TV REVIEW: The Night Manager, QI, Trainspotting, Dickensian

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies takes a look at this week’s television.

When the BBC gets it right, it really gets it right. On the evidence of the first episode, the £20 million spend on its adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager (BBC1) is money well spent.

The Night Manager oozes class, cinematic in scale and vision, with a cast to match. Tom Hiddleston, who plays the lead character, Jonathan Pine, is a on a stellar trajectory and is well placed to be the leading English actor of his generation.

Hiddleston has an incredibly expressive face and voice which captures (reminiscent of Alec Guinness from another Le Carré classic), making him a perfect actor to the close-up camera.

Add in Olivia Coleman, Tom Hollander and an increasingly impressive Hugh Laurie and you begin to see where the budget started cranking up – and when you add in a location range to make Alan Whicker envious, you get a feel for the Beeb’s ambitions.

Le Carré is the master of the long story told slowly, valuing plot and character over action and is better suited to TV adaptation, rather than cinema. Whilst the first episode had some great cinematic shots, it is the intensity of the character exchanges that stood out.

It is surprising that reviews of The Night Manager have been somewhat patchy. Though many where short on detail, suggesting they were written on the back on embargoed press previews and betrayed a modern critical penchant for affecting ennui in the face of quality TV. I’m often left wondering if some critics are watching the same shows as the rest of us.

The nation’s favourite national treasure, Stephen Fry, has finally called time on QI (BBC2).

Where would we have been without Fry’s QI? The quirky quiz has been correcting our misconceptions for 13 years and over 180 episodes. How else would we have known that Darwin ate owls, the moon smells of gunpowder, Cinderella’s slippers were made of squirrel fur and that Henry VIII had two wives (or four if you’re Catholic)?

QI has been a pedant’s paradise and has probably been the cause of more pub fights on ‘quiz night’ than any of the beer served. It will continue with Sandi Toksvig in the chair, but only time will tell whether the chemistry of Fry and Alan Davies will be replicated. My guess is Davies will give it a go to the end of the series and then bow out himself. Only time – and ratings – will tell.

It’s twenty years ago this week that a relatively unknown director, Danny Boyle, with a cast of young British actors made their break with Trainspotting (Film 4).

Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald, Peter Mullen have all garnered incredible international CVs since.

Not pretty to watch, this tale of Edinburgh heroin addicts remains, even at twenty-years-old, a visceral and vibrant piece of film-making, the standout cultural touchstone of its 1990’s epoch – and arguably the best British film since Gandhi.

The script is sharp, poignant and darkly poetic. The soundtrack defined a generation for those of us of the age to be that generation. The ‘90s was the UK’s last great cultural decade, when artists created, not just performed, fame was earned from talent not talent shows and culture was built to last, not to be discarded. Trainspotting captured it all, and for everything Boyle has achieved since, including his Slumdog Millionaire Oscar, nothing has quite matched it.

Dickensian (BBC1) has finally come to an end. The postmodern rewiring of Dickens’s novel characters has been so lost in the schedules, you needed a TARDIS to watch them all.

It ended as it began, giving what remained of its audience the slip one last time, by putting the final episode out, for the first time, on a Sunday evening.

Back at Christmas, Dickensian kicked off with a reputable 6.52 million viewers, a Top 20 show for the BBC. By the end it had drifted into obscurity, proving that given enough rope, all it takes is ridiculous scheduling to hang £10 million pounds’ worth of TV till it chokes and dies. When the BBC gets it wrong, it really gets it wrong.