Planet Earth: A Celebration (BBC One) | iPlayer
Strike: Lethal White (BBC One) | iPlayer
All Creatures Great and Small (Channel 5) | My5
Soul America (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Away, the latest huge wannabe hit for Netflix, is pretty much everything modern television does not want to be. Ruinously high-budget, cloyingly sentimental though utterly devoid of passion, clunkingly trite in the writing, unintentionally hilarious throughout, it should shame the streaming giant.
It might have seemed a decent wheeze. A groundbreaking first landing on Mars. Five individuals battling the odds in space, but all intercut with down-home domestic dilemmas (which, one might have thought, they should have left on Earth before being psych-evaluated for, say, a three-year voyage to Mars). Unfortunately, neither premise – the space drama, nor the sub-soap opera home stuff – can be said to work in any sense whatsoever. The crew, a melange of international cliches – the charming black (but white-adopted) botanist, the grumpy Russki, the Chinese closet lesbian, the haughty-yet-subservient Indian – do their actorly best, but fail with this script: chief among the fails is mission commander Hilary Swank, obsessing about her daughter’s “wellbeing”.
Daughter Alexa, a healthy if spoilt individual, is going back to school for the autumn term. Her mother (sorry, mom. She is so first and foremost a mom. Rather than being an exceptionally courageous and intelligent woman who is about to be the first human to set foot on Mars. Back in your boxes, ladies of America!) is dangling in space, trying to effect an urgent repair on a blocked solar panel and yet fretting only about poor, indulged, whiny Lexie coping with her first day back at school.
I’ve watched it all – 10 50-minute episodes – and can report that despite the huge budget and a great many borrowings from (genuinely tense) space dilemmas in the likes of Armageddon and The Martian, I’ve been closer to the edge of my seat at the denouements of ITV3 adverts for conservatories. (Will she recline with feet up? Or is it going to be a feet-on-the-floor job? Will she… oh!!)
I salved myself after this with a few delights. Albeit relative in some cases. Planet Earth: A Celebration was a mashup of David Attenborough’s greatest hits, purportedly to cheer us up after lockdown, but chiefly hyped for the new score. Yet even Hans Zimmer – aided by rapper Dave, on rather lovely piano, and the reunited BBC Concert Orchestra – couldn’t produce a score to do justice to the sublime feats of photography it was illustrating. Let’s face it, there are only a discrete number of emotions conjurable when having to score a programme featuring nature.
Either soaring/magisterial (drone shots of mountain ranges and sunrises) or elegiac/mournful (likable animal pup/cub/kitten dying or being, er, eaten) or, everyone’s particular pet hate, don’t you yet know, all composers, “jaunty” (semi-aquatic mammals waddling in an amusingly comedic manner). This greatest hits snuff movie was, if anything, hindered, not helped, by the new score. Yet even the soundtrack, which at the “funny” segments could have doubled as the preamble to Norman Wisdom sauntering into an open manhole, could not detract from the glory of what we were watching, if again.
I know it’s come in for flak, but I rather enjoyed the plotting of Strike: Lethal White, the first two (of four) episodes of which were aired on consecutive days. Yes, some of the story was a little ludicrous, and the tiresome long drip of nothing who is Robin’s husband can sink no lower unless embarking on an affair – you’ll get no spoilers from me! – but if there’s one thing JK Rowling knows how to do, it’s to tell a rollicking fast, captivating tale, whirring between characters and scenes and hints with long-honed fluency. I loved it, and there’s better to come, even if this outing seems a little Richard Curtis. If nothing else, just revel in the acting and the screen chemistry.
Acting-wise, what a startling good find in utter newcomer Nicholas Ralph, a genuine Nairn-born Scot, to fill the shoes of Christopher Timothy in All Creatures Great and Small, a six-parter (a Christmas special is promised) from Channel 5’s grand drama department. Heads are being scratched over why it took this long for telly to remake it – an unimpeachable original, perhaps? – but the timing is now, somehow, just right, and in Ralph, and Samuel West as an even better Siegfried than Robert Hardy, and those same gloried shots over the Dales, it’s a gentle tale well worth the retelling.
But was the retelling necessary? Quite. In an ideal world, not really, not while there are still maltreated donkeys and penguins choking on plastic in the Sahara. But as C5’s Our Yorkshire Farm, with the winningly carefree, hardworking Owen family, continues to demonstrate, there is a treasured place in the hearts of both left and right for a simpler pre-Covid-19 time, when arguments were settled less by nuance and context, but by just how far you could get your hand up a cow’s arse. Plus, Anna Madeley as housekeeper Mrs Hall has an attraction that should have had Siegfried storming through dry stone dykes instead of, unaccountably, fuming over the tiddling waywardnesses of brother Tristan (a now all-growed-up, ex-Durrells Callum Woodhouse).
One unalloyed, standout delight was Friday night’s Soul America, the first of three ambitious BBC Four outings to attempt to recreate how soul music became the soundtrack not just of the civil rights movement but for many of our lives. Black and white.
With wit and insight and some astonishing unearthed footage – 1954, Candi Staton and Aretha Franklin at an upright piano; Otis blowing away the Monterey festival in the summer of love, as black music went, joyously, mainstream – this charts the progression of soul from “an assertive, integrated vision of blackness” in the 60s, to the anger of the 70s, to the lurve of the 80s, with a lovely digression into disco.
It never forgets, however, its roots, seldom more pronounced than in the story of the immense Ray Charles, not only the musician’s musician but also a cheeky wee shagger. The courage of the man, getting on to buses at midnight, blind and black, in the deep south, to tour and to spread a message filled with dance and with hope, still lingers. Just wonderful.