The week in TV: The Pembrokeshire Murders; The Great Pottery Throw Down and more

Euan Ferguson
·7-min read

The Pembrokeshire Murders (ITV) | ITV Hub
The Great Pottery Throw Down (Channel 4) | All 4
Death in Bollywood (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema: British Comedy (BBC Four) | iPlayer
A Perfect Planet
(BBC One) | iPlayer

The Pembrokeshire Murders was immensely boring, and that is not a criticism at all. Quite the opposite. This drama told, with direct truth, over three nights, the story of so much police work in this nation: late-night resentments at checking again; the hot, damp sigh, effulgent with garlic despair, of the 2am microwave. The stultifying boredom at having to pointlessly trawl, of a dull, Welsh winter morning, newsagents or petrol stations or car park CCTVs, in a 3% hope. This had it all.

As such it was a triumph, in that it showed us that the punch-the-air moments so usually depicted in cop drama don’t actually happen. Instead, Luke Evans and Alexandria Riley, as the two lead investigators among a small focused group, spoke boringly of age-degraded trace DNA and such, sharply linked murders and rapes when it started looking as though there was a serial offender loose around that dramatic coastal path in the late 80s: and eventually got their man. And went home. ITV did rather well: they told truth, excitingly.

I am fast becoming more of a fan of The Great Pottery Throw Down than of Channel 4’s sister same-team production, Bake Off. Anyone, or so it seems in lockdown, can fling a cake together, but precious few can chuck a lump of clay with just-so precision at the middle of a wheel let alone magick it after firing into a cheese dome or, I don’t know, a flight of storks or, by the end of the series, I suspect a half-scale Sydney Opera House, or Capitol building replete with pint-sized QAnon neds.

Part of the charm is the waits, which are so fraught, especially after the glazing. For some reason the constituent advertised colour of the glaze bears no relation to the eventual colour after three hours of firepit: it’s all alchemy, and they can’t exactly, as can the bakers, pop their heads into the kiln to “just check”. So Emilia and Stefan could pronounce themselves satisfied, with quiet hmm-smiles, at getting the saltpepper-grey doggies and luminous honey slather just right. I would have been doing naked cartwheels straight into the kiln. Judge Keith Brymer Jones, of course, wept.

I know it’s just a bit of heartwarming skill, leavened this year by a fab new presenter, Derry Girls’ Siobhán McSweeney, who brings both an arch dryness and a hugsome warmth, but sometimes a bit of even manipulated heartwarming is just the very dab after serial killers.

More death awaited in – actually the title may have given it away – Death in Bollywood. The first episode might have put off a few viewers, seemingly little more than a starry piece about the London-raised Bollywood star Nafisa “Jiah” Khan, who was found hanged in her Mumbai home in 2013. It came complete with glamour shots and postmortem shots, rather unsettlingly, as her mother and sisters continue a campaign to prove that justice has somehow been ill-served.

The more this true-story series ran over three nights, however, the more obvious it was that we were in the midst of a thorough exploration not just of Jiah’s story but that of Bollywood. The second episode concentrated on her on-off actor boyfriend, Sooraj Pancholi, who was growing tired of her fitful moods, and may indeed have contributed to her suicide. The third focused on Jiah’s mother, Rabia, an eager spokeswoman through all three episodes, who was convinced first that her daughter could never have done that deed, then that Sooraj was grossly responsible, then that it was murder, possibly by Sooraj’s father.

Finally, here, we got to know Jiah. The goofy, funny, huggy, older sister with breathtaking looks, flown to Mumbai’s Bollywood in her late teens and asked, essentially, to play Lolita. We saw, too, how her associated film-makers were discredited, chiefly thanks to #MeToo, which came about four years too late for Jiah.

Jiah Khan in Death in Bollywood
Jiah Khan in Death in Bollywood: ‘a viper’s pit’. Photograph: Farrokh Chothia/BBC/Grain Media/Rabia Khan/Jiah Khan

It was, according to every subsequent report, suicide: she had been woefully depressed. Rabia has taken the case to many Indian courts, and continues to pursue in the face of all available facts. I couldn’t help feeling she has been indulged by general goodwill. A mother’s confused fury; an industry’s kneejerk, post hoc, blame-gaming: a viper’s pit, but an immense rewatch to those whose brains might be open to rethinking. About “stardom”; about the right of a mother or sister (or indeed a boyfriend) to ever “know” and speak for another individual.

I have nothing but slack-jawed respect for our film critic Mark Kermode, but couldn’t help finding something about the first of his new Secrets of Cinema outings a bit jarring. The presentation, writing and jaunty intellect of he and fellow writers Kim Newman and John Das were in evidence as before – so could the subject matter, British Comedy, be to blame? Indeed it could.

I suddenly realised that, for all our itchingly clever and witty telly over the past five decades, for all that the UK prides itself with its lazy exceptionalism on having the best sense of humour in the world: my, we’ve given that world some warty flatulence in cinematic output when it comes to comedy. Somehow, our small-screen wit rarely translates to the bigger canvas (is it some kind of Hollywood “cringe”, the wee, damp, ill-dentitioned land resiling from brash California smiles?), and certainly not in the two decades following 1960.

So, and granted that the first ever star, Chaplin, was a Londoner, this was fairly needs-must packed with clips of the likes of George Formby, Norman Wisdom, the Hot Fuzz/Shaun of the Dead pair and the interminable bloody Carry On team. And I know we’ve also brought to the party the likes of the Pythons, Bill Forsyth, Helen Fielding, Nick Park and Chris Morris/Armando Iannucci, all of whose clips were hugely refreshingly welcome, but somehow what streamed before me seemed woefully often a succession of exaggerated leers, fnaars and men falling off ladders into puddles. In the year US comedy was offering Lemmon and Matthau in The Front Page, the top-grossing British film of 1974 was Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

Kermode did a charmingly analytical job of why this should have been, and managed also to show how, in the rightly celebrated Ealing comedies, the changing role of the “little man” was so successful in reflecting fast-changing postwar attitudes, but I’m afraid the rest of all our world must have seen, for long, long years, a Britain possessed of keen amateur racism and a blitheringly infantile obsession with, and fear of, s.e.x.

Despite yet another glorious, enthralling, bloody and awesome – in the vital and literal senses – series from Attenborough and team, the chief draws in A Perfect Planet are to many becoming the behind-the-scenes end sections, the “how the fandoodle did they even get there?” bits. Cameraman Rolf Steinmann’s dream to first film, in the six-month winter night, the wolves of Ellesmere Island, in Arctic Canada, was a case in point last Sunday. Suddenly, at 50C below, the drone operator balked: “I can’t feel my fingers. I literally can’t do it. It’s too cold.” Finally, a human among the übermenschen. Of course it’s too cold! You shouldn’t even be there!