The week in TV: The North Water; Wolfe; My Childhood, My Country; Imagine: Tom Stoppard; Big Age | Television

The North Water (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Wolfe (Sky Max/Now TV) |
My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan ITV |
Imagine: Tom Stoppard – A Charmed Life BBC One | iPlayer
Big Age Channel 4 | All 4

The North Water (BBC Two), starring Colin Farrell and Jack O’Connell, isn’t short of testosterone. There’s so much snarling, unleashed masculinity flying around, women of childbearing age should check they aren’t pregnant by the end of the first episode.

Which makes sense – in five parts, written and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years; Looking), based on the 2016 book by Ian McGuire, it’s the tale of a 19th-century Yorkshire whaling expedition in the Arctic; not a setup that screams “strong feminine presence”. In the opening scene, Farrell’s character, Drax, is heard grunting during intercourse with a faceless woman. Drax doesn’t go so far as to wipe himself down on an eiderdown, but you get the drift that the encounter isn’t romantic. Thus, The North Water, which first aired on the US streaming channel AMC, sets out its stall as an essay on brutal masculinism under pressure, maritime-style.

Elsewhere, ship’s doctor Sumner (O’Connell) is fleeing from disgrace and mired in addiction, while Stephen Graham’s corrupt captain is colluding in a deathly insurance fraud with the shipowner (a subtly vicious Tom Courtenay). Despite the grimness, The North Water is thrilling and beautiful, especially when depicting the frozen wastes of the Arctic, where it was partly filmed, and where the ship, the Volunteer, bumps against ice that sprinkles across inky water like a deadly white jigsaw.

In the event, seals get whacked before the whales; their bloody slaughter towards the end of the opening episode, with pickaxes and clubs, is all the more repellent because it is almost operatically exultant. (Talk about vegan-baiting TV; the BBC can expect complaints.) Still, Haigh’s drama is compelling viewing, and in Drax it has a true demon: bulked-up, bedraggled, pitiless, with Farrell (his first television role since True Detective in 2015) abandoning his preternaturally boyish charm to convincingly embody guttural, unwashed evil bobbing in a soul-free zone. Television is flirting with sea themes at the moment, as evidenced by BBC One’s recent submarine drama Vigil, but the true parallels here are with the magnificent first season of The Terror, BBC Two’s stark Arctic tale starring Jared Harris, where the threat was partly supernatural. The North Water sticks firmly to the mortal realm but is no less overwhelming.

Always expect the unexpected with the screenwriter Paul Abbott (Shameless; No Offence), creator of new six-part series Wolfe (Sky Max/Now TV), about a bipolar forensic pathologist, with a first episode (written by Abbott) featuring a victim fed into an industrial meat-mincer, the legs comically sticking out, almost in Carry On Homicide-style. Babou Ceesay (Damilola, Our Loved Boy) plays Professor Wolfe Kinteh with persuasive intensity, though on occasion his behaviour borders on unsettling. Are audiences supposed to be amused by Wolfe clambering through a window into his ex’s bedroom and examining her bedsheets? Abbott is bipolar himself and could be making a point about manic episodes, but this stalkerish scene seems beyond that.

Babou Ceesay in Wolfe.
‘Kinetic energy’: Babou Ceesay in Wolfe. Photograph: Matt Squire/Sky UK

Elsewhere, the bipolar aspect is handled delicately, and you’re able to get to know and (crucially) root for Wolfe and his team, which includes Amanda Abbington and Shaniqua Okwok (Small Axe). For some, Wolfe’s almost cartoonish goriness may verge on pantomime (in future episodes – all now available – maggots crawl and corpses burst). And, sigh, here is yet another forensics genius. If incompetent forensics experts exist, they’re rarely shown on TV, mumbling: “Well, I dunno really.” However, in Ceesay’s hands, what could implode into cliche is enlivened with kinetic energy and cheeky wisecracks: “He looks like he went for a colonic and nothing came out.” It doesn’t hurt that Abbott, who wrote scripts for 1990s classic Cracker, knows how to ratchet up suspense.

Over on ITV, Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi’s documentary My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan, about a boy growing up Afghanistan, landed in a duststorm of timely poignancy. Similar in some ways to Richard Linklater’s fictional film Boyhood, it has been two decades in the making, and follows the life of Mir Hussain. He is first filmed as an eight-year-old refugee living with his family in caves in Afghanistan, then as a young man, slogging away in parched fields and dark mines, and finally, helped by the documentary team, becoming a news cameraman to support his own young family in Kabul.

Despite the poverty, Mir is carefree as a child, seeing the caves as an adventure, but his life is unquestionably marred by the relentless conflicts in the region. This documentary is also the story of western betrayals post-9/11. When the Taliban were cast out, many Afghans expected aid and rebuilding. The young Mir is shown admiring US helicopters, excitedly crying: “I like Americans!” Well, so much for that. His later struggles are excruciating to behold. Thrilled to work as a cameraman, even when narrowly escaping death from a suicide bomber, he ends up losing his job during lockdown. We leave Mir – anxious for his children but still heartbreakingly optimistic – just as the Taliban take again. This humbling film does a fine job of lending a much-needed human face to the ongoing tragedy that is Afghanistan.

Mir in My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan.
Mir Hussain in the ‘humbling’ My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan. Photograph: ITV

It appeared to take the pandemic interrupting Tom Stoppard’s much-lauded Leopoldstadt (now returned to the West End) to get the playwright (Arcadia; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) to agree to being profiled in Imagine (BBC One). Alan Yentob met Stoppard where he’d spent lockdown, in a posh country house with manicured lawns and bookshelves packed with first editions. Before long, Stoppard was objecting to Yentob lingering over evidence of his marriage to Sabrina Guinness, drawling icily: “We’re not surely reduced to showing my wedding photographs.” Come, come, Mr Stoppard, you started out as a journalist, you know that wedding photographs are everything.

As Stoppard’s life story unfolded, how moving and emotional it was. The boy in Leopoldstadt is said to be a proxy for the writer, whose Czechoslovakian-Jewish family fled the Nazis, first to Singapore (Stoppard’s many screenplays include a first draft for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun), then India, then eventually to England. His mother’s siblings were nearly all murdered by the Nazis, and when told as a boy that his father had been killed by Japanese forces, Stoppard remembers barely registering it: “Clearly, I became emotionally armour-plated.”

Imagine: Tom Stoppard – A Charmed Life.
Imagine: Tom Stoppard – A Charmed Life. Photograph: Stephen Robinson/BBC Studios

Armour-plated or numb? It may have been hard for Stoppard himself to keep track as his youthful career erupted in triumph and laughter. Here, theatre notables such as David Hare and Patrick Marber (the director of Leopoldstadt) came forward with insights, though Stoppard acquitted himself well too. You may not agree with certain of his politics (admiring Margaret Thatcher for smashing the print unions?) but he retains his signature articulacy and deep-fried sarcasm. What emerged was a portrait of a clever, witty but also resourceful, sensitive man, who realised in time that the only way to stop darkness bleeding into you is to deal with it.

Big Age is a wickedly accomplished comedy pilot, directed by Nosa Eke, written by New York Times bestselling author Bolu Babalola (Love in Colour) and showcased in Channel 4’s all-day Black to Front celebration of black British talent. Turning 25, Sade (Ronke Adékoluejo) is beset with Nigerian “big age” anxiety, and jacks in her job penning property pamphlets to concentrate on writing and mindfulness: “I transcend chaotic environments with elegance and wisdom.”

Sade has two love interests, including a wistful Ross/Rachel style dynamic (CJ Beckford from I Am Danielle). However, it’s her friendship with Dela, played by Racheal Ofori (Sliced), that truly lights the comedic gunpowder. The pair bounce off each other in a way that’s reminiscent of the brio and naughtiness of early Broad City, and Sade’s snarky little sister (Olumide Olorunfemi) chimes in too: “Oh my God, Carrie Blackshaw!” The pilot is cluttered with unnecessary scenes, but the big stuff in Big Age (characterisation, gags, vivacity) is raring to go.

Ronke Adékoluejo and Racheal Ofori in Big Age.
Ronke Adékoluejo and Racheal Ofori in Big Age. Photograph: Channel 4/Ricky Darko

What else I’m watching

The Wire/Boardwalk Empire/Lovecraft Country
Sky Atlantic/Now TV |
Following the untimely death of Michael K Williams, revisit some of his fine performances, including Omar Little and “Chalky” White. Williams was a rare talent who breathed truth and nuance into every role. RIP, sir, and thanks.

Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire.
Michael K Williams as Omar in The Wire. Photograph: Paul Schiraldi

Grace and Frankie
A few weeks ago, Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, stealth-dropped the first four new episodes of the final season. The rest are due in 2022. More misbehaviour/backchat from the subversive silver surfers.

Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League
BBC Two | iPlayer
As the World Cup qualifying matches unfolded around us, there was also this four-part docuseries about the 1992 birth and subsequent inexorable rise of the Premier League (featuring input from Eric Cantona).

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