How good is Channel 4’s potty new conspiracy thriller Utopia? I’ll answer that. It’s bloody brilliant! Yet ‘bloody’ is the operative word. For those who haven’t seen it yet, it’s a confusing whirlwind of shady operations perpetrated by shadowy organisations, where utterly befuddled innocents are sucked into the process, while government ministers, spies and even a wise tramp tear around being generally sinister and adding to the confusion, while all the while the key to it all is the ‘Utopia Manuscript’, a sort of bizarre comic book that predicts the future that was penned by a scientist-cum-mental patient. Confused? Good, that’s the point, as the enjoyment here (and it is proper toe-curling, snack-munching telly that turns you into a gawping child) is in being tripped up and shocked at every turn. It’s three episodes in to its six episode run and I still haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on or who the bloody hell anyone is and I’m totally content with this, as I trust such consummate programme-making to steer me along the path of greatest enjoyment.
In terms of performances they are all excellent and every character oozes the right amount of terror, confusion, paranoia or menace depending on what’s called for but the stand-out performance is undoubtedly Neil Maskell (he was Danny Dyer’s best mate in The Football Factory) as the dead-eyed, shuffling scruff bag of a hitman, who describes himself as a ‘specialist’. Few performances have so unnerved me and with it being award season you can’t help but feel Maskell’s performance stands him in good stead for next year’s accolades.
It looks amazing too and just shows that a great writer needs a director that understands and adds to the vision and on that note, nuff respect to creator Dennis Kelly and director Marc Munden. Not only does it have the feel of a graphic novel come to life but there is also a hyper-realism which somehow feels utterly surreal and the thematic use of the colour yellow is almost exactly the same as the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz, which all adds to the squirmy discomfort.
Utopia has come in from some criticism however. With episode 3, without question the most shocking and uncomfortable so far – and that’s saying something, airing this week people are complaining about the violence. It’s inevitable that parallels to recent tragedies will be drawn but it’s worth pointing out the show was filmed before the events it resembles and if anything, with that added context it highlights more poignantly the horror and tragedy of taking the lives of innocents and from a story point of view adds to the terror, sympathy and outrage we feel on behalf of the ‘heroes’. You’ll know what I’m talking about once you’ve seen it. However, people were complaining before episode 3 and this I don’t get. Utopia is undeniably a violent show but the violence serves a clear purpose and that is to add to the atmosphere of fear and disbelief we feel on behalf of the protagonists – if the violence was off screen, it wouldn’t be such gripping telly.
But who are these people who like to complain? No one’s making them watch it and if you feel moral outrage on behalf of the rest of us don’t worry about it mate, I’ll save mine for actual evil in the world or any time I see a footballer who looks likes a pimply scrotum stepping out with a model… bastard. There is a line that can be crossed but I’ve never bought into this clap trap that movies, TV or computer games are responsible for the moral decay of society. People have always done hideous things to one another, just as they’ve always been kind to one another and they’ve always had sex. The proliferation of readily-available pornography has not meant people have more sex, it just means the range of material available to teenage boys has led to a much a richer onanistic experience and is responsible for, if anything, the death of imagination as you no longer have to desperately attempt to conjure up a pair of boobs – you can see loads at the click of a mouse! The same goes for on scree violence.
However, I do believe television or film where the sole purpose is to shock is pointless. In a movie where the point is specifically the violence, or anything separate to the plot, it ceases to become a story. It’s like asking someone to get emotionally involved in a porn movie:
‘My god I do hope Mrs. Veronica Ulva manages to sort out her plumbing issues. Aaah good, here comes the plumber but I’m not sure wearing his overalls like that is up to health and safety standards but hang on, OH GOD! They’ll never find out why the bathroom cistern’s leaking like that!’
But in Utopia the violence is a key and relevant part of the plot, as it is in so many films or pieces of television or any other art form for that matter. These complainers were responsible for The Russell Brand Show being removed from Radio 2 and the general castration of the BBC over the past few years which has, to some extent, had an effect on programming in general. Writers and directors need to take risks, to confront issues and above all to tell stories and if some moral crusader whips out the typewriter and fires off a complaint every time they feel offended then there will be no good TV and we may as well be strapped to our chairs, have our eyelids pinned back and watch repeats of Strictly Come Dancing and The One Show until our brains begin to cry.
Utopia is one of the best pieces of television I have seen for a long time, beautifully conceived, acted and shot and emblematic of the sort of TV we should try to make in this country and if you haven’t seen it, then do and please send all complaints directly to me.
First published on IAmMusic.TV, 31st Jan 2013