The week in TV: Bridgerton; Motherland; Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse and more

Netflix’s new costume drama was wonderfully preposterous. Plus, when the father of Matilda met the mother of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle

Bridgerton | Netflix
Motherland (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse | Sky One
BBC Sports Personality of the Year (BBC One) | iPlayer
Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children (BBC One) | iPlayer

Now that my bosom has stopped heaving over the new Netflix offering, Bridgerton, I can proceed with this review. I’m not sure what I was expecting from this eight-part costume drama released on Christmas Day, but it definitely wasn’t the hero telling the heroine to “touch herself”. Later, he checked that she’d done it: “Did you touch yourself like we talked about?” (To me, this verged on nagging, but each to their own.) Add in all the other risqué scenes, including an artist’s pansexual orgy, and watching Bridgerton became less about “pearl-clutching” and more about what they were clutching.

Bridgerton has been adapted from Julia Quinn’s series of bestselling romance novels by the formidable US showrunner Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) as part of her multi-squillion Netflix-deal. It features Regency-era families such as the Bridgertons and the Featheringtons as they swish their progeny through the well-heeled marital cattle market – most notably the exquisite, resourceful Daphne Bridgerton (deftly portrayed by Phoebe Dyevnor) and Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings (brooding, conflicted, your basic anti-hero catnip).

Jonathan Bailey and Regé-Jean Page in Bridgerton.
Jonathan Bailey and Regé-Jean Page in Bridgerton. Photograph: Netflix

In Blighty, there’s never a shortage of costume dramas, and we could be forgiven for suffering from corset fatigue. However, as much as Bridgerton is visually lavish (it makes Downton Abbey look like gritty social realism), it also reboots the genre in imaginative ways. There’s a Gossip Girl-style voiceover (Julie Andrews, no less) as the anonymous “Lady Whistledown”, whose scandal-sheet ruffles feathers. Knowing anachronisms include an orchestral version of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy and a proto-feminist in the form of Claudia Jessie’s Eloise. There’s also resolutely colour-blind casting (Adjoa Andoh puts in a particularly fine turn as Lady Danbury), which is standard for Rhimes but counts as a revolution in British costume drama.

In other ways, Bridgerton is par for the genre: matchmaking, dressmaking, grand balls, social calamity, fallen women, rushed weddings, heartbreak. The dialogue (“I BURN for you”) is often preposterous, and so many liberties are taken with historical accuracy that I half-expected to see characters in Zoom meetings. However, these are quibbles. Bridgerton is witty, daring, refreshing, and may just have reinvigorated the costume drama.

Motherland was a welcome snarky addition to the festive schedules for those feeling swamped by over-consumption of Celebrations, and yuletide goodwill. Creators/writers Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Helen Serafinowicz and Barunka O’Shaugnessy know the themes that truly interest British parents (childcare, booze, sarcasm; repeat). Invited to a tense Christmas party by Queen Bee nightmare Amanda (Lucy Punch), Liz (Diane Morgan) fumed about not receiving a proper card invite: “I’m not going to her anal Christmas drinkies if she’s not giving me a stiffie.” Token male Kevin executed an over-zealous high-five that splattered blood on to Amanda’s blindingly white carpet, while Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) mused about people helping at homeless shelters: “I definitely would if I didn’t have the kids, and I was a nice person, and I could be arsed.”

Motherland’s Lucy Punch, Philippa Dunne, Tanya Moodie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Diane Morgan and Paul Ready.
Welcome festive snarkiness from Motherland’s Lucy Punch, Philippa Dunne, Tanya Moodie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Diane Morgan and Paul Ready. Photograph: Scott Kershaw/BBC/Merman

Motherland knows the dark and wonderful secret of modern British parenting: that lurking inside some of those women conscientiously waiting at the school gate, there are overgrown schoolkids still mentally smoking behind the bike shed. I’m particularly enjoying newish character Meg (Tanya Moodie), who has the inappropriate swagger of someone who’d linger at morning drop-off to see if anyone fancied a beer yet. We’ve all known people like that. Some of us have even been people like that.

It’s disputed whether the schoolboy Roald Dahl really did go to find Beatrix Potter at her Lake District farm, and, if he did, if she truly ended up telling him to “Buzz off!” Even if not wholly factual, this encounter between the two titans of children’s literature served as an inventive premise for the one-off drama Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse.

It starred the charming, tentative Harry Tayler as a young, star-struck Dahl and Dawn French as a grumpy Potter. Both of them are shown to have problems. Dahl is grief-stricken after the deaths of his father and his sister, cajoling his mother (Jessica Hynes) into taking him to find Potter. Potter is depressed about her failing eyesight and writer’s block, and her publisher is pressuring her to tone down the realism in her stories.

Harry Tayler as a star-struck young Roald Dahl and Dawn French as Beatrix Potter in Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse.
Harry Tayler as a star-struck young Roald Dahl and Dawn French as Beatrix Potter in Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse. Photograph: Sky UK Ltd

Visually, this was an idealised old England, with Potter’s farm resembling a scene in a snow globe. Intermittent bursts of animation (a friendly rag doll, a talking fox stole, dancing mice) added to the sense of whimsy. Bill Bailey made an appearance as a tongue-twisting eccentric, thought to be based on Dahl’s BFG. The real-life Dahl, who died in 1990 and was recently in the news accused of antisemitism, seems a world away from the vulnerable Tayler. However, there was no shrinking from the shadows. The young Roald was shown touching his dead father’s face, coming away with mortuary rouge on his fingertips; Potter chased Sago the duck with a knife so that he could become Christmas dinner for her and her ever-patient husband (Rob Brydon).

When Potter and Dahl did finally meet… not an awful lot happened. As perhaps was the case in real life. Ultimately, this seemed to be not so much about their meeting as about what informed their work: with the two authors united by a common goal to show the unpleasantness of the world for what it was.

To the astonishment of nobody, racing driver Lewis Hamilton won the top award at BBC Sports Personality of the Year. A popular result with my teenage daughter, who loves Formula One and adores Hamilton for his steadfast support for Black Lives Matter. Marcus Rashford, who was honoured at the same ceremony for his activism, was the subject of the next night’s documentary, Marcus Rashford: Feeding Britain’s Children. The 23-year-old Manchester United and England striker has become the nation’s most high-profile social-justice campaigner on child food poverty and “holiday hunger”, working with the charity Fare Share and winning the backing of the British public.

Rashford, who in October was awarded an MBE, forced the government into making major changes to provision of school meals in England and giving further help to families struggling on low incomes.

Marcus Rashford
Marcus Rashford, ‘the Man Who Shamed Boris Johnson’. Photograph: Paul Cooper/BBC

The documentary followed “The Man Who Shamed Boris Johnson” (which would have been my choice of title) as he campaigned. Rashford’s inspiration was his mother, Mel, who struggled to feed her children even though she worked several jobs. It was lovely to see them laughing and chatting together, and to witness that amazing bond, just as it was moving to see how close Rashford still is with his childhood friends.

On the other hand, how depressing to learn that Rashford is now the most trolled Premier League player on Twitter (nearly a third of all mentions of his name are negative). The obvious question is: “What is wrong with people?”, but, like Rashford and his family, let’s focus on the positive. “It’s a dream come true, isn’t it?” mused Mel. I wouldn’t argue with that.

Contributor

Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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