Review: Paula (S1 E2/3), Thursday 1st June, BBC2

Has no one in TV crime drama ever heard of safe sex? See how much trouble a foolhardy evening of indiscriminate frenzied coupling can get you into? If Paula (Denise Gough), a secondary schoolteacher who must have had some psychological training, couldn’t tell that handyman James (Tom Hughes, in a role that’s a far cry from Prince Albert in ITV’s Victoria) was a wrong’un she really has no business having one-night stands.

OK, he might be a head-turningly attractive killer (why do the TV fruitcakes have to be stunners like Hughes and Jamie Dornan) but is he a novice? We’re guessing he’s fairly practised as he’s had the nous to sling Paula’s ex-paramour, hapless randy teacher Philip (Edward MacLiam), into a quarry after beating him to death.

It is a high-traffic quarry – as poor Phil’s is the third body flung into it in two years. The gardaí murder squad’s incoming chief, McGlynn (Ciarán McMenamin), seems pretty sanguine about the latest death, dismissing it as just another ‘jumper’.

Meanwhile, uncomfortable (though hardly riven with guilt) that she did not answer his final phone calls, Paula’s seeing Philip sitting at her bedside – when she’s not imagining being shackled by a skipping rope to the bedstead. More clues, if they were needed, that this supposed woman of science is several elements short of the full periodic table.

“For some reason I can’t help thinking you opened up a door in his life and let all the bad things in,” says his widow Diane (Aislín McGuckin). Which is very perceptive of her. “Sorry – all right?” counters the minx unconvincingly.

By now most of us would be stoving in Paula’s imperiously entitled face – as Diane then tries to do. Well, as they sing in Chicago‘s Cell Block Tango, she had it coming.

Back in the gardaí incident room, which resembles a building site with workmen drilling all around, preoccupied McArthur (Owen McDonnell) is thrown by the revelation that he has a new guv’nor he didn’t know about. McGlynn airily tells him not to expend too much effort on a suicide.

But Mac, as we have already figured out from his unkempt appearance – five o’clock shadow, untrammelled paunch and clothes he seems to have slept in – is a workaholic.

Spooks star McDonnell plays the puppyishly appealing Mac as by far the most sympathetic character we’ve encountered in this series, despite being a clichéd down-at-heel, divorced weekend-dad detective.

Paula sets about burning all Philip’s notes and gifts to her, realising that the last note he gave her is gone when she finds the empty envelope. Suspecting James, she phones to leave a message for him to meet on neutral ground so that she can stand him up and follow him – now she takes precautions…

When he drives off in high dudgeon she shadows him back to his ramshackle hovel by a kebab shop.

Paula tells the police things have disappeared from her house, and gets shirty with Mac, mistaking his shambolic awkwardness for a moral judgement on her (she’s lucky these cops aren’t like the patronising bunch Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson had to deal with in The Fall).

He does, however, tell his colleague Laurence (Emily Taaffe) that he thinks Paula is mad. Oh, he has no idea how potty.

Her partner in psychosis is parked outside Paula’s house, clutching the photo he took from her basement of her and brother Callum (Jonny Holden) as children.

His insanely jealous lover, vicious Crystal (Aoibhinn McGinnity), clocks her dim live-in rival Morgan (Siobhan Cullen) talking to Laurence and later punches her lights out. The pair interrogate the poor woman as James gets increasingly spooked by the ghostly child always on the periphery.

Furious that James has left his calling card – a ripped-up rat poison pack – on her windscreen, she goes to fetch Callum, who finds sleeping in a phone box preferable to going back to his parents, and takes him back to the garage he dosses in. Accommodation is soon the least of his problems as James is spying on them. (Strikes us as amazing that Callum could still find a public phone box.)

When it’s discovered that Philip withdrew “15 hundred quid” that wasn’t on his body the police reclassify the case as murder.

She might live in a run-down area with fairly tough students, but Paula’s street cred rockets with pupil Daly, who sees the kitchen knife she stuffed in her back pocket on discovering the front door was wide open all night. Whoa! Teacher’s a gangsta.

Pity Callum’s too pie-eyed to be as wary – his garage is burnt out (forensics prove inconclusive but we’re guessing it was James) and he’s in intensive care – putting the parents even further through the mill.

Meanwhile, James’s ghost is still pounding the inside of that van so much that he torches that too.

Mac twigs that the kids in Crystal’s flat aren’t all hers – and receives a beating from the Fury when he finds Morgan bound and gagged in a cupboard. It’s custody for the women and social services for their brood.

Why a seasoned professional detective would make the route one mistake of telling Paula about James’s two women and his many kids only writer Conor McPherson could tell us. It is implausible that Mac would divulge such information to a member of the public and almost as daft to confide that his boss isn’t interested in a live investigation – especially over a cosy late-night drink in an upmarket bar – and extra reckless with a side order of chips because she vouchsafes that she wants to kill James. The daft eejit, wouldn’t you know it, through misplaced chivalry, even offers to stay with her overnight.

We really don’t care for Paula, who is unabashedly self-centred, morbidly in thrall to autoerotic asphyxiation, and has no redeeming features to make her worthy of our attention. This fault lies not with Olivier Award-winning actress Denise Gough (Stella, What Remains) but because aside from the selfishness her character has so little substance that we cannot even feel sorry for her when she tells Mac: “I don’t have feelings – it’s like the whole world is there but I’m not interested in any of it.”

Playwright McPherson is renowned as theatre’s ‘king of the ghost story’ and maybe it is because theatre is a far more immersive medium than TV, which finds it so much tougher to hold the viewer against distractions, that his first prime-time TV drama lacks the sense of intimacy required.

Paula might not be interested, but we should be; we don’t have to like her but we do need to understand what motivates her to draw Mac into her madness. So far it isn’t clear – especially her oblivious reaction to poor Mac being beaten half to death while pursuing James after she is attacked in the bar’s toilets. Mac’s certainly dumbfounded by the fact that, far from carving him up with his knife, James snivels: “She’s done it to you too, hasn’t she?” and sits meekly nearby waiting for the police to arrest him.

We don’t love Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Richard III, but we can empathise with them. Nothing here makes us emphathise with Paula’s fugue states dating back to childhood prisoner-and-captor bondage games with her brother. No wonder dad Terry (Sean McGinley) looks so haunted. While we respond to Mac and Terry, director Alex Holmes isn’t helping us to connect with anyone else.

Another childhood trauma story? We’ve been here with The Fall, in which it worked far better.

Deborah Shrewsbury

For our episode one review go here


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Sargent says:

    I wish I’d waited for your review of episode one, then I wouldn’t have bothered watching it. A very quick scan of the above suggests it doesn’t look as if it’s improving. I’ll just try and forget all about it whilst watching superior fare such as Fargo and Bloodline!


    1. I suspect Paul has not tweeted my Paula review because it’s not exactly an endorsement.
      I didn’t have control of the keyboard when composing the review of episode one, so some of my suggestions fell by the wayside, but it’s a thumbs-down from me. The disparate elements here are not all bad, said say – the actors are doing the most that could be expected of them and McPherson is a good writer – but his style doesn’t seem suited to this medium.
      TV drama really must have characters who grab you by the throat – look at the current Jimmy MCGovern series Broken; I’m no great fan of Anna Friel but her character’s interaction with Sean Bean’s priest is tearing my heart out. She’s not likeable, but you care desperately about her fate.
      Just couldn’t get a handle on Paula’s character – she’s too remote.

      I’m saving up Fargo as a treat!


  2. Sara Latham says:

    I don’t like it.


  3. MikeB says:

    Just caught up with episode two. I screamed “No way!” at the screen when she shagged the copper. Repulsed by the excessive violence. What implausibilities are lined up for the final episode?


  4. PKCox says:

    You may not be enjoying the show, Deborah, but I’m enjoying your reviews, which are always spectacularly humorous. “A few elements short of a periodic table.” Entertaining all the way through.


  5. Yvonne says:

    Did not understand the plot, in the last episode, why was her father so distant with her? I keep rewatching in case I missed something but it’s still the same baffling


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