With Doctor Who back on BBC1 very soon, I’ll be tangled up writing reviews for Doctor Who Magazine. They’ll appear online here – eventually. But it means no updates on OTT for a good while.
Any programme that starts with the pretext we “as a nation” share some specific attribute gets me suspicious. “Spend, spend, spend! We love doing it!” bellows Anne Robinson in Britain’s Spending Secrets (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm).
I immediately thought of all the fun I was going to have being rude about a show, which, yes, does also use the quasi-witticism “retail therapy” at one point. Sadly, I soon found myself enjoying it, and on its own terms.
The fact of the matter is, let out from her Watchdog dungeon and given the time to follow conversations where they might go, Anne Robinson is an excellent journalist. She tees up a sequence with Charlotte by acknowledging this young mother on benefits, deep in debt, is the “perfect punch bag” for the programme. Charlotte has an expensive fridge, bought on HP, which lights up blue. “They gave me everything I wanted…” she says, the ‘they’, as ever, going undefined.
Another contributor, Laura, is wealthy and profligate. You can tell where she is on that continuum by the fact she refers to her clothing purchases as ‘pieces’.
But the person who fares worst of all is Darren. He’s the father in a family who, we’re told, bring in £100k a year. And in the programme’s most obviously formatted element, he plays host to Claire who’s from a £25k household. Darren’s wife pulls a two-hour commute everyday to net 90 per cent of their income, while he’s shown arsing around in his “man cave” (another now spent wisecrack) and extolling the virtues of Starbucks. The programme-makers throw he and Claire into a debate about the merits of sending his kids to Eton. He tells her: “The guy who played Stephen Hawking in the latest film about his life – he was an Etonian”. On the reciprocal visit to her house in Malvern, he’s on his app, checking. The nearest Starbucks is Tewkesbury.
Meanwhile, Anne has realised she’s onto something when it comes to white goods. “Let’s have a look in your fridge!” she cries, visiting the home of Romany zillionaire Alfie. “People’s fridges always find them out.” She has a knack for loading up the right question. At home with the spendthrift Baroness Jenkins, she asks what search phrase she uses when looking for clothing bargains on eBay: “Mother of the bride”. And then visiting societal drop-out Jedi and his troupe – who live in makeshift homes in the forest – she immediately recognises that more conventional concerns still dominate, with these eco-warriors worrying about having the best plot of land and foraging food from only the nicest supermarket bins.
There’s a canny eye at work, one far better deployed in this kind of reconnaissance than tipping a wink to Chris Hollins.
I haven’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syfy Monday, 7pm) since it was beamed over here onto BBC2 at the start of the 1990s. As was the way back then, because the show was from America it came to our screens in a slight blur. Everyone inside a corona.
But today, it looks great. Crisp, presumably HD, and the only auras are those inferred by the script. “What would Picard do?” is Riker’s advice as ship’s mascot, Wesley Crusher, is struggling in a new leadership role. Everyone’s a hero inside these walls, so much so the aforementioned first officer can never be at rest. Instead he has to stand at things. Or when he does take a load off, he does so by hoofing his leg over a chair and then descending onto the seat.
I’m sufficiently informed to have recognised this episode – ‘Pen Pals’ – came from the show’s second series, when Dr Pulaski practised medicine and the uniforms had detailing on the shoulders. But I’ve no idea how this one is regarded within circles. Poorly, I would guess. The story is slight, and has been pickled by the intervening years into something inadvertently unpalatable. You see, Data has been secretly chatting to a little girl on a planet somewhere, and now the two are going to meet. “Does your family know where you are?” he asks her, in an alien-planet-room with pot plants.
Looking at this today, it’s obvious it comes from a time when sci fi wasn’t allowed to tarry with nonsense. We learn the Enterprise (never uglier than its Next Gen revamp) is on a boring-sounding “planetary mineral survey” in somewhere called the Selcundi Drema sector, a name that’s such a dirge it leeches any possible drema – sorry, drama – from any possible situation.
Captain Picard does poorly too. Pompously lecturing Counsellor Troi1 on the art of horsemanship as he pops on his flat cap and jumps onto a steed conjured up by the holodeck. It looks, and feels, like a dubbed scene from Châteauvallon. Later, he’s in his office, reading a book that doesn’t have an illustration on the cover (because that would be trivial), grandly allowing a, “Come” when his doorbell chimes.
Meanwhile, everything is scored with insistent orchestra, telling us this bit’s heroic, this bit’s uplifting, this bit is touching (“Understanding that has brought you a step closer to understanding… humanity”).
Such resolute earnestness in the end breeds only derision. Data’s new pal, Sarjenka, is an alien endowed with a pinky that’s as long as her index finger. Why shouldn’t an alien have a long pinky? You can imagine that question being work-shopped. Alien fingers might well deviate from our own. This is good. But it doesn’t leave room for the unthinkable – that it might look stupid.
A quick word for The Great British Bake Off (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm) which produced from the oven a wonderful lion’s head in bread. The series itself remains a proper treat, but the noise around it is such a bore. If you search #GBBO on Twitter, you’ll find companies trying to attach themselves to it. There’s the Good Food channel, there’s someone selling oven gloves, a brilliantly spurious one shilling vitamin pills that simply drops in the hashtag with no attempt at relevance… I even spotted a car company trying to riff off the episode. Worst offender, though, is the official BBC1 account, which smothers Bake Off during its transmission, every double entendre regurgitated in a JPEG. It’s not written down anywhere, but Twitter feels like it should be the fans’ domain. Alas @BBCOne won’t let them play with its show unsupervised, and join in as unwelcome, over-zealous parents. #GBBO-off!
Whenever ITV stages a big retrospective (and it has plenty to come) it feels uneasy, as if they don’t really own that space. It’s not really a channel given to introspection. But The Saturday Night Story (ITV Saturday, 8pm) is one it’s well-equipped to tell, having contributed as much to it as the BBC over the last 60 years. And despite the Siri-like narration of Stephen Mulhern, there were some delightful nuggets here. Best of all was the unapologetic praise heaped on Game For A Laugh, a show Jonathan Ross described as a “hand grenade in the Saturday night schedules”. Even now, it still looks kind of edgy. Host Sarah Kennedy recalled that they were denied autocue and had to wing it on the night, and maybe that’s where part of that energy came from. But it also made me sad at the passing of – yes – another once communal ‘joke’. The whole business of wondering, when something was going array, “Is Jeremy Beadle going to pop out in a minute?” No one says that any more.
Still, his influence outstripped even Bart Simpson’s over here. A shot of a banner in the Gladiators bit read: ‘Eat my shorts, Wolf’. Eat my shorts. Remember that?
- Whose line, “I had a Betazoid kitten once” is the worst I’ve ever heard ↩
It was the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993. An evening that Nicholas Briggs, in a 2015 editing suite advises, featured two special moments – an announcement and an anniversary.
Hence, I’m pushing aside any thoughts of talking about what’s been on telly this week (Great British Menu, Bake Off, New Tricks… pah!) and simply sticking on – streaming in fact – the recently completed Myth Makers #118: Virgin Publishing (available to buy or rent from Time Travel TV).
In doing so, I am obliged to provide lots in the way of context.
First up, what is Myth Makers? As succinct as I can do it: A series of semi-professional straight-to-video documentaries about Doctor Who produced by Reeltime Pictures (mostly in the 1990s), and now made available online. Secondly, the Virgin Publishing side of the colon divide. It’s a seemingly self-evident reference – however it’s not. This is specifically focusing on the company’s imprint of original Doctor Who novels (New Adventures) which ran from 1991 to 1997.
Also in attendance were a camera person and the aforementioned Briggs, interviewing from behind the lens. “We never completed that Myth Maker – until now!” he says in 2015 with great potency. He is a man adapt at wrangling this kind of mediocrity. And I honestly don’t mean that unkindly. The production is really a corporate video for Doctor Who nerds – but what a brilliant thing to be! – and he knows how to jolly it along. “The celebration didn’t go quite according to plan…” he teases, as we cut to a low-jeopardy incident where burnt-down birthday cake candles set off a fire alarm.
The crux of the evening is Peter Davill-Evans’ speech to his troops. Even more context, I’m afraid: 1993 marked four years since Doctor Who had ceased production on television, and pretty much the point when people were beginning to face the possibility it was never to return. Taking the power in these uncertain times were this group of young creatives, writing new Who stories in their university computer rooms. They had become the show.
Well, not quite. There was a little frustration in that they couldn’t take complete control. In his speech, PD-E laments, in a rhetorical question, “Can we put Sylvester McCoy’s body in cold storage for a while and have another Doctor?”
The main thrust of the event – as the cocktail sausages and ketchup go around – is the announcement of the supplemental Missing Adventures line, devoted to past Doctors. And then Briggs gets to work, pressing the authors, who are captured in naïve, greying Betacam, on various issues. Talking about his dearest Doctor Who memory, one of the show’s future script editors, Gary Russell3 recalls an encounter with Tom Baker at the BBC in 1976: “And I also got him to sign my Genesis of the Daleks novel, which I’ve still got.” Other future-people are also in the room. Paul Cornell talks with the pleasant lilt of a boy who learnt emphasis from BBC continuity announcements, and admits he was once scared of plant life. And we’re absolutely in the moment for Gareth Roberts; this very afternoon he delivered his manuscript for the novel Tragedy Day.
To the side, eating wax-less bits of cake, are co-writers Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore. The latter flips his sunglasses up and down and plays to the camera with unease. It’s as if he’s the only one here who truly doubts the evening could be considered worthy of documenting. He’s sort of right. It’s really a works do, nothing more. Except… it’s Doctor Who-related so I want it all. I want more of those scattershot bits of conversation captured in covering shots. Terrance Dicks telling Marc Platt, “This is gonna cost a packet…” Rebecca Levene (then assistant to PD-E) conjuring something: “And a mud-replica of Ace, oozing out…”
No one would ever sensibly hold this Reeltime Pictures production up as an example of dynamism in filmmaking. But it does capture a kind of dynamism in imagining. A modestly heady evening, with ideas that still have some purchase today, being exchanged in a pub that no longer exists. Plus Australian author Kate Orman using the word ‘diskette’.
Within this storm, two constants – Nicholas Briggs and Peter Darvill-Evans. Briggs, of course, is the humble spear-carrier but, in interviews from 1993 and 2015, the other proves why he was right for Doctor Who high office. Young PD-E tells us, “I answered an advert in The Guardian” and that the book range was the “rump of WH Allen”. The older PD-E says “I made the assumption [the programme] was never coming back” and that he was lucky enough to tap into a “diaspora” of talent – a word I’ve only ever read, never heard. “I don’t think I can claim we kept Doctor Who in the public eye,” he adds, “but we did sustain some people and sustain an idea for that decade.”
It’s wholly improbable that, on the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993, someone thought it a worthwhile endeavour to film the Virgin New Adventures authors sharing around plates. It’s even more improbable that 22 years later, someone (very possibly the same someone) then thought it worthwhile to dig out the tape and finish off the documentary. But at the periphery of Doctor Who – and we’re right out at the gates here – wholly impropable things have often taken place.
- 15 St Giles High Street, London – the place then became a gargoyle-encrusted heavy metal hang-out called The Intrepid Fox, before ceding completely to Crossrail development… and that is indeed how we measure out the passing of time ↩
- Who was to become a tax inspector ↩
- Leaning over the back of a wicker chair that brings to mind the seal of Rassilon ↩
“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.
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!
“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
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?”
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.
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)?
- 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 ↩
“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.
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.