TV COLUMN: Sherlock, Endeavour, War and Peace, Deutschland 83, Dickensian

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his views on some of the recent events on television.

After a Christmas which saw little more than tumbleweeds of repeats and soaps rolling across the TV tundra, the new year has offered a glut offerings. Quantity we got, but the quality has been disappointingly patchy.

New Year’s Day kicked 2016 off with Sherlock (BBC1), but not the modernised version we’ve become used to.

In what was listed a special ‘one off’, Cumberbatch and Freeman took Holmes and Watson back to the nineteenth century for what, alas, came over a piece of cliché ridden, self-parody, detective pantomime.

Walking the postmodern tightrope is a tentative balance of pastiche and irony. Until this episode, writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have walked the rope with panache – this time, like Holmes and Moriarty at the newly imagined Reichenbach Falls, they fell down.

It was a shame. Given how difficult it is to get the two leads back together in amongst their global superstardom, movie-making schedules, fans might have expected more after such a long wait.

Sunday evening required some nimble dexterity with either ‘+1’, the recorder or iPlayer just to get it all in, with Endeavour (ITV), War and Peace (BBC1) and Deutschland 83 (Channel 4) all going out in overlapping slots.

If BAFTA had an award for lazy writing, the first episode of the new series of Endeavour would win it hands down.

The last series left the young Morse precariously locked up in clink after falling foul of a masonic conspiracy within the Oxford police. Having taken a whole series of great writing to get him locked up, the writers sprang him with five seconds of voiceover and a ‘case closed’ stamp before we even got going.

What then followed was a two hour reworking of The Great Gatsby transported to 1960s Oxford, with Morse adopting the persona of Nick Carraway drifting through the lives of the callous rich. The epilogue’s “borne back ceaselessly into the past” was supposed to be the novel’s reflective coda, not an instruction for 21st century TV screenwriters.

Another Sunday start was Andrew Davies’s latest attempt at sexing up yet another nineteenth century classic in War and Peace.

Playing the ‘it’s not like the book’ is an easy – and unfair – card to play with literary adaptations and with just six one-hour episodes this version was never going to be totally true to Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

Dramatisations are a different form and they have every right to stand on their own two feet, but the opening episode struggled to keep its balance.

Davies has chosen to focus on the younger characters, but the performances were weak in comparison to the delightful cameos of Jim Broadbent, Adrian Edmondson and Gillian Anderson.

Lily James made a fair fist of the delightful Natasha Rostova, but I couldn’t escape thinking of Paul Dano’s Pierre Bezukhov as Piggy from Lord of the Flies.

Dano also looks too young for the part, like the small kid in the school play, weighed down by a costume and dialogue beyond his years.

Whilst the interior scenes reflected well the pernicious, gossiping and decadent society of the novel, this War and Peace suffered from an insufficient budget for the battles. Shot too much in close-up and mid-shot, the action lacked scale and epics of this sort require an expanse into which the individual is lost.

Deutschland 83 proved to be the best of the Sunday evening newbies. For those of us of a certain age, this late-Cold War thriller was immediately evocative of its threatening nuclear holocaust zeitgeist.

When our news now is filled with the proxy war being fought in Syria, Deutschland 83 is a timely reminder the 70’s and 80’s was a time when a nuclear proxy cold war was being played out in Europe – and to the East Germans, we were the bogymen threatening them with imminent annihilation.

We’re not great in the UK at learning other languages and not much better at watching television with subtitles, but this German-made production is well worth the effort.

If anyone has seen Dickensian (BBC1), would you please let me know where it is. In scheduling shenanigans akin to pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, some bright spark at the Beeb has decided to stick every episode so far in a different slot.

If you’re reading this on Friday and were hoping to catch the next episode tomorrow at same time as last Saturday, I’m sorry to say you’ve missed it – it was on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s hard enough to keep up with as it is without turning it into a game of hide-and-seek.