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Uncomfortably real

16 August 2013

by Sarah Meyrick


TV NOIR is all the rage at the moment. I do not know whether it is an austerity thing, but British viewers seem to lap up the grim, especially when served up in a foreign language and a desolate setting.

No need for subtitles in Southcliffe (Channel 4, Sunday and Monday of last week), but bucketloads of gloom were on offer. Bleak but compelling, it flipped back and forth in time to tell the story of a gunman who, one day in November, lets rip his fury.

We know from the start that the shooter is Stephen Morton, who lives with his elderly sick mother. He is a loner, obsessed with the military, and he is angry. A friendship with a soldier newly back from Afghanistan soon goes horribly wrong. When the soldier brings his uncle round to teach Stephen a lesson, he snaps, and picks up his gun.

The drama does not glamorise the appalling consequences of the shootings that follow. But it does create a context for it. There are obvious echoes of familiar tragedies - Dunblane and Hungerford spring to mind. It is all uncomfortably convincing and realistic.

The story of how Stephen got to this point, his crumbling mental health, unfurls. But we also begin to appreciate the terrible fall- out within the community, where ordinary people are getting on with their lives: the unfaithful husband who discovers that his wife and children are victims by spotting her car numberplate on the back of a policeman's hand; the social worker whose case-load includes Stephen's mother repeatedly calling her daughter's mobile, while we, the audience, know she is out running, close to the scene. And there is the TV journalist who comes from Southcliffe, and is sent there to cover events.

While the format of the flash-backs is disorientating, it adds to the sense of confusion as the events are pieced together after the shootings. But there is a desperate edge-of-the-seat tension and im-pending tragedy that make it hard to turn away from the TV. So, while the series is hardly enjoyable, it is certainly gripping, and feels genuinely authentic.

After that sobering subject-matter, you could hardly imagine a more richly colourful and cheering contrast than Tales from the Royal Bedchamber (BBC4, Thursday of last week), presented by Lucy Worsley, the Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces. The hook was the birth of baby Cambridge; this offered a golden opportunity for a romp through history, as the royal bedchamber morphed from the centre of political power to something more private.

Worsley is relentlessly jolly, and unable to miss the chance to ask another historian about the precise duties of the "groom of the stool" (it involved only passing the King a piece of cloth); but she certainly knows her stuff.

But the biggest TV story of August was unveiling the secret that Peter Capaldi is to be the new Doctor Who. And what a marvellous back-story - from the 15-year-old "Whovian" who once wrote to the Radio Times in praise of a Doctor Who special to the actor charged with becoming the 12th Time Lord. What's not to love?

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