The week in TV: The Beast Must Die; Before We Die; The Great British Photography Challenge; Breeders | Drama

The Beast Must Die (BritBox) |
Before We Die (Channel 4) |
The Great British Photography Challenge (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Dark Matter: A History of the Afrofuture (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Breeders (Sky One) |

BritBox can be seen a little unkindly as the Gibraltar of streaming services, or the Malta. A bit too keen to embrace expats, a touch overly wrapped in past glories, with somehow a dusty whiff of mid-70s custard creams down the back of the sofa; and no one-worldly sophisto really wants to go there unless there’s absolutely no option, as we’ve just seen with the recent government list of free-to-travel zones. It made a few headlines when it launched with a new Spitting Image, quickly and rightly forgotten, and hasn’t even attempted to engage with original programming since.

But. But. The Beast Must Die is a quite splendid piece of commissioning, and if that standard’s kept up, the platform has a bright future. In many ways this five-parter is simply a triumph of casting. Cush Jumbo can alter from vulnerable to vicious within a thumping heartbeat: her character Bethany’s death in Vera still obscurely affects. Billy Howle is terrific too, as the metropolitan cop transferred to the backward beauties of the Isle of Wight; and of course there’s Jared Harris, never knowingly outacted, as the potty-mouth snob replete with too many Wight acres and a screechingly dysfunctional family.

The plot is based on the 1930s thriller by Cecil Day-Lewis, and in other hands could have been lazily remade as a simple potboily slice of more period. But adapter Gaby Chiappe has really given us a thoroughgoing contemporary updating, not least in changing the lead from Frank to Frances. And so Jumbo’s Frances must wile and nuzzle her way into that odd family to seek biblical revenge for the individual who mowed down her child. It’s atmospheric without being broodingly so, because the plot fairly bounces along (though rather too many Vaseline-lensed flashbacks to the dead kid for my personal taste); music and filming, and that island itself, combine to give a good few heartstop moments, and every interaction between Jumbo and Harris – is she actually falling for him? For the Beast? – crackles.

Before We Die (Channel 4) transplants a well-known Scandi noir to Bristol.

I have to say they’ve done a neat enough job, swirling mists and grim seaweedy docks evoking an imaginarium of hidden threat constantly. And the plot’s a cracker. Adoptive father is rather nastily tortured while on the trail of a Balkan crime gang, into which he has reluctantly planted his own ex-jailbird son. Who will communicate, secretly, with the police from there on in: the kicker is that his handler is, quite unbeknown to either party, his own high-flying cop mother, please do keep up at the back there. Over six episodes it’ll all become clear. Suffice to say it’s cloyingly watchable. The pained eyes in that splendid face of Lesley Sharp; and Vincent Regan as the gruff ex-SIS man, a kind of Gerald Butler gone right, and especially Patrick Gibson as conflicted son Christian, all manage tremendous turns, and the plot attains a wonderful internal logic the further one progresses.

Lesley Sharp and Patrick Gibson in the ‘cloyingly watchable’ Before We Die. Photograph: Sofie Gheysens/Channel 4

I’d have to say that the Croatian drugs gang are (so far) a little straight from central casting, with angry matriarch, trigger-happy fool, fiercely closeted gay man, etc, and mandatory backstory of a village massacre. And there’s a quibble too with the phones: even “burner” phones these days surely have the capacity for colour. Instead we’re reading vital messages between undercover son and mother displayed on what look like Bakelite clamshells from 1993. Yet minor points and supremely forgivable: get yourselves on the edge of that seat.

The latest creative “challenge” to adorn our screens is not baking, jewellery or clobber but, late to the game, photography. In The Great British Photography Challenge (BBC Four), celebrity snapper Rankin, remarkably unshowy and kind, has taken a few under his wing to hope to teach them, and us, snips of this most modern, most universal and most universally abused artform.

Frankly, the first assignments were an ill-considered shambles, using just phone cameras. The New Forest bit with Chris Packham better, and the portraiture, with the very giving Anna Friel, almost a triumph. The secrets would appear to be: lose the ego, any sense you always need to put your own stamp upon it. And that, depressingly, some folk just have an eye for a good picture. Yet: all generalisations are dangerous. Even this one.

A fascinating documentary, Dark Matter: A History of the Afrofuture (BBC Four), waltzed up on Sunday night, attempting, rather successfully, to explain the artistic/political concept of Afrofuturism. The philosophy would seem to be: given that so many transported slaves were denied even the history of where they came from, and effectively found themselves in a wholly alien world, with even their reproductive rights controlled, it’s little surprise that there came a burgeoning movement to embrace that very “otherness” inherited by force, and adapt it to a celebratory sense of inhabiting other worlds.

Sun Ra performing at the Fridge, Brixton, London, in 1985, as featured in Dark Matter.
Sun Ra performing at the Fridge, Brixton, London, in 1985, as featured in Dark Matter. Photograph: David Corio/BBC/Redferns/Getty Images

Ranging from enlightening references to Drexciya, the undersea civilisation imagined in Detroit courtesy of trance music, and based on the mythos of pregnant slaves thrown overboard mid-Atlantic, to the black fascination with both space, as literally room to roam, and space, outer, this was heady intellectual fare for a Sunday night, but repaid in full the effort. The art that has since been created around the movement speaks of oceans of pain, yes, but also a universal brave hope, studded with beauty: a nuanced, constantly surprising, visually arresting watch from the first minute.

North London’s angriest misunderstood father returned in an immensely welcome second series of Breeders (Sky One), the pitch-perfect observational comedy that has Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard united in an ongoing war against – well, it, might be their children one moment, the school the next, overposh or overaccomplished or just snotty rival parents, but mainly it’s just against Life, and a little bit against ageing. It manages a rare piece of straddling, between being very sweary – goodness but young Master Freeman likes his plosives and fricatives – and, just when you think you’ve got its measure, suddenly subtly tender.

There are great little thumb-portraits of entire personalities. For instance, Paul (Freeman) is in therapy early on for anger issues, and the therapist asks: “You put ‘strategies’ in inverted commas there?” “I did, yes. I find most of this stuff belongs in inverted commas, to be honest.” And, from just that, you’ve got entirely the man. Struggling with love for and frustration with children, struggling not to be his own father, and with the older Luke’s troubled school problems, the reasons for which we will have to wait; above all struggling not to care about the fact nothing can be exactly as it was when Luke and Ava were young. The children are, unlike in Motherland, often given centre stage, and in turn the performances from them, and Freeman and Haggard, are in dreadful peril of raising the whole thing beyond comedy to, actually, rather fiercely fine drama.