The week in TV: The Hijacker Who Vanished; We Are Who We Are; The Great British Bake Off and more

Euan Ferguson
·6-min read

Storyville: The Hijacker Who Vanished: The Mystery of DB Cooper (BBC Four) | iPlayer
We Are Who We Are (BBC One/BBC Three) | iPlayer
The Good Lord Bird (Sky Atlantic/Now TV) | sky.com
Saving Britain’s Pubs with Tom Kerridge (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4) | All 4
The Valhalla Murders (BBC Four) | iPlayer

While the US election plays out its less than lustrous endgame with all the alacrity of a lawyer on a retainer, we lucky British viewers were gifted significant insights into that grand nation and some of its wackier insistences and obsessions. An enthralling Storyville was one, detailing the FBI’s one unsolved instance of air piracy, when, in 1971, a polite hijacker got a $200,000 ransom then threw himself out the back door of the plane.

The Hijacker Who Vanished ultimately told us much more about America than it did about the culprit, one alleged “DB Cooper”, who parachuted into the night over frozen mountainous Oregon and has never been found. It told us, firstly, how much Americans love, just love, conspiracy theories, and are ever willing to beat down those local radio station doors in order to say so. DB Cooper was, according to your preference, a crook, or a lunatic, dead, or the last American hero: conspiracy theories now have him as a trans man, an OCD Vietnam veteran and a needy divorcee. The exemplary folk behind this film tracked down a few rational suspects’ relatives, and these good people argued over how their claims to know Cooper’s true identity stood up. I was left with two thoughts: evidence, without any additional motive or context, is not as it says; and all Americans want to be, briefly, acknowledged for their life, preferably on screen.

The mystery has influenced crime fiction and filmic drama, from Twin Peaks (along with the Oregon/Washington setting, DB Cooper was also the name of course of Kyle MacLachlan’s lead agent) to Heat, but that doesn’t make it an American story. The witnesses in this documentary – the forlorn, the rich, the weak, the appealingly mad – do.

I was also much taken by the setting for new HBO drama We Are Who We Are, an American base in Italy, in which the military “market” serves to delineate the differences between the host country and the guest. Italian markets: wayward and hot, shambolic, flyblown, eternal. Whereas the US military chooses to place everything, cheeses and courgettes and beer, in the same place, globally, like McDonald’s, thereby allowing planned theft of beer.

Into this dichotomy wanders Fraser, son of the new army base commander, Sarah, and her wife, Maggie. Fraser is an annoying teenager. He wears stupid clothes, bats violently back at his mother for cutting a slice of meat too fat, loves grim music, finds peace on an Italian street in Chioggia when he finally takes out his annoying-bastard hanging earphones and listens to two sewing machines. A fine, warm peace descends. Fraser would love this life for ever, certainly more than that of an army-brat with parental issues. Yet life beckons.

It is directed and made by Luca Guadagnino, joyously garlanded for Call Me By Your Name, so will feature, among all else, coming-of-age scenes. And perforce a certain teen gender-questioning. It’s gorgeous in many ways, infuriating in more, chiefly how sunnily slow it is. Yes, it’s lovely. Yes, people should have the right to love who they will. Now get on with it …

The Good Lord Bird is, if you haven’t yet had the joy, a fairly rumbly retelling of the story of John Brown, driven by God to free all in slavery. Ethan Hawke’s marvellous madness is, in the third episode, redeemed from cries of “white saviour” by the appearance of Frederick Douglass, who calms bible-boy down finally: one white man can’t, no matter the flesh or the will, accumulate the black experience. It is done with kindness. Witty and searing, this is (if you can get over the Tarantino stuff) one to clutch to your chest: watch much!

Profoundly unfortunate timing beset Tom Kerridge’s bid to save the pubs of Britain, throughout all three episodes, filmed separately. The first was cheerfully ignorant of any problem other than tired pubs and a modern lack of customers, and the second saw our hero, with his usual good grace and some eminently sound advice – if too often that simply seemed to be “don’t make punters feel they’re entering an abattoir” – on the cusp of changing minds, just before Covid hit.

The valiant Tom Kerridge, Saving Britain’s Pubs.
The valiant Tom Kerridge, Saving Britain’s Pubs. Photograph: BBC/Bone Soup Productions

The last saw our four target pubs having survived – thrived even, with expansion or innovation or simply a better relationship with brewery landlords – yet came before the second lockdown. And it’s really a shame, the timing, because there are now extremely large questions to be asked, chiefly of the benefits of the winter crackdown on Covid pubdom, when some are challenging evidence as to the pub-effect of viral spreading (as opposed say, to universities, or the school run). I suspect this is in large part because few in Westminster or Holyrood ever just venture of a dank Tuesday night down the boozer: it’s really that simple. That Tom has proven the need for the local is undeniable, even if the four were cannily chosen to reflect the absolute best of their communities, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an urgent new series. And I’d certainly watch a year-long search for Britain’s Worst Pub. Co-hosted by Nigel Farage and Miriam Margolyes, touring the land together cheerfully in (possibly) a 1954 Heinkel Bubble Car.

Might be a hardy perennial, no? As assuredly has become Bake Off, as evinced by the winner, Edinburgh’s Peter Sawkins, who was lovely but brought to mind a smiley pastry chef smuggling thricecakes and shoo-buns into Harry Potter’s dorm. He was about six when Bake Off first aired, and has since dedicated his life to watching and winning the thing. There have admittedly been lives worst spent. Yet also …

I had entertained high hopes for The Valhalla Murders, an Icelandic eight-part thriller in that inspired Beeb Four slot designed to give terrestrial adults something to watch of a Saturday night, particularly just after the moreish Danish detective drama DNA. It ticks many thrillerish boxes, but, oddly for such an innovative nation, they’re either boxes labelled “troubled female cop battling home life and know-nothing bosses” or of the “sinister 80s care home has secrets of abuse unearthed: survivor-child goes on gory justice spree” variety. Even halfway through it hasn’t quite got going: despite the dramatic backdrops, and a few stalwart performances, the word is glacial.