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TV reviews: State of the Union

Benjie Goodhart / 18 May 2022

Nick Hornby's wonderful State of the Union returns with a second season featuring a new couple played by Patricia Clarkson and Brendan Gleeson. Plus the best of the rest of this week's TV.

Brendan Gleeson and Patricia Clarkson in State of the Union series 2
Scott (Brendan Gleeson) and Ellen (Patricia Clarkson) in State of the Union, BBC Two. BBC/© 2021 Sundance TV LLC & AMC Film Holdings LLC./Laura Radford

State of the Union, Tuesday 24th May, 10pm, BBC Two

One of my favourite shows of recent years was the first series of State of the Union, written by Nick Hornby, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd. Each ten-minute episode was set in a pub (which just so happened to be my old local in Hammersmith, West London) and followed the conversation between a married couple before their weekly relationship counselling session.

The idea was simplicity itself, and the result was a show that was clever, funny, and moving, with Hornby’s pitch-perfect scripts never straying into the sentimental or melodramatic. I absolutely loved it, and would urge you to seek it out on iPlayer, where it’s available in its entirety.

As a result, I approached series two with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. This series follows a different couple on the same journey. Ellen (Patricia Clarkson) and Scott (Brendan Gleeson) are mid-60s, perhaps early 70s, and American. All of the action is set in a coffee shop. And, by ‘action’ I mean nothing of the sort. Nothing really happens, except that they talk. If you’re looking for explosions and car chases, this series is unequivocally not going to be your cup of tea. Or indeed coffee.

But for everyone else, I am relieved and delighted to report that this is another absolute triumph.

Scott is something of a curmudgeon. He walks into the coffee shop, and complains to the barista Jay (a superb performance by Esco Jouléy) about the range of coffee on offer. You know the drill. “Why can’t I just order coffee?”

Shortly afterwards, Ellen arrives. She’s familiar with the coffee shop, because she has a yoga class over the road. This immediately sets alarm bells ringing. Scott does not seem the type to have much truck with yoga. And so it begins to emerge that the two have vastly differing world views. As Scott says: “I’m retired. I think Bernie Sanders is a lunatic. I don’t see anything wrong with milk.” He feels like he is being left behind by the modern, eco-friendly, sustainable, ethically-sourced, vegan-friendly, complex-pronoun-filled world. He wants to play golf and drink wine and watch TV.

Ellen, meanwhile, is on something of an emotional journey. She does yoga. It later emerges that she is searching for spiritual meaning by going to quaker meetings. Unfortunately, her ‘journey’ doesn’t seem to involve Scott, and she fears that after decades of marriage, and children and grandchildren, their relationship may be over.

It’s fair to say, the two seem very different, and it does beg the question as to how their relationship has lasted this long. Or, more to the point, how she has stuck with him. But the beauty of the first series was the subtle even-handedness with which it treated its protagonists, and I very much suspect that, in later episodes, a more sympathetic Scott will emerge. I very much hope so, for Ellen’s sake!

Brendan Gleeson, the superb Irish actor who starred in the fabulous thriller In Bruges, is magnificent as Scott, reactionary and grumpy, but also funny and charismatic. And Patricia Clarkson (The Green Mile, Shutter Island) is every bit his equal as the ethereal and unsatisfied Ellen.

The script is funny and sad and deeply touching, a study of relationships, love, betrayal, ageing and disappointment. Please watch it. Even if you do agree that buying a coffee is too complicated these days.

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The Chernobyl Disaster 1/3, Thursday 24th May, 9pm, Channel 5

When Chernobyl happened, I was 13. At school, we came up with a joke about it. “What will happen to you if you visit a Soviet nuclear power plant?” “Chernobyl fall off.” We all thought it was frightfully funny, not least because, aged 13, any joke that features the word ‘nob’ is the funniest thing in all of human history.

Of course, in reality, there wasn’t a great deal that was funny about Chernobyl. At the time, we all believed it had been largely contained, and the fallout (quite literally) wasn’t too severe. The official Soviet death toll from the disaster was 31. In reality, in the decades since then, it is more likely that tens of thousands of people may have died as a result of the radiation leak following the explosion.

It’s grim. But it’s also grimly fascinating. I find myself oddly drawn to programmes about the disaster. I watched Sky’s stunning 2019 four-part drama, Chernobyl, with knuckles white from the tension. I watched last year’s feature-length Channel 5 documentary which saw Ben Fogle travelling to Chernobyl to tell the story of the disaster and what’s happened since. And, in February of this year, I watched Sky’s three-part documentary series Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes. I am now so well-versed in the subject, I could probably do a degree in nuclear physics. It might be more useful than my politics degree.

Now, Channel 5 is getting in on the act once again, with a new three-part series about the Chernobyl disaster called, with some inventiveness, The Chernobyl Disaster. Using archive footage, dramatic recreation, and testimony from those who were there at the time, it builds a meticulous picture of what happened on the day and in the aftermath. And, once again, it makes for grimly fascinating viewing.

In the 1970s, with the Cold War at its height, the USSR was engaged in a hugely ambitious programme of nuclear power. At its heart was Chernobyl, the largest nuclear power plant in the country, and a source of huge national pride. The first reactor was switched on in September 1977.

The other reactors were built at colossal speed, with workers toiling away around the clock, incentivised to reach their targets. But it’s one thing to incentivise someone to get your bathroom tiled on time. When you’re talking about a nuclear power plant, it’s nice to think that safety is placed above promptness in the hierarchy of decision making.

A report in January 1983 (which, needless to say, was kept secret) revealed that Chernobyl had suffered 26 accidents and 87 equipment failures in the preceding six years. But still, the race to finish reactor number 4 (the fateful reactor) continued unabated. Remarkably, when it went online, the final, key safety checks had never taken place.

And then, on 26th April 1986, during a routine safety test on Reactor Number 4, disaster struck. Using the testimony of Chernobyl workers, and interviews with nuclear physicists, the film forensically dissects what went wrong, and why. A mixture of external pressure, arrogance, and some colossal blunders led to a catastrophic explosion and radiation leak.

The most disturbing scenes in this film are of everyday life in Pripyat, the city of 50,000 people that housed the plant workers and their families. In the context of the 1980s Soviet Union, life in Pripyat was pretty good. It was a model town, with good accommodation, well-stocked shops, playgrounds, an amusement park, and open-air concerts. Watching the smiling faces of residents going about their days, it is impossible to ignore the fate that awaits them.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 21st May

Celine Dion at the BBC, 7pm, BBC Two: A collection of archive appearances on the BBC over the years by the Canadian singer, including footage of her representing Switzerland at Eurovision in 1988, and performances of Beauty and the Beast and My Heart Will Go On.

The Great Garden Revolution, 8:15pm, Channel 4: Horticulturist Errol Reuben Fernandes joins returning team members designer Joel Bird and craftsman Bruce Kenneth on the show in which people around the country transform outdoor spaces with the help of a team of experts.

Sunday 22nd May

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 1/13, 6pm, BBC One: The BBC launches its coverage of the annual flower-fest. Sophie Raworth and Joe Swift present an exclusive first look at this year's show. Caroline Quentin comes to Chelsea in search of inspiration for her own back garden, while Adam Frost, Carol Klein, Rachel de Thame, Arit Anderson and Toby Buckland showcase some of the most eagerly anticipated show gardens and discover the beautiful blooms in the Great Pavilion.

Hunted, 9pm, Channel 4: Series six of the show which sees members of the public going on the run from a team of hunters. Tonight, the fugitives are dropped on a beach, with nothing but a change of clothes and a small amount of cash. Time to leg it. Continues tomorrow.

Monday 23rd May

Silent Witness 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: The gritty crime drama set in the world of forensic pathology returns with a two-part story marking the return of Amanda Burton as the show's original lead, Professor Sam Ryan. The health secretary is assassinated during the launch of Sam's new company, prompting her to turn to the Lyell team for help.

Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell return with more stories of people who were abandoned as babies, helping them try to find their birth families and know their identities. Hankies at the ready.

Troy Deeney: Where’s My History? 10pm, Channel 4: The footballer discusses his campaign to make the teaching of Black, Asian and minority ethnic histories and experiences mandatory in the school curriculum. Troy meets people on both sides of the debate, and talks about his own troubled school experiences, inspiring support from boxer Anthony Joshua, actor David Harewood, former footballer and pundit Micah Richards and others.

Tuesday 24th May

Bake Off: the Professionals, 8pm, Channel 4: Liam Charles and new-co-host Stacey Solomon present the return of the Channel 4 baking challenge, as patisserie teams from establishments in Manchester, Cumbria, Wiltshire, Birmingham and London compete to be crowned the best in Britain.

Lucy Worsley Investigates 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: The historian examines four dramatic chapters in British history, starting with the 16th-century witch hunts, when thousands of ordinary people, mostly women, were hunted down, tortured and killed across Scotland and England.

Wednesday 25th May

George Clarke’s Flipping Fast 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: George Clarke and sibling property experts Scarlette and Stuart Douglas host this reality challenge in which six would-be property developers from across the UK are given a life-changing chance to start their own business. The budding developers are be given a whopping £100,000 investment to kickstart their business, competing against each other to see who can make the biggest profit in just 12 months.

Grayson’s Art Club: Queen’s Jubilee Special, 10pm, Channel 4: Grayson Perry presents a one-off edition to mark the Platinum Jubilee in June, asking viewers to create artworks that express what they feel about the monarch and celebrate her contribution to national life. Grayson and Philippa are joined in the studio by Prue Leith, who helps them to make art on the theme of the Queen. Harry Hill also contributes his own unique artistic tribute to Her Majesty, and Art Club meets the 93-year-old who spent two years knitting a replica of Sandringham House.

Thursday 26th May

The Princes Trust Awards, 8:30pm, ITV: Ant and Dec host the awards, now in their 17th year, and broadcast for the first time in the presence of founder and president Prince Charles. The ceremony celebrates the successes of young people supported by the charity, with stars from film, TV, music and sport on hand to share the winners' emotive stories and showcase their accomplishments.

Who Do You Think You Are? 1/5, 9pm, BBC One: Sue Perkins takes to the hot seat in this series opener, discovering more about her orphaned grandfather and a great grandfather interned as an `enemy alien" during the First World War.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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