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TV blog: The Luminaries and Talking Heads

Benjie Goodhart / 19 June 2020

A new period drama set in 19th Century New Zealand based on the Man Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries and a revival of Alan Bennett's much celebrated Talking Heads are this week's TV highlights.

The Luminaries, Sunday 21st June, 9pm, BBC One

The Luminaries is a troubling topic for me to write about. It’s a six-part drama, based on Eleanor Catton’s 2013 Man Booker prize-winning novel, and is about British people seeking a new life in 19th Century New Zealand. It’s troubling for me, because my sister and her family moved to Auckland in January. Part of their rationale was that if anything ever really went nipples north in the world, New Zealand would be the best place to see it out. “Don’t be so melodramatic,” I thought to myself. Reader, she arrived in New Zealand in January. A few weeks later… well, I’m guessing you know the rest (and if you don’t, you might be wondering why people haven’t been hugging you much lately…) Last week, she went to a rugby match in a packed stadium, and to a dinner party. Meanwhile, I toured Aldi in a face mask.

Anyway, much as I’d like to discuss my family further (don’t even get me started on my brother-in-law’s newfound passion for the didgeridoo) I should talk about The Luminaries. Which, incidentally, is tremendous.

There’s a pre-title sequence that I don’t understand at all. Nobody really speaks, there’s a woman wandering about, and someone gets shot. It’s all a bit hallucinogenic. Then we go back nine months. There’s a woman on a ship. Still no dialogue. Then there’s a man. No dialogue. What is this, 1920s cinema?

Finally, some dialogue. Yippee. The man and the woman introduce themselves to each other. He is Emery Staines, she is Anna Wetherell. They’ve travelled on a boat from the UK to New Zealand, and finally strike up a conversation as they draw into the harbour. Which is a shame, as they are making bedroom eyes at each other. Actually, it’s the 19th century, so they’re making “I might one day lift my petticoats and show you my ankle” eyes at each other.

They go their separate ways, and make plans to meet up that evening. On land, Anna’s first experience of New Zealand is getting her bag stolen. She is penniless in a strange land. She tries to get a room in a boarding house. “No liquor, no noise, no men,” instructs the landlady. Jeez, that doesn’t leave much in the way of fun. She can’t stay there anyway, as she’s skint. Fortunately, she meets up with friendly Lydia Wells (Eva Green). Only… is she, perhaps, a little too friendly?

Back to nine months in the future, and Anna is an opium addicted prostitute who is being accused of murder. It’s fair to say, her time in New Zealand can’t be regarded as an unbridled success. I’d better send a warning to my sister.

Catton has adapted the novel herself, and condensed all 848 pages into a six-part series. It is necessarily somewhat different from the book, and the first episode alone is packed with characters and subplots. I won’t attempt to sum them all up, partly because I don’t want to give too much away, partly because it’s too complicated to do justice, and partly because it’s time for my lunch.

Suffice to say, this is a splendid adaptation. The harshness of frontier life in Gold Rush New Zealand is beautifully evoked, and the whole things is shot through with a sense of magic and mystery. Himesh Patel and Eve Hewson are outstanding as the lovelorn duo inextricably linked by fate, and Green is a venomous delight as the scheming Mrs Wells.

The second episode goes out the following night (Monday), and then it’s on every Sunday evening, but the entire show will be available on iPlayer from Sunday night. This is intelligent, atmospheric escapism. I’m off to phone my sister and check she’s not selling her body for opium.

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Talking Heads, Tuesday 23rd June, 9pm, BBC One

Lockdown is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit crap. This may not be the revelatory piece of information that will win me a Pulitzer, but it’s undeniably true. I don’t mind not seeing people – there’s telly, which has people on it, so that’s fine – but home educating the kids is a torment that Dante himself could never have envisaged. Apparently the Spanish Inquisition used to torture victims by forcing them to teach geometry to their nine-year-old offspring at the kitchen table, until they eventually banned it for being too inhumane.

But not everything is bad in lockdown. Television has reacted admirably to the new restrictions, with documentaries, dramas, comedy and entertainment shows all being recorded in innovative and creative ways. This week features two of the best examples, albeit at rather different ends of the intellectual scale. On Friday, Celebrity Snoop Dogs sees dogs parading around the homes of their celebrity owners, wearing cameras on harnesses, while the audience has to guess who lives there. But before that, we are blessed to have a new series of Alan Bennett’s legendary monologues, Talking Heads.

Shot on existing sets at Elstree studios, the solitary nature of the monologues has made filming easier than a conventional drama, but it’s nevertheless no small achievement to have turned around such an ambitious series so quickly.

And for those unfamiliar with the works, they are magnificent. The original series (the first in 1988, the second a decade later) won countless awards, and became part of the GCSE and A-Level syllabus. This new series features ten of the original episodes, with two new ones, written last year. Each one is a stand-alone episode, though according to Wikipedia, the recurring themes are “death, illness, guilt and isolation.” Oh crikey. Coals to Newcastle and all that. But honestly, they’re worth it.

The first two episodes go out in a double bill on Tuesday. The first is A Lady of Letters, starring Imelda Staunton as Irene Ruddock, a role originally performed by Patricia Routledge 32 years ago. Irene sits in her front room, looking out of her window, snooping and scowling at the world. Furious that life has not dealt her a happier hand, she fires off angry letters of complaint with indiscriminate rage. Her bugbears include everything from smoking undertakers to the length of the Archbishop’s hair. It’s fair to say, she could do with a few more hobbies.

Staunton is genuinely spectacular, one of the performances of a stellar career, and the ending is a joyous surprise. It is, in the final analysis, a play about how we all need to be needed, and about the restorative power of kindness.

The second of the double bill is An Ordinary Woman, and features an equally remarkable performance from the national treasure that is Sarah Lancashire. This is one of Bennett’s two new episodes, and it would be remiss of me not to give a bit of a public health warning: The subject matter is dark.

Lancashire plays Gwen, a self-declared ‘ordinary woman’ whose relationship with her 15-year-old son is far from ordinary. Yep, like I say, dark. But the performance is one of devastating, understated brilliance.

On Thursday, Harriet Walter stars in Soldiering On, in a role previously performed by Stephanie Cole in 1988. The rest of the series promises a similar roster of the great and good of British acting talent, including Jodie Comer, Martin Freeman, Monica Dolan, Maxine Peake, Tamsin Greig, Lesley Manville, Lucian Msamati, Kristin Scott Thomas and Rochenda Sandall. All episodes will also be available to watch on iPlayer after the first double bill transmits.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 20th June

Best of Crufts: An A-Z, 7pm, Channel 4: Clare Balding and her Tibetan terrier Archie present and alphabetical romp through the world’s greatest dog show, in the first of five Crufts specials.

Match of the Day Live, 7:15pm, BBC One: History is made, as the BBC screens its first EVER live Premiership match. Although that, frankly, is where the excitement begins and ends, as it’s… well… it’s Bournemouth v Crystal Palace.

King George VI: The Accidental King, 9pm, Channel 5: Documentary examining how a shy boy went on to become a national inspiration in Britain's darkest days, following his brother’s abdication and on into the Second World War.

Match of the Day, 10:35pm, BBC One: Gary and the gang are back with the weekly highlights show. Don’t expect Bournemouth v Crystal Palace to figure too highly on the list.

Sunday 21st June

Lost Pyramids of the Aztecs 1/2, 8pm, Channel 4: An archaeological investigation into this extraordinary civilisation of warriors and engineers.

Stacey Dooley investigates: Spy Cams and Sex Criminals, 9pm, BBC Two: Pornography has been made illegal in the South Korea, which has led criminals to begin a lucrative trade filming people without their knowledge and distributing the films to strangers or streaming it live on the internet.

Monday 22nd June

EastEnders: Secrets of the Square 1/14, 8pm, BBC One: Stacey Dooley (again) goes on set with the EastEnders cast to find out some behind-the-scenes secrets and anecdotes. Tonight, it’s the Queen Vic’s own Mick and Linda Carter – Danny Dyer and Kellie Bright – who are under the microscope.

Tuesday 23rd June

The Choir: Singing for Britain, 9pm, BBC Two: In what promises to be a moving and uplifting series (sadly no previews were available) the nation’s choirmaster, Gareth Malone, works remotely with choirs consisting of frontline staff, key workers, and those shielding, and hears their stories.

Wednesday 24th June

Match of the Day Live, 5:30pm, BBC One: The thrills and spills of top-level football continue tonight with the game everyone is talking about… um… Norwich v Everton.

Thursday 25th June

Ross Kemp: Living with Painkiller Addiction, 7:30pm, ITV: The award-winning series returns with an investigation into opioids - opium-derived drugs - which are used in powerful painkillers prescribed by GPs. The issue has reached epidemic proportions in the US – could it do the same here?

Make Me Famous, 9pm, BBC One: This one-off, hour-long drama about the impact of fast fame on reality TV contestants is written by former host of The Voice, Reggie Yates. A strong cast includes Amanda Abbington and Nina Sosanya.

The School That tried to End Racism, 9pm, Channel 4: New and very timely series looking at an experiment in a UK school to get rid of unconscious racial bias, based on a revolutionary programme from the USA.

Educating Yorkshire, 10pm, Channel 4: I never, ever include repeats in my weekly highlights, but feel compelled to make an exception for this, the final episode in the series from a few years ago. The story of Mushy and his stammer is without a doubt one of the most uplifting moments of TV you will see. Handkerchiefs are advised.

Friday 26th June

Jamie’s Quick and Easy Food, 8pm, Channel 4: Return of the series which sees the chef cook up various dishes with a maximum of five ingredients. Tonight’s dishes include a lamb curry, harissa squash salad, rose pesto prawn pasta, and flapjacks.

Celebrity Snoop Dog, 8:30pm, Channel 4: The dogs of famous homeowners wear miniature cameras and then go about their daily business of snuffling and pottering. The audience at home has to use the canine clips and clues to try and work out whose house it is. Bonkers, and potentially brilliant. Kevin McCloud narrates.

The Glastonbury Experience Live, 8:30pm, BBC Two: Jo Whiley and Mark Radcliffe celebrate the weekend that would have marked 50 years of the Glastonbury Festival with an inviting blend of great performances from the archives (including The Rolling Stones from 2013) and live acoustic sets from contemporary artists.


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