Sunday, 16 November 2008

Seen on TV…Apparitions…Lead Balloon

Amidst all the high profile soap opera tosh and reality effluence there are an increasing number of gems to be found out there on your TV if you’re just prepared to go and look for ‘em. Thursday nights have perked up no end this week with the arrival of two new shows (on the BBC of course – don’t go looking for anything other than brainrot if you venture over onto ITV); one being the return of an old comedy favourite and the other a new adult supernatural drama from the man who gave us Channel 4’s highly-regarded vampire drama ‘Ultraviolet’ a few years back as well as directing some of the best of the Christopher Eccleston-era ‘Dr Who’ yarns.

‘Apparitions’ (Thursdays, BBC1, 9pm) stars Martin Shaw as beardy Catholic exorcist Father Jacob who not only believes in demonic possession and the Devil – he actually knows for a fact that they’re real. And so does ‘Apparitions’. Where you might expect the series to be a bit ambiguous in its depiction of its subject matter – is he or isn’t he? Are they or aren’t they? – ‘Apparitions’ gets stuck right in and presents its supernatural phenomena as fact. In the very first episode the audience sees the results of a man ‘magically’ cured of leprosy, we both see and hear people possessed (one is shown bleeding through the eyes). ‘Apparitions’ is making no bones about it – there are demons out there the Devil is out to get dominion over the Earth. I’m not particularly religious but I’m wondering what sort of reception ‘Apparitions’ is likely to get from the pro and anti-religion lobbies. The pros are likely to regard it as dangerous propaganda, the antis will dismiss it as a load of silly old mumbo jumbo and wonder why there’s no phone-voting involved. Then again, as it currently appears that most of the country has decided Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand are both the spawn of Satan, maybe the whole series will go largely unnoticed in the scheme of things.

In episode one of ‘Apparitions’, Father Jacob is approached by Donna (Romy Irving) a eleven year-old girl who is convinced her father Liam(Shaun Dooley) is possessed because of his strange behaviour and the fact that she can hear him talking to himself all night. At the same time trainee priest Vimal (Elyes Gabel), miraculously cured of leprosy on the night Mother Theresa died in 199 , tortured by his sexuality, finds his faith coming under question. And who’s the mysterious, demonic stranger (Rick Warden) tormenting him, forcing him to make a choice between his true self and his new life? ‘Apparitions’ is powerful, gripping, demanding television. In many ways it’s the natural successor to BBC Scotland’s much-missed ‘Sea of Souls’ (at least in its first two series, before it went all-out supernatural-in-yer-face crazy in its third series) but its subject-matter is a bit more specific than the vague paranormal mysteries of the early ‘Sea of Souls’ episodes. Unusually for a modern TV drama where pace and visuals are king, ‘Apparitions’ unfolds slowly, unhurriedly and, certainly in the first episode, the story draws you in before you even realise it’s captivated you. ‘Apparitions’ seems to be aiming to unnerve and disarm its audience; there’s nothing hugely scary here so far (although the skin-peeling sequence at the end of the first episode made me wince a bit) but, because it’s about demonic possession and exorcism, it manages to chill in ways more traditional horror stories very often can’t because of their need to be a bit more explicit, a bit more graphic. I’ve never been a huge fan of Martin Shaw – the bed-hopping exploits of Judge John Deed have always struck me as spectacularly ludicrous – but he adds a surprising presence and gravitas to ‘Apparitions’ because there’s no doubt in Father Jacob; he’s not searching for answers. He’s not trying to prove the truth of what he does – he knows that demons are out there (not the big snarly Buffy style) and he’s quietly doing his bit to send them back where they came from. ‘Apparitions’ has made a promising start and, in this brave new post-Dr Who world of TV dramas which now dare to be different, I’ll be interesting to see where the talented Joe Ahearne takes us over the next five weeks.

Turning directly over to BBC2 after ‘Apparitions’ and we find that Jack Dee is back in the third series of his superb sitcom ‘Lead Balloon’. Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments – it’s Larry David’s sublime ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (back for a seventh series next year, hooray!!) in all but name but frankly I don’t give a damn. Dee and co-writer Pete Sinclair have cleverly taken the style and to an extent the format of ‘Curb’ – the comedy of embarrassment – had given it a distinctly British twist. If you’ve not seen ‘Lead Balloon’ (and I urge you to give it a go) it stars the lugubrious Dee as third rate comedian Rick Spleen who thinks he’s far more famous than he is. Idling away his days ostensibly creating comedy material with his American writing partner Marty (Sean Power), Rick has to contend with the frustrations of modern day life and his habit of saying and doing just the wrong thing and then finding himself in some awkward situation he has to struggle to find his way out of. Trailing along in the wake of Rick’s chaos are his long-suffering partner Mel (Raquel Cassidy), their sleepy daughter Sam (Antonia Campbell-Hughes), her dopey boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker) and Michael (Tony Gardener), the spaced-out owner of the local coffee shop frequented by Rick and Marty when inspiration escapes them. Best of all though, and stealer of every scene she appears in, is Magda, Rick and Mel’s surly and depressive East European home help (Anna Crilly). In the cracking first episode of the new seven-part series, Magda moves in with Mel and Rick when her flat is being renovated due to the boiler spewing out carbon monoxide; Magda’s brought her off-limits “special sausages” with her too. Meanwhile Michael’s moving up in the world trying to establish himself as a swanky restaurateur and his plans for a lavish, busy opening night looked doomed to failure when Sam gets a job for the night as a waitress, Ben eats the “special sausages”, Mel turns up drunk and Michael’s father and his “partner” Colin turn up – and Michael’s oblivious to their true relationship.

‘Lead Balloon’ is just terrific stuff, the scripts as cleverly structured and crafted as anything since’Fawlty Towers’ and with a cast of off-beat characters in the tradition of the very best British sitcoms. Dee is basically playing himself and he somehow makes the potentially-dislikable and eminently slappable Rick Sleen, so often the architect of his own misfortunes, somebody you’re rooting for as he scowls his way through the vicissitudes of modern life. Where Larry David in ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ blithely wanders through his adventures blissfully unaware of what he’s saying and what he’s doing and utterly failing to understand how anyone can take offence, Rick creates his own problems by lying and cheating and taking other people’s credit and never owning up when he does the wrong thing. But, like Basil in ‘Fawlty Towers’ and David Brent in ‘The Office’ we can’t help liking Rick even as we slap out hands across our foreheads and despair of the scrapes he gets himself into. ‘Lead Balloon’, created for BBC4 and quickly ‘poached’ by BBC2, is just about the best British comedy on TV at the moment (a judgement I’m tempted to reserve as Channel 4’s brilliant ‘The IT Crowd’ is back for its own third series next week) and if you’ve given it a miss in the past or if it’s slipped under your radar, I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. Series one is available on DVD (probably discounted heavily by now if you shop around online) and series two is released on 24th November. Great stuff.

Incoming.... Hancock on DVD reviewed....Sarah Jane update....The 1970s Survivors and what we can expect from the new series...

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