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6 March 2019updated 03 Aug 2021 3:13pm

What is Richard Gere doing in a crummy British TV drama?

Plus: The latest installment of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag is perfect television.

By Rachel Cooke

It’s odd, if not exactly gobsmacking, to see Richard Gere in a crummy British TV drama. Was this, you wonder, how Princess Anne felt when she first clapped eyes on Meghan Markle across the Sandringham breakfast buffet? Then again, Gere is such a woeful actor (whatever emotion he wants to signal, be it sadness, anger or lust, his technique is simply to close his eyes for a moment), and MotherFatherSon (9pm, 6 March) is so preposterously glossy, albeit in a BBC hey-let’s-shoot-the-Gherkin-again kind of a way, that you soon grow accustomed to his presence. Actually, he rather adds to the fun. Is it his fault that he cannot make a protracted enquiry about shortbread sing? Or is it simply that these lines are among the least convincing dialogue ever written?

MotherFatherSon is the creation of Tom Rob Smith, who also brought us (the utterly unwatchable) London Spy and The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and it bears all his self-consciously weird trademarks: not since Stephen Poliakoff’s last effort have I seen something so desperately pretentious on terrestrial television (pretentious is a word I use only in extremis, so you should take my distress call very seriously). Gere plays Max (he appears not to have a surname), a media mogul whose interests include a British newspaper, The National Reporter edited by his depressed, coke-head son, Caden (Billy Howle). No one at the paper much likes Caden, and he doesn’t like them either; his top political hack, Maggie (Sinéad Cusack), has just been sacked for disloyalty. But this loathing is second-hand. Caden appears to be afraid of his father – either that, or he’s simply too confused by Daddy’s riddle-me-ree talk of steak tartare and “accoutrements” to speak – with the result that he, in turn, is a bully, passing on his terror like a baton whenever he stalks the newsroom.

Max is wondering which party to back in the next election; having visited the prime minister, with whom he discussed the pros and cons of shortbread, he then had a meeting with a rising leftist MP, Angela Howard (Sarah Lancashire). She, too, speaks in riddles, so they got on quite well. Across town, Max’s estranged toff wife, Kathryn (Helen McCrory, on spiffing form) is atoning for having married him by working in a homeless shelter, where she is growing dangerously close to one of its lunchtime regulars, Scott (Joseph Mawle). What on earth is going to happen next? Will the tabloids use the photographs in which Kathryn’s, er, benevolence is revealed to the world? Will Maggie, a reporter constructed entirely of cardboard and sticky tape, bring down Max? Will Caden recover from the calamity that befell him at the end of the first episode?

Who knows? Personally, I’m more interested in why top businessman Max recognised neither the offices of his own newspaper (“Wow! It’s changed a lot!” he said, seemingly awestruck at the massed ranks of desks) nor his TV channel’s most important programme (“This is our flagship current affairs show, right?” he asked, visiting the set). “Neutral is no good!” is a favourite Max mantra, so let me be as partisan as I can. This is basically HBO’s Succession minus its writing, acting, direction, wit, drama and unnerving veracity. Or, if you prefer, it’s The Colbys, with added wheatgrass.

My relationship with Fleabag (10.35pm, 4 March) continues to be intense. I adore its star, who looks like a portrait by Meredith Frampton come to life, and I can never get over its emotional precision. But its anatomy of female self-disgust, for all that it’s possibly highly accurate, sometimes depresses me. Still, the first episode of the new series was quite perfect, set almost entirely during a family dinner to celebrate the engagement of Dad (Bill Paterson) and the ghastly Godmother (the OSCAR WINNING Olivia Colman). The look Fleabag gave to camera when Godmother’s favoured priest (Andrew Scott) announced to the table that the brother to whom he no longer speaks is a paedophile might be the most perfect facial expression ever seen on television – and in these pious, prissy and increasingly illiberal times, only a woman like Phoebe Waller-Bridge could ever have got away with flashing it so gleefully.

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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The next crash