sat 23/05/2015

TV reviews, news & interviews

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, BBC One

Fisun Güner

If it’s about magic, and features sanitised cobbled streets and dark gothic interiors, then Harry Potter comparisons will no doubt be inevitable.And so it has been with this seven-part adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s hefty 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, directed by Toby Haynes. The comparison seems fitting, for though this is a mini-series that has the sumptuous look and high production values of a typically lavish BBC costume drama, everything else about it says children’s drama...

1864, BBC Four

Jasper Rees

They must have run out of contemporary Danes to bump off, or coalition governments to form. 1864 is something completely different from Danish national broadcaster DR, and it’s safe to presume it wouldn’t have made it onto British TV without a prior softening up of the audience. An epic drama about Denmark’s disastrous attempt to claim Schleswig-Holstein in the eponymous year – would you honestly have watched that if Sarah Lund and Birgitte Nyborg hadn't paved the way? Helpfully it’s also...

Je t'aime: The Story of French Song, BBC Four

Barney Harsent

The problem with many music documentaries is that they suffer from over-familiarity. In a bid to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, they end...

The Secret Life of Tinder, Channel 4

Jasper Rees

Lucky old us. We are now living “in a techno-sexual era”. So claimed this documentary about dating apps which radar-guide you to the nearest...

The Affair, Sky Atlantic

Adam Sweeting

Already a couple of Golden Globes to the good after debuting in the States last year, The Affair effortlessly hit its stride as it landed in Blighty...

Britain's Greatest Generation, BBC Two

Jasper Rees

Oral history shines a light into another age

Election Night, BBC One/ITV/Channel 4/Sky News

Barney Harsent

A night of exit polls, caveats and Ashdown’s marzipan hat

Shark, BBC One

Marina Vaizey

Astounding revelations about the 510 species of the ocean's top predator

theartsdesk Q&A: Spooks, the movie

Adam Sweeting

How the popular MI5 drama finally made it to the big screen

No Offence, Channel 4

Barney Harsent

Paul Abbott’s much-anticipated return hit our screens and landed some good punches

The C Word, BBC One / Home Fires, ITV

Adam Sweeting

Sheridan Smith pulls out the stops as cancer sufferer Lisa Lynch

Anzac Girls, More4

Adam Sweeting

Australian nurses-at-war drama lacks gravitas (and a decent budget)

The Game, BBC Two

Tom Birchenough

New Cold War spy drama follows a familiar recipe

Peter Kay's Car Share, BBC One

Veronica Lee

The comic's first sitcom in a decade is a delight

24 Hours in the Past, BBC One

Jasper Rees

Celebs taste (and smell) life in a Victorian slum

Empire, E4

Adam Sweeting

'King Lear' meets 'Dynasty' in lurid hip hop drama

Tales From the Tour Bus: Rock 'n' Roll on the Road, BBC Four

Barney Harsent

A tale of bands in vans that, for the most part, stuck to familiar routes

W1A, Series 2, BBC Two

Jasper Rees

It's still sharp, but should the BBC be flagellating itself a second time?

This World: World’s Richest Terror Army, BBC Two

Tom Birchenough

Untangling the structure of Islamic State reveals the scale of the enemy

Safe House, ITV

Adam Sweeting

The hills have eyes in this sinister new Lakeland thriller

BBC Young Dancer 2015, BBC Four

Hanna Weibye

Impressive talents in remarkably gimmick-free Beeb competition

Newzoids / Thunderbirds Are Go, ITV

Adam Sweeting

New puppet satire can barely drag itself to the finishing line

Wild Ireland, ITV

Veronica Lee

Pleasing travelogue with game presenter Christine Bleakley

Sex and the Church, BBC Two

Tom Birchenough

Erudition and humour, pleasure and sin jostle in unashamedly intelligent television

Code of a Killer, ITV

Jasper Rees

The case in which DNA profiling was first used to catch a killer makes for gripping drama

Dennis Marks, 1948-2015

Mark Kidel

An arts and broadcasting giant who was an inspired head of music at the BBC

A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath, BBC Three

Adam Sweeting

Troubling investigation of the disaffection of French Muslims

The Ark, BBC One

Jasper Rees

Old Testament epic rendered as an animal-free northern soap

Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity, BBC Two

Fisun Güner

The presenter teases out the answers to the questions the viewer wants to ask

Footnote: a brief history of British TV

You could almost chart the history of British TV by following the career of ITV's Coronation Street, as it has ridden 50 years of social change, seen off would-be rivals, survived accusations of racism and learned to live alongside the BBC's EastEnders. But no single programme, or even strand of programmes, can encompass the astonishing diversity and creativity of TV-UK since BBC TV was officially born in 1932.

Nostalgists lament the demise of single plays like Ken Loach's Cathy Come Home or Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, but drama series like The Jewel in the Crown, Edge of Darkness, Our Friends in the North, State of Play, the original Upstairs Downstairs or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will surely loom larger in history's rear-view mirror, while perhaps Julian Fellowes' surprise hit, Downton Abbey, heralds a new wave of the classic British costume drama. For that matter, indestructible comic creations like George Cole's Arthur Daley in Minder, Nigel Hawthorne's Sir Humphrey in Yes Minister, the Steptoes, Arthur Lowe and co in Dad's Army, John Cleese's Fawlty Towers or Only Fools and Horses insinuate themselves between the cracks of British life far more persuasively than the most earnest television documentary (at which Britain has become world-renowned).

British sci-fi will never out-gloss Hollywood monoliths like Battlestar Galactica, but Nigel Kneale's Quatermass stories are still influential 60 years later, and the reborn Doctor Who has been a creative coup for the BBC. British series from the Sixties like The Avengers, Patrick McGoohan's bizarre brainchild The Prisoner or The Saint (with the young Roger Moore) have bounced back as major influences on today's Hollywood, and re-echo through the BBC's enduringly successful Spooks.

Meanwhile, though British comedy depends more on maverick inspiration than the sleek industrialisation deployed by US television, that didn't stop Monty Python from becoming a global legend, or prevent Ricky Gervais being adopted as an American mascot. True, you might blame British TV (and Simon Cowell) for such monstrosities as The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, but the entire planet has lapped them up. And we can console ourselves that Britain also gave the world Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, David Attenborough's epic nature series Life on Earth and The Blue Planet, as well as Kenneth Clark's Civilisation. The Arts Desk brings you overnight reviews and news of the best (and worst) of TV in Britain. Our writers include Adam Sweeting, Jasper Rees, Veronica Lee, Alexandra Coghlan, Fisun Güner, Josh Spero and Gerard Gilbert.

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