TV Mini Series – Chernobyl

Horrifying yet gripping, this series is both hard to watch and compulsive viewing. HBO has produced five episodes, about seventy minutes each, which give an account of what happened at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine in 1986.
The series starts in the home of a man, whom we later learn to be a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, in the aftermath of the disaster. It then moves inside the control room of the plant on the fateful day, when, of all things, a safety check is being conducted. A sense of dysfunction and panic pervades the room. We are taken then to the nearby high-rises where people go about their normal lives, but soon congregate on a railway bridge to watch the awe-inspiring sight of the power plant on fire and the glowing sky.

The following episodes track the initial denial of the seriousness of the disaster, followed by the reluctant but inevitable recognition that immediate and drastic action is required to limit the catastrophe. The story revolves around three figures – Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a leading Soviet nuclear physicist, Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister, and a fictional character, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) who is a composite of various concerned Soviet nuclear physicists. It depicts a political system designed to protect its reputation above all other things. The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary working men and women is in stark contrast to the self-serving cowardice and incompetence of the political class and time-servers. The cost imposed on the innocents living in proximity to the plant is most vividly represented by the fate of one of the firemen initially sent on the hopeless task of putting out the fire, and his pregnant wife.

It brings to my mind the denial and obfuscation by our own incompetent, self-serving political class, incapable of even recognising, let alone addressing the clear and present dangers of climate change.

The series has had mixed reviews in Russia, where it is viewed by some as an unfair portrayal of the response to the disaster. Certainly, some of the characters appear to be one-dimensional. The use of the composite character of Ulana Khomyuk has also been criticised as misrepresenting the efforts of the wider Soviet scientific community.
Regardless of these shortcomings, this is a terrifying and timely reminder of what can go wrong when corners are cut, workers are not trained sufficiently and political imperatives override the welfare of the community. In the case of a nuclear power plant, unimaginable disaster is the inevitable result.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

TV Mini-Series – Catch-22

It must be 40 years since I read Joseph Heller’s classic. I’m sure that many people younger than me who use / misuse the term “catch-22” have never heard of Heller, let alone read the book. This six-part mini-series, directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras, is a brilliant adaptation of the novel. It’s so long since I read the book, I cannot, however, attest to its faithfulness to the original.

What I can say is that it is in equal parts moving, hilarious, farcical, depressing, cynical and, I suspect, very accurate, in relation to the reality of war. The main role of John Yossarian (‘Yo-Yo’) is a played by Christopher Abbott. Abbott manages to capture Yo-Yo’s endearing combination of intelligence, naiveté, passion, bravery, compassion, humour and sensitivity. His facial expressions in particular are highly skilled and the camera close-ups on his face are a key part of setting the tone of the production. It’s one of those performances which make it hard for anyone else to play the role.

Clooney has a significant part as the eccentric Scheisskopf. Almost stealing the show is Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder, the fast talking but lovable budding capitalist, who finds the most inventive ways of making money out of war (presaging perhaps the rise of disaster capitalism, Bechtel, Halliburton etc.). Hugh Laurie appears early on, including the central role in one of the funniest scenes in the whole series. Not all of the characters are funny and likeable however, and the cruelty of war is represented, though perhaps not as fully as it might be.

Yossarian finds himself trapped in a paradise island off the coast of Italy, which the U.S. army air force is using as a base to bomb the German forces on the mainland. His life consists of contrasting periods – swimming in pristine waters, boredom awaiting the next mission and the nightmare of being a sitting target in a bomber aircraft flying over Italy. The erosion of his sanity progresses steadily until the last episode, in which the viewer is confronted with the full horror and futility of war and the contorted logic of those in command.

Highly recommended.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

TV Review: “A Very English Scandal”

If you lived in the U.K. in the ’70s, you would have been enthralled by the “Jeremy Thorpe Affair”. Thorpe was leader of the Liberal Party, a party which was truly liberal and not hard right-wing like the Australian party of the same name. Thorpe was, I think, generally regarded as a good guy by progressive people. If there was preferential voting in the U.K. I might have voted Labour 1, Liberals 2. He was anti-hanging, pro-immigrant, pro-Europe and critical of oppressive regimes such as South Africa and Rhodesia.

This three-part series starts at the time when Thorpe was doing well, and close to gaining significant power. The scandal that brought him down was his affair with Norman Scott, which developed into a serious relationship, but later turned ugly.

Thorpe is played by Hugh Grant and Scott by Ben Whishaw. It is based on a “true-life novel” by John Preston. I’m no fan of Hugh Grant but he makes a great Thorpe. Grant has an uncanny facial likeness to Thorpe (see below), although at times his English upper-class mannerisms kept reminding me of Hugh Laurie’s Prince George in “Blackadder”.

jeremy-thorpe-and-hugh-grant-d122798

Whishaw also does well as Scott. It’s impossible to know if Scott really was as effeminate as portrayed, and again, at times, the mannerisms were very “Ooh Betty” / “Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em”. Nevertheless, it is a performance of great sensitivity, and I emerged having a great deal of sympathy for both Scott and Thorpe.

This is a gripping series, worth watching as a thriller even if you don’t know the background to the events.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Image: https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-01-15/the-real-history-behind-a-very-english-scandal-and-the-jeremy-thorpe-affair/