Exile – E1 and Vera – S1/E1

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What’s with the TV networks at the moment? Just as the summer’s on the horizon and the evenings are lighter, suddenly they’re digging out a load of drama goodies from their storeroom and flooding the schedules with new, original productions left, right and centre – after the drought of winter packed with unending reality shows and unedifying talent competitions.

So last night, we had the BBC’s Exile head to head with ITV’s big new crime detective hope Vera from the “Vera Stanhope” series of novels of Ann Cleeves. Interestingly, both had very Northern tones to them: Vera is set in Tyneside while Exile is based in Lancashire.

Exile is about Tom, a seemingly successful journalist in London, whose life and career suddenly implode for unspecified reasons (although sleeping with the boss’s wife probably didn’t help matters) forcing him to return home to his father and sister’s house in small-town Lancashire. His father is suffering from fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, immediately making you suspect this is going to be one of those worthy, emotionally-wrought issue dramas and as a result the type of show that I would normally pass.

What makes the difference here is the pedigree of the show: as Tom, John Simm is one of Britain’s best actors of his generation, while Jim Broadbent is similarly one of the greatest actors of his time, too. They’re backed by a lovely performance from Olivia Colman as Tom’s sister, and the whole story is the idea of Paul Abbott, best known now for Shameless but who also created one of my all time thriller/conspiracy mini-series, State of Play – which stared John Simm as a journalist, coincidentally.

Simm’s character here is far less heroic – in fact he’s as screwed up and self destructive as any one man could be, giving Simm a lot to work with here and he doesn’t let us down. Broadbent gets less to do by virtue of his character’s condition but then inevitably proceeds to steal any scene he’s in. It’s almost enough to pull you in, even if it were just a family drama about the effects of that horrible degenerative disease, or a story about returning to one’s childhood home and discovering all too well that “you can’t go home again” and that the past is another, very different country – moments almost everyone has been through at some point in their lives and for whom this drama will hence ring very true indeed.

But the extra dimension here is that Tom’s father was a journalist too, and seems to have been hiding a secret from the 80s that is now lost in the collapsing ruins of his failing memory. What is that secret, and what damage has it done to father and son over the intervening decades? It’s an intriguing enough premise to make the whole production spring off the screen in an unexpected way, and suggests that this might be one of the drama series of the year.

Part 2 is tonight and part 3 Tuesday at 9pm. Part 1 is still on iPlayer, of course.

As for Vera – I didn’t watch it last night as it really simply didn’t appeal to me. I might try it on catch-up video on-demand, but I’m not sure if I have the patience left for another police procedural right now – maybe that’s what makes Exile feel so refreshingly different at the moment. Most of all, though, from the brief sequences I saw, I just didn’t fundamentally believe in the central character: much though I like Brenda Blethyn as an actress, she just seems very odd for the role of a Detective Chief Inspector (not least the fact that at the outset of the series, she’s already five years older than mandatory police retirement age). Then again I’m sure Colombo was no more realistic or believable as an LAPD lieutenant, and that didn’t seem to hold him back too much over the years.

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