Small-Screen Jabber 2-8 December

Drama

Armada 12 days save england anita dobson

Anita Dobson stars as Elizabeth I in the three-part docu-drama Armada: 12 Days to Save England (Tues, BBC4, 8pm). First show on BBC2 in 2015, presenter Dan Snow uses recently discovered documents that put a different spin on the tale of we scuppered the Spanish Armada in 1588. We were within a whisker of defeat and invasion, but the Spaniards missed their big opportunity to topple the Tudor dynasty. The dramatic reconstructions, co-starring Philip Cox and Rupert Frazer, add a touch of realism to the unfolding story. It’s followed by Invasion! at 9pm, a three-parter looking at the millennia-long invasions that have shaped our country.

Two new streaming dramas have just come on tap. First up, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (available now on Amazon Prime) is the creation of Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) and stars Rachel Brosnahan as 1950s housewife Midge Maisel. She’s the ideal wife – beautiful, a great cook, raising perfect kids and running their huge Manhattan apartment like a pro. Husband Joel tries his hand at standup and when he fails, leaves Midge for his secretary, and she gives comedy a go herself. And becomes a star. Brosnahan is fab in what is a very well-written screenplay with great attention to period detail. It has its flaws, like the daft flashbacks to when the marriage was working, and the laughs are occasionally bumpy, but otherwise it’s good. Very good.

burning bush all4

Channel 4’s Walter Presents strand of foreign dramas has also come up trumps. Czech three-parter Burning Bush (available now on All4) is based on the true story of student Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in Wenceslas Square in Prague in January 1969, in protest at the USSR’s invasion of his country. More immolations and demonstrations follow, as Palach’s grieving family attempt to sue the Czech government when politicians try to smear Jan. This is a stunning drama, with film-quality cinematography and a focus on the human stories behind the activism, that portrays one of the Czech Republic’s most dark and turbulent times, when everyone feared arrest and only the students were brave enough to resist. It has picked up awards around the globe and isn’t one to miss.

Factual

extraordinary teens my gay life

Billy came out as gay at the tender age of seven and by the time he was 11, he felt confident enough in himself to dress up as Lady Gaga at Brighton’s Gay Pride festival. He was approached by a film crew who asked to film him, and six years on Extraordinary Teens: My Gay Life (Tues, C4, 10pm) is the result. Billy’s entire adolescence is documented in this touching film, which shows the reality of being teenage and gay in Britain today. His parents reveal the different views they had about accepting Billy’s sexuality so young, while Billy himself gets on with finding boyfriends and growing up.

suffolk strangler victims

Serial killers are rare in the UK, but even more rarely do the media focus on the family of the perpetrator rather than the victims’ families. In My Son: the Serial Killer (Wed, Channel 5, 9pm) Conrad Wright, father of Steven aka the Suffolk Strangler, speaks frankly about the devastation he experienced on learning his son had murdered five sex workers in Ipswich and the soul-searching he has done to come to terms with it. Isabella Clennel, mother of Steven Wright’s final victim Paula Clennell, is also interviewed about her loss and the ongoing impact on the family. Paula herself appears in a poignant clip filmed shortly before she was killed, in which she explained that she preferred to sell sex than commit robbery when she needed money. It sealed her fate.

Two heart-breaking documentaries on the animal world. Blood Ivory (Thurs, Discovery, 10pm) looks at the East African ivory trade. Globally, elephants are being killed at the rate of 55 a day to provide outlawed ivory and in East Africa the herds are close to extinction. The volunteer Vetpaw team, composed of post 9/11 US veterans, are on the ground in Tanzania to combat illegal poaching and slaughter. Be prepared for shocking scenes. Born to be Free: Saving Russia’s Whales (Thurs, C4, 11.25pm) investigates the plight of beluga whales that are being captured and sold to marine parks in the US. A team of Russian female journalists examine the distressing global trade in sea mammals, with celebrity campaigners like Kim Basinger trying to shut down the tourist attractions that exploit these magnificent creatures.

Music

toots and maytals from the roots

Apart from the Wailers, the Maytals can almost certainly lay claim to being the most important reggae band ever – their influence is immeasurable. Everyone knows their global big hitter Pressure Drop, but long before that they were defining ska, coining the term “reggay” and making sublime pop in the form of Sweet and Dandy. Toots and the Maytals: From the Roots (Sat, Sky Arts, 9pm) profiles band leader Fred “Toots” Hibbert and his cohorts, showing why they matter just so much in the history of Jamaican music. This is a fine documentary, with plenty of live footage, interviews and backstage clips.

rock arrived north korea liberation day

Controversial Slovenian rock group Laibach took the world by surprise when they accepted an invitation to play a gig in North Korea by the country’s cultural diplomat (and Laibach fan). When Rock Arrived in North Korea: Liberation Day (Thurs, BBC4, 11pm) reveals the bizarre unfolding events as the band prepared to play on 15 August 2015, the so-called Liberation Day marking the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese rule. The film is by turns hilarious and dark, as they submit their lyrics for censorship and deal with technical problems, ensure they don’t fall foul of the dictatorship’s strict ideology and cultural differences. And that’s before they discover the gig will be on border, with huge propaganda loudspeakers set up to blast South Korea with music in a massive two-fingered gesture followed by exchanges of heavy artillery. This is the real Spinal Tap…

The BBC’s occasional Classic Albums strand this week focuses on American folk-rocker Don McLean and the record that shot him to stardom in 1971. American Pie – Don McLean (Fri, BBC4, 10pm) explores his second album, notable not only for the title hit but also the follow-up single Vincent, about the artist Van Gogh (Jake Bugg talks movingly about how Vincent inspired him to pick up a guitar). Many of the tracks are technically intricate and McLean discusses their structure and the problems with the recording process. The album remains relevant, with songs that raise questions about America’s place in the world and bring an added poignancy when you listen to it now. In among all that, watch out for moving archive footage of George Michael singing The Grave.

Culture

This week’s Imagine… profiles the winner of the 1993 Turner Prize, for her inside-out house sculpture. Rachel Whiteread: Ghosts in the Room (Sat, BBC2, 9pm) is a wide-ranging portrait of her sometimes controversial career, from her rise to prominence as part of the Young British Artists group, the hoohah over House and her universally admired Holocaust memorial in Vienna. Much of her work draws on themes of memory and loss, so it’s fitting that presenter Alan Yentob interviews her as she prepares for a major retrospective at London’s Tate Britain gallery and picks through three decades of challenging sculptures. 

Louise Bolotin is Screenjabber’s TV critic. She has a penchant for quality drama and quirky documentaries, slums it with EastEnders and pities people who watch reality TV, which might be why she never writes about The X Factor.

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