Bleak, unashamedly macho and grown-up: BBC2's The North Water reviewed

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

11 September 2021

9:00 AM

The North Water; Fever Pitch! The Rise of the Premier League


‘The world is hell, and men are both the tormented souls and the devils within it.’ This was the cheery epigraph from Schopenhauer with which The North Water introduced itself — aptly, as it transpired. Certainly, BBC2’s starry new Victorian drama is not for those who prefer their television characters to be loveable.

The first person we met was Irishman Henry Drax (Colin Farrell), who gruntingly concluded his business with a Hull prostitute before heading for the docks in a way familiar to viewers of Victorian TV dramas: shamble up the cobbles, straight on past the women in shawls, turn left at the urchins. Following a restorative dose of rum, he just had time to smash a fellow drinker over the head with a shillelagh prior to joining the Volunteer Arctic whaling ship where he soon proved not to be a rare bad apple. The first mate is Cavendish (Sam Spruell), approvingly described by the ship’s owner as ‘a great turd and whoremonger’. The owner himself (Tom Courtenay) is a greedy crook who appears to be planning an insurance scam with the captain (the suddenly ubiquitous Stephen Graham).

For a while, mind you, it did seem as if a more respectable citizen had managed to smuggle himself on board. The ship’s surgeon Mr Sumner (Jack O’Connell) arrived with a journal, a sketchbook and a copy of Homer. Talking about his time in Delhi, he even took the impeccably liberal line that hanging Indians for smiling was perhaps a little harsh. But that was before we discovered Sumner’s fondness for lashings of laudanum and the fact that his previous post had ended in a court martial. Possibly worse for modern sensibilities, he also joined in enthusiastically with the mass slaughter of seals.

All in all, then, it’s hard to think of a recent BBC show that’s been so unashamedly macho — not just in content, but in style too. For one thing, there’s the highly unusual sight of a male-led cast. For another, to its great credit, The North Water spares us any editorialising on the shortcomings of imperial masculinity. Instead, it simply presents it with something approaching relish, almost as if we might be able to notice those shortcomings for ourselves. (Still, at least it doesn’t divide its women into whores and virgins — largely because there aren’t any virgins.) The atmosphere is suitably claustrophobic, and the cast as well as the characters often seem engaged in a bracing contest to out-butch each other. Even the advance publicity gets in on the macho act, with its proud boast that this is ‘the furthest north a drama has ever been filmed’.

Of course, it may yet be that once the actual whaling begins, the series won’t be able to keep its 21st-century antennae from intrusively twitching. So far, though, it’s going about its rather old-fashioned business with dark aplomb.

Machismo of a more contemporary sort was on display in Fever Pitch! The Rise of the Premier League — not so much from the many players interviewed as from the Sky executives and club chairmen who spotted the chance to cash in on football’s revival in popularity after Italia 90.

In some ways, the relationship was not unlike that between American heiresses and impoverished British aristocrats in the late 19th century, with Sky supplying the money and football the sense of history — and, on the whole, the programme was content to be an entertaining romp through the received triumphalist tale of an ideal marriage. It also stressed how much the success of the first season owed to Eric Cantona, brought to Manchester United by Alex Ferguson despite a reputation for being a bit difficult. (A clip from his time in France featured him patiently explaining that the problem with his then coach was the man being ‘un sac de merde’.) Not only did Cantona give the content-provider plenty of great content to provide, he also brought to the wider public a whole new type of footballer. ‘He was different,’ confirmed team-mate Gary Pallister — adding in a tone of candid wonderment that: ‘He did art.’

The programme had some less reverent fun along the way with Sky’s doomed efforts to make footy matches into American-style sports events. The cheerleaders, for example, never caught on, for all the commentators’ plucky attempts to impersonate helpless lechery. (Think Top of the Pops presenters introducing Legs & Co.) The It’s a Knockout-style games at half-time were greeted with full-throated chants of sweary disbelief. There was also a memorable clip from an early press conference when Michael Crick asked Rupert Murdoch if Sky’s TV journalism would be of the same kind as the Sun’s. ‘It will be totally different,’ Murdoch replied angrily. ‘It will be absolutely first-class.’

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