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Tuesday 16 January 2018

A real TV Page-turner

page eight (bbc2, sun) doctor who (bbc1, sat)

PAGE Eight is far from the best thing David Hare, making a welcome return to television after 20 years, has ever done. As a spy thriller, the first half lacked tension and pace.

But any deficiencies were more than made up for by Bill Nighy, pure class as Johnny Worricker, a world-weary MI5 intelligence analyst of the old school with a taste for jazz, art collecting, fine whisky and fine women -- including his gorgeous next-door neighbour Nancy (Rachel Weisz), a publisher, born in Damascus, whose activist brother was murdered by the Israelis and who wants Johnny to uncover the cover-up.

Johnny is a man out of his time: a suave but ravaged idealist who still believes in "doing a dishonourable job with honour". But everyone from his younger, politically motivated MI5 colleagues to his daughter, a surly painter who creates dark pictures filled with despair and has become pregnant by a conceptual artist ("So conceptual artists have a purpose after all," drawls Johnny), keeps telling him to "wake up, it's the 21st century".

The only person in Johnny's corner is his boss and lifelong best friend, Benedict Baron (Michael Gambon), who married Johnny's most recent ex-wife.

Baron gives Johnny a report from an unknown source, revealing the Americans have been holding and torturing suspected terrorists in "black" detention centres (ie, they don't officially exist), without telling MI5 what they're up to.

The Prime Minister, played by Ralph Fiennes channelling the smarmy spirit of Tony Blair, is effectively running his own private intelligence operation with the Americans, although he hasn't bothered sharing the information with his ambitious Home Secretary (Saskia Reeves).

When Baron drops dead of a heart attack and the Home Secretary is bought off with a promotion to Deputy PM, Johnny is squeezed from all sides. He sets out to save his own skin, while at the same time making the story of the murder of Nancy's brother public.

The plot of Page Eight often felt like second-hand John le Carre and Hare succumbed to the familiar cliche of giving his haggard hero a love interest at least 20 years his junior. But this was the kind of drama you watched less for the originality of the story than for the pleasure of seeing a marvellous actor matched up with the perfect role.

Nighy, one of Page Eight's co-producers, has said the idea is there will be two more Johnny Worricker dramas. Bring them on.

So you've decided to include Adolf Hitler as a character in an episode of your sci-fi series. Now what do you do with him? The possibilities are endless. But if the sci-fi series in question happens to be Doctor Who, you treat the whole thing as a big, diversionary joke.

You lock Hitler in a cupboard after five minutes and forget all about him for the next 45, concentrating instead on a load of noisy, hyperactive, impenetrably self-indulgent nonsense involving the regeneration of River Song (Alex Kingston), Matt Smith's Doctor -- at one point dressed like Fred Astaire -- "dying" (again) and being brought back to life (again), and a robot version of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), piloted by tiny aliens reminiscent of the Numskulls in the Beano comic.

I admit that I more or less lost patience with Doctor Who midway through the first slab of this fifth series, which resumed on Saturday after a self-imposed summer break. But there was a time when you could miss a few episodes yet still keep track of what was going on.

There was also a time, not that long ago, when you feel the series would have done something far more interesting and inventive with a real-life figure like Hitler.

Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who's showrunner, to use an American TV term, seems more keen on pleasing the fanboy contingent, of which he's clearly an enthusiastic member, than the general viewer.

Frankly, Who cares any more?



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