Aidan Smith's TV week: Fifteen-Love (Prime Video), The Sixth Commandment (BBC1), University Challenge (BBC2)
No amount of encouragement is ever enough as the player grimaces and gesticulates in his direction. Why isn’t this match going my way? Did you tell me the guy had a forehand like a medieval trebuchet? What the hell am I paying you for?
Fifteen-Love, though, applies heavy topspin to the dynamic. A six-part drama from Prime Video, it has Aidan Turner as very much the Svengali to his charges, at least at the start. “Tennis coaches are controlling by nature,” remarks someone in awed tones, referring to Turner’s character, Glenn Lapthorn. “He loves the power,” says another, adding: “Men like him are dangerous.”
His first protege is Justine Pearce, just 16 but on the brink of a fabulous triumph at the French Open, only to collapse in agony on the red clay of Roland-Garros. Fast-forward five years and Lapthorn is the toast of Paris, having tutored another young player to Grand Slam glory. Meanwhile Justine is getting smashed - not in the tennis sense - in a nightclub.
Her career is over, wrecked by injury to her wrist, and she’s working as a physio at a hothousing academy. Fleetingly, you might be thinking of Emma Raducanu who burst onto the scene as a teenager before wrist injuries stalled her progress. Well, stop right there. Coaches are an issue for Raducanu, right enough: she can’t seem to stop chopping and changing them. But Justine’s mentor is, or was, an altogether bigger and more sinister problem. When he re-enters her orbit as the academy’s guru-in-residence she marches off to the local police station and files an accusation of sexual assault, alleging: “It happened many, many times.”
With a racket in his hand instead of a scythe, Turner is as swishy and dishy as he was in Poldark. For the first episode, anyway. Then suddenly the Wimbledon-white smile appears forced. Mildly panicking, he becomes more oleaginous, more creepy. In danger of being typecast as beefcake - the winner of “Chest-hair of the Year” in perpetuity - I imagine Turner enjoys these darker tones immensely, even though the shirt comes off again.
As a study of the abuse of positions of trust, Fifteen-Love is soapy. “We made each other and then we broke each other,” Lapthorn tells Justine. “It was intense,” he says of their relationship. “A mad high which swallowed us up.” The subject matter is obviously serious, so it’s a distraction when Lapthorn’s new champ flounces into view as I’m convinced it’s Plastic Bertrand, the Belgian punk rocker, and that he’s about to utter the immortal first line of that solitary 1978 hit: “Wam! Bam! Mon chat, splatch!”
Ella Lily Hyland is excellent as Justine who keeps us guessing about her motivation. Jealousy? Rejection? Revenge? There are laws protecting young athletes but the historical nature of the case seems to save Lapthorn, and although he must face a hearing at the academy, it finds in his favour. That should be the end of the matter - he hopes - but then Justine discovers he has designs on another starlet coming through the ranks.
I wonder what Andy Murray makes of Fifteen-Love. If he laughs at lines like “Anger is like petrol - it can power your engine or send you up in a fireball” - then that cannot have been the producers’ intentions.
But turning sport into drama has always been problematic. Actors are unable to replicate the speed and skill of athletes, not least on a tennis court. And this deficiency is all the more marked coming in what is a golden age for sports documentaries.
The on-court action in Fifteen-Love isn’t actually that terrible. It’s slicker than in the romcoms Wimbledon and Match Point, although the crowd scenes - tightly-packed ra-ra-ra-ing because casts of thousands haven’t been employed - are as risible as ever. And of course a truly monumental encounter - that final between Novak Djokovic and the sensational new young prince of SW19, Carlos Alcaraz, requiring no CGI - is still vivid in the mind.
The Sixth Commandment (BBC1) is horrible and heartbreaking. It’s the polar opposite of a drama like Last Tango in Halifax where oldsters surprised themselves by finding love in the autumn of their years, drank lots of tea and lived happily ever after. The latter was fiction, this is true crime, the tea being poisoned.
You may remember the story of Peter Farquhar and Ann Moore-Martin; they were the victims of what the tabloids dubbed the “Midsomer Murders”. Anne Reid, who was in Halifax, is Moore-Martin and Timothy Spall is Farquhar, originally from Edinburgh - the neighbours in Stowe, Buckinghamshire who let a stranger into their homes and paid a terrible price.
Both are folk of deep faith - kind, trusting, eminently capable of seeing the good in everybody and possibly the last people in England to leave their back doors open. A young churchwarden, Ben Field (Eanna Hardwicke), enters via the front, dispenses charm, makes himself indispensable, instigates romance in spite of the age gap and persuades them to change their wills so he becomes the main beneficiary.
The performances - including that of Hardwicke’s sadist - are superb. Spall etches a portrait of almost unbearable poignancy as the lonely scholar who microwaves his meals for one, tends the bird table, scribbles in his journal and confesses: “I do not think it’s possible for me to be loved.” Just about the last thing he does before Field’s mental torture begins is plonk himself in front of the TV to pit his bright mind against the students of University Challenge.
Paxo era, of course. Jeremy Paxman asked the questions for 29 years. Now it’s Amol Rajan, a busy man who’ll do well to match that and who, if you don’t listen to the Today programme, was most conspicuous recently as the interrogator of Phillip Schofield.
This is much more edifying, quizzing the nation’s young brainboxes, although in the first edition of the 53rd series on BBC2 I’m distracted by his bling. How can I possibly hope to answer a maths question about the golden ratio when I’m being dazzled by his gold rings (three of them), gold watch (chunky), tiepin and ear stud?
This is rapper-level trinkleture which - fingers on buzzers, no conferring - is not an actual word. I’m guessing that if Rajan were ever to interview Dizzee Rascal, as Paxo once did, he would not harrumphily address him as “Mr Rascal”. (And, no, harrumphily isn’t a word either).
It’s pleasing to report that the first buzzing finger belongs to a Scot - Agnijo Banerjee from Dundee, representing Trinity College, Cambridge. How does your idiot-lantern reviewer fare? Well, I get the Beatles question right, and some of the other musical ones (shoegazing, Purcell, woohoo) but am stumped by “platinum electrodes coated with silver chloride in an acidic solution”. (As are you - don’t kid me)..
There’s always one undergraduate who struggles to get into the game. Here it’s Bluma de los Reyes-White from Manchester Uni, resplendent of name and multi-badged hat, though he comes good at the end and forces a tiepin. I’m sorry, Amol’s jewellery is too much - I mean tiebreak.
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