TV blog: The Handmaid’s Tale

Benjie Goodhart / 26 May 2017

The TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale is a remarkable and engrossing experience, says our TV critic. Plus, more TV highlights this week.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Sunday 28th May, 9pm, Channel 4

My sister once asked my late father what was, in his opinion, the greatest novel in the English language. He replied, emphatically, and without hesitation, that it was Middlemarch. It was only years later that we discovered he’d never read it, he’d just heard someone else say it. It was uncharacteristic of my brilliant and well-read dad who, when his deception was uncovered, went on to read the book, and declared that he’d been right all along!

So, when I say to you that The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, is one of the best books of the 20th century, it’s probably best that I tell you straight off the bat that I’ve not read it. But I’ve heard it’s frightfully good, and I’ve seen the first couple of episodes of the new ten-part TV adaptation. The show is, I can say with utter confidence, an absolute humdinger, one of the best, most intelligent, thought-provoking, atmospheric and disturbing dramas in a long time.

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The story is set in something approximating present day, in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, patriarchal, totalitarian theocracy in the United States, renamed Gilead. If that all sounds like I’ve swallowed a thesaurus, then let me put it this way: It’s set in a place you really, really don’t want to be. Particularly if you’re a woman.

With mankind threatened by a devastating spread of infertility, the men have imposed a return to ‘traditional’ values where women are subservient and subjugated. They’re not even allowed to read. An even worse fate awaits those women who are still fertile. They are forced to become ‘handmaids’ who are assigned to high-ranking families where their job is to procreate.

Elisabeth Moss plays the eponymous Handmaid, whose husband is killed, and her child taken away from her. She is forced to become a Handmaid, which involves wearing god-awful puritanical clothes and being called Offred. And that’s not even the bad news!

She’s placed in the household of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), hence her name. She is literally ‘Of Fred’. (I’d try referring to my wife as ‘Ofbenjie’  but I very much suspect it’d end up with me being admitted to hospital under the name ‘Ofwendy’.) 

The nightmarish world of Gilead is magnificently realised. There is a lurking sense of paranoia and menace pervading each scene, with much of the horror implied rather than shown. That said, viewers of a sensitive disposition may want to arm themselves with a stiff drink, particularly when it comes to the deeply disturbing “particicution” (a sinister portmanteau if ever there was one). But it’s worth the discomfort, because this is a remarkable and utterly engrossing experience.

General Election specials, BBC and Channel 4, through the week

After a slow start, things are starting to hot up a bit. This week may not see the final vote itself, but it will go a long way to determining the winner. Up and down the country, in offices, shops, restaurants and pubs, people will be debating who to cast their vote for. And pretty soon, when democracy has spoken, someone will emerge victorious, and will prepare to meet the Queen. Yep, it’s semi-final week on Britain’s Got Talent.

Mind you, if that’s not your bag, then the BBC and Channel 4 will also be showing their share of comedians, magicians, impersonators and groups all attempting to sing in harmony from the same hymn-sheet, as we enter the latter stages of the General Election campaign.

Viewers could be forgiven for suffering from a severe case of political fatigue. In quick succession, we’ve had the 2015 General Election, the Brexit referendum, the US election, the French election, and now back to another UK General Election. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, only what it’s giving us is a headache as we watch angry people in suits quoting numbers and shouting at each other.

To make matters worse, this has been just about the dullest, most tepid election in living memory. It’s like watching Chelsea play Swindon Town – nobody’s really trying, everyone knows the blues will win, it’s just a question of how much by. This week, as we enter the home strait like an exhausted racehorse being ridden over jumps by a sumo wrestler, things should at least hot up a bit. At last, we’ll get something approaching a clash between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, albeit it not on the same stage at the same time.

Channel 4 and Sky News kick things off on Monday 29th May at 8:30pm, with May v Corbyn Live: The Battle for Number 10. The 90-minute programme will see the two party leaders being chopped up into tiny pieces and devoured with a fine chianti (I’m sorry, that should say ‘interviewed’) by Jeremy Paxman, before each is in turn subjected to questions from a studio audience, in a segment moderated by Sky’s political correspondent, Faisal Islam.

On Wednesday, BBC One hosts the BBC Election Debate, from 7:30pm to 9pm, live from Cambridge. Seeing as they’ve devoted 90-minutes of valuable primetime to the affair, they’ll doubtless be slightly miffed that neither Theresa May nor Jeremy Corbyn are likely to turn up. Instead, we are promised a seven-way podium debate, marshalled by Mishal Husain, featuring prominent members of various political parties, including some that don’t actually have any prominent members.

Finally, Friday night sees the timeless and effortlessly authoritative David Dimbleby host a Question Time Leaders Special live from York, which will once again feature Corbyn and May appearing on the same stage, but not at the same time, as they field questions from the audience.

Good luck, people. Be strong. There’s an awful lot of politics out there. Alternatively, there’s probably a lounge-singer on ITV with a nice smile and a sob story.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 27th May

FA Cup Final, 4:15pm, BBC One: Arsenal take on Chelsea, the season’s outstanding team, from Wembley. Personally, I miss the days when the match was at 3pm, and the build-up started at 10am and featured Little and Large, goal of the season, and the opportunity to watch the players play cards on their coaches.

Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors, 9pm, BBC Two: Historian Lucy Worsley looks at the houses Austen lived in, and examines how they influenced her work.

Monday 29th May

Britain’s Got Talent, 7:30pm, ITV: Semi-final week on BGT. Fill your boots with all the magicians, dance troupes, comedians, choirs, opera singers and novelty acts you can handle, every night at 7:30pm.

Tuesday 30th May

The Chillenden Murders 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: A team of experts re-examines the brutal murder of Lin Russell and her daughter Megan, and the attempted murder of 9-year-old Josie, in 1996.

Grayson Perry: Divided Britain, 9pm, Channel 4: The artist explores the tumultuous political events of the past 12 months, hearing from both sides of the Brexit argument, before, um, making a couple of large pots.

Wednesday 31st May

24 Hours in A&E, 9pm, Channel 4: It’s a welcome 13th series for the beautifully edited fly-on-the-wall documentary, filmed in the Accident and Emergency ward of St George’s Hospital, Tooting.

Fargo, 10pm, Channel 4: The brilliant, darkly comic and brutal crime series set in frozen Minnesota returns. Ewan McGregor stars as two very different brothers, with David Thewlis as a sinister money-lender. Each series is stand-alone, so you don’t need to have seen the first two to enjoy this. You do, however, need to be able to cope with the sight of blood.

Thursday 1st June:

Frank Skinner on Muhammad Ali, 9pm, BBC One: A year after the great man’s death, Skinner goes on a transatlantic road trip to discover more about his boyhood hero. Enchanting and surprisingly moving.

Catching a Killer: The Search for Natalie Hemming, 9pm, Channel 4: Documentary following the case of the 31-year-old mother of three who disappeared on 1st May 2016.

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