Well, and doesn’t that awfully nice Mr Tennant take awfully nasty to a wholly new level of heartless indifference, almost an art form in itself? His Des, the three-night portrayal of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, was a pitch-perfect masterclass in narcissistic psychopathy that deserves a rung on the ladder up there with Robert Carlyle’s Albie Kinsella from Cracker and Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter.
The smart (and kind) thing that ITV and writer Luke Neal chose to do was show nothing of the stalking, strangling, drowning or dismemberment of the 12 (that we know of) young men in London’s Muswell Hill between 1978 and 1983. Instead, a murmured warning from the grim forensics officers that “you really don’t want to look inside” was enough to send Daniel Mays’s detective from the room as if scalded. Mays was of course superb, his big copper’s face occasionally struggling to grasp the enormity of the confessions teeming before him, yet cannily picking a path to successful prosecution, and – crucially – caring for the memories of the young men (in a way not altogether common to the Met’s 1980s attitudes towards homosexuals and vagrants). Also excellent was Jason Watkins as waspish dandy Brian Masters, ever treading a filigree line, as the biographer, between dispassionate objectivity and over-reliance on Nilsen’s continuing goodwill.
I loved Ratched, simply for the sheer elegance and galloping style, but it is gratuitously violent
But it is to David Tennant that go the frills, and the chills. In his Fraserburgh monotone he poured forth a fast tide of details that, in their very air of niggling pedantry, their mild wheedling sense of someone wronged, summed up every inch the minor civil servant he was in real life. Nilsen was clever, witty even. “I made him an omelette, and then I must have killed him. Mibbie the omelette killed him, eh? Mind you, omelettes dinnie normally leave red weals on the neck, so…”
It showed us that, though drowned with details and presented with an overwilling confession, there was still a mountain to climb, names to link with bodies, before conviction. Nilsen’s face only troubled itself once, when told of the death of his dog: Tennant’s jaw sank and retreated exactly as if he’d removed a lower denture. When asked directly by Mays why he did it, his reply, “I was kinda hoping you could tell me that?”, was the voice of petty officialdom, a rebuke towards an unregarded colleague who might have filed the fish prices for the month in the wrong column – rather than the response of someone who had sat watching TV for three nights while toying with a disembodied head. Superb: restrained, too, given the subject matter and sensitivities, and all the better for it.
The most beautiful, if savage, treat you can watch this year is Ratched, the pre-story, starting in 1947, of the nurse of the same name, supposedly about 15 years before the events of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which Louise Fletcher’s performance won her an Oscar in 1976.
Unashamedly Hitchcockian in its conception, with relentless Bernard Herrmann-ish strings rising and sobbing as we fly over the Big Sur coast and settle on a gleaming art deco sanatorium, in which a charismatic priest-killer has been confined for assessment, it will surprise no one after even a cursory minute’s watching that this is the brainchild of Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story). Trademark flourishes abound: a gorgeous fecundity of colour, dizzying electric blues and yellows and violent greens assail your eyes under that white California sun, and all is aided by a glittering heavyweight cast – along with Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched we also get the likes of Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Sophie Okonedo, Judy Davis.
I loved it, simply for the sheer elegance and galloping style, but it is gratuitously violent. Even for a murder story in a mental institution. It’s everything Des wasn’t: we have to see all the trepanning, all the boiling in the baths, and the most undoubtedly damaged of all, Nurse Ratched (Paulson is wonderful) gazes on undaunted as colleagues vomit on her bespoke shoes, micro-plotting throughout.
It is without any doubt a feast for the eyes – Stone, with a colour-coordinated capuchin monkey on her shoulder, makes something of an impact – and though the series dips a little mid-run, a second is in the pipeline. I’m not sure whether we ever get to the heart of Ratched’s peculiar blend of compassion and capacity for savagery, nor (frankly) whether this backstory needed telling in the first place. Perhaps just sit back and relish the ride.
That exact sentence could have been written for The Third Day, an enthralling, mesmerising experiment between TV and theatre. The middle section, Autumn, a one-off live event from Punchdrunk, will be broadcast as a 12-hour continuous take on 3 October, a Saturday. Which I am tremendously looking forward to on my one day “off”, bastards. Regardless, the opening section, Summer, written by Dennis Kelly, with Jude Law mysteriously consigned to the island of Osea – I didn’t even know they had islands in Essex – is truly, insanely, watchable. It borrows shiveringly heavily from The Wicker Man, yet still the hairs on the back of the neck leap to attention as first Law and, later, Naomie Harris enter an enclave of crazed beliefs, corn dolls, occasional kindnesses but chiefly Hatred of the Other.
I suspect it’s going to be a long, slow, intriguing folk-horror story whose answers will, eventually, amount to somewhat less than the sum of its parts. Yet… what parts!
I must confess I feel a little bit sorry for The Singapore Grip. If we can step aside from the row that damned it even before broadcast, over lack of representation of indigenous peoples – and might we, please? – this adaptation of JG Farrell’s novel just doesn’t work. Written as a deserved satire on the white sovereignty and stupidity that led to the collapse of Singapore, and despite a generally strong cast, the makers simply forgot one rule of TV: satire on the page is fearsome hard to do on screen (one of the funniest, most searing, novels I have read, Lucky Jim, has been made progressively worse in each screen incarnation).
The satire gets stronger the longer into the series you get: indeed, starts to work. But Downton and Durrell Sunday-night lovers will have long given up by then.