TV COLUMN: Shetland, Death In Paradise, Silent Witness, The Rack Pack

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

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

January wouldn’t be my first choice of month to commit a murder. The new year schedule reads like a TV detectives convention, with a veritable cornucopia of DI’s hunting down and banging up the bad guys.

In Shetland (BBC1) D-och-I Jimmy Perez is back solving crimes by being more grumpy and irascible than anyone else on the island. Written by Ann Cleeves – who also writes ITV’s Vera, the policewoman who uses moroseness as a super-power – Shetland made a great start in its first two seasons, but season three is beginning to feel like a triumph of atmospherics over plot.

There’s only so many shots of a Shetland beach, moor, old stone cottage, or red-herring rugged yokel an audience can take. At some time, you just know there’ll be a guest appearance from last season’s snag of sheep’s wool on another barbed-wire fence.

You have to feel for the piece of wool. It’s just another example of lazy type-casting and it really should get another agent and look to expand its repertoire.

Kris Marshall in Death In Paradise (BBC1) is another actor who is not exactly pushing himself. Marshall plays DI Humphrey Goodman, the Caribbean island detective who solves crimes by pretending to be Kris Marshall.

Death In Paradise is a modern Agatha Christie. The murders are all decently clean and fit for family viewing. Goodman bungles around the island for 55 minutes, before the dopy DI, in two minutes of genius, reveals the perpetrator, Poirot-like, to the polite final gathering. Fun. Frivolous. Formulaic.

Harmlessly entertaining it may be, but Death In Paradise carries rather too many uncomfortable stereotypes for 2016. There’s a colonial stamp on it that Christie would recognise from the 1930s, which doesn’t quite chime with our times.

And whilst it’s not so hot on this Caribbean isle for the male characters to get out of their long trousers, poor DS Florence Cassell, played by the talented, and admittedly beautiful, Josephine Jobert, finds it so warm she has to resort to skimpy shorts and a bikini to catch both the baddies, and, no doubt, the eye of a male audience.

Pick of the current crime-solving crop has to be Silent Witness (BBC1). The show has developed from the early days of Amanda Burton (now twenty years ago) and is now a fully representative, modern police procedural.

Superbly led by Emelia Fox, Liz Carr and David Caves, the cast has genuine chemistry and the murders are of the modern British blood and gore kind that would make Agatha Christie blush.

Unusually for the BBC just now, Silent Witness is also well scheduled, slotting into the early week post-watershed slot, when working people actually want to watch television.

Alas for The Rack Pack (BBC iPlayer), one of the best BBC dramas in a while, it got no schedule at all. A sweetener, likely intended to get BBC audiences used to online steaming content, this highly colourful drama centring on the growth of snooker in the 1970s and ‘80s, and the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis, is billed as ‘BBC iPlayer exclusive’.

Sufficiently tongue-in-cheek to bring out the comedy of self-satisfying dullness of Davis, The Rack Pack retains at times a brutal honesty that doesn’t shy away from the self-destructive tragedy of Higgins.

Higgins’ World victory in 1982 saw him go on a bender of Bacchanalian proportions. When the two meet the following year, Davis responds to Higgins’ goading of a second successive win with the quip: “I hope I win for your sake, Alex. Someone’s got to stop you celebrating the last one.”

Televised snooker is on a bit of an ‘up’ at present, but nothing compared to the heady heights of the 1980s. If you’re over 40, the chances are you were one of the eighteen and a half million viewers – a third of the then UK population – who stayed up until midnight to watch the ‘black ball final’ between David and Taylor in 1985.

Will Merrick’s performance as the uncomfortably awkward snooker-nerd, Davis, is self-referentially quirky, a stereotype of his stereotype. In contrast, Luke Treadaway’s Higgins captures all the dour depths of snooker’s ultimate flawed genius.

Hopefully someone at the Beeb will see sense and put in on terrestrial TV at some point, where it will qualify for next year’s National Television Awards and Treadaway can win his due award.

And a final note on this year’s National Television Awards. Moving moment of the week has to be the now aging and ailing Billy Connolly collecting his Special Recognition Prize. Not a dry eye in the house.