The Deuce

10pm, Sky Atlantic

It has only been two years since David Simon’s last series, Show Me A Hero, but his new show, The Deuce, is a cause for particular excitement, as it sees him and his team returning to the format of their finest works, The Wire and Treme, where the impulses of drama and journalism twisted together to form great, sprawling, soulful symphonies.

Those two shows were different in many ways, yet shared a fundamental structure. Each started by focussing on specific communities in specific environments – Baltimore police and drug gangs; the working musicians and venue runners of New Orleans – then began to creep and spiral, up, out and in, until an entire city, its social, economic, cultural, subcultural and bureaucratic structures was laid out, breathing and failing before you.

Named after the nickname for the stretch of 42nd Street in New York where it is set, The Deuce looks set to repeat the pattern; indeed, by the end of the excellent 90-minute pilot, you can smell the place. But it’s hard to predict whether this might become Simon’s most popular programme, or the one most people ignore.

All Simon’s shows take a few episodes to bed down, but the community in The Deuce might turn off as many viewers as it turns on, and maybe for the wrong reasons. The series puts us among the sex workers and pimps operating around the grimy Times Square of 1971, during the period New York was at its most violently squalid and sordid – the landscapes Travis Bickle journeyed on his fascinated, pill-popping night patrols in Taxi Driver.

The period is carefully chosen. Partly because it allows Simon and his crew to recreate the gamey locations and fashions of 1970s movies like Scorsese’s, lending a pleasurably hip, grime-and-neon surface. (On this period-piece score, it works infinitely better than the recent Vinyl.) Mainly, though, they pinpoint the era as a moment of transition. Changes in American law saw pornographic films, previously the stuff of underground cinema and under-the-counter stag party reels, going legal. As adult video arcades and grindhouse theatres began springing up, the emerging industry offered some of the women (mostly women) working the streets and massage parlours a theoretically safer and more lucrative option. Not far in the future, of course, lay the emergence of the home video market, and then the internet, and the current, ever-expanding, multi-billion-dollar porn industry.

The Deuce peels back to the roots of all this, yet doesn’t ever feel like an issue piece, although issues are there: where The Wire was about drugs, but really about class and race, The Deuce is about prostitution and porn, but really about class, race and gender.

As before, a superb ensemble cast assembles, but the opener follows two characters most closely. James Franco plays Vincent Martino, a barman in the neighbourhood who prefers to keep his head down but, along with his gambling addict twin, Frankie (Franco again), gets drawn into the underworld. Meanwhile, chief among the prostitutes on the patch is Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also produced), who stands out among the girls by refusing to work for a pimp, despite the threats and violence around her, and whose main reason for working is her child, living in a different world with her parents out in the suburbs. Written by Simon and crime novelist George Pelecanos, a regular collaborator, the script is lively, multifaceted, rigorously researched and finely detailed, down to the way condoms are put on punters. But focus is always the people caught in the cogs, trying to get through.


The Child In Time

9pm, BBC One

Freed from the pleased with itself demands of Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers one of his strongest, quietest screen performances in some time in this curious and affecting adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Whitbread Prize-winning novel – although the actor to really savour here is the infallible Kelly Macdonald, who makes her every moment ring true as life. They play a couple, Stephen, a successful children’s author, and his pianist wife Julie, whose happy marriage is torn apart when their four-year-old daughter goes missing: he had her at the supermarket, and one moment, he looked down, and she was just gone. Three years later, they’re living apart, drifting through life half-stunned by loss, guilt and recrimination, and Stephen is still haunted by glimpses of his lost girl everywhere he turns. The film has some predictable strands, in some ways is quite inconsequential, and could stand less sensitive piano on the soundtrack, but there is a sadness, silence and strangeness about it that is rare today.

Monday 25

The Vietnam War

9pm, BBC Four

A landmark. Known for epics like The Civil War (1990) and Jazz (2001), Ken Burns is one of the great documentarians of our time, perfecting a technique that’s been aped so often it has become the new classic form. With co-director Lynn Novick, Burns spent 10 years assembling this lucid, tragic, messy and monumental 10-part history of the Vietnam war, which covers not only the conflict, but the turbulent era it sparked in the US, and the scars that still run through the country today. The first episode in tonight’s double bill begins by stressing, again, how nobody in America spoke of Vietnam for years, and, although it has been covered exhaustively in more recent times, in some ways this feels like the first time it has really been talked about properly. Animated with astonishing, dismaying archive and contributions from all sides, episode one charts the pre-history in Vietnam, from the 1851 French invasion, to the formation of the Viet Cong to overthrow colonial rule in 1960, as America looked on with increasing nervousness about the spread of communism.

Wednesday 27

Britain’s Lost Masterpieces

9pm, BBC Four

A second series for this quietly, satisfyingly engrossing series, in which art dealer Bendor Grosvenor and social historian Emma Dabiri turn detective on the trail of forgotten treasures. The idea is that, across Britain’s public art collections, so many pieces are kept locked away in storage that there are bound to be some great works lurking out of sight that have gone completely overlooked and unrecognised. Tonight, they are in Glasgow, at Pollok House, to investigate pictures not currently on display due to a leaking roof and urgent renovations. Grosvenor has an idea that one of these homeless paintings might actually be a priceless work by Rubens that has been lost for centuries: a portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, who, as supposed lover of James VI of Scotland, is one of the most famous gay figures in history. But, as the pair set about researching the piece and its subject, they have to contend with the fact that there is a rival painting in Florence which also claims to be Rubens’s Buckingham portrait.

Thursday 28

Russia With Simon Reeve

9pm, BBC Two

Marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Simon Reeve sets out on a journey across the vastness of the present day nation. In the first of three episodes, he begins far east, among the active volcanoes of the snowy Kamchatka mountains, where temperatures average minus 30 degrees, and the only people making a living are the reindeer herders. But it’s when he reaches the huge port of Vladivostok that things being to get really interesting. China is starting to have enormous influence in the region, and the politics are murky and sensitive. Monitored closely by authorities across the series, he and his crew realise they are being followed and, following several run-ins with police, are finally forced to leave. Passing through the Boreal Forest, Reeve seeks out a conservationist dedicated to protecting the endangered Amur Tiger, and environmental concerns come to the fore again as the episode ends in the heart of Siberia. In a remote spot lies the Batagay Crater, a giant, growing depression in the thawing permafrost, a symptom of climate change with devastating implications.

Friday 29

The Last Pirates: Britain’s Rebel DJs

9pm, BBC Four

The rapper Rodney P, who started out in the mid-1980s as a member of seminal British hip-hop group London Posse, presents this evocative documentary on the pirate radio boom in 1980s London. Cannily exploiting loopholes in both broadcast law and broadcasting technology, the pirates worked out of the tower blocks, becoming an authentic voice for disenfranchised sections of young London, and providing a platform for a new generation of black music at a time when it was shunned by the mainstream industry and radio. To a large degree, the underground music they spearheaded would go on to shape the pop landscape for the decades ahead. As pirate radio rose, however, so did the level of opposition it met from the Department of Trade and Industry tasked with bringing it down. Featuring interviews with key DJs, station owners, engineers and DTI enforcers, the film charts how a game of cat and mouse ensued between the rebels and the authorities across the rooftops of London, played out against the backdrop of the Thatcher era.


Stop All The Clocks:

WH Auden In The Age Of Anxiety

9pm, BBC Two

Saturday night’s alright for rhyming. Director Adam Low (a regular Arena contributor) first profiled WH Auden back in 1982 in his documentary The Auden Landscape. Three and a half decades on, he returns to the theme, to consider how a writer who dominated the literary scene in the 20th century still resonates in the 21st. Among the contributors is Richard Curtis, who sparked an Auden boom when he employed “Funeral Blues” to poignant effect in 1994’s Four Weddings And A Funeral. Seven years later, Auden’s “September 1, 1939” – a poem about which the author had mixed feelings, originally written in response to the outbreak of the Second World War – found new life following the attacks of 9/11. Alan Bennett, Polly Clark, Alexander McCall Smith, James Fenton and Paul Muldoon are among the contributors. Poetry fans might want to stay tuned for Kate Tempest Presents (10pm), an evening of live verse from the Contains Strong Language festival in Hull.


Vic! Ah-aaaahhhh! Saviour of the Cobbleverse! The faithful have been through it all before, but it’s been more slump than peak round Coronation Street recently, as the writers have tied themselves in knots trying to drag out nobody-really-cares gossip-mag storylines: Eva’s endless blood wedding revenge (although, stealing the factory roof was a nice touch); Michelle’s long, dull night of the soul being stalked by Evil Harold Lloyd With The Voice Of Mr Bean (although, admittedly, it was deeply gratifying to see the mighty Leanne knee him right in the modernist stairwell).

Possibly the most disheartening spectacle has been watching the programme trying to figure out Pat Phelan, who, as incredibly played by Connor McIntyre, has taken his place in the pantheon of great Corrie villains, wrestling with Stape’s ghost for the title of most complex of them all. McIntyre has emerged as a disarming and chilling master of light and shade, but he’s had his work cut out, having to deal with both The Coincidental Daughter and the Hanna-Barbera plotting of the Andy In The Basement story. A classic example of an actor transcending the material.

But then, this week, at last, came the satisfying, unmistakable click of a performer, a character, a script, a show, and the planets themselves all lining up perfectly, as Vic Reeves (or, to use his Clark Kent human alias, Jim Moir) arrived as Colin Callen of NewsCo, the ex-newsagent with an abominable plan to seize The Kabin. From his first moments, all the pieces fell into place: the strikingly cut suit, the strange tactile loom, the personality car, the referring to himself in the third person, the casual mention of yoghurt and Scotch eggs.

He had an easy landing, being tossed into the lap of Norris and Mary, who can spin gold from anything. But, soon, he was into the big league, for a one-on-one with Rita, who has not only been playing a poignant blinder with her dementia/tumour story, but had just invoked the spirits of the eternals by mentioning Elsie Tanner, Alec Gilroy and Mavis in one potent breath. Yet Colin’s sly hospital visit was a perfect, low-key duet, all the old Corrie engines purring, even though, for a second as he leaned toward her, it looked as though Reeves was about to start rubbing his thighs in the old Shooting Stars ritual.

The prospect of seeing Colin rub against the rest of the cast almost justifies the dodgy move to six episodes a week. Indeed, it’s already possible to imagine a whole spin-off series: Callen, an old school ITV adventure, with Colin travelling the north in his open-topped Jag, on the eternal hunt for a newsagents to buy, but always getting pulled into some local mystery: a kidnapping in Kettlewell; witch cults in Whitby... In the meantime, though, we have three months of Colin in Corrie to look forward to. As much a reason for living as the impending return of Carla.