Alison Rowat's TV review: The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe; Chivalry; Life after Life; Idris Elba's Fight School

Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan play John and Anne Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, ITV
Eddie Marsan and Monica Dolan play John and Anne Darwin in The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, ITV

COME awards season The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe (STV, Sunday-Wednesday) should be a shoo-in for several prizes, including “best bad acting”. It takes a truly gifted thesp to act like a beginner, and Monica Dolan and Eddie Marsan delivered the goods and then some.

The pair played John and Anne Darwin, the Hartlepool couple who faked his death to collect the insurance money. The scam was hidden from everyone, including the couple’s two sons who grieved for the dad supposedly lost at sea while kayaking. (Yes, it was a kayak, as every nerd and his dog took to Twitter to point out, but the papers called it a canoe, they were the canoe couple, so canoe it was).

Dolan and Marsan’s moment to shine arrived when John came back from the dead, claiming to have suffered amnesia, and was “reunited” with Anne. The couple were so wooden you feared they would give each other skelfs. Like I said, great actors.

Chris Lang’s drama was a thoroughly British affair. You could smell the failure and unhappiness a mile off. Told from Anne’s point of view, it was initially sympathetic to her plea that he was a bully who coerced her into committing fraud. But as one of the sons said once the betrayal was exposed, their father lied to them once, while she did it over and over again, to their faces.

Played out over four nights, the piece took a while to find the right tone between Carry on Canoeing and kitchen sink drama. None of this was funny, least of all to their poor sons, yet it was amusingly farcical at times. Darwin’s plan, for instance, included hiding next door. Yet they might have got away with it, had he been less of a pillock with money. Steve Coogan, funny. Sarah Solemani, funny. Put them together and what have you got? Chivalry (Channel 4, Thursday), a Hollywood-set sitcom that’s about as amusing as Will Smith in slap mode. If you ever wanted to watch a comedy that’s too sophisticated to do anything so vulgar as try to make the viewer laugh, Coogan and Solemani have just the thing.

Coogan plays Cameron, producer and slightly sleazy studio exec who is told to reshoot the sex scenes in a movie because they are too exploitative in the MeToo age. Bobby (Solemani), a hip, happening, feminist filmmaker, is the woman for the job. The two loathe each other instantly. What are the odds on that changing? Since Chivalry seems to have every other cliche in the book, pretty good I’d say. We know Bobby is feminist, for example, because her T-shirt has sisterly slogans on it. The character played by Sienna Miller has a silly name, Lark, and is a right diva, therefore she must be the resident movie star. The film being made is about Nazis. Yawn. As for the famous faces making cameo appearances, that might have have been a winner except Ricky Gervais did the same thing years ago in Extras.

How such original talents as Coogan and Solemani could have come up with something so tired is a mystery.

Life After Life (BBC2, Tuesday) was a gorgeously rendered adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s novel about a girl, Ursula, who has more lives than a squad of cats. The first time she is born on 11 February, 1910 the cord is wrapped round her neck and she dies. When the scene is repeated, a doctor is present, the cord cut in time, and the baby lives. It’s about fate, chance, and all that jazz.

Outstanding performances, particularly from Sian Clifford (Fleabag’s sister) as Ursula’s mother, even if it made for harrowing viewing waiting for the next tragic incident to occur so life could begin again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A celebrity sets a series of challenges for a group of young hopefuls with the aim of changing their lives. The Apprentice? Yes. Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars? That too. Now along comes Idris Elba’s Fight School (BBC2, Sunday), in which eight young hopefuls, blah, blah, blah.

Elba credits boxing with teaching him valuable life skills while he was growing up on the mean streets of east London. Now he wants to pay the favour forward by being a mentor to others at a tough time in their lives. Representing Scotland was 19-year-old Fin, from Glasgow, who wanted to learn how to walk away from a fight.

As we watched the lads and lassies train and heard their back stories it was obvious that some were going to struggle and the programme would have the “drama” it required to keep us watching. One of the tasks was learning how to take a punch in the face. You couldn’t help but wonder if any doctor’s son or lawyer’s daughter would have had such an “education”, but they were a good bunch and you wished them well.