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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: The Woman in the Wall; David Hockney: A Celebration; The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies; Starstruck – review

Ruth wilson in a pub with her arms folded, looking hunted/defiant
‘Trauma incarnate’: Ruth Wilson as Lorna in The Woman in the Wall. Photograph: Chris Barr/BBC/Motive Pictures

The Woman in the Wall (BBC One) | (iPlayer)
David Hockney: A Celebration (Sky Arts)
The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies (BBC One) | (iPlayer)
(BBC Three/BBC One) | (iPlayer)

With a review of a drama about the wrongdoings of the Catholic church comes a confession: there were moments watching Joe Murtagh’s six-part, Irish-set The Woman in the Wall (BBC One) when I thought: would I be putting up with this if Ruth Wilson wasn’t in it?

It’s all so inescapably chaotic. Inspired by the historical outrages of the Catholic church’s Magdalene laundries (where, among other horrors, pregnant girls had newborn babies wrenched away and were then forced to work), there are contradictions, cheap supernatural shivers (the sound of crying babies), unsubtle messages (a portrait of Jesus Christ is stabbed in the face) and less a plot than a tempest of themes broken by disjointed narrative spasms.

Yet still I’m riveted, thanks mainly to Wilson. She plays Lorna, an Irish woman sent to a Magdalene laundry as a pregnant 15-year-old and now a disturbed sleepwalker, first spied waking up in a nightie surrounded by inquisitive cows near the fictional town of Kilkinure. Other Kilkinure women were Magdalene victims (shame drenches the area), but the focus is Lorna: with her darting eyes and raddled energy, she is trauma incarnate. After being contacted by someone who knows what happened to her baby, she wakes to find a dead body in her house and hides it in a wall cavity.

Anyone looking for a drama about the laundries (the last one closed in 1996) may be better served by the Peter Mullan film The Magdalene Sisters. Here, two episodes in (spoiler alert), there are so many questions. Is Lorna a killer? How much of it is real? The shabby-chic-gone-wrong colour palette (muddy browns, septic greens, medicinal greys) seems simultaneously suggestive of Lorna’s decaying mental state, the culpability of the Kilkinure community and the systemic abuse of the church, mainly rendered in flashbacks showing cruel nuns, powerful priests and scared girls.

When, elsewhere, a priest is killed, detectives initially lighten the mood with dry-as-dust Banshees of Insherin-style repartee, but then one of them (Daryl McCormack from Bad Sisters) also turns out to be haunted by his past. It’s this overplaying of the narrative hand, not to mention the risibly trowelled-on gothic melodrama (at one point, Lorna scurries around with an axe), that should be the undoing of The Woman in the Wall. It’s saved by explosive arthouse brio and that atomising central performance. Wilson is just so good in this: you could watch her unravel for ever.

Is it OK to call “Britain’s greatest living artist”, 86-year-old David Hockney, “naughty”? That’s what I kept getting, watching him interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for the Sky Arts documentary David Hockney: A Celebration (part of a two-day look at Hockney’s life and work). It’s not just the way Hockney dresses over the course of several conversations (ironic tweed, white flat cap, yellow Minions-style glasses, the general countenance of an aged-up Joe 90). Or the fact that he sparks up a cigarette (ash drooping defiantly). Nor even his “End Bossiness Soon” badge: “If I’d have put ‘End Bossiness Now’, that would have been too bossy, wouldn’t it?

David Hockney in a blue jacket with his arm around the shoulder of Melvyn Bragg dressed in black.
‘Self-made trailblazers’: Melvyn Bragg and David Hockney in David Hockney: A Celebration. Sky Arts Photograph: Sky Arts

This is about the refusenik spirit that has burned within Hockney his entire life, and which fellow octogenarian Lord Bragg (surely his most frequent interviewer, usually sporting a snappy black polo neck) clearly relishes. What follows is an absorbing profile, taking in Hockney’s Yorkshire roots (he has now returned), the years in California (the incubator for his pool paintings), his defiant “out” homosexuality, his zeal for new mediums and more.

How wonderful to watch two self-made, northern, working-class trailblazers come together. But also poignant. While he’ll still make programmes such as this, Bragg has “stepped down” from The South Bank Show for Sky Arts (it was originally on ITV) by mutual agreement, and it seems the series has come to an end. If so, what a shame. British broadcasting is not overrun with internationally renowned arts interview strands; do we urgently need to lose one to make space for more dystopian sagas? Getting back to the Hockney profile, it all goes by in an accessible but erudite snap. Bragg’s brand in a nutshell.

The second new BBC One drama of the week, The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies, is a five-part thriller with dark comedy licks. Created and written by sisters Penelope and Ginny Skinner, it’s produced by people who’ve worked on Fleabag, This Is Going to Hurt and Flowers.

Rebekah Staton stars as Alice, a PA and would-be designer who spots her runaway husband, Rob (Alistair Petrie), who also embezzled from her and her family. He’s posing as an “eco-preneur” climate scientist and romancing a widowed, vulnerable fantasy author, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste. As Alice dons a pink cape and pursues him, what ensues is a dark fable on romance fraud – a female revenge fantasy along the lines of The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, combined with more modern fare such as Promising Young Woman.

Rebekah Staton dressed in a pink cape.
‘Tar-black humour’: Rebekah Staton as Alice in The Following Events Are Based on a Pack of Lies. BBC/Sister
Photograph: Ludovic Robert/BBC/Sister

Alas, the story becomes increasingly unfeasible, not least because Jean-Baptiste’s character seems too intelligent to fall for Rob’s devious twaddle even for a millisecond. Still, the cast is strong (Romola Garai stands out as a creative grotesque), I enjoyed the flurry of homages (most prominently, to Fatal Attraction), and the tar-black humour flows like a river.

On BBC Three (with a repeat on BBC One), it’s the series three return of Starstruck, New Zealand comic Rose Matafeo’s dramedy on millennial love and life, co-written with Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson. In the last series, Matafeo’s character, Jessie, finally got together with famous actor Tom (Nikesh Patel), but here they’re instantly split up in a swift brutal montage, thus engendering heartbreak, angst and funnies, such as Jessie’s useless speech at her best friend’s wedding: “As Ben Affleck once said…”

rose matafeo holds a microphone, giving a speech at a wedding dinner, the picture taken from behind bride and groom
Rose Matafeo in Starstruck: ‘a slow-burn treat’. BBC/Avalon UK Photograph: BBC/Avaon UK

After some second-series script floppiness, the writing seems sharper, with great cameos – Minnie Driver returning as Tom’s acid agent; John Simm as a pretentious uber-thesp; a new love interest (Lorne MacFadyen) – and serious themes (parenting, evolving friendship groups, growing up). I’m increasingly unsure about Jessie and Tom’s viability even as an odd couple (they’ve got all the sexual chemistry of stewed chai), but Starstruck remains a slow-burn treat.

Star ratings out of five
The Woman in the Wall
David Hockney: A Celebration
The Following Events Are Based on a Pack Of Lies

What else I’m watching

(Channel 4)
The return of the prison-based comedy-drama that sets out to humanise inmates and officers. Starring Nina Sosanya and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, this time Lee Ingleby plays a prisoner adjusting to incarceration. It’s a jailhouse soap, but smartly done.

Nina Sosanya and Lee Ingleby in Screw.
Nina Sosanya and Lee Ingleby in series 2 of Screw. Photograph: Mark Mainz / STV / Channel 4

The Wheel of Time
(Amazon Prime Video)
Second series of the flashy, megabucks fantasy epic starring Rosamund Pike, which Jeff Bezos launched as the new Lord of the Rings saga. Roll up for more reliably overwrought battles between good and evil against a Middle-earth-adjacent backdrop.

Storyville: iHuman
(BBC Four)
A chance to see Tonje Hessen Schei’s bold, unsettling feature-length documentary looking into the capabilities of artificial Intelligence, and the big tech clique who control it.

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