The Crown Netflix
The English BBC Two | iPlayer
Mammals Prime Video
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! ITV | ITV Hub
Unless you’ve been recently cryogenically frozen, you probably noted the arrival of the fifth series of Peter Morgan’s royal soap The Crown and the criticisms from Dame Judi Dench (“crude sensationalism”), John Major (“malicious nonsense”) and Tony Blair (“complete rubbish”). Viewers should rest assured that if they still fancy a peek at Netflix’s 10-part “dramatisation” – covering everything from Charles and Diana’s divorce to the latter’s ill-gotten Panorama interview with Martin Bashir – they will not be dragged to the Tower (but do check: this could change).
As I wrote in last week’s Comment section of the Observer, Netflix should have delayed, not because the show’s subjects are royal, but because they’re human and recently bereaved. As it is, the combination of insensitive timing and poor scripts buries the series. I also mentioned last week how dull this season of The Crown gets – at one point it explores, with brain-numbing zeal, the Duke of Edinburgh’s late-life interest in carriage riding – but it bears repeating that it’s a criminal waste of a strong new cast.
While Dominic West is a risibly dishy Charles (if this is the casting upgrade formula, I can’t wait for Ryan Gosling as Harry), Imelda Staunton could yet transcend her watery, beleaguered biddy incarnation to become a formidable Elizabeth. Weirdly, Jonny Lee Miller as John Major works, until he’s called upon to privately orate about royal infighting like an over-invested podcaster. Elizabeth Debicki nails Diana’s Anglepoise lamp posture, weeping willow voice and minx-ish humour (“Will you dance with me before I scream?”), but no actor could survive uttering (to love interest, surgeon Hasnat Khan) lines such as: “You forget I already had a prince… I’m just looking for a frog to make me happy.”
Where is the humour, the insight, the life, as seen in earlier series? There’s a moderately amusing re-enactment of Charles/Camilla’s “Tampon-gate” heavy breathing (be kind: bad phone sex can happen to anybody), and a scene involving Anatoly Kotenev’s Boris Yeltsin hurling insults (“They call this a palace? We have shithouses in St Petersburg that are bigger”), but such brio is vanishingly rare. Maybe we’ve reached peak-Windsor in this particular era – how many more times is it possible to watch Diana dolefully blab to Bashir? – or does The Crown just urgently need to retrieve its mojo?
On BBC Two, Hugo Blick (Black Earth Rising) delivers The English, a six-part 19th-century western that gives Sam Peckinpah a run for his bloodthirsty, misanthropic silver dollar. Emily Blunt plays Cornelia Locke, a seemingly prim, revengeful Englishwoman. Alongside her is Eli (Chaske Spencer), a Pawnee former calvary scout who’s pursuing a Nebraskan land claim. Following an off-putting soppy voiceover from Cornelia (“That’s how we met; that’s why we met”), she is punched in the face by Ciarán Hinds’s malevolent hotelier, Richard M Watts. “You want to rape me?” asks Cornelia. “I’m realistic when it comes to issues of consent,” replies Watts.
Halfway through (all episodes are available), and with everyone from Stephen Rea to Toby Jones appearing as old west grotesques, The English is full of dusty gothic darkness: racism, disease, shootouts, thwacking arrows, babies cut from lifeless wombs. There’s beauty too: Morricone-esque music; Blunt and Spencer thawing out Cornelia and Eli with tentative, realistic rapport; cameras panning over parched landscapes and tangerine sunsets from Oklahoma to Kansas. Lawless, godless, uncompromising and erratic, The English at times sorely tests your patience, but I rather like it for that.
In his first UK role for years, actor-presenter-comedian James Corden (Gavin and Stacey; The Late Late Show) stars in Mammals (Prime Video), the new six-parter from Jez Butterworth, who wrote the stage mega-hit Jerusalem. Corden plays a chef, Jamie, who’s married to Amandine (Melia Kreiling). At first it’s a study of smug coupledom, before a tragedy plunges the pair into a murky whirlpool of love, secrets, lies and whale sightings in the most unusual places.
Mammals is a twisting, pitch-black surreal dramedy focused on the banner headlines and small print of fidelity and sexual hypocrisy. In an otherworldly subplot, Jamie’s dreamy sister (an excellent Sally Hawkins) is lost in a Coco Chanel-themed fantasy, which alienates her husband (Colin Morgan), though like everything and everyone else in the series, things may not be all they appear.
I hesitate to divulge more because the show is crammed with warm- and cold-blooded spoilers. Mostly, I enjoyed it: it’s undeniably clever, witty and surprising, with intriguing hints of madness in the plotting. But Corden is miscast, chiefly because he lacks the range to enliven his character.
And so we come to I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (ITV), now back in the Australian jungle. The latest celebrities include Boy George (“I’m sick of sitting in the corner being iconic”), Mike Tindall, husband of Princess Anne’s daughter, Zara… and former health secretary and flouter of lockdown rules Matt Hancock. Or, now he’s gone showbiz, is it Matt “Jazz-Hands”-Cock?
Arriving late for a reputed £400,000, the Tory MP for West Suffolk preened and shimmied in khaki, eyes gleaming like something escaped from a laboratory labelled “hubris in human form”. Britons barely had time to cry “the gall of the man!” before he was restyling the jungle as a parliamentary metaphor and talking about people seeing “the real me”, as if that could ever be a good thing.
Straight up: this was even weirder than anticipated. Watching Hancock splash in vermin-strewn gunk for the first Bushtucker trial (is it possible to OD on schadenfreude?) – and everything else. The mirthless laugh. The Partridge-grade eye contact. The flattened shock of other campmates and their careful civility. By the end, Hancock was voted on to another trial – the Tentacles of Terror – and Boy George, whose mother was hospitalised during the pandemic, had cried in private. Buckle up everybody.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Crown ★★
The English ★★★★
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! ★★★
What else I’m watching
Save Our Squad With David Beckham
With the World Cup imminent, football programmes are everywhere. In this series, former England player David Beckham goes back to his east London stamping ground to help struggling under-14 side Westward Boys win.
The Secret Genius of Modern Life
Presented by Hannah Fry, the opening episode in this new science and technology series deals with credit cards: what’s inside the plastic, and what happens when you make contactless payments.
Grunge: A Story of Music and Rage
From Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden to plaid shirts, the punk ethos and nihilism, via lethal drugs and untimely deaths, Charlotte Blum’s documentary examines the whole goddamn grunge scene.