TV review: The Spa; Black Mirror

Hayley Atwell (Martha) in Be Right Back. Photo: Liam Daniels/Channel 4

The Spa stars the incomparable Rebecca Front as the long-suffering head of a health, beauty and fitness centre, where staff and clients alike prove a constant source of grief, inconvenience and aggravation. The writer and creator is Derren Litten, who hit comedy pay dirt with Benidorm, ITV’s most successful sitcom in years. Cynics might say ITV’s only successful sitcom in years.

Despite the involvement of Front and Litten, I still didn’t expect much from The Spa. Possibly because the basic premise reminded me of the late and lamentable The Brittas Empire, but more likely because the show is being broadcast on Sky Living. In all my years of flicking up and down the endless array of channels on offer, I have never found reason to stop and dally at Sky Living, or even work out what it was there for.

Well, knock me down with a gym ball, but The Spa is rather splendid. The characters are fun, the storylines outrageous, and the script fearless and successful in its pursuit of big out-loud laughs.

Rebecca Front holds centre stage as Alison, former Leighton Buzzard slimmer of the decade, whose imperious management style comprises brutal insensitivity complemented by a total absence of tact. Front fends off scene-stealing turns from a talented cast, most notably Frances Barber as boozed-up best mate Ginny, Tim Healy as the handyman who is quite literally too big for his breeches and Litten himself – it’s your show, mate, you cast yourself in it – as an overweight, wheelchair-bound fitness instructor.

[pullquote]The Spa's characters are fun, the storylines outrageous, and the script fearless and successful in its pursuit of out-loud laughs[/pullquote]

The second series of Charlie Brooker’s technology-based, self-contained dramas Black Mirror kicked off with a chiller set in the near future entitled Be Right Back. Hayley Atwell stars as Martha, a bereaved girlfriend who assuages her grief with the help of a useful telephone app that draws upon the departed’s online footprint to offer a virtual form of communication beyond the grave.

Brooker’s trademark cynical sense of humour is noticeable by its absence as the first 30 minutes concentrates on Martha’s loneliness, desperation and unbearable sense of loss. But then things take a distinct turn for the sci-fi, with Martha taking delivery of what can best be described as a grow-in-the-bath android to give her late boyfriend actual physical form.

Much like Martha and her android, Brooker walked the idea around for a while, realised it was going nowhere and ultimately opted for abandonment. To the writer’s credit he resisted the temptation to take the tale into the realms of terror, although I can’t help wondering if this would have provided a far more satisfying conclusion than sticking the poor surrogate up in the loft.

But for all its flaws, Black Mirror remains compulsive viewing. Well made, well acted and never less than imaginative, it is one of the few dramas around that explores ideas rather than scenarios, employing a dramatically diverse palette of tones in the process.

The producers of Mr Selfridge are certainly getting their money’s worth out of the open-top red bus they’ve hired from the motor museum. So far this series, only Jeremy Piven in the title role has appeared onscreen more often.

The Spa, Sky Living, Thursday, February 14, 9pm
Black Mirror, Channel 4, Monday, February 11, 10pm
Mr Selfridge, ITV, Sunday, February 10, 9pm