Saturday, 16 July 2016

Make sure you see Happy Valley, Line of Duty, Better Call Saul. Plus a film as bonus.

It’s always a pleasure when a TV series improves from one season to the next. That’s been the case of three we’ve watched recently.

What makes Happy Valley so gripping is that the characters are believable. This is particularly true of the lead, Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (played by Sarah Lancashire), someone it wouldn’t be at all surprising to meet in the aisle of a local supermarket. Or, more accurately, a local supermarket in a small Yorkshire town – Lancashire fits perfectly into the setting of the series, both by accent and by attitude.

Catherine Cawood: a great invention in TV fiction
Not always bubbling over with joy
The first season was compelling and well-constructed but perhaps depended a little too much on the shock and spectacle of a series of scenes of violence (not gratuitous but nonetheless graphic). The second season does far better: the violence is much more sparing, if just as shocking, and far more is made of the interchanges between everyday characters dealing with difficult situations.

Prostitutes are being murdered and shamefully mutilated in a Yorkshire village. Meanwhile the son of a widowed sheep farmer is being picked on by local youths who are making his life a misery. Sadly, the police can do little about it, not even Sergeant Cawood. She is, in any case, increasingly drawn into the murder investigation, and into the related crime of people-trafficking for the purposes of prostitution – one of the most engaging themes of the series is her work to protect one of the trafficked women.

What’s particularly baffling is that one of the murders, though it involves the same kind of mutilation, doesn’t fit the pattern. We the viewers know why it’s different; the police, however, assume that it is just one more in the same series, and not just because of a failure on their part, but because they’re being deliberately misled.

What links all these threads is Cawood, who begins to pull them together (even the sheep farmers) – while at the same time having to deal with the latest vicious persecution by the man who drove her daughter to suicide after leaving her pregnant. Despite being in gaol, is able to exercise a terrible threatening pressure on Cawood, her family and friends through a woman who has fallen under his spell – played by one of the least sinister of actors, Shirley Henderson, who managers for the purposes of this role to be one of the most sinister of characters.

The third season of Line of Duty has proved to be by far the best so far. Again, there is less violence than in the earlier seasons, though it’s by no means violence-free: indeed, the season starts with a criminal fleeing from an armed police unit, whose leader is the first to catch up with him – and then executes him in deliberate cold blood. He orders his team to cover up for him, but the anti-corruption unit AC-12 smells a rat and starts an investigation. Another brutal murder, this time involving torture also occurs – and then, to our consternation, one of the AC-12 officers, Detective Inspector Matt Cottan (Craig Parkinson), the one we’d learned to suspect from the earlier seasons, destroys a piece of evidence.

Martin Compston and Vicky McClure
Excellent in Line of Duty, though also not a bundle of laughs
Meanwhile, Lindsay Denton (Keeley Hawes), the detective gaoled by the unit at the end of season 2, is appealing her conviction. That case is reopened, leaving poor Detective Sergeant Arnott (Martin Compston) under suspicion himself – at least of incompetence. Adrian Dunbar is once again brilliant as the tormented, deeply principle commander of AC-12, Superintendent Ted Hastings, and Arnott’s colleague, Detective Constable Kate Fleming, superbly played by Vicky McClure, steals the show in the last episode.

That episode is dominated by two great examples of the kind of scene the series does best –interrogations – and, more sadly, an unintentionally hilarious car chase. It ends up with McClure chasing the criminals’ SUV on foot. Fortunately, the SUV manages to travel round in circles for several minutes, giving her several cracks at shooting at it. It’s quite an amusing scene, and helps create a good ending, but it lacks – well, credibility.

Jonathan Banks and Bob Odenkirk
Better Call Saul: plenty of dry humour
The second season of Better Call Saul was also a great improvement over the first, already impressive enough. This is a spinoff from Breaking Bad, but based around two of the secondary characters – principally Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill (later ‘Saul’), who went from a young man dabbling in crime, to postroom employee in his brother’s law firm, to lawyer in his own right. In this season, he’s getting going as a lawyer with his girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), against the wishes and devious resistance of his own brother. He’s already more than willing to bend or break the rules to advance the interests of people he cares for, or his own.

His life also repeatedly touches on that of ex-policeman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) constantly obliged to swim in the shark-infested waters of the local drug gangs, with their ruthless viciousness. But he proves himself repeatedly fully equipped with excellent teeth himself and more than prepared to use them himself – with great skill.

Three great series. If you haven’t see them, make a point of it.

PS – a fine film to go with the series: While you’re at it, see if you can get a look at The Wipers Times. Wipers is what the British Tommy called Ypres, in North West Belgium, scene of some of the more blood-drenched incidents of the blood-drenched First World War.

A Captain Frederick Roberts (played by Ben Chaplin) and Lieutenant John Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt), of the 12th Batallion of the Sherwood Foresters, came across an abandoned printing press. They decided to get a newspaper out for the troops. Since they were subject to transfers, what started as the Wipers Times later became the Somme Times and various other Times, even at the end of the war, Better Times. It was irreverent and magnificently funny. An example:

Realizing Men must laugh,
Some Wise Man devised the Staff :
Dressed them up in little dabs
Of rich variegated tabs :
Taught them how to win the War On A.F.Z. 354 :
Let them lead the Simple Life
Far from all our vulgar strife :
Nightly gave them downy beds
For their weary, aching heads :
Lest their relatives might grieve
Often, often gave them leave,
Decorations too, galore :
What on earth could man wish more?
Yet, alas, or so says Rumour,
He forgot a sense of Humour!

The film, a drama based on the real events, captures all of this rich mix and is well worth seeing.

The Wipers Times editorial staff

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