The week in TV: The Responder; Spacey Unmasked; Doctor Who; Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly – review

The Responder (BBC One)
Spacey Unmasked (Channel 4)
Doctor Who (BBC One)
Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly (BBC Two)

You’d be forgiven for feeling jittery about series two of former policeman Tony Schumacher’s acclaimed Liverpool-set drama The Responder, starring Martin Freeman as a burnt-out officer. Has it returned overly self-aware? A bit too pleased with itself? Fear not, this series is just as full of juice, bite and desperation: a criminal underworld drugs saga, but also a funny/sad survey of humanity as a slowly spreading bruise.

Compromised night cop Chris Carson is one of the defining roles of Freeman’s career, for which he deservedly won an International Emmy. You almost sense his acting-skeleton resetting to play Carson, who continues to be a mess of stubble, sleep deprivation and forced and unforced poor decisions. Trying to wrangle a day job to stop his ex-wife moving away with their daughter. Attending a men’s group for inadequate therapy. Dancing too closely with criminal bosses. Dealing with fraught people with mental health issues (it isn’t long before he’s threatened by a man wielding a dog turd).

Other characters return: novice cop Rachel (Adelayo Adedayo), still reeling from past domestic abuse; small-fry felons Casey and Marco (again played vividly by Emily Fairn and Josh Finan). While former Brookside cast members waft around, the recently deceased Bernard Hill plays Carson’s abusive father. Hill broke through in a seminal Merseyside role, playing Yosser in Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Black Stuff. Here, he delivers a study of familial dysfunction, sagging in an armchair, with eyes as hard as pebbledash. Carson despairs: “He can’t even wipe his own arse any more and I’m fucking terrified of that man.”

This series has less of a hazy nocturnal flavour than the first. It’s also cratered with plot holes, and supposedly hardened criminals seem about as tough as wet-wipes (scenes involving intimidation and, even, at one point, hammers, should be terrifying but feel curiously low stakes). Still, I love it. The Responder remains a scuffed gem of a police drama, equal parts brutal, melancholy and uplifting.

On Channel 4, Katherine Haywood’s two-part docuseries, Spacey Unmasked, features more inappropriate behaviour allegations against Oscar-winning Hollywood actor and former director of London’s Old Vic, Kevin Spacey. Producer Dorothy Byrne hopes the documentary will prompt “a #MeToo moment for men”.

It bears restating that Spacey has been cleared of prior allegations in courts in both the US and UK. In fact, before the documentary aired, the actor took part in a sprawling right to reply-style interview with Dan Wootton on social media, refuting any notion of criminality, though accepting he could have made “clumsy” approaches to some men. (The seriousness of the matter is undercut by Wootton – formerly of the GB News parish for, erm, reasons – who can’t stop excitedly popping starstruck eyes at his famous interviewee like a Zoom-literate vampire.)

Kevin Spacey leaves Southwark Crown Court last July after he was found not guilty of sexually assaulting four men. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Getting back to Spacey Unmasked, it’s certainly hard-hitting, featuring testimonies from 10 men (only one of whom has spoken before), with allegations spanning five decades. Some accusers are gay, others straight. Some hoped Spacey would mentor them (one heterosexual man even tried to give him oral sex). One man reports being harassed on Spacey’s hit Netflix show, House of Cards. Another says Spacey sat next to him in a cinema masturbating to scenes of carnage in Saving Private Ryan. A former Old Vic staff member claims Spacey’s groin rubbed against his face during a performance of a family panto.

There are also interviews with Spacey’s estranged brother Randy Fowler, who talks about their father: a monster who, Randy says, collected Nazi memorabilia and sexually abused him. Randy relates this while being flamboyantly (and rather distractingly) styled. He explains he dresses this way to counteract his dark upbringing, though, in yet another strange associated detail, he’s also said to be a Rod Stewart impersonator.

The result is a powerful albeit uneven documentary. While the central subject is the fresh allegations, it also seems to be about homophobia, internalised prejudice and how power imbalances can lead to abuse. Accusers repeatedly talk of being cowed by Spacey’s celebrity and standing. Some still seem uncomfortable about speaking. At one point, a former marine becomes upset, stops his interview, and walks away, saying: “I don’t want this to be a fucking victim thing.” It makes for difficult and tense viewing.

After a flurry of Whovian specials, anniversaries and whatnot, Doctor Who is back for a proper new series. Again run by the mighty Russell T Davies (the original newform Doctor Who showrunner 2005-2010, returning last year), the double-bill opener launched on iPlayer at Friday midnight with a later BBC1 showing on Saturday evening. The involvement of Disney+ clearly means keeping US audiences happy. Happier than UK viewers?

I’m a firm fan of Ncuti Gatwa’s fifteenth Doctor (a riotous wit, swaggering around the multiverse preaching inclusivity in a clubber’s maxicoat), and of Millie Gibson as perky companion Ruby (who won’t be returning for the next series). I also enjoyed the first story, Space Babies, about romper-suited stroller-bound tots running a population-boosting “baby farm” on a space station. Well, initially. It’s cute and offbeat, until it gets a little too playground.

‘Swaggering around the multiverse preaching inclusivity’: Ncuti Gatwa as the Doctor. Photograph: James Pardon/Bad Wolf/BBC Studios

It’s a similar story with the second offering. In The Devil’s Chord, the Doctor and Ruby travel back to 1963 to witness the making of the Beatles’ first album, only to discover that music has lost its meaning. The villain, Maestro, is nicely played in high-camp style by drag artist Jinkx Monsoon, but once again the episode explodes into a soufflé of over-fizzy silliness.

I know it’s family viewing, but Doctor Who always has been, and nobody minded scaring the kids before. Beautifully fashioned as these openers are, they’re on the tame side. With Davies at the helm, I’m sure things will rev up (and previous Who scriptwriter Steven Moffat has written a future episode). It would be a shame to waste such a groovy timelord.

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The BBC Two documentary Salman Rushdie: Through a Glass Darkly brought it home that however much something may be anticipated, it doesn’t lessen the devastation of it happening.

In Through a Glass Darkly, Salman Rushdie speaks to Alan Yentob, right, about his stabbing in 2022. Photograph: BBC

Talking to Alan Yentob, Rushdie spoke of the experience of being repeatedly stabbed while speaking onstage at an arts festival in upstate New York (his assailant found Rushdie “disingenuous”), and his subsequent survival (the subject of his new memoir, Knife). He also refers to his earlier book, The Satanic Verses, and the 1989 fatwa placed on him by the late Ayatollah Khomeini that sent him into years of hiding.

It’s fierce, frightening stuff. Rushdie’s wrecked, sightless eye which, post-attack, lolled on his cheek like a “soft-boiled egg”, now lurks behind a dark spectacle lens. This is a documentary that calmly and plainly outlines the vicious attack on Rushdie, but its real theme is freedom of speech.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Responder
★★★★
Spacey Unmasked
★★★★
Doctor Who
★★★
Salman Rushdie: Through A Glass Darkly
★★★★

What else I’m watching

Inside No 9
(
BBC Two)
Ninth (and final) series of the commendably off-kilter anthology. The eerie opener is about people trapped on a train, with a guest cast including Siobhan Finneran, Mark Bonnar and Charlie Cooper.

Dark Matter
(
Apple TV+)
Sci-fi thriller created by Blake Crouch – and adapted from his 2016 bestseller – about a man grappling with multiple alternate realities. Starring Joel Edgerton, it’s pitched where clever meets labyrinthine.

I Kissed a Girl
(BBC Three)
Follow-up to last year’s I Kissed a Boy, the gay male dating show that was so much fun it made Love Island look lifeless. This time, lesbian/bisexual women look for love. Hosted by Danni Minogue.

The Guardian