Small-Screen Jabber 4-10 November

Drama

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What would you do if you discovered your partner might be sexually abusing your child? Unspeakable (Sun, C4, 9pm) attempts to explore this issue in a dark and at times disturbing one-off drama about domestic paedophilia. Indira Varma stars as single mum Jo, whose boyfriend Danny (Luke Treadaway) has just moved in. One morning after Jo drops off 11-year-old Katie at school, she receives an anonymous text alleging Danny is an inappropriate relationship with her. What follows is a gripping tale of toxic paranoia and suspicion as Jo tries to analyse Danny’s every word and gesture in her hunt for clues, while trying to answer the question whether he would be capable of grooming a child.

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The heady decadence of the Weimar Republic in 1920s Germany, and the dark clouds on the horizon, are put into sharp focus in Babylon Berlin (Sun, Sky Atlantic, 9pm), a moody, atmospheric and very stylish German-language production based on Volker Kutschen’s series of novels. With Germany mired in a depression in the inter-war period, a young police officer, Gereon Rath, is transferred to Berlin to break up a vice ring run by the local mob. His investigations soon reveal a web of corruption, illegal arms dealing, drugs flooding the city and worse. Rath struggles with both PTSD and criminality in the city’s police force. This is the gritty portrait of a country that Cabaret should have been, depicting the turmoil of an economy that has triggered hyperinflation and mass unemployment, the brief rise of a left promising a new dawn and a criminal underworld exploiting both. This has “hit” stamped all over it.

Factual

If you’ve been enjoying BBC1’s rather fabulous drama Gunpowder the last few weekends, then Gunpowder 5/11: the Greatest Terror Plot (Sat, BBC4, 8pm) offers a more factual take on the Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It’s in the shape of a drama-doc, with actors playing the roles of Guido Fawkes, the most senior captured plotter Thomas Wintour and assorted state interrogators, and speaking their actual words. Wintour’s account of Catholic anger at the state’s persecution of them, how the plot was constructed and what they hoped its successful execution would achieve and what happened after it failed, is thrilling even though you know it ends in violence and bloodshed just days later.

Current affairs

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Donald Trump rose to power on the back of the frustrations of disenfranchised white Americans, particularly in the old industrial heartlands now known as the Rust Belt, after the jobs vanished and left millions in unemployed poverty. Journalist Gary Younge visits some of the US’s worst-hit communities in Angry, White and American (Thurs, C4, 10pm) to try to understand why white voters found Trump so compelling. Younge also meets the self-styled leader of America's alt-right, Richard Spencer, in a highly charged encounter – Spencer tells Younge, who is black and British, that England will never accept him, before spewing his bilious vision of a white superstate. Utterly compelling. It’s preceded by Channel 4’s four-part documentary Trump: an American Dream, which looks in depth at how the billionaire businessman took the top job and draws on four decades worth of archive footage, commentary and testimonies.

Music

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Sheridan Smith is one of our most talented actors, picking up a slew of awards for many of her recentish TV drama series. Less well-known is her stonking vocal ability, which only came to light when she sang all the hits in the title role of ITV’s Cilla in 2014, and was honed singing in her parents’ pub from a young age. With a debut album just released and a spring tour lined up, Sheridan (Sun, ITV, 9pm) is a glamorous showcase of her musical talent backed by a live orchestra. There is some filmed chat with Alexander Armstrong interspersed between her cover versions and musical numbers, which doesn’t quite work as it’s fluffy, and her voice is enough to carry the show anyway.

Culture

Last July, the closing event of the Manchester International Festival was a film, broadcast live to a car park full of people, by Turner-nominated artist Phil Collins’ epic trek from Ukraine with a Soviet-era statue of philosopher and left-winger Friedrich Engels on a flatbed truck to Manchester, where it was installed outside the HOME arts centre. Ceremony: The Return of Friedrich Engels (Sun, BBC4, 9.40pm) is that film plus intercut clips of today’s Mancunians struggling with the same issues Engels identified in The Condition of the Working Class in England, which he wrote in the city. The footage of the statue’s journey is serene and a bit romantic, the other parts work less well. But as a slice of circular history and a dose of culture, it has its merits.

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The Russian revolution triggered an outpouring of creativity from the country’s artists, who saw the opportunity to change the world through art alongside the political upheavals. Margy Kinmoth’s sumptuous feature-length film, Revolution: New Art for a New World (Mon, BBC4, 9pm) explores the extraordinary output by the likes of Kandinsky, Chagall and others, who became the creative avant-garde of a modern and utopian style of painting that after just 15 years was crushed by Stalin. The story is told by contemporary artists and art experts, plus personal testimony from descendants, and draws heavily on collections in major Russian museums that Kinmoth was given wide access to. Many paintings are shown that haven’t been seen on display in decades or that rarely leave Russia – this is a true visual feast. 

Comedy

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Rupert Grint has certainly grown up since his days as a young wizard in the Harry Potter films. In Sick Note (Tues, Sky 1, 10pm) he stars as compulsive liar Daniel Glass, whose life unravels when he decides to milk a misdiagnosis of cancer. He’s trapped in a dud job selling insurance with a nightmare boss (played by Don Johnson) and his relationship is falling apart. When he’s told he has oesophageal cancer, people start being nice to him. But then his oncologist tells him they got it wrong and Daniel, enjoying his new life as a sick man, decides to keep schtum. The lie soon spirals out of control and Daniel becomes increasingly desperate. Blackly hilarious, with a sharp script by Nat Saunders and James Serafinowicz.

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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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