TV blog: The Little Drummer Girl

Benjie Goodhart / 25 October 2018

The Beeb unleash a new Sunday night thriller from the team behind The Night Manager.

The Little Drummer Girl, Sunday 28th October, 9pm, BBC One

We have got a bit of a problem in our house at the moment. For as long as I can remember, Sunday nights have been early-to-bed night, when my wife and I turn in at the same time as the children. This means that we can enjoy weekends of absolutely unabashed hedonism and shocking debauchery, and still guarantee that we’ll feel fresh by Monday morning. (I should point out that my definition of unabashed hedonism these days constitutes an extra glass of wine in front of Match of the Day…)

The problem is that BBC One keeps messing everything up. They keep putting really rather good dramas on the telly at 9pm on a Sunday night, which means we keep watching it. First, there was The Bodyguard (absolute hokum, of course, but great fun) followed by the intriguing, dark and twisty mystery The Cry. Now, I know that in this age of digital recording and TV-on-demand, we could just watch it later in the week. But there’s always some loudmouth in the office, or some nitwit on social media or the bus blabbing away about so-and-so having been shot or whatever, and the chances of making it through the day without knowing what happened are all but non-existent.

Now the Beeb has gone and done it again, putting on what looks like being an absolutely top-notch drama in the let’s-annoy-Benjie slot at 9pm on a Sunday night. This six-part thriller is adapted from a John Le Carré novel, much like last year’s runaway success, The Night Manager. As if that weren’t cause enough for excitement, this series comes from the same production company, and features another globe-trotting, glamorous, explosive tale of espionage and derring-do. Hurrah!

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The action begins in West Germany in 1979. You can tell it’s 1979 because everyone has excellent clothes and terrible hair. What you can’t tell is who the goodies are and who the baddies are. There’s a nice-looking young lady delivering a suitcase to a family home in Cologne. Oh… The suitcase is a ruddy big bomb that’s just killed the entire family of the Israeli attaché. I think we can safely assume she’s a baddy.

Back in London, an actor called Charlie (Florence Pugh) is performing the title role in the play Saint Joan, about Joan of Arc. I saw it once in the West End, starring Imogen Stubbs. My dad took me. He wasn’t much fussed for the theatre, but I think he fancied Imogen Stubbs, the old goat! Anyway, Charlie isn’t in the West End, she’s performing in The Red Dragon, which sounds more like a pub than a theatre. Probably because it’s, you know… a pub, rather than a theatre. She’s not about to hit the big time.

Which is why, when an anonymous benefactor announces he wants to take the whole company off to Greece to perform, Charlie and her friends jump at the opportunity. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? They could all get embroiled in a massive espionage plot, and spend the rest of their lives in an East German prison cell, and it would still be an improvement on The Red Dragon.

Meanwhile, Mossad are on the case regarding the bombing, in the form of Marty Kurz (Michael Shannon), a grizzled and gravelly-voiced concentration camp survivor who, unsurprisingly, shows a certain level of dedication to his job. He is, in the parlance of these dramas, not a man to be trifled with. And I don’t think he’d use the word ‘trifled’ in that context either, if you get my meaning.

Over in Greece, Charlie has met a mysterious and taciturn fellow who says his name is José. He barely utters a word, but sort of follows them around in a broody, silent fashion. Most sane people would react to this by calling the police, but Charlie finds it alluring, and falls for him. It helps that José (or whatever he’s called) looks just like the actor Alexander Skarsgård, on account of being played by the actor Alex Skarsgård. If you look like me (bald, middle aged) and you follow people about, they don’t fall for you, they throw things at you.

Anyway, before long, Charlie and José, who’s really called Peter (except he probably isn’t) are looking all starry-eyed at each other. But what is it that Peter’s really after, and what the hell does all of this have to do with the explosion in West Germany. And, more importantly, when will I get my Sunday nights back?

The Great British Bake Off: The Final, Tuesday 30th October, 8pm, Channel 4

And then there were three. Nine weeks ago, twelve bakers lined up in the gingham-bedecked tent, armed with mixers, baking tins, more butter than is healthy, and dreams of baking glory. In the intervening period, some of those dreams have risen like the hump on a madeleine, while others have crumbled like a shortcrust pastry left in the oven for too long. (To be clear: I have no idea if that is what would actually happen to a shortcrust pastry left in the oven for too long. I don’t actually know what shortcrust pastry is. Or, indeed, an oven.)

Considering it was only a couple of months ago, it is shameful how quickly one forgets the early Bake Off departures. I’m not sure I could tell you a single thing about Imelda, for example. But the ones who stick around – well, they just worm their way into your affections. If that’s how we feel as viewers, it’s little wonder that Sandi becomes so emotional when she has to announce who’s going home.

But that’s one of the things that makes this show what it is: its decency, its warmth, its kindness. In a world where values such as competitiveness, ruthlessness and a killer instinct are seen as virtues, Bake Off is a gentle competition between nice people who are kind to each other, show concern for one another, and help each other out in moments of need. Its antithesis is The Apprentice, which I simply cannot bring myself to watch, as unpleasant narcissists stab each other in the back in the name of Mammon.

Once again, it has been a cracking series. Sandi and Noel continue to hit the right balance of the surreal, the corny and the genuine, and Prue feels like a 21st-Century upgrade of Mary Berry. (Also, she is surely rapidly becoming a national style icon). Paul Hollywood may have been a little liberal with his handshakes (one week chucking them around like confetti at a wedding) but there is no doubting his baking knowledge. And the contestants have been fabulous.

Along the way, there have been some truly astonishing bakes, from Rahul’s absurdly ambitious creations to Kim-Joy’s beautifully decorated animals (which seem to feature in pretty much all of her bakes). And there have been tears. Oh my word, the tears. Manon and Kim-Joy have spent so much of the past nine weeks weeping that they must have needed saline drips to rehydrate each night. Then there was Terry’s heart-breaking piece to camera following his departure, referencing the loss of his wife. Even hard-as-nails Ruby was reduced to tears when her massive wobbly Vegan cake collapsed. And poor, lovely Briony, who chose just the wrong moment to mix up salt and sugar, and left the tent at the cruellest moment of all.

And so to the final. Who to support? There’s Rahul, who’s either delightfully vulnerable and charmingly insecure, or a fun-sucking emotional vacuum destroying all jollity that comes near him, depending on your viewpoint. I seem to be able to hold these two conflicting opinions almost simultaneously. He’s also an astonishing baker, whose work often transcends all of the others’, but who should without doubt have gone home at the end of week 8 after his Danish disasters.

Then there’s Ruby who, depending upon your viewpoint, is either an emotionless automaton who takes criticism badly or a strong, confident woman who can give as good as she gets (personally I tend toward the latter, my wife toward the former, but both of these opinions might have been influenced by the crush I have on Ruby). Certainly, she’s the only one of the finalists you’d leave in charge of your kids.

Finally, there’s Kim-Joy. If you look up the word ‘kooky’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of Kim-Joy, with her blue hair and rosy cheeks and banana smile, icing some biscuits to look like mice. She’s wonderful, but I also find her ever so slightly terrifying.

Anyway, regardless of where your loyalties lie, we’ll find out the winners on Tuesday – or sooner, if Prue takes to Twitter again! The final promises doughnuts with immaculate decoration, and a bake not baked in the tent. All that, and friends and family in attendance. It promises to be emotional… but then again, when isn’t it?

The best… and the rest

Sunday 28th October

Countryfile Ramble for Children in Need, 5:45pm, BBC One: Coverage of the annual charity walk from across the UK, featuring the regular Countryfile presenters in the company of some very special companions.

Hitler’s Holocaust Railways with Chris Tarrant, 9pm, Channel 5: The normally chirpy Tarrant adopts a suitably sombre perspective as he tells the terrible story of the role the railways played in one of history’s great atrocities.

Inside No. 9, 10pm, BBC Two: Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s brilliantly dark anthology celebrates its 25th episode with a live Halloween special, co-starring Stephanie Cole.

Monday 29th October

First Dates, 10pm, Channel 4: Series 11 of the popular dating show begins with septuagenarian Deanna, who is on her first date for 20 years…

Tuesday 30th October

The Fires that Foretold Grenfell, 9pm, BBC Two: The story of five fires that came before Grenfell, told by those involved. Are there lessons that could have been learned, warnings that went unheeded?

Imagine… Becoming Cary Grant, 10:45pm, BBC Two: Fascinating biopic of a complex and fascinating man. Grant’s life story was far less glamorous, and far more troubled, than that debonair exterior suggested.

Wednesday 31st October

Watchdog 1/6, 8pm, BBC One: Return of the long-running consumer affairs programme, which tonight tackles fly-tipping, phone scams and video games with stealthy charges.

The Secret Life of the Zoo, 8pm, Channel 4: Staff at the zoo are worried about a pregnant elephant who might be overdue. Big dea… wait, 3 MONTHS OVERDUE!!!???

Dark Heart, 9pm, ITV: New series. DI Will Wagstaffe and his team investigate a gruesome murder. Continues tomorrow.

Thursday 1st November

Diagnosis on Demand? The Computer Will See You Now, 9pm, BBC Two: Will AI machines replace doctors? (They’d almost certainly have better handwriting…) The show asks the questions, and features a man vs machine diagnostic showdown.

The First 1/8, 9pm, Channel 4: Sean Penn and Natascha McElhone star in this new drama, set in the near future, about mankind’s first mission to Mars. From the pen of Beau Willimon, the creator of the US hit House of Cards.

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