The week in TV: Bloodlands; Unforgotten; Blitz Spirit With Lucy Worsley; Grayson's Art Club

Euan Ferguson
·6 min read

Bloodlands (BBC One) | iPlayer
Unforgotten (ITV) | ITV Hub
Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley (BBC One) | iPlayer
Grayson’s Art Club (Channel 4) | All 4

Is it possible for anyone outside the confines of Northern Ireland, outside all those gaunt, dripping branches and rolling green hummocks, to cram so many vowel sounds into a single-syllable word, eg the word “now”? As in “Leave, now! Naouiheaiuughea, I tell ye!” We were reintroduced to that grand Belfast accent courtesy of BBC One’s nicely wriggly four-parter Bloodlands, and I feel I can still hear the chill tattoo of hard rain on tin roofs.

There will be blood, and doubtless oilskin-wrapped old revolvers rattling inside still-crumbed cake tins

This is writer Chris Brandon’s first big foray into TV, and he must be counting some lucky stars: he has been granted the imprimatur of the sainted Jed Mercurio, and also of stars James Nesbitt, who can do lugubrious, enigmatic cop better than most, and Lorcan Cranitch, hurrah, who, as we know from Cracker, does angry, borderline-corrupt cop better than anyone. Refreshingly welcome chromosomes arrive with DS Niamh McGovern (Charlene McKenna), whose arid humour is an antidote to all those dripping branches and sodden lichen.

There will be blood, and doubtless oilskin-wrapped old revolvers rattling inside still-crumbed cake tins, and welters of recrimination. And surely Nesbitt looking silently triple-tortured, possibly at the plot’s frankly unlikely demands for him to lead an investigation into the deaths of four people, including his wife, in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement. Other than that, it’s a more-than-coherent plot, and absurdly well made. It is perforce aimed at a mainly mainland-UK audience, and as such runs the risk of telling, again, what we think we know about Northern Ireland, ie, the Troubles, rather than what that part of the world, post-peace, might truly have managed to achieve in the interim. Also, there has been talk of this as existing in the vanguard of a new wave of “Irish noir”; if that wave consists purely of books and series about old enmities, the cod-romance of murderous days, I may grow a tad weary.

Reunited in the loveliest investigative pairing on television were Nicola Walker and Sanjeev as Bhaskar Cassie and Sunny, in Unforgotten, which I’d forgotten how much I missed. Chris Lang’s ITV drama excels in exploring the bizarre spreads of lives in the 20, 30 years since the events of the cold case that is being investigated, and in giving breath to those lives, offering them real dimensions and emotions, and ever so masterfully pulling on a yarn that will knit all back together. Sunny and Cassie excel in unshowy, ungimmicky, empathic policing, still welcome in its rarity.

Similarly this fourth (six-part) series gives us snatches of Rochester, Cambridge, Buxton, Haringey, and the lives, and questions, about to be unveiled, such as: is Sheila Hancock really the bedridden snob-monster she appears, or does she know something about her uptight daughter and is attempting, in her singular way, to protect her? Hancock, incidentally, is sublime: a single, twitched shot of curled, curdled disdain speaks many lines.

Along the way we’ve already had a couple of little eye-openers, not least the fact that someone might so openly play the race card to avoid “handsy” allegations, and how fast-onset dementia can change someone’s character so entirely that Cassie’s dad, Martin (Peter Egan), is scornful of his daughter having to go so mimsily “sick”. She had just solved (last series) an appallingly traumatic series of teen rapes and murders, walking away down that slope with a: “No more. No more.” It might be a “police” show, but in its hinterlands, its human understandings, it is as blisteringly good television as you’re likely to get. And both this and the previous are not binge-streaming but dropping week by week, which gives hope for a tiny return to “destination telly”.

I reckon we’re lucky to have Lucy Worsley so thoroughly available, even given the preponderance of the historian to don Tudor frocks at the drop of a bobbin. In cream gloves and fetching tweed jacket, the hairclipped one took us, valuably, through some second world war propagandising in Blitz Spirit With Lucy Worsley.

Given that it can be argued that it represents, for some, Britain’s creation myth, this was a useful corollary. The one remaining “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster was found in a bookshop in 2000, most having been – despite all the later memes and merchandising – pulped en masse early in the war, having been deemed patronising, even risking class riots, when the East End and its docks were cowering in their tens of thousands in foul, shitty, broken shelters while Mayfair and Whitehall sailed gaily on. The “cheery milkman” striding through torn streets was posed by the photographer’s assistant; Herbert Mason’s celebrated St Paul’s photo cropped, on orders, to exclude carnage.

Yet Worsley’s conclusion was, I thought, a tad woolly. She seemed convinced that there had been, indeed, eventually, a spirit of togetherness, of helping, in parts of London, especially after the firebombs started (Göring planned these for times of low tide in the Thames, to make water harder for firehoses to reach), yet couldn’t quite decide whether the disinformation campaign, the deliberate withholding of bombing news from the rest of Britain, the open censorship, had helped or hindered in the winning of a war.

Was the furtherance of a “blitz spirit”, no matter how much it might have affected later, susceptible generations, including soft-brained politicians, justified or insidious? And that Ministry of Information, Senate House in Bloomsbury, which so affected Orwell, still stands. The information has been outsourced to social media, but the building remains in stone. Waiting.

Grayson’s Art Club, which gained so many fans in the last lockdown, returned for a new series with a few new personal stories and some great art. The sharpness of Grayson Perry always, with his giddy honesty, is to pick an honest mix of the talented and the vulnerable. Inviting them to chat to him, online, he surely gives a half-face to the dispossessed.

I’m not utterly convinced. Everyone, surely, is a creative person. Bank robbers are creative people. Technocrat bores are creative people. Dictatorial tosspots are, in their very management of an entire country, creative people. But I yield to Mr P in his honest goodwill – I also loved Allegra Gordon’s piece reminiscent of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, the fabulous best of the judged bunch – and in his embracing of the sweet tears of the artists. There’s little rigorous art criticism though: some things were daubs by 34-year-olds which a three-year-old would have scorned.