Sean Bean visibly ages and pales throughout the three episodes of Time. If you thought Ms Winslet was brave, going roughly cosmetics-free in Mare of Easttown, you have to rise and applaud Mr Sean (I’m not going to call him Mr Bean): by midway in the second episode his face resembled tattered papyrus with the hue and possibly even the tang of soured milk, grubbily rubbed at its many creases and folds, as if by ancient heedless morons. This personifies the triptych skills of television: an actor’s talent to inhabit a facial mindset; a writer’s talent (Jimmy McGovern) to feed him the credible lines that permit a character’s lurch towards despair. And just a damned good makeup artist.
This was a triumph, if at times an appallingly hard watch. The casting didn’t hurt. Stephen Graham (obviously) as the compromised warder: but also a largely young cast of undersung future stars. Most crucially, this starry, primetime vehicle, albeit one shot with an air of grim subfusc menace, allowed McGovern to ask rather large questions. What is jail for? Vengeance, or due rule-of-law process, or hope of rehabilitation, or an indulgence of piety’s sole vice, righteousness? As mostly usual, he played light with the proscription, suggesting and nudging rather than indulging in grandstanding Message. It’s almost – imagine! – as if he thinks of politicians as individual people, free, as are we all, to bumble about with inherent contradictions, and whataboutery, and settle on compromises. This was awkward, compulsive, searing, and will linger long.
More questions were asked of justice in a fine Channel 5 two-nighter exploring the legacy of Fred and Rose West. Correctly, in The Search for the Victims, there was much focus on those victims, too often reduced to a list in coverage of the times, so shaken were much of the press at the horrors unfolding under Cromwell Street. I was guilty of that myself: covered its original weeks, returned a decade later.
This showed that C5 can now do rather excellent, paced, wise, documentaries as well as drama, but it mainly engendered a feeling of sorrow and shab: for Fred and Rose’s (ruined, ruinous) lives, for their fatal and fated meeting, for the unactivated neurons in their brains that permitted both to think of a child as a tradable, killable receptacle.
The one thing I am determined to take out of these programmes, Time included, is vast gratitude for this country’s rule of law. There is, rightly, now, a greater voice allowed for the families of victims to be accorded their time in court. But, that the kin of a dead child – or press outcry, whatever angle it comes from – should ever be allowed to sit in judgment over sentencing seems to me a misreading of dispassionate justice which would please medieval pinheads.
Like scratching your naked nethers while cooking with chilli, it can be instructive if unappealing to on occasion reread one’s own reviews. And I honestly can’t discern, in hindsight, why I raved at the time about the first series of Lupin. The second, conclusive, series, an overhasty wrap-up purely in Netflix’s response to its popularity, makes it sadly obvious that this was, at heart, little more than a potboiler of derring-do and cunning disguise, Rider Haggard or Buchan all gussied up to pretend to have modern relevance, and equally to pretend to have broad appeal beyond teenagers. It was enjoyable enough, and Omar Sy splendid again, but not a patch on the first, which had tension and threat and was just the ticket for lockdown mindlessness; that opening series pulled off the trick, like the music of Ed Sheeran, of seeming better than it actually was. Better by far for the bean-counters to have waited for a year until the scripters caught up and remembered it might be an idea to offer a professional (or even satisfactory) script, plot or resolution. A chance missed, through urgent greed: that character could have run and run.
Statue Wars, a nicely understated one-off hour’s documentary on Bristol’s culture conflict of 2020, managed to elucidate, telling all sides of the story without actively inflaming any issue; a neat trick on a filigree tightrope. Part of this successful tone was set, surely, by the very personality in the spotlight. Marvin Rees was the first directly elected black mayor of any European city, and found himself last year slap-centre of the post-George Floyd toppling of the Colston statue.
He was under fusillades from all sides. BLM and other activists sneered because, they argued, in his elected capacity he should have acted far earlier regarding the statue’s removal; other voices were calling for its immediate resurrection, the more demented among them also just not much liking Marvin because he was black. I have to say, he strode a damnably impressive line between pillar and post, slings and arrows, with just the right mix of charm and air of command, whether giving nuanced interviews worldwide in the days immediately post-toppling, or negotiating reaction to the overnight appearance of Marc Quinn’s celebratory replacement, of activist Jen Reid. He got that one arguably right, leaving it overnight then sending in council workers; courteously thanking Quinn for his temporary contribution. And billing him roundly for its removal.
Any anger and contempt bubble at an impressively low level in this man, and it is testament to him and other colleagues that Bristol didn’t explode with even more alarming consequences. It actually renewed my faith in local democracy, and stewardship of a city sprawl which sells itself often as delightfully bohemian and creative, but within which remains toxic sludge-pockets of resentment and counter-resentment. Yet he retains a capacity for scorn, as we saw when he (gracefully) resisted demands that the city apologise for any and every link with its past. “What, so I should stand up, before a bunch of white progressive activists, and apologise for slavery?” He was able to laugh too as he recalled the recent daubs on the pavement outside his family house: Marvin Must Die. “One of my neighbours said they’d missed a ‘t’ off the end.”
I appreciate that this programme, co-exec-produced by David Olusoga, painted Rees in a favourable light, but it’s entirely possible that this is because it’s the way the light actually falls on him.
It is with a heavy heart that I have to drop in the fact that this is my final TV column after six rewarding years; indeed my final time officially on the paper. I’d like to thank the many colleagues who, in these years as writer, columnist, editor, have stuffed my life with friendship and advice, or at least topped up my glass. The best know who they are. And immense gratitude too to readers, many of whom have on occasion been unaccountably kind. It’s been a blast, generally: a quarter-century and more being paid to Observe around the world, and a privilege to join a phenomenal critics’ section in later days. I retain the hope to darken your doors in some future issues; but thank you all for listening.