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TV review: Litvinenko, Windrush, Portraits of a generation, and The Change

30 June 2023


David Tennant plays Alexander Litvinenko, with Margarita Levieva as his wife, in Litvinenko (ITV, four episodes from Monday of last week)

David Tennant plays Alexander Litvinenko, with Margarita Levieva as his wife, in Litvinenko (ITV, four episodes from Monday of last week)

BEING poisoned by a cup of tea is a particularly British way to be murdered: this grim irony was about the only glimmer of humour in Litvinenko (ITV, four episodes from Monday of last week). Its parade of virtues was remarkably old-fashioned: the police honourable, proud of their vocation, and determined, first, to find out whether the former KGB agent was telling the truth in his deathbed accusations, and, second, to stand unswervingly by their promise to his widow to secure a conviction, pursuing the murderers’ trail wherever it led.

There was even a curious patriotism, reflected in statements about the UK’s excellence as a beacon of fairness, justice, and scientific integrity. Against a background of daily revelations of corruption, incompetence, and decline, this sort of thing normally sounds hollow. Somehow, here, it seemed almost believable.

This drama achieved that rarest of combinations: gritty realism married to formal speeches, carried along by magnificent performances, especially those of David Tennant as Litvinenko, and Margarita Levieva as his proud, vulnerable, but unswerving wife. Eventually, Theresa May’s government overcame its cringing eagerness not to antagonise the Russians and ordered a full inquiry. This identified the agents who had administered the lethal polonium 210 — the deadliest substance known (Litvinenko ingested less than a millionth of a gramme) — and determined that the order had surely been given by President Putin in person.

A rather different head of state’s action was celebrated in Windrush: Portraits of a generation (BBC2, Thursday of last week). The King personally topped and tailed this account of ten Windrush survivors depicted by his own choice of ten black artists. We heard directly from the sitters — nearly all of them in their late nineties.

As the programme developed, their stories of racist discrimination were reluctantly revealed: does this remarkable royal project attempt a nationally significant act of repentance and expiation? Certainly, they seemed delighted by the Buckingham Palace reception held for the unveiling of the pictures, and their expressions of pleasure will have made them enjoyable guests for the King and Queen.

A particularly odd corner of the UK features in the new comedy series The Change (Channel 4, Wednesdays). Bridget Christie both is the writer and stars as the 50-year-old Linda, for whom the menopause is a tocsin calling her to revolt. She has kept, for 25 years, a secret hour-by-hour account of her every single invisible, unpaid, unacknowledged domestic chore: now, she gets on her motorbike and goes to ground, deep in the Forest of Dean.

Everyone here is eccentrically weird; and yet it is a compelling farce, undergirded by deep and uncomfortable truths.

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