Tuesday

Black Lightning

Netflix

Loading article content

Another week, another superhero series. But the DC Comics’ adaptation Black Lightning has a little more going on than some of the more generic with-great-power-comes-great-responsibility series

that have become

so ubiquitous.

As his crime-fighting moniker says loud, our hero, played by Cress Williams, is black. (The second part of his name is equally to the point: his powers involve the ability to harness and throw electricity around, laying out bad guys with great, crackling thwackoooms.) This isn’t the first comic book show with a black protagonist – we’ve already had Marvel’s Luke Cage – but Black Lightning, in which the majority of characters are African-American, breaks new ground in being explicitly about issues of race as experienced in the Black Lives Matter era.

Mixed up with this is another element that sets the character apart: his age. This hero is getting on for 50, has aches and pains, and is conflicted over the whole kickass business. As the series begins, Black Lightning has been retired almost 10 years. Although he has superpowers, he’s far from invulnerable, and, after too many bloody close escapes, gave up his dangerous life as a rubber-clad vigilante as a promise to his (now ex-) wife, to devote himself to her and their daughters.

Again, this isn’t new territory. The idea of the slumbering superman has been the starting point for the most potent superhero stories of the last 30 years, from Alan Moore’s Marvelman and Watchmen, through Batman’s Dark Knight Returns all the way to the Incredibles movie. The difference with Black Lightning is that, in his intervening years as regular citizen, he has arguably done more good for his town than he did when he was beating up villains. In his alter ego he’s Jefferson Pearce, principle of the local high school, the kind of teacher who encourages troubled kids to be more than society expects, and an inspirational figure to a couple of generations.

All of this comes together in one of the first scenes, as he gets pulled over by police (for the third time that month, he mutters), profiled as a suspect in a robbery. As a white cop enthusiastically cuffs him over the bonnet of his car, glints of Black Lightning’s raging electricity begin sparking behind Pearce’s eyes. But he keeps himself in check, patiently repressing the urge to strike out, waiting, wearily, to get it over with. Meanwhile, his two daughters (at least one of whom has her own latent superpowers brewing) whip out their phones to film the incident.

Of course, Pearce will soon become Black Lightning once more. The inevitable breaking point comes when his youngest daughter gets entangled with “The 100,” a notorious local mob, and he takes to the streets to rescue her and confront the gang violence pulling his community down, while doling out sizzling old school justice of his own. By the time we get to this stage in the opening episode, though, the show has already set enough ideas flying around to carve out a unique space in the crowded comics field, and puts them across with a simple pop-pulp drive. In places, the writing is so bluntly on the nose it might as well come in speech bubbles, but it gets away with it, and, amid the issues, there’s a sense of action and fun – exemplified by the moment when one old timer, recalling the days Black Lightning used to patrol the neighbourhood, describes his flashy sci-fi superhero costume as “a Parliament Funkadelic getup.” It’s worth sticking around to see what kind of groove might

develop here.

Sunday

Call The Midwife

8pm, BBC One

The world-conquering nuns, nurses and babies juggernaut returns for a seventh series jam-packed with babies, nurses, and nuns. Things pick up where they left off in the Christmas special: it’s the dawn of 1963 now, and the coldest winter in 300 years continues to rage mercilessly through the streets around Nonnatus House, bringing with it blizzards, power cuts, and general frosty havoc. With the newlywed Barbara having suddenly departed with her husband Rev Tom, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) has recruited a new midwife for her wild bunch, Lucille Anderson (Leonie Elliott). But she doesn’t face the easiest of starts, when the snow makes her two days late, and she falls ill on arrival. Things gets stickier on her first job, assisting Trixie with a breech birth; the mother, an unmarried exotic dancer, plans to give the baby up for adoption. Elsewhere, Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) helps care for an elderly Jewish woman suffering terminal bowel cancer, who, along with her husband, is facing eviction.

Monday

Silent Witness

9pm, BBC One

Twenty-two years since Amanda Burton first pulled on the rubber gloves and plastic apron, and 14 since Emilia Fox took over in the lead, Silent Witness continues to plug steadily, silently away, doing its dependable prime time crime thing for BBC One. It doesn’t need saying that any series that can last as long as this – we’re halfway through Series 21 now – has to be doing something right, and, even if you’re not a regular SW fan, it’s reliably easy to shlomp down in front of at the end of a hard Monday when your brain can’t take any more. This week’s two-part story begins with the murder of a US diplomat, found shot dead in a central London square, his body left posed sitting on a bench, with one hand tucked inside his jacket. As the police argue with embassy staff about whose jurisdiction the killing comes under, the team find themselves working closely, but increasingly uneasily on the case with the FBI, and having to fight American bureaucracy at every turn. Continues tomorrow.

Wednesday

Kiri

9pm, Channel 4

The first episode of Jack Thorne’s drama about the death of a nine-year-old girl in foster care focused on Miriam (Sarah Lancashire), the social worker handling her case, while the second offered the perspective of Kiri’s birth grandfather Tobi (Lucian Msamati), from whose house she disappeared during a visit, shortly before her body was discovered. Now, in the most unsettling instalment yet, Thorne focuses on the Warners, the foster family who were going to adopt Kiri – and in particular, the mother, Alice. This is an extraordinary performance from Lia Williams, who, as some of Alice’s hopes, passions, torments and troubles begin to emerge, generates ferocious intensity. (She’s always good, but the last time I saw her on this form was the one-off drama May 33rd back in 2004; the kind of unforgettable play you wish you could forget.) As the hour unfolds, we learn some new information about the killing, but the facts of the case seem less certain than ever. You honestly don’t know what might be coming next. Williams is hypnotically good.

Thursday

Britannia

9pm, Sky Atlantic

To judge by the psychedelic title sequence (scored to Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, one of the great run of Donovan recordings that, if you ever heard him playing them solo acoustic, truly make you appreciate the genius of his producer, Mickie Most) Jez and Tom Butterworth’s hysterical historical romp would like to be a full-on nightmare mushroom trip in the unhinged mode of Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England. But it’s more like a Robin Of Sherwood-style teatime adventure, slightly spoiled by the odd swear word, sex scene and gratuitous skin flaying. It’s still pretty entertaining, though, partly because it moves faster than its model, Game Of Thrones, and partly because of how some actors are shamelessly indulging in the kind of stern, straight-faced hammery Morecambe & Wise’s guest stars used to employ for Ernie’s plays; check out Zoe Wanamaker’s big scene tonight, for example, or anything David Morrissey does at any time. The Romans have started crucifying prisoners in order to flush out the locals. Meanwhile, Big Aulus Plautius (Morrissey) receives an eerie invitation from the druids.

Friday

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

9pm, BBC Four

For the second episode, veteran promoter John Giddings takes over, to offer a behind-the-scenes view of putting on big-scale live music today. With the internet having eroded record sales, the live arena is where bands can now make money, as anyone who has kept a watering eye on ticket prices over the past decade will know. Giddings, who counts U2 among his clients, uses their latest mega tour as illustration, meeting bass player Adam Clayton backstage as the crew works to finish erecting the set and installing the gear, a vast logistical nightmare, but worth it when the band nets several million per night. This episode isn’t as focused as last week’s. It makes its point early, then just pads around it. But there are entertaining stories looking at how the famous first Isle Of Wight festivals were cobbled together in 1969 and 1970. Elsewhere, Phil Collins remembers Genesis’s fox-head years, Earth Wind & Fire recount the sci-fi mysteries of their stage set, and Stewart Copeland recalls the time The Police took India by storm.

Saturday

Spiral

9pm, BBC Four

As news of the police shooting of Bakary Camara spreads through the Clery suburb like wildfire, a chain of violent protests is unleashed, part instigated by his brother, Drissa, who uses the spreading mayhem as cover to consider his next move – and, just as importantly, uncover who it was who sold them out to the police. As parts of the town begin to fall into riot around them, Laure and her team press on with their investigation, but soon find their hands tied by the politics of the situation. Meanwhile, pressure of a different sort is building at the Palais de Justice, as Karlsson mercilessly continues to question Roban over his handling of the death of the male prostitute and the involvement of the prosecutor Marchard. Meanwhile, Laure has some serious thinking to do about her baby, and her future. As tonight’s double bill begins, you can feel the series coming to the simmer; during the first episode, there are points where the main characters are barely daring to breath.

BEST OF CATCH UP

As a piece of TV art in its own right, The South Bank Show 40th Anniversary Special (Sky Arts) perhaps didn’t quite cut the mustard. A celebratory barrage of snippets from the archives, gathered in themed chunks (a little bit about programmes they did on music, a bit about ones they did on cinema, a bit about literature, a bit about dance, about TV, etc), it was essentially a feature-length clips show, interspersed with new inserts of the great and the good telling Melvyn Bragg how wonderful and groundbreaking his series was. And, while it was indeed, the fractured, stuttering repetition had grown a little wearing before the 90-minutes was up.

And yet, despite the frustration, this was also, easily, the best thing on TV last week. In the past four decades, few British arts programmes have been as important as Bragg’s (perhaps only one, the BBC’s poetic maverick Arena) or more deserving of slapping themselves solidly on the back. If this Anniversary Special was less than the sum of its parts, the parts themselves were exploding with life and ideas, awkward voices and immortals. Listing just a few of the names featured as archive interviews sped past speaks for itself: Nureyev, Olivier, Bergman, Mailer, Pinter, Arthur Miller. Here’s Martin Scorsese, speeding with a raging flu while speaking about the sound of punches in Raging Bull. Here’s the face of Beryl Bainbridge, here’s the face of Iggy Pop.

When TSBS launched with a film on Paul McCartney in 1978, Bragg's colour blindness about culture – the belief that hit singles and high opera, Frank Auerbach and Ken Dodd were all equally worthy of study, and that none need be placed on an elitist pedestal – was still almost revolutionary, as was illustrated by a quote from a sniffy TV review of that first episode, in which the critic scorned the idea that the former Beatle’s music warranted serious inspection.

Since 2012, the resurrected show has been beavering away on Sky. But, surely, for most tuning in, it was its initial 1978-2010 run on terrestrial TV that mattered: the decades when, bunkered away on Sunday nights, Bragg kept the torch burning for art, intelligence, curiosity and erudition on ITV, a flame the network has since enthusiastically snuffed out.

As the hundreds of clips went by (Potter, Pinter, Anthony Burgess on DH Lawrence, Tracey Emin on her Bed) I was ticking off episodes I remembered, and pining for missing shows: the Gene Hackman film; the Raymond Chandler episode; the Werner Herzog one; the one on Michael Powell. That 1986 episode on The Velvet Underground, the kind of thing, in those pre-Youtube days, when footage was scarce, that fans based their entire week around.

Of course, Bragg included his greatest hit: his epochal interview with Francis Bacon, when the two got miraculous on mind-altering red wine, and Bacon leaned over him shouting: “ARE YOU REAL?” It’s not the only thing The South Bank Show should be remembered for. But it will be remembered.