The week in TV: The Crown; World on Fire; Smuggled and more

Euan Ferguson

The Crown (Netflix)
World on Fire (BBC One) | iPlayer
Smuggled (C4) | All 4
Gold Digger (BBC1) | iPlayer
The Accident (C4) | All 4

So, The Crown: any good? There have been harder questions to answer. It’s unsettling, in fact, how quickly we shed any expectations of Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby and the rest of the band, so seamless the transition and so thorough the inhabiting. Olivia Colman’s first words were “old bag”, but Olly’s caught the full weirdnesses required to make one’s mouth move in that way – “eulled begg” – as has Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret, the – I think we’re in spoiler-free zones now – pushy, stylish, jealous one, with her thwarted dreams of being “on ivvry coin, ivvry banknote”. Tobias Menzies as Phil the Greek now reveals the skull beneath the skin.

How true is Peter Morgan’s interpretation of real backroom royal lives? Again, there have been harder questions. Who cares? I first heard about the Queen’s “affair” with Lord P about 30 years ago, and was so shocked I had no option but to shrug and keep breathing. More chewy by far is the politics: in this lies nothing less than the 60s/70s story of Britain, told through Morgan’s prism, which is roughly faithful, skewed only to the serving of drama. Which can in the right hands do so much more than simple documentary; I’m vaguely grumped yet wholly unsurprised that youngsters are learning more from Netflix than propah schooling. When Jason Watkins, a wonderful Harold Wilson, is stared down by Colman, post-Aberfan, for setting the press on Her Coldness – distinct and surely deliberate pre-echoes of Blair, 1997 – you get a shivery frisson of genuine tensions in that room; and you believe it happened exactly so. I’ll say again: it’s worth the Netflix sub for this alone.

World on Fire ended with the most sit-up-and-beg plea for a second series I’ve yet to see – Kasia, on a hill escaping from Nazis, trying to decide whether to go with certain tortured death or a race to the sunlit uplands, which would have guaranteed another few hours with ex-lover Harry. I’d have looked at spoilt boy Harry and considered the lazy attractions of gravity.

It has been a semi-triumph. Writer Peter Bowker bravely stranded all of Europe in his task: some strands worked. Kasia and Poland, certainly, and the Webster/Albert relationship in Paris is wielding increasing power, as did some Berlin segments. But much else has been a part waste of fine actors: Lesley Manville, Sean Bean, Helen Hunt, for goodness sake. It’s been sometimes lovely, often harrowing, but two characters in particular have never rung even vaguely true: both Hunt’s war reporter and posho Harry have channelled 21st-century sensibilities. It hugely deserves a second series, not least because of the good jazz, from which I exclude caterwauls from Lois. It might want to de-strand, and de-woke.

George, one of the participants in C4’s reality ‘experiment’ Smuggled. Photograph: Robert Parfitt/PA

The two-part reality “experiment” Smuggled was flawed, to be sure, but not half as flawed as its critics or, indeed, the government would have you believe. The premise was catchily dumb. Eight British people, who handed their passports in to the producers abroad, would then try to get themselves back into Britain – by fast rib, by leisurely sail, by hiding in camper vans or squashed behind the seats of lorries.

All, apart from one super-fit idiot who’d decided to kayak for 22 hours against the wind (and was only stopped in mid-channel shipping lanes for fussy C4 health and safety issues), made it. And, actually, breezily so: minimal passport checks or searches in France, Holland, Ireland or the east coast ports of Fortress Britain. It was flawed because, in truth, there was no jeopardy. There was pretty much always a rescue boat, always a Channel 4 producer in the car, and in fact the inflatable crossing looked rather fun, if it hadn’t been for the whiny, moany man with his hand on the tiller, whose feet got slightly damp bashing into waves the size of the average hamster.

The truth is that real migrants, stressed and broke and broken and exploited to despairing levels, do not normally have the luxury of camper vans or yachts or, crucially, the facility of passing themselves off before any country’s Customs as blithe backseat chatterers or, often, any facility with the English language. All the participants did, including the first week’s haughty camper van lady who might have misread an invitation to partake in a programme called Smugged.

The backlash has been instant and took two forms. First, arguments over insensitivity. Vietnamese people died horribly a few weeks ago, thus this should not have been aired yet. But how long would the professionally offence-taking prefer the delay? Eight weeks? Eighty days? Eight hundred years?

The programme, there’s no denying, revealed uncomfortable truths. Which is why inside Priti Patel’s brave new Home Office there were apparently squirrelly briefings that Channel 4 had “blood on its hands”. For revealing routes that even the most cretinous people-smuggler knows like his own palmistry? Be serious, all ye outraged. Don’t blame Border Force: it’s a big-ass sea out there. Blame the smugglers, certainly. But mainly, as was carefully argued by Rob the sailor and other nuanced participants, rethink laws on asylum: we’re not that bloody crowded, after all, just pandering to some media. Which at times can feel like the strongest of tides. It’s honestly not.

People seem to love Gold Digger, another big new BBC thing to tuck up warmly with for the autumn. There are a couple of strengths. Given the number of ageing man/young woman dramas down the years, and the faintly fetid quality on occasion emanated, there were rich seams in inverting the form. And Julia Ormond is always splendid.And so, on the day of her character Julia’s 60th birthday, she goes up to London from her lovely Devon pad, the remnant from 35 years of a recent divorce. Meets Ben (Ben Barnes) at a gallery. Who is about 30 years younger.

So far, so-so. But Julia and Ben have zilch chemistry. When they’re having a postcoital Big Conversation just after he’s ordered a huge and splendid breakfast in bed, I’m afraid all that was running through my head was… eat those damned delicious eggs benedict before they get cold, for God’s sake. It’s going to be one of those things that leaves teaser cliffhangers – gold digger? Or… not? – before every intrusive BBC plug, like airport novels.

Writer Jack Thorne can do little wrong with His Dark Materials, but The Accident has been a rare misstep; for him and, similarly, for the sainted Sarah Lancashire. The Channel 4 series, loosely meant to refer to Grenfell, has faced predictable online criticism of a wheedlefuss nature – dodgy Welsh accents, rescuers employing angle grinders at the site of a gas explosion – but the fact remains that it just failed to fly at all; by episode two, we just, albeit rather guiltily, didn’t care quite enough about the community.