The week in TV: The Control Room; Maryland; Unvaccinated; Better Things

The Control Room (BBC One) | iPlayer
Maryland (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Unvaccinated (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Better Things (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Such was the heat, there were times I felt I was hallucinating the BBC One emergency call thriller The Control Room. How better to explain three hours of increasingly demented plot developments than that somebody slipped a couple of tabs into my ice tray?

As it was, I was left to puzzle over the programme’s grasp of reality. Directed by Amy Neil and written by Nick Leather (who was responsible for BBC Three’s excellent Murdered for Being Different), it starts well. Gabe (Iain De Caestecker), a worker in a Glasgow emergency call centre, answers the phone to a desperate young woman who says she has killed a man. The caller, who then recognises Gabe’s voice, turns out to be Sam (Joanna Vanderham), his dysfunctional childhood love.

Spoilers ahead. Gabe agrees to help dispose of the body (why?). Gabe refrains from looking inside the van in which the body is contained (why?). A co-worker blackmails him into participating in a data collection side hustle (eh?). There are childhood flashbacks: trauma; arson; a Christmas-tree wood. Implausibility abounds: Gabe, an emergency services call operative, appears to live in the Grosvenor Square of Glasgow; the police, led by Sharon Rooney’s DI Breck, let him slip through net after net. I rather like the tender, evocative childhood flashbacks, but there’s a tsunami of them. At one point in this supposedly tense thriller, Sam hides in Gabe’s wardrobe and pretends she’s not there as he hangs his jacket up. What is this: No Murder Please, We’re British?

Better Things is as fine a portrait as I’ve seen of how daughters sharpen their claws on their mums

I would require a course of regression hypnosis to explain the convoluted denouement to you. It’s said that the Jed Mercurio stable plays fast and loose with plot credibility, but Line of Duty is a fly-on-the-wall documentary compared with this show. It doesn’t feel fair to blame the actors, who have done nice work elsewhere. The Control Room is an example of what could be termed “failed noir”. You can see what it’s trying to do with the moody lighting, femme fatale motifs, stylised close-ups and gasping dialogue, but it keeps falling through its own improbable black holes.

Over on BBC Two, there was an adaptation of Maryland, Lucy Kirkwood’s acclaimed short play about the violence women deal with in their everyday lives. First shown at the Royal Court in 2021, it is Kirkwood’s appalled response to the deaths of Sabina Nessa, Sarah Everard and too many others who have been raped and murdered.

Here, the name “Mary” becomes a universal feminine signifier. Hayley Squires and Zawe Ashton play women called Mary who have been raped. The insensitive policewoman (Justine Mitchell) who deals with them is called Mary, as is the mother of the bungling policeman (Daniel Mays), who joshes inappropriately with them.

Alongside the Marys and their ineffectual, irritating police protectors (“What are you up to tomorrow, then?”), there are ”furies”, standing on stairs, hurrying through woods, walking along streets, expressing womanly thoughts and fears: “My mother told me to always aim for the Adam’s apple.”

There’s a noise – a howling scraping – to drown out mentions of rape and murder. As the play progresses, the furies swell in numbers, become engorged by grief and rage: “What we can’t get our pretty little heads around is: why are we so fucking killable?” For those who didn’t see Maryland on stage, it feels as though you’re experiencing all the intimacy and intensity of the theatre piece.

A recent bout of Covid left me stupefied on cushions, wheezing like a multi-jabbed Methuselah. It makes you wonder about the people who remain unvaccinated even as infection numbers rise: are they “truthers” with nerves of steel or is something deeper going on?

Cue the BBC Two documentary Unvaccinated. Presented by Professor Hannah Fry, a mathematician who worked on the data that helped bring the UK out of the first lockdown, it addresses those who have never been vaccinated – a figure put at around 4 million in the UK. Assembling seven individuals, the programme’s aim is to allay their concerns – examine data, dispel myths, talk with scientists and medics – to the point where they’ll consider getting their arm out.

It comes to something when the conspiracy theorist who arrives rattling on about microchips emerges as one of the more reasonable group members, who is at least prepared to listen. There are valid concerns: big pharma, side effects, fertility, newness of vaccines, socio-historical reasons behind heightened vaccine hesitancy among ethnic minorities. Fry respects their right to scepticism, calmly persevering, despite interruption, opposition and a walkout after she uses jellybeans to illustrate a point about percentages.

Jellybean rage aside, it becomes clear that certain people are somewhat fixed in their views and unlikely to be persuaded by scientific fact. After a while, the documentary starts reminding me of noisier corners of the internet, where anti-vaxxing is a hardwired personality trait. Does anybody in Unvaccinated consider getting jabbed? Take a look for yourselves. Personally, I think Fry should get a special Bafta for patience.

Also on BBC Two, Better Things returns for its fifth and final series. This show felt like a best-kept secret, until I realised that plenty of others were watching it and loving it. Created by comedian Pamela Adlon and (pre-disgrace) Louis CK, it’s an unfussy, droll, Los Angeles-based dramedy in which performer/single mother Sam (Adlon) drags herself through the days, dealing with career issues, ageing, three demanding daughters and an eccentric mother (Celia Imrie) full of “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple” energy.

Mothers, please watch with emotional support animals at the ready: Better Things is as fine a portrait as I’ve seen of how daughters sharpen their claws on their mums. In 10 parts (all on iPlayer), events and dramas slide in and out of focus: career jolts, non-binary youngsters, abortions, a UK trip. While uber-Californian, it’s sprinkled with the sardonic worldview of Adlon’s native New York: “I don’t like the tone of your face.” Sometimes you think Sam, rasping away like a squeezed-middle Marge Simpson, will be engulfed by everyone else’s needs, but this dame is a survivor.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Control Room
Better Things

What else I’m watching

Big Oil v the World
It’s been rather on the warm side, right? Here’s an in-depth three-part documentary delving into the oil/fossil fuel industries and what they tried to suppress about climate change decades ago.

The second series of the dramatisation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, first aired on BritBox. Justin Young takes over from Andrew Davies for the “reimagining” duties. Hang on to your bonnets and your modesty – it got quite raunchy last time.

Britain’s Tourette’s Mystery…
Channel 4
The past 18 months have seen an alarming surge in young Tourette syndrome sufferers, especially among girls. Is this lockdown anxiety? Social media? Presenter Scarlett Moffatt started experiencing tics when she was 12 years old.