9pm, Channel 4

When director Mike Nichols released his sprawling 1970 movie adaptation of Catch-22 – Joseph Heller’s satirical anti-war novel about US Army flier John Yossarian and his attempts to evade combat during the Second World War – the film was widely received as a failure, albeit an ambitious one. But, as is the way of things, in the decades since, Nichols’s movie has been reassessed, and now has a cult of fans. It’s been over twenty years since I saw the film, but watching the opening episodes of the new, six-part TV adaptation of Heller’s book has left me very keen to check it out again. Because, surely, it couldn’t have been half as dull as this.

Dispensing with the fractured chronology of the novel, the series covers the years from 1942 to 1944, and opens with Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) in basic training, slogging through the meaningless grind of parade ground drills under the popping eye of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, played by George Clooney. As producer and director of two episodes, Clooney is one of the main driving forces behind the TV adaptation, but anyone tuning in hoping to catch some of his formidable star power as an actor sparking again may be disappointed. Like all the superior officers Yossarian encounters, Scheisskopf is a gross, distant, half-mad creature, and Clooney plays him as such – it’s fair enough, but it’s another in what’s becoming a slightly too-long list of caricature performances.

The meat of the story, however, comes when Yossarian is thrown into the conflict zone, shipped to an idyllic airbase off the Italian coast, from where, as the war in Europe slowly begins to wind down, he and his fellow airmen begin launching an increasingly pointless, yet increasingly suicidal series of bombing missions. As their commanding officer Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) senselessly begins raising the number of missions they are required to fly before completing their tour of duty, and more and more are killed in action, the fraying Yossarian seeks a way out by feigning insanity. Thus he runs up against the famous, Zen-like conundrum of Heller’s title: you’d have to be crazy to fly, so you can be medically excused on grounds of insanity; but asking to be excused means you’re not crazy, and so you can’t be excused and have to fly.

A sniggering howl against the dehumanising processes of bureaucracy and the war machine, Heller’s book famously smashes tones together, absurdity and grave seriousness, black comedy and depressingly real horror. It’s the clash of extremes that made the book come alive. But in the series, it’s as if the conflicting impulses cancel each other out. The comedy isn’t very funny, the drama isn’t all that interesting and the picture of war feels second hand. It looks handsome enough, and boasts a good cast, but it’s incredibly flat.

My memory is that the old Mike Nichols movie, with Alan Arkin in frozen paranoid despair as Yossarian, has a strange, disjointed motion as it lurches from one escapade to the next, stumbling deeper into horror as it goes – a pace that’s sometimes nightmarishly frenetic and sometimes just stunned, like a Marx Brothers movie taking place near a slaughterhouse. But the salient point is that, twenty-odd years after last seeing it, I do still have memories of Nichols’s movie. Whereas, twenty minutes after watching the first episodes of this nobly intentioned new series, I could barely remember a thing, and was in no hurry to see more. For Yossarian, there may be no escape, but for the TV viewer, the off button is always there.



Inside Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb

8pm, BBC Four

Anyone who watched Sky Atlantic’s mesmerising, draining drama on the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster might be newly keen to see this documentary, originally shown in 2016. The film follows that year’s astonishing project to erect a giant new steel containment structure to seal off the ruined nuclear plant. The new building was designed to cover the original concrete sarcophagus hastily thrown around the reactor decades before, as it was crumbling to the end of its lifespan, with a growing risk of radioactive release. But the construction team faced a big problem. Radiation levels remain so high that it was impossible to actually build the new edifice in place around the reactor. So the entire thing – taller than the Eiffel Tower and weighing 36,000 tonnes – had to be built alongside, then somehow moved into place.


Year Of The Rabbit

10pm, Channel 4

To paraphrase the old Alan Partridge routine, over the past year we’ve had Keeley Hawes star in Bodyguard, Traitors, Mr Wilson, Summer Of Rockets and The Durrells – what does that say to you about TV shows starring Keeley Hawes? There are too many of them? Or: people like them, let’s make some more? In either case, the hardest-working woman in British television is back again tonight as Matt Berry’s vigorously stupid Victorian cop show spoof continues. The urchins of London are preparing for the East End folk tradition of Brick Night, when the fabled Brick Man stalks the cobblestones, stabbing people in the neck with his brick knife. But when real murders begin, Inspector Rabbit and team are on the hunt for a more earthly killer. Meanwhile, a shadowy arch-villain is drawing plans against the fearless copper and his merry band.


Ackley Bridge

8pm, Channel 4

A third series for the drama set around the high school in a depressed Yorkshire mill town, where the white and Asian communities come together, clash heads, rub shoulders, and bump along. There’s a sense of times changing in the air. Ackley Bridge College has been taken over by a new trust, and head teacher Mandy (Jo Joyner) has a new intake of staff to get to grips with. More pressingly, however, it seems that life is forcing our heroes Nasreen (Amy-Leigh Hickman) and Missy (Poppy Lee Friar) apart. Nas has landed an interview for Oxford University, and is increasingly nervous about the prospect, and feeling out of place. Missy is full of encouragement, but as the idea of seeing her friend “escape” becomes a reality, she’s less sure – is this really the end of their friendship? The excellent Penny Woolcock returns as director.



9pm, Sky Atlantic

I don’t know whether this simmering, relentlessly harsh, but always hypnotic Italian series is the best crime drama we’ve seen in the past five years – but it sure as hell feels that way. Fans will recall the last series ended with the stunning loss of one of Gomorrah’s most significant characters. As it returns for a fourth series with a double bill, we pick up in the aftermath. Genny (Salvatore Esposito), head of the Savastano clan, is vulnerable, and the rival families in Naples begin moving to wipe his crew out for good. But Genny still has family he can call on for favours…A shimmering, stunning thing one second, heart-stoppingly grim the next, by the time tonight’s first episode ends, the storyline is branching off in unexpected new directions. This could be Gomorrah’s most interesting series yet.


Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

10pm, Sky Arts

In much the way Bruce Wayne is better known as Batman, the late, great Chris Sievey will be forever remembered as his extraordinary alter-ego, Frank Sidebottom, the nasal-voiced entertainer with the enormous, big-eyed papier-mâche head: the greatest showbiz legend Timperley ever produced. Sievey/ Sidebottom’s hardworking anti-career previously inspired the movie Frank, with Michael Fassbender under the massive head. But this loving, fan-funded documentary forms a more meaningful and poignant tribute to the man, who died in 2010 aged only 54, and remains a much-missed cult presence on Britain’s independent music and comedy scenes. Charting the story from Sievey’s punk roots, through Frank’s creation, his work on late night TV, Children’s TV and brief, unlikely brushes with mega-success, fans, colleagues and – most touchingly – family look back and wonder at a man stubbornly set on, as one puts it, “a mission of rank insanity.”


Grace Jones: Bloodlight And Bami

11.35pm, BBC Two

It’s a little buried away (ideally, this should have been given the prime spot in BBC Four’s Friday night music window, accompanied by a screening of Jones’s era-defining 1980s video compilation, One Man Show), but, nevertheless, a welcome TV screening for Sophie Fiennes’s fine 2017 film about the divine Ms J. Part-documentary, part-concert film, it follows Jones at work in the studio and out on a recent world tour, where, in several hair-raising backstage scenes, it becomes clear her famously formidable mad-terminator-diva image has never simply been an act. But Fiennes also gets a glimpse of her more vulnerable side, and clues as to where Jones’s temperament – and stunning stagecraft – stem from, as she follows her on a trip across Jamaica, visiting relatives, and hearing about her very tough upbringing.