Thursday

Britannia

9pm Sky Atlantic

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Blue Monday’s here again, but whether this week really will be the most depressing of the year remains to be seen. There’s a new series of Luther coming at some point in the future, for one thing, and so there is every reason not to be hopeful.

All the same, it’s a bit glum out here, and so it is that Britain’s broadcasters traditionally seek to lift the mood at this time of year, by battering us with enormous, steaming piles of complete and utter bloody baloney. Stuff so jaw-droppingly stupid that, no matter how crap you feel, the only possible response is to burst out laughing. That, or turn it off.

The BBC were out the gate early this year, with Hard Sun, the latest from one of the current masters of humourless dumb-dumb, Luther’s Neil Cross. Now, Sky tosses its mighty helmet into the ring with Britannia, a series that operates on a whole other scale of thundering stoopidimus, and, because of that, is far more entertaining. To be clear: Britannia is very stupid indeed. But it spreads its stupidity about with swagger.

Written by brothers Jez and Tom Butterworth, the series is set circa AD 43, nine decades after Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain, took one look, and then left. Now, despite the fearful rumours that shroud our strange and misty islands – talk of monstrous creatures, satanic armies, witchy doings, and weird druid dudes – an obsessed Roman General, Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey), is leading a bloodthirsty new mission to conquer the place, setting sail from Gaul with 400 ships.

Awaiting him is a land where various tribes are battling for supremacy (“This place is at war with ITSELF,” Aulus growls, in what we must hope is not an attempt at sly contemporary reference); where deathly black magic seems alive and well; where there are vast amounts of slow-motion and nice lipstick; and where, sometimes, young women take their tops off.

Now, this might be the mead talking, but, like 25 per cent of the characters in the show, I experienced a sudden, uncanny vision: I saw Jez and Tom Butterworth daubing each other with woad, journeying deep into the wild woods under a blood moon, then sitting watching some Game Of Thrones box sets and declaring – “Hey, we should do one of these.” And lo, it came to pass.

As with any self-respecting Thrones copy, a juicy cast of slumming thespians assembles, lining up in a kind of I, Hammiest. Among them come Zoë Wanamaker, Ian McDiarmid, Kelly Reilly, Hugo Speer, and Julian Rhind-Tutt, who wears his pagan mascara well, but gives the impression of making up his dialogue as he goes along – except no one has told him he’s working on a drama set in AD 43, with the result he comes out with lines like this: “Things are all a bit up in the air at the moment. Bigger fish and all that.”

The performance you actually want to see more of, however, belongs to Mackenzie Crook, who, as arch-druid Veran, banishes Detectorists’ mellow vibes with a nightmare character one-part Max Schreck’s Nosferatu, one part Brando’s Kurtz, and one part Evil Bod. The performance you can’t stop staring at, meanwhile, is Morrissey’s glam stomp as Aulus Plautius. Morrissey is a fine actor, but doesn’t let that get in the way, and switches into his Big Haddie mode, mugging around like a man with the entire weight of the empire riding in his pants. If they would only add a CGI Kenneth Williams, this could be one for the ages.

Sunday

McMafia

9pm, BBC One

I’m becoming faintly hypnotised by McMafia, because, while it’s hard not to admire the sheer scale and ambition of this production about international organised crime’s multi-tentacled financial operations, it’s harder yet to stay engaged with it in any respect as a drama, and that’s a crying shame. Maybe it’s the globe-spanning nature of it that’s helping to slow it up: they’ve spent so much cash filming on location all over the world they want to make sure they get their money’s worth onscreen, with the result we get lots of intrinsically uninteresting holiday brochure shots held far too long, and not much story. Really, though, what’s killing it is the absence of any characters amid the scenery that it is possible to care much about. That, and all the close-ups of people clicking computer mouses. Still, there are some stirrings of life tonight, in scenes involving preparations to heist a heroin shipment in India, and as Alex’s (James Norton) secret activities come under scrutiny, at work and at home.

Monday

Anjelica Huston On James Joyce: A Shout In The Street

9pm, BBC Four

Anjelica Huston gets the top billing, and does a magnificent job as presenter, but the credit for this fine documentary lies first with its writer and director, David Blake Knox. Within the confines of an hour-long film, he does a miraculous job of somehow cramming in the biographical details of the author’s sometimes chaotic life (from a turbulent and impoverished Dublin childhood as son of a spendthrift alcoholic, to life as a lauded, self-imposed literary exile in Europe, including a flight from Nazi occupation), while also taking on the complexity of his work. The result is both knowledgeable yet entirely accessible – an excellent introduction to Joyce that will also satisfy readers already on that road. Huston’s involvement springs from her work in her father John’s brilliant, pared-down adaptation of Joyce’s short story, The Dead (both story and film are movingly discussed), and there are salient contributions from writers including Edna O’Brien, John Banville, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and The Wire’s David Simon. Meanwhile, clips from archive BBC TV Joyce adaptations leave you wishing they’d repeat the full things.

Tuesday

Inside No 9

9pm, BBC Four

Last year, BBC One’s humourless thriller Rellik spent six grumbling hours tying itself in “dark” knots to tell a clichéd serial killer story in reverse. Tonight, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith wield the same Insomnia-esque Russian dolls structure with pace, lightness of touch and a maniacal sense of grisly fun, to deliver an infinitely more interesting and entertaining bout of backwards-running mayhem in less than 30 minutes. It opens sedately enough: at a house in the country, the slightly distracted occupants are preparing to move out, and the removal van driver has just arrived to begin packing. Within minutes, a scene unfolds pitched somewhere between Grand Guignol and Frank Spencer, then we flip back to 10 minutes earlier, to see how it happened, and then 10 minutes before that, and so on. There are tons of clever bits of business, and, in the closing moments comes a gag about the show’s title that has been waiting to be made since the first episode. Monica Dolan and Emilia Fox co-star.

Wednesday

Kiri

9pm, Channel 4

A blunt yet complicated piece of social realism, with the death of a nine-year-old girl at the centre, Jack Thorne’s four-part series is neither the easiest or cheeriest way to begin a new year, but it feels necessary, and seems destined to rank among 2018’s best dramas. It’s grim going, but amid the harshness there’s a spark of human warmth, carried by the figure of the fallible, messed-up social worker, Miriam, as played by Sarah Lancashire – her throwaway scenes tonight involving taking her ailing old dog to the vet are just beautiful. It’s a serious piece, but Thorne is unashamed about employing the techniques of melodrama and whodunit to keep us hooked. Tonight, as Miriam comes under increasing pressure over her actions, the frame widens and we glimpse new angles. In particular, we begin to learn more about the dead girl’s birth family, as her grandfather Tobi (Lucian Msamati), begins a lonely, desperate search through seedy parts of town, looking for his troubled son, Kiri’s father Nate (Paapa Essiedu), the prime suspect in her killing.

Friday

Hits, Hype & Hustle: An Insider's Guide To The Music Business

BBC Four

This three-part series scrapes away rock’n’roll’s glittering make-up, to take a clinical look at the hard machinery of the industry operating behind it. In each part, a different music biz player explains her or his particular job, both as it has operated historically, and how it works today. We begin with agent Emma Banks, who has worked with figures from Jeff Buckley to Katy Perry, and lets us in on the secrets of A&R: the process of finding raw talent in the first place, and then, with a lot of hard work and luck, developing it to become what it could be. In some ways, it’s the job that has changed least of all, as testified to in interviews with veteran figures including Motown’s A&R guy Mickey Stevenson, legendary label boss Clive Davis, and artists from Martha Reeves and Nona Hendryx to Perry Farrell. Look out for Colin Blunstone discussing how, when The Zombies split up because they simply had no cash, he jacked it in to get a job in insurance.

Saturday

Spiral

9pm, BBC Four

Things come thick and fast tonight, as, following the catastrophic raid on the travellers’ camp, the team scramble to find new leads. We’ve just passed the midway point, and have now entered the traditional tense stretch seasoned Spiral watchers will recognise comes up every series, where you suddenly start worrying about every single character, every moment. One of the main points of concern (as every season) is the fraying Joséphine Karlsson, who, when we left her last week, seemed to be considering some vague vigilante mission of revenge against the lawyer she believes raped her. Meanwhile, there is the case of Laure and Gilou, who, after years of watching each other fall from one disaster to another, finally seem to have found happiness together – with the result that you watch every sweet moment through your fingers, waiting for the cruel Spiral gods to strike them down. The incredible Caroline Proust is really doing some of her most exquisite acting yet, tough one minute, painting with the finest brush the next.

BEST OF CATCH UP

Shown on Wednesday to coincide with the second anniversary of David Bowie’s death, Hansa Studios: By The Wall 1976-90 (Sky Arts), a feature-length documentary about the Berlin studio where Bowie worked one of his most potent spells in reinvention, inevitably led on the records he made there: bits of Low and the entire “Heroes” LP, along with tracks from The Idiot and all of Lust For Life, the books of the Bible he produced, co-wrote and played on for Iggy Pop.

It was Bowie and his collaborator Brian Eno’s annexation and manipulation of the studio on the wrecked Potsdamer Platz across 1976-77 that first brought Hansa to the music world’s attention. Formerly a builder’s guild hall (the fabled “big room,” Studio 2, where “Heroes” happened, was previously a ballroom where stonemasons waltzed), at that time the building stood alone on grimy, flattened wasteland, right next to the drab wall that divided the bubble of West Berlin from the GDR – “on the outpost of western civilisation,” a contributor put it. Famously, looking out from the studio, you could see armed East German soldiers on rooftop watch across the wall, looking back.

It was the expressionistic Bowie-Iggy records that caught and perhaps even created the psychic Cold War sci-fi atmospheres flying around the place. Before that, Hansa had specialised in the bland German cheesy listening known as schlager. After “Heroes,” it became a legendary site, a mecca for other bands trying to find that wild magic.

While the Bowie bits were fine, they were familiar, but director Mike Christie’s documentary came into its own as he charted what happened next. Essentially, the 90-minute film was a compilation of making-of pieces on individual albums recorded at Hansa – among the more famous, the series Depeche Mode made there to shake off their Basildon pop roots; U2’s attempt at spray-tanning on some Berlin-chic, Achtung Baby; and REM’s final record, Collapse Into Now, touchingly recalled by Michael Stipe.

More interesting, though, were sections on the moment as the 1980s dawned, and Hansa attracted bands actually based in West Berlin, notably the poet-terrorists of industrial noise Einstürzende Neubauten, whose sessions were recalled in hilarious detail – they had to be stopped from using a jackhammer as a percussion instrument in the second-floor studio, when it was pointed out it would destroy the fabric of the building.

Best of all were contributions from Bad Seeds Mick Harvey, Barry Adamson and Thomas Wylder about the years Nick Cave’s precarious collective made Hansa their muggy home. Adamson came up with the most evocative quote, recalling how Hansa had “a darkness in the dust. Something you can use.” But it was Wylder and Harvey who summed up its paranoid otherworld cocoon atmosphere, when they remembered the night in November 1989 the studio phone rang, and an excited friend yelled down the line that history was being written in the streets outside. The Wall was coming down. They didn’t bother going out to watch. As Harvey said: “We were busy.”