The week in TV: I Hate Suzie; Peter: The Human Cyborg; A Suitable Boy and more – review

I Hate Suzie (Sky Atlantic) |
The Unbelievable Story of Carl Beech (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Truth About Cosmetic Treatments (BBC One) | iPlayer
Peter: The Human Cyborg (Channel 4) | 40D
A Suitable Boy (BBC One) | iPlayer

Not Billie Piper’s intent, no doubt, to outshine every other actor on screen. It just comes naturally. Her latest outing, I Hate Suzie, which she co-created with Lucy Prebble, is a humdinger, and despite genuine in-depth quality to the cast – Leila Farzad, Daniel Ings – the eyes are drawn remorselessly to Piper, even walking through a crowd or filling a glass in a corner of a vast country kitchen.

Suzie Pickles is a thirtysomething ex-teen star (as is Piper herself) whose phone photos are hacked from the cloud and leaked online. Cue shame, humiliation, public disdain, marriage meltdown and a wholly new questioning of what it means to be “famous” in an age famed for its censorious hypocrisy.

Piper is now quite the feted actor – she remains, for Yerma at the Young Vic, unique in record-breaking critical garlands – and quite the grown-up former teen star, quite apart from a couple of… interesting… marriages (Chris Evans, Laurence Fox). Yet even she, with relative power, has spoken of frustration at getting broadcasters to admit there might be room for possibly more than one drama about a woman falling apart before our eyes every couple of years.

She and Prebble, then, have saved their powder for Sky Atlantic, and it has done them proud. The opening episode (of eight), shown as part of a double bill on Thursday, certainly showcased this as mainly witty and wise; later it will get significantly darker, and all the better for it.

I especially loved the fact that on the fateful morning, when first her mum and then her scary best friend/agent (Farzad) call to tell her of the leak, the team of hipsters that trooped through her door for a photoshoot – pot-plant carriers, dog stylists, photographers et al – were supremely aware of Suzie’s fame, but it was just “fame” as a nebulous aspirational concept: no one knew what she actually did, because none of them watched telly. This is one of the more obviously in-jokes in a bittersweet satire that teems with subtler digs about the many prices of fame, and those who have the power to confer and wilfully destroy. Immense.

The Unbelievable Story of Carl Beech, aka the “Nick” of the entirely fabricated “VIP paedo ring”, must still give some hardened coppers midnight sweats. It’s not just the lack of even the most cursory investigation of the laughable list of injuries (snake bites?) imposed by the alleged torturers Edward Heath, Leon Brittan etc, and they didn’t even interview Beech’s wife until about two years later. But it’s mainly that.

The normally impressive film-maker Vanessa Engle, while still forensic in her processing, may have let off too lightly both Tom Watson and a few of the media organisations, the BBC included, which had taken up the cudgels (I suspect the programme was carefully lawyered). But she certainly illuminated, by pointing out the danger, post-Savile, of the pendulum being allowed to swing in the entire opposite direction. Surely the absolutism of believing every word a victim ever says is the same absolutism as believing nothing they ever say?

I wish I hadn’t watched in the same direct timeline The Truth About Cosmetic Treatments doc and Peter: The Human Cyborg, though at least I managed it in the right order. Had I tackled the impossibly brave story of Peter Scott-Morgan first, I honestly doubt whether I’d have had the compassion to tackle a few whiny niggles about crow’s feet with anything other than withering savagery.

As it was, Michael Mosley, in a double-hander with Mehreen Baig, performed a valuable service in highlighting the strange lacuna that makes the UK about the only place on the globe where the £3bn annual cosmetic industry is almost entirely unregulated. In one survey, 83% of practitioners were found to have no medical training.

For this was not about outright surgery but “soft” surgery – injections of hyaluronics and Botox, of limited longevity, which can be administered on the high street, in salons or by Superdrug, and demand for which has grown exponentially during lockdown. Soft surgery lies, I took from this, somewhere between the hilarious super-scam of sugar-pill homeopathy and the less fun stuff under knockout gas on the slab. And it’s growingly acceptable even for twentysomethings, who really don’t have anything to worry about yet. Yet even Mosley grew, for him, almost cross when he said: “I would certainly recommend that you check the qualifications of the person who’s about to stick needles in your face.”

The concluding episode this week will ask “Are selfies to blame for our obsession with cosmetic surgery?”, which means at least a third of an hour’s programme will be about a question that could simply be dealt with in a three-letter answer.

And so to Peter Scott-Morgan, an impressive ebullience of a man who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease a few years ago and decided technology was his only way out of a death sentence. Helped immensely by his being one of the world’s leading roboticists and possibly the leading expert on complex-system dynamics.

From his home in Torbay, Scott-Morgan and his partner of 40 years, Frank, have for four years planned his transformation into a human cyborg. We saw Scott-Morgan, astonishingly, standing, breathing and feeding anew, every vicious little MND attack countered by sheer clever. He was stoic and cheerful in the main, although the poignancy of having to choose one’s last few spoken words before the tracheotomy consigned him to voicebox forever, was terribly affecting. This documentary left him in mid-March. An urgent update from Channel 4 soonest, please! Just to let us know he’s surviving lockdown lock-in.

A Suitable Boy ended its Sunday run with garlands and sweet smiles, a breathless railway station proposal, a be-petalled wedding, sunsets all round. Lata married the nice safe shoemaker, who unselfishly loved her, rather than eloping with passion; I’m hoping the entitled poet and (especially) his truly crap verse never really got a look-in.

While going down well enough with some audiences, I’ve always been conscious of this series’ frustrated desire to do justice to Vikram Seth’s anvil of a novel, hence it has seemed underwhelming. The performances, and certainly the settings, were there; the ambition wasn’t. It suffered perhaps from a six-week-only run, although maybe budgets wouldn’t stretch to 10.

I think the mistake was, from the off, to have all characters speaking not Hindi or Urdu but either cut-glass English or an unfortunate singsong simulacrum of the same that just reminded one of dire Milligan-Sellers head-waggery. Subtitles are no longer to be feared: the BBC surely learned that from its Saturday Beeb Four Scandi-dramas, so why not for its mainstream Sunday nights? Patronising? Oh, how clever of you to notice…

Once-feted adapter Andrew Davies did well to cram a lot into a relatively tiny sack, and some at least will have learned a vague little about the tense dual birth of the Indian subcontinent. Yet, coming soon after his rightly maligned Sanditon, I suspect Davies will not be counting 2019-2020 as a most suitable year.