The Syndicate (BBC One) | iPlayer
Pandemic 2020 (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Storyville: Collective – Unravelling a Scandal (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Pls Like (BBC Three) | iPlayer
Unforgotten (ITV) | ITV Hub
Kay Mellor’s refreshingly lovely, tautly written The Syndicate returned after an absence of almost six years, and the new fourth series is a cracker. Exciting, twisty, acronym-free, nonviolent and featuring a plethora of dogs, it’ll tick many boxes.
This six-parter centres on a wee batch of spirited Yorkshire kennel workers who are diddled out of their £27m lottery win by the newsagent, who promptly cashes in, fakes his death and flees to Monaco. I’m not sure how much this will do for relations between shopkeepers and their public – I’ll be looking at the chap who takes my EuroMillions ticket every Friday teatime with squinted and suspicious eyes, let that be a warning! – but as plots go it’s a keeper. Meaning that the young pals have to scrimp and compromise – they’re no angels, but they deserved that bloody money, and they know it – to track him to the Riviera on their pygmy budget.
Where Mellor always excels is in giving an authentic voice to what was once known as the working class. One can entirely imagine that every utterance from the likes of Keeley – Katherine Rose Morley is exuberantly standout throughout – and Jake (Kieran Urquhart) and the gang has been lifted, overheard, from real life. The glee at the most mild of triumphs; the sighed shrugs at every fresh disappointment or betrayal, outcomes with which all are dispiritingly acquainted in their short lives. Even squirrelly, chiselling newsagent Frank, a sparkling Neil Morrissey, is drawn almost sympathetically for such a gallopingly amoral sod, in his new guise as panama’d playboy prince in the sun-dappled casinos.
And Monaco, land of superyachts and pointless designer shops, is a splendid location to illustrate the foul difference between les ’aves and les ’avenots. Yet, crucially, never in a saccharine or cloying way. Poor pregnant Roxy (Taj Atwal) is hit suddenly with a €2,300 hospital bill, yet you know her friends will, somehow, rally round, in between the vodka miniatures and the dognapping and what you will: rally loyally, in contrast to the super-rich and the dreary architecture of their souls.
Pandemic 2020, the first in a triple-header by the team behind last year’s splendid Once Upon a Time in Iraq, started in expectedly sharp fashion by asking people to recall New Year 2019. As soon as you posit this: right enough, I haven’t a scooby. It unfolded with equal skill, taking us on a fair worldwide scamper, from Wuhan to Leamington Spa to Bogotá to Reykjavík, yet never feeling at all rushed or forced.
I was particularly impressed with Vladimir Valencia, a volunteer organiser in Colombia (now a gifted politician), who spoke with eloquence about how, for so many Bogotanos, reeling after five decades of vicious civil conflict, in lockdown “Netflix and yoga” were never options. They live hand to mouth, had to go to work. Valencia saw hope, for his country, if only in that Covid-19 had so cruelly exposed extraordinary inequities in the land, to which none can now cast a blind eye.
As, in fact, was Storyville’s Collective: Unravelling a Scandal, the Oscar-nominated tale of the aftermath of the fire in Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub in 2015. Twenty-six died that October night. Yet 38 died later in hospitals, chiefly because the surgical disinfectant used in Romania’s health service was being cut, diluted, to a 10th of its effectiveness. Surgeons working on burns victims were trying to sterilise scalpels in trays swimming with pyocyanic bacteria. Thanks to collusion between offshore interests, statewide mobsters and complicit government departments intent on upholding Romania’s name (shades of Chernobyl) rather than sending cruelly burned victims to capable Vienna facilities, the disinfectant wasn’t killing any bugs. It was just killing people.
It was left, oddly enough, to a sports daily, Gazeta Sporturilor, to out-honest the rest of the press, corruptly and cravenly in thrall to the then Romanian state. If you’ve ever, from either right or left, queried (even quietly at 2am in your own head) the value of a free press against the potential damage visited on your own interests, watch this and have a rueful rethink.
Pls Like is a gleeful swipe against an admittedly soft target, easy as hitting a cow’s arse with a banjo: “social media influencers”. Liam Williams’s third series of short spoofs is, nevertheless, sometimes tea-spittingly funny, but maybe that’s just me. The shtick is that he’s trying to set himself up as a contemporary vlogger, despite being an ageing person with a beard. And this allows him to take the rip out of achingly hip nonsense fads, in such areas as food, drink, “lifestyle” and ethics.
The humour is a little hit-and-miss, but the deadpan acting inspired from all involved. I particularly like the flashed snippets of graphic, whizzy faux-information (“Fact: social influencers with more than 50,000 followers are officially exempt from coronavirus restrictions”). And Williams redeems himself in the end, by admitting to quite liking younger people, after all only doing their best in their own, if very singular, contexts.
If any of you haven’t watched the latest/last Unforgotten, then a) fierce spoilers ahead, and b) what’s wrong with you, you’ve had six days to catch up?
I was bereft at Cassie’s death. Not only has it robbed us of Nicola Walker, the softness of whose eyes always belied the grumpy carapace: when she smiled a rare smile, it was the sun coming out. But it might also have robbed us of possibly the best thriller on TV, in which empathy, wisdom, the understanding of human failings, played so much more a part than guns or sectional police feuding. I’d love to think it could carry on, with the ever-kind Sanjeev Bhaskar heading a cold-case unit with a fresh injection of talent. Best thing about the last, apart from the unshowy grace with which it was conducted, was Andy Nyman’s face – the subtlety in mourning for lost and ruined lives. Not least his own.
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