The week in TV: The Ipcress File; The Witchfinder; Servant of the People; Writing With Fire | Television

The Ipcress File (ITV) | ITV Hub
the witchfinder (BBC Two / iPlayer
Servant of the People (Channel 4) | All 4
Storyville: Writing With Fire (BBC Four) | iPlayer

With remakes, the question has to be: has anything inspiring been achieved or are we just being served reheated dinner with a sprig of limp parsley on top?

I kept this in mind while watching ITV’s The Ipcress Filethe six-part cold war spy thriller adapted from Len Deighton’s 1962 novel, directed by James Watkins, scripted by John Hodge (Trainspotting). It stars Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) as Harry Palmer, the working-class, culturally literate, culinary minded intelligence agent, a role first inhabited, with textured brilliance, by Michael Caine in the 1965 film. Now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this new TV take on a story about nuclear threat arrives imbued with disturbing resonance. I don’t know about you, but, personally, lines such as: “It seems more and more likely every day that we’re all very shortly going to be blown to smithereens” aren’t landing as a period-piece fancy.

The challenge facing The Ipcress File is to nod to the film without becoming so drenched in homage it starts reeking of cheap aftershave. Palmer keeps the signature nerd-core spectacles and mac, and, as in the film, camera angles tilt, peep and crouch with arty abandon. The basic plot – a nuclear scientist is kidnapped – is retained, with tweaks. Palmer’s military grifter backstory is given airtime, while other characters gain prominence: fellow agent Jean Courtney (Lucy Boynton) becomes a proto-feminist It girl with a splash of Lady Penelope. A black CIA operative (Ashley Thomas) does not shy from referring to the rarity of his appointment of her. As arch-spook Dalby, Tom Hollander delivers the best kind of uber-establishment human bowler hat, giving a clipped masterclass in received pronunciation and wry smackdowns.

Still, it all hangs on the leading man. First thought on Cole: he’s just too young looking, too choirboy-pretty; you keep expecting him to sweetly burst into the Hallelujah Chorus. However, a couple of episodes in, I’m finding that he’s sneaking into the role, like a cat through a side window. It’s all in the cocky backchat, the crackles of masked intelligence, the wary glints; the acknowledgment that whatever else is going on in cold war Britain, for Palmer, surfing the class system is part of it.

I watched all six episodes of new BBC Two comedy The Witchfinder, as if I could somehow magic up an improvement, to no avail. Written and directed by Neil and Rob Gibbons, who did the cracking This Time With Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan acts as script consultant on The Witchfinder), and starring Tim Key (Partridge’s sidekick) and Daisy May Cooper (This Country), it’s set in East Anglia in 1645, during the murderous persecution of women as witches. Which, obviously, is no laughing matter, and yet, in black comedy terms, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be.

There aren’t nearly enough jokes in The Witchfinder, and Key and Cooper struggle to find comic chemistry. Key’s Gideon, a small-time witchfinder, trying to scale the career ladder, is (deliberately) low wattage, while Cooper’s Thomasine – a local woman accused of sorcery, taken to be tried in Chelmsford – is a raging bonfire. Both are talented performers, but every scene they do together leaves Key reduced to cinders.

Vincent Franklin and Daisy May Cooper in the ‘weirdly half-hearted’ The Witchfinder. Photograph: Steve Peskett/BBC/Baby Cow Productions

Elsewhere, it’s teeming with talent (Daniel Rigby, Jessica Hynes, Julian Barratt, to name a few), but the whole thing is scuppered by the dated timidity of the approach. The Witchfinder could have been The Crucible restyled with a British eye-roll – a pithy, backdated skewering of 17th-century misogyny. Instead, it’s a basic odd couple yarn played out against a backdrop of weirdly half-hearted femicide.

As the nightmare in Ukraine continues, an unmissable television curio emerges. Most will know of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s showbiz past: the comedy troupe; dubbing the voice of Paddington Bear; winning Ukraine’s Dancing With the stars. Now Channel 4 is airing the opening episodes of Servant of the Peoplethe 2015 comedy that paved the way for Zelenskiy’s election, taking the series name for his political party.

Zelenskiy plays Vasiliy, a put-upon teacher whose diatribe against political corruption – “These bastards come to power and steal and steal” – is filmed by a student and goes viral, leading to him becoming president. From there, it’s all pointed satire as he and his family adjust to riches and power. In the main, servant… is clever and witty, with surreal flashes (Abraham Lincoln appears in a vision), but there are also sobering meta-moments. When Vasiliy practices meeting world leaders with lookalikes, he snaps at the Vladimir Putin doppelganger: “Get lost, move it!”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the 2015 Ukrainian comedy Servant of the People.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the ‘clever and witty’ 2015 Ukrainian comedy Servant of the People. Photograph: Channel 4

On the night it aired, Channel 4 also showed Zelenskiy: The Man Who Took on Putin, a short, punchy documentary exploring Zelenskiy’s origins and mindset. Arguably, this also comes through in Servant of the People‘s comic fiction, such as when Vasiliy tells the nation sombrely: “What you do must never make you feel ashamed as you look in your kids’ eyes.” With Zelenskiy and his fellow Ukrainians still imperilled, Servant of the People is uneasy viewing. At the same time it feels important: a valuable hint at the unchanging core of the Ukrainian president.

BBC Four’s Storyville: Writing With Fire, the directorial debut of couple Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, is a feature-length documentary that won the audience award for world cinema documentary at the 2021 Sundance film festival and has been nominated for an Oscar. It focuses on Khabar Lahariya (meaning: waves of news), the only Indian newspaper run by Dalit women, who are considered so untouchable they’re not even part of the caste system.

Meera Devi, a Khabar Lahariya journalist, interviews a man in Storyville's 'stunning' Writing With Fire
Meera Devi, a Khabar Lahariya journalist, interviews a man in Storyville’s ‘stunning’ Writing With Fire. Photograph: Screen grab/BBC/Black Ticket Films

The film follows the reporters – including Meera Devi, Suneeta Prajapati and Shyamkali Devi – as Khabar Lahariya develops a digital platform that rises to 150m views. The trio cover rape, illegal mine collapses, political corruption, and much more, and are often the only reporters people trust. This is a stunning multilayered documentary, giving a true sense of the women, the dangers of their work, and the sights and sounds of India.

What else I’m watching

Rough Girls
BBC Four
Derry Girls actor Tara Lynne O’Neill’s debut play, about Northern Ireland’s first women’s football team, was filmed for TV at the Lyric theatre, Belfast; it’s a distinctive, fiery affair, full of heart, comedy and wild moments.

Rough Girls.
Rough Girls. Photograph: Chris Heany/BBC NI

The Andy Warhol Diaries
Netflix
Andrew Rossi’s in-depth documentary series on the artist and his diaries features interviews with friends and interviews with friends and celebrity associates. It’s voiced (via artificial intelligence) by Rossi to appear as if Warhol is “narrating”.

RuPaul’s Drag Race: The UK Vs the World
BBC Three
The final (no spoilers) of a stormy series, rife with backbiting among queens and online turbulence after every elimination. A terrible shame, as drag queens and their fans hate drama of any kind. Hate Item.

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