sun 21/07/2024

The Outcast, BBC One / Marvel's Agent Carter, Fox | reviews, news & interviews

The Outcast, BBC One / Marvel's Agent Carter, Fox

The Outcast, BBC One / Marvel's Agent Carter, Fox

Dark days in post-war suburbia, and another hit from the Marvel stable

Greg Wise and Jessica Brown Findlay as Gilbert and Alice Aldridge in 'The Outcast'

Adapted in two parts by Sadie Jones from her own 2008 novel, The Outcast (**) is a morbid tale of emotional sterility and many kinds of self-harm. Leaving his troubled childhood for an even worse young-adulthood, our "hero", Lewis Aldridge, carves a great gash down his forearm with a cut-throat razor. However, he's only the most extreme case in a whole gallery of weirdos.

The story opened in England just after World War Two. Period cars and trucks and Blitz bomb damage had all been dutifully marshalled, and the officers' club where Elizabeth Aldridge (Hattie Morahan) reunited with husband Gilbert (Greg Wise), just back from hostilities, reeked of whisky, tobacco and insufficiently-aired tweed.

You could hardly avoid assuming that Sadie Jones's chief purpose was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the English middle classes, presented here in any shade you could desire as long as it was black. Gilbert is cold, brittle and authoritarian, and about as good at fatherhood as he would be at pouring out his soul to Oprah. He packs the sweet-faced young Lewis (Finn Elliot) off  to boarding school, where he fails to thrive. Still, at least Gilbert has the excuse that he's been away at war, which can't be said for Dicky Carmichael (Nathaniel Parker, pictured above), Gilbert's peacetime employer and Big Beast of his Home Counties social set. The inference is that he was a cynical war profiteer, and he thrashes his daughter Kit with his belt while treating family and friends like galley slaves.

It was the accidental drowning of his mother (slightly sozzled with gin) that really sent Lewis off the rails. His mother's ruin set Lewis off on a trail that led to him – once he'd grown older and turned into George MacKay, who looks nothing like his younger self – spending his nights staggering around jazz clubs in the West End, swigging from bottles of now-talismanic gin. Lewis became the titular outcast, bullied by the local boys while his late mother was mocked as a drunk by the censorious local wives.

Lewis ended episode one by being jailed for arson, but one suspects there's plenty more to come about his relationship with his new stepmother Alice (Jessica Brown Findlay), and for that matter with Kit Carmichael, a bit of an outcast herself. But it might be best if this miserable bunch of one-dimensional caricatures was obliterated by an unexploded Luftwaffe bomb. The BBC is always telling us how marvellous its drama output is, but it quite often isn't.   Much lighter and brighter, although also set in the aftermath of WW2, is Marvel's Agent Carter (Fox) (****), where Hayley Atwell (pictured above) reprises the role of Peggy Carter which she pioneered in Captain America: the First Avenger in 2011. Like that movie, the series presents a beautifully-realised idyll of 1940s New York, shot in lush Technicolor tones and packed with classic diners, office buildings, streetscapes, popular songs and automobiles. And clothes of course, many of them modelled with brio by Atwell.

This opener involved the theft of a stockpile of potentially planet-threatening inventions created by the brilliant (and Howard Hughes-like) Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). The authorities thought he'd been selling them to nefarious persons unknown, and were hounding Stark for committing treason. Before speeding off into the night in his motor launch, Stark entrusted the doughty Peggy with finding the real culprits.

This involved lots of badinage, sabotage, persiflage and décolletage, and in among the trilby-tilting villains and Peggy's kick-ass antics were some smart aperçus about a woman's lot in 1946 New York, when the GIs were coming home and sending all the working women back to domestic drudgery. Peggy had some smart comebacks to the casual assumption by her boss Roger Dooley (Shea Whigham, from Boardwalk Empire) that all she was good for was filing and answering phones, and one for her female flatmate too. "There's a difference between being an independent woman and a spinster," said the latter. "Is it the shoes?" retorted Peggy. Way to go.

You could hardly avoid assuming that Sadie Jones's chief purpose was to wreak a terrible vengeance on the English middle classes

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The Arts Desk TV critic betrays his age in one word when he accounts for The Outcast’s stiffly correct postwar middle class as “weirdos”, when they were in fact the norm. I suspect he missed the aeon when children were “to be seen and not heard” as well as the thawing of deference in the Swinging Sixties which heralded the touchy-feely modern world where parents and children are permitted to have psychologies. The constipated British inability to deal with our emotional lives is historic and last night’s relentless TV drama is totally recognisable to this member of the postwar baby boom. So too the ways in which people’s fortunes were routinely beyond their own control in a society where somebody else – invariably male, from headmasters to fathers to bosses – had the privilege to be “right” about things impinging on an individual’s own progress. A lucky few such as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard had the occasional opportunity to administer retribution upon themselves for breaking the rules across the tracks on the Brief Encounter platform. But for centuries up until 1966, most Britons lived within a humiliating grid of convention and propriety that we rightly find abhorrent today.

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