Upright: Tim Minchin’s losing streak is a winning formula as rising star joins his wacky road trip

David Sexton
Sky Atlantic

Britain is best at almost everything, of course. Except road movies perhaps? We just haven’t the space.

There was one with Tom Hardy a few years back, where he drove all the way from Birmingham to London, talking on his phone. And symbolic expeditions have been made from London to Brighton, and vice versa, from time to time. But these are more commutes than deep voyages of personal discovery.

America does have the space but road trips there have become quite the package holiday, haven’t they? As recently enjoyed by those éminences grises, the Hairy Bikers. There is also the risk of running into a good many Americans.

No, there’s just one place for a great road movie: Australia. The distances are immense, the emptiness incomparable. The Nullarbor Plain stretches thousands of miles across southern Australia. That’s where Upright, an absolute treat of a series, is set.

Unlucky: Minchin plays a washed-up former musician (Sky Atlantic)

Tim Minchin plays Lucky, an unlucky former musician in his forties, a flake, penniless, beery, and drug-addicted, who is making the long trip from Sydney to his hometown of Perth to see his dying mother. He used to be in a band with his brother but they’ve long been estranged, Lucky having failed to grow up and get a proper job.

He sets off in a rented car, towing a trailer loaded with his precious upright (yup!) piano. In no time, exhausted and drug-addled, he has written his car off after crashing into a ute, driven by 16-year-old — or possibly just 13-year-old — Meg (Milly Alcock, 19, a great discovery, a new star).

Meg, foul-mouthed, capable and angry, is on the run herself, from her drunk dad. We see him from time to time, sozzled in bed while she leaves messages on his answering machine, twitching a bit to show he’s not actually dead.

The two pair up, loading the piano into the truck, Lucky driving as Meg has broken her arm in the collision. They make a great odd couple on their erratic journey — “this weird Chewbacca guy, driving my ute — he’s probably like a psycho-murderer or something,” says Meg cheerfully. She does a great zombie face.

Lucky is a man-boy, still enmeshed in his frustrated ambitions, an increasingly ratty, shaggy loser. Minchin, 44 — whose own successful career as a comedian, musician and creator of Matilda the Musical was rudely interrupted recently by a failed $100 million Hollywood film project and the early closure of a Broadway show — makes his troubles consistently funny and endearing, nonetheless.

Alcock is just as watchable as Meg, so bratty, furious and focused but also in many ways still an innocent. She’s idealised a bit, perhaps; made almost a teenage superhero — indestructible and relentless, says Lucky.

The pair’s wacky relationship, which given the age difference could have veered into the dodgy, develops touchingly over the series. Meg soon realises how much she can taunt Lucky by calling him dad when it suits, threatening him in the hospital where she gets her arm treated. “I’ll tell them you’re an old perv — my dad, or you’re a f***ing paedo, got it?” But gradually they build up trust.

Upright is a balancing act itself, loose yet structured, sad but funny, touching lightly on heavy matters, taking naturally to the road movie format, moving along easily. The photography alone, by Katie Milwright, is consistently a delight, properly filmic. The hot and dusty Outback seems a particularly good place to spend time this December.

Upright is on Sky Atlantic, 10pm tonight

Read more

Tagged: Life on Lockdown is BBC Three at its best

The Irishman ending leaves Netflix viewers in tears

A complete guide to everything new on Netflix this Christmas