Skip to content

The week in TV: The Essex Serpent; the Baftas; Fergal Keane: Living With PTSD; Clark | Television

The Essex Serpent AppleTV+
The British Academy Television Awards (BBC One) | iPlayer
Fergal Keane: Living With PTSD (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Clark Netflix

There comes a time in every actor’s life when he must unbutton his period drama shirt and smolder as if his life depends on it. In Apple TV+’s new six-parter The Essex Serpentbased on the historical novel by Sarah Perry, adapted by Anna Symon, directed by Clio Barnard, this duty falls to Tom Hiddleston, but he rather fluffs it.

Hiddleston plays a late-19th-century pastor trying to soothe marsh-dwelling locals who believe they are being threatened by a giant mythical sea serpent (think the Loch Ness monster, but with Godzilla’s temper). Claire Danes plays English widow and naturalist Cora, who, freed from her abusive husband de ella, takes her autistic child and socialist servant (Hayley Squires) to investigate the creature. Eleven in Essex – spoiler alert! – Cora is drawn into an anguished love triangle with Hiddleston’s man of the cloth and his ailing wife (Clémence Poésy).

In 1988, Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm wove a similar tale in the spirit of mythic campery. by contrast, The Essex Serpent is ambitiously gothic, coiling itself around a series of personal, mystical and ideological standoffs: principle versus emotion, faith versus rationalism, superstition versus science. Cora emerges as a proto-feminist with startling tangerine-hued hair (reminiscent of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth I) and wonderfully dramatic clothes that echo the atmospheric Essex wetlands. These are conveyed in a series of misty aerial shots featuring cawing gulls and slabs of sodden mud. A recurring criticism of period drama is how prissy and vanilla it can be, sanitizing rather than illuminating past eras, but visually this is in the “red in tooth and claw” zone: nature with its entrails out.

Sadly, the serpent keeps getting forgotten, when surely the idea of ​​it – the threat, the metaphor – should be omnipresent. There is also the problem of chemistry, as in: Danes and Hiddleston don’t have any. While Danes is suitably impassioned, Hiddleston clearly didn’t get the sexy-religious-dude memo and somehow manages to be simultaneously stiff and soggy. Together, they exude the erotic heat of a bed bath administered with a lukewarm flannel. It’s made worse because Frank Dillane, as Cora’s doctorly admirer, is brilliantly witty and naughty – how come he receives a Victorian-era friend-zoning in favor of the drippy pastor? I’m all for the way The Essex Serpent basks in gothic allure, but it could have been wilder.

Of all the serious issues raised by Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, among the more minor is that awards ceremonies have been slow to certain frisson. Tuning into BBC One’s post-pandemic British Academy Television Awards at the Royal Festival Hall, hosted by Richard Ayoade, I wondered who might kick off: does brutality lurk untamed behind Olivia Colman’s red-carpet smile?

Of course nothing happened. The reliably acid Ayoade briefly referred to the slap, while giving the starry audience less a mauling, more a teasingly non-specific pawing, like a cat toying with a roomful of overdressed celebrity mice: “No one works harder than us. Apart from people in other professions.”

‘Reliably acid’: Richard Ayoade presenting the Baftas. Rex/Shutterstock

This year’s categories were so absurdly strong, it was possible to smoke as Céline Buckens missed out on best supporting actress for show trial and then cheer as Cathy Tyson won it for Help. Similarly, it was only right that Time won best miniseries, and an absolute outrage that the other contenders – Landscapers, Stephen, It’s to Without – didn’t.

Shock of the night was that It’s to Without won zilch, despite a plethora of nominations (it did win the big award – best director – at Bafta’s Television Craft awards in April). Along the way, Channel 4 and the BBC were showered with podium love, and quite right too. These are, after all, perilous times for broadcasting: Nadine Dorries is in charge, a woman who probably thinks “dramatic license” is something she should be charging pensioners for.

Fergal Keane reporting from Ukraine, 2016.
Fergal Keane reporting from Ukraine in 2016. Photograph: BBC/State of Grace Films

In the BBC Two documentary Fergal Keane: Living With PTSDthe much-garlanded Irish war correspondent – ​​a 30-year veteran of conflict zones including Northern Ireland, South Africa and Rwanda – examines how reporters can return unarmed, but only on the outside.

Keane went public some time ago about his PTSD (he was diagnosed in 2008), and the documentary opens with him reporting from Ukraine, then withdrawing, saying he wouldn’t be able to cope. From there, he is all brutal honesty as he examines the “ego and addiction” of war reporting, alongside the idealism and the relentless havoc PTSD wreaks on mental health. Keane suffered nightmares about being trapped beneath bodies, used alcohol to medicate, and turned into a paranoid nightmare his family of him were forced to tiptoe around. “It’s shite,” he says simply.

Keane brings in other voices, including the therapist who helped him and a former Rwandan child refugee, now living in Paris, whose escape in the back of a truck Keane reported. Towards the end of this fascinating, candid documentary, Keane says matter-of-factly: “It’s not finished – the story of me and PTSD.” Indeed, he’s shown returning to Ukraine; away from the frontline to report on the refugee crisis, but still, there he is. You wonder if this is his way of forging a PTSD compromise with himself.

If you’re yearning for something different, watch Clark on Netflix. Swedish-made, in six parts, it stars Bill Skarsgård as Clark Olofsson, “Sweden’s favorite gangster” and charismatic super-seducer, whose myrad real-life criminal escapades include the Norrmalmstorg bank robbery that inspired the psychological term Stockholm syndrome.

Bill Skarsgard in Clark.
‘Crazed screwball energy’: Bill Skarsgård in Clark. Photograph: Netflix

Olofsson’s life story is bizarre enough: if he’s not smuggling drugs in oranges from Beirut, he’s seducing the ladies or barking his catchphrase at officialdom: “Go shit yourself!” Instead of calming all this down, director Jonas Åkerlund ramps everything up with a frenetic pace, surreal graphics and gonzo humour. Skarsgård is superb, playing Olofsson with crazed screwball energy. I’m halfway through, and it’s becoming a little tiring: I’ll be needing paracetamol and a nap soon. Still, for those who can hack it, Clark is that rarest of TV phenomena: something that feels genuinely original.

What else I’m watching

glow-up
BBC Three
The brilliant makeup competition returns for a third series, judged by Val Garland and Dominic Skinner. It’s not just about “smoky eyes”. The makeup artists tackle everything from drag to TikTok to screen prosthetics. Inventive and absorbing, BBC Three also has an Irish version.

Tehran
AppleTV+
This is the second outing for the tense Israeli global espionage undercover spy thriller, starring Niv Sultan. Glenn Close joins the cast for this series, and considering her thrillingly predatory form of her throughout damagesyou feel anything could happen.

Donna, training to become one of the first female commandos, in Commando: Britain's Ocean Warriors.
Commando: Britain’s Ocean Warriors. Photograph: BBC/Sedog Productions

Commando: Britain’s Ocean Warriors
BBC Two
A new four-part series follows intensive commando training as Royal Marine recruits endure grueling orders to win themselves a much-coveted green beret. Prepare to be shocked at how young they look: the most junior recruit is 17.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.