Reviews of today's British telly for Americans

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Here’s what Americans need to know about the Black British film series Small Axe (McQueen, 2020)

TITLE: Small Axe, a series of five films including Mangrove, Lovers Rock, Red, White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education

GENRE: Historical drama

STARRING: A wealth of Black British acting talent, including Letitia Wright (despite her wackass anti-vaxxer bullshit), John Boyega, Sheyi Cole, Kenyah Sandy, Tamara Lawrence, Josette Simon

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC One/UK, Amazon Original Series

YEAR: 2020

RATING: Small Axe overall – πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’ out of 5 / Mangrove – πŸ“’πŸ“’ / Lovers Rock – πŸ“’πŸ“’ / Red, White and Blue – πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’ / Alex Wheatle – πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’ and Education – πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’πŸ“’

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Amazon Video


Filmmaker Steven McQueen’s film series Small Axe is a long-overdue dramatic representation of the Black British experience from the 1960s to the 1980s.

To consider this an historical drama is apt for the circumstances in which Black British identity came of age en masse. Lots of people will point out, correctly, that there has always been a Black presence in Britain — free and enslaved. That to think Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and not before, ignores the Black presence in the historical, literary and archival records. It’s that kind of short-sightedness that allows government officials to carry out a large-scale witch-hunt to expel Black Britons who lived in the country for decades and served in the military service, staffing hospitals and other essential worker fields.

So that’s the first thing to understand when interpreting McQueen’s films: the Black British lens and experience of racism isn’t the same as the American context.

Yeah, white supremacy travels and asserts itself in nefarious ways, but, imo, a key distinction is citizenship. In the time period Small Axe covers Britons came from the West Indies (just think about that appellation: “west indies,” west of what and whom?) recruited by the British government to rebuild the country after Hitler’s forces decimated it. Appealing to good will and promising opportunity, Black Britons came to the UK as Commonwealth citizens. That’s a very different status and entitlement to rights than the equality of rights that Black Americans are still fighting to achieve today.

Going to Britain?, BBC Caribbean Service, Andrew Salkey Archive Dep 10310. Box 17, British Library

Here are a few other things to keep in mind for watching the Small Axe films.


Music’s a huge part of this series of films so might as well go all in with this playlist.

Language: lol, just turn on the subtitles. I already use subtitles even if I’m watching a U.S.-made, English language film. Subtitles will help you immensely with the patois. Lots of definitions allude to patois a “lowly,” which ignores the richness and innovation of languages that mix and meld with another language. For example, you’ll hear kids referred to frequently as “pickney.” I love it because it sounds accusatory, usually along the line of, “Whose pickney dem?” In McQueen’s Education film, which is the best one for it’s clarity, depth and impeccable acting, you will definitely have moments watching and asking, “Whoa, whose pickney these?” as the main character, Kingsley, struggles against larger power structures to have his learning needs met and not relegated to what the English educational authority dared call, “sub-normal.”

Also, get used to the “tooth suck” right now as a form expressing disgust. Weirdly, in the longest film, Mangrove, the emotive sucking of teeth is captioned as “[indistinct noise]” and it’s so much more than that. It definitely feels like, through the rest of the films, this particular emotional nuance if played up, so just prepare yourself.

Instead of reviews of each film, here are my general impression of each because it’s a lot of screen time. If you don’t want to invest several hours, here’s what I recommend viewing:

  • Education was the best of the films. The acting was superb and I thought it captured the complications of both white supremacist educational systems that were invested in tracking West Indian students into “special schools” and parents in denial about their children’s learning outcomes in the face of having sacrificed so much. Believing in the myths of the British Empire and Commonwealth have detrimental effects, but there are some amazing uplift in how the film rethinks what education means in a Black-centered c0ntext.
You do. Yes, do you want to learn about Claudia Jones. Go do a search NOW.
  • It was incredibly savvy for McQueen to focus a film on Alex Wheatle. Wheatle grew up, as the British say, “in care,” but whew, it’s not the kind of care anyone should be subjected to. Wheatle was brutalized in foster care, which eventually leads to a prison sentence after the 1981 Brixton riots. His is a great story of finding community and identity through music, sound systems, fashion, and language, but also the lure of the streets is strong. I’m keen to read Wheatle’s young adult and children’s books now.
  • Undoubtedly, I liked Red, White and Blue because John Boyega was in it with his fine self. But it’s also an important story about the experience of one of the first Black police officers to join the Metropolitan Police (“the Met”). Across the films there’s a lot of cop violence, which I found triggering in a “fuck these fucking cops” way. That’s the vibe for most of Mangrove, so to arrive at a different, if the same, experience of a Black man integrating a racist institution at that particular moment in history — the rise of neoliberalism and Thatcher’s England — is a story that I’m going to reflect on for a long time. It manages to intimately ask big questions about personal responsibility, collectivity, allegiance and complicity.
  • Lovers Rock and Mangrove were my least favorite of the five films. They were ordered as the first two, so I’m glad I didn’t let them stop me from pushing through. Mangrove felt like history homework and, in the interest of being an auteur, McQueen does some repetitive shots and dialogue that had me groaning and impatient. And Lover Rock, set in a house party, was beautiful to behold in costuming, lighting, etc., but there’s some interminable singing that, combined with Mangrove, was like, “Krikey, I get it, I get it! Even in our most abject moments and struggle, Black folx like to sing.” I hate musicals, though, so take that critique for what you will. Lovers Rock was like watching Insecure without a clear story arc.

I’m a completist, but I wish I’d gone ahead and read reviews of all of the films in Small Axe and saved myself some viewing time. Nonetheless, Small Axe was way overdue for the canon of how Black Britons built England and have persevered. βœŠπŸΎπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§

TV Review: Black Earth Rising (2017, BBC2 & Netflix)

black woman with great cheek bones looking skyward

TITLE: Black Earth Rising

GENRE: Drama/Thriller

STARRING: Michaela Coel, John Goodman (!), Lucian Msamati, Tyrone Huggins, Harriet Walter (basically a ton of amazing actors you’ll recognize)

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC2 and Netflix

YEAR: 2017

RATING: πŸ€·πŸΎβ€β™€οΈ (punting on a rating for reasons discussed)

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Available to stream on Netflix starting 25 January 2019

I’m not so hot on political thrillers, hence, the πŸ€·πŸΎβ€β™€οΈ rating. But I am hot on Michaela Coel and I’m excited to see her getting to do a dramatic role. We knew she could do slapstick (see this blog’s first review ever for Chewing Gum), but she’s riveting in Black Earth Rising. She’s a soulmate to Meredith Grey and Christina Yang: dark and twisty.

Is that adequate attention to Michaela Coel’s acting so that it doesn’t seem like I’m objectifying her before I start going on about her cheek bones, amazing lips and skin I’d probably sell my non-existent first born for?

We’re introduced to Coel’s character, legal investigator Kate Ashby, in her therapist’s office. For someone who’s attempted to kill herself, Kate’s deadpanning her way through a quizzing by her therapist quite winningly. Kate’s survived the genocide in Rwanda and since been adopted by Eve. Eve is a British, international lawyer charged with prosecuting a militia leader for war crimes committed during the genocide for the International Criminal Court.

two women angrily face off

Eve: “What doesn’t kill us…” Kate: “…waits for another chance.”

Wanderlust (2018, BBC One/Netflix)

man and woman lying on back looking up at camera

TITLE: Wanderlust

GENRE: Drama/comedy

STARRING: Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Steven Mackintosh, Sophie Okenedo, Paul Kaye

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC One

YEAR: 2018

RATING: πŸ›πŸ›πŸ›πŸ›πŸ› (because five πŸ†s seemed too obvious)

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Netflix

Here’s the thing…the thing is…about Wanderlust is that it’s about sex…well, actually it’s about sexuality without being…I was going to say how it’s “holistic” in its approach to…actually being sexual…you see what I mean?

That’s a sample of about 20% of the dialogue in Wanderlust, so if tongue-tied people frustrate the hell outta you, you should give this show a miss. But that would be a huge mistake. Because what Wanderlust does well is complicate straight, hetero cis sex. And if you think, “Why bother?” because straight sex if everywhere, think of Wanderlust’s exploration of one couple’s attempt at an open relationship as a view into the quality, not the quantity of those types of relationships. Wanderlust looks at monogamy with more sophistication than any TV show in my recent memory by illustrating people grappling with a way of being that not many people are familiar with nor that many are willing to try. Much less willing to try it in small af English town.

TV Review: This Country (BBCii!)

TITLE: This Country

GENRE: Comedy

STARRING: Charlie and Daisy May Cooper, Ashley McGuire

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBCii!

YEAR: 2017

RATING: πŸ•πŸ•πŸ•πŸ•πŸ• of 5

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Hulu

It took two recommendations from Britons for me to finally watch This Country.

Based on the title and description, I didn’t want to fall into the trap that I found myself in with Little Britain. You know how you can be bumbling along enjoying pop culture and then, during one particular episode or skit, you realize, “I shouldn’t be laughing at this. It’s really fucking mean.” But by then you’ve already bought the box set and recommended it to other people. Which makes you the asshole.

My theory is that Little Britain got mean because it’s creators, David Walliams and Matt Lucas got too famous and too sloppy in their comedy. They also seemed to disdain the characters they created with little room for finding them endearing. But based on interviews with Daisy and Charlie Cooper I’m guessing they really took to heart the writers edict, “Write what you know about.” Writing about two rural wasters is pretty much who they were before Daisy upped sticks, got a place at the prestigious acting school, RADA, and let her brother tag along to sleep on her floor.

A problem, I find, with comedy is that it’s hard to relate examples from a show that strike one so funny. This Country’s premise is the same as that of the U.K. version of The Office (the funniest version of that show): a BBC film crew has gone outside its usual London-centric orbit to film. The show is a mockumentary meant to illuminate how young people feel marginalized in rural areas, this time to the Cotswolds. It features many of the same inside-joke-gazes to camera that break the fourth wall as if to say, “Can you believe what I have to put up with?” when each character is actually as bizarre as the next.

TV Review: Keeping Faith (BBC One)

TITLE: Keeping Faith

GENRE: Melodrama

STARRING: Eve Myles

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC / UK

YEAR: 2017

RATING: I can’t even…

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? You shouldn’t. But if you absolutely must waste your time, the tripe is showing on Acorn.

Tell me. Really. Someone tell me who greenlit Keeping Faith? Because it is godawful and, short of having someone flogged with a wet noodle, I want to make sure I never watch anything by anyone involved with this snoozefest ever again.

McMafia

TITLE: McMafia
GENRE: … suspense? thriller? Inscrutable hodgepodge of boring?
STARRING: David Strathairn, James Norton

PRODUCTION COMPANY/COUNTRY: BBC One & AMC
YEAR: 2017
RATING: One of these πŸ› because you’re gonna wanna catch a lot of these πŸ’€ if you watch McMafia.

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? If you insist, AMC and the new subscription channel, AMC Premier

Here’s a good tip for this BBC/AMC co-production: skip it. For serious, don’t even bother. McMafia is slow-moving, but not a slow burn.

It’s leading man, James Norton…what to say about James? “Wooden” is a recurring theme in reviews of hisΒ McMafia performance. I hesitate to call it a performance but I know it is because I’ve seen him beΒ an exceptionally creepy and annoying psychopath in the crime drama Happy Valley (watch season one). He’s won awards for that turn and also nabbed himself a BAFTA Award for play a smoldering holy man/detective in Grantchester. But I’m not sure what he’s doing in McMafia besides clearly waiting for his next line like they were hard to memorize.

I’m a banker not a gangster.

James Norton put himself to sleep with his performance in McMafia. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT WAKE HIM.

Why you should watch The Apprentice…UK

Karren Brady, Lord Alan Sugar and Claude Littner

Hosts of The Apprentice UK, Baroness Karren Brady, Lord Alan Sugar and Claude Littner. Brady and Littner replaced Margaret Mountford and Nick Hewer, who were both a delight to watch.

TITLE: The Apprentice UK

GENRE: Reality

STARRING: Lord Alan Sugar, Baroness Karren Brady, Claude Littner and various British people claiming to be “good at business”

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC One/UK

YEAR: 2005 – present

RATING: πŸ‘‰πŸ»πŸ‘‰πŸ»πŸ‘‰πŸ»πŸ‘‰πŸ»πŸ‘‰πŸ» out of five “You’re fired” fingers

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? There are often entire episodes on YouTube

I. LOVE. The UK version of The Apprentice. For real. Like straight up SQUEAL when I see that a new series is about to pop off. “Isn’t it just like the U.S. version with that human feces some people call their President?” Absolutely not. At least I don’t think so. TBH I’ve never watched not nary one episode of the US version. I don’t care about American capitalism or how people succeed or fail in it. And once I read Emily Nussbaum’s account of re-watching the American Apprentice, I was affirmed, for once, in my good decision-making. Anything that could inflict that trash human Omorosa on us couldn’t be at all useful in my world. And once the US turned to a celebrity focus, I really couldn’t be bovvered, mate. The majority of American celebrities probably barely finished high school, so I’m skeptical of their ability to start and run a business without a legion of advisors. The rhetoric of “innate” business skills is a flim-flam, shim-sham of US capitalism.

And that’s what makes The Apprentice UK fascinating and, at times, side-splittingly funny.

Inside Number 9 (BBC)

TITLE: Inside No. 9

GENRE: ‘Darkly comic’

STARRING: Nikki Amuka-Bird, Fiona Shaw,Β Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith

PRODUCTION COMPANY/DISTRIBUTION/COUNTRY: BBC Two

YEAR: 2017

RATING: 5 missing loafers

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? Series 1 is available in the U.S. on iTunes; Series 2 and 3 on DVD in the U.S.

Inside No. 9, much like Black Mirror, is the type of show you’ll remember for the first episode you ever saw. You’ll also ask yourself, “Who made this show…and who let them get away with it?” The answer is BBC Two, which is often referred to as the Beeb’s highbrow channel, and hasΒ edgier and darker comedy than BBC One. And more power to them for doing it because Inside No. 9Β is hugely freaky and unnerving. (I like my TV like I like my men: freaky and unnerving. J/k, weirdos!)

I’m just coming into Inside No. 9 on series three and am glad I entered not knowing much about it. So on that count, I’ll try not to spoil too much of it for you.

On the surface level, think of Inside No. 9Β as a contemporary update of The Twilight Zone.

Catastrophe (E4, Amazon)

TITLE: Catastrophe (season 3)

GENRE: RomCom

STARRING: Sharon Horgan

COUNTRY: UK

YEAR: 2015 – 2017

RATING: 3 out of 5 overpriced baby prams/strollers

WHERE CAN I SEE IT? E4 (now) and Amazon on Demand (4/28)

I’m a huge Sharon Horgan fan. Her best work β€”both acting and writing β€” is in the BBC Three sitcom Pulling. You can, and should, watch Pulling if you like the type of debauched, dark humor that the British do so well. Horgan carries that humor over to Catastrophe.

Series one starts with Sharon (Horgan) and Rob (Rob Delaney β€” they didn’t reach too far for names) who meet and, after a one night stand, find out Sharon’s pregnant. Rob’s an American and Sharon’s IrishΒ so there’s not only that pregnancy issue to figure out but also their cultural differences. Luckily, they’re both crass as hell, which is both entertaining and endearing in season one.

Taboo (BBC One and FX)

TITLE: Taboo
GENRE: Drama
STARRING: White Idris (aka Tom Hardy), Lucian Msamati, Oona Chaplin, David Hayman
PRODUCTION COMPANY/COUNTRY: BBC One- UK; FX – USA
YEAR: 2017
RATING: Five out of five wet wipes (you’re gonna need wipes if you watch this. Regency London, even the rich places, looks filthy.)
WHERE CAN I SEE IT?: BBC One and FX

Every week when watching Taboo, after emerging from my White Idris-induced daze, I’d think, “I really have to recommend this show to people because it is craaaaaazy.”

But it’s also also overly complicated and obtuse. That’s why I waited until it was over to review it. Now, if you’re a Β completists, you can binge-watch it. But TabooΒ is “sick with pneumonia” binge-watch material. Or “stuck inside during a hurricane or blizzard” binge-watch worthy. Taboo’s convoluted plot makes one easily distracted by the staging, the deliberate filth…or Twitter. And, yet, at the end, I actually stood up and cheered, which I’ve not done since CrasterΒ got merc’d in Game of Thrones.Β 

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