TV review: Roadkill and Who Do You Think You Are?

Benjie Goodhart / 15 October 2020

Hugh Laurie stars in new four-part political thriller Roadkill, and David Walliams gets to know his heritage in Who Do You Think You Are? Plus, the best of the rest of the week's TV.



Roadkill, Sunday 18th October, 9pm, BBC One

Sundays aren’t normally my favourite day of the week. I quite often begin a Sunday slightly gingerly, having enjoyed a little too much adult fruit juice on Saturday night. The day is full of the looming prospect of Monday, with its early start and grumpy kids and long week ahead. Also, we quite often have a Sunday roast. This, ostensibly, is a good thing – who doesn’t love a roast? – but the downside is that we tend to have it in mid-afternoon, which means we don’t then have a proper evening meal. I don’t like missing meals. For me, food is an absolute life force. Actually, now I think about it, food is a life force for everyone.

The point is, Sundays are a bit rubbish. But they’re about to get a whole lot less so, thanks to this new four-part political thriller, Roadkill, about an ambitious Tory minister intent on climbing the greasy poll. Right away, the drama has something rather wonderful in its favour: The presence of a certain Hugh Laurie. The comedian and erstwhile foil to Stephen Fry has, in latter years, reinvented himself as an absolutely tremendous dramatic actor. If you haven’t seen House, in which he plays a genius misanthropic doctor, that should be your next box set. And he was delightfully reptilian as an arms dealer in The Night Manager a couple of years back.

Here, he plays Peter Laurence, a Tory MP and Transport Minister, and a populist with his own phone-in show on talk radio (hello Nigel!). He is riding high after winning a libel case against a newspaper, thanks to the key witness, a journalist called Charmian Pepper (Sarah Greene) suddenly changing her testimony. Laurence is summoned to Downing Street, where he meets with the Prime Minister (the inevitably magnificent Helen McCrory) and the promise of a senior office of state appears to be in the offing.

Incidentally, where is the door to Number 10 that everyone uses to film? Do they all use the same one? Someone, you imagine, must be making an absolute packet out of having a black door with a 10 on it. Talk about an easy way of earning a coin (says the bloke who watches telly for a living).

Everything appears to be going swimmingly for Peter. But there’s no drama in that, right? So things are about to get a whole lot more complicated. There are mutterings about a scandal and cover-up in his past; suggestions of impropriety in his private life; implications that he has lied in his libel trial; and even the possibility that he shares a rather close and uncomfortable link to a woman in prison. In short, Peter Laurence appears to be a whole year’s worth of political scandals all rolled into one rather well-turned-out figure in an expensive suit.

Meanwhile, Laurence has ambitions to stamp his mark on the future of the nation. “Great Britain is going to be redefined,” he remarks to his, ah, special sleepover-playtime friend (played by the wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen). “As what, exactly? It can’t all be nostalgia, Dunkirk, white cliffs and Winston. So what’s it going to be? This is the moment we start again as a nation.” It could almost have been lifted from Boris’ recent ‘new Jerusalem’ conference speech. Only Laurence has better hair.

This has all the hallmarks of a thoughtful and gripping political drama. Which is no surprise, considering it comes from the pen of playwright David Hare, who has two Oscar nominations to his name. And the cast includes Patricia Hodge as newspaper proprietor Lady Roche, Iain de Caestecker (brilliant in the recent BBC drama Us) as Laurence’s assistant Duncan, and Pip Torrens (Tommy Lascelles in The Crown) as a newspaper editor intent on exposing Laurence.

In short, this is an intelligent treat of a series. Sunday blues be damned.

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Who Do You Think You Are? David Walliams, Monday 19th October, 9pm, BBC One

It’s 16 years since the first ever episode of the celebrity genealogy show took place, in October 2004. The first show featured Bill Oddie, whose journey helped him understand his mother’s, and by association his own, struggles with manic depression. Since then, the show has become a TV institution, with 17 series and almost 150 episodes. It has featured some astonishing moments, from Patsy Kensit discovering her lineage of both vicars and villainy, to Lesley Garrett learning that there was suspected murder in her family. And, most unforgettably of all, there was cockney wideboy Danny Dyer’s discovery that he was a direct descendent of Edward III.

But the real charm of this series is often to be found in the more everyday tales of struggle, adversity, love and triumph, and that is very much where this episode takes us.

The show’s subject is David Walliams, and I feel I must declare an interest here. I have a distinct soft spot for the man. My kids are huge fans of his books (well, of his audiobooks, obviously they don’t actually READ stuff). And a few years back, I interviewed him over the phone, and told him that my son was a big fan. David asked to speak to him, and had a long chat about books and school. At the end of the interview, he offered to send him a book, and asked if he had any siblings. A few days later, a package of signed (age appropriate) books arrived for both my children. It was a gesture of quiet kindness I – and they – have not forgotten.

The programme starts with Walliams visiting his mother, Kathleen (his father Peter died 13 years ago). “How lovely to see you after all these years,” he teases her as she opens the door. When she announces later that she was evacuated during the war, he cheekily asks if that was the First World War.

As ever, some information has been passed down through the family. He has in his possession a set of framed postcards painted by his great grandfather, who was shell shocked during the First World War when serving with the Grenadier Guards. He also has a photograph of his grandmother as a little girl, wearing a hat roughly the size of Siberia. Her parents owned fairground rides in Battersea, and lived in wagons beside them.

First, Walliams looks into the case of his shellshocked great grandfather, John Boorman, a labourer who enlisted in September 1914, just eight weeks into the war. His investigations take him to Ypres, and to the sites of two military hospitals in the UK. The story that Walliams uncovers is almost unbearably poignant, a salutary reminder that not all of war’s injuries are physical.

Next, it’s the other side of the family. Walliams’ Great Great Grandfather is an extravagantly moustachioed blind musician from Portsmouth. “The perfect Britain’s Got Talent contestant,” cries Walliams. “He would win hands down!” Here, the story is more upbeat (frankly, it could hardly be less so) but it is not without its hardships.

I am not a regular watcher of Who Do You Think You Are? But it is always a thought-provoking experience, and the depth of research involved is remarkable. It is also a timely reminder that, however hard many of our lives may be at the moment, our forebears almost certainly had it harder. And that, even in the darkest depths, the human spirit endures.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 17th October

Live Heineken Champions Cup Rugby: Final, 4:15pm, Channel 4: Exeter Chiefs take on French side Racing 92 in the showpiece event of European rugby, live from Ashton Gate, Bristol.

Guy Martin’s War Machines, 7:15pm, Channel 4: The presenter looks back on some of his favourite engineering projects involving military vehicles. The programme features the restoration of a Mark 1 Spitfire, the recreation of a First World War tank which was one of the earliest armoured vehicles the final flight of an Avro Vulcan, and a re-enactment of a paratrooper drop from D-Day.

Strictly Come Dancing Launch Show 2020, 7:50pm, BBC One: Hurrah! Tess and Claudia return with a new series of the ballroom dancing spectacular, and all is right with the world. Well, almost… The celebs in this year’s line-up include former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, actress Caroline Quentin, Olympic boxer Nicola Adams, comedian Bill Bailey, and someone called HRVY, who is clearly not a fan of vowels.

Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2020, 8:15pm, BBC Two: Kirsty Wark and Brenda Emmanus present the best of this year's event, a show with challenges like no other in its 252-year history.

The Million Pound Cube 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Phillip Schofield hosts a special celebrity edition of the game show ahead of a new run of weekday episodes in which the prize fund has been increased to £1million. Mo Gilligan and David Ajao, and Jason Manford and his brother Stephen, compete in a series of increasingly difficult challenges to win the million for the charity of their choice.

Beatrice and Eugenie: Pampered Princesses?, 9:15pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary looking at the rather negative public perception of the princesses, and asking whether it’s actually fair or accurate.

The Jonathan Ross Show, 10:15pm, ITV: The popular entertainer and chat aficionado returns for his 16th series of chat on ITV. Tonight’s guests include Nick Frost, Katherine Ryan, and Clare Balding.

Sunday 18th October

Queen: The Band that Rocked the World, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary looking at the origins and career highlights of one of the biggest rock bands in history. Classic footage is combined with expert testimony to tell the story of this unique and much-loved outfit.

Monday 19th October

Trump’s Coronavirus Catastrophe, 8pm, Channel 4: Matt Frei looks at the President’s response to the pandemic, and speaks to scientists, insiders, critics and supporters about the administration’s somewhat idiosyncratic approach to dealing with Covid.

Tuesday 20th October

The Sheriffs Are Coming, 8pm, BBC One: Return of the documentary series following High Court enforcement officers who are seeking to retrieve money owed to members of the public.

Out of Her Mind, 10pm, BBC Two: Sara Pascoe writes and stars in this new sitcom about heartbreak, family and navigating life in general. The strong cast includes Juliet Stevenson and Cariad Lloyd.

Wednesday 21st October

Diana: The Truth Behind the Interview, 9pm, Channel 4: A second documentary (following last week’s one on Channel 5) looking at the circumstances behind, and consequences of, Princess Diana’s explosive Panorama interview 25 years ago.

Harlots, 9pm, BBC One: A third series for the costume drama, starring Lesley Manville and Jessica Brown Findlay, about a brothel in 18th Century London. It is said to be rather good. I’ve not seen it myself. I’m only allowed to watch PG-certificates and below.

The Noughties, 10pm, BBC Two: Can it really be that these nostalgia clip shows have now got as far as the Noughties? That was only about five minutes ago, surely? Anyway, this opening episode deals with the year 2000, and such culturally significant issues as Kylie’s hotpants and Anne Robinson being scary.

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