A Poet In New York
Sunday, 9pm, BBC Two
The opening of A Poet In New York more or less encapsulates the entire film. It is autumn 1953, and Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander), resembling a lump of clammy putty with human eyes, has just arrived in the city to begin his third and final American reading tour. Asthmatic, soused and ridden with gout, he has less than one month to live.
In his suitcase, he carries Under Milk Wood, still unfinished. In his dealings with the friends and lovers awaiting him, he seesaws between boastful displays, cruel condescension, resentful paranoia and sour, needy self-pity, whining like the baby he resembles. Finally, as he waits in the wings of a theatre before his first appearance, he stands bent over a bucket, vomiting helplessly from nerves, illness, alcohol and, possibly, sheer self-loathing.
Then, though, he steps to the microphone, wipes his mouth and begins to read Fern Hill, his poem of childhood lost and remembered - "Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs/About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…" And as the voice begins to lift and sing and the words to resound, you remember: this is why anybody ever cared about this terrible little guy. He was bloody beautiful.
Written by Andrew Davies, this sketch of Thomas's last days on Earth, leading up to those final 18 whiskies in The White Horse in Greenwich Village, deals in the standard, seductive fare of the doomed-artist TV biopic. Flashing back and forth between New York and earlier episodes, some good, most bad, at home with his volcanic wife Caitlin (Essie Davis), it offers scene after scene of the poet being lost and sometimes loathsome in his personal life - and, at times, warm and wonderful, as when he tells stories to his little daughter - and it worries at the doomy, romantic death-trip question of just where that poetry came from. Is self-dramatising self-destruction part and parcel of a certain kind of vision, as all moody 19-year-olds would love to believe?
Davies's script doesn't really arrive at an answer, of course, which is no flaw. But, while there are tough, hard, grubby things in the script and the performances (Essie Davis is a fury, even if she looks nothing whatsoever like Caitlin Thomas), the film is undermined by a rising mawkishness. The director, Aisling Walsh, handles it with a chocolate-box touch at times. Again, that opening sums it up. As Hollander begins - wonderfully - to recite Thomas's poem, a tasteful piano suddenly creeps onto the soundtrack, and we cut from his pallid face to a supposedly rapturous childhood vision of the boy running through the green, green grass of home.
Is the problem that the people who made the film don't realise the poem is its own music, its own vision? Or that they don't credit the audience with the ability to just sit, listen and feel?
Late on, there comes another scene of Hollander simply reading Thomas. This time, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. It is the raw soul of the film, and Hollander delivers it softly, but with anger, stubbornness and a giant, quiet rage. For the first lines, there is nothing but his voice and, for a moment, it seems the filmmakers will hold nerve and just let the words do their work. Then, though, the music is lathered over the top again, as a guide for our emotions. The poem is smothered. The light dies.
Monday, May 19
The Battle To Beat Polio
9pm, BBC Two
I can't believe I've managed to reach this stage without knowing that former BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders is the daughter of the late Michael Flanders, best known as half of Flanders And Swann, the comedy partnership that gave the world songs like The Hippopotamus (the one that goes, "Mud, mud, glorious mud..."). An athletic Oxford graduate, Michael Flanders joined the Royal Navy during the Second World War and survived a torpedo attack. But in 1943, while at sea, he contracted the polio that left him confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and ultimately contributed to his early death, aged just 53, in 1975, when Stephanie was six. There's an understandably personal vibe to this film, in which she looks back at the harrowing treatments her father and fellow sufferers underwent in the 1950s and 1960s, and explores the tangled, sometimes shameful story of the search for a vaccine: a tale of scientific ego and rivalry that possibly delayed a vaccine for years.
Tuesday, May 20
9pm, Sky Atlantic
Pretty Awful. A big-budget, pseudo-gothic black pudding, Sky's new series comes with a get-out-clause built into the title: hey, it's meant to be like that! Tarantino did the same with Pulp Fiction, but he pulled it off partly because he was steeped in genuine love for the stuff he was dealing in, and partly because he went at it with wit, vigour and style. By contrast, all Penny Dreadful does is remind you of the various second hand things it blatantly and clumsily rips off. Top of the list is Alan Moore's League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: set in "Victorian England" the series similarly puts a bunch of the era's sensational heroes and boogeymen together, including Frankenstein and his monster, Dorian Gray, some vampires, and a vaguely Allan Quartermainish adventurer (Timothy Dalton). Josh Hartnett and Eva Green co-star as, respectively, a wandering American gunslinger possibly made of gammon, and a pale, cursed vamp with Holmes-like people-reading skills, who whiles away her evenings weeping before a crucifix. The only way to play such nonsense is with a straight face, but Hollywood creators Sam Mendes and John Logan have mistaken that for being po-faced, draining any humour from proceedings. Abbot And Costello Meets Frankenstein treated the monster-mash-up genre far more sensibly.
Wednesday, May 21
From There to Here
9pm, BBC One
Philip Glenister takes time out from making shouty documentaries about cars to do a bit of acting again in this only slightly shouty three-part family drama from the pen of Peter Bowker, who did 2011's terrific Eric and Ernie biopic. Unfolding against a backdrop of Madchester tunes and Euro 96, Bowker brings a light, observant touch, but the story begins in near tragedy, with the IRA's 1996 bombing of Manchester city centre, which caused massive damage, but no fatalities. Glenister plays Daniel Cotton, a well-off, happily-married sort, who, while trying to smooth the waters in a row between his feckless brother (Stephen Mackintosh) and their irritable father (Bernard Hill) at a summit meeting in a pub, is caught in the blast. They all emerge unscathed, but something about the close brush with death leaves Daniel slightly altered and questioning his life - questions that come into focus when he meets the pub's cleaner, Joanne (Live on Mars's Liz White)
Thursday, May 22
In a change of scene from walking around muttering after Daenerys and her dragons in Game Of Thrones, the redoubtable Iain Glen returns to gritty Galway for another short series as the ex-Garda turned shabby private eye. Based on the series of books by Ken Bruen, Jack Taylor isn't something to set the world on fire, perhaps, and neither is it afraid of grizzled, hard-drinking, maverick gumshoe clichés. But these feature-length films pass the time painlessly enough of a Wednesday night thanks mainly to the ever-dependable Glen's highly watchable performance. In the first of three new outings, the newly sober Jack is called in to investigate the case of a young female student, who fell to her death from the roof of her university. With traces of drugs in her bloodstream, the police have closed the book on the case as a heroin-related suicide; but one of her tutors is not convinced.
Friday, May 23
Nat King Cole: Afraid Of The Dark
9pm, BBC Four
A fine profile, directed by Jon Brewer, who recently did the BB King documentary, The Life Of Riley. It's not perfect: there are too many segments devoted to interviewees simply saying what a lovely and an amazing person Cole was (mind you, it does seem to genuinely have been the case); and Brewer's decision to link sections with a faceless Cole stand-in is weird and clunky. But there's great stuff. Cole's brilliance as a pop singer, that effortless caress of velvet and smoke, has eclipsed his genius as a jazz pianist, a side that gets its due here. The real narrative, however, is the racism that Cole faced, at the same time as white America took his music to its schizophrenic heart. He was the first black artist to get his own TV show, but even while topping the bill in Las Vegas he was barred from staying in the hotels he was playing; meanwhile, neighbours targeted his house, burning racist messages into his front lawn. A fantastic cast of those-who-were-there, including Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Buddy Greco, Cole's widow and children, and his close friend, music publisher Ivan Mogull, tell the story. There's also a previously unheard Cole track, Magic Window. It's part of a short jazz season on BBC Four, continuing tomorrow with archive interviews (Saturday, 7pm) and performances from the great 1960s series, Jazz 625 (Saturday, 8pm).
Saturday, May 24
9pm, BBC Four
The second of the final six Wallanders. We pick up where we left off last week: following his suspension, Kurt is returning to duty in Ystad, trying to ignore or explain away his forgetfulness. There is the odd moment of staring off into the distance but, when a case presents itself, his mind snaps into focus. A ten-year-old girl has gone missing on her morning bicycle ride to school. Investigating, the team discover that her parents, in the midst of a messy divorce, both have secrets from each other. Meanwhile, Kurt is nagged by similarities with another case from a decade before, one that has haunted him ever since. But as the investigation proceeds, some of his decisions are odd and reckless. Off-duty, he draws closer to the new teacher at his granddaughter's nursery. Satisfying Saturday-night stuff; Krister Henriksson is simply great to watch.