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Sunday, September 25, 2022

The week in TV: Pistol; The Midwich Cuckoos; Once Upon a Time in Londongrad; State of the Union | Television

For those weary of platinum jubilee bunting last week, there was Danny Boyle’s Pistol, the new Disney+ six-part series on the Sex Pistols, created by Craig Pearce.

It was a big risk tackling the brief (mid to late 1970s), sacred, big-bang cultural moment of punk. Boyle had to encapsulate the filth and the fury while eschewing generic, theme-park punk. Does he manage it? Of course not – no one has ever managed it. Not in the overrated 1986 film Sid and Nancy, where Gary Oldman laboriously gurned in full Sid Snot cosplay, and not now in Pistol.

The series is based on Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol, guitarist Steve Jones’s 2016 memoir: an engrossing read that repositions Jones, played here by Toby Wallace, as a sensitive survivor whose bleak, abusive childhood spat him out as an illiterate, hypersexual – “As soon as feelings are involved, I get bored” – petty criminal. Along comes svengali figure Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who, along with Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley), restyles the Pistols as establishment-baiting “sexy young assassins”.

Anyone interested in punk already knows all this, which poses a problem for Pistol: it is doomed to exasperate the older crowd, but will younger viewers be invested? Maybe this is why it hurtles along like a sightseeing doubledecker taking in the punk sights: “To your left, the God Save the Queen single disrupting the 1977 silver jubilee… to your right, Sid Vicious overdosing on heroin”, etc. The result is both eminently watchable and utterly ridiculous.

The young cast – including Maisie Williams as Jordan (AKA Pamela Rooke, RIP) and Sydney Chandler as a pre-Pretenders Chrissie Hynde – hurl themselves into it, but there are problems here too. Wallace captures Jones’s vulnerability and humour but misses the loutish spark that made him exciting. As John Lydon, Anson Boon is stymied by bizarre styling: forget “artful dodger”, it’s more “startled, hairless cat rolled in Victorian chimney soot”. Whatever you think of Lydon – who lost a court case trying to stop this production being able to use Pistols’ music – he was an electric, charismatic presence who galvanised a generation. Where is the sense of this, or indeed the dirt, grit, and aggro of the era? While such period pieces can function as a form of cultural archive, ultimately, Pistol is a bit too Ladybird Book of Anarchy, in which punk becomes an overearnest “learning moment”. For all the chopped-in real footage, the 1970s looks sanitised, disinfected, as if soaked in a bucket of Dettol.

I was sceptical when Inoticed that Sky Max was making The Midwich Cuckoos, a rereading of the John Wyndham story. The 1960 film Village of the Damned – in which spooky alien children infiltrate a village, also based on Wyndham’s novel – remains a horror classic, and not just because the platinum-haired tots bear a startling resemblance to childhood photos of Boris Johnson (correction: all photos of him). How could this remake possibly compare?

Well, I can eat my acrylic wig. Created by David Farr, who wrote The Night Manager, The Midwich Cuckoos (all seven episodes are available on Now TV) is suspenseful, with a stark tone glancingly reminiscent of Sky Atlantic’s The Leftovers. In this version (spoilers ahead!), Keeley Hawes plays psychotherapist Dr Zellaby, whose daughter (Synnove Karlsen) is one of the women of childbearing age who end up pregnant after a Midwich blackout renders everyone unconscious. Extraterrestrial menace entwines with state control, as Zellaby and Max Beesley’s detective anxiously observe the children, overseen by a stiffly manipulative official played by Samuel West.

This time, the “cuckoos” don’t have identical hair, which initially concerned me: in the film, their excruciating uniformity ramps up the terror. However, it’s a non-issue: the vital sense of malevolent synergy between the children – all superbly played – is conveyed in how they operate: wordlessly communicating, turning heads in unison, walking in lockstep.

The Midwich Cuckoos.
‘Malevolent synergy’: The Midwich Cuckoos. Photograph: David Appleby/Sky

It isn’t perfect: for some, a later scene (another spoiler alert) involving the violent death of a cuckoo may feel particularly disturbing. Elsewhere, ordinary Midwich residents are overloaded with soapy backstory until it verges on Midsomer Cuckoos. Still, there’s much to savour. The onset of the macabre blackout is handled beautifully – disturbed horses; swooping birds, stuttering traffic lights – setting the tone for something that feels like an eerie, extended, Wyndham-scripted disaster movie, imbued with dread and melancholy.

On Sky Documentaries, Once Upon a Time in Londongrad, directed by Jed Rothstein, tells the story of how a BuzzFeed investigation led by Heidi Blake, uncovered the story of an alleged Russian “assassination program” involving 14 victims on British soil.

In six half-hour segments (all available), the series initially struggles for momentum, burdened as it is by superfluous yakking about why the investigative team wanted to work for BuzzFeed (memo to BuzzFeed reporters: I don’t care, I’m not your mum).

BuzzFeed reporter Heidi Blake, right, led the team on the investigation behind Once Upon a Time in Londongrad.
BuzzFeed reporter Heidi Blake, right, led the team on the investigation behind Once Upon a Time in Londongrad. Photograph: © Rise Films/Sky

Get past that, and the overzealous trendy graphics, and … Londongrad becomes a terrifying true-crime story that includes, among the dead, Alexander Litvinenko (poisoned with plutonium), oligarch-fixer Scot Young (impaled on railings), Russian tycoon and Putin-critic Boris Berezovsky (another questionable “suicide”).

It’s an examination of money, power, politics and how, sloshing with Russian money, the UK became an enabler. Throughout, the BuzzFeed team demonstrate the persistence and courage that got them nominated for a 2018 Pulitzer prize.

In the second 10-part series of BBC Two’s State of the Union, written by Nick Hornby, directed by Stephen Frears, Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson play sixtysomething couple Scott and Ellen, meeting before therapy sessions to sort out their ailing marriage, in a US coffee shop run by trans woman Jay (Esco Jouley).

Patricia Clarkson, Esco Jouley and Brendan Gleeson in State of the Union.
Patricia Clarkson (left), Esco Jouley and Brendan Gleeson in State of the Union. Photograph: BBC/© 2021 Sundance TV LLC & AMC Film Holdings LLC

Scott is old-fashioned, boorishly demanding “normal” milk; Ellen is evolving, sponsoring Somali émigrés. He is annoying; so, frankly is she. Gleeson’s runaway American accent aside, these 10-minute meditations on love, infidelity, emotional intelligence and the culture wars, the latter involving Scott brooding on Jay’s choice of pronouns, evolve into an absorbing study of the loneliness of long-haul relationships, with enough loops and twists to keep things interesting.

What else I’m watching

Borgen
Netflix
Finally, after nine years, it’s the return of the ever-classy Danish political drama. Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen, is now foreign secretary, and forced to deal with a tricky, obnoxious prime minister.

Sidse Babett Knudsen, centre, returns in Borgen: Power and Glory.
Sidse Babett Knudsen, centre, returns in Borgen: Power and Glory. Photograph: Netflix

The Syndicate
BritBox
This subtle, twisting saga (2012-21) is available on BritBox in homage to trailblazing working-class television writer Kay Mellor (Band of Gold), who died last month. Ostensibly about lottery winners, it’s really about fallible human beings and the mistakes they make.

Physical
Apple TV+
Series two of the 1980s-set aerobics-empowerment dramedy is here. The first series was a cult hit, and Rose Byrne reprises the role of the woman with the self-lacerating internal monologue, who rediscovers her brio via spandex leggings and high-energy workouts.

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