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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: Steeltown Murders; High Desert; Ten Pound Poms; The Stones and Brian Jones and more

Subdued: Philip Glenister as DCI Paul Bethell in Steeltown Murders.
‘At times so slow it verges on standstill (even the moustaches start to droop)’; Philip Glenister as DCI Paul Bethell in Steeltown Murders. BBC/Severn Screen Photograph: Tom Jackson/BBC/Severn Screen

Steeltown Murders (BBC One) | iPlayer
High Desert | Apple TV+
Ten Pound Poms (BBC One) | iPlayer
The Stones and Brian Jones (BBC Two) | iPlayer
I Kissed a Boy (BBC Three) | iPlayer

It’s not often British television excavates some cobwebbed true-crime case involving young female victims.

Oh wait, hang on, that happens all the time in the overstuffed, overheated true-crime genre. Thankfully, the new four-part BBC One drama Steeltown Murders is from writer Ed Whitmore and director Marc Evans, who between them produced Manhunt and Rillington Place – both, in different ways, sterling examples of how to dramatise real-life tragedy without sensationalising or cheapening it.

Unfolding over two time zones in the Port Talbot area of Wales, it tells the story of the rape and murder of 16-year-olds Geraldine Hughes, Pauline Floyd and Sandra Newton, and how developments in DNA testing helped catch the perpetrator. Philip Glenister plays 2002-era Paul Bethell, one of the original detectives put back on the case. Scott Arthur plays the 1973-era Bethell, who suspects they’re dealing with a serial killer.

Glenister of course memorably portrayed chauvinist blowhard DCI Gene Hunt in Life on Mars, but here he’s dogged, moustachioed, subdued. He works out of the same office as in 1973 (a dusty crypt of rotting manilla folders), as if in penance for the unacceptable attitudes of previous eras.

There’s the de rigueur 70s period detail (nicotine-hued decor; Brillo-pad sideburns), but it doesn’t overwhelm the pain and grief of the crimes. Both versions of Bethell are well played (even if a search party is sometimes needed for Glenister’s Welsh accent), and a strong cast includes Aneurin Bernard and Priyanga Burford. At times, Steeltown Murders is so slow it verges on standstill (even the moustaches start to droop) but overall it’s a sharply honed piece of drama, balancing suspense with respect and restraint.

Another week, another big-budget, star-studded Hollywood streamer, courtesy of Apple TV+’s eight-part black comedy High Desert. There’s your standard-issue “hot mess” female character, then there’s your full-blown lady inferno. Here, Patricia Arquette plays such a woman: lairy, perma-grifting Peggy, first seen having her family pool party busted for pot.

Years later, Peggy is trying to kick methadone while playing a “saloon girl” at a Yucca Valley theme park called Pioneertown. Already grappling with an estranged son, the recent demise of her mother (Bernadette Peters, appearing in visions), and a charming conman ex (Matt Dillon), Peggy inveigles her way into employment at Brad Garrett’s private detective agency and becomes embroiled in everything from art fraud to murder.

Rupert Friend and Patricia Arquette in High Desert.
‘Moments of inspired chaos’: Rupert Friend and Patricia Arquette in High Desert. Apple TV+ Photograph: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Apple TV+

Created by Nancy Fichman and Jennifer Hoppe (Nurse Jackie, Grace and Frankie), and Katie Ford (Miss Congeniality), and directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), High Desert is a tale from the trippy end of the Los Angeles underbelly. A Californication-esque petri dish of frantic hustling and burnt-out kooks, such as Guru Bob (Homeland’s Rupert Friend as an amusingly unravelling former television anchorman, who loses a nipple and his mind).

After a bold promising start (this is executive-produced by Arquette and Ben Stiller), High Desert drifts into an overworked glut of escalations and side plots. It gets to the point where the entire production feels like an exercise in over-exuberant microdosing. Fine performer though Arquette is, I’m not convinced she has the Jennifer Coolidge levels of “screwball” that a role like Peggy demands. For all that, there are moments of inspired chaos, and Dillon’s chilled, kimono-clad felon-philosopher steals every scene he’s in.

Faye Marsay and Warren Brown in Ten Pound Poms.
Faye Marsay and Warren Brown in Ten Pound Poms: ‘like an Oz-based The Durrells’. BBC/Eleven Photograph: John Platt/BBC/Eleven

Back to BBC One and Ten Pound Poms, the new six-part drama from Danny Brocklehurst (Brassic). Set in 1956, it focuses on Brits taking up the offer to sail to Australia for £10 to resettle – among them Kate (Michelle Keegan), a nurse with a secret. Expecting paradise, they arrive to insults (“whingeing poms”) and cockroach-infested accommodation in Nissen huts. “It’s like a prisoner of war camp,” gasps builder Terry (Warren Brown), a veteran whose PTSD and alcoholism directly led to him, his wife Annie (Faye Marsay) and their children emigrating.

One overriding theme is racism, including that towards the new arrivals (“You have blacks in Britain, don’t you? Well, over here you’re the black”). Elsewhere, the British are depicted reacting in horror to Australian treatment of Indigenous Australian characters (hmm, were Britons of this period really so enlightened?).

Still, there’s heft to the harsher themes, and some good performances (particularly Brown and Marsay). Halfway through, my chief concern is that it’s getting a tad oversoapy, like an Oz-based The Durrells. Let’s hope it doesn’t descend gurgling into the Sunday night primetime suds.

There’s a surprising moment in Nick Broomfield’s feature-length BBC Two documentary The Stones and Brian Jones, when Broomfield says of Jones: “Most people today haven’t even heard of him.” Really? I’m startled again when Bill Wyman appears, gesticulating in a velour tracksuit. Clearly, Wyman was the only surviving Stone Broomfield could get to talk to him. At least the former bass player speaks eloquently about Jones’s musical contributions.

Brian Jones, right, with fellow Rolling Stones Wyman, Richards, Jagger and Watts.
Brian Jones, right, with fellow Rolling Stones Wyman, Richards, Jagger and Watts in 1964. Getty/BBC Photograph: Getty/BBC

This is Broomfield’s personal deep dive (as a schoolboy, he met Jones on a train) into the life of the Rolling Stone who drowned in 1969, aged 27, in his pool, shortly after being sacked from the band. It’s all here: Jones’s caring but stiff parents; how he formed the band only to be sidelined by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; his talent; his weird spite (stubbing cigarettes out on people); his spectacularly messy personal life; the final decline into druggy, bloated paranoia.

The documentary is meticulously done, with interesting visuals and audio. While it’s imbued with an end-of-an-era melancholy, for all the degeneracy there’s also a pervading sense of innocence. Would Jones have survived in a more wised-up, rehab-aware later decade? Probably.

I Kissed a Boy (BBC Three) is the first UK dating show for gay men, pitched as an eight-episode LGBTQ Love Island. Ten wannabe lovebirds are dispatched to an Italian villa to instantly kiss prospective partners to test chemistry.

Two contestants kiss in I Kissed a Boy.
Ben and Ollie get to grips with each other in I Kissed a Boy. BBC/Two Four Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC/Two Four

The opening two episodes augur well. There’s a range of personalities and body types. Presenter Dannii Minogue all but levitates with glee when people get on. The men pose and flirt, but they also talk honestly and with vulnerability. There’s zilch sense of them tediously trying to build their Instagram numbers. It all needs to calm down a bit (the camera is practically inside their mouths for the kissing), but this isn’t the same as Love Island: it’s better.

Star ratings (out of five)
Steeltown Murders
High Desert ★★★
Ten Pound Poms ★★★
The Stones and Brian Jones ★★★★
I Kissed a Boy ★★★

What else I’m watching

Rebekah Vardy: Jehovah’s Witnesses and Me
(Channel 4)
A documentary that’s worlds away from Vardy’s “Wagatha Christie” court case with Coleen Rooney. Vardy details her abusive upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and meets other victims. It makes for stark viewing.

Rebekah Vardy: Jehovah Witnesses and Me.
Rebekah Vardy: Jehovah Witnesses and Me. Channel 4 Photograph: Channel 4

Jury Duty
(Amazon Prime Video/Freevee)
A reality series with a difference. One unwitting jury member is “real” and the rest (judge, witnesses and the other jury members) are actors, with movie star James Marsden appearing as himself. What could have gone very wrong turns out to be genuinely heartwarming.

Gordon Ramsay’s Future Food Stars
(BBC One)
Is anyone watching this – only me? It’s Ramsay’s search for an investable food entrepreneur. Now nearing the end of the second series, it’s shaped up to be a superior watch to The Apprentice.

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