague and uppity pariah. In it, in this simple unsought change of attitudes around one, often sudden, always unearned, I was made precisely aware as never before to an ache that surely affected black and Asian officers in the Met at that time. The subtle denials: because there was never a specific happenstance nor date nor jibe. The impossibility, and inadvisability, of punching against gaslight.

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Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The week in TV: Waterhole; The Undoing; Inside Cinema, Raised by Wolves; Red, White and Blue | Television & radio

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