The week in TV: Philharmonia; Alex Rider, Cardinal; The Other One – reviews

A trio of crime dramas from France, the UK and Canada, with a warm and wise sitcom for dessert

Philharmonia (Channel 4) | All 4
Alex Rider (Amazon Prime)
Cardinal (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Other One (BBC One) | iPlayer

Three highly singular murders kicked off new drama series of wildly varying mood this first week of joyous June lockdown. You may raise an eyebrow at the necessity of a corpse to hook you into a few hours’ telly – but, well, folk surely fretted mildly in the 1930s at another “‘samey” opening chapter to one of Agatha’s, until they rapidly got over themselves.

If I say one of the murders was of an oboist, on the banks of the Seine, the smart money would lead you to Channel 4’s Philharmonia, and the money would not be wrong. It’s a glamorous and ritzy French production right enough, but with many overtones of humour – sadly, none of it intentional. The best thing about it is its star, Marie-Sophie Ferdane, as an exiled conductor with a secret past who returns to Paris to take over a troubled and broke small orchestra that nonetheless inhabits 2015’s stunning, thunderously controversial 2,400-seater symphonic hall in the Parc de la Villette.

Ferdane’s character, Hélène, has to cope with laughable sexism, of course, but also with the constant peril of walking into a room in which the plot is being explained to her. Her husband is – naturellement! – a world-class composer and boffing the insipid french horn player; her own old dad is a humble luthier who happens to craft the finest violins since Stradivari, not enough of which get broken in the ensuing plot-pourri. Hélenè’s ambitious plans to revamp orchestral fortunes by introducing a playlist of such pappy blandness it makes the more Titchmarsh end of Classic FM sound like Philip Glass is, unaccountably, resisted – all moneyed greed men love pap in this soft fiction – and there’s a stalker thing going on and a madness-gene thing going on. But for all that, for all that hokum – even cliches such as Vivaldi, barefoot, in spring, on the Île de la Cité – would that we were there…

Otto Farrant and Vicky McClure in Alex Rider
Otto Farrant and Vicky McClure in Alex Rider: ‘James Bond for teenagers’. Photograph: Des Willie/Eleventh Hour Films/Sony Pictures Television

After many years, novelist Anthony Horowitz has got his creation Alex Rider

perfectly to the small screen, and it’s an utter delight and triumph for what it is: James Bond for teenagers. The 2006 film Stormbreaker did it all, and more than adequately, but this bespoke series, an eight-episode first season adapted by Guy Burt, fills out much of Alex’s character – the sulks, the glee, the adolescent pain – while being remarkably unstinting on move-it-along action. Plotwise, it’s the usual: orphaned Alex, having learned that his dull banker uncle has died suddenly – and was not, in fact, a dull banker at all – is dropped by the uncle’s secretive employers (including Vicky McClure in sexy Harry Palmer specs) into a secretive Swiss boarding-school for trainee psychos. 

Alex, portrayed by Otto Farrant with faithfulness and fun, is helped immensely by Brenock O’Connor as grounded school pal Tom and Ronke Adekoluejo as worldly-wise guardian Jack.

I appreciate that my even writing “for teenagers” is bound to turn any genuine teenager off. It’s like that publishing strand deemed “young adult”: had I seen that on any spine in my more thrawn years I would have done some quiet damage to Davidson’s Mains Library. But it’s truly good, wise and fun and watchable at pretty much any age, and above all doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Lise Delorme and Billy Campbell in Cardinal.
Lise Delorme and Billy Campbell in ‘gruesome, grown-up drama’ Cardinal. Photograph: BBC/EntertainmentOneUK

Cardinal, the Canadian gloomfest, features Billy Campbell as perhaps the least charismatic fictional detective ever – no jazz, alcoholism, autism spectrum disorder, raincoat, parrot, lupus, tetraplegic angst, maverick charm – just salty, sweaty hair, and a big grumpy jersey, and some plodding. It is therefore wonderful, and hooks, if slowly, from the outset. This series looks set to echo, a little late admittedly, the birth of Scandi noir.

It’s gruesome. But mainly psychologically: John Cardinal – he even has a boring first name – and Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse, who is about to come into her own) realise they are dealing with a killer who isn’t taking his revenge on those who wronged him decades in the past, but on the only people they love – a husband, a churchgoing mother – who are sacrificed on film in that absurd Canadian cold. One naked victim appeared to have odd socks on, until you realised, at –38C, with wind chill, and wire round the ankles, what that does to the skin… it’s not only the most grownup drama this week, it is also, absolutely, the most moreish.

Ellie White, Rebecca Front and Lauren Socha in The Only One.
‘Glorious, slice-of-life comedy’: (left to right) Ellie White, Rebecca Front and Lauren Socha in The Only One. Photograph: Matt Squires/BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions

In September 2017, I wrote that The Other One was a BBC comedy pilot in search of a commission: it gained that commission and returned this week – albeit with the rerun pilot (boo), but over the next six weeks it will delight and enthral with high humour and low blows from writers Holly Walsh and Pippa Brown. The only true mystery is why the fandoodle it took so long.

It is a glorious slice-of-life comedy, way superior to so much else on these days. OK, the plot is a twitch forced – bigamist dies, leaving two disparate families, in two utterly disparate class zones – but the warmth of all within, the sharpness of the writing, the performances, particularly from Ellie White as the smiling uptight coil of a spring who can’t quite leave a middle-class totem untouched and Lauren Socha as the unsprung spring who can’t quite leave a working-class totem unsaid… in this will lie a certain dramatic magic. And not a corpse in sight.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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