The week in TV: My Brilliant Friend; The Salisbury Poisonings and more

The compelling Elena Ferrante adaptation finally returned, while a timely dramatisation of the Novichok attack outstayed its welcome – and a James Baldwin doc enthralled

My Brilliant Friend (Sky Atlantic)
The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC One) | iPlayer
Page Three: The Naked Truth (Channel 4) | All 4
Storyville: College Behind Bars (BBC Four) | iPlayer
I Am Not Your Negro (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Amalfi, Ischia, Naples… I’ve been online searching for, yearning for them all week, to the extent of looking up winter ferry times, because, wonder of wonders, My Brilliant Friend has returned after a frankly actionable two-year wait and it is better than ever.

This faithful and gloried adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels is ripe and reeking with the sights and sounds and smells of a very specific time and mood indeed, but the stories told are surely old as time. Bitter little tales of toxic micro-betrayals, heartbreaking vignettes in which a person can be altered for life’s entirety (or so it seems in adolescence) by a nastily sardonic eyebrow or an appraising glance.

We have moved on to the cusp of the 60s in Naples, concrete dust choking the streets in a frenzy of new-build, the Camorra choking the lifeblood from artisans leathery before their years, Rita Pavone on the radio and angry passions on balconies and just-so cars and shoes. And always, always, the wheedling boy-men, punching the walls, punching the wives, whereas “love” should be not a formula but an endless kind, or impassioned, or bored, negotiation.

Into this, as ever, we have true friends Lila and Elena, the one petulant and beautiful and manipulative, the other thoughtful, stoic, objective, wistful. They would each scratch out eyes for their friend, yet at times they would scratch out that friend’s eyes. Lila is raped on her wedding night by fat, rich manchild Stefano; in later episodes, she will wonder to Elena, in dappled sunlight and the echo of women down the centuries: “What can I do? I’ll do what he wants so I can do what I want.” In Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco this series has been found and concreted. And this series will also ripple with silence: through all the noise and anger, the shouty bitter in-laws and their races for pregnancy, Elena and Lila communicate mostly, silently, with their eyes.

The Salisbury Poisonings was a nicely adequate retelling of that tale. It let us remember there was a time, during the Beast from the East, when Zizzi in Salisbury flared briefly as notorious as the Pizza Express in Woking, and then we instantly forgot, what with Englandland getting through to the World Cup semis.

Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz in The Sailsbury Poisonings.
Anne-Marie Duff as Tracy Daszkiewicz in The Sailsbury Poisonings. Photograph: Huw John/BBC/Dancing Ledge

Screened over three nights, it wasn’t bad exactly, not at all. And I’d take off many of my hats to the real Tracy Daszkiewicz, as portrayed here by Anne-Marie Duff with tense bleakness, for reminding us of the fact that local health inspectors might have a part to play in a pandemic, as might GPs. Tracy traced, she traced mobile phone signals and ran down tiny, itchy, lost niggles, closed swaths of Salisbury, got it won. Until a tiny Novichok trace on a forgotten perfume bottle… start again. The despair in her face.

Coming at a time when we are all belatedly realising this has only been the first side of the album – 13 stretched weeks ago this Sunday, we thought “anger” was being narked at selfish loo-roll scoffers – and there’s an entire side two to be tholed until this is over, this drama had perhaps too many episodes. But parallels have been drawn between the localised response, which worked, and the Boris response, which obviously didn’t.

Page Three: The Naked Truth opened my and surely many eyes to the tawdry side of the 80s. The models had been 17, 18, unformed socially, and this programme had a light enough air at the start; some models went on to make money, then got out.

The likes of Rupert Murdoch and Kelvin MacKenzie paled into insignificance, however, when David Sullivan reared his ugly head, doing a “countdown” towards the 16th birthday of Hannah Claydon, who had been thinking of an Oxford law degree: “To celebrate, she’s going to make her dreams come true by posing topless on her special day.” “See my boobs for the first time in Sunday Sport tomorrow.” Most of the models are wise survivors, notably Sam Fox. Yet – yeeugh.

Storyville: College Behind Bars was the most uplifting and redemptive, enthralling piece of my week. Who would have known that education might lift lives behind bars? Wise and wonderful men and women who suddenly “got” school, phenomenal jailbirds who beat Harvard at debating. Please watch this on catchup.

I Am Not Your Negro, aired last night on BBC Two, is an astonishment. James Baldwin’s writings, voicings, aided by Samuel L Jackson… it is little less than an evisceration of white America. And it works.

Baldwin addresses the Oxford Union, ever smoking, and makes much sense. He has grand points. Twitchy-confident, he argues simply that, as regards America, “you cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. Furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”

James Baldwin, centre, the subject of the ‘peerless’ I Am Not Your Negro.
James Baldwin, centre, the subject of the ‘peerless’ I Am Not Your Negro. Photograph: Publicity image

This peerless 2016 documentary from Raoul Peck, shot with emblazoned monochrome style and many film clips that serve to provide angry laughter, errs only in that it seldom refers to Baldwin’s homosexuality. Baldwin was not only a marvellous writer and smoke-wreathed speaker, but an unacknowledged gay man.

Which surely made him quietly double-vulnerable. Just after Another Country was published to global acclaim, the Black Panthers began mocking him. JFK referred to him as “Martin Luther Queen”.

It is a nasty life we inhabit. Yet hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul…


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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