War Of The Worlds

9pm, BBC One

The Crown


Ever since 1938, when Orson Welles traumatised radio listeners with his legendary fake-news broadcast, the default for anyone adapting The War Of The Worlds has been to update the story, so the Martian invasion plays against the concerns of the current era.

This was the case in 1953, when Gene Barry battled the aliens with the help of God and the atom bomb in the first movie version, and in 2005, when Tom Cruise used the interplanetary apocalypse to work out family issues in Steven Spielberg’s retelling. Only last month, it was true again, when a big new international co-production started on French TV, imagining the carnage in contemporary Europe. The honourable exception is musician Jeff Wayne, who retained the novel’s late-nineteenth-century setting for his crackers 1978 concept album; even there, though, he reflected the anxieties of his age, by imagining a Victorian Britain devastated by an unholy alliance between prog-rock and disco.

Of course, all present-day takes take their lead from HG Wells himself, who anchored his fantasy firmly in the realities of the 1897 in which he wrote it, delighting in laying waste to his slumbering Woking hometown, reducing his neighbours to ash with Martian heat-rays.

While the BBC’s new adaptation is at pains to contemporise the story – sometimes, too painfully – the truly refreshing thing about it is simply that it returns Well’s groundbreaking sci-fi to the author’s period, near as damn it. Written by Peter Harness, the three-part series shifts things forward slightly, to 1905, but we are firmly in the Wellsian epoch: all steam trains and spooked horses, men from the Ministry in curious collars, and strange amateur astronomers wielding giant telescopes in suburban conservatories.

The period recreation makes things all the eerier when that astronomer, Ogilvy (a whiskery Robert Carlyle), aims his lens across the heavens and first spots huge, enigmatic eruptions emanating from Mars. Joining him for the evening’s stargazing are his new neighbours, our heroes, George (Rafe Spall) and Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson), a young couple at the centre of much gossip and condemnation. A journalist, George left his wife for Amy, a shameful scandal that has cast them into public disgrace.

The opening episode devotes worrying amounts of time to this romantic strife, which doesn’t feature in Wells’s novel. Harness actually based this relationship on Wells’s personal life – like George, he abandoned an unhappy marriage and moved to Woking with his new partner – a cute touch, although squeamishly applied: while, here, George and Amy are devotedly in love, in reality Wells was serially unfaithful to his second wife.

Harness shifts focus to this relationship to set Amy up as “Strong Female Lead,” but is so unsubtle in grafting this onto the plot she becomes a cliché: we know she’s a modern, independent woman because she sometimes smokes a cigarette ostentatiously. More successful is how, among ruminations on the era’s Imperialist attitudes, come scenes of the UK brought low, ravaged by superior tech and firepower. As green and pleasant land decays into a red desert haunted by shattered refugees, any resemblance to current conflicts is entirely deliberate.

Still, the show is best when Wells’s sharp, weird old vision comes cutting through, undiluted: when the first unidentified object falls from the sky and buries itself in misty Horsell common; when the first, towering war machine rises from the pit and begins stalking over gentle grey Surrey. True, there’s nothing here as thrilling as Richard Burton’s narration on the Jeff Wayne record, but we’re only human these days.

For more studies of alien lifestyles, Netflix’s The Crown returns tonight for a third series. In a William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton stylee, The Queen has regenerated from Claire Foy into Olivia Colman. Can’t wait for the Pertwee era.



Vienna Blood

9pm, BBC Two

Cold Call

9pm, Channel 5

Imagine a sinister, twisty, Sherlock Holmes-style mystery, playing against the grandeurs of the Vienna of 1906, as Freud and his followers first started plumbing the depths of the human subconscious. Sounds like a superb idea for a story, and, when Nicholas Meyer wrote it as The Seven Per Cent Solution in 1974, it was. BBC Two’s Vienna Blood, though, is more run of the mill serial killer stuff, as a young student of Freud, Max (Matthew Beard), joins a rumpled police detective (Juergen Maurer) to investigate murder. Meanwhile one of the universe’s rarest events occurs tonight, as Channel Five actually launches a new drama. In Cold Call, the terrific Sally Lindsay plays the hard-pressed June, trying to juggle work, a pregnant daughter, and a failing mother, when she gets caught up in a telephone scam. The four-part series continues nightly.


Greg Davies: Looking For Kes

9pm, BBC Four

In this fairly lovely documentary, the comedian (and former English teacher) celebrates the creation and impact of Barry Hines’s brilliant 1968 novel A Kestrel For A Knave, the story of young Barnsley boy Billy Casper, who transcends the hard grind of his surroundings as he begins training a kestrel – vividly brought to life in Ken Loach’s 1969 film, Kes. Talking with present-day Barnsley schoolkids about whether they still recognise the life Hines presented, Davies also meets the author’s brother, Richard, who himself trained birds as a boy, and was the original model for Billy, and Dai Bradley, who played the role for Loach. Jarvis Cocker is among the fans of the book contributing. It’s followed by Kes: Reimagined (10pm), a new interpretation of Loach’s movie incorporating puppetry and dance. Shame they’re not putting the film on, too, really.


Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds 9pm, Sky Atlantic This documentary about the relationship between the legendary Hollywood mother and daughter, who lived next door to each other in a set up Fisher dubbed “the compound,” was given extra poignancy when both suddenly died, just one day apart, in late December 2016, shortly before the film was first broadcast. Yet even without that sad timing, this lively, intimate portrait by Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens would be several notches above the standard celebrity reality show, thanks to the close affection between the two subjects. In frail health, the 84-year-old Reynolds can still switch on her old perky pizazz, while Fisher delivers salty, crackling wit and devastating honesty. As it catalogues the highs and lows of both careers, it’s a vivid portrait of a vanishing breed of Hollywood royalty. Above all, though, it works as a bittersweet study of a mother-daughter dynamic.


What Makes A Murderer

9pm, Channel 4

Another rubbernecking series where you have to check twice to see if you’re on Channel Four or Five. For this three-part documentary, convicted murderers agree to submit themselves to psychological and biological investigations by scientists attempting to learn whether there was something in their make up that pre-disposed them to killing. In the red chair tonight is John Massey, who served 43 years in prison after he shot a nightclub bouncer dead in 1975. Neurocriminologist Adrian Raine and forensic psychologist Dr Vicky Thakordas-Desai put him under study, first by scanning his brain, which reveals a physical abnormality that is known to be common among killers, and then by investigating his most formative and most troubling childhood experiences.


Country Music By Ken Burns

9pm, BBC Four

Known for epics like 1990’s The Civil War and 2017’s The Vietnam War, Burns is one of the great documentary makers. A complement to his 2001 series, Jazz, this nine-part series is a lavish, exhaustive and probing history of America’s other homegrown music. But Burns highlights how, far from the good ol’ boy stereotype, from the very first country music was a melting pot of many diverse voices and cultures, with a strong African influence as slave songs, spirituals and blues styles merged with the traditional Scots-Irish folk roots of the “hillbilly” sound. Opening with a double bill, tonight’s first episode offers profiles of the founding superstars of the music, The Carter Family, with their ballads and old hymns, and Jimmie Rodgers, who added yodelling to the stew. Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard and Rosanne Cash are among the many interviewees.


The Sinner

9.10pm, BBC Four

Going out in the traditional double bills, a second series for the import drama that breaks the most sacred rule of BBC Four’s Eurocrime nights: it’s American. The excellent Bill Pullman returns as crinkly, kinky cop Harry Ambrose, who is called in as a favour to help with a case back in his old hometown in upstate New York. Two people have been found dead in a motel, apparently poisoned. Evidence quickly seems to be pointing to the couple’s teenage son, Julian (Elisha Henig), as the killer. But details don’t quite sit right with Harry, and soon, joining forces with the investigating detective, Heather Novack (Natalie Paul) – the newly promoted daughter of an old pal of Harry’s – he is digging up the secrets of the place he left years before, particularly a mysterious commune on the outskirts of town.