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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: I Am Ruth; Harry & Meghan; A Spy Among Friends; The Confessions of Frannie Langton

Kate Winslet and real-life daughter Mia Threapleton in I Am Ruth.
Kate Winslet and Mia Threapleton in I Am Ruth: ‘a gruelling watch’. Channel 4/PA Photograph: Channel 4/PA

I Am Ruth (Channel 4) |
Harry & Meghan (Netflix) |
A Spy Among Friends (ITVX) |
The Confessions of Frannie Langton (ITVX) |

Any parent planning to watch I Am Ruth (Channel 4) might want to sink a stiff drink or a Valium first. Especially for parents of teenagers, the first of the latest series of Dominic Savage’s anthology of female-led standalone dramas is a gruelling watch: part-study, part-lamentation of the escalating perils of modern youth.

Just as she did in last year’s Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet gives us an unshowy single mother (if ever an actor exulted in eschewing glamour, it’s Winslet). Here, she sweats in a spin-cycle class, slouches in hoodies, gulps wine, sneaks a ciggy in the garden. You feel you know Ruth, you recognise her, as she fights and pleads with her troubled 17-year-old daughter, Freya, played by Winslet’s real-life daughter, Mia Threapleton.

Freya is drowning in slow motion in a 21st-century whirlpool of sexualised selfies, social media and self-harm. Trying to reach her, Ruth makes mistakes: she starts almost every sentence with a pleading (grating): “Darling/Sweetheart/Love”. She slut-shames Freya’s short skirt: “Sweetheart, I can see your knickers.” In a bedroom bedecked with fairy lights, Freya wretchedly poses in her underwear like she’s facing an execution squad. She also tortures her mother with every weapon in the teen toolkit: silence, scowling, screaming: “Fucking bitch!”

Winslet convinces in this volatile carnival of suburban unravelling. And while eyebrows can’t help but arch at the casting of her daughter, Threapleton gives a strong performance: hot-eyed, vulnerable, flooding with the mess and shame of derailed youth. Nevertheless, at a two-hour feature length, I Am Ruth feels too long. It becomes self-indulgent, speechifying, endlessly circling a tangled core message: did social media initiate Freya’s distress or is it exacerbating it? I’m not sure we ever get to the bottom of it.

Over to Netflix, where the Harry & Meghan docuseries suddenly bobbed into view like a wayward glittering sky lantern, as in gorgeous, pricey and somewhat inflammatory.

Be warned: it’s six hours long, with the first three episodes dropping last week. An intense tone is instantly set. Harry wonders to camera: “How did we end up here?”, saying later: “My job is keep my family safe.” Then there’s Meghan with her hair turbaned up, slightly teary: “I don’t know where to begin.”

Thus it goes on, veering between light, dark and everything in between. The story of their great love (you’ll have to be patient with them calling each other “H” and “M”). Their shared activism/charitable endeavours. The serious, horrible stuff: the hounding by paparazzi; the racism (coming to Britain seemed to make Meghan hyperaware of being biracial).

H&M: the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as they appear in their new Netflix documentary.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex – H&M – in the ‘intense’ Harry & Meghan. Netflix/PA Photograph: Netflix/PA

Along the way, friends and commentators contextualise colonialism, validity of monarchy and the rest. There are also generous servings of royal shade, including Meghan sweetly recounting being “in ripped jeans … barefoot” meeting stiff, uptight (I’m extrapolating here) William and Catherine. Miaow!

Sometimes you think a fleet of royal-themed tourist buses could drive through their story. There’s a persistent sense of structural weakness. The constant mentions of Diana (“I am my mother’s son”), as if they fear not being enough on their own. The nervy opening disclaimer that all interviews were filmed before August 2022 – as if that makes broadcasting this documentary mere months after the Queen’s death any more tasteful.

Thus far, Harry & Meghan hasn’t been particularly controversial. We presumably have their wedding, “Megxit” and the rest to come. Then what? Not for the first time, I suspect that these most prolific of royal (post-royal?) content-providers are needing to seriously stretch out the material they’ve got, and that’s before they run out altogether.

On ITVX, ITV’s new streaming service replacing the old ITV Hub, there’s a six-part espionage drama, A Spy Among Friends, adapted by Alexander Cary from Ben Macintyre’s book about real-life British intelligence officer and deadly Soviet Union double agent Kim Philby. Directed by Nick Murphy, Philby is played by Guy Pearce, while Damian Lewis portrays Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s fellow intelligence operative, and duped friend.

It’s mainly set after Philby absconds to Russia following a futile visit from Elliott in Beirut: “I came to tell you that your past has caught up with you.” Back in dingy postwar Britain – dark wood, damp walls, sticking office doors – Elliott is interviewed by MI5’s Lily (Anna Maxwell Martin), a working-class Geordie in a mixed-race relationship who palpably relishes being underestimated. She soon identifies Philby’s greatest crime in the eyes of his elite establishment circle: not the spying, but the exposing of them all to the scrutiny of the “commoners” and “peasants”.

Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis in A Spy Among Friends. ITVX/Sony Pictures
Guy Pearce and Damian Lewis in A Spy Among Friends. ITVX/Sony Pictures Photograph: ITVX/SONY PICTURES

Lewis plays Elliott as barely managing to conceal his hurt and shock behind a mask of clipped insouciance. Pearce’s Philby practically vibrates with sharkish languor: “Alright there, old bean?” I wasn’t sure how this would translate – are people still fascinated by Philby? – but two episodes in, A Spy Among Friends is keeping the motor ticking by focusing on human betrayal, emotion starched into oblivion, and the toxic machinations of the English class system.

Also on ITVX, there’s a four-part costume drama, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, adapted by Sara Collins from her acclaimed novel, directed by Andrea Harkin. Like Bridgerton – where races blithely mix and characterisation is as shallow as a birdbath – it’s set in the early 19th century, but that’s where the similarities end.

The titular heroine (Karla-Simone Spence) is a former plantation slave, educated in her Jamaican childhood by two Englishmen, John Langton (Steven Mackintosh) and George Benham (Stephen Campbell Moore) as a kind of experiment. Forced into servitude in England, Frannie embarks on an erotic relationship with Benham’s wife, Marguerite (Sophie Cookson), ending up being accused of murdering them both. Languishing laudanum-addicted in a squalid jail, Frannie still rouses herself to sneer at those around her who want only a slave story “all sugared over with misery and despair”.

Sophie Cookson and Karla Simone-Spence in The Confessions of Frannie Langton
Sophie Cookson and Karla Simone-Spence in The Confessions of Frannie Langton: ‘a rich brew’. ITV/ Rex/ Shutterstock Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Grinding, pitiless, you could actually call this the anti-Bridgerton. The opening two episodes deliver a rich brew of forbidden love, slavery, racism (“Wash yourself if you know how”) and sinister eugenics. I’m especially enjoying Spence’s clever, chin-jutting Frannie, a woman with moxie to burn.

Star ratings (out of five)
I Am Ruth ★★★
Harry & Meghan ★★★
A Spy Among Friends ★★★
The Confessions of Frannie Langton ★★★★

What else I’m watching

Rosie Molloy Gives up Everything
(Sky Comedy) |
A pithy black comedy about a woman getting to grips with the ferocity of her addictions. Sheridan Smith takes on the role of Rosie, while Ardal O’Hanlon and Pauline McLynn play her parents.

Sheridan Smith in Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything.
Sheridan Smith in Rosie Molloy Gives Up Everything. Photograph: © Hartswood Films © Sky UK Limited © Tom Jackson

My Dead Body
(Channel 4) |
A fascinating, emotive documentary about the late Toni Crews. Diagnosed with a rare terminal cancer, Crews donated her body to medical science and also radically consented for it to be put on public display.

The Singing Detective
(BBC Four) | iPlayer
BBC Four has been revisiting the classic 1980s drama series about Michael Gambon’s hospitalised psoriasis-stricken writer, who lapses into childhood memories and fantastical noir-reveries. A television benchmark from the dark pen of Dennis Potter.

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