The week in TV: Hollington Drive; Strictly Come Dancing; RuPaul’s Drag Race UK; Don’t Exclude Me

Hollington Drive (ITV) | ITV Hub
Strictly Come Dancing (BBC One) | iPlayer
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK (BBC One) | iPlayer
Don’t Exclude Me (BBC Two) | iPlayer

There were times when I didn’t quite know what to make of Hollington Drive, ITV’s new four-part psychological thriller from Sophie Petzal (Blood), starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Rachael Stirling as sisters living next door to each other on a sumptuous cul-de-sac. At the start of the first episode, the well-heeled characters assemble for a barbecue of burgers, bangers and lifestyle-smugness (open-plan kitchen: check; vast garden: check). It’s one of those where you could be forgiven for wondering what terrible thing could happen in such a middle-class idyll – is a tea towel going to be revealed as coming from Primark?

It soon becomes clear that the tranquil setting is there only to be interrupted, and that the chief agent in this will be Theresa (Maxwell Martin). A twitchy, discordant presence from the off, she is beset by flashbacks, ranging from dreamy (an aerial shot of her lying in a rowing boat) to disturbing (an attacker’s hand over her mouth). When her 10-year-old son and niece (Fraser Holmes and Amelie Bea Smith) are late to return from the nearby playground, she discovers them miles away in woodland, squabbling and hiding something in a bin. Then a local child is reported missing.

Has Strictly's first all-male couple caused the very fabric of society to rip asunder? Nah, they’re just excellent

At the risk of dishing out spoilers like Halloween candy, Theresa has reasons (warped reasons, but still reasons) for suspecting that her child might be guilty of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, Helen (Stirling) has her own secrets, and isn’t averse to gossiping about her sister’s marriage behind her back: “I thought she looked miserable – do you think they’ll leave the drive?” In some ways, Hollington Drive is muddled and frustrating, and Stirling, thus far, seems underemployed. However, there’s a true sense of background menace, and Maxwell Martin is terrific – a study in pinched disquiet that’s a world away from her comic Motherland persona. What an adaptable and convincing actor she is. As the opening episode ended, I found myself musing on demon seeds, The Turn of the Screw and the wretched airlessness of dysfunctional families.

Am I going to die as I have lived, prone on my sofa watching Strictly Come Dancing? Wouldn’t that be the most quintessentially British death ever? Found, staring lifelessly ahead, claw-like hands clutching a glitterball. “She overdosed on spangles.” “She started watching it as a meta-joke about the heartwarming lameness of Saturday night television and got sucked in too deep.” “Woman suffers heart attack after watching Olympic swimming champion Adam Peaty industrially gyrate his groin against professional dancer Katya Jones in the 2021 series and remembering that sex existed.”

Nineteen series in, Strictly isn’t exactly the opiate of the masses, but it remains a decent slug of light entertainment froth. There are the judges, lined up like twinkling voodoo dolls. Presenters Tess Daly (style palette: resentful bridesmaid, 1973) and the magnificently mascara-ed Claudia Winkleman. In place of the eerily empty studio of peak pandemic Strictly, there’s a smattering of socially distanced tables bearing supportive relatives. Was that Emma Thompson causing an A-list commotion by cheering on husband Greg Wise? Henceforth, stay home, Ms Thompson – you’re disrupting the show’s carefully calibrated celeb eco-balance.

This season features the first deaf contestant, EastEnders’ Rose Ayling-Ellis (impressive). Also the first all-male couple, celebrity baker John Whaite and professional Johannes Radebe. Has the latter coupling caused the very fabric of society to rip asunder? Nah, they’re just excellent. For “unnatural-looking”, you’d have to turn to BBC Breakfast presenter Dan Walker (perhaps the first to go?), who lumbers about the dancefloor like rats are gnawing at his kneecaps. Over the years, Strictly has become tantamount to a televisual national anthem. Like that other Saturday night Goliath The X Factor, it can be felled, but only by viewer indifference.

Will they ever stop churning out the various incarnations of RuPaul’s Drag Race? It must be the hardest working television format on the block. I’m a big fan, but even I feel I’ve barely stopped watching Drag Race All Stars 6 on Netflix, and already the third series of RuPaul Drag’s Race UK is upon us.

That said, the BBC’s UK spin-off is fast becoming the jewel in the franchise crown: fresher, scruffier, punkier than the flagship US version, which too often verges on a showcase for established queens stiffly swishing in expensive gowns. The Brit lot are ropier but funnier. I’m still giggling at Choriza May’s entrance line: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful; hate me because I’m an immigrant.”

In this series they welcome the first-ever cis-female/lesbian queen, Victoria Scone, but otherwise it’s race business as usual: challenges, innuendo, snark, lip-syncs, chivvying from the judges, including Michelle Visage and Graham Norton. The makeup room is where all the emotional backstories spill out, sometimes in a forced way, at other times all too tenderly real: River Medway’s mother recently died of Covid. RuPaul is an undisputed phenomenon, the transgressive Willy Wonka of his generation, but he needs to protect his brand from overkill. Drag fatigue isn’t a thing yet, but at this rate it could be.

As if to chide those who berated teachers during lockdown, the BBC Two documentary Don’t Exclude Me reminds us of how punishingly hard it is to teach. Before the pandemic, permanent exclusions were rising, with almost 30,000 primary-age children given fixed-term exclusions in 2018-19, and 500 children permanently excluded before their eighth birthday. Enter Marie Gentles, with a decade of experience as head of a pupil referral unit, who visits Milton Hill primary school in Southend, Essex, to help stop the flow of exclusions.

Marie Gentles in Don’t Exclude Me.
Marie Gentles in the ‘fascinating and humbling’ Don’t Exclude Me. Photograph: Peter Coventry/BBC

It looks far from easy dealing with troubled pupils known for punching, kicking, throwing around furniture and scaring other children. Gentles refuses to write them off, sticking to her credo that exclusions leave vulnerable kids rejected and angry, which then becomes their identity. In the first of this two-parter, she and the Milton Hill staff use her techniques (calm, containment, praise, validation and consequences) to turn things around in a way that is fascinating and humbling to observe. Anyone watching who doesn’t come away with a profound respect for educators has a soul made of concrete.

What else I’m watching

Squid Game
A sleeper mega-hit horror-thriller series, and the first Korean offering to reach No 1 on Netflix. Desperate contestants are lured into competing in survival challenges where defeat means death. Think: an Even Hungrier Games.

28 Up: Millennium Generation
From the same stable as the late Michael Apted’s Seven Up!, this documentary series tracks those aged seven at the turn of the millennium. Now 28, they’re viewed embracing everything from radio show-hosting to moves to Australia.

Sex Actually With Alice Levine
Channel 4
Continuing her examination of UK sexual mores, Levine explores BDSM (bondage, domination and sadomasochism), and meets a professional dominatrix. All you ever wanted to know about uber-eroticised/monetised Britain but were perhaps rightly afraid to ask.