TV blog: The Night Manager

Benjie Goodhart / 18 February 2016

The first great drama of 2016 is here, says our TV critic of the BBC’s six-part John Le Carré adaptation.

The Night Manager, Sunday 21st February, 9pm, BBC One

You’re probably already aware of the imminent arrival of The Night Manager. The BBC has been trailing it in peak time slots with an almost reckless abandon. Normally, when a programme receives this level of support, it’s a good sign – they have confidence in the show, and want people to see it.

Occasionally, though, it can mean they’ve thrown a whole load of money at something and are worried it’s not really going to come off. And the BBC has certainly thrown a whole load of money at this six-part adaptation of John Le Carré’s novel. A big-name cast, glamorous international locations, helicopters, luxury hotels – it doesn’t come cheap. But – on the basis of the first episode at least – it’s money well spent. The first great drama of 2016 is here.

If I could create my ideal drama, it would star Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie. (If you think of the latter as just a comedian or comic actor, think again. In the US, they built House, a magnificent eight-season franchise, around his dramatic acting, and he became the highest paid TV actor in the world).

It would feature locations from the Egyptian desert to the Swiss Alps, and the plot of an intelligent thriller. It would boast a charismatic, champagne-quaffing villain and his glamorous girlfriend. It would, to be fair, also feature a lengthy sub-plot about QPR winning the Champions’ League, and maybe Charlize Theron in a bath of jelly, but I suppose you have to maintain some plausibility in drama.

The point is, apart from the latter two digressions, it’s all here in spades. The story begins five years ago, during the Arab spring. Tom Hiddlestone plays a suave and decent night manager of a luxury hotel in Egypt. The girlfriend of a powerful local gangster comes to see him, and gives him some documents that pull him into a web of intrigue that I won’t even try to explain here, because (a) you should watch it unfold and (b) I’d only end up messing the whole thing up.

Suffice to say, Olivia Colman is her usual magnificent self, as an intelligence expert in London intent on bringing down an arms dealer who everyone else seems determined to protect. And that arms dealer is, of course, Hugh Laurie. That’s not giving anything away. You know he’s going to be the villain right from the opening scene, when he is being given a UN award for his philanthropic and humanitarian work. It is the law that anyone in a drama who appears overtly philanthropic is evil to the core.

The production also features a typically winning turn from the wonderful Tom Hollander, and supporting roles for Douglas Hodge and Tobias Menzies, with appearances still to come from David Harewood and Neil Morrissey. That’s a cast to grace any drama.

I only have one complaint, and it is by no means specific to this drama. In one scene, after Hiddlestone has a distressing encounter, he runs to the loo and is violently sick. This has become stock in trade for dramas these days. It seems to be the main way human beings express emotions. Shocked by something? Throw up. Upset? Barf. Angry? Puke. I don’t consider myself any sort of unfeeling automaton, but I have never in my life been so affected by something that I’ve become reacquainted with my breakfast.

Pseudo-psycho-gastrointestinal matters aside, this has all the hallmarks of an absolute belter. Do not miss.

Inside Buckingham Palace, Wednesday 24th February, 9pm, Channel 5

I don’t preview an awful lot of Channel 5 programmes. It makes me feel a little guilty, like I’m ignoring a relative at a wedding. But the truth is, some relatives are just a bit, well, rubbish. You convince yourself they’re not as bad as you remembered, then you walk over to chat to them, and they spend 45 minutes explaining their laundry rota to you, and then comment on how fat the bride looks, before saying something mildly racist and knocking over your drink.

I didn’t have particularly high hopes when I tuned in to this film, the first in a two-part series. Even then, my expectations were confounded. If you’re going to call your series Inside Buckingham Palace, it follows that the audience might expect to the cameras to go, you know, inside Buckingham Palace. Not a bit of it. If you’re going to start making up programme titles that bear no relation to the actual content, we might as well all pack up and go home and watch Channel  5’s new documentary series How David Beckham Built the International Space Station Using Cheese.

This, instead, is a fairly low rent look at the history of the royal family since the start of the Queen’s reign. This is a whistle stop tour of stuff we already know, including Princess Margaret’s failed romance with Peter Townsend, the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne, Michael Fagin breaking into the Queen’s bedroom, Charles and Diana, the Windsor fire, the Golden Jubilee, the Diamond Jubilee, a hairy man playing guitar on the roof of the palace, etcetera.

The programme is filled with dramatic reconstructions where nobody speaks, presumably because it costs more to pay actors to actually make wordy-noises. There are also a number of talking heads, including former staff members, press secretaries and historians.

That’s not to say that nobody will enjoy this programme. There are one or two interesting revelations – for example, that the courtiers were reluctant to allow the Queen’s coronation to be screened, because those watching might be doing vulgar things like drinking tea and wearing hats (though I’m not sure I have ever in my life worn a hat while watching TV). And there are plenty of people for whom watching a programme about the royal family is televisual catnip. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before, there’s the Queen, she’s still had an annus miserablis, and gosh doesn’t she have a lot of nice coats.

But if you’re looking for ambition, for intimate access, or for anything much in the way of new material, you are looking in the wrong place. Please excuse me, Uncle Gordon, I have to go and speak to someone else.

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