Review: Why the BBC's Small Axe beats The Crown on matters of fact... and drama

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The Crown (Netflix) returned for a fourth series this week, causing much tabloid froth about what was, and wasn’t, true in this soapy tale of the Royal family in the early 80s.

There was much less wailing and gnashing of teeth over Small Axe: Mangrove (BBC1, Sun, 9pm), another real-life drama about Britain in the early 80s, and yet you would think the subject matter – the race-based harassment of the black community in Notting Hill – was deserving of our anger.

It’s odd to get worked up about one, but not the other. The soap opera surrounding Charles and Diana is a story we all think we know, but can have no real idea about. Meanwhile, the tale of the Mangrove Nine –the defendents charged with riot and affray after a demonstration against raids on the Mangrove restaurant – is a story I knew nothing about, yet for which there is a mountain of first-hand evidence.

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If you accept that The Crown is a fiction – with the lightest scattering of factual dust – it works just okay as a drama. There is some clumsy exposition, with biographical essays shoehorned into conversation, but the performances are good – especially Tom Brooke as Buckingham Palace intruder Michael Fagan, in the pivotal episode five, painted as a tipping point between the hidebound old monarchy, and the Royal Family’s evolution into a modern establishment.

Shaun Parkes was ‘terrific’ in Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC1 this week. Picture: McQueen LtdShaun Parkes was ‘terrific’ in Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC1 this week. Picture: McQueen Ltd
Shaun Parkes was ‘terrific’ in Small Axe: Mangrove on BBC1 this week. Picture: McQueen Ltd

But Small Axe works both as drama, and as history lesson. Using a well-worn courtroom drama structure, it told its story with a controlled fury, and Shaun Parkes, in particular, as Mangrove owner Frank Crichlow, was terrific.

Both stories are part of our history, but only one carries the imprint of truth, and it’s not The Crown, so reserve your fury for something else.

If you didn’t catch it, My Family, The Holocaust and Me with Robert Rinder (BBC1, Mon, 9pm) is well worth catching up with. Hugely moving, it bears an emotional witness to the horrors of the Nazis.

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His Dark Materials (BBC1, Sun, 8pm) has kept up the high standards of the first series. It’s brilliant family viewing – a stirring adventure for kids, complex thoughts on faith and science for adults.

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