Dave Allen at Peace, Monday 2nd April, 9pm, BBC Two
Pretty soon they’ll run out of comedians. So far, the BBC have done dramatised biopics of Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Eric and Ernie, Hattie Jacques, Kenny Everett and Frankie Howerd – and that’s just the ones I can remember. At some point, as the list of yesteryear’s chucklemeisters gets thinner and thinner, we’ll be subjected to the life story of Orville or Spit the Dog. Mind you, if they’re as well-made and fascinating as this, it’ll still be worth watching.
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Aiden Gillen, last seen being brutally executed as the scheming Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, is astonishingly good as Allen, the loquacious Irish raconteur who was a TV staple in the 1970s and 80s. We meet Allen as a little chap in shorts called David Tynan O’Mahony. His childhood is a mixture of the idyllic (lovely parents, comfortably off) and the pretty awful (wildly sadistic education, losing a finger in an accident). It soon becomes clear where the raconteur in Dave comes from: his dad (a wonderfully sympathetic performance by comedian Tommy Tiernan) didn’t so much kiss the Blarmey Stone as get a mortgage and have three kids with it.
Following his father into journalism, Dave gets a job on a provincial paper. But it doesn’t take him long to figure out that life can offer even more glamour than the Drogheda Argus, and so he ends up working with his big brother Johnny at Butlins in Skegness (glamour being a relative concept). One night, when an act doesn’t turn up, Dave and Johnny take to the stage in front of a hostile crowd and knock it out of the park.
And so begins our hero’s ascent up the comedy ladder, ambition writ large in his every action. Most of us, when confronted by an agent telling us we had to change our name, would argue back – names are a pretty key part to our identity. Instead, David Tynan O’Mahony responds instantly that he will call himself Dave Allen, as it’ll put him at the top of the list, alphabetically.
Much of the show features Gillen performing Allen’s celebrated monologues, sitting in his dapper suit, a ciggie on the go, and a glass of whisky next to him, as we are taken on a whistle-stop tour through the life of one of the comedy greats. His disdain for religion is a constant theme throughout his sketches, which are lovingly recreated for the show.
In the end, though, as funny and engaging as Allen was, shows like this are nothing without an emotional core, and the scene towards the end between an ageing Dave and big brother Johnny is triumphant – funny and moving and beautifully performed, and featuring a show-stealing cameo from Conleth Hill, Gillen’s Game of Thrones co-star). It’s just one of many excellent cameos – there are appearances from Pauline McLynn, Roberth Bathurst, Simon Day and Julian Rhind-Tutt. But it is Gillen whose mesmerising and evocative take on Allen holds the whole thing together.
As an interesting side note, shows like this always make me want to go and read up on the subject matter. (I can’t watch an episode of The Crown without it resulting in several hours of research into mid-20th Century domestic and international politics). In reading about Allen, it turns out he had two brothers, according to Wikipedia (yes, I am exhaustive and endlessly diligent in my careful use of reputable sources). Poor Peter seems to have been airbrushed from history. As are Allen’s two wives and his children, who are cast aside in the name of entertainment.
Ordeal By Innocence 1/3, Sunday 1st April, 9pm, BBC One
All good things come to those who wait. The Christmas Agatha Christie whodunit has become a delicious festive staple on BBC One in recent years, so when it was pulled from the schedules last year, it felt a bit like someone had yanked the turkey off the table and replaced it with a frozen pizza. But pulled it was, as a result of historic allegations made against one of the cast.
The BBC made the decision to re-shoot vast chunks of the drama with a new actor, which meant that filming recommenced in January outside Glasgow. This produced one or two fairly significant logistical problems, namely the fact that the whole show is meant to be set during a glorious summer weekend. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Glasgow in January, but it is not exactly redolent of a glorious summer weekend. Of particular difficulty, apparently, was the fact that you could see the cast’s breath in vast clouds of steam whenever they were outside.
It would be entirely forgivable, under the circumstances, for things to feel a little disjointed, for production values to have slipped somewhat, for the whole thing just to not quite hold together. In short, for the Christmas treat to have turned into an Easter shambles. So it gives me the utmost pleasure to report that this is not remotely the case. What the cast and crew have managed to achieve is nothing short of remarkable, because this is absolutely riveting, beautifully crafted stuff.
Events begin one dark and stormy night (don’t they always) in a large, beautiful country house (isn’t it always). Ooh, look, it’s Anna Chancellor bringing a bit of stardust to the productio… oh… she’s dead. That didn’t take long. Okay, safe to say there are going to be plenty of flashbacks in this series – you don’t employ an actor of Chancellor’s standing for 12 seconds of screen time.
It’s a very Agatha Christie death as well. Clonked over the head with a crystal decanter. She’s found by a maid, who can’t stop screaming. It’s always the maids who find them, and they’re always screamers. In Christie land, the maid screams, while the upper class suspects merely arch an eyebrow, look all mysterious and duplicitous, and light a cigarette.
I love the Christie tropes, and they’re all brought out of the box here. The large, beautiful house, the large, beautiful family, the hidden tensions and bad blood, the rude aristocrats and put-upon staff, the glamorous outfits, the guilty secrets, and the fact that everybody seems profoundly unhappy and nobody is capable of being civil to one another for more than seven seconds.
It’s got a belting cast as well. The patriarch of the family is Bill Nighy, who does his usual, excellent performance of playing Bill Nighy (and I mean that as a compliment, I could happily watch him clip his toenails). There’s Chancellor, of course, as his wife – for a few seconds, at least. Movern Christie plays the scheming, screaming maid, Alice Eve the scheming femme fatale, Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson is one of the scheming (okay, can we just assume everyone is scheming) offspring, and Matthew Goode, who is rapidly becoming a favourite of mine, plays her embittered husband. In short, all the ingredients are here – and who says Christmas dinner doesn’t taste just as good at Easter?
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The best… and the rest
Saturday 31st March
Attenborough’s Wonder of Eggs, 8pm, BBC Two: In 1960, David Attenborough acquired a giant egg belonging to the extinct ‘elephant bird’. In this programme, he returns to Madagascar to find out more about the fate of the bird and whether it offers any lessons for wildlife protection.
Hamlet, 9pm, BBC Two: The Almeida Theatre’s hugely acclaimed 2017 production of Hamlet, with Andrew Scott in the titular role, is shown in its entirety. Whether or not you’re thrilled by the prospect of 195 minutes of thesps being thespy probably depends on your attitude to Shakespeare.
Sunday 1st April
The Generation Game, 8pm, BBC One: Mel and Sue host the first of two special episodes reviving the classic game show featuring bizarre challenges, the legendary conveyer belt, and a studio audience drunk with excitement shouting “cuddly toy” at random intervals.
The Conspiracy Files, 9pm, BBC Two: Caroline Catz investigates the murder of Democrat political campaigner Seth Rich during the 2016 presidential campaign. Although widely accepted to have been a robbery, the killing later became the subject of right-wing conspiracy theories that he had been murdered by the Clinton campaign for releasing damaging internal e-mails. More than anything, this is a depressing look at how fake news has ever more cachet in American politics.
Monday 2nd April
The Million Pound Holiday Club, 7:30pm, Channel 4: Four celebrities are assigned to review vastly expensive holidays for lifestyle magazine Lusso, as Channel 4 continues its obsession with the lives of the super rich.
Travel Man 1/4, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Return of the amiable travel show in which Richard Ayoade and an ever-changing cast of comedians travel to a city for a weekend getaway. Tonight, he and the brilliant Lee Mack visit Brussels.
Lenny Henry: The Commonwealth Kid, 9pm, BBC One: Our Len tells the story of the Commonwealth, and examines what it means to its members in the 21st Century. He also visits the Caribbean, including his parents’ homeland of Jamaica. Nice work, if you can get it!
The Island with Bear Grylls 1/5, 9pm, Channel 4: Bear Grylls returns with a new collection of masochists determined to subject themselves to the most hideous privations in the name of entertainment. This year, the twist is that they’re split into two groups, on the basis of their earnings. I sense tensions ahead…
Tuesday 3rd April
Last Laugh in Vegas 1/5, 9pm, ITV: Cannon and Ball, Bernie Clifton, Kenny Lynch, Su Pollard… sorry, have I accidentally switched on my telly in 1983? Oh. Turns out this is ITV’s new reality show, in which performers of yesteryear get together to put on a gig in Las Vegas, under the stewardship of a bigwig local producer. Has the potential to be funny and touching. Also has the potential to be a slow motion car crash.
Wednesday 4th April
My Dad, the Peace Deal and Me, 9pm, BBC One: Comedian Patrick Kielty suffered more than most during The Troubles: His dad was murdered by loyalist paramilitaries. Here, on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, he travels round Northern Ireland to assess how things have changed since then. This should be compulsory viewing for anyone thinking the collapse of the peace deal is an acceptable option in the months and years to come.
Thursday 5th April
Today at the Games, 6:30pm, BBC Two: Clare Balding presents the best of the action from day one of the Commonwealth Games in Queensland, as the astonishing Brownlee brothers go for triathlon gold, and Scotland’s Hannah Miley pursues another 400m medley swimming gold.
The Investigator: A British Crime Story 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Journalist and former detective Mark Williams-Thomas looks into a series of cases of missing women and unsolved murders, starting with the tragic case of Louise Kay, who disappeared in Eastbourne in 1988.
Friday 6th April
I Don’t Like Mondays 1/3, 8pm, Channel 4: New gameshow presented by Channel 4’s go-to guy for light entertainment, Alan Carr. Audience members arrive with their resignation letters in hand, and one lucky winner gets to resign from work and win a year’s salary in one go.
The City & the City 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: A dead woman is discovered on the border between two cities divided by a hostile relationship. David Morrissey is the policeman who has to investigate, Based on China Miéville’s fantasy novel.