02 May, 2008

What the Papers Say: "The Invisibles"

Caitlin Moran, The Times

The Invisibles: the BBC drama where the inspiration went missing

BBC One's tale of two retired burglars returning to business must have been fun to make - less fun to watch

I know why projects such as The Invisibles exist. And in almost every respect, they exist for positive reasons. They exist because of civilisation. A certain amount of drama has to be made every year, the rationale goes. Why not, then, ensure the bit of drama you're making that year is a very civilised affair? Let other dramas bring together actors throwing 3am tantrums about “integrity”. Let differing ventures tackle scripts that redefine the nature of storytelling, after turning the writers into gibbering, bald alcoholics. Let Robin Hood get shot in a hedge in Hungary, in the sleet, 3,000 miles from the nearest Carluccio's.

Instead - like Kingdom, Doc Martin and Jam and Jerusalem before it - The Invisibles says to its all-star cast, in a very reasonable way: “Hey guys. Guys! We've all been in this business a long time. By any measure, we've earned our chops. Let's shoot something very simple, by the seaside, with nice, long lunch-breaks. How about Devon? Chilled Chablis and seafood. I'll even write complimentary cashmere sweaters for everyone into the script.”

I totally understand it. As a great fan of almost any pleasant situation, I wholeheartedly applaud how very nice the whole thing must have been to make. There cannot be too much loveliness in this world. I'm all gung-ho for gorgeousness.

The only problem is, it's made a bloody awful drama. Really. In places, The Invisibles feels almost Eldorado - that unmistakable feeling that you should be watching it at 4pm, on ITV - and not, as in the case of both, wholly sober, on prime-time BBC One.

In a nutshell, Warren Clarke and Anthony Head are two former “high-class” burglars, who have just spent the past 20 years “going straight”, and turning very orange, in Spain. Returning to Britain, and a sleepy Devon fishing village, at the behest of Head's wife, Jenny Agutter, “the boys” find a reason to go back to their “old ways” within ten minutes. This then cues up a whole series of comedy-drama amusement, based around two OAPs pulling off “big jobs” while complaining about how much their backs hurt, how things used to be different in the old days, and how they'd love a sit down, a cup of tea and a Werther's etc.

Obviously, it could be quite amusing. But the whole thing trots along at a very odd pitch. The primary “Eh?”-prompter is their sidekick, Denzil from Only Fools and Horses (Paul Barber), who functions as the technical side of their operation. Indeed, such is the low effort of The Invisibles' script it's genuinely surprising that he isn't actually called “Techno”. He runs a bafflingly high-spec operation from his retirement villa at the edge of the village - sending encrypted police data to Head and Clarke's mobiles at the press of a button. Reception issues - such as the fact that, in every Devon fishing village I've been to, one has to stand on a bench merely to send a text, let alone upload video film from CTU in 24 - seem neither here nor there.

In addition to this, there comes the problem of Head. While Warren Clarke turns in a solid performance as some manner of loveable-but-dim sidekick - think John Prescott in a balaclava, crashing the getaway vehicle with the words “I only need my glasses when my eyes are tired!” - Head is a slightly ... less sturdy lead. Spending more than half his time engaged in angry Cockney shouting, saying plot-establishy things such as “We've 'ung up our boots! Forgeddit!”, Head unfortunately suffers from rampant, recurring Accent Slide.

At times, it becomes so acute he appears to be taking part in some manner of Accent Pentathlon - one that features the events “Angry Mitchell Brother”, “Someone a Bit Posh”, and “Anthony Newley, Slightly Pissed”. One wonders why the writers insisted he be an angry wideboy. The entire show wouldn't be affected one whit if they'd looked at the character synopses, crossed out “angry wideboy”, and written “Giles from Buffy” instead. Still, it adds another fact to humanity's sum total knowledge: Anthony Head cannot do angry Cockneys. We will know that for ever, now.

Alas, millions of people having to watch something as rubbish as The Invisibles is far too high a price to pay for this information. It is best that you let me shoulder this burden alone. In a civilisation, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. We need to keep things pleasant.


Tim Freeman,
The Times

The loser, the shambolic, hopeless, here-are-the-matchsticks-to-keep-my-eyelids-from-closing-FOREVER loser, was The Invisibles, which finally appeared after weeks of trailers featuring spidery, abseiling figures, implying a drama with the stylistic dash of The Thomas Crown Affair. That, like the drama itself, was a con. Anthony Head and Warren Clarke played Morris and Sid, a pair of past-it cat burglars – legends, we were told, called “The Invisibles” – who apparently were so marvellous in their day that they robbed from royalty. But now, older and slightly rickety, they were trying to go straight in a quiet seaside town.

Fatefully, this was also a drama with something to say – something obvious and clunking – about ageing. Over and over again. The Invisibles, you see, also refers to the elderly within society. So, Morris (Head) hated the new block of flats that he and his wife (Jenny Agutter) moved into because they were for old people and had smoke alarms; and under the door drifted leaflets for coffee mornings and bridge-for-beginners’ courses.

This was a potentially rich dramatic seam (Morris didn’t feel old, despite being a bit rusty at safe-cracking). “We were the best, we’re not any more,” Morris banged on every five minutes. Head’s accent drifted all over the place, from South Ken to East Ham, and eventually settled for a rocky outcrop in the Thames Estuary. Clarke looked like a baffled toad. Agutter was so fragrant she should have been attended by a cartoon chorus of woodland nymphs.

Lame drama chafed against lamer comedy. The duo first tried to burgle a friend’s place as practice (they banged their knees, leading to more grumbling about ageing). The tone went absurdly Mission: Impossible as they prepared to rob a gangland chief’s place (expensive bits of kit, slinky music). But they were caught, beaten up and eventually saved by the pub landlord, a younger guy in thrall to them because his dad was once part of their gang.

To match Morris’s grouchiness, I’ll say that burglary is unpleasant, burglars are not to be celebrated, especially ones such as Morris and Sid, so totally lacking in comedic value. Surely we live in an age in which the myth of the gentleman criminal is tarnished: the subtext of The Invisibles is that crime was once a stylish business, with swaggering sophisticates robbing for the hell of it rather than the next crack fix, which is tosh. Anyway, Morris and Sid are dislikeable, inept, poorly characterised crooks. I hope they get collared or someone nicks their free bus passes.


Nancy Banks-Smith,
The Guardian

Why did no one tell the makers of The Invisibles that comedy capers need jokes?

It is a curious thing but, after pensionable age, you literally fade away. It is quite obvious that the pinstripe young bankers at Canary Wharf, who surround you, cannot see you. Your bones and sinews, such as they were, have turned to tissue paper. You have no more substance than the froth on a cappuccino. The temptation to give anyone under 30 a good thump to correct this impression is hard to resist.

The Invisibles (BBC1) was originally a series about elderly people trying to get back in the swim. Then writer William Ivory had this hilarious idea. What if they were trying to make a comeback as crooks? (Terry Nation, who wrote Doctor Who, told me that he called his wife and said, "I've had this brilliant idea for some baddies. I'm going to call them Daleks." She said, "Drink your tea while it's hot." Every writer needs a Mrs Nation, now and then, to pour hot tea on their bright ideas.)
Safecracker Maurice (Anthony Head) and getaway driver Syd (Warren Clarke), known as The Invisibles in their heyday, come back from Spain. Apparently Jenny Agutter, playing 'er indoors, missed Marks & Spencer. They move into sheltered accommodation and pick up their old trade. For the most heartwarming reasons, naturally. Where was Mrs Ivory when we needed her? Did no one in the seasoned cast have a queasy feeling about the script? Or notice the absence of jokes in a comedy caper? Next time you are in a pub, try to get a laugh with: "Port and brandy - nature's amoxicillin!" Try even to say it.


Gerard O'Donovan,
Daily Telegraph

In a recent interview to promote The Invisibles (BBC1) co-star Warren Clarke described the show as “mad enough to strike a nerve”. I suspect he meant strike a chord. Not only because nerve-striking is never pleasant, but because at the time he was saying how this show’s gentle humour made a nice change from the grisliness of other crime series. It wasn’t entirely inapt, though, because the character he plays, retired crook Syd Woolsey, is just the sort who’s always striking a nerve when a chord is what’s needed.

Syd and his rather less bumbling partner-in-crime Maurice (Anthony Head) were former top-tier cat burglars who made a fortune during the Seventies and Eighties but had since squandered it living life large on the Costas. The need to return to Blighty and a retirement flat in quietest Dorset proved a painful transition from the word go. And when Syd’s wayward son got into trouble with a loan shark the two old blaggers soon found themselves donning their boiler suits and balaclavas again – only to discover that crime, like everything else, had got a whole lot tougher than they remembered it.

It wasn’t just the fact that Maurice the master safecracker had gone rusty and Syd the alarm systems maestro hadn’t been keeping his techie knowledge up to date. Nor that they needed to double up on glucosamine to get their joints lubed before a job. More than anything, it was that the world had moved on. Theirs, it seems, was a golden age of crime when skill was more important than thuggery. They didn’t approve of how standards had slipped.

It’s a nice spin on a well-worn idea and all credit to writer William Ivory for enlivening it with silly twists, reversals and chortlesome moments. The two stars have a chemistry that makes for easy watching, and they got great support from Dean Lennox Kelly as Hedley, as the young turk who encouraged them out of retirement, and Jenny Agutter as Maurice’s anti-crime other half, Barbara. All in all, The Invisibles is another nice, quiet, heart-warming cup of Horlicks for that under-served generation of viewers who so eagerly took New Tricks to its heart.


Robert Hanks,
The Independent

There's a rather shocking interview with the scriptwriter William Ivory in this week's Radio Times, in which he describes the genesis of The Invisibles. "The starting premise," he says, "was that it would be about people on the wrong side of 50 trying to get back into the mainstream. And then I thought, 'What if the mainstream isn't mainstream? What if you're trying to get back into the underworld?'" Just take a mouthful of that and swill it around, if you've got a moment. He thinks that crooks coming out of retirement is a twist, a new idea. Whatever next? How about a drama involving a policeman who solves crimes – but he's a maverick who doesn't go by the book. Or no, hang on, this one's even better: a successful City type moves to a seemingly idyllic village – but it's populated by lovable eccentrics. That's going to make the viewers sit up and take notice, isn't it?

I'd mind The Invisibles less if there weren't so much talent involved in it. Ivory himself is an interesting, if inconsistent, writer, with a CV that includes the dustbin-men drama Common As Muck and The Sins, a decidedly odd serial about an ex-thief-turned-undertaker, played by Pete Postlethwaite. The retired clichés, beg pardon, crooks are played by Warren Clarke and Anthony Head, with Jenny Agutter as Head's wife. I don't think any of them can have felt unduly taxed by the complexities of this one.

The premise is simple: Syd (Clarke) and Maurice (Head) used to be Britain's top burglars, committing glamorous thefts and never getting caught (hence, their nickname, the Invisibles). After 18 years living it up on the Costa del Crime, they have returned to Britain – largely, you gather, because Barbara (Agutter) wants proper tea and Marks & Spencer – to live in luxury retirement apartments in a seaside town in Devon. But Syd's ne'er-do-well son is desperate for money, owing to a contrived and unfunny accident involving some expensive koi carp, and Maurice, while he can't stand the boy, is chafing at the bonds of age. Early on, he was shocked to realise that their new flat comes equipped with an emergency phone of a type advertised by Thora Hird. So, naturally, they decided to try one last job to see the boy clear.

Ivory does pull off a couple of minor reversals of expectation along the way. Their first job, which went disastrously wrong, turned out to have been a practice: the bloke they were burgling knew who they were, and was only shouting at them to make it seem authentic! And the seedy, over-friendly landlord of the local pub turned out to be the son of their long-deceased partner, eager to take over Dad's business. But the gags about the effects of age are even more arthritic than our heroes, and no sentient being could have been remotely surprised by the ending, which had the trio toasting the rebirth of their criminal careers. Plausibility hasn't been a high priority, either. Returning from a night's breaking and entering, Maurice insisted to his wife (who wants to stay respectable) that they'd been making a night of it at a curry house, and she, despite being self-evidently close enough to smell his non-curry breath, swallowed this. More dispiriting still is the way the programme sanitises crime: back in Maurice and Syd's day, you gather, criminals had a bit of class, not like the thugs you get today. Sure, and they never hurt anyone but their own, and you didn't have to lock your doors and yadda yadda. Even the modern thuggishness we're exposed to seems peculiarly harmless. Having been punched in the face by a younger thug and their heads slammed on a concrete floor, Syd and Maurice didn't have a mark on them. After The Sopranos, which showed you what violence really does, that portrayal of it as cost-free seemed mildly obscene.


Paul Whitelaw,
The Scotsman

DON'T YOU JUST LOVE HABITUAL criminals? Of course you do. Arthur Daley, Del Boy, whoever it was that Johnny Vaughan played in 'Orrible … the great British public carry an enormous amount of affection for roguish recidivists, which is presumably the only reason why anybody went to see Phil Collins starring in Buster.

This endless love affair also explains the presence of the new comedy/drama series The Invisibles on our screens. Its premise is hardly original: two ageing ex-cons attempt to settle into cosy retirement, but can't resist the lure of the rob, principally in an effort to a) prove to themselves that they've still got it, and b) show these young whippersnappers how it used to be done. Pieced together using leftover scraps of New Tricks, Hustle and the Kirk Douglas/Burt Lancaster vehicle Tough Guys, it exists securely in that Neverland of yore in which criminals were honourable, essentially good-hearted men who never set out to hurt anyone if they could help it. Apart, that is, from the people whose houses they cat-burgled so effectively.

Anthony Head plays Maurice, a silvery, cigar-sucking safe-cracker who comes across like Hannibal from The A-Team suffering from a mid-life crisis. Warren Clarke – the lugubrious face of middlebrow BBC comedy/drama – plays his hapless sidekick, Sid, who spends much of his screen time bumping into things, thereby refuting the repeated assertion that these men were once the best in the business. There is nothing subtle about The Invisibles: the theme of ageing in particular is laid on with a trowel, resulting in several scenes of Head staring meaningfully into the mirror or contemplating invites to coffee mornings. It's harmless enough for what it is, one of those depthless primetime series which just chunter along in their own modest, reasonable way, never becoming essential viewing, but passing the time agreeably enough whenever you happen to chance upon them.

Episode one ends with a comedy epilogue set in the local pub, à la Minder. I assume that all subsequent episodes will climax like this from now until the end of time.

Overnights: 4.7m (20.1%).

William Ivory interview
Official site
Press pack

Thursdays, BBC1, 9:00pm


Bingethink said...

Ouch. Not even "mixed reviews".

Dan said...

I love universal disapproval.