The Undeclared War (Channel 4) | All 4
Aids: The Unheard Tapes (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Sherwood (BBC One) | iPlayer
Only Murders in the Building (Disney +)
Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area (Netflix)
You fancy yourself as a diehard cynic, schooled in the bleakness of the world, then you watch something like Peter Kosminsky’s The Undeclared War (Channel 4) and realize you’re a Pollyanna, skipping, pigtails flying, through the buttercups of life.
Creator / director Kosminsky (The Government InspectorWolf Hall) has done something masterly here: he’s taken a cold, hard subject – geopolitical cyberterrorism – and, within six episodes (all on All 4), made it accessible, gripping, frightening. He also manages to make coding – brainiacs tapping away on computer keyboards – dramatically viable. As TUW opens, Saara (Hannah Khalique-Brown) is taking a computer test, but it’s depicted as though she is a video game avatar, a gadget-wielding Lara Croft, later viewed throwing balls against walls in frustration at being assigned grunt work. What sounds like talking down to viewers (Cyber-attacks for Dummies?) Actually engages us, using a mashup of technology and character to do it.
The show is set in 2024, when Adrian Lester’s character has become prime minister by ousting Boris Johnson (I guess every dystopian cloud has a silver lining). Just as Saara turns up for a gap-year work placement at GCHQ – here, depicted as a dark, windowless nerd bunker run by Danny (Simon Pegg) and David (Alex Jennings) – an internet outage disrupts British life. Tiptoeing gingerly through spoilers, it’s the start of a story that encompasses everything from Russian interference, snarling Cobra meetings and internecine grandstanding to troll farms, deepfake news and state-of-the-nation escalations.
Khalique-Brown is intriguing as a young woman closed up like a psycho-emotional pistachio; Mark Rylance is moving and unknowable as an old-school adviser; and German Segal’s disaffected tech ace humanises the Russian story arc. Helpful avatars aside, all the talk of data dumps and “malware strings” still occasionally makes my gray matter feel like a dropped Pot Noodle. Still, there’s much to relish: the crisp script, the ambition of the storytelling; that sense of lethal war games just a mouse click away.
Initially, the premise of Mark Henderson’s three-part BBC Two documentary Aids: The Unheard Tapes rings ghoulish, gimmicky alarm bells – involving, as it does, actors lip-syncing to never-heard-before British Library audiotapes of HIV-Aids sufferers made during the 1980s and 90s. But I couldn’t have been more wrong: the approach works beautifully.
Like Sky’s Positive last year, this docuseries moves doggedly along the HIV / Aids timeline: from early stigmatising as the “gay plague”, devastation, tabloid sensationalism and “don’t die of ignorance” tombstone adverts (imagine the uproar if that fear-mongering Halloween approach were used for Covid?), through to resolute activism, false dawns and slowly, eventually, scientific breakthroughs.
Alongside survivors and witnesses, the actors lend faces and humanity to “Pete”, “John” and others at the sharp end of the epidemic, breathing fresh perspective into the four-decades-old hellscape. There is even humor: an extremely spicy story about a champagne bottle could yet provoke some pearl-clutching in the shires. This is documentary-making from the heart, featuring remarkable, realistic performances and lip-syncing akin to invisible stitching: you almost forget it is happening.
Over to BBC One for the concluding episodes of Sherwood, writer James Graham’s true crime-inspired Nottinghamshire saga of old / new bad blood. Despite too much miners’ strike backstory clogging up the later episodes, it remains bleakly stirring to the end. A violent death is made all the more harrowing because it is poetically understated; a community grapples with all that has been; the identity of undercover cop “Keats” is disclosed. (On this point, I must implore good, honest Observer readers not to disgrace themselves by pretending they knew who it was all along.)
In the event, known crossbow maniac Scott (Adam Hugill in a performance as strong as James Norton’s in Happy Valley) turns out to be just another shabby glory hunter. With acting laurels all round, particularly for Adeel Akhtar, Lesley Manville and Lorraine Ashbourne, Sherwood has proved to be a thrilling, twisting ride: haunting, merciless, confident.
Disney + sees the second 10-part series of Only Murders in the Building, the hit show about intrepid true crime podcasters in a New York apartment building. It stars comedy great Steve Martin (also co-creator with John Hoffman), Martin Short and Selena Gomez as the misfit podcasters.
The last series saw them solving the first murder but then discovering a new one, in which they are all now implicated. Go elsewhere for gritty realism: the six new episodes I viewed make Midsomer Murders look like Serpico: a camp riot of suspects, rivalries, bloodied knives and erotic paintings. It’s also festooned with guest stars: last time, Sting (yes, that Sting, playing himself); this time, Amy Schumer. Elsewhere, there’s Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Cara Delevingne and even (drum roll) Shirley MacLaine.
Who is OMITB aimed at? Certainly, it feeds a rising appetite for prestige elder dramedy: see also shows such as Grace and Frankie and The Kominsky Method, both from Netflix. It could be viewed as a gently post-ironic whodunnit – Murder, She Texted – or a generation gap Scooby-Doo, with Martin and Short as two septuagenarian Shaggys and Gomez as the younger, sardonic Thelma. There’s the odd heavy-handed clunk and comic lull, but generally it’s clever, witty (“I love that you have the same weekend attire as Norm from Cheers”) And just the right amount of silly. Enjoy.
The huge success of Álex Pina’s Spanish drama Money Heistplus, one imagines, Squid Gamehas led to this show, also on Netflix: Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Areaa remake with significant twists, directed by Kim Hong-sun.
I found the original Money Heist intermittently entertaining and frazzling, and approached this reboot armed with soft pillows and soluble ibuprofen. However, halfway through the first six-episode drop, I’m enjoying it more than the original. There’s a large element of overlap (this time, a gang exploiting a futuristic Korean unification, attempting to steal zillions from a mint), but also key differences, most notably a narrative driven by North-South prejudice.
The dubbing ruins everything (see also: the recently returned Borgen – why, Netflix dubbing god, why?), But so far, the performances are solid, the tension is palpable, and a sense of post-truth allegory is coming through loud and clear.
Star ratings (out of five)
The Undeclared War ★★★★
Aids: The Unheard Tapes ★★★★
Only Murders in the Building ★★★
Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area ★★★
What else I’m watching
Sky Documentaries / Now TV
A documentary focusing on the increase in reporters killed worldwide, from Ronan Farrow’s production company, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. Developed before the recent terrible murders in Brazil of Guardian journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, it is grimly timely nonetheless.
My Life As a Rolling Stone
It’s only rock’n’roll and you will like it. A profile of Mick Jagger kicks off this four-part docuseries on the Stones. There’s added pathos after the loss of drummer Charlie Watts last year.
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
The groundbreaking 1990 dramatisation of Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical debut novel, about same-sex first love. Starring Geraldine McEwan and Charlotte Coleman, with a screenplay by Winterson and directed by Beeban Kidron, it’s a small-screen masterpiece.