DEBORAH ROSS: Timely and heartfelt, yes. But SO annoying
Monday & Tuesday, BBC1
Dark Money is a drama you couldn’t exactly look forward to given its subject – Hollywood child abuse – but it was bound to be powerful, especially as it was written by Levi David Addai, whose previous drama, Damilola, Our Loved Boy, was one of the most affecting pieces of television I have ever seen. So you girded yourself for it. Girded yourself for the distress and the heartbreak and the pain. You can do this, you tell yourself. You must do this. It’s important. You can’t just rewatch Gentleman Jack over and over, even though that is tempting. But the girding proved unnecessary as Dark Money simply doesn’t ring true. And also, we are meant to empathise with the parents here, very much so, but I couldn’t. They are just too plain annoying. So rather than feeling for them, I only wanted to step inside the television and give them a mighty shake.
Family misfortunes: Babou Ceesay, Max Fincham and Jill Halfpenny in Dark Money
The Mensah family are regular, working-class people but have a 13-year-old actor son, Isaac (Max Fincham), who has just returned from making a blockbuster in LA. His excited family throw a ‘welcome home’ party for him, gathering around the film’s trailer, and already I’m thinking: hang on, doesn’t it take months and months of post-production before a trailer is even near ready? There’s a ring at the door and it’s bailiffs as Isaac’s father, Manny (Babou Ceesay), has outstanding parking fines and he then has to borrow the money to pay them off. So the family are broke. We need to know this, as it helps explain what happens later, but quite so clumsily?
Isaac disappears quietly upstairs and his parents, Manny and Sam (Jill Halfpenny), eventually follow. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says, as he hands over his phone and presses play. You can only see the ceiling but Isaac has captured the voice of the film’s producer, Jotham Starr. ‘I don’t like it,’ Isaac is saying. ‘Just help me out. I helped you out, right?’ says Starr, as the sound of a belt unbuckling is heard. This is grim. Distressing. Hard to listen to. Tears stream down Sam’s face and tears stream down Manny’s face. But what are Sam and Manny now going to do? Contact the police? Find out about the professionals who deal with childhood sexual trauma? Talk to Isaac properly? They do none of those things. Isaac has sworn them to secrecy, but as a parent, surely, you must explain why certain people have to know.
They do tell his chaperone (the wonderful Rebecca Front), who also collapses in tears, and a solicitor (who tells them they have no chance fighting this in the American system), and Manny nearly tells a showbiz reporter, so it’s not like they are keeping their promise anyway. Eventually they attend a meeting with the film company – they didn’t think to bring their own legal representation? – which offers them £3 million in return for signing a non-disclosure agreement. This offer will only stand for the next five minutes. They sign.
This is about ordinary people coming up against power and influence, and it’s timely of course. But in episode two we spool forward a year to see that the family have spent the money on a McMansion and Porsche, and we are meant to respect that? If it had to be the cash, it would be for Isaac, right? And Sam and Manny, while suffering themselves, have yet to talk to Isaac about his suffering at all. I also hated the way they treated Isaac’s halfbrother, Tyrone. Neither had a kind word to say to him, so you couldn’t respect them on this front either. (I’m on #TeamTyrone, if anyone asks.) Meanwhile, there was the film’s premiere to get through, as attended by Starr. Poor Manny wanted to stand up to him but couldn’t so walked out into the night, with yet more (self-pitying?) tears streaming down his face. Two further episodes next week but I think we can safely say that the money has not bought them happiness. Boo-hoo.
The first series of Gentleman Jack has now concluded, and it was wonderful. (Interesting factoid: Suranne Jones wore ankle weights, hence Anne Lister’s marvellously galumphing walk.) It was gay, period, and also proper romantic with Anne and Ann (Walker, played by Sophie Rundle) finally declaring their love and sealing it with that hilltop kiss. Plus there has been so much else to enjoy: Marian (Gemma Whelan), Anne’s sister, and everything about her; Ann breaking free from her hateful brother-in-law; Anne galumphing through Copenhagen, being presented at court and flirting with the Queen of Denmark (a playful Sofie Gråbøl). As for the performances, they were all tremendous – Jones is a wonder – as was Sally Wainwright’s script. ‘Don’t hurt me,’ says dear, awkward Anne at one point, ‘I’m not as strong as you think. Well, I am obviously. But sometimes I’m not.’ I don’t know how I shall bear the loss. Except I do.
Poldark returns next week. And maybe Ross will start exploring the 18th-century gay Cornish scene? That would be ideal.