TV review: Fargo, Endeavour and Jamaica Inn


The Standard’s resident small screen examiner James Waller-Davies takes a look at the week on television.

Drama returned in all its glory and variety this week. We had a redeemed favourite, a new classic and a mumbled and muffled disappointment.

Endeavour (ITV) stormed back to form in the last episode of series two. After episode one this column was lamenting the fact that fans were unlikely to see a series three - now we can’t wait.

The Masonic corruption thread that has been running all series came to a head in a dramatic climax and a lingering cliff-hanger.

It had a body-count and plot complexity of which Hamlet would have been proud. With Morse trying to dig up bodies from the past, the corpses in the present were also starting to stack up.

Having seen Roger Allam’s DI Thursday shot by a corrupt Assistant Chief Constable Deare, Morse stared down Deare’s gun barrel only to see him shot by a revengeful victim, who then shot herself. Shakespeare would have loved it.

And so we wait on the cliff-hanger for the next series with DI Thursday shot but maybe not yet dead and Morse in prison for a murder set-up and committed by a now dead Deare. All this presided over by the prevaricating ‘shall-I-shan’t-I’ Chief Superintendent Bright, superbly played by Anton Lesser.

Series three of Endeavour goes into production later this year, but viewers will have to wait until next year to see how Morse gets out of clink.

Triumph of the week was Fargo (Channel 4). The original Coen brothers’ 1996 film was an instant classic. It remains one of only three films to be inducted into America’s national film archive in the year it was made.

The television series could be in the same class and if it maintains the standard set in the remaining five episodes that it did in the first, then it’s going to be a shoe-in for every American TV award, even allowing for Netflix’s highly rated House of Cards.

Fargo doesn’t fit neatly into a genre category: crime thriller, drama, black comedy or social satire, are all accurate to some extent. Its lineage is that of Blue Velvet, American Beauty, even It’s A Wonderful Life - all films presenting the moral frailty of a middle America that needs little motivation to turn on and eat itself.

Martin Freeman as the beleaguered and always out of his depth Lester Nygaard was great. Billy Bob Thornton as the nonchalantly psychotic hitman Lorne Malvo was fantastic. They are supported by a cast who slip easily between character and caricature.

The graphic violence is not going to endear Fargo to everyone. When mild-mannered and put-upon Lester kills his griping wife, the action goes from a mock comic, almost cartoonesque, first hit of the hammer, to a full-on, frenzied and bloody bludgeoning. The sequence balanced at the end with Lester knocking himself out by running headlong into the wall in a manner reminiscence of the Roadrunner.

Fargo is cinematic television and television is becoming the new cinema. I’m already looking forward to the DVD box set and a ten-hour marathon session sometime in the autumn.

Poor Daphne Du Maurier, she gets such a duff deal out of television and cinema. Alas, dying in 1989, she stuck around long enough to see much of it.

But even had she still been with us for the latest reworking of Jamaica Inn (BBC1), it wouldn’t have mattered: she would barely have picked it out of the gloom and certainly wouldn’t have heard the dialogue.

You can counter a bit of poor sound mixing by turning the TV volume up a notch. For Jamaica Inn, I turned the TV up to the point when the back cover was vibrating.

Then there was the mumbled dialogue. All the male characters sounded like they’d been voiced-over by Joe Grundy from The Archers: “grrrmm, grrwww, phruudd, gweerdd.” Eh? What?

I’m not suggesting that Cornish wreckers of the early nineteenth century spoke in RP, but a little bit of a clue as to what they might have been saying would have helped.

One of the best novelists and storytellers of the twentieth century deserves better than this. Television should add to the experience: if you can’t make a half-decent fist of adaptation, then leave it alone and let us read the books in peace.