The week in TV: The Pact; Innocent; The Nevers; Subnormal: A British Scandal

Two binge-worthy crime dramas went head-to-head on terrestrial primetime, while Buffy creator Joss Whedon strayed into steampunk London. Plus, an excellent documentary exposed the mistreatment of black pupils in the 60s

The Pact (BBC One) | iPlayer
Innocent (ITV) |
The Nevers (Sky Atlantic) |
Subnormal: A British Scandal (BBC One) | iPlayer

In these days when the fat wallets of streaming and subscription services can, a little too often, lead to handsome fees for impossibly groovy CGI rather than, say, nominal fees for scripts which hold together with a modicum of character authenticity or narrative credibility, it’s actually a blessed relief to come across something else. The Pact (BBC One) looks as if it was filmed almost entirely in the car park of a Welsh brewery, and on a budget that would urgently itemise single packets of damp crisps.

Thus the charm: that, and the fact that most of the budget was surely used to recompense the talent, and the likes of Julie Hesmondhalgh, Laura Fraser, Eddie Marsan, Eiry Thomas repaid the investment in full. This was a wholly confident, slightly daft psychological mini-thriller of a series in which the plot was accorded vastly less prominence than the acting, but it was just grand to see a little ensemble – of, in this case, valley brewery shop-floor staff – pirouetting around each other with equal amounts of warm female friendship and sad little hidden secrets.

As I say, slightly daft in places. Marsan, as father of the deceased, had the temerity to ask tearfully at one stage: “But who would kill my boy?”, to which an entire audience shouted back: “Everybody and their dog.” Jack (Aneurin Barnard) was a loathesomely entitled, exploitative young shitweasel of an employer, complete with punchable face and keyable car, so the question was never going to be whydunnit, simply who.

Similarly, bits of the script were decidedly – not clunky, exactly, but certainly telegraphed. When Nancy (Hesmondhalgh) has a crisis of faith, her kindly priest advises “nobody’s faith is completely unwavering”. “What, even yours?” she smiles, and I spent a frustrating 11 seconds murmuring “especially mine, especially mine, just say it and get it over with” before he had the grace to so do.

For all this, it was a grand reminder of the country’s strength-in-depth of acting talent, especially in adversity; it’s one of the first series completed wholly during lockdown. And a relief, too, despite red flags at the start with a young woman tripping over trees in the dark, not to feature her body found among roots in the chill Welsh tomorrow; the dog-walker discovered instead bum-fluff boy. There must have been 1,726 bodies “found by dog-walker at dawn” down the televisual years: if I were the police, I’d be having a wee word with that chap.

Oddly enough, in the week in which we were now free, free, free I tell you, this would have been a perfect binge-watch for a couple of months ago (it’s all now available on iPlayer), as would Innocent, its rival on ITV all week. Chris “Unforgotten” Lang always provides a superior script – and, in recent years, ITV’s drama department has outclassed that of the BBC.

And yet this second series, three years later and with a wholly new plot, somehow gave off a whiff of middle-of-the-litter: the writing was better, the plot more credible, but the whole less whelming. In the squirrelly way of critics, I’d feel bound, if we operated a star system, to give this four, and The Pact three, but I’d more honestly enjoy the latter.

Priyanga Burford, right, with Jamie Bamber in series 2 of Chris Lang’s Innocent.
‘Deserves garlands for acting bravery’: Priyanga Burford, right, with Jamie Bamber in series 2 of Chris Lang’s Innocent. Photograph: Steffan Hill/ITV

There was absolutely nothing to put your finger on, and Katherine Kelly excelled, as did Priyanga Burford – anyone who puts herself up as such a pass-agg tyrant, and a twitchingly snobby school governor to boot, deserves garlands for acting bravery – and the denouement was rather shocking. I suspect I just still haven’t forgiven Lang for killing off Nicola Walker.

Talking as I did earlier of insane budgets, The Nevers (Sky Atlantic) is an absolute visual delight. It’s also a structural mess. There’s simply too damn much going on. And that’s if you’re able to ignore the real-life row over showrunner Joss Whedon, of Buffy fame, who has been accused of on-set bullying and cruelty. As I most determinedly am: I live in the fond hope I can distinguish between the creative imagination of an individual and his (it’s almost always a him) perceived moral hygiene.

But a mess it is, which is a shame, because of all the too-much going on, a lot of it is a lot of fun. Clouds darken over London in 1896: three years later women are popping up with strange “turns” – weird and often self-harming gifts, which render them specially powered. The “Touched”. And therefore to be cherished and protected for the benefit of something-or-other: or, if you’re the ever-terrific Pip Torrens, seen as a nemesis to the Victorian patriarchy. So far so simple, and even a little Hogwarts-steampunk.

But throw in the psychopathic “touched” Maladie, who talks in riddles; a louche posh dungeon; a snarly, switchblade-happy beggar king; casual racism; a little anti-patriarchy sentiment that yearns to be heard above the din; a few anachronisms such as “calling out”, and each episode so far struggles to showcase enough the main what I might call “plot”, which is that of the kick-ass Amalia True and bestie Penance Adair seeking that something-or-other.

Laura Donnelly (Amalia True) and Ann Skelly (Penance Adair) in The Nevers.
Laura Donnelly (Amalia True) and Ann Skelly (Penance Adair) in The Nevers. Photograph: Warner Brothers

Adair is a genius inventor who can “see” electricity, True a troubled, reckless soul; and Laura Donnelly and Ann Skelly make a fine pair of protagonists, when they’re allowed to get a look-in. Having said that, it’s wonderful, loopsville, unreasoned fun, and I’m already on episode four, wholly despite myself.

Subnormal (BBC One), Lyttanya Shannon’s fine exploration of the scandal of black British pupils in the 1960s sent to ESN – educationally subnormal – schools, will have, or should have, opened eyes, especially after Steve McQueen’s Small Axe (the film-maker is also this documentary’s executive producer). Leaving school with no qualifications is one thing; leaving thinking you’re “stupid” quite another. There were grim statistics, black and especially Caribbean pupils being four times as likely to be sent to ESN schooling in those days, and telling testament from those who fought it.

Bernard Coard, teacher, activist and writer of the seminal book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System.
Bernard Coard, teacher, activist and writer of the seminal book How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System. Photograph: Lyttanya Shannon/BBC/Rogan Productions

Partly the reasons were “bussing”, the government having panicked over Southall residents’ fears their white children were being “held back” in classes, which led to increased colour-consciousness from those on the buses, and vague osmotic guilt of hence being thick. Well done, government! Mainly, though, through the postwar obsession with the cult of IQ tests: for instance, several for younger pupils featured drawings of kitchen taps, invitations to connect a line between the word “tap” and the drawing. Jamaican children always knew it as a “pipe”, so got it wrong. I would have loved to hear a few more examples, if only to strengthen my argument that Mensa is a dungeon club for needy morons.

More disconcerting was the short endpiece. The schools establishment has changed so thoroughly since the late 1960s, in diversity and attitude to education of minorities, that it’s hardly recognisable from that beast of old. Yet still a wholly disproportionate number of children from Caribbean backgrounds end up in pupil referral units for “persistent disruptive behaviour”. To this, it wasn’t just that no one had any easy answers: no one appeared to have any answers at all. A follow-up for Ms Shannon?


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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