The week in TV: Manhunt; Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax; The Dry; Is University Really Worth It? – review

<span>‘Wheezing nobly’: Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, on the trail of assassin John Wilkes Booth in Manhunt. </span><span>Photograph: Apple TV</span>
‘Wheezing nobly’: Tobias Menzies as Edwin Stanton, on the trail of assassin John Wilkes Booth in Manhunt. Photograph: Apple TV

Manhunt Apple TV+
Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax (Channel 4) |
The Dry ITVX
Is University Really Worth It? (BBC Two) | iPlayer

I’m always ready to be educated by television, but should it feel like actual homework? Monica Beletsky’s new seven-part Apple TV+ drama, Manhunt, sounded compelling. Based on James L Swanson’s book Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, it opens with the 1865 assassination of US president Abraham Lincoln. At Ford’s theatre in Washington, actor John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle) shot Lincoln (Hamish Linklater) in the head, jumped on to the stage (breaking his leg), then escaped with help from Confederate sympathisers.

Manhunt follows Booth on the run, pursued by US secretary of war and Lincoln’s friend, Edwin Stanton (Tobias Menzies). It’s also about the aftermath of the American civil war, the difficult genesis of civil rights (Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, tried to scuttle his plans) and the hostile reaction of Confederate America. A fascinating series of events with sharp resonance for today. When Stanton says: “This is America. We replace our presidents with elections, not with coups,” the mind obligingly flashes on to a certain modern-day presidential sore loser.

There are sweet, hopeful moments but, at root, The Dry is about souls choking in the dust and chaos of life

While mainly watchable, too much of Manhunt feels like a ponderous history lecture. Stanton suffered from debilitating asthma, and Menzies spends much of the time wheezing nobly as he and others spout chunks of historical exposition at each other. There’s also an irritating, boomeranging timeline. Lincoln is alive in a flashback, then he’s dead, then he’s alive again… It’s difficult to feel his loss when, a lot of the time, he’s still there!

Every so often, the series hits its stride. It’s unsparing with grim racial abuse, giving a visceral feel of the times, with a strong black character in housemaid Mary Simms (Lovie Simone). And while Linklater’s Lincoln feels like a weird, stiff variety hall skit in a chinstrap beard, Boyle delivers a vivid antihero in Booth: a delusional, fame-hungry wannabe trying to pass off his preening narcissism as political ideology (again, the modern parallels).

Most problematically, looking ahead, the story suffers from a lack of connection between Booth and Stanton, and any sense of the titular manhunt being urgent and personal. Ultimately, you can’t help feel that a better drama would have invisibly stitched in all of Manhunt’s pedestrian historical stodge.

On Channel 4, Emily Turner’s documentary Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax examined what happens when the internet turns your life into bin juice. In 2015, Ella Draper, who was engaged in a custody dispute with her children’s father, posted a video in which her nine-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son accused parents and teachers at a local school of paedophilia conducted in grubby satanic rituals.

The claims were dismissed by police and the children found to have been coached by Draper’s boyfriend Abraham Christie, a convicted criminal with links to conspiracy theorists. Still, the video went viral, attracting keyboard obsessives who dispensed death threats, or even travelled to Hampstead, north London.

One woman, Sabine McNeil, a German-born ex-computer scientist, somehow became Draper’s “legal adviser”. McNeil posted schoolchildren’s details online, stating whether they “enjoyed sex” or had to be drugged, resulting in paedophiles contacting their mothers. She was labelled “the UK’s worst troll”.

There’s so much going on here: mob hysteria; online vigilantism; police sluggishness. However, the core of Accused is family life derailed, and of shattered, beleaguered mothers courageously fighting back. Four of the Hampstead mothers are played by actors who lip-sync their real-life voices.

It’s clear that the mothers’ painstakingly amassed evidence (almost 750,000 examples of mainly online harassment) was crucial in helping police secure convictions. McNeil, for one, was eventually convicted of harassment, receiving a precedent-setting nine-year sentence, of which she served four in prison. What emerges is startling and chilling documentary, chronicling yet another mass display of online lawlessness.

In 2022, I was very taken with the first series of Nancy Harris’s BritBox dramedy The Dry (it has since become available as an ITVX box set). Now series two, also directed by Paddy Breathnach, has landed on ITVX, once again following Shiv Sheridan (Roisin Gallagher of The Lovers), an artist and recovering alcoholic, as she navigates family life and modern romance on her return to Dublin.

The meat of the first series was in the beautifully drawn characters, imploding relationships and wickedly dry dialogue, and it’s all here again. The vampish mother (Pom Boyd); the crumbling dad (Ciarán Hinds); the chaotic gay brother (Adam Richardson); the competitive sister (Siobhán Cullen), who asks of Shiv’s new boyfriend: “Does he realise she’s an alcoholic?”; the rascally ex (Moe Dunford) who has taken to sleeping in his van.

There are sweet, hopeful moments: Shiv has a new lover, played by Sam Keeley (“He’s a ride!” declares her AA sponsor). At root, however, The Dry is about souls choking in the dust and chaos of life, with addiction always uncomfortably near. It still meanders a tad, but if you’ve yet to see it you’re in for a treat.

The new BBC Two documentary Is University Really Worth It? feels timely. It’s presented by Geoff Norcott, a self-avowed centre-right comedian, formerly a secondary school teacher reinforcing New Labour’s “education, education, education” message. He asks: should he save to send his son to university, or buy a new car?

Norcott is an adept host, with a direct, easy style. He visits different universities (Brighton and Sheffield Hallam) and looks into the tangled web of related topics: tuition fees/debt; the new client-producer higher education relationship; student poverty; grade inflation; staff strikes and student protests (aimed at management). He also meets some of his former students.

Elsewhere, there are downsides. The pandemic is given absurdly short shrift, the wrecking ball of Brexit is ignored, and Norcott pushes hackneyed ideas about (superior) trade apprenticeships, and how some degrees (medicine; engineering) are valid, but others not so much. Oh come on! Does anyone think apprenticeships aren’t great? Does anyone look down on the likes of plumbers? And aren’t supposedly worthless arts/humanities degrees transferable to a huge array of different careers? (Two, in Norcott’s case.)

There’s a continuing crisis of working class people being effectively “priced out” of the arts. A class-based (not for the likes of us!) cordoning-off of academic study would appear to create yet another dubious zone of privilege. To his credit, Norcott delivers an interesting documentary that makes you think, even as it fails to convince.

Star ratings (out of five)
Accused: The Hampstead Paedophile Hoax ★★★★
The Dry ★★★★
Is University Really Worth It? ★★★

What else I’m watching

20 Days in Mariupol
(Channel 4)
The Bafta-winning 2023 documentary, which also won best documentary at last weekend’s Oscars (a first-ever Oscar for Ukraine), is now streaming. A devastating account of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from journalist Mstyslav Chernov. A devastating account of the Russian invasion of Ukraine from journalist Mstyslav Chernov.

Turning Point: The Bomb and the Cold War
Brian Knappenberger’s US docuseries about the cold war, from the atomic bomb to Putin. Wide-reaching and rigorous, it includes interviews with Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

Love Rat
(Channel 5)
A hot-topic four-part drama about romance fraud. Sally Lindsay plays a woman duped out of her savings by a dastardly conman she meets on holiday in Cyprus. Utter nonsense, but oddly enjoyable.