In The Dark

9pm, BBC One

THE four-part In The Dark comes loosely adapted from crime novels by Mark Billingham, which have then been very, very rigorously made over until the resulting series conforms to the clichés of nearly every post-The Killing cop serial made in the past six years. You can count them off: a troubled female maverick detective; with messy personal relationships; and some wound in her past; who intuitively knows that all the peacocking male cops are getting it wrong; but nobody listens; so she has to cross the line; getting too involved in a case involving missing young girls, sex and murder; in a close-knit community; with deep dark woods; and lots of rain. Bingo!

The show is so strenuously generic in its constituent elements, in fact, that it speaks doubly highly of the cast and crew that the first episode is also really easy to watch, with a storyline that pulls you satisfyingly along, interesting details in performance, and a potent sense of place.

Given that most of the cliché gets piled onto her shoulders, Ripper Street’s MyAnna Buring is especially good in the lead as Manchester DI Helen Weeks. As we first meet her, she has recently discovered she’s pregnant, but doesn’t seem as happy about it as her fellow-cop partner Paul (Ben Batt), for reasons you might guess before he does.

Her attention is snared by nightly news reports coming from the small town in the Derbyshire countryside where she grew up, a place she got away from as soon as she could. Two local girls have gone missing. As the case proceeds, and a body is discovered, a surprising connection emerges: a suspect is arrested, and it turns out he’s married to Linda (Emma Fryer), who was Helen’s closest friend back there when they were girls, but whom she hasn’t been in touch with for 20 years. And so, with Paul in tow, Helen resolves to help her, go back to the rural hometown she hates, and face old ghosts.

While it seems implausible that a detective who is pals with a suspect would be allowed to just show up and sit in on a murder case, the claustrophobic going-home stuff is nicely handled. Writer Danny Brocklehurst litters the script with little observations, kinks and bits of business, and gets a great Mystery Machine Gang vibe going when the outsiders Helen and Paul are subsequently joined in their rogue investigation by another big city colleague, Phil, a louche gay pathologist, played with great relish by Matt King.

Laying out clues and red herrings while laying on the village atmosphere as the rains turn to flood, this opening leaves you keen to settle into part two. Sadly, though, the second episode squanders much of the good work, due to a misjudged decision about the shape of the series as a whole. Rather than tease the one mystery out over four hours, the missing girls' story is wrapped up in episode two, with parts three and four suddenly finding Helen involved in another story entirely, months later, back in Manchester.

The idea is to follow Helen as her Fargo-esque pregnancy develops, of course, but this has disastrous effects on the pacing of the opening story – the uncovering of the villain is just comically abrupt, and the revelation of Helen’s deep dark wound comes in a quick, shouted bit of exposition. There are still reasons for watching. But it’s disappointing to see a series that looks much better than it sounds suddenly turn out to be not as good as it should have been.


Epidemic: When Britain Fought Aids

10pm, Channel 4

JULIE Walters narrates this documentary, which looks back to some of the darkest days of the 1980s to offer a succinct account of the impact Aids had on British society, how the UK came to battle the disease, and how the influence of that fight can still be seen today. The story of the times is told in the personal testimony of people who lived through it, including the likes of Paul O'Grady and Jean Paul Gaultier, who first began to notice the spread of the illness when familiar faces began to disappear from the clubs. Activists, doctors and medical experts relate how the Tory government of the period was eventually persuaded to join the fight and raise awareness – the era of the controversial but genuinely unforgettable, John Hurt-narrated “tombstone” advert, and the public health campaign that saw the “Don’t Die Of Ignorance” leaflets that were delivered to every home.


Storyville: This Was My Dad: The Rise And Fall Of Geoffrey Matthews

10pm, BBC Four

DOCUMENTARY maker Morgan Matthews has spent his career recording and exploring other people's stories, but for this at times unsettlingly intimate film he turns his camera on his own family. Filmed over 10 years, his subject is his father Geoffrey and, by extension, himself. As filming began, in 2005, the pair were estranged – indeed, as Matthews points out, Geoffrey was barely in touch with any of his six children. The project started as a way of re-establishing and maintaining contact, with the camera between them as a kind of buffer. A former high-flyer, by this point Geoffrey and his fortune-teller wife Anna had fallen on harder, boozy times and were being forced to sell their house. Recording the stresses, strains and awkward, everyday humour of the situation, Matthews was unaware he was also beginning to film the last 10 years of his father’s life. As Matthews records his decline, simultaneously up close and distanced, the film poses ethical questions about the nature of documentary, but it is painful, personal and warm in very recognisable ways.


Pharmacy Road

10pm, Sky Atlantic

THE craze for revisiting the 1980s continues with this enthusiastically dumb sports mockumentary from HBO, looking back on the infamous 1982 “cycling event of the year” (read Tour De France) when, as we now know, “nearly every rider was on drugs”. Basically, the entire plot is watching a bunch of bad-boy cyclists on drugs, on bikes, fighting and crashing, while wearing amusing 1980s Lycra and wigs. But, although the whole thing is pretty pleased with itself, it’s fast-paced, bright and stupid enough to just about get away with it. The main brain behind the spoof is producer-star Andy Samberg, who’s best known here for Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but has a track record in making daft Airplane!/ Spinal Tap-style spoof documentaries like this, most recently 2015’s tennis parody 7 Days In Hell. An all-star cast assembles to play the cyclists in 1982 and their older versions today, an eye-catching line-up including Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Julia Ormond, Dolph Lundgren, John Cena, Kevin Bacon, Orlando Bloom, Mike Tyson and, in a creepy guest turn, Lance Armstrong.


Horizon: Dippy And The Whale

9pm, BBC Two

THE Lord Thy God David Attenborough narrates this film on the mammoth project recently under way at the National History Museum to take down the famous diplodocus skeleton (“Dippy” to the staff) that hangs in the entrance hall, and replace it with an equally impressive blue whale skeleton. As the whale waits to be assembled, Dippy is being taken apart bone by bone to tour the UK, but moving the biggest skeletons on the planet is no mean task, especially when the teams of conservators and engineers are trying to doing it while keeping the museum open the public. As the long task unfolds, we learn more about the whale, which was discovered beached in Ireland in 1881. Her presence represents a new focus for the museum. The largest animal ever to have lived, blue whales were driven to the brink of extinction by hunting, and were the first species humans decided to save. She signifies the museum looking to the future, underlining the message of saving the species we still have on earth today.


Friends From College


THIS so-so new comedy drama follows struggling writer Ethan and lawyer Lisa (Keegan-Michael Key and Cobie Smulders) as they leave Chicago and return to New York, where they first met in college. There, they reunite with old pals and, as the gang gets back together and they try to party like it’s still 1997, unfulfilled old dreams, lingering grievances and unresolved baggage start spilling out – especially because Ethan has been having a long affair with one of their circle, fashion designer Sam (Annie Parisse), which grows increasingly complicated now they’re both in the same city. For some British Netflixers of a certain age, the biggest draw will be the presence among the cast of Fred “The Wonder Years” Savage, who plays Ethan’s gay literary agent buddy, Max. He’s pretty great and, although barely used, grabs the best moment (involving cocaine and tap-dancing). But while there are some funny scenes, how much you invest in the underwhelming drama will depend on how much you want to hang out with these characters, who won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.


I Know Who You Are

9pm, BBC Four

New Saturday Night Euro Thriller Alert! In this long (16-episodes), twisty mystery from Spanish TV, the set up is the stuff of many a noir: a man staggers along a lost highway, banged up by a bad accident, with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Our bewildered protagonist soon learns he’s Juan Elias (Francesc Garrido), a successful lawyer and university lecturer in his mid-50s, married to a judge, Alicia (Blanca Portillo), and the father of two children. Question is: is he also a killer? Because when police locate his wrecked car, they find clues his young niece was in the vehicle with him – she has been missing since the night of the accident, and the evidence suggests Juan killed her. It’s not a top-drawer cult, but this opening double bill is satisfying enough, and the Barcelona setting is very easy to sink into. It also scores major good-taste points by featuring a poster for Vic Godard’s Subway Sect in the missing girl’s bedroom.


There was encouraging news this week with the announcement that the BBC is to make its “biggest investment in children’s content in a generation,” increasing its children’s budget to an extent that will see an extra £34 million ploughed into homegrown production across the next three years.

It’s about time. Over the past two decades, spending on kid’s TV by the UK’s public service broadcasters has dropped through the floor, and children’s TV viewing figures have similarly plummeted. Not simply as a result of the inevitable decline in quantity and quality, but also, of course, because of the emergence of new tech, as the audience turns to shinier online distractions. The irony is, some of the stuff they’re doing online is watching what we used to call TV, as, spotting a market, new producers like Netflix and Amazon have poured resources into making original children’s shows of their own.

The BBC’s pledge, which reflects changing tastes through greater concentration on online and interactive content – “programme extensions, clips, blogs, vlogs, podcasts, guides, games and apps” – is a direct response to the new tech rivals, and the entwined wave of cultural imperialism fed by social media. “Investment in British content, particularly for the young, is vital,” a BBC source commented. “Unless we want more of our culture shaped and defined by the rise of west coast American companies.”

As welcome as this is, though, it is to be hoped that, as part of this new drive, the BBC also takes another look at the kind of programmes it makes, and how it makes them. When it comes to the youngest audiences, up to around six, the CBeebies channel has consistently produced wonderful stuff. But, while there are noble exceptions, fiction for older children has largely seemed a woeful afterthought: far too many lacklustre identikit schoolroom sitcoms, and dramas that have been insipid, derivative, and instantly forgettable.

Compare this with the great strain of British children’s TV that blossomed across the late-1960s and 1970s, from Grange Hill to, especially, those weirded-out dramas that their original audiences still can’t forget: stuff like Children Of The Stones, The Owl Service, The Changes – strange, sometimes unsettling, but never patronising series that seemed to grow out of the British landscape like mushrooms, and smuggled social concerns among all the stark, spooky strangeness.

One reason “they don’t make them like that anymore” is precisely because they don’t make them like that anymore. Back then, British children’s TV drama, like most British TV drama, was led by strong individual producers, who sheltered creators and gave them space, encouragement and freedom. Today, by contrast, scripts are nervously made to conform to so many pre-ordained checks and balances, then suffer so much focus-grouped micro-management by meddling executives, that most rough edges, life, ambition and individuality is surgically removed. Those old shows attempted something unimaginable today: they tried to disturb children, in order to make them think. These days, kid’s TV often seems preoccupied with encouraging children to consume. That’s really disturbing.