The week in TV: The ABC Murders; Watership Down; You; The Dead Room; Mrs Brown’s Boys

John Malkovich’s turn as an ageing Hercule Poirot fleshed out the Belgian sleuth, while Watership Down offered gory lessons in team management

The ABC Murders (BBC One) | iPlayer
Watership Down (BBC One) | iPlayer
You (Netflix)
The Dead Room (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Mrs Brown’s Boys (BBC One) | iPlayer

Best thing about Christmas, apart from the relief from wall-to-wall Westminster yawl, was the quite spooksome, gorgeously tense, adaptation by Sarah Phelps of Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. May she long make a habit of this sort of thing. John Malkovich, despite being born in Illinois, made the one Poirot I’ve ever really been able to believe in.

No disrespect to David Suchet, every disrespect to the joke Peter Ustinov, but Malkovich simply inhabited an ageing Poirot with quietness, respect, no twirling of moustaches (though the occasional scattering of a mild “mes enfants”) and was transformed from cartoon tec to flesh and blood, complete with a nicely realised backstory and some vulnerable little foibles: the (melting) pomaded goatee had strong echoes of Death in Venice, though Malkovich’s ageing Hercule was possessed of a fibre that could, if sighingly, renounce it as an affectation, puddling off into the basin.

It helped that the story was one of Agatha’s strongest. It is generally a blistering tale and this was filmed with real love, and zest for sense of place: from the likes of the De La Warr pavilion and its high-camp art deco, to every chill British railway station toilet (ever), to the misbegotten rooming house run by mad, ruined, nasty, standout Shirley Henderson, you could smell pipe smoke, perfume (Soir de Paris or perhaps Tabu) and damp heavy twill. A true treat.

Most of what I’d read in the festive run-up suggested that the big new BBC/Netflix production of Watership Down was going to be a dialled-down, emasculated, safe-space piece of coddling, inviting us to have one good old cathartic session of hand-wringing at snowflakes before the new year. In the end neither I nor the rest of the crusty gammons need have worried.

Watership Down.
A cloying sense of peril: Watership Down. Photograph: BBC

How could it have been otherwise, when Richard Adams’s book was so sad, so dark, so visceral in tooth and claw? In hindsight, the only shocking aspect of the 1978 animation was not that it was so gory, but that it took just a U certificate. The new Watership Down, despite being big-budget, still wasn’t quite Game of Bunnies, but it was getting there and welcomely so. The blood splatters may have been slightly fewer, Bigwig’s scrabbles against that awful snare less extended, but there was absolutely no diminution, not one whit over two long nights of the cloying sense of peril. From the sky, especially moonlit, to the snares, the roads, the combines and diggers, everything conspired against rabbit-dom. One thing I’d half-forgotten was rabbits’ inhumanity (inanimality?) to rabbit, whether luring them to a cultish sect too accepting of death or running a totalitarian closed state hidden to outside view/threat. In fact humans, despite the strong eco-messages (only echoes of the 1972 book), didn’t actually fare too badly, if you leave out the “white-blindness”, a clear reference to the foul history of myxomatosis.

Eco-message rightly strong, then, but equally up there was the lesson, via Hazel, of the power of quiet and consultative leadership, and using a team’s disparate strengths to make it greater than the sum of its parts. I loved the CGI after about 10 minutes; took a little getting used to at first, but I thought the stop-go lolloping over fields in particular was brilliantly observed. And it was “acted” with great sensitivity; a winning light-relief turn from Peter Capaldi, almost channelling Malcolm Tucker (without the sweary words) as caustic gull and reluctant hero Kehaar. All the voices were perfect in fact, and I can only marvel that we got through the season without an animated voicing from James Corden, who always seems to be allowed to muscle in on this sort of thing. Talking of voices, what was that wailing turbid theme tune dirge from Sam Smith? I’ll give you trauma, mes enfants.

Penn Badgley in Netflix’s ‘horribly addictive’ You.
Penn Badgley in Netflix’s ‘horribly addictive’ You. Photograph: Netflix

You, a big new thing from Netflix, landed on Boxing Day and is a shivery glimpse of the best and worst, but mainly the worst, of our narcissistic age. Ostensibly a tale of simple stalkerdom, through nuance and careful plot it becomes much more. Bookstore guy Joe is played by Penn Badgley with a startling level of credibility given that he has to be honest Joe, average Joe, and a mild sociopath. The object of his laser-focused attention is Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail), a smart, winsome writer who wants to be a socialite (or more probably the other way round).

And most of the lessons we can take are how insane (and demeaned) we have become through insisting on sharing our lives on social media: Joe needs little more than a wifi connection and some fast-fingered purloining to hack into not only Beck’s life but those of her entitled chums and (doomed) boyfriend. It’s rather trashy, yet horribly addictive: I made it to episode six before remembering I had to urgently sleep. And, oddly, we end up semi-rooting for Joe, who we believe at least believes he only wants the best for Beck, away from her cheating bloke and duplicitous besties. And he’s grudging with his sociopathy: relentlessly kind to the latchkey kid across the hall; nursing soft beliefs in old-fashioned chivalry and virtuous solitude. For a sociopath he’s quite the catch. A little hokey, then, but seldom less than absorbing.

Wasn’t Simon Callow terrific in The Dead Room? Mark Gatiss’s script was (for him, yet for him only) a little pedestrian for a ghost story, but this was elevated to a different plane by Callow’s camera-hugging turn as a fruity old voice-thesp, back one last time in the run-down Maida Vale studios, battling with political correctness gone mad and yearning for Sheridan le Fanu, MR James and a lost boy drowned in the 70s.

Simon Callow and Anjli Mohindra in The Dead Room.
Simon Callow and Anjli Mohindra in The Dead Room. Photograph: Steve Schofield/BBC/Adorable Media/Steve Schofield

I endured only the second Mrs Brown’s Boys of my life. The first I reviewed not long after the Brexit vote, and I wondered then whether the inexplicable success of the programme with the British mainland public wasn’t directly linked to the success of the Leave campaign. I see no reason, second time around, to revise my opinion: we should have seen that vote coming. Unutterably witless, smutty/borderline blue, most of it (again) simply involved Brendan O’Carroll mugging sneeringly to camera about anyone who can spell or say things properly, saying “bucking” or “feck” to new gales of pant-wetting audience mirth, and a big happy swayalong at the end: it’s like the worst panto ever. Perhaps after 29 March we’ll be shot of it – O’Carroll’s job here is done.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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