Killing Eve 1/8, Saturday 15th September, 9pm, BBC One
Have you been watching Bodyguard? (Don’t bother answering, I can’t actually hear you. Unless you’re my wife, who occasionally reads this blog in bed, in which case (a) I already know you’re watching Bodyguard because we watch it together, and (b) please remember to remove your annoyingly jangly bangles and sleep on your left side so as not to snore). If you’ve not been watching it, it’s worth catching up with on iPlayer – it’s a rip-roaring, edge-of-your-seat thriller that’s become the BBC’s most watched drama of the last decade.
But here’s the thing. While it is very good, not only is it not the BBC’s best thriller of the decade, it’s not even the best thriller of this month! That accolade has to go to this absolutely outstanding and breathtakingly original darkly comic yarn about a psychopathic assassin called Villanelle (Jodie Comer) and the MI6 agent desperate to catch her, who is called Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). It’s not a great name to have, Eve, if you’re in a drama called Killing Eve. It doesn’t exactly suggest a cheerfully stress-free existence.
The action takes place all over Europe – from Vienna to Tuscany, Paris to Bulgaria – and the locations are all sumptuously beautiful. Each episode feels like a 42-minute broadcast by the Remain campaign to remind us what we are leaving behind when we exit Europe. On the other hand, bearing in mind said Europe is littered with the corpses of a variety of ne’er-do-wells bumped off in increasingly sadistic ways by a pan-continental nutjob with a penchant for watching people die, perhaps we’re better off distancing ourselves from the whole shebang. What I’m saying is that leaving Europe is both an absolute catastrophe and an urgent necessity, something that we must never, ever do, but that we should also do immediately. Glad to have helped sort that one out.
The supporting cast is outstanding, with particular credit to Darren Boyd, Fiona Shaw and a delightful turn by David Haig as Eve’s fellow spook, Bill. But in the end, this is a two-hander, and Oh and Comer are both completely riveting as the two leads. Oh spent a decade on marvellously bonkers American hospital drama Grey’s Anatomy, but seems to have been made for this role, as a frustrated and ambitious secret service desk-jockey who is desperate for a little more excitement in her life (file under ‘Be careful what you wish for’).
Meanwhile Comer’s biggest role to date was as the scandalous ‘other woman’ in Doctor Foster. But this part is completely different gravy. Villanelle is a highly-skilled and utterly heartless killer who takes a little too much pleasure in her work. She is a dangerous beast indeed – hugely intelligent, a multilingual walking Google translate, athletic, beautiful and more barking than Battersea Dogs Home. That Comer manages to make her both terrifying and funny and even ever-so-slightly likeable is a remarkable achievement.
That the whole conceit works so well should probably come as no surprise. It was adapted from the series of novellas by Luke Jennings by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the talent behind last year’s breakout comedy hit Fleabag. Due to the success of Fleabag, everyone in TV-land has been just itching to see what Killing Eve was like. And it’s worth the wait. It’s funny, gripping, bloody – and very good.
Michael Palin in North Korea 1/2, Thursday 20th September, 9pm, Channel 5
We’re really spoiled just now. Not only do we have the two dramas of the year so far, we also have two blindingly good travelogues (the other, natch, is the marvellous Ms Lumley’s Silk Route sojourn). In this one, you’ve got the daddy of the genre, Michael Palin, visiting just about the most intriguing, bizarre and isolationist country in the world: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
In spite of its name, it’s fair to say it’s not a world-leading beacon of democratic ideals. In fact, it ranks 167th in the Democracy Index. Out of 167. Its school report would say “Could do better.” In Eurovision terms, it is Norway. Nul points. Except here, Norway has the last laugh. They’re in first place in the Democracy Index.
But it’s this that makes North Korea so intriguing. Seven decades of totalitarian rule and isolationism have meant that, in an age of globalisation and cultural homogeneity, North Korea is truly and genuinely different.
The contrast between North Korea and pretty much everywhere else becomes apparent immediately that Palin enters the country, see the video trailer below. On the Chinese side of the river are endless skyscrapers. On the North Korean side, there’s pretty much nothing. There is a weird emptiness to North Korea that pervades almost every shot in this programme. There are huge public squares, or six lane highways, that are completely empty.
On his first morning in Pyongyang, Palin is woken at dawn by a ghostly music that seems to be played all across the city, on a loop. It is called Where Are You, Dear General, a tribute to the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. It reverberates around the streets like a surreal scene in a dystopian film.
Much of Pyongyang seems dystopian, and even more of it is surreal. There is a metro system that is almost comically ornate, all marble columns and chandeliers. I’d hate to think what a North Korean would make of Ongar station on a Saturday night. Each carriage contains a picture of Kim Il Sung, and another of his son, Kim Jong Il. Every passenger is also wearing badges of both of them. If I were an investor in North Korea, I’d go in heavily on pictures of current leader Kim Jong Un for the future.
The city is a bizarre mix of hyper-modern vanity projects and grim Soviet-style tower blocks. But it’s by no means as awful as you might expect. Palin observes people having fun, playing sports or having spa treatments. He visits a school, and joins in an English lesson. (Although why you would teach your population English when you don’t want them ever leaving the country or accessing any foreign reading material is anyone’s guess…).
Palin joins what seems to be a citywide party on May Day, the international workers’ day. There are barbecues, drinking, dancing, and general, cheerful raucousness. Maybe it’s not so bad here. Or maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Palin’s every move is guided by a team of minders, who pretty much dictate his itinerary. Also, Pyongyang is thought to be far more prosperous than the rest of the country, which Palin will visit next week.
As ever, he is a warm, avuncular and thoughtful presence, and this is as riveting a travelogue as you are likely to encounter. And you have to see the massive-hatted, robotic, choreographed female traffic police in Pyongyang, or you’ll have never seen the strangest sight humanity has to offer.
Read our interview with Michael Palin in the October issue of Saga Magazine
The best… and the rest
Sunday 16th September
King Arthur's Britain: The Truth Unearthed, 9pm, BBC Two: The always-watchable Professor Alice Roberts pulls together the latest evidence, though discovering “the truth” about King Arthur’s Britain might be overstating things a tad.
Tuesday 18th September
The Circle, 9:15pm, Channel 4: A new reality show, on every night for the next couple of weeks, which will see a bunch of people living in a block of flats. They will only be able to communicate with each other via social media. At the end, someone will win £50,000. No, I don’t really get it either, but as with all radical new concepts, it could be brilliant, or teeth-jarringly awful.
Wednesday 19th September
Joanna Lumley's Silk Road Adventure, 9pm, ITV: On the second leg of her enthralling journey, Joanna Lumley travels from the Georgian beaches of the Black Sea, across the stunning Caucasus mountains, and into ultra-modern, oil-rich Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.
Read Benjie's review of Joanna Lumley's Silk Road Adventure
As ever, she is winning company, and the countries offer up seemingly endless delights and surprises.
Read our interview with Joanna Lumley
Grand Designs 1/7, 9pm, Channel 4: Good old Kevin McCloud returns to meet more couples building eco-houses from blended Estonian larch, curved glass from Antwerp, and Mongolian slate. Lively, comforting telly.
Thursday 20th September
Emmerdale 1918 1/6, 8:30pm, ITV: To mark 100 years since the end of the First World War, stars of Emmerdale old and new celebrate the lives of Yorkshire men and women who drove the war effort. This is, of course, in no way ITV trying to cash in on the popularity of its soaps (see also the recent Corrie-Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are hybrid).
To Catch a Serial Killer with Trevor McDonald, 9pm, ITV: The story of Christopher Halliwell, whose capture and double confession led to his incarceration, but also ended the police career of the officer who questioned him. Sir Trev investigates with his usual aplomb and authority.
Friday 21st September
Walking Britain’s Lost Railways 1/6, 9pm, Channel 5: In the 1960s, the axe fell on 4,000 miles of the UK rail network. Now Rob Bell walks along the routes of these lost lines, telling their stories as he goes. Tonight, Elgin to Portsoy.
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