The week in TV: Mrs Wilson; Death and Nightingales; The Truth About the Menopause and more

Ruth Wilson stars in her own family history for the BBC’s new period drama, while Jamie Dornan is more than the new Ross Poldark in Death and Nightingales

Mrs Wilson (BBC One) | iPlayer
Death and Nightingales (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Truth about the Menopause (BBC One) | iPlayer
Jazzology with Soweto Kinch (BBC Four) | iPlayer
BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018 (BBC Four) | iPlayer

A lad is coming through the door to announce, with lack of ego or celebration, that he happened to score a try. A mother is arranging cheery daffies among the lunch plates – cold cuts – before bussing back to her typing job. A proud, cheerful bearded father has left his author’s perch to go upstairs for his bloody pills, and there had a heart attack, died beside the candlewick bedspread. And thus opened up several cans of wriggling maggots of heartache.

The start of Mrs Wilson couldn’t really be anywhere but Middle England, 1963. It’s marvellously done – the rinsed and pinched faces, the serried faux-Tudor ranks of closeted suburbia, that washed-out Kodachrome blue, damp-eyed and bittersweet, so singular to photography of the early 60s I would question, though, whether it wasn’t rather too cleverly done, just because they could (after all, the 40s are shown as relatively lush). Still, it serves to remind us of the very strangenesses of just remembered times, and thus the different strictures and mores of an unimaginably far-off land.

Ruth Wilson, actor, plays her own grandmother, Alison: for this three-parter tells both their stories. The grandfather, the beloved Alec, has long since been revealed to be not just a bigamist but to have actually married more than two wives – for which I can’t even find a word – and, as ever, I stand applauding the fact that any man can find the time to even cheat on himself. Alec had been an intelligence officer among the murk of the second world war’s Special Operations Executive, a major allegedly, and lived several lives.

All of which are brought wonderfully to light and life by Iain Glen, Ruth Wilson, Keeley Hawes, Fiona Shaw and others, playing and replaying the aftermath of the second world war, its hints and lies and subterfuges and openings. Sometimes I wonder whether the second world war has become Britain’s creation myth. Nevertheless, this is an enveloping and wondrous watch, not just because of the quality of the acting but because it might remind us of our dropped-behind-the-sofa senses of resilience. F’r’instance: a shushed “What would Father Timothy think?” to a youngster who’s just lost his dad and looks on the brave verge of blubbing, results in a determined non-blub. The kid in question went on to father the actor Ruth Wilson.

Ann Skelly in BBC Two’s ‘enthralling’ Death and Nightingales.
‘Vastly more intelligent than a simple potboiler’: Ann Skelly in BBC Two’s ‘enthralling’ Death and Nightingales. Photograph: Teddy Cavendish/BBC/Night Flight Pictures Ltd 2018/Teddy Cavendish

What are the odds on Jamie Dornan becoming the new Ross Poldark? Granted, they are uphill odds. His last standout role was as Christian in (the presumably actionably bad) Fifty Shades film series, in which (it says here) he played a controlling sadomasochist; in Death and Nightingales, admittedly, he’s only a terrorist. And, where Ross scythed so manfully, we first encounter Dornan’s character, Liam Ward, hauling a dead horned beast out of a bog, and later washing its oomska off his body with little more than damp, dirty hay, and within half an hour making overtures to a girl with his (presumably still icky) hands. But he is, undoubtedly, All Man, and I can foresee Swoons.

Which would be rather a shame. Dornan has reunited with Allan Cubitt, writer of The Fall, for something vastly more intelligent than a simple potboiler. In this three-part series, we get a timely reminder of Ireland’s troubles, way pre-Troubles (as Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses: “History… is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”). Liam, apart from falling for Beth, a marvellous find in young Ann Skelly, becomes embroiled in the Fenian dynamite plot of the 1880s, which left its mark on London, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Beth’s father, Billy Winters, is marked out by several things. He’s played superbly by Matthew Rhys. He’s a Protestant who reluctantly fell for a Catholic bride, Beth’s late mother, who was carrying Beth before the wedding; he is not Beth’s biological father. He is a curious mix of the staunch and the beseeching, as only Ulster Protestants can be. He’s the owner of lands, which include a quarry. Quarries use much dynamite. He quietly sneers at Catholics. He quietly loves his own daughter.

In quite what way he loves her is going to become the big question, surely. There is poetry (much Keats, obviously), snobbery, prejudice, bitterness, bloody interfering God-complex priests, strong hints of ambiguity – exactly who is controlling whom in the da’-daughter thing? – to this, and in general it adds up to an enthralling concoction, as far from Poldark as James Joyce is from Winston Graham. Powerful, and it’s going to be disturbing. And rather popular I suspect. Always a toxic mix among the softer brains on social media.

The Truth About the Menopause with Mariella Frostrup.
The Truth About the Menopause with Mariella Frostrup. Photograph: Andrew Fleming/BBC Studios/Andrew Fleming

The Truth About the Menopause was remarkable in that it told the truth about the menopause. So many of these “the truth about…” programmes are nothing but lie or rehash. But Mariella Frostrup gamely engaged, talked to immense numbers of chatty women, hauled winningly from them tales of hot flushes, vaginal dryness, savage (men, look away now) mood swings.

HRT might not be the answer, though there was a revelatory study about a) drink and b) fatness, hugely contributing to the concomitant cancer factors. The best answer, surely, is being ever allowed to talk about it. In that way, we can say VAGINAL DRYNESS. Hot flushes. Half the world knows it: the other half wants them still to be the people they married. The tiniest and worst section of this valuable, lovely programme was dedicated to the myth of the “male menopause”. Come on, guys. Cheap. Greedy.

Inadvertently, the programme also showed that dear Mariella has the most truly atrocious handwriting. The saints be praised: it’s not much, but she is flawed after all…

Jazzology With Soweto Kinch was breezy and wonderful. He attempted to pull it all back to black, and as a whitey, I finally agree. There is no question that the influence of African Americans on music in the early 1920s allowed us all a fourth Renaissance: jazz has been the most important musical influence on the 20th century. Kinch acknowledged that the genre had been split – dirty blues, wanky cerebral – but remained bonded by a code for ever. This programme has given me permission to pick up my alto again. As I, suddenly, yesterday, have done.

Until I watched the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2018. I really wanted a win for Seth Tackaberry, just because of his name, but – despite two phenomenal pianists nonetheless, both with their own scores – the lovely Xhosa Cole won. The 22-year-old played with a tone that 55-year-old sax players would, perhaps, literally kill for.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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