The Trouble with Maggie Cole, Wednesday 4th March, 9pm, ITV
I have officially arrived as a TV critic. Nobody can tell me I’m not a bona fide expert in my field. Because, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pride to announce to you that in making my notes about this new drama, I was able to spell the name of the (excellent) actress Julie Hesmondhalgh without looking it up. When I finally reach the stage that I can spell Jake Gyllenhaal’s name without resorting to my good friend Mr Google, I’ll know it’s time to retire.
The new drama in question is a whimsical six-part series, The Trouble with Maggie Cole. The eponymous Maggie is a local historian, based in the picturesque seaside town of Thurlbury, whose interest in the town isn’t just limited to its history. It’s fair to say she is rather to fascinated by the lives of her fellow townsfolk. To put it less charitably, she is an inveterate gossip. She makes Dot Cotton look like the soul of discretion.
Maggie is also an egomaniac, a control-freak, a bully, and guilty of snobbery both intellectual and social. She is, in short, a bit of a flipping nightmare. So when a journalist from Coastland FM asks to interview Maggie about life in the town, she’s only too eager to jump at the chance. As is the way with almost all journalists portrayed on television, the interviewer is an oleaginous creep. He loosens Maggie’s tongue with several gins, and then encourages her to talk up a storm.
Maggie can’t remember much about the interview, but decides to have a party where everyone can listen to it as it’s broadcast. Oh lawks. I don’t think you need to be a member of Mensa to realise that this isn’t going to end well – and so it proves, in a scene sufficiently excruciating that at one point I think I cringed so hard I turned inside out.
Maggie, it seems, has some fences to mend. Actually, she has more fences to mend than a Welsh farmer after Storm Dennis. But why should we care? Maggie is a nightmare, a deeply flawed and fundamentally selfish person with as prurient interest in other people’s personal lives. Why should we give a fig whether she mends fences or gets lynched by a party of outraged villagers?
Because – and this is where the producers have played an absolute masterstroke – Maggie is played by Dawn French. And, as should be patently obvious by now, it is sociologically, psychologically, emotionally and physically impossible to dislike Dawn French. And so you find yourself simultaneously deploring her behaviour and immediately forgiving her. Because, you know - Dawn.
The supporting cast includes the wonderful Mark Heap as Maggie’s headmaster husband, and the aforementioned Hesmondhalgh as her best friend Jill. The other star of the show is the town of Thurlbury, which is so delightful it should be on the front of a chocolate box.
The series is also a timely reminder of the damage that can be done by irresponsible, cynical journalism. As events elsewhere have tragically reminded us in recent weeks, a dramatic fall from grace can often have devastating repercussions. It turns out that journalistic responsibility does not begin and end with learning to spell Hesmondhalgh.
Noughts and Crosses 1/6, Thursday 5th March, 9pm, BBC One
What are the scariest three words in the English language? I suppose it depends on your perspective. For some it’s I Love You. For others, President Donald Trump. There’s also a strong argument for ‘Replacement bus service,’ while my kids would opt for “Wifi is down’. It can also depend upon who is saying the words. For example, I don’t find anything intrinsically alarming about the phrase “I’m going shopping,” but when I hear those familiar words come tumbling out of my wife’s mouth, I need to find something solid to hold on to.
But for me, the phrase that really hammers my keyboard is ‘Young Adult Fiction’.
Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely in favour of it. Anything that can tempt my son away from his games console is brilliant. I’m joking, of course – nothing tempts him away from his games console. But he does enjoy reading, and devours young adult fiction in the same way he devours chocolate, only he manages not to get young adult fiction all over his school shirt.
So I’m happy that it exists. I just don’t want to have to read it. When they’re little kids, I love reading to them, because (a) the books are wonderfully short and (b) it normally means they’re about to go to sleep and it’s wine o’clock. But young adult fiction is loooong. It’s the same length as adult fiction, only with less subtlety and fewer rude bits. Where’s the fun in that?
As such, I have to say, the Noughts and Crosses series of books by Malorie Blackman has completely passed me by. So I have been largely oblivious to the clamour surrounding them, and the excitement generated by the forthcoming six-part TV adaptation. But I think I am starting to get it, because episode one, at least, is outstandingly good.
The premise is familiar enough. It concerns a white boy and a black girl who fall for each other, but live in different worlds. The star-crossed lovers are separated by the racial divides that split their communities. So far so typical. Except for one thing: In Malorie Blackman’s world, it is the blacks who are the ruling class, and the whites who are the oppressed and put-upon underclass.
It’s an idea that is simultaneously incredibly simple and completely brilliant. In subverting the familiar tropes of racial identity, it shifts the viewer’s perspective completely. The conquering forces from the continent of ‘Aprica’ (where could they mean?) colonised ‘Albion’ 700 years ago, since when the respective races have adopted the role of master and servant. The blacks are known as Crosses, the whites as Noughts (or by the racist epithet Blanker). If ‘Nought’ is the politically acceptable term you are known as, then things must have gone pretty badly wrong.
Watching a wrongful arrest and police brutality being meted out by racist police feels somehow both familiar and completely alien. Similarly, watching the offensively smug stereotypes adopted by a black academic who would never see himself as racist is riveting. “I know a few noughts. They’re always so cheerful. But you do get some uppity ones. That’s not prejudiced, that’s fact.” Yep, you can almost hear him saying “Some of my friends are Noughts”.
Sephy (Masali Baduza) is the daughter of the home secretary, the draconian Kamal Hadley (a pleasingly reptilian turn by Paterson Joseph). Their family employ a maid, Meggie (Helen Baxendale) whose son Callum (Jack Rowan) used to play with Sephy when they were children. Since then life – and race – have got in the way, and the two have existed in their own separate worlds. Until fate sees fit to bring them together.
In the meantime, though, unrest is fomenting, and many of the Noughts are no longer willing to suffer the iniquities and humiliations that are part of everyday life.
The series has had a good deal of advanced publicity, not least because it features a cameo by Stormzy. I know that most of you will be phenomenally excited by this – like me, I suspect you are all absolute aficionados of his back catalogue – but even if you don’t know your Stormzy from your Storm Dennis, this is a show well worth a look.
The best… and the rest
Saturday 29th February
Catchpoint Sport Relief Special 1/8, 8:30pm, BBC One: Paddy McGuinness returns with a celebrity version of his quiz show, which is a surprise, as I’ve never heard of the non-celebrity version. Anyway, tonight’s slebs are netballer Eboni Usoro-Brown, stand-up Darren Harnott, comedian Susan Calman, and Strictly’s Johannes Radebe. It’s not exactly Brad Pitt and Madonna, but it’s all in a good cause.
Sunday 1st March
McDonald & Dodds 1/2, 8pm, ITV: Oh yippee. Another police drama. Just what the world needs. Except that this one, starring Tala Gouveia and the consistently brilliant Jason Watkins, looks rather good. It sees an ambitious young DCI paired with her older, shyer and more modest counterpart, who just happens to be something of a genius. The first episode guest-stars Robert Lindsay.
Monday 2nd March
St Davids – Britain’s Smallest City, 8pm, ITV: New documentary series following the locals in verdant Pembrokeshire as it enjoys the biggest summer season in its history. Who needs the Amalfi Coast, eh?
Liar 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Joanne Froggatt returns for a second series of the acclaimed thriller, from the twisted minds of prolific writing siblings Harry and Jack Williams.
Tuesday 3rd March
MOTD Live: The FA Cup, 7:30pm, BBC One: Gary Lineker presents live coverage of the 5th Round tie between Chelsea and an all-conquering Liverpool side who might just be starting to show signs of fatigue. As a one-finger typist currently on the 1494th word of this blog, I know how they feel.
Britain Underwater: Fighting the Floods, 9pm, BBC Two: The evil twins Dennis and Ciara have wrought havoc, and an awful lot of excess water, to our doorsteps. This one-off doc tells the story.
Wednesday 4th March
MOTD Live: The FA Cup, 7:30pm, BBC One: Not a great couple of days on primetime BBC One if you’re not a sports fan. Our Gaz is back again, this time to bring us coverage of Sheffield Wednesday 0 Manchester City 3.
Tigers: Hunting the Traffickers, 9pm, BBC Two: There are now fewer than 4000 tigers in the wild. If the illegal trade in tiger products continues unchecked in southeast Asia, they will become extinct. This is the sobering truth at the centre of Aldo Kane’s worrying documentary.
100 Kilo Kids: Obesity SOS, 9pm, Channel 4: Following patients attending Britain’s leading childhood obesity clinic, in Bristol, as they seek to make changes to their lives. Hopefully more sensitive than the title sounds.
Thursday 5th March
Britain’s Naughtiest Nursery 1/2, 8pm, Channel 5: Following the inmates – sorry, children – at a special nursery for challenging kids, set up by psychologist Laverne Antrobus. Hopefully will include an indication that my own kids aren’t the only ones incapable of following instructions.
How to Spend It Well on Holiday 1/4, 8:30pm, ITV: Phillip Schofield hauls himself bodily from the This Morning sofa to tell us about getting the best value money from our holidays. Hopefully includes a section on how to stop one’s spouse getting taxis absolutely everywhere…
Friday 6th March
Wild Cuba: A Caribbean Journey 1/2, 8:30pm, BBC Two: Naturalist and film-maker Colin Stafford-Johnson examines how Cuba’s isolation has helped it to preserve its natural riches compared to the rest of the Caribbean.