Watched #43
“Character acting is my line of country,” wrote Arthur Lowe, a sweet turn of phrase that in itself entirely validated the commissioning of BBC: The Secret Files (BBC4 Monday, 9pm). This was one of 25 job-seeking letters the actor addressed to the Corporation between 1946 and ’48. Letters that, for him, were surely disappeared as soon as sent. But no.

The notion of rolling back doors and pulling out drawers in the BBC Written Archives is a particularly unsexy and untelevisual prospect – but also a completely beguiling one for the likes of me; someone who wants to see the signatures and thrills at the letterheads. If the nicely fusty, deskbound BBC4 didn’t exist, one could imagine an exec quickly nixing the email trail pitching the show (“What would the visuals be? Who would really care?”). However, it does, and let’s give thanks.

Hosted, most perfectly, by Penelope Keith, the programme sensibly brought us into Caversham through the actress’ own story, as documented therein. She read to us her hopeful letter of employment from 1960, and there then followed a small revelation. The archives had also retained a similar missive secretly penned by her mother, Constance M Keith (nee Nutting). “I found it very touching after all these years,” said Penelope.

This was the joy of it, no huge disclosures – even during the brouhaha between Kenny Everett and Radio 1 – but small disagreements administrated in beautifully-written memos. A favourite was Michael Mills, having been told to remove Nazi footage from the opening titles of Dad’s Army, moaning the Comedy department wasn’t afforded the same leeway as other units in the BBC. Paul Fox, Controller of BBC1, was having none of it, declaring such comparisons to be “invidious and irrational”1 and adding, “After what I have seen so far, I think one must be allowed to wonder whether Dad’s Army does indeed ‘advance Comedy output into new arenas’.”

The camera panned slowly from right to left, and Penelope spoke to us with a smile in her voice. This was a gentle production, the fine frontispiece for a stack of research. Diligent, beautifully-made, and so, so welcome. “At present I am walking around with sandwich boards, but am desirous of a change,” wrote Derek Nimmo in 1956. But today we should remember that it’s only the BBC that could have – and has – brought us such a programme.

I’m not sure if this is a new series of 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm) or just some more of it after a gap. It seems to thump into the schedules in much the same way Traffic Cops does on BBC1. Whatever: It remains excellent, and comes with a montage title sequence that offers much participatory fun (I chip in with: “Start explaining”, “I’m a lover, not a fighter” and “Good news… Yeah… Got ‘im”).

This episode, titled ‘Bad Blood’, detailed the life and crimes of Dylan McEwan. One pertinent sequence saw Detective Constable Cathie Layton scrolling through his arrest records and mugshots, which go from boy to young man. “Basically, Dylan McEwan terrorises the community,” she said. DC Layton is a quiet hero who’s got enough back story for a six-parter (“I’ve just remembered – say, ‘Happy Birthday’ to my sister. She’s in heaven.”) Much as the Caversham programme spoke of conscientiousness, so did this. Officers with Scot’s Porridge Oat packets on their desks, putting in the long hours. The most pointed encounter took place in the interview room, with McEwan’s solicitor. “We like our battles,” confessed Cathie beforehand, but he had a neat move to delay due process: “I need to go to the toilet. It’s all this tea and coffee I drank.”

In the end, the CPS deemed McEwan should be charged, and a 19-and-a-half hour-shift for DC Layton was over.

I won’t say much about Partners in Crime (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm), but the show’s central mystery is one it can never resolve. What is up with Tommy and Tuppence? While she (Jessica Raine) is vivacious and thrusting, he (David Walliams) seems a bit of a duffer, with all the poise of a Babybel. If we didn’t know the show’s pretext was a jolly couple going on adventures, we would assume their lack of chemistry is a plot point and there was some secret to be wheedled out about their clearly-fake marriage.

Taskmaster (Dave Tuesday, 10pm) comes with a clever format (Greg Davies has five comics competing in a series of pointless challenges), but the cleverest aspect of all has been the decision to retain the competitors over the show’s run. It gives both us and them reason to dig in, particularly as – in a panel game first – the scoring actually means something.

Filmed like a gig in front of an audience (albeit mixing-in pre-recorded segments) it’s got a startlingly slow pace, bordering on loose. When Greg introduces Frank Skinner, he points out he’s wearing a suit because “he’s a different generation to the others”, and it sounds like something that’s just popped into his head. Might not be, but that’s how it sounds.

For me the fun only derails at the bits it all becomes too self-conscious, trying to tackle the admin of TV in novel way. “Shall we have a little bit of banter?” says Greg’s lieutenant Alex Horne2. And then there’s the self-conscious ad break intros, which are clumsy rather than arch. But here’s me criticising this endeavour because it’s trying. I actually liked it quite a bit, and, in a rare moment, liked everyone in it too.

  1. You can see for yourself here
  2. Who actually devised this series, and produced the theme tune
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Watched #42
This could have been LL-B’s ‘Denzil Xavier’ moment. Upon arrival in Shanghai, the cabbie held up the damning sign: ‘LAURENCE RODERICK LLEWELLYN-BOWEN’. But the man at the mantelpiece of The House of Laurence  breezed through. Instead our takeaway wasn’t ‘Roderick’, but the next bit, where some sort of miscommunication had left the driver outside the hotel, uncertainly holding the LL-B luggage while our hero had already checked in and was now ascending in a mirrored lift.

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China (BBC2 Monday, 9pm) was a delightful portrait of someone who, as it happens, likes to gift his own delightful portrait. Having lost a couple of big contracts at home, he was looking to global markets and hoping a new range of knickers would wave the flag for his ‘home collection’ in China and Mexico. The “bad boy star of Changing Rooms” was how Samantha Bond’s narration had him, but plying his UK trade in a shop above Circencester, the velvet-faced designer knew he could never really be termed bad. “Oh my goodness!” he exclaimed, describing the financial risk he was about to take. “Where are the school fees coming from?” Indeed, not truly a star, either, with LL-B absolutely aware  he was flogging a slightly concocted level of celebrity overseas. At one point he briefed Chinese shop workers on the selling points of his furnishings, advising them this gear is what “everyone in the UK is very much into”… before looking sideways into camera.

I’ve always liked Laurence. A natural communicator on television, some might consider him glib, but I think it’s more he has an anxiety to provide value for money when he’s with his public. Fill those interactions with information or entertainment. It was therefore fascinating to see that instinct butt up against an even more overriding desire – to seal a deal. Meeting with Mr Gao, the executive director of the Sainty conglomerate, he’d been briefed it was good form to receive a business card with a display of fascination. “Such an eye-catching but very comforting shape,” he observed at the appropriate moment. Then, when the pitching began, he made heavy water every time he had to circumnavigate the vast desk to hand over an item. “I’ll come round.”

Throughout the documentary, Laurence’s excursions were scored with tracks like Rule Britannia as if he was somehow embodying a particularly British ethos. He wasn’t. He was selling himself (“I am the product”) to the “fast growing middle classes” of these new markets. His Britishness was only about aesthetics, calling one range Glam Britannia for marketing heft. And good on him. There he was, filling gaps in the often stilted, translated conversations, with laughter; and chinking glasses enthusiastically while sat at an endless montage of Lazy Susans. Always with his eye on the prize: “I think you’re going to find the prices very… flexible”.

Back in the hotel room – on camera but talking only to us – he was more relaxed. “This couldn’t be more swankazoid,” he concluded, summing up that day’s outfit. And by the end of it all, it seemed like LL-B might just have cracked China and started on a good route into the Americas. “We worked very hard at making them want me.”

I know, I do keep writing about Dragons’ Den1 (BBC2 Sunday, 8.15pm). I was going to add a line  of justification (10th anniversary series, three new Dragons) but in truth, I just enjoy going around on the same ride. One continuing pleasure is the epic new levels of preposterousness the production team are able to wring out of the opening titles2. For this series, our five superheroes3 survey Mordor while Evan Davis details their powers: “Global fashion tycoon!” etc.

From this we arrive in the faux warehouse, where Deborah seems over-tired, and Peter is breathing through his mouth. Luckily, our new tycoons settle in well, fingering their prop loot. At one point there’s genuine electricity when Touker advises an entrepreneur to target the high street with his yoga product, rather than the gyms. Sarah disagrees, breaking protocol to hiss, “No!”

The show’s bottom-line remains gripping – people pitching for investment on TV – but there is too much nonsense floating around the room. If it’s not the Dragons competing for a thudding pun-endowed pay-off, then it’s the voiceover, breaking its back to convey information and stage a drama: “Fighting talk from keep-fit fanatic Thierry”. This is the silt. The riches are found if you can drill down into the details. It’s in the spontaneous moments of stress (a woman selling her own version of Spanx can’t recall her cost of sales) and jubilation (“Deborah’s BlackBerry contacts are next-level!”). Peter Jones once told us “turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”. He was probably just pleased because it rhymed, but it’s a good maxim.

“A drama upgrade!” That continuity announcer, pressing the button for Humans (Channel 4 Sunday, 9pm) likely then celebrated with the most odious of things right now – a “mini fist-bump”. We’re at episode five, but the show is sagging. It’s as if, after positing so many fascinating discussion topics in the beginning, it’s now run out of conversational steam – throwing in talking-points like: “You can’t get rid of of someone just because their old!” which remained unchewed.

The main point of interest is Joe facing the terror of having his daughter unearth naughtiness in his History. Although it’s Mattie – with her black nail varnish, and ‘Headcracking’ proclivities – who now feels like the focal point. Joe’s more a Hollyoaks dad who’s lucked into a storyline.

Meanwhile,  The Outcast (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) kept its theme all too prevalent throughout its opening, indulgently-long, 90 minutes. Forever gloom. Adapted by Sadie Jones from her own novel, perhaps this was where the problem lay? That – ironically given the name – an outsider might have asked more questions of the text, rather than assuming our instant fascination with moody Lewis and his plight. Although performed with utmost conviction, and at times quite harrowing, as I reflect now I’m still more shaken by that one word: Roderick!

  1. Here, here and here
  2. Incredibly, the brilliant Adam Cadwell’s storyboard for that is here
  3. Now finally sporting proper superhero monikers, as per the opening spiel: “Wealthy!  Astute! Innovative! Fearless! And Shrewd!”

Watched #41
“Has it really been 30 years since Bouncer’s dream?” wondered aloud the chap in the Channel 5 voiceover booth. Well, no. It hasn’t.

I remember when it was announced C5 had nabbed Gotham and someone on Facebook observed: “Well, that’s that ruined”. There is a genuine perception that the network – until recently draped under the cloak of Desmond – stinks up everything it touches. But they didn’t get all that much wrong when it came to celebrating Neighbours‘ 30th.

There’s a winning self-awareness about the soap, always has been. It knows its place. And so no one, over here or over there, ever seemed to contemplate it laying on an EastEnders-sized bash. Instead the celebrations were annexed off to one evening – Wednesday. Well, I say that; it might be the case regular daily episodes of the show are going nuts, but there hasn’t been any communication of that. The highlight for this receding telly nerd was obvious: Neighbours: The First Episode (11.55pm).

Just to make things tricky, Neighbours isn’t actually 30 years old over here, which might be why you’re not quite feeling the synergy between that and any residual Walford nostalgia. The show debuted in the UK in October 1986, and with a first episode that doesn’t initially feel much like Neighbours. The rolling Grundy icosahedron1 arrives accompanied by a BBC Video-type sting and then we’re into Danny Ramsay’s dream. Surreally shot and seemingly scored by John Carpenter, it’s indicative of absolutely nothing that’s to follow – except maybe Bouncer’s own nocturnal visions (which first aired in Australia in 1990 and over here in ’91, Channel 5 Guy). It’s a weird way to introduce us to the neighbourhood. Max grabs Danny’s neck as if to throttle him and breaks into maniacal laughter, then Shane tumbles from the high board, vapour lifting divinely from his torso.

We catch up with Danny the next day, and returning from a fruitless visit to his GP (Mum and Dad are getting worried about his night terrors), the camera settles on the street he lives in. This is positively the dullest moment at which to raise the show’s logo and bleed in the tune. A Breaking Bad tableau, it’s so lacking in romance. Half the screen, tarmac, the other defined by a lonely power line and an abandoned car.

But then we meet Anne Haddy’s Helen Daniels, who’s brilliantly Helen Daniels-ing from the off. Cut to Paul Keane’s Des Clarke and, in a scene pretty much about nothing, he beats out a little drum solo on a car chassis while yakking to one of his mates. For no other reason than that’s the kind of affable bloke Des is. Later, Julie Robinson (in her original Vikki Blanche incarnation) demolishes Lorraine’s regard for the poor guy, whom she’s due to marry in the morning. “He isn’t really a spunk, is he?” And during the bucks’ party, across the way the Robinsons are keeping vigil, the stripper music preventing anyone on the street from getting some sleep. Little Lucy Robinson (Kylie Flinker) emerges from that door, as she so often will: “I heard Paul telling those dirty jokes again.”

I’m not over-egging it. There’s real gold here. And it can’t just be the writing. It’s doubtful Des’ finger skiffle was in any script. And how could stage directions conjure up Helen so forcefully? Our conclusion must be that, wibbly-wobbly dream aside, Neighbours had a doubty confidence from the off. Its pretensions were merely towards being plain (“Produced in the studios of Flinders Productions” say the end titles), but plain connotes honesty. We went nuts for Erinsborough in the ’80s, I think, because of that, and because it never tried to convince us it was of much consequence.

I’m travelling backwards through Wednesday night. Here’s Neighbours: Scott & Charlene Get Married (11.30pm), about which we already know everything, except, maybe, what else happened in that episode. Like Brookside‘s Lesbian kiss in 1994, it feels like the programme makers didn’t quite realise what they were getting. In that other instance, no one from Mersey TV thought to capture the moment with the obligatory ‘episodic’ photo-shoot2 and so it must forever be illustrated with a screen grab. That’s not quite the case with Scott and Lennie (the chummier nickname never quite supplanting the formal ‘Charlene’ as was obviously intended). But it’s weird that the wedding isn’t placed as the culmination of the episode.

But what a wedding! Dismissing soap orthodoxy, there isn’t a parallel element of tragedy trying to hone in on the action, even when the bride-to-be baits fate: “This is going to be the best wedding ever!” Instead it’s just a lovely sequence, wherein the couple charmingly steal glances at each other, while around the church the peoples of Erinsborough are allowed micro-interactions that writ their characters large. Mrs Mangel looks hopefully at Harold. Gail gazes wistfully into the middle-distance; Paul turns briefly and catches that, an expression of guilt touching his face while he considers their sham marriage. Madge dabs a tear.

Back at the Robinsons’, the soap opera rolls on. Mrs Mangel catches Harold embracing Madge. “For heaven’s sake we were engaged!”/”But after the accident, she probably doesn’t remember.” Also, Lucy’s pet mouse has escaped. The episode was written by Ray Harding and directed by Rod Hardy, suitably utilitarian sounding names.

Unsurprisingly, that episode (#532) was voted fans’ favourite in Neighbours 30th: The Stars Reunite (10pm). The 90-minute celebration was helmed by Stefan Dennis, who was pragmatic enough to explain the backstory of the character played by his co-host, before bringing in Tim Phillipps. And this was fun and admirable, the big guns like Kylie Minogue, Guy Pearce and Margot Robbie seemingly happy to chat about those days. What pleasure there was in the pop princess once again uttering the phrase: “Plain Jane Super Brain”. It was absolutely implicit that the show’s glory years lay in the 4:3 era. Only one of its top five moments broke out into widescreen, but no one seemed too fussed. Craig McLachlan still had oodles of charm, insisting on a recording break while he donned Henry’s dungarees, and later wigging out as he played his own electric guitar version of theme. “This one’s for you Bouncer!” he declared, before noodling a final solo.

And then, here was where the evening started. With our regular visit to those Antipodean… [clunk] Neighbours (5.30, repeated from 1.45pm), where for no reason, they’re celebrating Erinsborough with the inaugural Erinsborough Festival. Old pictures of Ramsays and Robinsons (are both still on the street?) and a trivia quiz about the recent history of the area (“Anyone remember the name of Helen Daniels’ car service?”). Here’s Harold, who moves – with sure practise – from pathos to bathos and back again, crashing his van into one of the fete stands, and then hallucinating up his dearly missed Madge. “Oh, Harold, what have you done?!” she hisses.

Earlier on, Mayor Paul Robinson announced that someone called Reg Watson had won the quiz. It was the soap’s own ‘Julia + Tony’ moment. Done in the customary style, playing down any real piquancy.

  • This will be the last update to OTT for a couple of weeks, while I knuckle down and complete some things for Doctor Who Magazine. But I’ll be back. And in the meantime I’ll keep slinging stuff onto my vanity site: www.gk-w.com
  1. Thanks, closinglogos.com
  2. I know this, I’m sad to say, because that was one of the many snippets I had to lose from this

Watched #40
One thing I’m certain about Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix, from Friday) is that’s a killer theme tune. We’re just on the other side of the whole Songify – umm – craze1, but – to nearly quote Walter Bankston – dammit, it’s alive! The kind of silly, funny, tuneful opening that sets off a drip-feed of dopamine in your brain. It’s designed (by the Gregory Brothers) to be an earworm, and worm it does.

So do elements of this comedy. Someone on my timeline, apropos of nothing, tweeting just yesterday: “Troll the respawn Jeremy.” Bits wriggling free.

Created by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it feels right that it’s sat on a server, 13 episodes waiting to turn viral, rather than air weekly on NBC (which was the original plan). At the time of writing, I’ve sat through nine of them and I’m not sure how much I like it.  That’s weird, because nine episodes in a week should be an indication of devotion. But, instead, for me, it’s more a testimonial to the form. Short US half-hours, which are there immediately on my telly or tablet. Designed to fill in the gaps between other things.

How can I quantify my regard? Well, I feel assured there’ll be at least one good line per episode2 and it doesn’t go too heavy on that current trend in US comedy – a set-up which pays off with a snappy flashback to some surreal happening. Also, I like the cast well enough. But I like the whole package less than its obvious comparison point, 30 Rock. Where that had a kind of anything-goes mentality with members of the wider ensemble you’d be hanging on to see (specifically, Dr Spaceman) this is more contained. A more left leftfield premise, but relatively conservatively realised.

That said, I’ll be there through to the end of the 13 – and the next too. There’s story development which I really didn’t expect (certain characters who seem created as off-screen foils then joining the story) and, it remains, short, likeable, accessible. Ask me again in a year, and I’ll probably be nuts for the whole thing. That’s gonna be, uh, a you know, uh, a fascinating transition.

Much of my life is spent thinking about MasterChef (BBC1 Tuesday, 9pm – continuing Wednesday, Thursday) so forgive me as I zero straight in on the details as the show returns for its 11th run. What are the tweaks? As ever, tiny, but it’s like julienning a carrot; these are deft and meticulous cuts. After having John Torode conduct last series in his chef whites, he’s back in civvies. That visual demarcation between he and Gregg Wallace is apparently no longer important. As it mostly hasn’t been over the last decade.

But loose chat! Between rounds, right from the off, we’re privy to contestants’ conversations on the shop floor. It may sound patrician, but I don’t want to hear from the folks yet – not until they’ve earned my regard. Right now, I see them as troops, and they should bear that with dignity. Yes, Olivia, we can see that all you’ve managed to get up is a green stripe on a plate, but face front and continue with the competition. Don’t share that stress with Robert or Tony or whomever 3. Of course, this is actually a production choice, not a reflection of a new more voluble intake. Like Robert considering his meeting of minds between cranachan and panna cotta, one should always be given leeway to “riff”, so let’s allow it this year but hope it’ll be put in a cupboard alongside John’s uniform and the (at last!) canned edit suite trick of dropping a clunk of a knife into the soundtrack as a moment of percussion.

It’s because I adore MasterChef I can be mean like this. I’ve still never missed an episode of it or its variants. On the Wednesday , John said, “Let’s rock!” and later on he and Gregg fist-bumped and I didn’t hate it.

The first indication was that something could come of this. An early moment in Boy George and Culture Club: Karma to Calamity (BBC4 Friday, 9pm) saw the quartet reunite in George’s North London kitchen, all becoming animated about his juicer. But when the work began, it became clear why they don’t work. George seemingly more focused on delineating his separateness from the group (as implied by his billing in the title of Mike Nicholls’ exemplary film) then truly participating. As they began to riff – a phrase I employ here in its rare non-culinary form – George thumbed and thumbed and thumbed through his iPhone. Mikey, Roy and Jon left. “I’ve just had to spray chakra spray on myself,” sighed George, mustering up the most damning indictment imaginable.

“Back in the day we did everything 25 per cent,” he said, referring to royalties. “That ain’t going to happen now.” But over the course of the documentary, it became clear George was still, in truth, on a one quarter-share. The geezerish three men (Jon: “The word ‘styling’ when you’re over 50 can wreak fear in your soul”) making a solid 75 against his minority share (George: “When I’m dressed up it seems to bother them”). Although the chameleon saw himself – and probably rightfully – as the senior partner, every interaction strained with that tension. He’d walk out of conversations and photo shoots seemingly so he’d somehow ‘won’. “It’s not about you, it’s about them,” he moaned in reference to fans requesting selfies. It’s easy to criticise, but then one feels George wants it.

When he’d succeeded in fragmenting Culture Club once more, and their comeback tour had been cancelled, he went to a fish restaurant in Hampstead with some devotees who’d come far for the gig. It was a very sweet thing for him to do. Not that he’d want you to think that. Winding up the evening, he bustled out and turned to camera: “It really got on my nerves, I just want you to know”. Then he jigged off up the road.

Sex, Lies & Love Bites: The Agony Aunt Story (BBC4 Tuesday, 9pm), presented by The Guardian‘s Philippa Perry was full of commonsense. “Good advice is what you know anyway,” and that’s true. An industry that seems genuinely founded on solid intention, its best embodiment was surely Claire Rayner. Son Jay (also seen on Thursday’s MasterChef demanding a pud to appeal to his “greedy inner child”) leafed through her ‘standards manual’. Under ‘C': “Circumcision, contraception, climax, crabs, cross-dressing…” I didn’t know Graham Norton practiced the art too, for The Telegraph. Did he always offer his counsel solemnly? “Sometimes. But sometimes I don’t, because who cares, really?”

  1. Was it a craze, or does that make me sound like a very old man?
  2. From the first: “It’s Buckley’s birthday tomorrow so you’ll need to make a cake that’s cute and also Paleo”
  3. I forget, because at this stage I have no interest in them as people

Watched #39
This was the bravest bit of Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial (Channel 4 Tuesday, 10pm): “Did anyone here come in with one view and have had it change during the course of the programme?” Dr Christian Jessen went there in the final minutes of this hour-and-a-half “live from London” event. A pause. “Anybody?”

Set in a studio decked out with fake brick walls in an effort to manufacture an element of integrity, insofar as a I know anything I don’t think the science could be doubted. An exploration into the differing effects of skunk vs “the old-style hash”, this was valid territory for a TV programme. But there was something resolutely 1980s about the whole endeavour, which was hosted by the aforementioned Dr Christian and Channel 4 current affairs figurehead Jon Snow. It prompted memories of the old BBC ‘…Watch’1 strand (Hospital Watch, Childwatch, Railwatch and, as it happens, Drugswatch); that notion of bringing together a group of people who know better to  patiently and brightly explain an issue for the rest of us.

There was a lot of explaining. Sometimes at a giant brain model which – because I’m wired like that – made me think of another 30-year-old BBC effort Bodymatters. It didn’t help that Dr Christian was Alan-Maryon-Davis-ing for all his worth, his limbs undulating as if he was bobbing on the wake of his own words, convivially emphasising the fascination of this fascinating study. Going into the first set of ads, he was about to reveal C4’s own skunk farm. “Actually,” he said, suddenly digging in his heel, “I think I’ll show you that… after the break!”

It was this disarming attempt at friendliness that was getting on my wick. It conferred a layer of mediocrity over everything. Well, nearly. Snow’s reaction to imbibing high-grade cannabis cut through. “This was aggressive filth. This robbed me of my personality”. But at the end, the programme – which “continues to trend on twitter” – couldn’t even get it together for a good old row. The presenters darted around the studio, drawing opinion here and there, but never letting anyone interact directly. Points for and against the decriminalisation of cannabis were left to hang. “No doubt arguments will rage all evening,” said Jon Snow as they signed off.

Anybody?

I cottoned on late that Three Up, Two Down (BBC2 daily) is getting a repeat run. I was banging on about the ’80s a couple of paragraphs ago, and this is that decade in a capsule. With its rough diamond-meets-cut glass format, it’s broiling a very domestic concern of the time: The confluence of the working class with the Sloane Ranger set. The episode I caught (‘Just Desserts’) aired on Monday afternoon, but in 1985 went out on the same day of the week at 8.30pm. Straight after Fame. “Doctors come in all shapes and sizes, you know,” says ‘wallyish’ best friend Wilf. “It’s not compulsory to look like David Owen.”

In this one, Michael Elphick’s Life on Mars-prefiguring Sam Tyler is trying to persuade Angela Thorne’s Daphne to give up an antique case so he can use it to display his stuffed snake. He also hopes that feigning illness might prompt some show of affection from her. And Wilf’s been collecting discarded iced buns from the Rhino enclosure at the zoo. With its light jazz-funk theme and beige title sequence, two minutes of location filming, constant misunderstandings and scenes of Ms Thorne lying on the bed with her head hovering just above the pillow (lest she mush her hairdo), a lot of the vitality has since left the show. But it was a reasonable-sized deal in our house back then, one of my dad’s shows. With his marriage on the rocks, perhaps he saw a potential future for himself in the form of roguish bachelor Sam.

It’s taken me a little while to get into Let’s Play Darts for Comic Relief (BBC2 from Sunday). The opening episode, in fact, kept the first three words of the title at bay for an inordinately long time. “We’re just minutes away from the first match…” said host Gabby Logan, as if getting wind of my groaning. When the darts did finally arrive – with Lee Mack and Martin Adams playing Martin Offiah and Anastasia Dobromyslova – it didn’t quite feel as if we’d got to the point of the evening. It was a bit pedestrian, much of it told in a “we rejoin the action” synopsis. Then it was back to Gabby, who could have been in a bunker in a different town on a different day. “I was good enough just to be bad,” confessed Martin, joining her for a post-match debrief. She said they’d be back tomorrow and my heart sank.

But I’m glad they were. Over the course of the week, this has rather grown on me. The bit when Tim Vine nearly opened with 180, or Roisin Conaty checking out to secure her place in the next round, that’s great telly. Sure, I do fast-forward through the opening chat, but it knocks this down to an even nicer-sized 25 minutes.

Crappy kids’ show titles, outdated comedic archetypes, a shocking slot in the schedules, a muzak score that’s so embarrassed it hides as far back in the soundscape as possible, three writers, scenes that end on a fade to black… is there anything good to say about Matt Lucas’ Pompidou (BBC2 Sunday, 6.30pm)?

Anybody?

  1. As does the font being in Rockwell, but I think I’ve allowed myself to get waylaid by typography too much in these things of late

Watched 38
What we don’t need right now is The Big Painting Challenge (BBC1 Sunday, 6pm).

TV continues to be replete with ‘big’ competitions winkling out different kinds of craft enthusiasts. They present a picture of Britain that’s very comforting: A camera swishing past an apple-cheeked girl and her homemade wares, who holds its gaze. Then it’s a bearded older chap in a battered hat who does likewise. And they’re joined by whatever pleasant cross-section of folk fall in between those two (not so) extremes. All nice people who are productively spending their free time making nice things. Now they’re to be marshaled by Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon, the BBC1 variant to the Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner-combo who’ve proved so successful on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.

The format requires no explanation, we’ve long since signed up for the deal (three rounds, two judges, one elimination – plus ça change) and even though the adjudicators in this don’t seem so obviously televisual as a Buttress or a Berry, there’s still a lot of enjoyment in the drama which underpins their declarations. “The use of black to make out lines and shadows can kill your whole painting,” says Lachlan Goudie. It’s always, “You have just 10 minutes left!” and low-key jeopardy of the Amy-is-a-stay-at-home-mum-who’s-never-attempted-a-landscape-before variety.

Like I said, we don’t need this, but I still want it. Next week, they’re doing portraits!

I pottered around during the final episode of Broadchurch (ITV Monday, 9pm). Last time there was a final episode, I remember being at a press event held by Sky. It was in the Ivy. Seriously, that does still happen. And as the clock rounded on 8.15pm, people were finishing up their (free) drinks and making for the door. This time?

Claims that some wave of antipathy has affected viewers’ and critics’ response to this second series are disingenuous. The first episode back, in fact, was tremendous, and seemed to generally be recognised as such. Yes, there was probably some resistance seeded in by the propaganda whipped up beforehand, but I don’t buy this notion that en masse the British want to bash a success. We do get annoyed with a success when it starts to fail, though, that’s true.

Where the first series always pointed towards a single focus – who killed Danny Latimer? – this one lost that vision. Coming into the last episode, what was the single question we were to fixate upon? The jury’s verdict? The who-did-what-to-who (a particularly loaded part of the equation, considering the victims in this case never ever felt present) in Sandbrook1? Neither had the necessary clarity and thus compulsion. Instead, the story grasped at… a lot of times, it was sex. It seemed some sort of lodestone. A gasp at its every mention: “You had sex with Lisa Newbery that night?” asked Hardy. Claire: “Did you have sex with her?”. Pippa: “I heard Lisa and Lee, they were having sex.”

If I remember correctly, the first episode of the first series of Broadchurch began with Mark Latimer walking through the town, people – characters – criss-crossing his path. That sense of place and interconnection has gone now. Broadchurch has become the Latimer’s house, Ellie’s house, the static caravans (for a bit) and the courtroom. Hardy and Ellie felt like free bodies, operating unconnected to anything that looked like a police force. The scene at the end, where Joe was ‘banished’2, attempted to reassemble that community. But it just looked like a group of people filling in the shot nicely. “Broadchurch will return.” But will Broadchurch?

I doubt even the Design Council could be bothered to make sure their staff’s name badges conform to the same style guide as the signposts around the building. But the powers-that-be (oh, the rotten powers-that-be!) in Critical (Sky 1, Tuesday 9pm) are all over this. Logos everywhere. So many things auger well for the show. It’s written by Jed Mercurio and stars Lennie James. That’s a compelling combination in itself. Throw in the real-time novelty, and the fact the creatives have gone to unbelievable lengths to ensure accuracy in the depiction of trauma surgery, and one would assume: killer hit. But somewhere along the way the drama has been designed out of this show. There’s a huge disconnect between the blood and guts and the environs of this programme, which look utterly unreal. Perhaps there are best-case NHS hospitals out there like this, maybe I’m being unfair. But it seems pure sci-fi. As the camera pans around the team of medics, one half expects a Ferengi in the mix. And while I admire the fidelity to the cases, rather than the characters, this storytelling decision means we’re left with a bunch of people we don’t know, working upon a body – which is just that, it’s never a person – in a situation that looks highly fictional. Whether they succeed or fail, it’s all become abstract.

In all of this, where’s Lennie James? He doesn’t appear until the end of the episode. This ploy of detaining the lead character in new shows is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s annoying. As if a programme is saying: We haven’t even started yet – wait till we do! No, I think, give us all you’ve got while you’ve got us.

Our leaders had been on Twitter letting us know we should watch Cucumber (Channel 4, 9pm) – which they’d already seen and it was brilliant and there was going to be a surprise appearance from Hazel from Queer as Folk – and then popping back up at the end to remind us that it was brilliant and that they’d already seen it. Thankfully, the drama was able to shake itself free of all that clamouring. It’s  the finest hour of TV Russell T Davies has  written. I feel one of his strengths is there’s never any actual learning for his characters, because people are people and life just happens to us. By taking Lance, who’s been a supporting player, and bringing him to the fore, it reminds you life is also just happening to everyone else. And in this Channel 4 hour, with ad breaks and the like chiseled out of it, it happened to Lance.

  1. The show offering up an open goal to any reviewer with its revelation of a fatal floor.
  2. Weird to contrive some feeling of natural justice from the notion a child killer with paedophilic tendencies was being forced on to another neighbourhood.

Watched #37
“Poor old Reg” – Radio Times, 16-22 February 1985 edition.

I remember, of course I do, the day EastEnders first aired1. Much brouhaha from BBC1, trailered whenever the channel inhaled. Things don’t change. But what surprises me watching it back now – courtesy of BBC iPlayer and the show’s 30th celebrations – is how raw it is.

When the door is booted open to Rog Cox’s flat, the scene is recorded on cameras unequipped to deal with the light levels. Dark shadows become moss-coloured stripes. All this is really telling us is, back then, the production wasn’t adequately resourced for what it was trying to do – but (predictably) I liked that. Probably because it made me feel nostalgic. Also, those flaws inferred a kind of reality, as if the camera crew had to just bustle in and get on with it.

As a first episode of anything, this, written by Gerry Huxham2, does an excellent job. By the end of the 30 minutes we had a reasonable grip on the geography of Albert Square, with some key spaces – specifically the stairwell behind the bar in the Queen Vic – already working brilliantly. Similarly, we understood the characters, and how they interrelated. Granted, there was some ungainly place-setting dialogue (“Me? I’m Den Watts, publican of the Queen Victoria”, or “‘Ere, what’s all this about, Lou?”/”I dunno, Ethel”) but when we saw Kathy enter the cafe, all smiles, it was as if she’d been doing it for years.

Yes, performances varied, to a degree that just isn’t countenanced in the show today, but no one yet felt like they were chiseling out a specific archetype – falling into a type of characterisation that will be passed on through subsequent generations (Leslie Grantham then, Danny Dyer today).

If memory serves, the critical consensus was that this thing had got off to a rocky start. Part of that was the shock of the new. Some of it still shocks. This repeat was preceded with a friendly 21st-century BBC caption: “First broadcast in 1985, this episode contains some content that present day viewers may find offensive.” In the main, that referred to the casual racism espoused by Nick Cotton, but also the decision to frame half-a-dozen shots so that a topless Big D Nuts model was in view at the back of frame.

What was really surprising, though, were the couple of lines loaded with political intent. “Community spirit went out the window when the Tories come (sic) in,” said Pete Beale. “It’s ‘uneconomic'”. Later, Lou Beale roared about “that cow at Number 10!” What a time, when our soaps felt politicking to be part of the package. But, as they would learn during the latter half of the 1980s, it was in the plotting, not the politicking, they could impact upon the national discussion…

“So join in the conversation on social media!” It’s a few days short of 30 years later. I haven’t watched EastEnders with any regularity since, maybe, Willmott-Brown’s short-lived return, which would mean around 1992. However, like the Coronation Street 50th birthday celebrations, the anniversary is reason enough to drag me back in. So, it’s Tuesday, and I’m confused. Whereas Weatherfield brought us a big explosion, toppling residents in such a way so that their reorientation helped lapsed viewers, this is an implosion, sucking characters into a storyline which, I understand, has a year’s worth of wrinkles to iron out.

Coming back to Walford, certain things struck me. Some repeatedly, like how the mechanics of each scene work: a character arrives (usually letting themselves in), has a conversation with someone in which they only partially disclose the information they’re holding, then one of the party leaves while the camera lingers on whomever remains, their expression changing to indicate there’s something they’re not saying. And repeat. There’s also a  strange flatness to everything, interiors are flatly light – except for Nick Cotton’s resting place – and the sound is similarly one-dimensional. There’s never the cadence of being in a front room or a pub. It’s not so much EastEnders‘ house style as its studio style. But once you’ve reacclimatised, you kind of forget about it.

In this instalment, Barbara Windsor returned for an odd scene in which her every line seemed self-regarding. Was the purpose of her encounter with Danny Dyer in the Queen Vic (she’d just let herself in) to establish his character as being in someway less definitive than her’s? Why do that? Elsewhere, Ian and Sharon chatted – a quorum from the First Days. “How many times have we sat on this bench putting the world to rights?” she wondered, using the kind of cliché that’s only ever uttered in soap. No one puts the world to rights. Then, a genuinely nice line from Ian, his realisation “there’s no one to be proud of me anymore.”

“She knows you killed Lucy,” said Max Branning at the end, in an #EELive segment. Until then, the rationale behind these bits felt elusive, but coming back on Wednesday, I started to get it. Live was where this birthday party came alive, the production team stockpiling all the revelatory stuff for those moments – although it did mean anything not hashtagged seemed rather inessential, with no purposeful business to be conducted therein. But, what fun! “How’s Adam?” This was where the drama could be found, actors on their mettle, cameras being cued then and there, and despite the dialogue stumbles, this aspect was terrific.

Come Thursday, though, and everything sagged. As neat as it was to open with a reprise of episode one, the feeling of holding back the inevitable in the hour-long special was overwhelming. Ian wandering around, saying to various people he knew whodunnit, Mick acknowledged that at one point, but had something more pressing to attend to than asking the newly-wed to name names. A birth, a death, another death, a possible third death (at Danny Dyer’s boot) and a ludicrous conspiracy to hide Nick Cotton’s body; it was epic but rambling nonsense, lurching around all over the shop. Kathy’s return – someone I recognised! – felt lost, just another crazy revelation.

Except, none of this was meant for me. None of it. And why should it be? It’s not my party. As I said, I haven’t watched EastEnders in years and I wondered if this was how ex-Doctor Who viewers felt about the show’s 50th. From that point of view, I accept the soap was delighting its faithful, and all power to them. In those terms, you can’t deny it’s been a massive success. But it did mean I was completely thrown by the subsequent flashback episode, wherein relationships I had a tenuous grip on after three episodes were no longer relevant. And what power, really, could the ultimate revelation hold when a character I’d only ever been aware of once she was dead turned out to have been murdered by another character I didn’t know existed until that very moment?

But then tonight: “Over 10 million of you were part of TV history last night,” said the BBC1 announcer, about to press the button for our final 30 minutes. Here, at last, I yielded to the moment. Sure, there was the unwelcome stupidity of two families, mere yards apart, potentially hiding murderers in the midst, but live – live EastEnders looked its stories squarely in the eye. “Jane says she killed Lucy,” said Ian, at last ditching the obfuscation. These scenes were testament to something probably too few of us realised. “How’s Adam?” Turns out Adam’s amazing, giving a moving, dignified performance of a man crumbling, then rebuilding himself. Respect also to the younger cast members (as young as 12, in fact).

Even the writing felt bolstered. Okay, some of the dialogue creaked in a way nothing else did (“Emma was a good officer, she put her heart and soul into finding Lucy’s killer”) but the scenes of the Beales interrogating Jane, determined to make her say every last painful truth, were rightfully harrowing.

Fade from that front room outside to shots around the Square. Life goes on, soaps go on. As Ian said, “Slowly, Lucy will fade from people’s memories.” To put it plainly, she will from mine. What happens next in EastEnders? I won’t know, because I’m off again.

Poor old Lucy.

But, unexpectedly, despite my resistance, there was more than one moment tonight when I surprised myself by actually feeling glad this show exists. A fine legacy for “Julia + Tony”. There go the fireworks, with a final triple-crack into the closing drum beats.

  1. And again in 1995, as a short-lived daytime repeat run billed: EastEnders: The Early Days
  2. The very model of a jobbing writer, who’d been contributing scripts to schools’ programme Walrus, had done a couple of Crown Courts and would go on to have a few goes at The Bill and Eldorado.

Watched #36
“Did you ground yourself?” asked Chuck, when Saul (or do we call him Jimmy?) arrived. I certainly tried to. Like all the other boring people who write about TV, I boringly loved Breaking Bad. Really boringly. I came upon Better Call Saul (Netflix, from Monday, Tuesday) with that mix of apprehension and hope. A big part of me wished it didn’t exist, because there then wouldn’t be the risk of a pollutant somehow infecting the parent show. You know, in same way Broadchurch series two tempts us to now doubt series one1. But two episodes in and I’ve cast those worries aside. Boringly, I loved it.

Better Call Saul fires up the bits in my telly-watching brain that were left for dead after Walter White went down. It’s not the cleverness that gets me (there’s a hint of red in Saul’s glasses in the very last half-second of the black and white sequence), or the counter-intuitive editing (like how the show jarringly cuts from the titles just before the last beat of the music), or even the wit (“The only way that car is worth 500 bucks is if there’s a $300 hooker sitting in it”). It’s the jeopardy and how it’s layered on. Much as we saw in BB, characters pass through doors and find themselves in terrible situations which then… get worse. Things suddenly take on a velocity. Whoosh! And, oh shit!

All of this in a weird, down-trodden, concave world. I love how Vince Gilligan‘s inspiration seems to be drawn from the drabbest, most natural-light-deprived corners of humanity. Horrid malls, nasty chain-patisseries and Saul’s own office situated in the backroom of some joyless beauty parlour, which sports a cucumber-water cooler. Within this feckless setting, Bob Odenkirk brings us the man before he became Saul, someone who’s mediocre at best in the courtroom and impotent everywhere else. But like Walter White, he is the man. And I hope this show – which opens by dangling the possibility it will move out of the past tense and into the present – has plans for life beyond the point Slippin’ Jimmy finds his new identity. Not that I’m in a rush for him to get to Saul. In fact there’s enough of Goodman here already. “I’m the rising tide that raises all dinghies,” he says.

The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) resumed its fifth series, with one of those episodes that leads you around and around, but no further forward. Sure, someone died, but in terms of their place in the story, I’d say they’d been the metaphorical walking dead for some time; a character long since run out of plot and passion. That it all seemed so cyclical was partly due to the show’s penchant for disorientating the viewer, opening on flashes of scenes that of themselves appear meaningless, but which we’ve come to learn will be put in context by the end of the hour. And there it all is, rounded off – a circle. Back where we began. A circle, maybe, honouring the person who’s now gone, and that’s okay. I understand the show has to pay respects to its own, and God knows it’s had self-indulgent episodes in the past. Fingers cross, though, next week it starts going places again.

Aimless in a different sort of way, Bob Servant (BBC4 Monday, 9.30pm) came back. It doesn’t feel as though there was a particular swell of support for the character to return (except, I dunno, maybe in Scotland, where the series has already aired on BBC1) but I’m kind of glad he did. Now it’s got rid of the quasi-remit of Bob running for office, it can happily pad around in its own nonsense unfettered by any plot responsibilities. I like Bob – played by Brian Cox – particularly his unshakeable self-assurance and his ready aphorisms. I like it that he talks grandly about his tiny world. “When they murdered Jesus and threw him in the cave, everyone thought it was goodnight Vienna,” he says, framing his imminent return to the world of burger vending. “It’s time for our Second Coming.” All said in a Dundonian accent, something that remains a novelty on TV2 and lends itself nicely to whimsy.

Still more arsing around, The Great Comic Relief Bake Off  (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm) undertook the business of roping in celebrities for – as always – a slightly unsatisfactory version of the competition, which, in the absence of the real deal, does quite nicely. It would be wrong to expect a fictional character to engage properly with the contest, but all the same, I did wish Dame Edna would give it a proper go. I’m not being a total grump in that, though. It was undeniably funny when her giant biscuit fused to the tin and she quipped, in an unflappable way, “It’ll have a good crunch”. God bless Mary Berry, who remained firmly on the rails. “The cream is sort of informal,” she said at the end of round two, in consideration of the Dame’s tarts. The final challenge was to create a tiered chocolate cake inspired by a memorable occasion. Around the meringue Sydney Opera house swam… what? “That is a very rare pink-finned shark,” explained Edna. And the other thing? “That is a red-finned shark.”

  1. Did I ever really feel empathy for Hardy?
  2. As does the mere mention of ‘Broughty Ferry’

Watched #35
That he’s billed “Reporter Michael Cockerell” in the opening says a lot about Inside The Commons (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm). There’s a plainness in the declaration, one which is carried into Cockerell’s own commentary. His words and delivery are unfancy and connect neatly.

In this four-part documentary, he roams the corridors and teashops of power, bringing us a depiction of parliamental life that’s  akin to one of those 360-degree documentaries on London Transport instead of the usual self-regarding gossipy  snapshots we’re normally offered. This is a place of work with, indeed, its own workplace politics (small-p). A segment on how MPs reserve seats in the House by attending morning prayers will have held an unexpected resonance for anyone whose Monday to Friday run is nowadays given unwelcome pace by the thought of hot-desking. And we also learn that while bills are ceremoniously handed over bound in green ribbon, they’re simultaneously made available on the shared drive. Cockerell’s approach finds fascination in both. Maybe even more so in the prosaic things. The new Conservative MP for Bristol, Charlotte Leslie, tells us of her “emergency duvet” for late readings, while David Blunkett moans on about his preference for a “smart card” over the division lobbies. Back to Charlotte again, who muses on the pragmatism that governs how often one should toe away from the party line: “With each rebellion, the currency of your rebellion goes down”.

Programmes like this also require personalities, but Cockerell is careful not to let that overwhelm his investigations. The bewhiskered clerk of the House is Sir Robert Rogers, and yet we come to learn the man in the flowing robes is by no means antediluvian. He’s pushed for wi-fi. If there is real eccentricity, it can be found in the showbiz of politics. Charlotte’s counterpoint in terms of the flow of this episode is fellow newbie Sarah Champion (Labour MP for Rotherham) who recounts the stinging advice she received when the ballots closed in her favour. She has “unparliamentary hair”, apparently. Conversely, Michael Fabricant1 must be in possession of the mother of all parliamental thatches. He is the type of chap, verging on a Giles cartoon, who only looks of a place in those unreal Victorian hallways.

This is, if I haven’t made it clear, a terrific programme. Often political journalism will talk of the “big beasts”. Cockerell certainly does here. But it’s a phrase that he could also turn upon himself. In the parallel landscape  he stalks as a reporter, none rise higher.

Rory Bremner’s Coalition Report (BBC2 Tuesday, 10pm) followed. Both shows are part of a BBC season of programming, exploring the political landscape 800 years after Magna Carta was written. But where Cockerell’s production pushed forward into its subject, this padded around. It doesn’t help that, in his gift for mimicry, Bremner himself gets lost. As a stand-up he has no obvious MO or line of thought, his patter  instead a series of segues into the next impression. Throughout came political parodies in the form of mock adverts and embarrassed songs, which seem to me the least pointed type of satire there is. Dentist waiting room satire. When Rory refers to something – I forget what now, forgive me – as “the political equivalent of Nando’s”, I imagined a script meeting with old chaps feeling that they’d really lasered in on 2015 right there.

The very worst bit saw Rory and “one of the best political comedians in the country today, please welcome” Matt Forde sat together, taking turns. One did Ed Miliband, the other worked up appreciative chuckles. In the wide shot of the student audience, I saw a man reach for his bottle of water and then glug long and hard. The night took a terrible toll.

Rylan on Big Brother had got the memo, and told us that coming up next was the “eagerly anticipated social experiment”, 10,000 BC (Channel 5 Monday, 10pm). No TV social experiment has been eagerly awaited since the year 2000, and despite Julian Barratt’s brave, drama-filled voice over, this did not excite. He told us that 20 Brits – as ever representing a cross-section of something – were being dropped off in a Stone Age-type environment “without any 21st century help”. Other then the provision of socks and sturdy shoes, blankets and the advice of survival expert Klint Janulis2. As they bickered and flapped and, as ever, someone revealed themselves to be “veggie” and “very anti-hunting” (which made you think what the fuck are you doing here?) I felt my interest chilling rapidly. “Not everyone made it,” said Barratt when setting out the premise at the start of the episode. I certainly didn’t – not to Tuesday’s instalment, anyway.

“A comedy of small proportions!” Modern Times: Warwick Davis’ Big Night Out (BBC2 Thursday, 9pm) surprised me. Having seen the personality as a Ricky Gervais curated statement on the crassness of celebrity culture, I was unprepared for how much, and how quickly, I took to him in this documentary, which followed his efforts to set up a theatre company for reduced-height actors and lay on a production of the farce See How They Run. Giant in terms of patience and principles, here was a man remortgaging the house in order for he, and others of a similar stature, to finally play leading roles instead of dwarves and animals. Meanwhile, his wife was undergoing an operation to the spine. “It’s quite ironic we’re both going to theatre,” said Warwick.

  1. Whose name is perhaps a portent to the origin of his own ‘do
  2. Another person with a disclosive monicker, this one sounding like a period between the Paleolithic and Mesolithic

Watched #34
“Doesn’t this new massive increase in the price of oil mean a change in the world balance of power, between the developing nations – like you, the producers – and us, the developed industrialized nations?”

“Yes, it will.”

What does Adam Curtis mean to me? Actually, almost nothing. Like Gone With the Wind or War and Peace, he’s a mighty cultural force I’m aware of but have never really chosen to experience. The novelty of his latest film, Bitter Lake (BBC iPlayer from Sunday) being available online only prompted me to have a look. I make that admission, confident it means I now appear lacking. Why aren’t I all about Adam Curtis? In truth, because the bits of his work I’ve sampled make me feel weary. With its hefty 136-minute running time, Bitter Lake didn’t (in its shape anyway) seem set to charge me up.

It begins, as I’d imagine Curtis fully intends, like a dream, with disconnected imagery and fuzzy music. Curtis’ English lecturer voice, cuts through. “Events come and go,” he says, “like waves of a fever.” His thesis is the world is conveyed in stories and the story that drives the War on Terror has become  confused, even nonsensical. Initially the film feels like its mirroring that, throwing in footage from all sorts of weird sources – the front line in Afghanistan, the Russian film Solaris, Carry on Up the Khyber – and builds into a heightened form, becoming something akin to the aversion therapy sequence in A Clockwork Orange. Or, worse still, a video art installation.

Watching this it’s as if Curtis’ own attention is waxing in and out of the film. But there are moments when it crystalises, as if he’s finding focus. In 1946, US engineers and their families are going to Helmand to build a new world. The king wants to harness both the power of the Helmand River and the verve for modernisation that has transformed America under Roosevelt. Dams are built, the salt level rises in the surrounding soil as a consequence, which proves to be excellent for growing poppies… and then we lose the story to more capricious clips and rumbles.

Except, as it continues, it all starts to make a sort of sense. A self-drawing image being revealed by bits of detail here and there. We learn that through the 1960s and early ’70s Russia, America and China were all courting the Saudis because of their oil resources while, from the UK, newsman Leonard Parkin wondered, “How do you businessmen make appointments?” when he learns of the whimsical ways of Arabic time-setting. His quiet colonial fashion communicates an assumption the Western way of things is the default, and anything else an eccentricity. There’s a sequence from a 1971 edition of Blue Peter in which Val is brushing Afghan hounds Kingsley and Cleo so they may join 20 members of the Southern Afghan Hounds society at The Mall to greet King Faisal of Saudi Arabia on his first – and only – visit to Britain. It feels, initially, that this is put in for jollity, but somehow it segues quite brilliantly into the 1973 energy crisis when Saudi Arabia raised oil prices five times overnight.

And therein follows the quote I opened with above. An incredulous British interviewer, with vowels a-ringing, putting his question to Sheikh Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Minister of Oil, who smiles beatifically at the clarity of this moment.

Do instances like this make all the clattering round worthwhile? I’m not sure they do. Curtis’ thesis seems meticulously constructed, but in his efforts to simulate that fever dream we now live in, my attention also ebbed and flowed. Since 1992, Afghanistan has been the biggest opium producer in the world, thanks to its abundant crop of poppies. Another connection is made. But, for me, the signal to noise ratio isn’t quite right.

Everyone comes together on a new TV production – particularly expensive ones – with the best of intentions. That what they’re going to make will be good. When does that turn into hubris? Fortitude (Sky Atlantic Thursday, 9pm) gathers all those people you like from all those other things (Sofie Gråbøl, Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Richard Dormer, Jessica Raine, Johnny Harris… I’m wearing out the ‘comma’ key) and while it’s maybe not fair to chide a drama on the stellar nature of its cast, I never once felt as if I got to know any of the characters. Was that a problem with Simon Donald’s opaque script, or just snow-blindness brought on by each person’s X-from-X factor? Whatever, they and their situation remained distant, particularly with the show itself already having presumed our fascination. Near the end of the opening 110 minutes, Tucci’s detective arrived. At last someone who bore his secrets lightly and allowed us a little getting-to-know-you time. One man, though, isn’t enough and the rest of what happens in that remote place will remain a mystery to me.

Series 15 of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Channel 5 Saturday, 10.15pm) comes screaming at you. Every sequence cut up like a ‘on the next Hell’s Kitchen‘ trailer, no moment going unpunctuated, flashes of white and whoomphs of white noise in all the interstices. This opening episode set up the premise for the run, of a serial killer (it’s always them) who ‘processes’ his own crime scenes, leaving behind tags, threads tracking ballistics and all those other fun accoutrements. This is a world where computers beep and burble, folks say cool things such as, “Looks like Ecklie’s purchasing of a 3D mapping system is paying off!” and a high-powered businessman dismisses his staff from a meeting by clapping his hands twice. “Leave us!”

There’s nothing wrong with any of this, nor the fact the baddy leaves one of his clues in the form a parallax illusion which, like the current Channel 4 idents, only reveals itself when you look at it just so. It’s its own reality.

Not sure why I always write about Dragons’ Den 1(BBC2 Sunday, 9pm). Maybe because it also offers up its very own universe, where a giant clock face lies in a corridor being edgy, the button to call the fictional lift doesn’t light up and it’s understood that the vari-jowled magnates offer wisdom. “That’s not that hard to walk on,” says Deborah Meaden treading over simulated wet grass. A big fan rotates behind a grill. A close-up of Peter Jones massaging his knee.

  1. Which I’ve done here and here