Tuesday, March 16, 2004 by

The accusation that it is all style and no substance is a charge that Hustle is inherently guilty of. Not that this is a bad thing, you understand. Hustle has a wonderful sense of bold, uninhibited kitschness and an energetic élan that would put Sir Steve Redgrave to shame. Visually it is lush, verdant and daring, and though it is neither particularly original nor imaginative, it catches and caresses the eye and deserves to be admired for the sleek, stylistic beast that it is.

Which is just as well as it desperately needs to be since the dialogue and plot are utter rubbish – to paraphrase The Young Ones, I’m not saying that last night’s story was predictable but there is a tribe of Amazonian Indians who, despite having never had any contact with the outside world, clearly saw that one coming. But despite the dire script, Hustle works. The cast is vibrant and there is an excellent sense of on-screen chemistry between them. The direction is pacy and assured and, on the whole, the overall look of the show is very pleasing on the eye. A lot of effort has evidently gone into the programme and it shows; the homage paid to the likes of Mission: Impossible and The Persuaders is verging on the reverential but it’s genuinely welcoming to watch a programme that is imbued with a similar set of values and an ethos to match. This is a show where the mission statement reads simply “We will entertain you” – and entertain the viewing public they indeed do.

Clearly, the team behind the Hustle have learned a lot from their previous vehicle, Spooks – a show which I must confess to having found irksome to the point of loathsome (incidentally, a good friend in the intelligence services relayed a tale to me of how, when watching Spooks in the officers’ mess, the assembled crowd were divided into two partisan camps – one who found it an utter insult to their profession and the other who viewed it as being utterly hilarious unconscious comedy) and thus, I really expected to hate the insufferably trailed Hustle from the opening episode. But instead I found myself being captivated by its not inconsiderable charms.

Yet that this is set against, arguably, the worst script on television – which in a time of Murder in Suburbia and Inspector Lynley is really saying something. The writing is risible and some of the dialogue defies belief – banal doesn’t even come close to accurately describing how truly awful it is. The clichéd line of “there’s one born every minute” predictably (and tragically) has already made an early appearance and there’s surely more such tosh to come. On the BBC website, the show’s producer, Simon Crawford Collins, says that the script is the key. If that’s true, then God only knows what lies behind that locked door. To call the characters one-dimensional and screamingly obvious would be an injustice; they’re not even that well developed. The cockney fixer, the experienced con, the young pup – all the worn out clichéd types are here, wearing their paper thin hearts on their sleeves. This is risible stuff and insulting to the viewer as well as the actors. The writing isn’t half as clever it thinks it is – it’s not even a fraction that smart. That the likes of Tony Jordan and Howard Brenton are involved with rubbish like this is a surprise to me. Make no mistake, this is – to be perfectly blunt – crap writing, crap characterisation and crap plotting. Spot a theme developing here?

However the cast gamely carries on oblivious to the deficiencies of the script and turn in some cracking performances. Robert Vaughan plays Robert Vaughan to total perfection and is, quite simply, a god amongst men. The man doesn’t merely walk – he effortlessly glides across the screen like the louche, lounge lizard we all want him to be. He charms, he colludes, and he exudes with a natural fluidity that belies someone of his age. I really believe that when he exits our screens during Hustle, he’s off to give Thrush a good kicking before his next scene. Adrian Lester also deserves praise for his portrayal of Mickey Stone, bringing to the screen a lovely sense of elegant understatement. The rest of the cast, as I said, have a great on-screen chemistry and, as a team, they work well together.

Once again, this is despite the writing. Last night’s episode in which Mickey responded to a thief with a heart was tired and plain terrible. The constant repeating and underlining that his (Stone’s) father was a hard working man who worked hard all his life and for what? is aurally grating and insulting to the viewer – all we need is a poster of Charlie Sheen or Gordon Gekko in the background to hammer it home. Indeed, the constant shoehorning in of points of reference is incredibly tiresome. Wall Street, Heat, The Sting – they’re all here (and then some) and all referenced with not a drop of subtlety or sly grace. If the production team want to see how it’s done properly then they should watch a couple of episodes of Frasier, a show in which innumerable references are made, and all are executed with unbelievable style and all are correctly framed. Staying on that side of the pond for a moment, the cast would also do well to soak up Malcolm in the Middle for a master class in breaking the fourth wall. But these are flaws that can be ironed out when the second series comes round, as it inevitably will.

If you can suspend disbelief and ignore the ridiculous plots (which have – to abuse yet another cliché – more holes than Rab C Nesbitt’s string vest), disregard the absurd characterisation and turn a blind eye to the most hackneyed dialogue you’re likely to hear this decade, then you’re rewarded with a charmingly superficial slice of nonsense that is delightfully entertaining and instantly disposable. Hustle is the Milky Way of television; the treat you can watch between programmes without ruining your appetite.


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