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The week in TV: River; Brett – A Life With No Arms; Black Roses – The Killing of Sophie Lancaster; Unforgotten

Some faces are unchanging. Winston Churchill and, for that matter, George Osborne must have been respectively born/untimely ripped from jackal womb looking pretty much exactly like that. I’m sure Stellan Skarsgård won’t take it the wrong way when I say that his face betrays and celebrates every one of his 64 years.

He made his TV debut in 1968 with Bombi Bitt och jag. Clips still exist. They are partly (obviously) hilarious, but also close to heartbreaking in their wistfulness, a black-and-white lost idyll, a tousle-haired, flaxen lad playing among Sweden’s seas and hay fields. Skarsgård hasn’t ventured back much since to the small screen, choosing instead such wild diversity as Breaking the Waves, Mamma Mia!and the Thor/Avengers franchise, but TV is the new movies, and he’s picked a corker in which to rescale.

At first sight, River is a simple confection of the ho-hum type we have groan to know. Bolshie enigmatic copper with a few determined quirks (being Swedish, loving vinyl, having an 80% clear-up rate), and it’s all so far, so standard police procedural fare, yet nice enough for an autumn night. But it’s written by Abi Morgan, currently riding high with Suffragette, and here, aptly enough during the week of World Mental Health Day, taking the chance in this six-part drama to reflect on the many functioning professionals – police, doctors, writers – who, basically, talk to themselves, and to imaginary others, to a frankly unsettling degree.

‘Hauntingly toxic’: Eddie Marsan in River.
‘Hauntingly toxic’: Eddie Marsan in River. Photograph: BBC/Kudos/Nick Briggs

So John River chats away through the opening credits to his partner, DS Jackie “Stevie” Stevenson, driving over London bridges to the gutsy thump of Tina Charles’s I Love to Love. Stevie, it turns out, was murdered three weeks ago. Only slowly did I, by dint of being a high-functioning cretin, properly realise the faces to whom River is talking are dead people. This could have been surmounted by zooming in, about quarter of an hour down, on the police whiteboard and showing Stevie’s picture at the top – would have been one of those goosebump moments, to which I’m rather partial. But Abi Morgan is a beast of more nuanced hue, and so it’s only when Thomas Neill Cream, the “Lambeth poisoner”, hanged in 1892 – a hauntingly toxic Eddie Marsan – emerges from a modern prison cell that I inhale the full blast of the plot. I’m sure others got there much earlier: the clue I missed was the back of chatty Stevie’s head being all bloodied. I’d thought it was a pretty red fascinator.

Nicola Walker makes a sublime Stevie, and an ebullient, joyful contrast to laconic Swedishness. All the more shame she’s dead. You sense River must long for her vituperative, life-giving cheek, even her fandom of karaoke. There’s particular poignancy to the scene in which he enters a karaoke booth to pay homage: tender, moving and hardly hindered by the fact that Skarsgård’s singing hasn’t improved one whit since Mamma Mia!. River must miss Stevie as much as Skarsgård must miss that flaxen boy.

I just loved it. Superior in almost every way to most workaday thrillers, this grips and intoxicates, and I will miss them all, including Tina Charles, until Tuesday rolls around.

Roger Graef has been making fine films for more than 50 years, and celebrated this milestone by re-filming Brett Nielsen, the subject of his 1965 documentary,One of Them Is Brett. In Brett: A Life With No Arms, Brett plays the piano, runs a production studio, drives cars, operates backhoes, smokes incessantly and does it all with his feet. He must be the only man this (or any other) century to possess niccie stains on his right big toe.

Brett Nielsen meets up again with documentary maker Roger Graef in Brett: A Life With No Arms.
‘What a guy’: Brett Nielsen meets up again with documentary-maker Roger Graef in Brett: A Life With No Arms. Photograph: Michael Angus/BBC/Films

“It’s just not the major part of any day,” says Brett of his lack of arms, the result of his mother having taken just one pill for morning sickness 56 years ago, on day 24 of her pregnancy: I had forgotten the vicious specificity of thalidomide’s effect (pill taken on day 20: brain damage; day 22: eyes and ears; day 24: no arms). It was a toss-up over who was the stronger of the two: his mother (recently deceased), an unsung Aussie heroine, who inculcated a wonderful sense of independence in young Brett and taught him to expect no favours; or Brett, who has staunchly rejected since the age of six all attempts to fit him with awkward prosthetic arms (though surely that discipline has moved on a twitch from early-60s Australia? Thanks be for all wars!) and is now successfully, cheerfully, footing the bill (I’m sure he’d forgive me) for two lovely children, two ex-wives and the building of a huge house by the sea for his father.

Brett has taken the rejection of victim-status so far as to refuse, with that breezy antipodean courtesy that invites no offence – telling someone to go to hell in such a way they start packing for the trip – all entreaties to get involved with class actions against either distributors Distillers Co or thalidomide’s original German druggists, Grünenthal. Such delights, some of those German compound words. Grünenthal: green valley. Buchenwald: beech forest.

He’s finally coming round, 56 years slow, to the nearest he comes to anger, and has released the George Harrison song Isn’t It a Pity, played with his feet (Brett’s feet, not Harrison’s, that would just be bizarre) and accompanying a video to alert Australia to the wrongs wreaked on 10,000 and more. It’s the correct move, but one feels his heart isn’t quite in it. His mantra, slightly too strong meat for the leftie inside some of us, remains “the world doesn’t owe anyone a living”, and he dips the occasional toe into motivational speaking, uurgh. But sometimes that mantra can be insanely refreshing. And watching Brett roll a cigarette with his toes was one of the most life-affirming pieces of film footage I’ve seen. I’ll warrant that sentence will not be written again. Simply: what a guy. What a good sole.

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Julie Hesmondhalgh, ‘searing’ in Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster

The misdoings this past half-century of Distillers and Grünenthal were at least motivated only by rapacious greed, tawdry legalistic weaselling, noxious boardroom odours, that big-boy grownup stuff. The five boys who kicked Sophie Lancaster to death in a Rossendale park in 2007, for dressing differently, were motivated by old back-of-the-brain visceral hatred of the Other. Their crimes tell us much about how far 21st-century Britain has to go. Their crimes, even if fuelled by alcohol and dope, put them smack back in the medieval world of Isis.

With testimony by Sophie’s mother, Sylvia, interspersed most subtly with the most wonderful poetry from Simon Armitage, Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster left me bereft. Julie Hesmondhalgh, in a searing portrayal of Sylvia, cried real tears, I’m convinced (as did I), when stumbling over the tiny detail of a toiletry bag bought for Sophie in the coma unit when there was still a cheerful hope of recovery. Sophie, a complex, kind, meek Goth who relished the rigours of school, died 13 days later. There have since been many public tributes in the name of tolerance, but this was perhaps the finest.

Nicola Walker deserves a second mention for Unforgotten, in its second week and truly steaming ahead into the pantheon of cut-above police thrillers for 2015. Sanjeev Bhaskar, Trevor Eve, Tom Courtenay simply add skilful padding. Truly, TV is the new movies.


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