You know how it goes: have a prang in your car, swap details with the other driver, end up on a 2,500 mile road trip together. This was the attention-seizing set-up for Upright (Sky Atlantic), Tim Minchin’s corking comedy-drama following an odd couple’s odyssey across the Australian outback.
Multi-hyphenate polymath Minchin (composer, comedian, actor, writer, director, probably plumber and astro-physicist too) has had a chastening few years. After his stage adaptation of Matilda was a smash hit, he relocated to Los Angeles but had his heart broken by the machinations of Hollywood.
His animated film, a $100m passion project titled Larrikins, was scrapped by DreamWorks. His Groundhog Day musical closed early on Broadway. Minchin fell into depression and returned home to his native Australia, tail firmly between his legs and trademark eye-liner streaked with tears.
Now he was back with a new live tour and his debut TV vehicle, co-writing and executive-producing as well as starring. The script was potty-mouthed from the opening scene yet instantly endearing.
Minchin played Lachlan “Lucky” Flynn, a dissolute and damaged ex-rock star on a quest to transport his precious upright piano from Sydney to Perth. When a crash threw him together with teen runaway Meg (18-year-old discovery Milly Alcock, a force-of-nature with huge potential), their cross-country journey took unexpected detours.
The wary mistrust between the two misfits - “tiny little Terminator” and “weird Chewbacca guy”, as they dubbed one another - gradually gave way to an unconventional bond. As they fell into scrapes, fought for control of the dashboard stereo and sat side-by-side like ebony and ivory, the pair’s secrets slowly floated to the surface.
Viewers were drip-fed details about the estranged family to whom diazepam-popping Lucky was returning and the traumatic home life from which whip-smart Meg was fleeing.
Their affecting age-gap friendship recalled films like Leon and Logan. There were also echoes of John Cleese’s Clockwise, Midnight Run and Planes, Trains & Automobiles in this race-against-time caper. Just keep your eyes on the road and watch out for rogue kangaroos.
It was cinematically shot by director Matthew Saville, all shimmering deserts, empty highways and widescreen skies. An eclectic soundtrack pumped, pounded and added momentum. The chemistry between the two leads crackled.
As well as importing US programmes, Sky Atlantic’s own commissions are finally hitting their stride. Initially the channel churned out what have been termed “Euro-puddings”: style-over-substance dramas with international casts, such as Fortitude, The Young Pope, The Last Panthers and Riviera.
With the likes of Upright, Britannia, Patrick Melrose and Lennie James’ superb Save Me (which returns for a second series in 2020), Sky Atlantic seems to be finding its own groove: authored stories, indie in sensibility and singular in vision.
Upright certainly played its own tune. It was far smarter and more deft than it initially seemed. This was a sharp-tongued but touching portrayal of flawed characters with complex family dynamics. The visuals were almost hallucinatory, like a grunge remix of Jane Campion’s The Piano, while it barrelled along with boisterous energy.
It’s an eight-parter, screening in double bills, but available in its entirety on-demand. Eminently binge-worthy, Upright felt like a cult film filleted into 25-minute slices. Who cares what silly old Hollywood says, Mr Minchin? We still appreciate you.