TV blog: The Last Post

Benjie Goodhart / 27 September 2017

A new Sunday-night drama set in Aden in 1965, plus Porridge re-imagined for the 21st century and more TV highlights for the week ahead.

The Last Post, Sunday 1st October, 9pm, BBC One

Aden, 1965. You can tell it’s 1965 because Aden is described as being in somewhere called South Arabia, as opposed to Yemen. And it’s ruled by the British. And the aeroplanes are those old propeller types that look like they have all the ability to stay in the air of a breeze block. A glamorous young couple are landing at a military airport. He is a dapper young officer of the military police (young is the word, he looks about 15). She is dressed like Jackie Kennedy. “This isn’t Aldershot, is it…” he says, displaying all the tactical and cultural nous upon which the British Empire was built. “I can’t tell you how happy that makes me,” she replies. Bit rude. I can’t see her being given the keys to the city of Aldershot anytime soon.

The couple are Captain Joe Martin (newcomer Jeremy Neumark Jones) and his new wife Honor (Jessie Buckley). Joe has been lined up to replace a hugely popular officer at the Aden Royal Military Police camp. New wife, new country, new company of men to command, big shoes to fill, and the small matter of local insurgents very keen on the idea of killing you. I’m going to try not to get stressed by my job in the future.

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An old (real) newsreel clip shows life for expat Brits over there. “The beach here at Aden is lovely,” announces the Queen’s slightly posher cousin on voiceover. “The sea is warm, and the sharks are not always hungry.”

But life in Aden isn’t all sunning oneself on the beach and hoping not to get devoured by Jaws. It’s a tough place to be. As well as the constant possibility of violent insurrection, there is unbearable heat, restrictive social convention, and simmering passions. It’s a tough gig. Just ask the Laithwaites. Ed (Stephen Campbell Moore) has been passed over for promotion, is feuding with the camp’s commanding officer (Ben Miles) and is trapped in a loveless marriage with wife Alison (Jessica Rayne, of Call the Midwife fame). Alison, meanwhile, is taking refuge in the arms of another man, and in gin, which she drinks like water. And you drink a lot of water in Aden. I have a suspicion the nuns at Nonnatus House would be less than impressed.

So begins the first episode of Peter Moffat’s new six-part drama. Moffat has based the tale, he says, on his parents’ lives as an itinerant RMP Officer and his wife (I really hope the Laithwaites aren’t autobiographical). I suppose it’s just as well his dad wasn’t a frustrated copper pursuing a serial killer – if I see one more of those dramas, I think I’ll be wrestling the gin from Alison’s thirsty grasp.

The heat and claustrophobia of camp life is evoked beautifully, and Moffat has produced a script that skips along, marrying the domestic drudgery of camp life with the constant fear outside the walls highly effectively. It’s pretty hellish out there. But at least it isn’t Aldershot, eh Honor?

Porridge, Friday 6th October, 9:30pm, BBC One

Last year, someone at the BBC had an idea. The idea, basically, was to dispense with ideas, and instead simply recycle the old ones. I suspect this new approach to comedy began around the time Still Open All Hours proved to be an unexpected success on BBC One. Comedy is a notoriously hard and unforgiving genre on television, and attracting an audience to a new comedy is a risky venture. So, instead of asking viewers to try to engage with a whole new comic creation, why not simply ride the coat-tails of an old and much-loved favourite.

So, last September, as part of its sitcom season, BBC One showed three new pilots of old favourites: Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart, and Porridge. And when the BBC executives came to assess the success of their venture, they found the first was not to their liking, the second was also sub-standard, but the third bowl of Porridge was just right. So they ate the lot, before going upstairs and trying the beds… No, hang on, I’m getting confused…

Anyway, Porridge was considered enough of a success to warrant a new six-part series, and here it is. Still written by the evergreen Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Porridge follows Fletch’s grandson, Nigel Norman Fletcher, who is serving five years for cyber-crime. (Cyber-crime, incidentally, is a good choice by the writers, as it immediately makes the programme appear more up-to-date, and it’s also a seemingly victimless offence. You can’t imagine yourself chuckling along to the zany prison antics of a serial killer.)

The grandson is also known as Fletch, and has the same mannerisms, schemes and attitudes towards authority and doing time as his grandfather.

The grandson is also known as Fletch, and has the same mannerisms, schemes and attitudes towards authority and doing time as his grandfather. The comedy works, by and large, as a modern reboot thanks to a virtuoso performance by comic actor Kevin Bishop, who inhabits the role of Fletch in a remarkably similar way to the great Ronnie Barker 40 years ago.

The similarities don’t end there. Fulton Mackay’s curmudgeonly Scottish Prison Officer Mackay has been replaced by a curmudgeonly Scottish Prison Officer Meekie, played with relish by Mark Bonner, while Brian Wilde’s more sympathetic Officer Barrowclough has been replaced by Dominic Coleman’s similarly inclined Mr Braithwaite.

Tonight’s episode is a charming riff on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac - and I’m not drawing highbrow associations here, Cyrano is frequently referenced in Porridge’s dialogue. Mind you, I think it’s fairly typical, in prison these days, to discuss the work of Edmond Rostand.

All in all, it’s undeniable that some people will be thrilled by the return of Porridge, others will find it slightly dated, and others still will consider it sacrilege that such a classic sitcom has been remade. It’s an interesting choice, as one of the most popular comedies of the 70s. You can’t imagine, for example, that anyone would ever be foolhardy enough to try and remake Fawlty Towers. Some shows just can’t be improved upon. I’m not saying this show has improved upon the original, but it’s not without value, and is without a doubt worth a watch.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 30th September

Britain Afloat 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: Mary-Ann Ochota travels Britain’s waterways, discovering how boats have shaped our lives. This series opener is dedicated to the unglamorous workhorse that shaped London, the Thames Barge.

Stop All the Clocks: WH Auden in an Age of Anxiety, 9pm, BBC Two: What is behind the poet’s resurgence so many years after his death? Why have so many turned to him in an age of turmoil and uncertainty. This hour-long documentary may not empty Britain’s pubs on a Saturday night, but BBC Two should be commended for its continued commitment to arts programming. (Obviously I haven’t seen any of it…)

Kate Tempest Presents… 10pm, BBC Two: More poetry, this time from Hull, and not a Larkin in sight! Acclaimed poet Kate Temple presents a night of poetry and performance from the BBC’s Contains Strong Language festival.

Sunday 1st October

Escape, Channel 4, 8pm: New factual series which sees five engineers stranded each week in different hostile terrain surrounded by wreckage, which they must build into a vehicle in order to reach safety. Ex-SAS hard-beardie-shouty chap Ant Middleton is there to lend muscle and moral support.

Electric Dreams: The Commuter, 9pm, Channel 4: The bold new sci-fi anthology series based on Phillip K. Dick’s short stories continues tonight with the story of a train attendant (Timothy Spall) whose life is turned around when a man buys a train ticket for somewhere that doesn’t exist. Or does it? A thoughtful and melancholy tale.

Boris Johnson: Blond Ambition, 10:05pm, Channel 4: Channel 4 News’ excellent political commentator Gary Gibbon charts a tumultuous 14 months in the life of the Foreign Secretary, Brexit architect, and man who would be king… Not with hair like that, surely?

Tuesday 3rd October

Barbie: The Most Famous Doll in the World, 9:15pm, BBC Two: Retail guru Mary Portas investigates the massive global phenomenon that is Barbie, a lady who is looking very much younger than her 60 years spent at the top of the toy box. Why do so many adults collect Barbie, who is the real life Ken, and does Barbie act as a strong role model for girls, or is she responsible for low body image?

Thursday 5th October

World Cup 2018 Qualifier Live: England v Slovenia, 7:30pm, ITV: Mark Pougatch presents live coverage of an efficient yet uninspiring 2-0 win over Slovenia, ensuring England’s qualification next year’s World Cup, and the opportunity to be humiliated by a tiny island nation on the global stage.

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