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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The show offering up an open goal to any reviewer with its revelation of a fatal floor.
  2. Weird to contrive some feeling of natural justice from the notion a child killer with paedophilic tendencies was being forced on to another neighbourhood.
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Watched #37
“Poor old Reg” – Radio Times, 16-22 February 1985 edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor old Lucy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Which I’ve done here and here

Watched #33
They arrive, hashtagged up to the armpits (although no one says hashtagged out loud anymore) and with a brash yet somehow unassuming confidence about their missions. Masterminded, as we know, by Russell T Davies1Cucumber (Channel 4 Thursday, 9pm) and Banana (E4 Thursday, 10pm) already feel like the best thing to happen to Channel 4 in years. Years. Two programmes mainlined from the now. Even though in terms of lifestyle they don’t speak to me, in terms of real life – and work and friends and getting on – they do.

Cucumber is the most surprising, daring to be set in a world of middle-aged men, looking not at sexual politics, but the politics of sex – specifically Henry’s (Vincent Franklin) abstinence It’s intrigued me to read coverage of the show that considers him the villain of the piece. I don’t get that at all. I see him as someone cursed with self-awareness, recognising he and his tribe are becoming fast excluded by the young, vibrant thoroughfare of mainstream gay culture. It’s an avenue of adventure no longer suitable  for someone whose best attempt at cutting loose is putting on the type of shirt James May might sport for Top Gear. What place does romance and excitement hold for him?

He’s penned in, he knows it, and his world’s getting smaller still as boyfriend Lance (Cyril Nri) proposes marriage. It all precipitates a series of disasters which, at the end of the hour, potentially set Henry free. Rather than a schemer, he’s someone who’s been ricocheted out of his regular life, but might just manage to find his feet. We’ll see.

In many respects, Banana is more instantly charming. Dean (Fisayo Akinade) skips through his half-hour, an upbeat soul drawn to drama (fantasizing about an ultimately tragic romance with a boy on the bus, plus inventing his own harrowing coming out story) but essentially invulnerable. However, first episodes alone anyway, Cucumber contains the real meat. Ahem. Both, though are infused with Davies’ beautifully observed and witty writing, and oh how we’ve missed that. “Learn to swim!”bellows Henry. “Learn to fuck!” bellows Lance. Lines that are lived in. That have been bottled up for years inside those men.

Catastrophe (Channel 4 Monday, 10pm) also arrived this week with clouds of glory preceding it. By chance, an interesting fit alongside the C and the B shows, it explores the weird etiquette of parenting by having two relative strangers go through it together. Co-created and starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, it said not the unsayable but the things that don’t really get verbalised in relationships. Pointing out that Rob allowed ‘precedent’ to excuse him from wearing protection during sex, and having Mark Bonnar’s Chris suffering from some kind of PTSD having seen his wife give birth. “Forgive her?” he says teeing up the greatest line of all. “You see a little troll come tobogganing out of your wife’s snatch on a wave of turds and part of you will hold her responsible.” And yet in all the bleakness and the “pre-cancer” the show shines light. Sharon and Rob hold hands, and in fact, they wouldn’t be in this weird situation of preparing for a child if they didn’t actually like each other.

The Eichmann Show (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) was a fine, committed production, but with, I’d suggest, the cameras pointed in the wrong direction. It’s 1961 and producer Milton Fruchtman plus McCarthy blacklisted director Leo Hurtwitz are in Jerusalem negotiating to televise the trial of Adolf Eichmann. This is to be television’s first ever global ‘event’, with film reels hastily edited and then flown off around the world for (almost) next day viewing in 37 countries.

Reports have it that in some instances, viewers faint upon hearing the testimony of Holocaust survivors. You can’t really grasp it now, what it must have been like to hear first-hand remembrances of something so abominable and still in living memory. To the drama’s credit, whenever it can, it cuts away to genuine footage from the proceedings – and these remain its most electrifying and damnable moments. By comparison, despite the sterling efforts of Martin Freeman and Anthony LaPaglia and despite the traumas Fruchtman and Hurtwitz endured in capturing the whole three months of the hearing on camera (assassination attempts on the former, the latter becoming obsessed by looking for some evidence of humanity in Eichmann), it cannot help but feel like the tiniest bit of this story. The only element, maybe, it’s possible to countenance.

  1. And, just because, here’s a review I wrote of Queer as Folk 2 for this site way back

Watched #32
The results are in. I’m 34% a Constant Craver, 34% a Feaster and 32% an Emotional Eater. Which, experts are telling me, means I’m a Constant Craver. Not sure why that wins out over Feaster. Maybe it’s the Len Goodman of eating-types, it gets the swing. This information came courtesy of Horizon: What’s the Right Diet For You? (BBC2 Monday to Wednesday, 9pm) and its online test.

Although hailed as “groundbreaking” (“Scientists believe they have found the answer”) the three-parter hosted by Dr Chris van Tulleken and Professor Tanya Byron has a long, long TV history. It’s really not so different to the ‘Feeling Great in ’88’-type campaigns TV-am ran. Indeed, the continuity announcer – whose script surely caused buttocks to clench in the Horizon We-Call-It-The-Control Centre – teed us up nicely: “If you’ve eaten too much over Christmas, don’t worry!”

Dieting is perfect for television. It never works, and yet we profoundly believe that somewhere out there is a formula which will change our lives. “Can science succeed where other diets have failed?” For the sake of this project, we’re going to infer yes, but we’ll see you again next January when we’ll have another load of experts (some of whom don white coats to look at footage of people eating sushi) to talk in an upbeat way about another approach… and refer to you all as “guys”.

It’s not that I doubt the integrity of this project, or the improving effect it’s had on the 75 volunteers who took part. It’s a subject that, truly, can cause despair. One of the participants – a dad whose son makes him jump on the scales every night – confided, “I’m letting everybody down, including myself.” There’s so much pain rolled up inside this. In an attempt to offset that, our betters from the Control Centre worked hard to maintain a positive tone. ‘Feasters’ were assigned a low GI regimen and told: “Lots of fantastic grains and cereals!”

Did the show’s approach to weight loss work? On Wednesday, it certainly seemed to. But then, the whole endeavour was predicated on success. It had to work. Everyone assembled under that implicit understanding. The resultant question then has to be: Have scientists found the answer? Or is the real lesson here that the best impetus for dieting is being on TV?

In 1989, when I was a teenager, my family decided to get a BSB squarial. Same thing with my friend Bobby Wallace. He and I had read, somewhere, that there was a facility for BSB customers to send written messages to each other which would appear on your TV screen. That seemed utterly amazing. But, once considered, pure novelty. When our satellite squares went up, neither of us ever sent words across town. What could we possibly have to say?

Although I’m now Facebooked and Twittered up (and there are the links) the emotional ground staked out by Cyberbully (Channel 4 Thursday, 9pm) was a foreign land to me. As a teen, I never had the opportunity to conduct friendships in the manner of Maisie Williams’ Casey, who sits in a She-Doesn’t-Call-It The Control Centre of her own making, over-sharing and commenting. This one-off drama did well to puncture the character’s bubble, illustrating how the seemingly passive experience of posting images, videos, opinion (all of which accompanied by that soundtrack of calm whooshy iPhone ‘sent’ noises and the pleasing burbles of new notifications) are actually anything but.

I liked the earlier moments most, as she began to realise the text in her messenger window held some malevolence. Each “CLICK HERE” that appeared had the effect of a door you didn’t want to be opened. It felt less subtle when Casey’s tormentor – who’d taken control of her online world, digging out intimate photos and posting from her Twitter account – grew a synthesized voice. That was more like a telly conceit than a true turn in the story. But there were nice lines. “Everything gets slated online.” And: “Cyber suicides aren’t what they used to be.” This was good melodrama. Not that I really know, but that  does seem to be the stock of teenage life.

On Tuesday morning, the consensus seemed to be that last night’s Broadchurch  (ITV Monday, 9pm) stunk a little bit. There was always an expectation  viewers would turn on the show, as if that’s just something we  do. But the truth is more that second series generally aren’t as good. What do I think? Well, certainly the ending was nonsense.  If DI Hardy was challenged to summarise the chain of events that led up to Claire’s disappearance, he’d face sheer incredulity. “Hold on, you took her to what location? You set up a meeting with who? You left her alone why? And she was bundled out of a window and disappeared how quickly?” The whats, whos, whys and the hows really don’t stack up and the solemn incidental music, still chuntering overhead like a police helicopter, exacerbated the situation, as if scoring the difference between what Broadchurch is at best, and what we just saw.

Probably, though, if I looked at series one again, I’d find something just as silly, which we all then went on to forget out of gratitude for the rest. So I’m not too het up. There’s easily enough faith left in my reserves to keep me along for the next six weeks.

“I brought it back!” There’s plenty of Harry in Harry Hill’s Stars in Their Eyes (ITV Saturday, 7pm). So much so the possessive pronouns in the title are now in rather a tussle. Whose show is it? Harry’s, or the competitors’? The whole endeavour was akin to one of his asides to camera, from the “not-live” final to his quip of, “You’re not watching Challenge TV – ITV really have brought back Stars in Their Eyes!” The continual affirmation of the programme’s naffness was funny, sure, but also made you wonder why, then, has everyone bothered to gather here together tonight? You know, if ultimately it’s a bit rubbish? “Winning Stars in Their Eyes is not going to change your life,” said our host in his ‘a sideways glance at’ tone of voice. “But the good news is, it’s not going to ruin it too!” And therein lay the truth. We all know Saturday night telly of this stripe is inconsequential, but I’m not sure we want to be told that in the moment.

Watched #31
The continuity announcer diligently slowed the pace: “Now on ITV, it seems the end was just the beginning as we return to… Broadchurch.” Whereupon we were presented with a man in a pig mask being chased by police officers. “A break from the drama, with Skoda”.

I believe you can extrapolate a lot about Broadchurch (ITV Monday, 9pm) from the title. It’s a place name that, when we first heard it, somehow already carried the weight of tragedy, almost like a Hungerford or an Aberfan. Furthermore, I actually think even its font bears meaning. The kerning is immaculate1, indicating a production of impeccably judged spaces: How the characters (I mean people, not typographical) interact, when they interact – even how the sky cuts across the picture, two-thirds down.

But before all that, ah, the speed-bump of  sponsorship. I’m not trying to say that you should need planning permission before erecting something like this  – the money has to be got – but it upset the tone. Later, it was into the commercials, again  with that lovely typeface, the migraine-like incidental music… and then another break from the drama courtesy of Skoda.

That was only a small irritant. The best thing about Broadchurch being back was it immediately felt like we were back in Broadchurch. Some dramas struggle to recapture the same sense of place, but perhaps by virtue of the storyline following in the immediate aftermath of Danny Latimer’s death, everything was set on just the right track. Because of this, it was easy to feel resistant to newcomers and I was annoyed with Charlotte Rampling’s retired QC Jocelyn Knight. Why pretend you’ve no intention of taking on the case when your whole purpose in the story is patently to take on the case? Let’s get on with it! Conversely, it was novel to experience the suburban, fenced-in, tiny spaces of Sandbrook at the end of the episode. A new and exciting location to explore, with secrets presumably boxed up inside those boxy homes.

It’s very satisfying to sit here right now knowing we’ve seven more weeks to  wonder about. Mark Latimer secretly playing FIFA with young Tom Miller – you can understand why this might provide comfort for the grieving father, but there’s also an echo of Joe Miller’s relationship with Danny. Where might this lead us? And now she’s stopped procrastinating, (“Spare me the sentimental populism!”) Ms Knight is teed up for a mighty clash with Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s Sharon Bishop. I’m up for it all. Except those breaks in the drama.

Talking about breaks, I’m battling with new shoes. I’ve got to break them in. I walked a couple of miles this morning, then applied plasters to my heels – welts had opened up. I’ll keep going, because eventually they’ll yield and it’ll be worth it. I won’t be trying again with Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 5 Wednesday, 9pm). It’s a hard show to criticise without 1) Sounding like a complete middle-class knob and 2) Trashing a whole seam of entertainment that so many clearly enjoy. A potential easy-win would be to write something negative about Katie Hopkins, but I’m cautious because that is her oxygen. Nonetheless, I have to point out how ill-equipped she was to fulfill the brief of becoming some kind of catty commentator on the virtues of her housemates. Lots of head swaying and finger wagging, covering for stilted, half-connected and cliche-ridden barbs. The fact that they were traded with the rough-cut guide-commentary that is now the stilted voice of Big Brother didn’t help.

All the while, folks tumbled into the house, the women nearly all branding themselves “bitches”, everyone attempting to own their own notoriety. “Ken used to have a collection of vintage American limousines!” bellowed Marcus Bentley as the forever-Reg Holdsworth mounted the stairs. The “used to” bit told his story. Patsy Kensit to win, though. “I’ve done some pretty shit films,” she confessed in her VT. “The problem is, I fart a lot”. I tried making an “I hope they’re not Absolute Be-lingerers” joke on Twitter. Hash-tagged it up #CBB. It got no purchase.

There’s another TV experiment going on in Bring Back Borstal (ITV Thursday, 9pm), in which 14 young troublemakers submit to a 1930s-style Borstal regimen for four weeks to see what effect it might have on their behaviour. The premise is a little wonky. Nowadays 80 per cent of people who’ve been through a young offenders’ institute go on to commit further crime within two years of release, compared to 30 per cent who endured the old system. There are clearly huge societal differences which also contribute to these numbers – but nonetheless, I thought the programme was quite instructive. It was telling (but of what I’m not sure) that so many of the inmates were young fathers, and in 19-year-old Casey Spence the show found a particularly eloquent contributor who talked about his struggle to turn his life around. Professor David Wilson2 talked of the whole thing as being “one of the toughest challenges I’ve taken on”, because it’s television and he has to. But you can already see this is going to be less about crime and punishment and more about rehabilitation.

Sandra is in dispute with Matt because his hose is hitting her zinnias. Jo Jo has been tickling her potatoes in the hope it’ll inspire growth, while others are worried about theirs getting scab. And, actually, Lena’s have caught blackleg. Over in the ‘Eat’ challenge, Thane Prince wants to see sauce jars filled up to the ‘shoulder’. Who knew jars had a shoulder? In many respects The Big Allotment Challenge (BBC2 Friday, 9pm) is about absolutely inconsequential things. Details. The arbitrary straightness or tidiness of an item. But at the same time it’s tapping – digging – into something fundamental, the arts of growing, eating and making. I very much like the fact it’s not chasing drama. There is no booming voice-over track, and the omnipresent music doesn’t so much build to anything, as move us along like an attentive party host. The contestants – drawn from a broad demographic spread – even hold hands at the end of the episode when one of them is asked to leave the allotment. It doesn’t get the adrenalin pumping, but it does feed the soul.

  1. If Chris Chibnall ever were to become boss of Doctor Who, I, for one, would be excited about the possibility of the show sporting nice typography for the first time since 1986
  2. Who was governor at HMPS Wormword Scrubs, Grendon and Woodhill, to name a few

Chris Chibnall
Broadchurch
is back and, defying detractors, you can feel its instant fascination once more drawing viewers in once more. It’s also prompted me – perhaps cynically – to dig out a transcript of an interview I conducted with the show’s writer, Chris Chibnall, on 4th April 2013, between the broadcast of series one, episodes five and six. Read More →

Watched #30
“The ladies of Tilling do have a sharp eye for each other’s failings,” grunted Mark Gatiss as the too-young Major Benjy. So do folks on the internet, of course, so bear that in mind as we continue.

I’m already inferring that in Steve Pemberton’s three-part take on Mapp and Lucia (BBC1 Monday to Wednesday), Gatiss doesn’t have enough years under his belt to truly embody the bluff military man – even though he gave it his ruddy-faced best. But this was a production confidently staged and excellently cast and I laughed a few times. Although it did make me wonder, why? Why make this version? Is it reason enough the characters haven’t been on TV for 30-odd years? Perhaps. The novelty of EF Benson’s original concept – bitter social warfare conducted through garden fetes and bridge evenings – still feels strong, but as grand as this production was, I’m not sure it added anything more to the story.

Other than Miranda Richardson’s teeth. Oh, how beautifully detailed, her left lateral incisor just overlapping one of the central two. A small jumble that cleverly undermines Mapp’s perma-smile. I know Richardson has said she didn’t watch Prunella Scales’ version of the character in the 1980s LWT adaptation, but dentistry aside, I was startled by how similar this take was. Eyes crinkled, an effort at a placatory tone that remains forever on the verge of breaking, and even the voice. It could be Benson’s writing stipulates all of that – I haven’t read his books – however the parallel interpretations, I thought anyway, were fascinating.

I honestly can’t think of too much more to say about Mapp and Lucia. It was fine and jolly and the end of episode one, with Zadok the Priest blaring out as Anna Chancellor’s Lucia held her Tilling subjects rapt, captured the balance of utter triviality and magnified emotion that is at the heart of these stories. I’m sure it’s absolutely delivered on Pemberton and the BBC’s hopes for these adaptations. How could you say not? But I watched the other two episodes while doing other things. Napping, I’ll admit, in one case, because although its been beautifully put together, it didn’t feel essential.

On the other hand Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) was a must. Part of the lure was seeing how his roughhousing would work on some of the more controversial and just plain nasty news events the year offered up. I confess, I was craning my neck when we reached the Rolf Harris trial, only for Brooker to pass the ball to Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas, comedic characters whose purpose is to show how vapid and disengaged ‘talking head’ cultural commentators normally are. So, a bit of a body swerve there, and yet you have to commend someone who’ll concede, “I suppose I’ve got to talk about Isis,” and manage to do just that. Of course, what Brooker’s really addressing – in every case – is the media coverage surrounding all of these events, rather than the events themselves, but his remark about “an accelerating viral cycle” around the terrorist group’s actions was just one of a million nicely honed lines that, for anyone of a broadly leftie viewpoint, seemed to cut through.

If there’s one thing we should upbraid him for, however, it’s the way he continues to employ that same incisor-like wordplay to make barbs at how people look. Sure, he is excellent at it – and in the attached footnote I’ve listed the many he employed during this hour1 – but is there any nobility in this? Particularly since blunt approximations of the same routine have now polluted the works of so many other writers.

I don’t think it would be controversial to assert Top Gear (BBC2 Saturday and Sunday) is leaning even more on tried and tested fare. Their two-part jaunt across Patagonia contained what some might describe as all the ‘essential components’ (others would say ‘usual bits’) of their foreign films – specifically nobbling each other’s cars, a sequence put to The A-Team music, lots of driving across rickety and makeshift bridges, Jeremy Clarkson’s weird intonation of certain words (as if that gives them instant comedy), occasional awkward segues into earnest travelogue voice-overs, and all of the above coloured by a vaguely jingoistic worldview. Well, it’s a format and I would agree that most of the time it makes for extremely well produced, self-consciously non-PC entertainment. But the final reel, in which the production team’s vehicles were stoned by protesting Argentinians did make you wonder… is it all worth it? All the bother? For those helicopter shots and three men mostly behaving in an unlikeable way? Top Gear is never ever apologetic. This time, perhaps it should have tried that.

Greg James is a name I’ve heard before and Gemma Cairney a face I think I might have seen somewhere. It was they who introduced the New Year’s Eve Fireworks (BBC1 Wednesday, 11.55pm). And to their credit, they just got out of the way, letting us enjoy the view from Central Hall, Westminster and handing over to the GLA the responsibility for the first 10 minutes of TV in 2015. “Keeeeeeeep drinking!” they trilled upon their return. “Responsibly.”

  1. Bake Off contestant Iain Watters is a “furious owl-man”; Nigel Farage is a “frogman of the people”; Gordon Brown is “the Gruffalo”; David Cameron is “Igglepiggle”; Ed Miliband has “the face of a rubber ear”; Russell Brand is “a cross between Jesus and Rise of the Planet of the Apes“; The Proclaimers once were “Frankie Boyle lookalikes”; Alex Salmond is the “automatic pilot from Airplane“; and Dapper Laughs’ Daniel O’Reilly appeared on Newsnight “dressed as a ’50s beat poet”