The week in TV: 11.22.63; Camping; Scott & Bailey; Abused: The Untold Story – review

James Franco tries to change the course of history while Julia Davis delights with the wickedly funny Camping

11.22.63 (Fox)
Camping (Sky Atlantic)
Scott & Bailey (ITV) | ITV Hub
Abused: The Untold Story (BBC1) | iPlayer

Stephen King’s stamping ground is warped Americana, the shiny and comforting all twisted out of shape, either by human psychosis or the supernatural (think “Mom’s apple pie” with a bloodstained axe slicing through the pastry). So it was an intriguing departure to see a King time travel story in the new eight-part series 11.22.63.

Co-produced by JJ Abrams, it stars James Franco as Jake, an English teacher and lapsed writer (a King staple) who’s lured into a dying diner owner’s scheme to stop Lee Harvey Oswald assassinating John F Kennedy in 1963, via a time portal, accessed Narnia-style at the back of a closet, with only two minutes passing in real life, however long he’s there. (And… breathe. It was complicated, even for a first episode.) In the style of such stories, Jake was instantly on board, and before you could say “make sure to hide your iPhone properly”, he was returning to 1960 (the rather limited time portal was linked, Groundhog Day-style, to one moment on one day) to await an opportunity to change the course of history.

What could possibly go wrong? Downsides such as “the butterfly effect” were swiftly dismissed as mere time travel fripperies. Unease was mainly expressed with the recurring phrase “you shouldn’t be here”, spoken to Jake variously by a vagabond (aggressively), a dying woman (eerily) and a fireman (smokily?), as if somehow they could smell the 21st century on him.

By the end of the first episode it had all become a little convoluted (Jake was diverted from the plot-to-stop-the-JFK plot to stop a grisly Halloween murder). Moreover, while this production was all about the period detail, some may have felt that it was also old-fashioned in its straightforward storytelling approach. Not this reviewer though. I’m a King fan and this is one of the few from his canon I haven’t read, so I’m happy to stick with it. Unless it descends into tedious JFK conspiracy bilge about rifle angles and grassy knolls – now that really would be terrifying.

Some of the ‘intrinsically damaged’ characters in Julia Davis’s Camping.
Some of the ‘intrinsically damaged’ characters in Julia Davis’s Camping. Photograph: Colin Hutton

The new Julia Davis comedy, Camping, about a group holiday on a camping site, hit the sodden grass running with two episodes that simultaneously amused and (deliciously) horrified.

Steve Pemberton played decent, resigned Robin, who was celebrating his 50th birthday, if “celebrating” is the right word, considering his wife Fiona’s (Vicki Pepperdine) attempts at psychological castration via the medium of nagging malevolence (Fiona is the first great television monster of 2016). They and their son, Archie (banned by his mother from eating any foods “that could be vaguely homosexual”), were joined by Jonathan Cake’s Adam, a recovering alcoholic, his son (a teenage masturbator), and wrung-out dishcloth of a wife, Kerry (Elizabeth Berrington). We also met recently separated Tom (Rufus Jones), cutting a tragic figure in his Topman finery and attempting to recapture his virility with “dubstep DJ” Fay (Davis), a woman determined to turn pretentious vacuity into an art form.

Camping managed to be wickedly funny while also serving as a compelling argument for losing all faith in humankind. Anyone familiar with Davis’s oeuvre (Nighty Night, Hunderby) will know what I mean when I describe the characters as either wildly stressed, intrinsically damaged, irredeemably horrible or all three at once. At one point, Tom was caught in flagrante with Fay in a cubicle in a bric-a-brac shop. “Big apols!” he drawled. Priceless.

‘More than just a British Cagney and Lacey’: Suranne Jones, left, and Lesley Sharp in Scott & Bailey
‘More than just a British Cagney and Lacey’: Suranne Jones, left, and Lesley Sharp in Scott & Bailey. Photograph: ITV

No “big apols!” from me at being delighted at the return of Scott & Bailey, the series created by Diane Taylor and Sally Wainwright, and the only female cop show where I could imagine asking one of the leads if she could hold my handbag while I sorted the gusset of my tights out.

Writer Lee Warburton’s opener focused on murders arranged on the dark web (the terrifying version of the internet – or should I say, the even more terrifying version?). However, it drew its real energy from the living. The fond, albeit fractious, relationship between Rachel (Suranne Jones) and Janet (Lesley Sharp) remained as the beating heart, but DCI Gill Murray (Amelia Bullmore) was no longer around. Rachel, returning from working in London, led the investigation, moaning: “It’s like walking in a dead woman’s shoes – and she’s still watching.” Janet, the acid rain on Rachel’s bullish stropping, was distracted and weakened by her daughter’s illegal sexting.

Five series in, Scott & Bailey has proved itself to be more than just a British Cagney and Lacey with added tampons and Jägerbombs. Its genius is not that it puts character before plot, rather that it excels in both areas, and nor does it stint on the one-liners. “He’s five-foot squeak with the sexual threat of a castrated hamster,” quipped Janet to Rachel about her daughter’s boyfriend.

Directed by Olly Lambert and narrated by Shaun Dooley, Abused: The Untold Story was a documentary about Jimmy Savile, featuring some victims speaking on television for the first time. Savile now has confirmed bogeyman status in British culture, in a way that almost threatens to overshadow the suffering he caused, a fact acknowledged in this documentary, which kept Savile’s unlovely, cigar-chomping, scarecrow-meets-hurricane visage firmly out of shot, as if to say: “This is about the victims.”

That said, you can’t make a Savile documentary without mentioning the BBC’s initial shameful suppression of the story (are documentaries such as these acting as a Beeb mea culpa?) or the Yewtree investigations. More than 500 complaints were made against Savile, and over the past four years there’s been a 60% rise in reports of sexual abuse; indeed, part of the documentary followed a woman called Katy as she brought her own historical case to court.

Elsewhere, a selection of Savile’s victims told their stories – the boy scout who thought he was going to get a Jim’ll Fix It badge only to be raped by Savile and another man; the young woman driven to decades of anorexia by her rape; the little girl who’d already been sexually abused by her grandfather. One of the victims, Dee Coles, a starstruck young girl lured into Savile’s caravan, was the first to tell her story on British television, saying now that she regrets taking beta-blockers in a bid to stay calm. This time, Coles didn’t take anything to quell her nerves, saying tearfully but defiantly: “Because it is messy and I am a bit of a mess about it.”


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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