The week in TV: Doctor Foster; Curb Your Enthusiasm; Tunes for Tyrants; Porridge; The Last Post

Mike Bartlett’s drama came to a tantalisingly open ending, and Larry David made a bracingly welcome return

The question occupying most intricate minds this week – the non-intricate were just drooling over Maygeddon – was, of course… Doctor Foster: another series? I seem to remember, years ago, Liam Neeson, asked on some sofa about the chances of a second Taken, scoffing lightly, certainly as lightly as Liam ever can scoff, and saying “He’d have to be pretty feckin’ unlucky to have that happen to him a second feckin’ time,” or some such. Taken is now on its third franchised incarnation. Starring Liam Neeson.

So: can writer Mike Bartlett resist the siren lure of more money and doubtless more plaudits by firing Gemma, Simon and Poor Tom from the cannon once more? Certainly the ending was left open enough for them all to return. Poor Tom, young actor Tom Taylor, who deserves not only our applause but surely his very own ™ sign whenever Poor Tom is mentioned, eventually simply wearied of his gothically dysfunctional parents, left his phone in the car, closed the door quietly and just… walked away. Ah well. He’s a grown laddie. And no one died, despite the mad internet’s predictions. Simon tried to top himself a couple of times. The first, on a dual carriageway, was rather frightening: I’ve rewatched it several times and the actor, or his stunt double, honestly comes within a gnat’s crotchet of being windscreened like a juicy faithless bluebottle. On the second attempt – cyanide in the hotel bedroom – he’s rescued by Gemma, who decided she didn’t want him to die after all because that would leave their son without a father. The son left downstairs in the car, all safe and… oh.

Suranne Jones as Gemma is quite rightly feted, but this conclusion also had me physically shivering at a couple of scenes. Bertie Carvel, who had hitherto played Simon as just a preening, compromised fucktard, cranked up several gears: his tearful, snotty meltdown was genuinely unsettling to watch. And the hotel-breakfast scene, Simon’s large whisky-and-Pepsi as he wept, the stoic and madly upbeat waitress… Beckett and (certainly) Pinter have crafted far worse. It’s been quite a ride – absolute hokum, of course, but thrillingly moreish hokum, and, crucially, our own British-beef hokum. The risk is surely that a third series could simply turn into a kind of forlorn Wacky Races, with Gemma and Simon running off cliffs and buying Acme anvils and ticking bombs labelled Ticking Bomb. Against that, I think we all want to see what happens next. I’m not full yet. Mr Bartlett has earned our plaudits, again: will that be enough? Can he ever let go? Can Gemma? Can Simon?

Mr Larry David certainly doesn’t need the money, which is why there’s been some head-scratching and chin-stroking over the return of Curb Your Enthusiasm after six years off-air. Also some criticism, among the more cerebral American commentariat, along the lines of – rich white guy, big house, scary hair, takes sharp umbrage over every little thing, do we need yet another?

Nasim Pedrad, Larry David and Julie Goldman in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
‘In debt to no doctrine’: Nasim Pedrad, Larry David and Julie Goldman in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Photograph: HBO

Most definitely yes. Because it’s very funny, still, and we still need funny, and Mr David is – I’m making a small assumption here – wiser than Mr Trump. And if there were ever days when we needed guidance from a cranky Jewish oldster about the appalling rush to take offence on behalf of others, the mindlessly niggling gradations of said offence either given or taken, the hatefulness of identity politics, then these are those days. I don’t know quite where the fatwa storyline is going, but suspect to a darkly divisive place, and Larry and cohorts will doubtless crank it to maximum ouch, out of which we can all just about wriggle with teensy bits of dignity and wisdom intact. This show manages to splash equal vitriol on both entitled baby boomers and pantywaist millennials, and is in debt to no doctrine: in thrall to nothing except truth and humour.

Not that political correctness is exactly anything new. Composers in Russia in the 20s faced the prospect, laughable in hindsight, of trying to compose “correct” music for a new regime which was itself groping to define correctness. Post-tsar, elite was out, bourgeois was out: jazz was deemed too decadent, the charleston and foxtrot too western, avant garde orchestral too elitist. There was an official suggestion that all pianos in all Russia be smashed in the name of equality. An equal right not to have access to a piano.

And so the sparkling Suzy Klein, to the crashes of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C sharp minor, smashed up a piano: the one clunky piece of exposition in what promises to be an otherwise marvellous three-parter entitled Tunes for Tyrants. Ambitious and wise, it showed inter alia how any interference from politics in culture will always result in blancmange: the politburo’s take on what the revolution should “sound” like led only to unutterably bland, folksy, spirited hee-haw marches. In a land of glorious, unprecedented composers.

Rachmaninov was retro-banned as elitist. As, in Berlin in the 30s, Mendelssohn was retro-banned for being vaguely Jewish. Not for the first time I was struck by the antisyzygy – the left’s madness circling to meet the right’s madness – of those twin dictatorships: the music of the Third Reich was also unutterably bland, folksy, spirited hee-haw marches. And not for the first time I yearned to have lived back in the Weimar Republic, that frankly loopy German decade in which the freedoms of jazz, sexuality, poverty, humour, wildness, went head-to-head against the reactive notion of Verwilderung der Sitten (“the degeneration of morals”). Guess who won.

Suzy Klein in Tunes for Tyrants.
‘Sparkling’: piano-smasher Suzy Klein in Tunes for Tyrants. Photograph: Jim Petersen/BBC/Wingspan Productions

Klein was wonderful, not least in attempting to rescue Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, AKA Mack the Knife, from its Hollywood-Sinatra glitterdome schmaltz back to the original Brecht-Weill message about a nasty, greedy killer of prostitutes. The inclusion of the cheesy golden arches “Mac Tonight” ad of 1987 was a touch of genius, in that it perfectly demonstrated how Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s dreams of betterness had been so thoroughly shanghaied by naked human greed. In this series, Klein runs the serious risk of telling the tale of the entire 20th century, via music, about as well as it’s ever been told.

Porridge, revived, is sadly thin gruel. Oh, it’s fine enough, and a good cast, and Kevin Bishop is great as Norman Stanley Fletcher’s cheeky-chappie grandson Nigel. But sainted writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais are eightysomething, surely, and it shows. As soon as Cyrano de Bergerac was mentioned (by Mark Bonnar, nicely channelling Fulton Mackay), I could just hear something like “doesn’t he play for Spurs?” Sure enough… “Didn’t he used to play for Watford?” Cue orgasmic studio audience laughter, and the non-joys of being 15 all over again.

The Last Post is a safe BBC Sunday‑night thing about some chaps leaving Aden in the 60s, and features a fine, if cliched, cast of cuckolds and wimps and warriors, and a phenomenally hot and gin-swilling Jessica Raine, who might still persuade me. It is less essential watching than Doctor Foster. It is less essential watching than Doc Martin.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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