Sixteen-year-old Sam seems a personable, even charming young man; good-looking, with an open face and a ready smile. Yet you can’t help but feel there’s something a little off about him… his intense interest in other people’s unhappiness, his taking trophies from dead bodies, that kind of thing.
Sam (Jack Rowan, who does a great job) is clearly a walking, talking We Need to Talk about Kevin powderkeg who’s about to go off and do something desperately, irrevocably damaging in this flat, bleak drama.
But first we watch as he makes up stories about the dad he’s never known who supposedly died in Afghanistan, rescues a friend from bullies and takes the blame for a new girl’s school lab arson attempt, earning the thanks of her dad (Daniel Mays).
Meanwhile his anxious mother (Romola Garai) frets because someone she clearly doesn’t want to see might be coming out of prison.
Bernard Cornwell’s saga does a good line in strong female characters. But as you might expect given the shocking state of ninth-century sexual politics, those women are often wronged by their menfolk in one way or another, and tonight King Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed joins their ranks.
Used as a political pawn, the smart and beautiful princess is betrothed to Mercian leader Aethelred, a “pretty bread pudding of a boy” whom she rather liked the look of when their eyes met across a crowded banqueting hall. But the scene of their wedding night is not all she might have hoped for.
It’s one of many encounters that pulse with tension and ugliness. There’s a terrific moment for David Dawson’s repressed King Alfred too, as all his rage at the saga’s hero, Uhtred, boils over in the Saxon equivalent of the hairdryer treatment.
Having sprung Dhari from prison (and shot someone in the process), lovers Jas and Marcus are hiding out from the police. But it’s difficult to maintain your political idealism when you need money to fund your cause (and to buy food occasionally), so Marcus reluctantly gets caught up in violence that has nothing to do with their beliefs.
As a counterpoint to their extremism, Kent (Idris Elba) speaks out against committing random acts of violence in the name of equality. However, in another part of 1970s London, Jas is doing exactly that.
It’s hard to find a better testament to the power of exercise as a tool for mental wellbeing than Rhian. She has PTSD and anxiety after her one-year-old son died suddenly of pneumonia. Her husband disappeared a few days after that tragedy and took his own life, leaving Rhian to raise their surviving children. It’s an ordeal that would test anyone: “I can’t let anything else bad happen to me,” she says.
Rhian is one of ten impressive volunteers with a variety of mental health conditions who have agreed to train for the 2017 London Marathon. Watching them train makes for an inspiring, emotionally charged programme, sensitively helmed by Nick Knowles.
This series is never exactly over-plotted, but this leg of the celebri-dads’ journey is uneventful even by their standards. You could almost get frustrated by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s familiar routines (including a game of Guess The Bill) over another blow-out lunch.
But as an impressions show that somehow got trapped in an indie film, it’s still lovely: Coogan’s early-Bowie-versus-late-Bowie skit is masterful and his John Hurt is a joy. Simple pleasures.