The week in TV: The Victim; The Widow; Fleabag; Derry Girls; Don’t Forget the Driver – review

Kelly Macdonald played a grieving mother bent on revenge in the BBC’s riveting week-long legal drama, cliche runs riot in the Congo, and Toby Jones’s fine dark comedy is a slow burner

The Victim (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Widow (ITV) |
Fleabag (BBC Three/BBC One) | iPlayer
Derry Girls (Channel 4) | All4
Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC Two) | iPlayer

It was something of a big ask from the BBC to expect us to follow, four whole nights last week for a full hour at a time (not including post-match disagreements), one single drama. A big ask, and vindicated in fine style, for The Victim was everything that had been hinted at and more.

Rob Williams’s simply superb psycho-legal drama rewarded every minute’s watching: as the hours built towards ever bleaker revelations, even the jolly tourist-tat air outside Edinburgh’s high court, or the misty smirr outside a forlorn seaside caff, began to fairly thrum with tension.

I’m conscious that it’s also a big ask to expect all of us to have been in all week, and not be watching at least one episode on catchup soon, so I’ll reluctantly play tight-arsed with the spoilers. Suffice to say that 15 years after a son, Liam, was murdered, a man, Craig, is brutally attacked, having been identified online (anonymously, of course) as the now-freed perpetrator, Eddie J Turner. The son’s mother, Anna, stands accused in court of the naming, shaming and inciting.

At its heart, however, this was all about rights, retribution and rehabilitation, and came down in essence to a couple of vital scenes played out between Anna (Kelly Macdonald) and DI Grover (John Hannah), which cut right to the heart of every similar debate – I thought reason had triumphed 20, 25 years ago, but, as so often these days, arguments thought long settled rationally are given new cyberlife – about who has the right to pass judgment.

“In the olden days the victim would actually prosecute the case, and the jury was selected precisely because they knew all the people involved,” storms Anna at one point, coming over a little tyrant-wistful. I loved that Macdonald risked making the grieving mother refreshingly unsympathetic.

Holding out against the storm was Hannah, in wonderfully subfusc tweed three-piece. He doesn’t have much going for him, dishevelled, dodgy DI Grover, other than logic. “The idea that you should have any say on what happens to Liam’s killers is absurd,” he chides, softly. But he was her son. “Yes. And the only thing that entitles her to is her grief.” More cold sense was written and spoken in these four hours than by a thumping tubload of home secretaries.

All the acting was exceptional, including James Harkness as Craig, and one standout performance in subtlety, in a subsidiary character, was Karla Crome’s as Craig’s wife Rebecca, encapsulating at one stage the necessary disconnect between justice and humanity. Told by a prosecutor, “It doesn’t matter to the crown whether Craig’s Eddie J Turner or not,” she gives a huge small reply. “It matters to me.” Memorable, truthful, lingering.

Kate Beckinsale and Jacky Ido in The Widow.
Boden does the Congo… Kate Beckinsale and Jacky Ido in The Widow. Photograph: Coco Van Oppens Photo

Contrastingly, Kate Beckinsale, the actor wrongly given an intrusive extra “d” in her name by a host of continuity-announcer elves, had further indignities to endure in ITV’s The Widow. Chiefly a frenetic yet meandering script, which raced her from the slate quarries of hippy-dippy Wales to the scurf of Kinshasa – with brief lacunae for some confusion in a Rotterdam eye clinic – in search of her “dead” husband, downed in an air crash about which we are being told (as they say in the Edinburgh courts) the truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth. She identifies him via newsreel, in which she recognises only his bright beloved baseball cap, emblazoned with the legend “rumpel4skin”, which raises the huge question of whether he’s worth chasing.

If I was being particularly cruel – oh, do let’s go on – I’d say this is Congo as Boden catalogue accessory. Many shots seem framed to contrast Kate’s trim ankle boots as all the better to wade clean through all the shit and death and stuff, the flies suitably disciplined never to land on her femfresh pastels or impossibly bouncy ponytail. Worse, it’s in danger at the moment of getting into twinly cliched territories: all Africa is poor, diseased, corrupt; yet the worst is whitey, especially Boer whitey. The Rwanda-Congo affairs subsequent to 1994 deserve every airing going, but Black Earth Rising this ain’t.

In fairness, it packs much in, is annoyingly moreish, and features Trapped’s Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and not much is Kate’s actual fault. But I do worry slightly, in the wake of this eight-parter by Harry and Jack Williams, about the overextension of the Williams brothers: after the phenomenal The Missing, they have since given us Liar, Rellik, Strangers to decidedly ahem results.

One very, very good thing they did do, however, through their production company Two Brothers a few years ago, was help launch Fleabag. Whose arc, so cleverly begun by Phoebe Waller-Bridge back then by only hinting at the vulnerability within her funny clumsy brutal shagging thieving heart, turned full-tilt, right back to some sweet-spot at the aching heart of every love story ever told. Remember, right back at the start of this final series, when she mouthed to camera, covered in blood in a restaurant bathroom, “this is a love story…”? Girl was as good as her seamlessly plotted word.

Much has been made of two aspects of this second slice of TV perfection: the taboo hotness of Andrew Scott’s (unnamed) priest, and the double breach of the “fourth wall”, with Scott suddenly catching her at a to-camera fugue. Smart, indeed sublime, but for me one huge memory has been the credibility of the relationship between two sisters, outwardly at war, inwardly at deep peace since birth. (Typical exchange, from the preceding week: Claire, desperately, “You got any cigarettes?” Fleabag, “No.” Claire, emphatically, “Good.”) In such thorough self-knowledge, of every character, will always lie the essence of fine writing.

For now, having waved goodbye to priest, to fox, with a moue of hesitancy but a beautifully resolute finality to camera, Waller-Bridge will have to content herself with overseeing the unaccountably low-profile Killing Eve, and she and the rest of the disappointing Waller-Bridge clan (sister Isobel wrote the music for this) struggle on wriggling through the foothills of talent.

Smart, sublime… Sian Clifford and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the outwardly warring sisters in the final episode of Fleabag.
Smart, sublime… Sian Clifford and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the outwardly warring sisters in the final episode of Fleabag. Photograph: BBC/Two Brothers/Luke Varley

Derry Girls also ended on a delightful, air-punching high; but as the third series was announced instantly I needn’t get at all vexed. We’re all Derry Girls now, splenetic and loving and itchily human.

More problematic was the opener to Don’t Forget the Driver. I’m sure we all love Toby Jones, star and co-writer with playwright Tim Crouch, but fear this is too soulful, too sharply now, to garner the audiences it truly deserves. Part of the problem is classification: for a “dark comedy” there are precious few outright laughs, especially once people-smuggling and drowned bodies intrude, and hence it also fails “gentle”, as fans of Detectorists might have wished.

Instead, I urge you not to classify, and to forge further, to keep Jones’s faith. You will be rewarded – not instantly, but well. This ambitiously sad drama succeeds, often despite itself, in clarifying the unclarifiable now, a now of left-behind seaside towns, unquantifiable regrets, the equal satisfactions and smugnesses which small island lives bring, the long, dark teatimes of the soul, the stuttered emergence into rain-dappled, crisp-bagged uplands. It might not yet ring funny. It always rings true.

Don’t Forget the Driver.
Stick with it… Don’t Forget the Driver. Photograph: BBC/Sister Pictures

• This article was amended on 18 April 2019 to make it clear that The Widow is co-written by brothers, Harry and Jack Williams.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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