The week in TV: Litvinenko; Strike: Troubled Blood; How to Crack the Class Ceiling; The White Lotus and more

Litvinenko (ITVX) |
Strike: Troubled Blood (BBC One) | iPlayer
How to Crack the Class Ceiling (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth (Channel 4) | All 4
The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic/Now) |

Some things lodge stickily in the collective temporal lobe, such as the shocking 2006 images of the one-time Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko dying in a hospital bed, poisoned with a radioactive isotope, polonium-210 (“the most dangerous substance known to man”). Now, this harrowing scene has been reconstructed in the four-part drama Litvinenko (all are on ITVX).

Written by George Kay and directed by Jim Field Smith (alumni of Netflix’s Criminal), this is the disturbing true story of organised Russian murder on British soil; the poison is believed to have been administered via a pot of tea. Early on, Litvinenko, played by David Tennant, faces sceptical detectives (Neil Maskell and Barry Sloane) with a quasi-theatrical flourish: “I need to report a murder… mine.” It isn’t long before he’s propped up on hospital pillows, encased in NHS blankets, sensors snaking over a pale chest. Hairless and sunken, Tennant, mumbling, lapsing into Russian, injects a sense of personality and humanity into what is effectively one long deathbed scene.

It’s too much, and I say that as an old goth who used to have an out-of-control tarot habit

Litvinenko became a target after speaking out about Russian state corruption, and we see him emotionally contemplating his recently acquired British citizenship: “This country saved us.” His wife, Marina (Margarita Levieva), is all twisting fingers and muted grief, while the police (including an almost unrecognisable close-cropped Mark Bonnar) stoically put the graft in. Halfway through the opener I wondered if the drama might be a little one-note – could I take three more episodes of Tennant sighing on plumped pillows, however devastating? – but the uneasy stillness is pulling me in.

Over to BBC One for the latest four-part Cormoran Strike mystery. Strike: Troubled Blood could have been entitled The Case of the Lost Mojo. What’s happened to Strike, the dishevelled, PTSD-afflicted amputee war veteran detective from the Robert Galbraith (AKA JK Rowling) books? Played by Tom Burke, he’s supposed to be fun – or at least enough of a bad boy to make you buy into the odd couple chemistry bubbling between him and resolute sidekick Robin (Holliday Grainger). But here, in the fifth series, based on the fifth book, Strike seems a mawkish, lifeless shadow of his former greatcoat-flapping self.

The novel Troubled Blood was initially accused of transphobia, though that (a male murderer briefly adopting female clothing as a ploy) turned out to be overblown and is only glancingly referenced here. The story, set in London and Cornwall, concerns a cold case about a female doctor who went missing in 1974.

What transpires is an overheated yarn involving snuff movies, gangsters and, at one particularly garbled point, occultist Aleister Crowley and star signs. It’s too much, and I say that as an old goth who used to have an out-of-control tarot habit. A major problem is that Strike, mired in personal tragedy, now seems stuck at perma-morose, flattening the fizz between him and Robin. Are they going to get together? Going by this, you hope not, for her sake.

On BBC Two, Amol Rajan concluded his two-part docuseries How to Crack the Class Ceiling. I enjoyed the opener, a pithy examination of the invisible barriers to elite employment in areas such as high finance, media and law. The second instalment delivers yet more bleakness concerning “classism”, “accent-ism” and “class-washing” (equality schemes primarily run for good PR).

It includes interviews with everyone from BBC director-general Tim Davie to Nadhim Zahawi, chairman of the Conservative party, presumably interviewed when he was part of the (polite word: fleeting) Liz Truss government, and rather pathetically billed on screen as “minister for equalities, September-October 2022”. Elsewhere, young working-class people are shown struggling to get on. One of them, Adnan, is devastated when he receives yet another rejection from a City finance firm. This is enraging, disheartening fare about a rigged system. Rajan is great with the young adults he speaks to: relaxed, kind and unpatronising.

In another documentary, Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth (Channel 4), Ellie Flynn looks into what women deal with by “living it” on screen. She goes on dating sites as 18-year-old “Lucy” and is besieged with “dick pics” and explicit messages. When the men are confronted by Flynn (all male faces and voices in the documentary are disguised), they babble weird, weak “reasons”, among them the thought that she was “playing a game”.

Elsewhere, Flynn looks into everything from the sexualisation of schoolgirl uniforms to drink spiking, while an array of women tell their own grim stories. In Liverpool and London, secretly filmed by a camera crew, Flynn poses as stumblingly drunk and alone. One man follows her back to her hotel room. Two other men pursue her together, one chillingly lurking at a distance. The alarming thing is how casual and normal it all is. While the documentary is sometimes unfocused, it delivers a terrifying insight into everyday 21st-century predators.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve yet to recover from (spoiler alert) the nerve-shredding finale of Sky Atlantic’s The White Lotus. It reduced me to a palpitating wreck, hissing at the screen: “Come on, Tanya, get off the goddamn boat!”

While the atmosphere on that yacht of lost souls was sulphurous, fogged up with evil, Jennifer Coolidge as doomed, ditsy Tanya still managed to carry off creator Mike White’s pitch-black humour (“These gays, they’re trying to murder me!”), pumping homicidal extortionist Quentin (Tom Hollander) with bullets, then plaintively inquiring if her husband was having an affair.

Tanya’s demise, sinking operatically into the deep, provoked a question: is this how it’s going to be each time an established character goes forward to the next White Lotus season? It also crowned a series that’s had everything from debate-provoking bacchanalian excess to high-octane marital manoeuvring – and, always, that sense of the mask of wealth peeling back to reveal a grinning skull.

Mike White is Tennessee Williams meets Quentin Tarantino. Increasingly, he strikes me as someone who doesn’t trust success, even his own. His subversive instinct is to put audience expectations into a neat pile, then burn them. He’ll see you next time.

Star ratings (out of five)
Litvinenko ★★★
Strike: Troubled Blood ★★
How to Crack the Class Ceiling ★★★
Undercover: Sexual Harassment – The Truth ★★★
The White Lotus ★★★★★

What else I’m watching

Harry & Meghan
The second three-hour marathon from the Duke and Duchess of Netflix/Sussex (whichever you prefer) is more explosive than the first, featuring Megxit, tears and accusations of lying, scapegoating and negative briefing.

The Recruit
A new CIA lawyer is out of his depth when a former asset threatens to expose secrets in an eight-part spy thriller starring Noah Centineo.

Joe Lycett vs Beckham: Got Your Back at Christmas
(Channel 4)
In this festive edition of the comedian’s consumer champion show, he chronicles his recent well-publicised stunt: shaming David Beckham for acting as an ambassador for Qatar at the World Cup, by putting £10,000 of his own money into a garden shredder. Or does he?