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Tuesday 29 July 2014

TV Review: We're in heaven with Utopia

Utopia (Channel 4) Yes Prime Minister (Gold) --- What everyone who saw Utopia, Channel 4's superb new six-part thriller, is going to be talking about today is the torture scene. It was horrible, harrowing and excruciating to watch.

Without giving too much away, let's just say it involved chillies, sand, bleach, a spoon and someone's eyes (although you can probably fill in the blanks already). Some years ago I suffered a rather nasty corneal abrasion which still causes me a little discomfort now and again, which meant I spent the whole thing curled up and squirming in my armchair, watching through my fingers.

But to focus on this scene alone -- which is doubtless what the hysterical scaremongers who equate violence in the real world with violence on TV and in the movies will do -- would be unfair, because Utopia, written by David Kelly and directed with striking, widescreen cinematic dazzle by Marc Munden, is so much more than the sum of its parts.

The man being tortured is the delightfully named Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar), a comic book fan and cheerful conspiracy theorist who believes every conspiracy under the sun. "I don't drink tea, caffeine was invented by the CIA," he tells a police officer at one point.

Wilson is obsessed with a graphic novel called The Utopia Projects, written in the 1980s by a delusional depressive, which supposedly foretells the world's major catastrophes.

So is Ian (Misfits' Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), a bored IT consultant who still lives with his mother, and Becky (Alexandra), a graduate student with a tongue like sandpaper, who's convinced that the wasting disease which killed her father was man-made and that the truth was obliquely revealed in the graphic novel.

When a fellow geek called Bejan announces on an internet chat forum that he possesses an original manuscript of the fabled second volume of The Utopia Projects, which was never published, the rest agree to meet up with him in a pub.

Bejan never makes it, because there are others after the manuscript: Arby (Neil Maskell), who exudes a Zen-like calm while murdering people in a variety of horrible ways, and his bequiffed, besuited sidekick Lee (Paul Ready), the one with the inventive approach to torture. They're employed by a shady organisation called the Network, which seems to have tentacles that reach right to the highest levels.

Arby repeatedly asks his soon-to-be-victims the same mysterious question, "Where is Jessica Hyde?" -- which I can already see becoming a T-shirt slogan. I predict that, in the annals of geekdom, Arby and Lee are destined to become cult figures.

Soon our unlikely heroes are running for their lives. So -- though the other three don't know about him yet -- is a precocious 11-year-old tearaway called Grant (Oliver Woolford), who's been going on the internet and posing as an obnoxiously rich, Porsche-driving, model-shagging financial advisor and has also attracted the killers' attention.

Running parallel to this is a linked story involving nervy, compromised civil servant called Dugdale (Paul Higgins), who's been blackmailed into pushing through a suspicious contract to buy a Russian flu vaccine. How all this clicks we don't yet know.

But I'm definitely going along to find out.

Everything about the revived Yes, Prime Minister feels just a tiny bit off. The music is the same as before. The writers, Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay, are the same as before. What's missing, of course, are the original stars, Paul Eddington as PM Jim Hacker, Nigel Hawthorne as Sir Humphrey and Derek Fowlds as Bernard (the first two actors, alas, are no longer with us).

Henry Goodman does reasonably well as Humphrey, capturing some of Hawthorne's vocal nuances yet giving us his own interpretation, while Chris Larkin is a cheerily pedantic Bernard. The weak spot is David Haig, a fine actor but not in this. He's too abrasive to be Hacker.



Utopia 5/5

Yes Prime Minister 2/5

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