Watched #16
As Roy Castle never quite put it – derivation is what you need. Two programmes, this time around, that are unashamedly derived from existing formats. The first is The Guess List (BBC1 Saturday, 9pm).  Lord Terence of Woganshire  choked on his BLANK and Old Mother Dawson buttressed her BLANKS as Rob Brydon (him again) cantered onto the set to observe two decks of celebrities and declare: “Where else are you going to see a line-up like that?” A beat. “Who said, ‘UK Gold’?” Ah ha! The game is afoot.

Except it mostly isn’t. At least with Blankety Blank there was something driving the show onwards: admin with the ‘ready’ stick, flipping over the circle or triangle card, “Eugene, please reveal the legend!” But there’s no… there’s no game underpinning The Guess List. On the face of it, that’s a silly criticism to make. The show’s sole  reason to exist is to provide 40 minutes of light entertainment. It’s not like it’s got any sort of mandate to deliver. But by dressing itself up as a game show, it does make a contract – albeit a feeble, non-legally-binding contract – with the viewer which it fails to fulfill. Why are we all here? To play a game. Otherwise, what are we doing? Why have we interrupted the lives of Woking-based prison officer Ben and Shirley from Little Aston?

If the programme gave more of itself to the game, I would be less resistant to it. Because there’s definitely something here. The tension of five celebrities smiling, but not in the eyes, is fun. Each worrying if they’re going to be capable of winging it. And Brydon is a terrific host, who seems to me not so much a Wogan or a Dawson, but a Larry Grayson. A sideways reference to “my Uncle Gethin [who] was wanted Down Under”, his mannered fastidiousness and fussing about the rules, his flights of fancy (I liked the bit where he suddenly became preoccupied with the narrowness of the ledge in front of the celebrities’ rostrum) and his rattiness. It’s a great mix. But there’s just too much of him, anxiously filling out to cover the gaps – the BLANKS – opened up by the absence of rules and regs.

Maybe it was BBC compliance which stipulated that when the continuity announcer teed up The Great Allotment Challenge (BBC2 Tuesday, 8pm) he mentioned it in the light of Bake Off and Sewing Bee (and, at home, we already refer to it as just Allotment – don’t you?). Another franchisee to add to that empire, it’s ironic that three series which champion home crafts should turn into the TV equivalent of a ‘mom-and-pop’ coffee house chain that’s actually owned by Tesco . The seemingly hand-made fonts, the low horizons, the purported decency of the whole endeavour – Allotment has them all.

But it won me over. Perhaps it’s the feeling we’re very safely on rails (the thing that The Guess List lacked) that works best. We all know what we’re doing and where we’re going. The lone original feature in all of this, though, is a good one – rewinding back over three months to show the planting process behind each challenge, and how it unfolds over the following weeks. Gosh, that is satisfying.

And in the judging quadrant, we have three mildly idiosyncratic figures who talk earnestly about the kind of detail that has no use at all in everyday life. I like Jim Buttress in particular for his very slight lisp that converts s-sounds into calming shushes, and Thane Prince has a charming habit of pivoting herself away from the contestants while she tastes, as if to masticate in portrait is simply not done.

Oh the tiny spoons, tweezers and dinky copper pans. These doll’s house accoutrements contrasted with the sweat, stress and swearing of the modern day restaurant kitchen do make it all seem a bit comical – particularly when a chef is furiously lapping teaspoons of jus over a baby bird sat on a massive plate. But, as the excellent Restaurant Wars: The Battle for Manchester (BBC2 Monday, 8pm) made plain, this isn’t an industry with a healthy sense of humour.”It’s a hostile atmosphere out there,” said a battle-ready Simon Rogan on opening night.

The first of a three-part documentary, it followed  Rogan and Aiden Byrne as they prepared to open rival restaurants in a bid to take Michelin-style fare to Manchester. Despite being Britain’s fastest-growing city, it’s always been resistant to fine dining. Raymond Blanc and Marco Pierre White have both failed there. So what’s the problem? “Mancunians don’t like to be told what to do,” said Byrne.

Of the two chefs, it was made clear Rogan was the most gifted, but Byrne was marginally more likeable thanks to his comparative humility. Referring to his achievement of winning a Michelin star at 22, he confessed: “I’m 40 now. I can’t carry on living on the back of that.” He also spoke plainly about the humiliation of having to refocus an earlier establishment from high-end food to pub grub. With this venture, Manchester House, he’d jumped into bed with the rather more opaque Tim Bacon who says stuff like: “I like something that’s got a bit of differential to it” and hires marketing men in v-neck t-shirts who talk about turning up the “funk buttons”. You can’t blame them for hoping for money and prestige. Byrne is out for valediction: “The people I want to please are the people who want it to fail”.

Meanwhile, over at Rogan’s place, The French, he’s in a flap. “Where’s the onion oil? Where’s the parsley cress?”

Not so far away, in Oldham, Adrian is up to his ankles in shit. This is Watermen: A Dirty Business (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm), another vocational ob doc, traveling with the men and women of United Utilities – although the company is fastidiously never name-checked. Adrian and his pal Wes are on a call-out to a backed up sewer. With rods and hoses they get it cleared. “It is quite rewarding,” says our hero. As is the show. Not in any profound, Bafta-troubling way. But seeing folks getting the job done is satisfying. Pipes cleared, everything flows.

watched15
We open this week with a letter from May, 2003.

Dear Mr Jones

Sorry I can’t help you, but I’ve severed all links with my TV time, and the
constant requests to become an archive!

Regards,
Frank Bough

This was Frank writing, in his own hand, to my friend Ian Jones, who’d requested an interview for his book on the history of breakfast television, Morning Glory (now available, friends, on Kindle, and it’s highly recommended1). With the mightily named Good Morning Britain currently lurking just below the horizon -  ITV are preparing to relaunch their tea’n'toast show yet again – the cannily timed The Battle for Britain’s Breakfasts (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) succeeded where Ian had failed. Against all hope… cue Frank2!

I’m glad it happened. Bough’s involvement was like a consecration for a simply terrific documentary. Right from the opening, full of explosive soundbites (“People would come into my office and cry”) and a title sequence that presented the warring factions of the BBC and TV-am on a military sand table, it was clear this was a exceptionally well-crafted effort. A few weeks back I mentioned the story of Spitting Image as one of the greatest in British television. But this one is better, and it’s done an excellent service here. Once Bough had dispensed with his obligatory “last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” anecdote, he was there recalling life on the front lines. How  journalists had told the captain of the newly launched Breakfast Time that Frostie and the Famous Five were “gonna bury you”.

But the augurs were ill from the beginning for David Frost, who appeared at his most linguistically limp trailing Good Morning Britain with: “We’ll be live on the ‘ITV-one’ button from February one”. When TV-am did arrive – that first hour unpromisingly titled Daybreak – it began with an hour of three grey-haired men and a 12-minute Norman Tebbit interview. At his first commercial break, David  grabbed Anna Ford and Angela Rippon’s knees in a lumpen show of bonhomie. “The presenters were grossly overpaid,” recalled Jonathan Aitken. “By themselves.” Click to BBC1 and Frank and Selina wondered: “How do you get a pint of milk through a letter box?” Back to the ‘ITV-one’ button: “…It was evidence of what a proletarian society Russia was.” Despite mustering the crew of the Ark Royal to spell out a ginormous ‘Britain’ in the opening titles, TV-am was sunk.

I probably knew every beat of what happened next – the arrival of Greg Dyke, Roland Rat, Bruce Gyngell, the coming of Anne and Nick, – but (Ian’s book aside, and if you’d prefer an actual paper copy, that’s possible too) it’s never been told as marvelously as this. Clips from ‘The World of Melanie Parker’ proved, at last, this hadn’t been a cheese-dream. We had a pained Peter Jay admitting he regretted “bitterly” that Angela Rippon spoke out about his ousting and also ended up on the outside. And there was Breakfast Time Svengali Ron Neill candidly reporting the BBC’s schadenfreude at all of the above: “We were very chirpy and cheerful and – dare I say? – a little bit pleased with ourselves.”

Because it had to end somewhere, this documentary chose to take the decommissioning of Breakfast Time in 1989 as it’s final line. Fair, and far, enough. The sun had set on a certain kind of programme-making, where conviviality and reassurance were at premium. Whatever is about to arise on ITV, it won’t be anything like that.

Ian Jones got a credit on the show, by the way, for additional research. I like to think his overture back in 2003 softened up Bough.

The other morning I walked to work listening to ‘Because of You’ by Dexy’s Midnight Runners (Featuring Kevin Rowland)3. The opportunity didn’t present itself to steal a Golden Wonder from a lady chatting to her pal. Or, indeed, to kiss a policewoman. But it felt like both of these things could be just around the corner.

Brush Strokes (Drama, weekdays, 7pm) never seemed like the obvious next step for Esmonde and Larbey after creating the bottled-up Ever Decreasing Circles. At least in concept: the adventures of chirpy, Cockney painter-and-decorator cum Don Juan (Karl Howman, fantastic as Jacko). However, up close it’s as delicately detailed as the depiction of Martin Bryce’s suburban ennui. Certainly there’s that same underlying desperation, as Jacko’s gentle compliments provide chinks of light in desperate housewives’ lives. And some of the dialogue is positively baroque. “How could I possibly vow to cleave only unto one?” ponders our hero. Here’s another: “There’s a touch of the Cassius in you, Eric.”

Granted, the gender politics play differently today – a letter from one of Jacko’s clients complaining of “sexual overtures” is a laugh riot – but times change and there doesn’t seem much point labouring on that. What’s more killingly 1980s is the cast: Howman, Mike Walling, Howard Lew Lewis (as Elmo, TV’s definitive comedy barman), Jackie Lye, Marsha Fitzalan. They’re like a Vietnam generation of actors, all of whom should have gone on to enjoy long and prolific careers in television. Lest we forget. It was  lovely to see them all again. And it’s lovely how Jacko just manages to finish painting that wall as Sydney Lotterby’s name wafts by.

It’s doubtful any show sets out to be considered as affable, but I felt that’s as good as it got for The Trip to Italy (BBC2 Friday, 10pm). And affable is not bad, is it? “I’m not as affable as perhaps I’ve given people cause to think,” said Rob Brydon. Oh well. For anyone who doubted the previous series, The Trip in 2010, there’d be nothing in this to convert them. All resolutely loose and low-key, built entirely on the presumption of our interest as Brydon and Steve Coogan defaulted into dueling Michael Caines. I liked it enough though. There’s a place in my TV-watching schedule for affability.

Which is probably why I won’t continue with Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm). I don’t have any particular aversion to the trade, but I’m not sure I want to spend any more time with the likes of thickly coiffured Gary pounding through W1 and W4 and being horrid to his assistant Ernesto. The plinky plonky incidental music and bits of light comedy (Gary struggling to get into that locked room) worked hard to manufacture a feeling of levity, of us entering a quirky parallel world. A place where Lewis in Exeter is a bit of a monster, like the man in The Call Centre. But actually he isn’t. He seemed okay, really. It was all kind of okay. But a few doors down from affable.

  1. I’m not on a percentage
  2. Eh? Eh?
  3. And that does seem to be the official credit – sorry about all the footnotes this week

Watched #14
Ben Macintyre has got his hands on a killer document.

His excellent two-part documentary, Kim Philby – His Most Intimate Betrayal (BBC2 Wednesday and Thursday, 9pm) is anchored to that sheaf of papers. It’s a transcript – “based on extracts from various sources” (according to the second episode) – of an encounter in Beirut, 1963, between Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby; fellow MI6 operatives, old friends and, most importantly, Trinity College alumni. This was the moment Elliott confronted Philby about his treachery.

In truth, this segment of the programme, acted out by David Oakes and William Beck, was its least dramatic. It was no Cracker. Philby didn’t hold out then finally pivot and offer up an emotionally-wrought mea culpa. Instead: “Let’s be gentlemen about this. Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner?” Elliott, subsequently, found Philby collapsed in drink outside his home and put him to bed. And then he retired, allowing the Third Man to defect to the Soviet Union, thereby avoiding what could have been a rather sticky, rather embarrassing trial for the British establishment. It’s what gentlemen do.

Yes, the biggest beat in the story is a bit of a dud, but Macintyre spun the whole thing so wonderfully, we could get by it. In detailing the decades of lies woven by Philby, lies that resulted in Russian death squads ‘disappearing’ hundreds, it’s interesting that the greatest treachery felt like his betrayal of Elliott. A friend he charmed, who guilelessly protected him as suspicion fell, it was painful to learn that when compiling a profile of his colleague for Stalin’s intelligence service, Philby described him as “ugly and rather pig-like to look at.” But then the double-agent, when appraising his own wife, Eileen, was equally chilly: “Bourgeois and philistine.”

 A nicely judged conceit was the way Macintyre himself sloped through both episodes. He delivered his intel into camera as if out in the cold. We saw him drinking alone in members’ clubs, haunting an empty Highgate Underground as a souless train pulled in and treading lonely nighttime streets. Philby, he told us, was the master of the “bland lie”. When Soviet spy Konstantin Volkov offered to give himself up to British Intelligence – with the promise of revealing the KGB operative within their number – Philby maneuvered to ensure it was he who was charged with travelling to Istanbul to receive him. Then he dawdled for weeks, allowing his secret paymasters to move in and liquidate the would-be-defector. To explain his delay he offered this: “Sorry old man, it would have interfered with leave arrangements”. Who would think to challenge an explanation so mundane?

Also lurking in a dark spot was Dr George McGavin  (whom we last saw dissecting a human hand) whose three-part series explores the diversity of our simian cousins. My favourite sequence in Monkey Planet (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm) was set 100 metres underground in a South African cave. This location had become a nighttime bunker for baboons, sheltering from leopards above. Footage of the creatures, silhouetted on the night-vision lens, making their way along memorised routes, was a privileged view of somewhere we cannot be. The thought of rigging up that sequence, getting in the space during the day, cabling, placing cameras… Fastidious and difficult work, no doubt, to make a few minutes within many.

George and his BBC Bristol team didn’t stop there. They were in the jungle canopy too, or in the mountains of Ethiopia, or at minus 20°C in Japan. And thanks to them we could meet the black howler with its 90 decibel roar, the pygmy marmosets of Ecuador who weigh no more than an apple and, in the opening reel, the extraordinary orangutans in Borneo who soap themselves in the river, having seen us do it many a time.

While the monkeys where lathering up, more creatures gathered to observe and possibly learn from each other a few notches up the EPG. The poorly named Invasion of the Job Snatchers (BBC3 Wednesday, 9pm) described itself as “a unique social experiment”. But aren’t they all? The premise here was to send a bunch of unemployed youngsters to Britain’s most silvery town, Christchurch, where greying business owners would take in one each for work experience. As with all these unique social experiments, we were warned there would be evictions along the way, and an ultimate prize – the prospect of a full time job.

The most satisfying coupling was between 28-year-old Carl and punningly-named butcher Robin Lambe. “Robin Lambe?” laughed Carl as they shook hands. “It’s not a job description is it?” Robin was immune to all this. Just moments earlier he was telling the camera how his trade needed “new blood”, no pun noticeably intended. It was great to see Carl and Robin rubbing along nicely, a mug of tea on the go at all times and Carl enthusiastically hacking and sawing. “It’s a man’s job, even though I’m wearing a pinny.” In a past life, Carl had been to prison for stealing £1,000 from a bank where he’d been briefly employed. He spoke about it with a pragmatic regret. His criminal record was now stymieing his attempts at employment. “If you don’t work and you’re working class, what are you? Underclass.”

Not quite so eloquent was Benny, who rolled out of his cab declaring he hoped there was “loads of hot cock” in Christchurch. Almost psychotically ebullient, one can understand why Peek’s Party Store thought he might work out for them. But chairman, John Peek, who runs a no-swearing establishment, seemed to regret the decision, chastising his new start for saying, “thank you, you sexy bitch” to a colleague. “If they can’t take me for who I am, I’m not going to change,” harrumphed Benny, 19. “Oh. I really miss my mum.”

“They’re gonna feel pretty stupid when they find out,” growled Rick Grimes as this series of The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) reached its Terminus. Earlier we’d seen him bite out a man’s throat and then gut another, when it looked as if they were set on killing him and raping Michonne and his son Carl. One of the bloodiest sequence I can recall on TV, but validated by its uncomfortable aftermath; no-one quite able to conceive of what had happened. But then they were outgunned and locked up in a storage container by a group who’d turned cannibal.

Stupid? When they find out what? 

Rick: “They’re screwing with the wrong people.” Oh man, what a clunker of a line to take us into the music. A stupid bad-ass proclamation. As if the writers felt they needed to come up with something, some form of punctuation, an exclamation-mark, maybe, to punch-up the ending. It didn’t negate what had gone before, and this run of The Walking Dead has been simply terrific. But still. Rick. After all that’s happened, is this who you are now? A man with a killer line?

Watched #13
I can’t say a word against MasterChef (BBC1, Wednesday, 9pm – continuing Thursday and Friday). I’m devoted to it. I’ve seen every single episode of every branch of the UK franchise since the thing returned in 2005 (yes, even Junior). There is sometimes provocative talk of the Australian version being the best  – but I won’t hear of that. For me, John Torode and Gregg Wallace host the mother sauce of TV cookery competitions. Everything else – from The Taste to Food Glorious Food – is  a derivation, with needless extra seasoning in the hope some new flavour will emerge.

And so here we are again with a new series, the 10th, and the programme back to determinedly do what it does. Knocking out enjoyable, satisfying episodes time after time. [Hopefully, you'll have heard that sentence as if read out by voiceover woman India Fisher]. Aside from a slightly ill-advised grapple with an ‘open audition’ format some years back, MasterChef doesn’t ever shake it up too much. The audio cues, in particular, remain as fixtures (hello, tracks from Music for Sport – Uplifting Strings and Beats), as does the edit suite trick of slotting in the clunk of a knife as a moment of percussion. Oh, and while we’re at it, those shots of people walking slowly in formation around the corner that leads into MasterChef HQ; they’ll never stop either.

But there are always some slight refinements. The opening episode of this series strings together a ‘signature dish’ kind of task (now named the Calling Card round) with The Invention Test and – yes! – a critics segment, albeit one in which former MC champs and finalists pass judgement. I’m not doubting these challenges are legitimate ways to test someone’s culinary prowess, but they’re also, let me tell you, fan favourites. Over the years, there have presumably been post-series debriefs. Discussions that led to the production team ditching the bit where the hopefuls go shopping in Borough Market, and the subsequent chopping of the ‘is it chervil or parsley?’ ingredients recognition bit. Now, more than ever,  the show is about the cooking. This is where the tension and adventure lies. “I’m fearing at the moment he’s not going to get his ravioli done,” frets John. “I wouldn’t ever try and deconstruct a beef wellington,” scowls Gregg.

These two work brilliantly. So much so, it’s easy not to notice anymore. John provides the grit, whether that’s counseling contestant Holly not to fidget with her food or tartly putting away another wannabe: “I do worry, James, it’s my job”. Gregg is emollient; chuckling, jigging and embarrassing everyone  by chanting Sumera’s name over and over. Together they form… well, with his crunchiness and his dairy charm, they form the show’s buttery biscuit base.

I’ve written enough about MasterChef. Too much! It’s back, and I’m delighted. I’ll be there for every instant John’s teeth clamp down on a morsel, through every massive pause prefiguring the revelation of “our second quarter-finalist”, and even to the dispiriting bit where someone paints a stripe of jus across an oblong plate. Time after time.

Rev. (BBC2 Monday, 10pm) returns for its final series. It’s a quality product – you can tell because there’s punctuation in the title. I tried Rev. for a few episodes during its first run, and while there was nothing that offended me, I didn’t laugh. But people are really, really pleased to see it, aren’t they? I’m still not getting it. Putting aside my facetious comments about that full-stop, I recognise there’s something of worth here. The fusion of urban squalor with the olde worlde fustiness of the church and a “diocesan secretary” is novel. I liked Alex Smallbone’s line about delaying her baby’s christening because “I’ve already lost you [Adam] to Him”. The performances are all great, plus there’s confidence in the underplayed humour. And yet. Still not getting it. There’s an assumption in the show that we’re invested in the characters, but I’m just not a believer.

Two documentaries to finish. The more I think about Storyville: Shooting Bigfoot: America’s Monster Hunters (BBC4 Monday, 9pm) the more deflated I become. It didn’t start out like that. Sure, for filmmaker Morgan Matthews, Bigfoot hunters in the American south were always going to provide easy, amusing, unselfconscious footage, and there’s tons of stuff to quote. In fact, let’s do that while we’re still enjoying ourselves: “We’re trying to educate the public about the probability of the Bigfoot existing. Which is 100 percent.” Then there’s the militaristic Tom Biscardi who, after falling out with Matthews on camera, storms off shouting, “Joan, get me a Snapple!” Or this exchange: “Can you get a qualification, Rick, on being a master tracker?”/”Can you can a qualification on being an ass-hole filmmaker?” It all seems like fortuitously cherishable stuff, as men in leisure wear jump into trucks festooned with decals and inadvertently let out the emptiness of their lives.

It all ends in the woods, Matthews merging together three hunts where skittish trackers hear and see Sasquatch with every leaf rustle and twig crack. Out of the darkness comes the creature itself, knocking down the filmmaker, and, indeed, the whole venture. This sequence is patently staged, either by Matthews or the aforementioned master tracker Ricky Dwyer, or perhaps by both. No context is given. This is playful, it’s maybe even challenging, but it undercuts everything All that good stuff? Was that equally concocted? It might be the intention to leave the viewer asking questions, but all I wanted to know was just what had I been watching? Could I take any of it at face value? Had I, in fact, been wasting my time?

A more meaningful hunt was examined in The Missing (Channel 4 Tuesday, 1opm) which followed three people searching for vanished loved ones. The feeling that a huge chunk had been taken out of each was brilliantly communicated. Terrie – whose husband Tim jumped in the car one morning while she was in the bathroom and never returned – talks about how he liked to mow straight lines into the lawn. Esra, meanwhile, makes regular trips to Ireland. “I hate putting these pictures up,” she says. “I see lampposts with missing dogs and cats…” and here she is, sellotaping on images of her sister Uyrun. And Steve? Everywhere he goes he’s keeping an eye out for his brother Mark. “You can’t not look.” For those who remain, their lives have been disappeared, lost by the need to find resolution.

Something of that does come for Steve. Mark is discovered sleeping rough and we hear him on the phone, placidly refusing offers of money but promising he’ll come home in a couple of days. He doesn’t. Mark wants to stay lost. We’ll never find out why.

Watched #12W1A (BBC2 Wednesday, 10pm) wouldn’t have worked if the BBC was still in Television Centre. The visual would have been all wrong. But the gift for creator John Morton is the geography of New Broadcasting House. Although fluidly open-planned and hot-desked inside, outside it’s in the shape of a cul-de-sac. Into this marvelous metaphor peddles Ian Fletcher formerly of Twenty Twelve.

Like that series (which worked on the hypothesis we were going to mess up the Olympics), this arrives under the carapace of a shared joke; that made-up job titles, gafflebag and bureaucracy are all  abundant in the corporation. I grimace at that kind of presumptive thinking,  so I don’t feel W1A toils hard enough for its laughs. While it’s absolutely an easy and entertaining watch – Hugh Bonneville’s Ian is good company, and the cast in general are excellent – it often feels like the kind of light repartee people exchange when there’s no expectation of real humour.

A lot of the dialogue comes in loops: “Say again?”, “Cool”, “Yes no”, “That’s all good.” They circle around and around. It underlines the banality of corporate-speak, but it comes to feel like the kind of real-life catchphrases that have long since had the wit pummeled out of them (“Interweb” or “That London”, maybe). But I’m not calling W1A lazy. Some of the elements are superbly honed. Syncopatico, “Your virtual PA” is a brilliantly observed unnovation 1, with Ian’s later remark that he’s put a “path-finding document” in the “shared priorities folder on Syncopatico” perfectly weighted to sound just like the kind of guff many of us have to say in meetings.

That’s the thing about W1A.  It floats along on this kind of nonsense, a base level of white noise. Sometimes it tunes in on a really cogent, really strong line. At others, the satire gets lost. Say again? We’re not quite syncopated.

Arena: Whatever Happened to Spitting Image? (BBC4 Thursday, 9pm) is a good documentary that arrives coached inside a not-so-good one. Before watching, please remove both layers of packaging – the one that sets up the hour as a train journey, and then the one that presents it as a sort of TV novel, complete with Plater-esque chapter titles.

Once they’re discarded we’re left with one of the great stories of British television, because the making of Spitting Image is full of terrific characters – Sir Clive ‘ZX’ Sinclair, BBC2 font-meister Martin Lambie-Nairn, comedy producer John Lloyd and caricaturists Fluck and Law all coming together in an unlikely union. Those who appear in this programme talk well and scabrously about their experiences, from the stricken Lloyd recalling  nights spent weeping in his bath, to Law wryly pointing out “there wasn’t a shortage of Thatcherite entrepreneurs” queuing up to back the show.

And there are plenty of hilarious details too, such as Tony Hendra (“The Bubonic Plagiarist”) taking Willie Whitelaw’s head off to America to have a mouth animated onto it. It’s the last time either he or the Deputy Prime Minister’s noggin are seen again. Then there’s the establishment of the world’s first puppet-making sweatshop at Shoulder of Mutton Alley, Lime House. Plus the final destination for Maggie Thatcher’s puppet: it’s now part of a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

That’s it from Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm) which exited, as it did first time around, in captions. It’s a strange way to go, as if we’ve come along at just the wrong time to catch the finish. Now it’s all in the past tense. Dryden “resigned from the police force”, apparently. Denton is “currently serving a life sentence”. No more drama, just written reports.

A third series will follow, and where once Keeley Hawes had to counter questions about how daunting it is to succeed Lennie James’ DCI Tony Gates, I’m guessing someone else will next be tasked with talking about measuring up to DI Denton. A tougher job, in truth.

It’s a strange set-up, this show, the spotlight forever nudged onto the guest role. Notional lead Steve Arnott is not the most demonstrative of characters. Similarly, Kate Fleming. Did we ever really concern ourselves with her marital problems? So, she’s sleeping in the car nowadays. That’s a shame, but she’s not the story. When Denton asked, “Who are you two to judge me?” she did have a point. They’re like satellites orbiting something with a much stronger gravitational pull. Who they fix to next time will be the thing. I’m confident. Those final moments aside, Line of Duty has been superb and I’m certain Jed Mercurio and company can do it again.

Sudoku in the UK. The Crystal Maze. This website. And Only Connect. The common denominator here is David Bodycombe. All have benefited from his beneficence – for many years he’s web-hosted OTT. The Sport Relief edition of Only Connect (BBC4 Monday, 8.30pm) marked the last time he is to appear as Question Editor in the closing credits. Which made me sad. I like to wait for his name and wave at it. But an instalment in which misplaced apostrophes are the answer to one of the puzzles seems a fitting point to leave.

Sic transit gloria mundi, David.

  1. © Zeppotron

Watched #11
It happens sometimes in police dramas. At that bit where the detectives are really making breakthroughs and the information is flowing thick and fast, the whole artifice becomes strikingly apparent. These are characters who’ve been strung-along up to this point by the writer who is now – because it’s time – allowing the plot to start settling itself. Ah, so A actually did B, because of C. And we now know that thanks to X precipitating Y, which in turn has led to Z.

Getting the illusion of real weight behind such revelations – albeit revelations that were always set to resolve – is the thing. Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm) faced that challenge this week. I’m not sure the programme was in the very greatest form as it bore up to that. The previous couple of episodes, while still hugely entertaining, had started to feel a bit ragged – particularly the continual exposés of Steve’s love life, which positioned him as the central ring in a Venn diagram linking all the guest female cast. And then there was the video footage of Dryden and Prasad nattering at a cocktail party while being served by 15-year-old “misper” Carly Kirk. As though Jed Mercurio’s hand had entered the picture, making a fist around the primary and secondary storylines and scrunching them up together.

This week? Line of Duty took a deep breath, and then brought the plot crunching down on top of everyone. It was brilliant.

Most of our attention, of course, will be spent on the final sequences, but before we get there, some more words about Keeley Hawes as Lindsay Denton. This is a character who, despite being the focus of the show’s most dramatic peaks, remains insular bordering on the anti-social. Finally back home, albeit on bail, she sighs to discover the fridge is empty and moans that no one’s popped the heating on. Her horizons continue to be unexpanded. Similarly the loss of her mother is a humdrum kind of death, in TV terms at least, where the passing of an elderly parent offers the least in terms of pathos. And we don’t even get that. Just Denton and an empty bed. When Steve leaves her, there’s nothing brave about the sounds of sobbing – almost babyish – emanating from the room.

But, watch out, here comes the plot. The arrest of Dryden and his interrogation by Steve and Kate was impeccably played out. The formality of police procedure chippily and efficiently eroded. “I need a definition of ‘sexual relations’,” says the Deputy Chief Constable in intimidating fashion. And gets chapter and verse from Kate, who refuses to be pushed off course. “The politicians and PCC don’t like me telling the truth about service cutbacks,” he ventures. Steve asks him what that’s got to do with anything. It’s relentless. It’s that weight, I mentioned before. The revelations brutishly pushing their way through, as if they can’t be denied, rather than everything has been written to end up like this. When Dryden finally breaks down – or at least appears to, Mark Bonnar, like everyone else, plays it slippery – it’s a story victory that’s been well earned. This has been proper, satisfying policing.

There will be no Baftas for You Saw Them Here First (ITV Wednesday, 8pm), it’s not that kind of show. There isn’t an ounce of originality in the ‘before they were famous’ format, or even in Robert Webb’s hopefully-droll commentary. But, it has to be said, the research is seriously impressive. When Alison Steadman is invited in to sit in front of the green screen and look at old footage of herself, there’s a commendable flippancy, a real knowingness, in the way the show dispenses with the obligatory Abigail’s Party clips. Yes, she was in that, but, look, here she is in a tuppence ha’penny sketch on Frost’s Weekly! And now here she is stealing a 20-year march on Anna Friel by portraying a lesbian kiss in a 1974 Second City Firsts. When Lesley Joseph later takes up the seat, she – of course – screeches in delight at everything. But how wonderful to see her buried in murky footage among the extended cast just visible in a 1969 TV documentary about a production of The Bastard King. That’s not on her IMDb page. A spotting of Brian Blessed in Space: 1999 perhaps feels less instructive, save for his appraisal of his character: “You see, he wants to be a god! It always happens like that.”

This isn’t a boast, but I was at the press launch for The IT Crowd whenever that was, and I remember it barely prompted a laugh. I don’t know why. Poor acoustics? Things can go wrong viewing good comedies for the first time, so perhaps something similar happened to me again when I tried The Walshes (BBC4 Thursday, 10pm). Written by comic group Diet of Worms and Graham Linehan, I could almost feel the shape of something funny here… just couldn’t quite find it. Even when there were good lines like, “It’s like a rubbery M&M behind my scrotum”.

Perhaps I couldn’t get past the uncomfortable merge of (yes, I’m going to say it) Father Ted-type characters filmed in the style of something desperately ordinary like Heir Hunters. Hmm. I’m fudging. I didn’t get it.

There’s no such confusion with Collectaholics (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm), which, from the moment it arrives, gets busy explaining itself. “We’re a nation of collectors!” says bottled-perkiness Mel Giedroyc, peddling a slightly spurious raison d’être. But it’s reason enough for she and man in a look-at-me-hat Mark Hill to visit three people all of whom have “collections in crisis!” (good old alliteration). Despite all that, despite the oompah incidental music, this isn’t an aggravating hour at all. The fact the on-screen location captions have been artfully made to blend into the landscapes – following the parabola of a road, being subtly reflected in a river – speaks of a certain pride in the production. When antiques expert Mark appraises someone’s hoard of 1940s paraphernalia, words float around him (“Major brands – £5-£20 each?”) like he’s Sherlock Holmes.

Yes, there’s the inevitable patter, the “full steam ahead” when talking about someone’s passion for railway signage, but there’s never an attempt to labour on the eccentricity or the weirdness of someone like Nick, who has 7,185 beer cans. Instead, Mark marvels at the fact he owns a Somerfield Better Value Lager tin. Probably the only one left in existence.

Watched #10
A long, long time ago I wrote what turned out to be a middling book on British comics. If that endorsement of my own work has excited you, you can purchase it here. Comics are something I’m interested in (that, and I do this TV blog, plus also write about Doctor Whomy wife’s one lucky woman) so my spider sense tingled when I caught sight of this instalment of What Do Artists Do All Day? (BBC2 Scotland Tuesday, 10pm) which will be screening on BBC4 – assuming it’s still around 1 – in a couple of weeks. It spent a day with Vincent Deighan, a highly-gifted comics illustrator who works under the name of Frank Quitely. An intimate, nighttimey kind of programme, we saw him drawing page 13 of issue four of Jupiter’s Legacy. Quitely (we’ll call him that), as his fans will know, is in the premier league of his industry, so it was instructive to see him working out of an almost hovel like studio on Glasgow’s Hope Street. “No puke today,” he observed as he stepped through the door. The place is situated opposite the city’s profoundly depressing Central Station, wherein the artist sometimes showers after pulling an all-nighter.

He made for a terrific companion, happily absorbed in what he does. He talked of the various characters he’s drawn – all your DC Comics big-hitters for one – as sharing an inevitable likeness, like a group shot at a family wedding. His Superman, he says, “has a hint of Desperate Dan to him”. Seeing Quitely toiling nocturnally over a detailed cityscape, well, it was satisfying. The  sheer work that goes into that. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to,” he explained. And then later, he cleared some space on the studio floor and stretched out for a nap with three volumes of Akira under his head.

There’s been a lot of internet hate for Jonathan Creek (BBC1 Friday, 9pm). Which surprised me. I didn’t realise the series was genre, fit for ‘non-spoiler’ (p)reviews and then the one-minute-past-end-credits ‘spoilery’ review. But in these relatively quiet TV times – because The Musketeers isn’t quite there – it’s hauled in and roughly interrogated, addressed as if it considers itself the be-all, rather than the quirky, ramshackle, unassuming TV survivor it actually is.

That it’s now perpetually also under an ‘it’s back!’ cloud doesn’t help. Jonathan Creek is a lot of things – funny and clever and diverting – but it’s not event TV. Which is all the more reason to cherish it. It’s also obstinate and counter-intuitive, David Renwick dismantling all that once made it feel heightened. Thus as this three-part series begins, Jonathan is married, doesn’t live in a Windmill, doesn’t wear the coat and there’s no nefarious murder plot to be unpicked, instead it’s just a confluence of circumstances. The character of Creek, as he ages, is being normalised. When we last saw him, he was besuited and working in marketing. It felt like a tease, as if this was going to be exposed as some kind of ploy. But, that reveal never came. In this story – ‘The Letters of Septimus Noone’ – Jonathan’s wife, Polly, talks about “creative input for the rebranding exercise”. And it’s not the set-up for an under-cutting punchline. This is the new world of the show.

Perhaps Renwick himself is performing an impossible crime, continuing this still successful series while also vanishing it. Creek, himself, is a background character for most of the story, pointedly remarking, “What’s that about the torch being passed to the new generation? I think I may be getting very old.” We’re privy to what could have been the central mystery, the ‘delayed’ stabbing of a musical star, from the moment its perpetrated, and another – Hazel’s mum’s disappearing ashes – is thrown away in the most disdainful but brilliantly funny fashion. Even the much remarked upon jibes at Sherlock feel part of the plan; Renwick grumpily acknowledging you can get these kicks elsewhere. So what is the business of Jonathan Creek now? I think, at its core, the writer is still whittling out a wonderfully crafted creation. It’s all in the small strokes, the different ways the phrase “under the third bedroom floorboard” can be interpreted, the fantastic sight gag of Jonathan in a massively oversized riding helmet, the foreshadowing of ‘RIP’ Ripley’s penchant for carving phrases in wood. For me, it remains a puzzle box of a show. It’s just that there’s something different inside now.

The following evening brought us another ‘it’s back’ programme: Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (BBC2 Saturday, 10pm). It’s beholden upon me to draw some link between this and Jonathan Creek. If I can do it, it’ll make my thoughts look connected, as though we’re heading purposefully towards the formation of some kind of impressive theorem. And I can. Because both programmes, in addition to featuring a greying and now more soberly dressed protagonist, hang heavily upon structure.

I’ve talked a bit about how Renwick has rejigged the one underpinning his series. I don’t need to talk at all about what Stewart Lee is doing – he does entirely that in this opening episode. But he does it really well, stepping outside his stand-up to provide study notes. Lee has a genuinely good gag that ends “…try explaining that to the your mother-in-law on Christmas Day,” to which he then appends: “It’s like a Lee Mack joke.” Later, he keeps flitting between an old-school socialist dogma (“How are my kids supposed to grow up to be campaigners for social justice…”) and the reality of his, and his audience’s, current-day comfy middle-class obsessions (“…without the benefit of educational privilege?”). He even has the audacity to labour on a deconstruction of his own already laboured delivery style (“By the seventh ‘Shitbottle’ sign I started to find it funny again”) and gets away with that too. It’s only while taking an imaginary phone call in the final section he becomes a little too self-serving, telling his fictional caller he hasn’t really worked out an ending. As a faux shambles, it just feels too crafted. Much like the bits in between, Lee in a mist talking to Chris Morris while the camera roves and cross-pans reverentially.

There’s nothing wrong with Brian Conley’s new game show Timeline (Challenge Thursday, 9pm), other than early rounds infuriate me in their wilful ignorance of maths. The premise is to put items in chronological order using draggable tiles on a screen. In the first scenario, you have five variables (such as ordering the release date of Mr Kipling’s Cakes, Birdseye Arctic Roll, Sara Lee’s Cheesecake, Ambrosia Rice Pudding and Wall’s Viennetta), which means you can only ever score zero, one, three or five 2. If a tile is in the wrong place, then so is another. QED. So, please, Brian, stop trying to tease out the possibility of a further right answer when someone has scored just one and there’s a final tile to reveal.

That’s a tiny criticism, right? A really banal, nerdy one too. But I had to say it. Otherwise, the show works. Conley chats gamely with the contestants, it’s a shout-alongable format, and the Pointless-like banality of some of the questions (ordering desserts, I ask you) appeals. It nearly didn’t happen, though. Conley initially trialled something else for the channel called Brian’s Big Van, set in a shopping centre. From the name alone, I wish that had gone to series too.

  1. SATIRE
  2. Or possibly not, see Simon Fox’s remarks in the comments field

Watched #09
What is it like to be featured on the news and see oneself captioned as ‘witness’ or, worse, ‘victim’? As if that’s what it’s all been leading to. However many years you’ve had, whatever philosophies you’ve cultivated, however you part your hair – this is what you are. That thought occurred while watching Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (BBC2 Tuesday, 7pm) because here’s tenant farmer June Reed, ‘objector’. And her husband, David Reed, ‘objector’. Frodsham siblings Dennis and Liz Rowley, who think modern architecture is better suited to Altrincham – ‘objector’ and ‘objector’. Ellesmere Port pensioner Graham Penness. ‘Objector’.

You can’t blame TV for boiling lives down to one line, because we’re not really in this for Graham Penness’  story. So instead he becomes a supporting character in a more interesting (sorry, Graham) scenario as the documentary series picks at the tension between the government’s drive for the UK to build itself out of recession, and our own resistance to backyard developments. More people require more homes, but where? The overlaps in the argument are succinctly summed up by Steve Morgan, the chairman of property developers Redrow: “We build homes for the objectors of tomorrow.”

The stars of this show are, as you would expect, the planners, whom we follow on their day to day. No one can rival Stroud’s Phil Skill, who not only comes equipped with an awesome name, but acronyms too, hitching up a foot and looking out over an AONB. Nial Casselden in Cheshire tries to jolly car journeys along by musing that Cheshire cheese is “not my home cheese, my home cheese is Stilton.” Plus there’s Graham Boase, fighting to save Denbigh Hospital. He tells us: “The reason we carried out those urgent works was for that very reason – they were urgent”. MI:BP is full of these low-density pleasures. An additional thrill is the bit in every instalment where councillors trot onto a mini-bus and go on a field trip to see a contested plot. In Frodsham, they’ve brought wine gums.

The hour culminates in the final council judgement on the episode’s three dilemmas. There’s normally no theatre in this; short perfunctory statements, a show of hands. It’s the fall-out that’s the thing. “You have to move on with grace,” says Liz Rowley when her objection is ruled out. “We’ve had our Neil Armstrong giant leap for Frodsham’s architecture,” reflects Dennis.  But in Little Sutton there’s something more stirring. “The National Planning Policy Framework,” sighs councillor Armstrong, taking one small step towards drama, “it virtually takes the legs away of all of us… it’s a tragedy we have to live with”. The result is, the land tilled for 22 years by June and David Reed is to become 1,500 or so new homes. The couple are now no longer farmers, or indeed ‘objectors’. What will they become?

These words, I have learnt, are an after-the-event rationalisation for a biased decision I took in mere moments. A decision that was both quick and lazy, based more on prior experience and prejudice than anything else. It’s my System 2 cognitive process footing the bill for my System 1 automatic mode of thinking.

Horizon (BBC2 Monday, 9pm) outlined these gears in an episode titled ‘How You Really Make Decisions’. Thanks to the Nobel prize-winning work of Professor Daniel Kahneman, in the last few decades it’s been revealed that when it comes to making choices “we are stuck with our intuitive inner stranger”. This stranger is reactionary, even knee-jerk. He or she can’t be bothered to think things through and instead draws a little on experience and confirmation bias to offer up an easy answer. At which point System 2 then has to improvise a more joined-up sounding rationale to justify System 1′s thinking. Various simple experiments proved this, including asking passers-by if a hypothetical shy and retiring man called Steve who lived in America was more likely to be a librarian or a farmer. Most answered librarian. There are 20 times the latter in the US.

As with all good factual broadcasting, this simple premise was allowed to branch out in complicated ways – we saw how it may lead to huge oversights in US intelligence and cataclysmic fails in the financial industry (Kahneman’s Nobel prize was for economics). The thesis was fascinating, the pictures sometimes less so. It’s a cliche that when TV thinks deeply we end up having to look at slow-motion shots of passers-by. Such was the case here. There’s a lot of footfall outside Benugo.

With the cruel certainty of a twist-in-the-tale, I’m getting around to writing about Inside No 9 (BBC2 Wednesday, 10pm) just at the point this impressive series hits a dud note. Nonetheless, the fourth episode, ‘Last Gasp’, still showed that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have a gift for details – the No 9 being a beige, suburban dwelling where the beigely-named Jan and Graham (I know) offer coffee with a Canderel “she nicked… off a train.” But while the core premise – three parties arguing over a balloon that seemingly contains the dying breath of a famous crooner – comes from a sturdy line of fiction featuring miscreants coming a cropper when it gets to sharing out the loot, it lacked accompanying tension. The characters didn’t really go anywhere. Even their eventual conspiring in murder didn’t feel at all transformative. In the end, daughter Tamsin opened the window and set the balloon free. All the way along there was just too much air in the story.

Consistency is at the core of Chris Lilley’s TV series. His mock-docs We Can Be HeroesSummer Heights HighAngry Boys and now Ja’mie: Private School Girl (BBC3 Wednesday, 10pm) all feel of a piece, to the point that even the title sequences are comparative – like a picture forming over the spines in a DVD box set. The result of this approach is real polish. Ja’mie’s series is meticulously cut together, saccharine high-energy pop music playing over sped-up montage footage, fading through a shock of white back into the narrative.

Lilley will turn 40 in November, but the fact he’s playing the 17-year-old title character seems like the least of the show’s novelties, so nuanced is his performance. Ja’mie’s life is one of constant high-stakes pivots, where one moment she’s “so devo” [devastated], the next she’s jumping up and down in excitement about the prospect of outraging her school by turning up in “like, slut socks”. There perhaps aren’t many surprises in an episode, but the way it’s been honed (Ja’mie’s bedroom wall is festooned with photos of boyfriend Mitchell, until he dumps her, at which point we see just blu-tack marks), and the sheer belief that underpins it  makes it a continued, reliable pleasure.

Watched #08
In its earlier incarnations, the BBC’s Film programme (how to refer to the franchise as a whole has never been satisfyingly resolved) didn’t do much for me. With either Barry Norman or Jonathan Ross delivering carefully composed essays, there was a lacquer to the show that protected it from the rough and the tumble of spontaneity. Although I have a suspicion the general consensus is we’re all supposed to furrow our brows at the current incarnation, Film 2014 (BBC1 Wednesday, 11.05pm), I much prefer it. The programme has a nervous energy which brings with it the impression of vitality. Claudia Winkleman narrows her eyes and nods frantically as resident critic Danny Leigh machine-guns his way between his prepped-up zingers – “It’s like Schindler’s List being interrupted so Liam Neeson can have a can of Lilt”. As each review continues, the tension rises, Claudia looking for a way to break back in and, perhaps, express an opinion, or – more often – wind the thing up to keep the show to time.

It’s a strange position she finds herself in, playing third fiddle to Danny and the guest critic. This week that’s Kevin Maher who, to his credit, seems happy to listen when someone else is talking. But poor Claudia, who tucks her thumbs into her sleeves. Talking about Only Lovers Left Alive, she takes issue with Danny’s lukewarm appraisal. “Oh! It’s much better than fine!” she says. Is it? Danny ignores that cue for discussion and continues with his own thing.

There is also a further tension – the disconnect between the EPK-like interviews and the studio discussion. They still have that whiff of preservative, as if Tom Brook-in-Hollywood was continuing to facilitate our access to the stars. It’s sensible, of course, to keep the critics separate from the interviewers, but it does feel like one half of the show isn’t talking to the other. However, it’s all of the above – all of these rough spots – that keeps me interested. Some of my viewing choices have even been influenced by Claudia and Danny. Neither Barry nor Jonathan, with their unruffled contemplation, ever got so close.

The Hotel Inspector (Channel 5 Thursday, 9pm) is a programme I refuse to stop watching, even though, on its 334th series, it’s now put together by cut and paste. “Enter, the Hotel Inspector,” says Mark Halliley in the commentary booth, and there’s the shot of Alex Polizzi’s stiletto touching down on tarmac. About seven minutes later: “And the remaining rooms fail to meet the Hotel Inspector’s high standards”. Into the break with a swell from the theme tune: “But the worst is yet to come.” Here’s the turn: “To help, Alex will restyle [insert communal area, or guestroom here]“. More jeopardy to buoy us through the next lot of commercials: “Can Alex get the troubled hoteliers back on track?” and then, before we finish, at the bit just after the bit where Ms Polizzi has arranged an open day for local businesses to inspect the hostelry’s wares: “Alex calls an emergency meeting.” There’s a reassurance in all of this, we know every stroke the show will play, but it remains enjoyable. That’s mostly due to the effervescence of the inspector herself, wide-eyed, punchy, enthusiastic and a posh swearer to whom everyone is a “darling”. She doesn’t nab the best line in this week’s episode, though. That goes to B&B owner Lynne (whom you may recognise from Channel 4′s Four in a Bed) who has one issue with the new branding Alex’s team have concocted for Eden Lodge guest house: “Dandelions are associated with wetting the bed, aren’t they?”

There’s a parasite – a flatworm – that lives in a snail, but in order to complete its life-cycle, it has to end up being eaten by a bird. At a given time, the creature travels into its host’s eye-stalk, swells up, turns on an array of colours and wiggles like a delicious caterpillar. But that’s not enough. It also takes control of the gastropod’s brain, instructing it to venture out in the daylight away from the safety of the shade. All so that a predator will swoop in and have it. A gruesome tale, one of many told in the excellent, three-programme-titles-in-one Michael Mosley: Infested! Living With Parasites (BBC4 Wednesday, 9pm). As is his wont, Mosley gets immersive and travels to Kenya to hunt down infected beef, whereupon he locates three tapeworm cysts… and swallows them. All in the name of science. Well, science on TV, but that takes little away from his heroism. He incubates the worms for weeks, and there’s jeopardy here. How many will hatch? Mosley is jubilant when, weeks later during an Indian meal, the mini-camera traveling through his gut – he has a mini-camera traveling through his gut! – catches sight of a long white parasite which has set up home in his intestines. It’s all thoroughly, grimly fascinating.

And did you know that malaria engineers a human’s body odour to make it more attractive to mosquitoes?

Equally beguiling and gruesome was Dissected: The Incredible Human Hand (BBC4 Tuesday, 9pm), a TV programme with a splendidly simple premise. One, in fact, laid out in that title. Fitting, isn’t it, that another journey into the human body is also bisected by a colon? Dr George McGavin is our host; like Mosley someone who – to coin the Danny Baker phrase – “also entertains”. He’s a likeable almost avuncular presence, who’s able to underline the excitement of stripping down a corpse hand rather than the yuckiness. And the magic floods in when, with the skin peeled back, George’s lab-coated friends gently tug on a tendon and a finger crooks. Kate O’Mara once warned us that the crook of a finger isn’t always the promise of happy times. But here, with the dead flesh on the table, it actually is.

Watched #07
Lindsay Denton is a blank slate. One of those people you might work with who, if she ever is in conversation, and you ever do listen in, it’ll be about something disappointingly routine like her commute or Argos. She’s the perfect focal point for the second series of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) which returns minus its leading man, Lennie James. Whereas his DCI Tony Gates was luminous like a firework, DI Denton is a troubling kind of calm. A bleakness. It’s an excellent contrast.

That nonsense I extrapolated about the kind of things she might talk about comes because I believe in the character. From the off Mercurio’s script presents concise details; Denton responding to a crisis, zeroing in on protocol, a colleague sighing: “There she goes.” And in extremis she’s on an unheroic autopilot. Following the opening hijacking sequence, we see her in hospital (that neck brace a perfect metaphor for her constrained personality) sat impassively while out-of-focus chaos continues around her. When her boss asks who the protected witness is, she replies: “I’m not clear that’s something I should be divulging yet sir,” blandly quoting the rule book.

This is a career best performance from Keeley Hawes, who’s measured out the role meticulously. She rarely makes eye contact, continues to talk as if by rote (“Akers, or the individual identifying herself as Akers…”) and even assaults her noise-pollutant neighbour with a calm precision. There’s absolutely no release of tension here – when she does finally go up, it’ll be a far bigger bang than Tony Gates.

In many ways, Denton personifies what’s best about Line of Duty, that the explosions are ameliorated by bickering and politicking. Mutterings about chains of command, someone dropping someone else in it and “non-priority missing persons [who] are being down-processed”. It’s that stuff, plus the lived-in detail – Vicky McClure’s Kate arriving at her lover’s house and wordlessly hanging her bag up behind the door, like she always does - that buys our indulgence of this episode’s preposterously exciting final scene. I mean, that wig…

Suspects (Channel 5 Wednesday, 10pm) followed straight after. A police procedural of the most procedural fashion, its real point of difference is something the programme mostly attempts to obscure – that it’s shot at great pace (an episode every two days),with wholly improvised dialogue and camerawork. The effect on screen is a strong degree of verisimilitude, particularly in the op-doc direction. The effect off-screen is a huge saving in cash, making the project feasible in the first place.

Masterminded by Brookside and The Bill producer Paul Marquess, he’s said he thinks there’s a future in this approach, indeed, an ongoing soap could be made in exactly this fashion. It’s not the first time he’s implemented it. In 2012 his ITV daytime drama Crime Stories starred Ben Hull, real-life former detective Jane Antrobus and a lot of guesting ex Brookside and The Bill cast members all making it up as they went along. The end result felt a bit slack, sometimes a bit directionless. Suspects is far more purposeful, everyone minded they need to be serving the story. It means all the dialogue is functional – no-one daring to weave in a character quirk or some small eccentricity – but that keeps it focused. The three leads (Fay Ripley, Damien Moloney and Clare-Hope Ashitey) are clearly match-fit. Some of the guests less so, often paraphrasing back a feed line as they find their way in, but never so much to be distracting.

The only time the MO really gets in the way is when we have scenes of the police mobilising as a group, with fellow officers having to mouth silently lest they become a speaking, rather than non-speaking, background artiste and bump up their fee.

Woolworth’s! It still exists. In South Africa, anyway. My brother Jack has some weird remit to prove to me the other international versions of MasterChef are superior to the UK original. But he’s wrong. At his request I tried MasterChef South Africa (Watch Monday, 7pm). Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to start – this iteration goes with the ‘open audition’-style season debut which the British version sensibly scraped into the offal bin after one year. So it’s probably not indicative of future instalments, and certainly I didn’t get the feel for judges Andrew Atkinson, Benny Masekwameng and Pete Goffe-Wood, each of whom did that thing of making smouldering eye contact with the contestants while silently popping their wares into their mouth. I found those moments to be uncomfortably intimate. Afterwards, returned to their seats in “Shine Studios at the fashionable food distract of Braamfontein” (where there’s a Woolworth’s) they would then give judgement. “Beans: crunch. Mash: smooth. Chicken: moist. Sauce: tasty”. There were a lot of croquettes. 

It just didn’t feel like MasterChef to me, one successful chap running to report back to his family, “I’m going to boot camp baby!”, another providing her own commentary: “Here’s my big cheffy move.” Although, granted, in next week’s episode, someone will vow, “I’m here to change my life,” and there is indeed a lot of that too in the UK series. Enough, in fact, for me.

Airing, now, one day after its US debut, The Walking Dead (Fox Monday, 9pm) continues to be its own thing, and brilliantly so despite the fact its zombie scenario is one of the most played-out in recent fiction. You never know what shape an episode will take, this one focusing on Rick and Carl, and, in a separate strand, Michonne. It’s weird, but true, that for we regular viewers, undead beheadings are now just a punctuation point in the narrative, with fettered blood flying in between the moments of real import. Something the show continues to do well is the feeling of life having just departed, so when Carl goes hunting for food in an empty house we see boxes stacked on the stairs, as if a family were intending to pack up before fleeing. Another, a sign scrawled in an abandoned shop, is half a story on its own: “Please do what I couldn’t”.

Will Rick (Andrew Lincoln so absorbed into this role I finally no longer see him as ‘Egg’) and Carl find baby Judith? In this series – based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book which regularly and bravely hobbles its main characters – perhaps not. Things really could go anywhere.