TV reviews: The Kemps: All True and Miss America

Benjie Goodhart / 03 July 2020

This week's highlights include a documentary about Spandau Ballet and miniseries Miss America, starring Cate Blanchett as conservative campaigner Phyllis Schlafly.

The Kemps: All True, Sunday 5th July, 10pm, BBC Two

You will, I assume, be familiar with Spandau Ballet, yes? Of course you are. I mean, you may not have a full-sized poster of Tony Hadley on your wall, or the lyrics of True tattooed across your face, but you’ve heard of them, right? I mean, they’re one of the biggest bands in British pop history. They sold 25 million albums, and had 23 hit singles worldwide. Who could possibly not have heard of Spandau Ballet? My mum, that’s who. Popular culture has pretty much entirely passed her by. Apart from a brief flirtation with Dynasty in the 1980s, all of her cultural influences predate the invention of the steam engine. If she’s listening to Handel, she thinks she’s really down with the kids.

Anyway, for the rest of us, Spandau Ballet are not an unfamiliar concept. So the opportunity to see this, a spoof documentary about Gary and Martin Kemp, sounds like a lot of fun. It’s not difficult to see where the inspiration for this hour-long show came from. In December 2018, the BBC screened a documentary about Matt and Luke Goss, from the band Bros, as they worked together, had monumental fall-outs, and offered their extraordinary nuggets of cod-philosophy to the world. It proved to be a genuinely bizarre and (as far as the brothers were concerned) inadvertently hilarious film.

You can see why writer/producer/director and presenter Rhys Thomas chose the Kemps for his film. Not only are they pop megastar brothers, with all the comic potential that entails, but they’re also actors of some renown and experience.

This is something of a curate’s egg of a film. There are some extremely good aspects to it. Chief among them are Martin and Gary’s readiness to send themselves up. The film opens with Martin insisting on having equal screen time with Gary. Gary, meanwhile, reiterates that the documentary is to be about his new projects and charity works, and that there should be no mention of Spandau Ballet. It’s a perfect indication of the egocentric nature of the business.

Much of the action centres around the release of a new album, Spandau Kemp, which features celebrities singing their favourite Spandau Ballet song. But there is a problem. All of the celebs want to sing True. The implication is that the Kemps are hell-bent on mercilessly extracting what they can from their history (in real life, there have been three Greatest Hits albums) and also that they only ever had one really good song. It is to their immense credit that the pair are so happy to laugh along with this. There are also some nice references to their chequered relationship with former lead singer Tony Hadley. There are also some entertaining cameos, with Anna Maxwell Martin popping up as Gary’s wife, and Nick Robinson, Daniel Mays and Christopher Ecclestone playing themselves, as does Shirlie Kemp, Martin’s wife.

But there are also aspects of the show that don’t work as well. Chief among them is that the show was always on something of a hiding to nothing, in that no film could be as absurdly comic and OTT as the Bros documentary. No amount of comedic genius could ever come up with something as ridiculous as Matt Goss’ impassioned plea for people to be allowed to play conkers without wearing goggles.

Like the career trajectory of all great bands, the show starts tremendously well, and yet feels somewhat tired by the end. Almost all bands go on a little too long, much like this film.

Non-Covid-related health warning: For those of a sensitive disposition, the film also contains some very bad language. No amount of hand-washing will help with that.

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Mrs America, Wednesday 8th July, 9pm, BBC Two

Mrs America sounds very much like a beauty pageant for older women. If you happen to be tuning in to gawp at mature women standing on a stage in a bathing suit, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed. This is a biopic of American conservative campaigner and author Phyllis Schlafly, and in particular her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s.

The opening scene is… oh… it’s a mature woman standing on stage in a bathing suit. Except it quickly becomes apparent that this is a political fundraising dinner, not a beauty pageant. Political fundraisers must have been different in the 1970s. Maybe you’d discuss bashing the Soviets over the starter, immigration over the main course, and then ogle ladies’ chests with port and cigars.

The woman modelling the bikini is Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett). She’s a hugely intelligent and capable political figure, a published author and former congressional candidate. In a bikini. It’s not how I want to see our politicians represented – and not just because the idea of Boris in a boob tube is a bit disconcerting. In the interests of political neutrality, I should add at this point that I don’t want to see Keir in one either.

Anyway, this nine-part series arrives on the BBC with a huge amount of hype, not least because, in Blanchett, it boasts Hollywood royalty. Mind you, you could stick a Hollywood star in an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys and they’d give it a BAFTA. A star is a star, but a story is only as good as its subject matter. Fortunately, in Schlafly, they seem to have hit upon a rich vein.

It’s 1971. Whichever way you choose to look at her, Phyllis Schlafly is extraordinary. She’s high-powered, educated, and almost certainly the smartest person in the room, no matter where the room is or how many people are in it. She’s a successful author and political thinker, and a three-time Congressional candidate. She’s also a supportive and dutiful wife, and dedicated mother to six children. She should be heralded as some sort of superwoman. Instead, at pretty much every turn, she is patronised and objectified.

In one memorable scene, she travels to Washington – described by her husband as a “Godless lefty swamp” – for a meeting to discuss Nixon’s proposed Nuclear deal with Brezhnev. Despite being arguably the best informed and most qualified person in the (otherwise male) room, she is asked to take the minutes of the meeting.

Phyllis is much more interested in defence policy than in issues regarding the adoption, or otherwise, of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). But her insistence on possessing a womb seems to make it difficult to have her views taken seriously. On top of this, her husband Fred (John Slattery) has intimated that he does not want her to run for Congress anymore. She’s a woman in need of a cause. I think she may be about to find it.

At the end of the episode, we briefly meet the women who have been championing the ERA, and whose stories will be told later in the series. They are a brilliant collection of women, played by a brilliant collection of women, including Tracey Ullman, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba and Margo Martindale. They are celebrating – the amendment is all but passed. Someone mentions opposition from Phyllis Schlafly. She is decried as some “right wing nutjob from Illinois” and they laugh that they’ll never need to learn to pronounce her name, as they’ll never need to say it again. Hmmm.

The hype around this series proves more than justified. Blanchett is magnificent as the conservative ideologue who swallows petty humiliations on a near-constant basis. Props, too, to Jean Tripplehorn, who plays her miserably single sister-in-law Eleanor. There’s also huge skill in the writing. It would have been easy to paint Phyllis as a superannuated monster, a hate-filled anachronism raging against progress, a right-wing caricature. Instead, Blanchett’s Schlafly is a far more nuanced and human figure. And the 1970s are beautifully evoked, with a thumping soundtrack to match. The music back then was good, even if the attitudes weren’t. Happily, you’d never get anywhere now with such blatantly sexist attitudes in the United States. Would you, Mr President?

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 4th January

Andy Murray’s Greatest Hits, 1:15pm, BBC One: Bathe in two glorious hours basking in the glorious career of Sir Andrew of Murrayshire, including his Olympic gold in 2012 and his Wimbledon win in 2013.

Fergie and Andrew: The Duke and Duchess of Disaster, 9:15pm, Channel 5: The Yorks come under Channel 5’s royal microscope, which examines their tempestuous history, culminating in the troubling Epstein allegations.

Sunday 5th July

Match of the Day Live: Southampton v Manchester City, 6:35pm, BBC One: If the novelty of live Premier League football on free-to-air TV hasn’t worn off yet, enjoy the dynamism of Pep Guardiola’s attractive City side as they come up against a somewhat resurgent Southampton side inspired by free-scoring strike Danny Ings.

Alex Brooker: Disability and Me, 9pm, BBC Two: The charismatic presenter of The Last Leg examines what it means to be disabled in Britain today, in this deeply personal and thoughtful film.

Monday 6th July

Britain’s Cancer Crisis: Panorama, 7:30pm, BBC One: Looking at the potential crisis caused by the knock-on effect of Coronavirus, and how the NHS will cope with an unprecedented backlog of cases.

Coronation Street: Stories That Gripped the Nation 1/8, 8:30pm, ITV: Jason Manford presents a new series looking back at some of the key storylines from 60-years of Coronation Street.

The Secrets She Keeps 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: Australian psychological thriller, starring Laura Carmichael (Downton’s Lady Edith) and Jessica De Gouw as two heavily pregnant women hiding secrets and whose worlds are about to collide.

Pluto: Back From the Dead, 9pm, BBC Two: New discoveries from the edge of the solar system are transforming what is known about Pluto, thanks to the New Horizons space probe that took the first-ever close up images of the planet.

Tuesday 7th July

The Battle of Britain: Three Days that Saved the Nation, 9pm, Channel 5: Dan Snow and Kate Humble present a three-part guide to the critical aerial battle that changed the course of the Second World War, featuring personal stories of pilots, ground crews and members of the public.

Thursday 9th July

Manhunt: The Raoul Moat Story, 9pm, ITV: Nicky Campbell presents this documentary looking at the events that took place a decade ago when Newcastle bodybuilder Moat went on the run after a shooting. What played out after that was a very public manhunt that ended in more bloodshed.

Friday 10th July

Jack Whitehall’s Sporting Nation 1/6, 8:30pm, BBC One: The comedian looks at the nation’s sporting history in this light-hearted clips show. Tonight’s series opener looks at the value of home advantage, including the 1966 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.

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