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TV: Damien Love reveals the best of this week's TV

Damien Love gives his verdict on the week's TV Sunday June 1 - Saturday June 7.

Kevin Bridges appears in Channel 4's Comedy Gala on Thursday
Kevin Bridges appears in Channel 4's Comedy Gala on Thursday

Sunday, June 1

The Normal Heart

9pm, Sky Atlantic

Arriving in the UK one week after its American premiere, The Normal Heart is the latest product of the exclusive hook-up Sky Atlantic has going with HBO, and comes with all the stuff we expect: it looks good, it has ideas, and it boasts names we're more used to seeing on movie posters, in this case Mark Ruffalo and, in a small but pivotal role, Julia Roberts.

But this feature-length one-off is different from the biggest HBO hits. For one thing, for all the intelligence, subversion and surprise they can bring to bear, the most popular HBO imports have been genre pieces somewhere at heart, while The Normal Heart is a political, polemical work, angry and despairing around a serious subject: the dawn of the Aids crisis in New York in the early 1980s, and the denial and indifference with which it was met.

For another, the film - directed by Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck - is based on a play, written in 1985 by author and activist Larry Kramer. Murphy has "opened it up" for the screen - helicopter shots, crowd sequences, characters set against stretching landscapes - but he keeps a lot of the stage about it. It's filmed in a glossy but naturalistic way, yet retains the intensity, heat and abstraction of theatre, a near-artificial framing for some very real emotion. This mixture of lush "realism" in the filming with earnest ideology and theatrical staging produces a curious rub: ungainly and off-putting at first, it grows increasingly powerful, ultimately very affecting.

Kramer, who collaborated on this TV version, wrote the play from his own experiences, and puts a thinly veiled version of himself at the centre. Ruffalo, unafraid to be abrasive, plays this character, Ned Weeks, who we first encounter in 1981 at New York's famous gay beach, Fire Island, which Murphy stages as one vast, musclebound, Edenic disco orgy. Then, though, comes the fall, a small New York Times headline: "Rare Cancer Diagnosed In 41 Homosexuals". People begin dying.

Weeks is already an outsider on the gay scene for writing a novel lambasting the promiscuous, drug-fuelled, hedonistic lifestyle he'd encountered, but becomes more divisive when he tries to organise the community to respond to the rising, mysterious epidemic, by forming the Gay Men's Health Crisis group. Faced with apathy and worse by national government, city authorities and the medical establishment - with the exception of one doctor, herself a polio victim (tersely effective work by Roberts) - as friends die around them, Weeks favours loud, angry action. His GMHC colleagues, though, prefer an approach that is quieter, more low-key and which, as he sees it, stays in the closet. They fight each other as much as they fight together to raise awareness.

Meanwhile, Weeks struggles to talk to his squeamishly homophobic brother (a brief, lovely turn by Alfred Molina), and begins a relationship with a journalist, Felix (Matt Bomer), who begins showing signs of "gay cancer" himself.

Murphy's film does well by Kramer. Written in the moment, his play is a loud, finger-pointing, highly personal missive from the front line. It's valuable as a historical piece, a snapshot of panic, fear, shame, horror, hate and fury, but it's more than that. It's about Aids, but it's more about gay politics, and politics in general. Times have changed, maybe, but maybe not much. It arrives here as we finish preparing for the Commonwealth Games, and in 41 of the 53 Commonwealth countries, homosexuality remains illegal.

Monday, June 2

World Cup Brush Up With Danny Baker

9pm, BBC Four

It's a tough three-way tie over what to slump in front of at 9pm tonight. There's the first of a two-part history of Bannockburn on BBC Two, which includes mild scenes of Neil Oliver; and, over on STV, there's The Secret Life Of Cats, about, well, cats, filmed with mad cutting-edge camera techniques. However, in the spirit of having the World Cup rammed mercilessly down our throats for the next month, the only choice is Danny Baker's tongue in cheek, shamelessly flung together ramble through the archives. Picking out odd, ugly, banal and borderline surreal clips, the theme is not so much football, but the arcana that surrounds it, be it mascots, aggressive manager-speak, unsettling Kevin Keegan dolls, World Cup songs or the endless padding of TV presenters. There's the obligatory overload of England but Baker treats it sceptically, and makes room for some weird Scotland '78 business, too: "Scotland goes only to win. It's daft, and it's sad, and it's very, very beautiful..." Viewers of a nervous disposition please note: late on comes disturbing footage of naked 1970s footballers getting soaped up and massaged.

Tuesday, June 3

Amber

10pm, BBC Four

This four-part drama from Ireland has some loose crossover into Broadchurch territory: there's a mystery, a family tragedy and suspects lined up in a row. Set in modern-day Dublin, the story concerns the disappearance of 14-year-old Amber Bailey, charting how her grieving family cope with the trauma and the pressures they find themselves under as the case flares up in the media spotlight - and the different stresses that come when it begins to fade from the headlines again. Each episode unfolds from the perspective of a single character, beginning with Amber's stunned mother, Sarah (Eva Birthistle). It's low-budget, low-key, slow-burning and, while there's nothing groundbreaking, there's a quietly compelling performance by Birthistle. When it was broadcast in Ireland earlier this year, it attracted a bigger audience with every episode; although it's worth noting that a sizeable percentage of those viewers were left outraged by the way it all ends.

Wednesday, June 4

Brazil: In The Shadow Of The Stadiums

11.05pm, BBC One

As we enter the final week of the countdown to the World Cup kick off, this Panorama film offers a handy primer on the controversy that surrounds the event, and a wider reminder of how readily the host nations of all the big sporting circuses are to bulldozer over their own citizens in order to look good when they imagine "the eyes of the world" are upon them. It's a particularly extreme case in Brazil, though. "The Home Of Football" is a country where the gap between rich and poor is a yawning canyon, with a quarter of the population living in extreme poverty, and the build-up to World Cup 2014 has been marked by violent street protests against the costs of staging the tournament. Reporter Chris Rogers considers how multi-million-pound new stadiums have been erected alongside an epidemic of drug addiction, gang violence and child prostitution, with children as young as 12 selling their bodies for the price of a soft drink.

Thursday, June 5

Channel 4's Comedy Gala

9pm, Channel 4

It's the fifth year of Channel 4's comedy benefit night, filmed just a few weeks ago at London's 02 Arena. As ever, all the proceeds from the night go to the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital charity, and you can't say fairer than that. This year's line up includes Jo Brand, Jack Dee, Lee Evans, Kevin Bridges (pictured), James Corden, Alan Carr, Adam Hills, Aisling Bea, Jason Byrne, Jon Richardson, John Bishop, Josh Widdicombe, Kerry Godliman, Michael McIntyre, Paddy McGuinness, Paul Chowdhry, Sean Lock, Seann Walsh, Warwick Davis and others. There's a new series of Big Brother starting over on Five at the same time tonight. Not entirely sure where the proceeds from that go.

Friday, June 6

You've Got A Friend: The Carole King Story

9pm, BBC Four

Thanks to the world-shaking triumph of her second solo album, 1971's Tapestry, that staggering collection of classics - I Feel The Earth Move, You've Got A Friend, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, It's Too Late, to name but four - Carole King is most associated with an earthy, very Californian singer-songwriter sound. But the Brooklyn-born King had already earned her place among the immortals writing 1960s pop hits like The Loco-Motion, Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Up On The Roof, alongside then-husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin. Packed with evocative footage, this short but tidy profile gives due respect both to the Goffin And King days and the great success King found on her own, after divorce, when she moved west and started writing her own lyrics. It also charts her increasing work as an environmental activist, and includes scenes from Beautiful, the new Broadway musical about her life.

Saturday, June 7

Wallander

9pm, BBC Four

It's Wallander, and so you know that if there's a scene featuring a bunch of happy little schoolkids and their teacher running excited and giggling through a sunny field on a day out, a gruesome discovery is about to be made. So it goes tonight, as the dismembered remains of a young woman are found, and Kurt finds himself leading yet another grim murder hunt. Meanwhile, away from the case of the week, he has his own dismaying mystery to grapple with. Following last week's poignant closing scene, as we discovered the secret memory board he has been keeping hidden away in his closet, Kurt has admitted his troubles to himself, and is now attending the local health clinic for more stringent memory tests, anxiously awaiting the result. Beautifully played by Krister Henriksson, as ever.

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