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TV review: Screw, The Tourist, and Toast of Tinseltown

21 January 2022

Channel 4

Channel 4’s new series Screw (Thursdays) is a comedy drama about life in prison

Channel 4’s new series Screw (Thursdays) is a comedy drama about life in prison

OUR lives in lockdown, many of us unthinkingly complained, were like being in prison. Channel 4’s new series Screw (Thursdays) proves just how wrong we were. It is billed as a “comedy drama”, but the humour is submerged by gritty, threatening realism, on the one hand, and, on the other, unfortunately, by outbreaks of soupy sentimentality.

The big contrast between lockdown and being banged up is that life in prison is the very opposite of solitary: you could not be more crowded together day and night, forced to see and know far more about each other’s lives than anyone could possibly want. The story is told from the viewpoint, not of the inmates, but of the prison officers. They (more in number, I suspect, than there really would be in these days of savage cuts, and with lots of time to hang out and exchange banter) a collection of disappointing stereotypes: saintly, but flawed; savagely racist, and yet — deep down — sympathetic.

The storylines, too, are largely predictable, employing the worn-out trope of the bright young newcomer joining the team, welcomed by some, but cold-shouldered by others. Despite her catalogue of egregious errors (redeemed, of course, by flashes of unexpected brilliance), will she stay the course — as if there’s any doubt?

Nevertheless, with all these faults, the show does convey powerfully the sheer diverse energy, tragedy, and, yes, comedy of the institution. Prisoners and staff are all flawed and morally compromised: in other words, recognisable human beings.

What could be further from the claustrophobia of prison than the limitless outback of Australia, the setting of The Tourist (BBC1, Sundays)? This crime thriller is seriously weird, violent, shocking — and appallingly funny, making us laugh at things that, we know, should evoke nothing but sympathy and despair. Despite the brilliant sunshine, it is very dark indeed, as horrors crowd in: the very openness of the scenery leaves nowhere to hide, physically or psychologically.

A horrific car crash leaves a man with total amnesia; no one even knows his name. Piece by piece, he uncovers his own story — but why is he pursued by ruthless killers, leaving a trail of bodies? Is he entirely innocent, or complicit in some terrible crime? I cannot recall any drama presenting so breathtaking a succession of final-frame plot-twists, episode by episode, which undermine everything we thought that we understood so far.

He is helped by a hapless, accident-prone trainee traffic officer; and her growth in stature and agency is the very opposite of dramatist’s stereotype. The programme is, if you can stand the blood, a real achievement.

If too much realism is unbearable, then, for thoroughgoing lunacy, try Toast of Tinseltown (BBC1, Tuesdays). Steven Toast, played by Matt Berry, presents again his incompetent ham, armoured by invincible vanity, now lampooning the absurdities of Hollywood: part of the fun is the sheer basic obviousness of the targets.

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