The week in TV: Dark Money; The Left Behind and more

Dark Money set up a terrible dilemma, but couldn’t quite deliver, while The Left Behind packed powerful insight into Islamophobia

Dark Money (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Left Behind (BBCThree/One) | iPlayer
8 Days: To the Moon and Back (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Gentleman Jack (BBC One) | iPlayer

So often we just pass by the continuity announcements with a lazy, half-open ear, but one this week simply bamboozled. Dark Money was the tale – nicely enough done, if up to a fairly low bar – of a superstar kid who had gone off with his chaperone to make a Hollywood blockbuster and returned to his working-class London life as if little had changed, digging out homework and school tie. Quickly it was established that the producer, one Jotham Starr, had abused Isaac in his on-set trailer: there was proof (albeit without faces) in a shaky, tearful phone clip, and the four-part stage is thence set for the parents’ dilemma: revenge and shame, or take the transformative £3m, albeit with many strings attached?

The BBC announced it as “brand new and highly relevant drama”, but I had to wonder – highly relevant to whom, exactly? To all those tens of thousands of parents who have to struggle daily with a talented youngster taken advantage of by a Tinseltown sleazeball and then tugged between lottery-win payoffs and righteous vengeance/justice/closure – which must number at least… oh, let me see, one family, and that an entirely fictional one? Obviously, the drama came backended with the usual “details of organisations offering information and support” soft voices. Perish the thought that I should ever make light of the miseries of any abuse (while remembering that the savage majority of cases occur in the family) but I can’t help thinking that nanny Auntie, with her breathless “highly relevant”, is perhaps just fanning the myths that stranger danger lurks under every rock.

Right, that’s my rant. To the drama. First up, good points: Max Fincham is quite a find as the seriously talented young actor having to cope not only with a fraught double life but also bloody adolescence, to which a thousand further guilty complexities have been added by Jotham’s squalid entitlement. Rebecca Front is intriguingly woebegone as the compromised chaperone, veering between genuine horror when she learns the truth and chirpy corporate smiles at the family’s new-found wealth: it’s grand to see her with such a nuanced part. There are genuinely unsettling feelings of menace emanating from the phalanx of lawyers and their triplicate NDAs: you get the sense that they could not just ruin but break, smash that little family. But the normally splendid Babou Ceesay is vouchsafed way too much screen time to demonstrate how just he, father Manny, is hurting, torn, vengeful, conflicted, proud: his very many slow, hot tears are mainly, it seems too often, for himself. And by even the second episode we are hitting cram-it-all-in avenues about sibling rivalry, about race in Hollywood, about class and wealth, about equality in education, about teenage behaviour; it’s all a little too much, when the original premise was fascinating enough. All grand intentions then, even if (I hope) few of us have to be reminded that child sexual abuse = bad. Yet as drama it adds up to a little less than the sum of its parts.

Amy-Leigh Hickman and Sion Daniel Young in The Left Behind.
‘Eye-opener’: Amy-Leigh Hickman and Sion Daniel Young in The Left Behind. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC

Not an error made by The Left Behind, a searing slice of Cardiff filming which took us to the dark heart of Islamophobia – not the kind pontificated over in the gentler salons and combed for definition and nuance, nor even the dodgy tweets, but the real kind of hate-crime that gets people burned alive in their halal shops.

Astonishingly, it made one empathise hugely, if counterintuitively, with young Gethin, left behind in the jobs market – the gig economy was horribly illustrated, the pomp of his manager at the Chicken Hutch talking about “facilitating our customers’ needs” in stark contrast to his late-night texts (“bruv – no need to cum in tmz. not enuf shifts 4 every1”). And left behind in housing, finally sleeping rough; and left behind in love; and in dignity. Sion Daniel Young played him with rare wit and made you heart-sorry for the once cheerful soul, now so wrongly mired in the blame game, to which Islam is so often – they hate women, right? And hate gays, right? – the easy no-brainer (in every sense) answer. Every politician worth any salt should have been across this and similar situations, hearing genuine post-crash grievances, not dismissing them this as thick or racist, at least five years ago: it might not have wholly halted the polarisation of society, but we might have had fair warning rather than the smug Westminster platitudes of “our” “proud” tolerance. An eye-opener, and caustic, and harsh, and executed with some valour and exceptional talent.

The corporation got in a little greedily early, arguably, with its 50th-anniversary stuff on the moon landings, but if every offering’s as good as 8 Days: To the Moon and Back who am I to quibble?

Rufus Wright as Neil Armstrong in 8 Days: To the Moon and Back.
‘Canny cuts between re-creation and historical footage’: Rufus Wright as Neil Armstrong in 8 Days: To the Moon and Back. Photograph: Gary Moyes/BBC Studios

Beautifully synced between the newly cleaned tapes of conversations between Houston and the astronauts and a clutch of actors inside the equivalent of a small family saloon for a week, and featuring canny cuts between re-creation and historical footage, it underlined just what a fraught, impossibly ambitious thing the entire ’69 venture was. It’s all the more gobsmacking in hindsight that even one stage was successful; how swiftly just one small process could have catastrophically unravelled the whole.

Nasa headquarters featured typewriters. The “computers” were often human – often women, who did complex astrophysical maths, with pencils, on bits of paper. A little has been made of the alleged “witty banter” of Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, but I think that’s pushing it a bit. In fact, like my pilots, I prefer my astronauts to be among the least amusing of raconteurs – the most stolid and boring individuals in or out of this world, in fact. Job done. I’ll leave others to haver over what went “wrong” subsequently with space exploration and catch-up visits: I just revelled in a delighted fashion that, in the last century, enough human brainpower and – generally – goodwill came together at one point to create a truly extraordinary (still) achievement. Had I known, being dragged from jimjammed bed at 4am that Sunday night, I’d be writing about it 50 years on, I would have taken better notes.

I was a little unfair weeks ago to Gentleman Jack, dismissing the first couple of episodes I think as “Poldark with girl-kisses” or some such. It has proved so much richer than that tawdry pot-boiler: halfway through I feared I was falling a little in love with Suranne Jones’s Anne Lister and her haughty hats and dev’lish britches, and it is marvellous news, is it not, that she and writer Sally Wainwright have teamed up for a second series.

Not that it didn’t wobble a little: Ann Walker’s vacillations, even in the huge context of the times – Halifax, 1830s, lesbianism – lent new definitions to the concept of “tremulously mimsy”, and I wonder whether the new season will be kept to six rather than eight episodes. But, oh, the verve Jones and (eventually, whew) Sophie Rundle brought, the sheer style and chutzpah and cast-confidence with which it has whipped and bestridden our screens over these last weeks! Hats must be joyfully doffed to all involved; and enough threads are still satisfyingly left unplucked for series two.

Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in the final episode of Gentleman Jack.
‘Sheer style and chutzpah’: Sophie Rundle and Suranne Jones in the final episode of Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/BBC/Lookout Point/HBO

Contributor

Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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