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Surprisingly good

20 January 2017

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WE HAVE all conducted a service where a member of the congregation was so convinced that they could make a better job than the hapless priest that they carry on a rival liturgy.

In the first episode of BBC1’s new period thriller Taboo (Saturdays), the scandalous alternate to the BCP Burial of the Dead appeared to be a shamanistic rite, complete with actions, performed by the son of the deceased. This heir has turned up as if from the dead (with whom he seems to have effective lines of communication) just in time to interrupt the obsequies — and to disrupt the smooth running of mercantile London.

The year is 1814. Britain’s pre-eminent place in the world is not as clear as we might think, and settlement with the recently separated United States is not yet resolved. Layers of family mystery and rivalry are all enfolded in a fog of corruption.

This is the kind of over-clever quasi-supernatural drama that I usually find indigestible; but, two episodes in, this one is terrific. The heightened awfulness of most of the characters, the irredeemable ruthlessness of their financial rivalry, the easy recourse to violence and threat — all are served with a script, direction, and design of such quality as to overcome the preposterous plot. And the acting is mesmeric, wholly believable in its conviction. Together, they have managed to tap into a mythic realm: compelling, visceral, disturbing, and wild.

ITV’s latest costume drama The Halcyon (Mondays) unfortunately suffers by comparison. A grand London hotel in the first year of the Second World War, with its aristocratic and privileged glamour about to be swept away by the Blitz is the setting for a dynastic struggle and an upstairs/downstairs star-crossed love affair.

The mix here — predictable subplots about appeasement, Nazi sympathy, Jewish immigrants — is not inherently more unreal than Taboo’s, but it has already, by the second episode, degenerated into standard romance tropes only a few degrees above soap opera. It is perfectly watchable, but essentially forgettable, unlike its comparator, which lodges uncomfortably in the imagination.

Our Dancing Town (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) is the latest reality documentary account of personal transformation and community building by means of shared artistic endeavour. Could the choreographer Steve Elias persuade the people of Barnsley to get out into the street and create, in four weeks, a dance spectacular celebrating their history?

The recent history, as we were constantly reminded, is that of industrial and economic collapse stemming from the end of coal mining. Could ex-miners appear together with policemen (here memories and long, and bitter)? Would local Morris men find anything in common with northern-soul aficionados and Nick from the chip shop?

Elias, a self-confessed working-class lad himself, is a force of nature: patient, challenging, and supportive. It was, of course, after weeks of setback and failure, a single-camera, continuous-take triumph, and all — if in a rather predictable way — very moving. He has got two other towns to galvanise, and then will combine them all in a pan-Yorkshire finale in front of the Minster.

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