The week in TV: White House Farm; Deadwater Fell and more

The true tale of the grisly Bamber murders fought a fictional crime drama for small-screen supremacy

White House Farm (ITV) | ITV Hub
Deadwater Fell (Channel 4) | All 4
The Choir: Aylesbury Prison (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Meat the Family (Channel 4) | All 4

The talent of some people, lovely though they may be in life, just makes you want to spit with churlishness: enough already, don’t be greedy. It now appears we should count among Stephen Graham’s strings to bow, arrows in quiver, the ability to captivate as a rampantly unlikable Welsh flatfoot, every preening inch the poisonously obdurate mid-80s police cliche from which the force still shudders to escape.

What might have been an at best incidental sideshow of power play between him and the equally fine Mark Addy, in White House Farm, threatens to overwhelm the whole six parts of this true-life story. That it doesn’t, that it only complements it, is due to writer Kris Mrksa (The Slap, Requiem), a thoroughbred cast including Freddie Fox and Gemma Whelan and, frankly, the nerve of ITV drama bosses in insisting on a full six episodes. The temptation of the times is a fast drop for weak attention spans, but they have let this settle and breathe, and somewhere in the clouds there is a Graeco-Roman muse, peeling her grapes and quietly applauding.

The temptation is to Wiki how the story unfolded. I beg of you: don’t – because if you can resist racing to the (still technically ambiguous, or at least contested, most recently by the Guardian) concluding conviction in the still notorious case of the shootings of Jeremy Bamber’s adoptive family, you will be rewarded and in spades. It’s such a squirrelly tale, lies and jealousies circling and leapfrogging their own tails, and Fox, as young – ahem – victim Jeremy, plays a blinder, with just the right mix of vulnerability and sly thwarted entitlement. Oops, bit of a spoiler there.

I believe I was getting (briefly) married around that time and it brought it all back – the woeful decor, the poodle haircuts, the incipient sexism – but, crucially, the fast-changing mores of that mid-decade, in which the (much compromised) goodness of the 70s was in an indecorous tussle with naked greed. In this capturing of the very spirit of the age, and in much more, it is a haunting triumph.

As chance would have it… you wait ages for a wee fable of an entire extended family being slaughtered in their own beds, and – two in the same week! Deadwater Fell is of course a fiction, and as such can never have hoped to compete with the sheer wackiness of true-life crime: no writer of fiction would ever dare to cram in the exuberant coincidences, the tiny forgotten niggling spitefulnesses, which lead in many real-life cases to the breakthroughs. Yet I have to say writer Daisy Coulam has done a bang-up job: this so often feels like a recreation of an actual outrage.

Watch a trailer for Deadwater Fell.

She’s ably helped by the cast: David Tennant, who was partly behind this production, and Cush Jumbo excel as neighbours in a credibly idyllic west-coast Scottish haven, until the good doctor’s (Tennant) house burns down, with his darling family inside.

Utterly intriguing, this four-parter plays with your prejudices until the end. Personally I felt I was clued in early: Tennant has a “controlled” beard, ie one allowed to topiarise into a certain neck-length, at which it’s ruthlessly denuded to pale, whereas his best mate, and subsequently best enemy, copper Matthew McNulty, has a hardscrabble film of face-dirt. Who would you trust? Big shout-out by the way to Maureen Beattie: such a wonderful actor, and those young eyes still linger.

Gareth Malone in The Choir: Aylesbury Prison, seemed to age before our eyes. He lined, and greyed, and suddenly all the best of him came out. Because he is a rather grand improviser, and musician, and human being, he alone perhaps was able to walk into those cells, accompanied by the redoubtable Officer Harrison, who was about nine feet tall, gave a surly grin and an “OK!” circled-fingers sign when any inmate showed hope, and should perhaps get his own show. Mr Malone had to be accompanied everywhere: when prison fights broke out, as they did often and stomping-damagingly, he was just manhandled into the nearest mousehole and locked in.

But he emerged, blinking, to attempt to engage with the hundreds of young offenders – murderers, and the gentler, and the nastier – and invite them to try to sing. None wanted to: all the young offenders, both black and white, wanted to rap, often about guns and revenge. Yet Malone persevered: rather smartly (and partly through necessity: the wings are acres apart, gang fights break out whenever the wings meet, a drear continuation of postcode battles), he took one-on-one sessions, rather than insisting on a full choir. And encouraged each young man to tell his own story, rather than parrot others’ ideals of vengeance and retribution. These stories featured heavily the words mum, regret, sorry; the phrases “wrong choice” and “one bad step”; the concepts of vicious circles and blind alleys.

Gareth Malone in Aylesbury prison.
Gareth Malone took The Choir to Aylesbury prison and ‘seemed to age before our eyes’. Photograph: Ryan MAcNamara/BBC/TwentyTwenty

Malone gentled in some chords to allow the best of them to adapt their own lyrics to form something slowly rhythmic, meaningful, punchy: the look of surprise on his face with small successes was little compared to the happy shock on the faces of the boys who realised they’d just created something.

The end result wasn’t quite the luvvie triumph some might have dreamed of. No Hollywood sudden-finds there. But a few prisoners – a terrible small few, who had dared to open their minds – enjoyed it, punched air, and the tears of one father in the audience, wiping his spectacles, watching his son just being, open to change, open to something more, was heavy affecting. They may have been few, but they were a keen few: and a brave few, going against the hive-brain, the gang-brain.

The (incidentally splendid) and eventually tearful governor wants, now, a resident musician, just to encourage, because it’s in her power. Not one of Malone’s outstanding knock-’em-dead triumphs, then, yet I suspect he’ll look back on his deathbed – fast approaching apparently: he’d wrinkled to Zimmer-age by the end – as his proudest. As he should. Why are we jailing so many people with mental health problems? Why are we still running scared of tabloid headlines in our 1950s intransigence on drug laws?

Watch a trailer for Meat the Family.

Meat the Family was an eventually admirable exercise, if cynical in the commissioning. A bunch of families are invited to live with the sheep, piggies, chickadees for a few weeks before deciding to a) eat them, or b) save them from the slaughterhouse and send them instead to some sunlit dancey uplands to live and frolic safely ever more.

The first family ate them, although the kids chose first the chicken that hadn’t been friendly enough. There is hope though: a couple of diehard carnivore families, faced with the faces of the sheep or the pigs, might relent – and this is doing more already for children, and parents, learning about the sheer volumes processed, the lack of sunlight, the whole grim shebang of battery farming, than any number of smug whiny documentaries. Best quote though was from a Dutch organic chicken farmer: “If we don’t want the mass production, we don’t want to feed the world. So we must stop getting babies.”

In this brave new decade, ideas and ideals all up for grabs, when are we going to start talking about that?


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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