Rewind TV: Torchwood; The Night Watch; British Masters; The Life of Muhammad; Strictly Kosher; The World's Most Expensive Paintings – review

Torchwood provided pitch-perfect sci-fi while an adaptation of Sarah Waters's The Night Watch was marred only by being a one-off

Torchwood (BBC1) | iPlayer

The Night Watch (BBC2) | iPlayer

British Masters (BBC4) | iPlayer

The Life of Muhammad (BBC2) | iPlayer

Strictly Kosher (ITV1) | ITV Player

The World's Most Expensive Paintings (BBC1) | iPlayer

Torchwood, the so-called "Doctor Who for grownups", had been for too long one of those things I'd loved, admired, but never actually seen. The love and admiration were a teensy bit for Good Things coming out of Cardiff, but almost wholly for serendipitous anagrams and the creative delights within. Almost everything on telly, surely, could (in fact should) have an anagrammatic doppelgangy spin-off. "Whores Squat on Dai" would be an enticing if fabulously misleading version of Antiques Roadshow, and I might even have watched "Piers Morgan meets Sir Cliff Richard" had it been rejigged as "Charlie Crim frots deaf prim singers", though we might have to run that one briefly past the lawyers (or "slywear" as they're charmingly known in parallel-anagram-world).

Then I watched the start of this new series and, goodness, it's even better than a fine anagram. Russell T Davies's latest wheeze is in the best tradition of the best sci-fi short-story writers – Robert Heinlein, Frank Belknap Long – whereby the idea is all, the characterisation redundant, the whole none the worse for it. If we can, unforgivably insultingly given the difference in brainpower, borrow the vernacular of the last few candidates in The Apprentice ("entice hep prat"?) whose much-quoted mantra of "thinking outside the box" apparently means trying to spell their own names without crying or making more than eight mistakes, Davies and co really do "think outside the box", then break the box, refashion it into a pyramid, break the pyramid, turn it into a duck, run away for about a billion miles while chewing on nutritious remnants of a cardboard pyramid-box-duck and then look at the stars and have an idea. Davies's idea was that human beings… just… stop dying.

This is worrying; actually truly worrying. OK, Somalia stops fighting because there's just… no point. But the million people who die globally every three days stop dying, and meanwhile half a million babbies are still born every two days, and so you, as they can't in The Apprentice, do the maths. The world has enough food for four months.

"If insects stopped dying we'd be overrun within 48 hours," says, worriedly… someone. The characters aren't actually that important. There's John Barrowman, who has something to do with Torchwood, and Wales, and will keep the ladies' blood-sugar level up; and Eve Myles, who will do the same for the chaps; and Mekhi Phifer (I gave up on scribbled anagrams here, though it's an excellent way of getting to sleep at 4am when the alternative is the BBC World Service serving up nightly African horror stories). Mekhi, being a CIA gonzo, is rude about Wales. He has to go there to find Torchwood, and thus why people are dying no more. Crossing the Severn bridge, he growls: "You mean it's a separate country? Surely it's still England? This is the British equivalent of New Jersey!" No one can be as lovingly rude about the Welsh as the writerly Welsh.

But everyone has stopped dying. Who really cares about the characters, or even the dialogue? This is simply a hoopla plot-moment in which you scream "why?", and "what happens next?", and vow to disown your loved ones if they dare to have a bloody birthday or crisis or something in the next month and rip you away from the sofa. Absurdly perfect schlocky plot-driven poop, and we'll be glued.

If on the other hand you were looking for the opposite – character-led, searing dialogue, plot thin as a shaky partition door formed from Kleenex and spit – you had to stop at The Night Watch, the fine adaptation of Sarah Waters's beautiful if porny novel, if you're into second world war womanly likes, which I suddenly am.

Quite why this delight had to be trammelled into 90 minutes is a mystery, and surely a financial headache for the agents of the three fine actors doing point. Anna Maxwell Martin, our most versatile and justifiably rising star, has looks which could, with one twitch, transform her from an Orc to a goddess to, in this case, a very mannish strutting ambulancewoman in the sepia of that war, rushing to horrors then retreating as relief to the banalities of female jealousies, in this case over a pretty thicko girlfriend being lured away by the shagtillytageous (not a WWII word) Anna Wilson-Jones. This whole too-brief thing was mesmerising, steeped in its time and secrecies and burgeoning if temporary opennessess – gentle murmured lines such as "It's easy to be brave in wartime" and "I'd forgotten how underrated the word 'nice' is" served oddly enough to remind us how some girls and boys had then to stuff themselves back in the closet for a good 15 years afterwards. Or for ever.

Anyway, I could have watched much more of this, over three or four weeks, and could become annoyed over why they wasted the book and the talent.

I once had a rather smart girlfriend, actually looked a very good bit like a taller Anna MM, who'd had fun inventing a stripped-down but rather useful version of art criticism, which simply assigned gradations of the same name to bad artists. Mediocre modern stuff was by Bob Rubbish, angry Celtic-fringe bespattered lunacy by Robbie O'Riubbash or some such, and those dreadful huge Edwardian things of nymphs in baths, or that Victorian pap which made gentle lowland Scottish borders look like hairy wet Alps, were both ascribed, of course, to Sir Robert Rubbish, RA.

Sir Robert was in splendid evidence at the beginning of British Masters, the latest grand BBC art thing – what's going right with the Beeb and art, even Fiona Bruce's Fake or Fortune? thing was only a hundredth as bad as it might have been? – to elucidate us. The absurdly lucid Dr James Fox, who wants to get us to reappraise 20th-century bravely British realist "non-ism" art – and on this showing will succeed – invited us to gaze on the Sir Robert Rubbishness of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and specifically his portrait of Edwardian Arcadia in a nymphy bath. "The truth is," he said, wonderfully, "that this is really, really, really, really, really bad art. Reactionary, elitist, sexist, motivated only by money." Instead, he introduced us to Sickert, Bomberg, Nevinson and a very bad man but great artist called Percy Wyndham Lewis (Hemingway described him as having the eyes of a "failed rapist") who all buggered about with vorticism and politics in the 19-tweens but actually made a difference. I was most touched by the story of Paul Nash, who had signed up during a fighting lull and found the Belgian-French borders fragranted, lush, the trenches quickly dappled with wildflower, poppies, hiatus widow weed. Then came Passchendaele. Nash went back. And painted hatred and astonishment.

I sometimes wonder if the cruellest thing ever is not to take a dream away from someone but to remove it for a little while then hand it back, broken.

Rageh Omar's The Life of Muhammad was far far better than I'd imagined it could be from the BBC. Sober, intelligent, witty, no damned graphics, educative, almost fun, and the filming made those landscapes look beautiful, and I began to understand the man, Muhammad, who had been orphaned at a ludicrous age and then learned about the world. He was probably a good man, exploited by his followers. I think there may be a template for this. I want to watch the rest. Apart from the annoyingly good photography – it makes bits of Iraq and Saudi look Strictly Lovely, which confuses me because I've been there and they are Serious Fuddholes – this elucidates, and might make a difference. Main one being: I hadn't realised the "word" of the Qur'an had the same untouchable status as the "persona" of Jesus Christ, thus the anger at book-burning, and I'm almost there but we're dealing with religion here and I am only allotted a specific number of inverted commas to convey irony or Harry Potter mysticism. Despite the glories of fine intentions and lives well lived, with this coming the same week as the insane brainwashed gradations of Christian "beliefs" led again to Ulster bloodshed, it's terribly hard not to conclude that you're all a bunch of mad feckers.

As were, though more lovably because they don't kill anyone, and they live in Manchester, the Jews of Strictly Kosher. Again, this should be a series not a one-off. Brilliantly done, and I have no room left to praise it but please, please go back to them, the wigs and dancing and happiness. "Hava Nagila" has been going round my head so incessantly that I haven't had time to make an anagram out of it. Yet.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Rewind TV: True Love; Plan B, Leona and Labrinth: Project Hackney; The Strange Case of the Law – review
The Beeb's series of half-hour improvised dramas struggled to make a credible impact, while Plan B proved an exemplary mentor to troubled teenagers in east London, writes Phil Hogan

Phil Hogan

23, Jun, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Rewind TV – Without You; Come Date With Me; The Great British Property Scandal; Black Mirror; After Life: The Strange Science of Decay – review
Anna Friel excelled in ITV1's gripping new thriller Without You while Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror raised the darkest of laughs, writes Euan Ferguson

Euan Ferguson

11, Dec, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
The week in TV: The Crown; Invasion! With Sam Willis; Peaky Blinders; The A-Word
Claire Foy excels in the Netflix drama’s second series, Cillian Murphy’s gang are back in force, and BBC1’s autism drama is superbly smart

Euan Ferguson

10, Dec, 2017 @7:00 AM

Article image
Rewind TV: Borgen; The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Hustle; Horizon – review
Borgen proved the perfect replacement for The Killing while the BBC's Dickens year went from strength to strength. Now, if only they weren't cancelling Hustle, writes Euan Ferguson

Euan Ferguson

15, Jan, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Rewind TV: The Fear; The Town; A Young Doctor's Notebook; The Secret Life of Rubbish; Imagine... Jeanette Winterson: My Monster and Me; Inside Claridge's – review

A powerful performance from Peter Mullan wasn't enough to rescue Channel 4's incoherent four-part drama about a Brighton crime boss suffering from dementia, writes Andrew Anthony

Andrew Anthony

09, Dec, 2012 @12:06 AM

Article image
The week in TV: Our Girl, Snowfall, Norskov, GameFace and more
Michelle Keegan makes a decent fist of the tubthumping army drama, while it’s cocaine aplenty in two new series from the US and Denmark

Euan Ferguson

15, Oct, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Rewind TV: The X Factor; The Trouble with Aid; The Killing; The Poison Tree; This World – review
As The X Factor came crashing to a finale, ITV's The Poison Tree was no match for BBC4's departing The Killing. Elsewhere pop stars playing for charity came under scrutiny, writes Andrew Anthony

Andrew Anthony

16, Dec, 2012 @12:05 AM

Article image
Rewind TV: This is England '88; Tourettes: I Swear I Can Sing; Imagine: Books – The Last Chapter?; Class Dismissed – review
Shane Meadows's This Is England '88 provided the outstanding dramatic moments of the week while there was worrying news for bookworms in Imagine, writes Euan Ferguson

Euan Ferguson

18, Dec, 2011 @12:05 AM

Article image
Rewind TV: The Hour; The Apprentice; Show Me the Funny; Imagine; Richard Hammond's Journey to the Centre of the Planet; Twenty Twelve – review

A fine cast evoked London in the 1950s in Abi Morgan's newsroom drama The Hour. Elsewhere, it was goodbye to The Apprentice and hello to something rather less entertaining, writes Euan Ferguson

Euan Ferguson

23, Jul, 2011 @11:06 PM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2019: the full list
The pick of the year’s top television featured ghosts, gangsters, comedy buffoons – and a hot priest

19, Dec, 2019 @8:47 AM