The week in TV: Decline and Fall; Line of Duty; Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad and more – review

The BBC’s superb Decline and Fall couldn’t be more timely, Line of Duty has a new secret weapon, and in talking openly about grief, Rio Ferdinand scores the goal of his career

Decline and Fall (BBC1) | iPlayer
Line of Duty (BBC1) | iPlayer
The Good Fight (More 4) | All 4
Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad (BBC1) | iPlayer
University Challenge (BBC2) | iPlayer
Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge (Sky Arts)

A grand surprise arrived on Friday in the shape of Decline and Fall. It shouldn’t, perhaps, have been that much of a surprise, given that the man responsible for adapting Evelyn Waugh’s first published (and most splenetically Welsh-hating, liberal-baiting) novel was James Wood, also responsible for the ever-subtle Rev., and that the casting was able to plumb such glorious heights as Stephen Graham, Douglas Hodge, David Suchet and Eva Longoria.

For once, an adaptation caught Waugh’s inner voice, that singular interwar fruity whine of pomp, self-pity and high intellect, the all leavened by an utterly redemptive sense of the absurdity of the human condition, particularly Waugh’s own. Crucially, this was achieved without resort to the artifice of narrative voiceover, à la Brideshead. Wood just picked his quotes very cleverly. In episode one (of three), Jack Whitehall’s beleaguered Everyman is sent down from Oxford (with an achingly unfair whiff of un-trouser-edness) and reduced to teaching in the boondocks, where every pupil is as damaged, yet at least 10 times as smart, as the masters. He soon alights on the ultimate piece of time-wasting for his spoilt charges, “an essay on self-indulgence. There will be points for the longest, irrespective of any possible merit.”

There are the stock grotesques, yes – even Douglas Hodge, as the chief sot/pederast, doesn’t get to chew the scenery with quite the liberated zest of David Suchet’s headmaster, reacting to freedom from all those dreary Poirots as would a vampire released on virgin necks, toothily telling Whitehall’s straight-bat ingenu that “we schoolmasters must temper discretion with… deceit” – but, by and large, this is happily grounded more in realism than caricature. What emerges is a true comic fantasy, yes, but also one which captures that dreadful damp twixt-war tristesse: a certain boredom with politics, a certain class obsession, an irresolute yet total anger at… something. An End of Days. This BBC production, in which all excel, is thrillingly timely, given our fractious nation’s rude recent decision to Decline, and Flail, and also gives trembling hope that, finally, we might get a faithful rendition of the wisest funny novel of the 20th century, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.

Jason Watkins has long been shaping up as one of those actors – think also Toby Jones – who can morph seamlessly from unassailable High Drama to comedy perfection. He Bafta-excelled as Christopher Jefferies, yet also delights as one of the punchably benign BBC irritati in W1A – and is the secret weapon behind the latest, fourth, series of Line of Duty.

Thandie Newton in Line of Duty.
‘Hard as quartz’: Thandie Newton in Line of Duty. Photograph: Aidan Monaghan/World Productions/ BBC/ Aidan Monaghan

The standoff between his wheedling, needling, pernickety forensics expert, his every geeky moue a threat, and Thandie Newton’s hard-as-quartz flawed diamond of a copper made for Sunday gulps at their best. And that was without, even, the sudden headburst of Thandie’s claret, the Watkins chainsaw, the final shot, the eyes opening even as the credits rolled… without, even, the welcome return of AC-12’s avenging pilgrims (attuned, as Salieri, to everyone’s bum notes but their own). Showrunner Jed Mercurio once again presides over a nation of bitten nails, so much so that I would almost feel sorry for Broadchurch, if it wasn’t for that shaggy dog having started to shake itself with a new and high exuberance.

Rio Ferdinand’s bleached-bone honesty, as he struggled to cope with widowerhood, was never going to be an easy watch, but it was a hugely immersive and rewarding one. In Being Mum and Dad, his late wife, Rebecca – part of the shock, and hence Mr Ferdinand’s and his children’s distress, came with the unconscionable speed of her death, 10 little weeks after diagnosis – was a vibrant ghost at the table. The lovely Seychellois wedding pics – monochrome yet unstylised – the tasteful Portuguese bolthole, the upbringing of her children: her canny hand was evident throughout.

rio ferdinand sitting on a bench in a changing room
Rio Ferdinand: ‘a goal-driven man forced to sit still and think’. Photograph: Richard Ansett/BBC

The strength, apart from Rebecca’s, lay in the juxtaposition of a goal-driven man – “I don’t like to sit still. I don’t like to think” – with his being forced to do exactly that. And in film-maker Matt Smith’s courage in tacitly concluding that there are no easy answers. Ever. When is too soon to stop grieving? 18 months? 18 years? When do you take off the ring? Rio Ferdinand, a rare footballer, was rendered rarer still by having the imagination to see how he might, simply by sharing his stumbling thoughts, conjure tentative conversations between the bereaved, especially widowers and their children, and thus fired in the greatest goal of his career.

Where does one go after the extraordinary success of The Good Wife? One way is to take one of the brightest stars – Christine Baranski’s Diane – punch her in every kidney, and build her back up ever so slowly. Rich liberal Francophile Diane wakes to Trump’s election, gives a despairing snort and buys a chateau in Provence. I almost wish she’d got, even gotten, away with it. A bastard friend’s Ponzi scheme renders her near-broke, despised, scapegoated, disgraced. Thus the second story begins. Goodness, The Good Fight is equally addictive: I’m hooked again.

People’s favourite Bobby Seagull and his honest buccaneers from Emmanuel College, Cambridge were always going to lose that University Challenge semi-final. “Planck… de Broglie… so the bonuses are on a scientific constant,” wolfed Mr Paxman. “So you should obviously answer with the numerical exponents of the units used to measure the constant. Understand?” Um… wait one, Jeremy. Did you just say “thibble popsock spacegroin”?

A large clue arrived with the fact that not one of the opposing Wolfson College contestants’ heads actually exploded while trying to understand the pre-explanation of the question. Wolfson, average age 25, average place of origin Canada or possibly one of the smaller and more mathematically minded moons of Jupiter, nailed the quadratics. There’s only one possible question that could trip them up on their way to final victory and so make their heads explode: explain why even 10 people (some of them arguably having intellects greater than those of a fern) might tune in to All Round to Mrs Brown’s of a Saturday night rather than choosing to eat their own feet?

A new art-fake show arrived relatively unheralded, and simply delighted. It was pre-Raph week in Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge, and we were getting to grips with the young, brave, irredeemably silly poseurs of the pre-Raphaelite movement and their various daubs, one of which had been copied and put on show for more than a month at Manchester Art Gallery.

giles coren and rose balston with holman hunts the scapegoat in sky arts tv programme fake!
Giles Coren and Rose Balston at Manchester Art Gallery in Fake! The Great Masterpiece Challenge. Photograph: Vishal Sharma/Fake!

Giles Coren and co-presenter Rose Balston cut to the chase pretty quickly, asking, essentially: if it’s a good enough fake, inviting pleasure and/or contemplation, why should it matter? Clever old Rose answered rather well: the eyes of the public, the history of the public viewing and being affected by the original, artists who might have been affected by the original, create an urgency for that original’s being on the wall, so our minds can form a cogent narrative arc of influence rather than a hysterical, faked, jump cut.

Clever old Giles, on the other hand, cannily summed up the pre-Raphs by saying “they all, to me, have the whiff of artifice” – and so they did, the over-coloured and appallingly sentimental Rossettis and Holman Hunts. Requiescat, lads, in Athena posters. But… never mind the Manchester Art Gallery welcomely upping its tourist traffic: this asked us, by focusing minutely on brushstrokes, cracked varnish, the imagined very soul of the painter, to take a hearty and critically renewed interest in what constitutes any, and especially great, Art.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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