An Ode To The Best British Series of All Time, ‘Utopia’

As Utopia's Amazon remake hit our home screens this weekend, Digital Editor Madeline Reid reminisces on the forgotten British cult-classic and why it's worth a rewatch. (No spoilers ahead!)

If there was an awards ceremony for my quarantine experience thus far, Netflix would win the best supporting role (and Amazon Prime, and NOW TV, and Disney+). With little to do as many remain furloughed and cooped up in cupboard-sized bedrooms as the fleeting sunny weather of summer passes, my flatmates and I have indulged in each online TV craze, from Tiger King to Hamilton to Ru Paul’s Drag Race and the sleuth of Netflix reality dating shows. 

A couple of days ago, whilst in our back garden for one of our regular ‘ciggy breaks’ during movie and/or TV-box set binging sessions, we started to reminisce about the TV from our youth. As women born 1996-98 we teeter on the edge of millennial and gen-z, so we may not have to cast our minds back that far before our only thoughts become that of Saturday morning cartoons. That being said, within one quick conversation I was astounded at the volume and quality of television that has been produced in only the last decade. And, perhaps more interestingly, how much of what we watch now comes from shiny Hollywood studios, while our adolescence was filled with British-made dramas.

We sat, excitedly shouting out titles as they reappeared in our consciousness after years of dormancy – some were easy crowdpleasers (Misfits, Doctor Who, The Inbetweeners), some that we squabbled over (“I’m sorry but Shameless wasn’t even that funny”), and a few that had fallen so far out of the contemporary cultural lexicon that no one else in the group had heard of it.

I am used to blank faces being the response whenever I’m asked for a TV-show recommendation – and yet my answer remains unchanged. 

Originally airing in 2013, Utopia is, in my opinion, the best TV show ever made. The two-season series was abruptly cancelled in 2014 much to fans’ dismay, and its cancellation represented a hammer blow for original UK drama. Stylish, provocative and superbly acted, it was that rare breed of British drama that dared to rear its head above the kitchen sink and truly run with an idea, playing beautifully into our paranoid political times.

The story – which follows a group of comic book fans who believe the graphic novel The Utopia Experiments predicted several disastrous epidemics, and that a rumoured sequel holds further information on future world events – has been seen in a new light during the events of the coronavirus pandemic this year. And, after years of teasing a third season (in 2015 David Fincher was rumoured to be resurrecting the series) the announcement came that Amazon Prime’s new remake would air on 25th September.

While the remake has been adapted by Gone Girl and Sharp Objects author Gillian Flynn and boasts Hollywood actors John Cusack and Sasha Lane, the original features an equally talented line-up. The series comes from comedy writing genius Dennis Kelly, better known for BBC Three’s sitcom Pulling and co-writing the West End hit Matilda: The Musical with comedian Tim Minchin. Acting credits in the series include Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits), Alexandra Roach (Killing Eve), Paul Higgins (Line of Duty), Alistair Petrie (Sex Education) and Geraldine James (Sherlock Holmes) for what would now be considered a star-studded cast, although many went on to make a name for themselves in the years following the series’ cancellation. In particular, Neil Maskell’s performance as Arby in the second series is nothing short of perfection.

So here, if you needed further convincing that this should be your next watch, is my argument:

The Plot: As mentioned above, the series follows a group of comic book fans who meet up after chatting in an online forum to discuss the rumoured sequel manuscript of The Utopia Experiements. The group consists of conspiracy theorist Wilson Wilson, IT consultant Ian, student Becky and troubled teenage chav Grant, who hides his identity behind a swaggering, successful cityboy trader persona online. The manuscript itself is supposedly created by scientist gone madman Philip Carvell, and the group are not the only ones after the manuscript. A secret organisation known only as ‘The Network’ are also after manuscript, and after information on a woman called Jessica Hyde.

Dennis Kelly’s characters grow over the course of the two seasons, some even changing allegiance when they possess all the facts and become aware of the bigger picture. And no one, good or bad, ever does anything stupid or out of character, which is as rare in a drama now even more than it was back then. 

There are so many elements of its writing that makes it a poignant piece (global pandemic aside) including the future of man kind, the secretive nature of government for our greater good and, ultimately, man’s struggle for knowledge. Whether the issue is coronavirus, climate change or US politics, it seems like we have never lived in an age more filled with conspiracy theories, where these narratives have become a way to explain the biggest problems our planet faces.

The Cinematography: In short? I regularly describe it as “if Wes Anderson made a horror movie”, but it’s so much more than that. Cinematographers Ole Bratt Birkeland (season 1) and Lol Crawley (season 2) have expertly replicated the graphic novel’s bold aesthetic by looking back to the Technicolor palette of 1950s Hollywood. Think: yellows, cyan, magentas. The ultraviolet tones are punchy and compliment the series’ dark and mysterious storyline, making for an almost psychedelic viewing experience. Director Marc Munden was said to be inspired by the combination of humour and darkness in Polanski’s early films, and it shows.

The Soundtrack: The fiendishly inventive soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is among the best ever heard on a television series, so much so that my sister received the soundtrack on acid yellow vinyl as a Christmas present in 2014. Six years on, it feels just as contemporary and utterly unique. It’s a bleak soundscape so experimental it borders on the esoteric, which perversely makes it perfect for a series built by paranoia and secrets.

The Bottom Line: As a whole, it’s a heady brew of pregnant prostitutes, blackmail, global politics, drug testing, assassinations, insanity, genetics, frame ups, experiments, the future of mankind – you name it, it’s here somewhere. Utopia is a stylish, intelligent and violent contemporary mystery that now, thanks to the US remake (and I can’t quite believe I’m saying that) will hopefully find the audience it deserves.

The Original Utopia is available to purchase on Amazon, and the new Utopia is available to stream now on Amazon Prime

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