The week in TV: Broken; The Betrayed Girls, The Windsors and more

Jimmy McGovern’s Broken ended with a message of hope, while a film about the Rochdale grooming scandal showed what happens when the good do nothing

Broken (BBC1) | iPlayer
The Betrayed Girls (BBC1) | iPlayer
The Windsors (C4) | All4
Rock’n’Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sideman (BBC4) | iPlayer
The Highland Midwife (C5) | My5

Broken, which ended its too-short run just as we were all beginning to fall a little bit in love with it, has brought a uniqueness to British TV this year in somehow managing to be both Kafkaesque and Capraesque. The former, in its portrayal of the savage non-choices daily facing the poor – the chronicling of such Sisyphean travails writer Jimmy McGovern has dedicated much of his life to – in tandem with the spirited evisceration of every political mindset that can ever judge, with squirrely impossibility, that the poor are poor because they’re taking all our money.

The latter, the Frank Capra element, arrived at the very end of last week’s closer, as the parishioners queued to essentially absolve Father Michael of his sins, such as they ever were. I defy anyone not to have simultaneously smiled and blinked back tears during the last five minutes, and it was shamelessly, undeniably, a long shiver of feel-good – but McGovern has never exactly subscribed to the Ken Loach school, preferring instead to pepper his agitprop with warmth, wit and very human seasoning.

Sean Bean, in what some are calling the performance of his life, showed that he can turn his once chiselled chops from mournful beleaguered action hero to mournful beleaguered magi. That’s not meant to diminish him: the jowly new plains of his face spoke volumes, mainly when he wasn’t doing any actual speaking himself, about conflicted men, and trying to do not just the right thing but for the right reason. Inter alia his character proved, by example, how religion can be a force for everyday good in society – not so much with the ecumenical niceties or the sweeping blandness, but simply by lifting a Hoover, pulling on the Marigolds, sliding someone an urgent fag, or taking a not even remotely metaphorical sledgehammer to the money-changers – a little over the top here but still, my, how we cheered. And we got a great cameo from Phil Davis as the tawdry slots boss, veering between wheedling reason and skull-beneath-the-skin anger. In fact the supporting cast, notably Anna Friel and Muna Otaru, have lent much to this triumph. Even the supporting music: Nina Simone’s bittersweet reworking of Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going to Rain Today might have to become the theme song of 2017.

Former DC Maggie Oliver in The Betrayed Girls.
Former DC Maggie Oliver in The Betrayed Girls. Photograph: Grabs/BBC / Sandpaper Films

The Betrayed Girls, Henry Singer’s masterful account of the Rochdale grooming scandal, suffered only slightly from arriving the same year as the BBC drama Three Girls. If the first drew us wholly into the toxic circumstances of the scandal, the poverty of the girls’ horizons, this documentary more clearly let us sit back and assign blame. Firstly, of course, to the unconscionable perpetrators, married pillars of their community who came to view almost as a reward, as “downtime”, the concept of recreational paedophilia. But also to the legions of police, teachers, social workers and politicians who knew what was going on but froze witless in their fear – no, it was often simple discomfort, an emotion that doesn’t even attain the nobility of squeamishness – at the racial implications. Far easier to list the (very) few who were unafraid: DC Maggie Oliver, sexual health worker Sara Rowbotham, MP Ann Cryer, prosecutor Nazir Afzal, Andrew Norfolk of the Times. Incidentally, Maggie resigned from the police a few years ago. Sara was made redundant, later suffering depression and PTSD. Not one senior officer has faced so much as a reprimand.

The Windsors are back on our box, welcomely, and still happily unfettered by such restrictive critical considerations as, for instance, taste. The satirical royal soap takes a blunderbuss approach to its humour: precisely how sharp might you have to be to take the rip out of Charles’s ineffectuality or Theresa May’s bullying incompetence? But the delights arrive with the minor royals: a vicious Pippa, casting gypsy curses, or Beatrice and Eugenie (Celeste Dring and Ellie White), mangling every posh diphthong available into a gargoyled simulacrum of the English language and thus gently, gleefully, reminding us of that old head-scratching question: what are they all, y’know, for?

You could look a long way before finding a music-based programme with insights to rival some of those vouchsafed in Rock’n’Roll Guns for Hire, a great little documentary about the sidemen and women behind and beside some of rock music’s behemoths.

Differing from session musicians in that they don’t necessarily always play on recordings, the “sidies” have performed, often for as long as 30 years, on tour and on stage with the biggest names going. Bernard Fowler, who has to contend with the occasional naysayer – “but there’s no black guys in the Rolling Stones!” – and Crystal Taliefero (sax, drums, keyboards, everything, with Billy Joel), the sainted Steve Cropper, chubby white unlikely hero to generations of soul fans, Crystal Torres (Beyoncé), Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin (Prince).

Sideman Earl Slick performing with David Bowie in 2003.
Sideman Earl Slick performing with David Bowie in 2003. Photograph: KMazur/WireImage

They were, almost to a man and woman, self-effacing, happy to stand, literally, in the shadows, contentedly unrecognised, anxious only that the tour dates might dry up and the money run out. This was winningly fronted by Earl Slick (real name, um, Frank Madeloni), guitarist to Bowie and laid-back to the point of catalepsy, and, as might have been expected, much interest focused on the big-name stars and fascinating glimpses of the egos involved. I suspect Bowie rated Slick, but Bowie also, a little more, rated Bowie. I’m sure Otis Redding rated Cropper, not least for writing Knock on Wood (simply by reversing the chords from In the Midnight Hour ). Lisa and Wendy hinted, not all that subtly, at more than one over-precious hissy fit from Prince. As so often, Keith Richards charmed. “Sidies… the better you are at your job, the less people notice you. And that’s the point, heh heh. But Bernard Fowler – he is a Stone, now. Brother Bernard’s a rock, man.”

The Highland Midwife was an unexpected treat from C5. What this doc lacked in the scripted dramas of Call the Midwife – and it lacked a lot here – it made up for in simple watchability: for the views, certainly, but also for the oddly captivating small dramas of every single birth.

The fathers’ dilemmas, the mothers’ fears, the simple logistics and tiny burbling panics necessitated by having chosen to live four hours from the nearest hospital. The crucial personalities of the midwives themselves, who surely by the end know every inch of their charges, down to the fusty back of the teabag cupboard. And we were reminded, should we have needed it, that for all a mother’s preparations – hopeful winsome notes to self, felt-tipped and stuck to banisters and bathroom mirror, “my birth will be easy, for my baby is loved” and other such sub-Hallmark toshness – every mother is, at least once in her life, reduced to a wrack of shuddering agony, her entire body glimmering with pain.

Anastasia’s little Olya will grow up speaking Russian, English and Scots Gaelic. Which is nice.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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