The week in TV: Small Axe: Mangrove; The Crown; The Great British Bake Off and more

Steve McQueen’s vital black British historical drama sears into the mind, and Peter Morgan’s saga of the Windsors returns waving its pro-Diana flag

Small Axe: Mangrove (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Crown (Netflix)
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4) | All 4
Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One) | iPlayer
Offended By Irvine Welsh (Sky Arts) |

Some television lends itself to hinterlands of half-remembering. Even the good stuff: one can struggle to recall whether it was Ted Hastings in 2017, or Jane Tennison in 1993, or John Luther in 2010, refusing that bribe in that darkened west London bar. Not so Mangrove. Once Mangrove was watched, it stayed watched.

Steve McQueen’s searing opener to his already garlanded Small Axe series, a tribute and marker to the unheralded black British experience in the director’s own lifetime, was the remarkable (if unremarked on then) story of a small, defiant restaurant and its habitues. Driven gently beyond sane tolerance by the racism of local cops, whose gleeful, open bitterness was topped only by their stupidity, they had a little march, which ended in court: the Old Bailey, to make a point. Just because Britain could.

Without ever showing off, there were just enough McQueen touches to mark this as special. The colander that clattered to the floor, after another pointlessly heavy-booted raid, among the empty cannellini bean tins and lonely mashers, was left to silently wobble and settle for a good 30 seconds. Seconds in which we could think only about the sheer bloody waste of a fine idea: that of serving decent spicy food, as the Westway rose above Notting Hill in 1970, to a largely Caribbean community; letting locals gather, and boast and flirt and lie and joke. As humans do.

Also, a bold directorial decision to devote almost half of this to the trial, in which culture clashes became stark. Defendants such as Darcus Howe, clever (and he knew it), and right too; a black gallery, shouting and interrupty, heedless of ceremony; the wincing, politessed pain on the slab-faced bulwarks of prejudiced rectitude that so often then formed judge and prosecution. It might seem ludicrous that “spicy food” so riled PC Pulley (an entirely credible Sam Spruell, just the right mix of forlorn, jealous and clunking-dumb) to conflate shiny boots and buttons with any degree of moral authority, but them were the days, and we forget them at our peril.

McQueen didn’t stint with his truths either in showing divisions between Mangrove denizens. Howe (Malachi Kirby) and activist Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) were at first angrier than restaurant owner Frank Crichlow, a tremendously subtle Shaun Parkes, who just wanted to keep the food and the vibe going. It goes with little saying that all these actors excelled, but there was a sad little codicil in the end notes over what happened to the Mangrove. A vital story, the ending to which in these times has only been half-writ; and it stays watched.

The new series of The Crown is, as you might expect, all manner of peacock-fabulous: numinous and luminous and, for all I know, pluminous. It’s better than the last, which got bogged down a little in dead times. But there is, with modern times, the temptation to take sides; and there’s little doubt where creator Peter Morgan has nailed his colours.

Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor as Diana and Charles in The Crown.
Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor as Diana and Charles in The Crown. Photograph: Ollie Upton/AP

It was indeed a fairytale wedding. That’s a thing, perhaps the thing, about fairytales: they’re not true. This particular one, the Charles-Diana wedding, was less true than most. This series is wonderful in some episodes at drawing out the many nuances of their relationship, and especially how it might, at stages, have worked, but Charles is eventually cast as a monster. I don’t necessarily want to get ahead of people who might not have seen every slice of series four but think I can confidently vouchsafe, to anyone who’s got the general pro-Di drift, that the final episode contains (as they say) mild shock. Culminating as it does in Queenie, Phil and Camilla scrabbling naked on stage to gnaw the heads off leprous bats, in a mystifyingly under-reported 1990 Balmoral Highland Games.

I’m hardly bothered: it’s a drama, not a documentary, and much is got historically right, particularly Margaret Thatcher, once Gillian Anderson gets the voice right; fascinating to see those years again, during which my political soul was weaned. In truth, this particular royal arc culminates, of course, in that sad, frantic week of 1997, when random souls wept salt tears for a woman they never knew, when reporters stopped asking: “What do you think?” and started demanding: “How do you feel?” It’s a resetting of a collective mindset that is still dominating today; Diana’s death didn’t so much change our royals as their subjects.

And while the royals have by and large settled back into comfortable semi-relevance, I can’t help feel that poor “misunderstood” Charles, if he ever does don the crown, will not be able to help playing the role of king as if someone else has just played the ace.

Infuriatingly, we lost Hermine from The Great British Bake Off just as the finals loom. She didn’t deserve it – one muck-up, in stumbled circumstances, when she has come out so often with perfection. Surely Paul should have made allowances, and Prue at least learned how to pronounce her name correctly. Because Hermine, apart from anything else, brought a self-deprecatory wit to proceedings, a balance to what has threatened to become cloying, bland adequacy. And would have enough Benin-French acuity on her own show not (for instance, thank you Nigella) to bring a nation to panicked confusion over how to butter a wee bit of toast.

Paul and Prue with Hermine on The Great British Bake Off.
Paul and Prue with Hermine on The Great British Bake Off. Photograph: Love Productions

All told, not a bad end to the year for a kinder version of reality TV; apart from the recent Don’t Rock the Boat, we also have Craig giving 9s in Strictly Come Dancing. Bill Bailey deserves all the plaudits he gets: his secret is to do it all without any sense of irony. He’s not being knowing or postmodern or snarky about the beats or the moves; he loves and respects music, and so finds the rhythms to pay it its dues. I didn’t vote for him and Oti, though. I am in a tiny way acquaintanced with JJ Chalmers – his father once officiated my wedding – who was frankly lucky to survive the cull last week. Yes, circumstances found me firmly at home last Saturday night, watching cheesy frock’n’roll and dialling 6225204. This vaccine truly can’t come fast enough.

I once sat down with the real Darcus Howe, sitting smoking comfortably together in his Brixton flat, after he’d been on the road for a series on Britain and met, among others, Bernard Manning. “I suddenly realised he had just been all along a working-class Mancunian telling the jokes they told,” said Howe. “We parted friends.” I thought of that again not just during Mangrove but also a fine little Sky Arts thing fronted by Irvine Welsh, in which he attempted, mostly successfully, to define “offence” and our blithering, modern eagerness to take it.

With the help of some grand artists such as Sarah Maple, he traced how, if visual art “offended” during the 90s, now it’s comedy and, indeed, new fiction. His argument seemed to be (rightly, I think) that, whereas outright incitement to hatred deserves sanction, always, we should to the best of society’s abilities create freedom to offend. And that offence-taking has become something of a class thing, a triggered frippery, somehow exalted when there are other more vital battles to be fought over someone just not having any money.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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