TV blog: The Split

Benjie Goodhart / 19 April 2018

A new six-part drama from award-winning writer Abi Morgan. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.

The Split 1/6, Tuesday 24th April, 9pm, BBC One

Something struck me as I watched this drama the other day. It wasn’t my wife’s shoe, as she tried to get my attention without moving from the couch so that I could replenish her glass. Nor was it the mildly depressing thought that some people invent and write these incredible dramas, while others simply watch them and write little truncated summaries, perhaps with a joke at the top about their wife throwing shoes at them.

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No, what struck me was the realisation that you can barely watch a drama these days without it featuring a well-known TV news reader or reporter at some point in proceedings. It’s almost as if we can’t be expected to go along with the premise of a drama until the reassuringly authoritative figure of Huw Edwards or Julie Etchingham has appeared on screen to inform us that yes, Britain is indeed under attack from zombies/aliens/crazed megalomaniacal criminals.

It’s a little plot device that I rather enjoy, though it always reminds me of the furore when vast swathes of pre-war America swallowed whole the faux newscasts about alien invasion in War of the Worlds. Perhaps someone, somewhere, has tuned into a drama and caught a snippet of Tom Bradby announcing that the Russians are invading, and has been holed up in a secret underground bunker ever since, existing on spaghetti hoops and tapioca.

Anyway, there’s a news reporter cameo in this, too: This time it’s the marvellous BBC Arts correspondent Will Gompertz, who has always struck me as what Bill Nighy would be like if he was a bald beatnik. It’s not particularly important, but I thought I’d mention it, not least because previewing a drama without giving away too much is ruddy difficult, so like the Belgians I choose to have a good waffle instead.

Some stuff, however, I can say. This is a new six-part series from the multi-award-winning mind of writer Abi Morgan (The Hour, The Iron Lady, Suffragette). It stars Nicola Walker who, for my money, is up there with Olivia Colman as the best British actress working in TV today. Walker plays Hannah, who has recently left the family law firm, Defoe’s, run by mother Ruth Defoe (Deborah Findlay), little sister Nina Defoe (Annabel Scholey), and younger brother Jermaine (not really – little joke for you football fans out there). All of them are divorce lawyers, which sounds like it’ll make for a drama about as absorbing as watching paint that’s already dried, and is therefore doing literally nothing at all.

But that’s the thing about Morgan – she can make pretty much any subject engaging, and the characters here are so well-drawn and so charismatic, you can’t fail to be drawn in. The cast includes Stephen Mangan as Hannah’s husband Nathan, Anthony Head as Hannah’s absentee father, and Stephen Tompkinson as a rich bloke who informs his wife (Meera Syall) he wants a divorce in a way that might be considered a little avant garde – he introduces her to his divorce lawyer. I’m not sure I’m going to like him.

There’s also an embittered comedian, a dangerously handsome colleague, and enough family baggage and seething resentment to power a soap opera for a season. Honestly, I cannot recommend this drama highly enough. To say it is as good as an Abi Morgan project starring Nicola Walker should be is all the praise I can give.

Britain’s Fat Fight with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Wednesday 25th April, 9pm, BBC One

Last Saturday morning, over breakfast, my children decided the appropriate mealtime discussion would be whether daddy was fatter than Kim Jong-un. Such little treasures. 

The truth is, I’m not exactly sporting a six-pack – ironically because of a few too many six-packs over time. But then, as a nation, we’re not doing brilliantly on that front: Over two thirds of Brits are overweight. In the 1950s, 2 per cent of the population was obese. Today, that figure is 20 per cent.

Now, for his latest TV campaign (following previous ones on food waste, farming conditions and the fish industry) Huge Furry-Whippingboy is declaring war on this modern scourge, and trying to get us all to shed a few pounds. This can only be a good thing. Today, in the UK, we spend more money treating the effects of obesity than we do on the police, fire service and judiciary combined. And the crisis is costing lives every day.

The problem often starts early. We all know that, given half a chance, kids would exist on a diet exclusively of fizzy pop and chocolate, with the occasional packet of Salt’n’Vinegar crisps as one of their five-a-day. To illustrate this, Hugh lets a bunch of kids loose around a supermarket to buy whatever they like for their family’s weekly food shop. Needless to say, none of the families are having a quinoa and kale bake this week.

Instead, they come back with mountains of sugary, high-fat, nutrition-free junk. So far, so unsurprising. All of them include sugary cereals in their shopping. But the nutritional information on much of the packaging is highly misleading. Neither Nestlé nor Kellogg’s have adopted the traffic light system that alerts parents to unhealthy elements in food. And the per-serving information is misleading, to put it charitably, explaining the nutritional content of a 30g serving. Not even the skinny girl I sit next to at work has anything less than a 60g serving of cereal, and as Hugh discovers, many kids have 100g portions. As a result, it turns out that loads of children have absolutely smashed their recommended daily sugar allowance by the time they get up from the breakfast table.

So the first part of Hugh’s campaign is to get the cereal companies to correctly label their foods. The second is to get the people of Newcastle to lose 100,000lb. Not each, mind. 10,000 of them to lose 10lbs. As such, he meets with the local council, and harangues people through a loudhailer in the streets. But things become really interesting when he travels to Walker, a down-at-heel suburb, and begins to explore the potential reasons for the obesity epidemic. This, it quickly becomes apparent, is not going to be an easy issue to solve, and glib, TV-friendly solutions won’t even scratch the surface.

This may be the most important series of the year, a statement which would normally carry the red traffic light warning marked ‘boring and worthy’.  I’ll be honest, I went into this show with a heart heavier than an average British shopping trolley full of crisps and ice cream, applauding the sentiment, but slightly dreading the entertainment value. But this is absolutely riveting stuff. Hugh and his team have pulled off a masterstroke of doing something really, really important, and making it watchable. More than watchable – it’s marvellous, a lean, lithe, fast-moving programme for a nation that is anything but.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 21st April

World Snooker Championship 2018, 10am BBC Two: Hazel Irvine introduces live coverage from Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre., where men in waistcoats will be knocking porcelain balls into string pockets for the next fortnight. You either get it or you don’t.

MOTD Live: Manchester United v Tottenham Hotspur, 4:55pm, BBC One: Coverage of the FA Cup semi-final, which sees Spurs enjoying home advantage, as Wembley is their temporary home. Expect pantomime villain Jose Mourinho to do a lot of grumpy finger-pointing if things don’t go his way.

The Queen’s Birthday Party, 8pm, BBC One: Marking HRH’s 92nd birthday with a concert from the Albert Hall, featuring everything from Tom Jones to a mass band of George Formby fans on the ukulele.

Sunday 22nd April

London Marathon, 8:30am, BBC One: Gabby Logan presents live coverage of the 38th London Marathon. What the BBC does so expertly is cover both the elite races and the utterly marvellous plodders dressed as bananas, in what can make for surprisingly moving television.

Little Big Shots, 7pm, ITV: Dawn French returns with the show that shines a light on some fabulously talented/massively precocious children (delete according to how misanthropic you are). 

The Woman in White 1/5, 9pm, BBC One: Ben Hardy, Olivia Vinall, Jesse Buckley, Charles Dance and Dougray Scott star in this five-part period drama, adapted from Wilkie Collins’ book. The story is part-romance, part-mystery, part-thriller, so there’s something for everyone, provided you’re not allergic to starch collars and people bowing to each other and saying “I bid you good day.”

Diana to Meghan: Royal Wedding Secrets, 9pm, Channel 5: And so it begins! The all-you-can-eat buffet of royal wedding delights on the TV opens tonight with this one-off documentary on Channel 5. Royalists will not be sated for another month, but republicans may well be throwing their TVs out of windows in a right old grump.

Tuesday 24th April

Fatberg Autopsy: Secrets of the Sewers, 9pm, Channel 4: Our sewers are blighted with monster blockages of congealed fat, wet wipes, human waste and Rick Edwards. Oh no, sorry, he’s down there with an expert team as they pull one apart and analyse it. Possibly not one to watch with your dinner on your lap…

Thursday 26th April

The Truth About Obesity, 8pm, BBC One: Nearly one-in-four people in the UK qualify as obese. Presenter Chris Bavin looks at the causes of this expanding (no pun intended) epidemic and what can be done to reverse it.

Paul O’Grady For the Love of Dogs: India, 8:30pm, ITV: The effortlessly charming O’Grady travels to the subcontinent, to meet some of the people who look after an astonishing 400,000 street dogs in Delhi alone.

Harold Shipman: Doctor Death, 9pm, ITV: New documentary on ITV’s seemingly endless Crime and Punishment strand, this one offers an insight into how Shipman got away with murdering more than 250 people.

Friday 27th April

Our Wildest Dreams 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: New series following British families as they pursue their dreams, making life-changing moves to some of the most remote places on Earth. Intriguing viewing for those of us whose family dreams extend no further than a bit of peace, and getting the kids to consume a vegetable once or twice a month.

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