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TV reviews: The Control Room and Big Oil v The World

Benjie Goodhart / 14 July 2022

An emergency call handler gets his life turned upside down in absorbing new drama The Control Room, and docuseries Big Oil v The World reveals decades of cover-ups. Plus, the best of the rest of this week's TV.

Taj Atwal and Iain De Caestecker in The Control Room
Leigh (Taj Atwal) and Gabe (Iain De Caestecker) in BBC One's The Control Room. BBC/Hartswood Films/Anne Binckebanck

The Control Room 1/3, Sunday 17th July, 9pm, BBC One

The people who work in call centres are absolute heroes. I don’t mean the ones who call me six times a day warning me that my internet is about to be cut off, I mean the people who work in emergency call centres.

Thanks to the plethora of documentaries set in these places, we’ve had an opportunity to see behind the curtain, to witness these dedicated experts staying cool under the utmost pressure as they deal with life-and-death scenarios on a daily basis. It puts into perspective the stress I feel when I have to write a preview of a new ITV game show.

But now this high-pressure environment is the setting for a new drama on BBC One, showing over the next three nights. The idea for the story came to writer Nick Leather after he’d discovered his daughter limp and unresponsive in her bed one morning and called an ambulance. Thankfully, the girl was fine, but Leather’s conversation with the call handler stayed with him, and he began to wonder what their lives must be like, dealing with such emotive and high-stakes calls every day.

The result is this absorbing three-part series, set in a call centre in Glasgow. The chief protagonist is Gabe (Iain de Caestecker), who we first meet when a call comes in from a man who has broken down by the side of the road, with his wife in the advanced stages of labour. Gabe talks him through the delivery, and a new life comes into the world. The caller immediately decides to name the baby after Gabe, which might be a little bit galling for his partner, lying on the back seat of the car, presumably in the throes of delivering her placenta, who doesn’t seem to get a say in the matter!

Anyway, Gabe is pretty pleased with life. Not baby Gabe, obviously – he’s probably a bit freaked out to have suddenly left the womb and entered the world in the back of a clapped-out old banger. But call-handler Gabe is in an understandably good mood. Which, TV drama being what it is, means something terrible is about to happen to him.

And then the next call comes in. It is from a woman in some distress. It turns out she’s just done something rather bad. As Gabe tries to discover her location, she realises that she knows him. (This does not count as a spoiler, as it’s been in all of the show’s pre-publicity material). What are the chances, eh?

And, just like that, Gabe finds himself drawn into a web of deceit and illegality. If he thought the most stressful part of his day was going to be telling a woman to push on the next contraction, he’s in for a shock. Gabe’s life is about to be turned upside down in the most dramatic fashion.

In a TV landscape where most thrillers involve eccentric maverick detectives trying to solve unusually convoluted murder plots, this is an interesting new angle on a familiar trope. De Caestecker is excellent as the decent, naïve Gabe, and there is strong support from a cast including Sharon Rooney, Stuart Bowman, Daniel Portman and Joanna Vanderham. Well worth a look.

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Big Oil v The World 1/3, Thursday 21st July, 9pm, BBC Two

It won’t have escaped your attention that it’s a bit warm at the moment. And by a bit warm, I mean tarmac-blisteringly scorching. At the time of writing, the Met Office has predicted that temperatures could rise to a record 40˚C in the next week. This is problematic for everyone, not least my wife, who is Scottish and starts to melt if the outdoor air temperature gets above an ambient 9˚C.

It also won’t have escaped your attention that mankind is responsible for this heatwave. Unless, that is, you’re a climate change sceptic, in which case I’m willing to bet you’re also convinced that the moon landings were faked and the Royal Family are all lizards who take human form.

For the rest of us, climate change is an undeniable fact, which is why we’re all currently putting our pants in the freezer and sleeping in a cold bath. It’s been accepted wisdom for decades now. But before that, there was a degree of uncertainty.

This remarkable and shocking new three-part series looks at the root of that uncertainty and discovers how big oil companies became aware of fossil-fuel-caused climate change over 40 years ago, and did everything they could to cover it up.

Jane McMullen’s film begins with a message on the screen. “This film is based on a year of investigative research, over 100 interviews, and thousands of newly discovered documents. No executives from ExxonMobil or leading industry groups agreed to be interviewed.” Fair enough. When you’ve been caught with your hand in the cookie jar, there’s not much you can say in your own defence. And when the cookie jar might indicate climate catastrophe, it’s probably best to stay schtum.

The people who do speak out in this film are scientists, climate experts and politicians. McMullen has managed to get access to many of the key players in the story, from humble researchers to former Vice president and environmental campaigner Al Gore. And the results are devastating.

Back in the late 1970s, oil giants like Exxon, then the biggest company in the world, began to look into the theory of man-made climate change. The scientists they employed came back and indicated that burning fossil fuels led to an increase in CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere and that this was causing a ‘Greenhouse Effect’, leading to a rise in the planet’s temperatures.

And then they buried it. Research schemes were shut down, and scientists were moved on. And oil executives, armed with the knowledge that their product was causing untold damage to the world, actively denied that this was happening. In short, they prioritised fiscal goals over the fate of humanity.

This film, the first in a meticulously researched and forensically detailed series, is a devastating critique of the actions of big oil companies, and the pressure groups they formed. Step-by-step, it documents the frantic attempts by scientists and politicians to raise public awareness of this issue, and the mendacious and Machiavellian lengths to which big industry went to obfuscate the truth.

I’m no dyed-in-the-wool anti-capitalist, but the emphasis on profit over people highlighted in this extraordinary polemic is beyond shocking. As Al Gore puts it at the end of the programme: “I think it’s the moral equivalent of a war crime… The consequences of what they’ve done are almost unimaginable.”

The best of the rest

Saturday 16th July

A Royal Guide to… Weddings, 8pm, Channel 4: This series paints an intimate portrait of the inner workings of the Royal Family, drawing on stunning archive footage and insider interviews. Each episode examines a different topic, revealing how the Royal Family, past and present, have dealt with - and continue to deal with - everything that life throws at them, in ways that often draw on centuries of tradition but that can also seem characteristically eccentric.

Sunday 17th July

Murder in Provence 1/3, 8pm, ITV: Investigative judge Antoine Verlaque and his romantic partner Marine Bonnet put their weekend getaway plans on hold when there is a murder at the local university. The couple questions professors and students to distinguish professional jealousies from motives to kill, but the further they delve, the more crimes they uncover. Mystery, starring Roger Allam and Nancy Carroll.

Monday 18th July

Long Lost Family Special: The Unknown Soldiers, 9pm, ITV: Across the world today lay half a million British and Commonwealth soldiers still unaccounted for. Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell join forces with the ‘War Detectives’ from the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre as they continue the never-ending task of identifying missing World War soldiers and tracing their surviving families.

Witness Number 3, 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Single mum and hairdresser Jodie Packer witnesses something seemingly innocuous, but soon finds herself as the significant witness in a murder enquiry and facing a campaign of intimidation. As Jodie's paranoia grows, a local gang mounts a terrifying threat against her and her young son Kyle. Thriller, starring Nina Toussaint-White.

Super Surgeons: A Chance at Life 1/3, 10pm, Channel 4: Filmed across a year at the world-leading Royal Marsden Hospital, this three-part documentary series explores the pioneering and life-saving operations surgeons perform to give patients the best chance at life. The series follows surgeons as they face some of the most complex and challenging oncological cases in the world as they make the ultimate decision – whether they can or can't treat the cancer by operating.

Tuesday 19th July

Kew Gardens: A Year in Bloom, 1/7, 8pm, Channel 5: Cameras follow 12 months in the lives of Kew Gardens' staff. It is early spring and daffodils, crocuses and magnolia are bringing visitors in search of the first colour. Also making a fresh start is Simon, the new head of living collections, and he's got the massive job of evaluating nearly 17,000 plant species in the gardens to decide what stays and what goes.

Britain's Tourette's Mystery: Scarlett Moffatt Investigates, 10pm, Channel 4: Britain's in the midst of a mystery outbreak of Tourette's. But what's causing this explosion of tics? And why is it appearing out of the blue in young people? Scarlett Moffatt embarks on an investigation to uncover the potential causes of this medical phenomenon. It's an unexpectedly personal journey for Scarlett, as she reflects on the tics that appeared when she was just 12 years old and already having to deal with crippling anxiety.

Wednesday 20th July

Unvaccinated, 9pm, BBC Two: Covid-19 is on the rise again in the UK. After multiple lockdowns and more than 197,000 deaths, experts are warning we’re now entering a fifth wave of the pandemic. So why are five million adults in the UK still yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine?

Friday 22nd July

Sanditon, 9pm, ITV: Sanditon, the acclaimed drama based on Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel left fans in suspense and clamouring for more with the first series’ heart-breaking finale. The new series will pick up the action nine months later, as the town is growing in popularity, featuring characters familiar and new.

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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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