Watched #28
Named with a joke, then another joke topping that first joke, making the cumulative joke less funny than the original joke, Monty Python (Mostly) Live: One Down Five To Go (Gold Sunday, 7.30pm) indeed proved to be mostly live, thanks to broadcasting restrictions nixing the notion of full exposure to The Penis Song. But wasn’t it awfully nice to have a specially filmed insert by a dragged up Michael Palin to act as a fig leaf over the rude bits? Even though there were no real laughs therein. Recorded the previous Wednesday, this presumably means UKTV can boast the last ever new Python material was written and produced under their sponsorship.

The channel threw all it had at this curtain call for the “Python boys”1, sending Dara Ó Briain through the curtain to reverentially peep into the “quick-change booths” or stalk the corridors whence Gilliam trod. In truth, there’s nothing worse for TV than a backstage party, and that was borne out as Dara – like a party host desperately marshalling the conversation in a prescribed direction – garbled at high volume about how influential Python were on Spinal Tap, while Harry Shearer parried back that in fact they weren’t at all. Scrunched up on a sofa, Martin Freeman tilted forward to try and hear over the convivial hubbub. “If I don’t laugh that much I don’t want my money back,” he said, notching everyone’s expectations at low.

That the final ever Monty Python performance demanded extra hoopla and reverence cannot be denied. But, we come back to the fact that both backstage and parties are hostile territories for live televison. It’s either a credit to Gold that they went there, or sheer folly. Certainly the interval proved a far more successful foray. A hand-wringing Dara expressing perfect embarrassment at the bleeping foisted upon the channel2, and actually stealing a little time with the “boys” themselves, rather than the by-standers. “We’re going to leave you now,” he said to a doorstepped3 Eric Idle. “I’d be very grateful if you would”. Back on the sofa, a wodge of Lee Mack, Warwick Davis and Steve Coogan; the latter unselfconsciously doing that nerdy thing of showboating his Python knowledge in the most joyless tone possible. That’s a true fan.

As for the performance itself, I’ll say little, because the world doesn’t need my opinions ladled on top of everyone’s. But I thought it was great – far better than it needed to be. Far better than Martin Freeman would have us expect. This was a grand, global event and a huge credit to Gold that it was they who’d captured it. A pop cultural moment for a generation, there was a whiff of Live Aid as everyone tumbled out onto the stage – Freeman, Coogan, Brian Cox – during the last refrains of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. If only someone had wrestled their way to a microphone to instruct this singalong to “Let them know that springtime is coming – SPRINGTIME IS COMING”. The comparison holds true if we cast Dara as a hapless David Hepworth, with Cleese – who’s been constantly moaning about his alimony payments of late – making the brusque demands for money.

And talking of brusque demands for money (oh, what linking material!) here’s Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Sunday, 8.30pm) already back for another series. As ever, the opening sequence has had another tweak, and one that I think reveals the production team’s quiet enmity for the quintet of reptiles, placing them slightly too close together in the show’s fictional lift. No one making eye contact, as if Duncan has just guffed. Further bits are dropped in, each seemingly designed to erode those corporate veneers. A cutaway of Peter nibbling a crisp, Deborah (who makes half-jokes and laughs loudly after each) becoming a visual metaphor for herself by trundling around in a little tank, Piers wiping his shirt after embracing a new partner, Peter diligently writing “The best dragon” on a trainer4 with felt-tip as though it were his pencil case.

These side-orders are all very pleasing, particularly when pragmatism kills a moment of drama. When it’s revealed the couple touting low-fat crisps are facing crippling debts, the Dragons melt away. Except for Peter. “That’s me doing it then,” he says. A shiver. But a moment later, he’s also out.

The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway (BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm) continues, and who knew there could be a real TV genre in people wearing high vis jackets? I don’t say that altogether facetiously, because I love these shows. Tonight’s instalment, detailing Crossrail construction under the Thames near Woolwich and widening a Victorian Tunnel at the Royal Docks, couldn’t hold a candle to last week’s which took a giant boring machine through Tottenham Court Road, 85cm above an active tube line and 35cm below the escalators. Nonetheless, we met Mary, a 150-metre long, 1000-ton, tungsten carbide toothed drilling machine. And also Peter Bermingham, who at 70 is on the cusp of retirement, and looking back at a career that has seen him tunnel under the Thames 10 times. So much alliteration. So many endeavours on a scale so monumental, to try and even imagine them seems tiring.

Here’s a dull fact about me – I have Virgin Media’s TiVO service, and sometimes it ‘suggests’ programmes I might like. Delving into that subfolder this week, I found Crimewatch (BBC1 Tuesday, 9pm)5. “Catching the criminals protecting the public,” said Kirsty Young. Oh, hold on, it’s: “Catching the criminals, protecting the public”. Next month, the show will be marking 30 years on screen. But in those three decades, I don’t think it’s ever quite squared off its public service duties alongside its desire to entertain. Criminals caught on camera breaking and entering are described as “the dastardly duo” because one of them is wearing a Batman baseball cap. They escape in a car. “Hardly the Batmobile”. Police hope the public can help identify them. “We need you to be a superhero”. Is this added value, adding limp comedic riffs to such material? Does it make the process of watching bad things happen perhaps a little chucklesome? It’s always seemed a little bit uncomfortable for me. Although, not so much that I’m going to have nightmares.

  1. A phrase only ever used by John Hannah in Sliding Doors and now Palin in that sketch
  2. “Did you hear about the pommie bastard who took Viagra instead of his sleeping pill?” No. “BLEEEEEP!” Oh.
  3. Was there a union issue that prevented Dara from actually entering the dressing rooms?
  4. Apropos these trainers – the big idea is kids can customise them with pens. During a demo, one child silently says much by simply writing “Nike” on their pair.
  5. I’m blaming Traffic Cops for steering my logarithm this way

Watched #27
We’re 26 minutes in and here it is: “You might say that, I couldn’t possibly say that.” Er, hold on. Do you want another go?

House of Cards (Drama Saturday, 7pm) isn’t quite what it was. Andrew Davies’ 1990 Westminster melodrama is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the genre, but something I remembered as resolutely razor sharp doesn’t seem nearly so cutting today. Twenty-four years is a long time in politics. Back then, it seems our lords and masters came and went to the accompaniment of an arm-swinging musical score. Rotund, clubbable chaps shuttling off to Pall Mall, or wherever, ruled over a land of shareholders. These were men, as Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart says, “who have been bred and educated in a tradition of public service and have proved their reliability over long years”. Some of that still holds true now, but although they come from the same stock, today’s political animals are sleeker, more aggressive. Where once FU was a lone predator at the watering hole, today he’d be scrapping with hyenas rather than feasting on ungulates.

This realisation of a different, tamer Westminster makes the character’s kills seem less impressive than they were back in the day.  All it takes to alienate the PM from his allies is to whisper in his ear that the traitor “may be someone very close to you”. Nevertheless, the character of FU still sparkles – despite that odd interlude when he lacquers his hair black and pops on a false moustache to run a mission against the prime minister’s brother. In part we can thank Richardson’s interpretation, which is a morphine drip of charm. For almost all of episode one, there is a smile on his face and an avuncular tinge to his voice. As viewers, we long for those moments he addresses us directly. It’s kind of thrilling being wooed by the old assassin. Through this, we understand the potency of Urquhart’s powers. Davies’ script is also wise to instill a sense of propriety in FU. He is a well-mannered man. A man who sometimes wears a trilby but, nonetheless, has an acquaintance with whoring and heroin. That contrast, in fact, still cuts through.

It’s tempting and mischievous to imply that Netflix’s latter day remake of the concept now out-flanks this old dear, but I don’t honestly think that’s true. Mano-a-mano, Francis would have Frank’s arm twisted up against his back. And, anyway, in 24 years time, Underwood’s Washington will seem as quaint and understandable as Urquhart’s Westminster. Time will take from both of them. But even if a little aged, there’s still something about FU and at 28 minutes, he takes another run. “You may think think that, I couldn’t possibly comment”. He wasn’t as quick as we’d recalled. But still sharper than the rest.

I enjoy political drama, but I’ve recently discovered its close cousin, conspiracy thriller, now turns me off. I came to this realisation when I failed to watch the first series of Utopia (Channel 4 Monday, 10pm). I guess my prejudice boils down to this: In fiction, a conspiracy equates to no more than the script writer withholding information until that arbitrary time comes when they then choose to share it1. Now, that’s a stupid opinion to hold, because all fiction rests on arbitrary revelation. If I continue along this thought, I might turn against everything that doesn’t involve a fixed rig camera and real people going about their real lives. So… into the conspiracy then2.

Happily my scant knowledge about Utopia‘s back story – something about putting shit in someone’s eyeball and a mysterious graphic novel – didn’t impede my enjoyment. I’ll be straight with you, that it was set in the 1970s and presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio had me onside early. The shape of the story, too, felt very much of that decade – albeit subverted. How often did that era present one-off cautionary tales of an idealistic young couple  preyed upon by sophisticates, who’d sap their innocence? Except in this case Milner on one side, and Carvel on the other, are the malevolent forces. I also appreciated the originality in having Tom Burke’s biologist passionately idealistic about something so bleak as genocide. And the bins! Litter, everywhere, 1970s London as it must always be remembered. All in all, it was a finely judged portrayal, to the point the scientists working on the Janus project were sufficiently hairy, but not hairy enough to look like an Open University parody.

Yes, I enjoyed Utopia very much indeed. But I think that’s all I’ll watch. I’ve still no time – no literal time, the hours in the day, the number of thoughts in my head – for fictional conspiracies.

Some other silly bias has also kept me away from The Mimic (Channel 4 Wednesday, 9pm)3 I’m assuming its own story-so-far is less involved… but in fact when I watched this second series opener, my main reaction was to wonder why the show existed at all? What is driving this series? A profound sense of listlessness seeps out of the understated performances, incidental music, direction, script. It was genuinely baffling. Who is the eponymous character Martin? Perhaps he’s supposed to be so resolutely anonymous because he’s always trying to morph into other people. “Imagine if Morgan Freeman was in The Hobbit, though,” he said, teeing up yet another party piece, like a man who’s learnt to juggle and now insists on raiding any fruit bowl he encounters. Oh dear.

The time-jump came. It was “12 hours later” in the final episode of 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) and, as he always does, Jack was finishing up by being kidnapped by one of the many enemy states who have a beef with him. That was a long way from being the best thing about this final hour. The best thing was President Heller – until then a bland amalgam of everything conservative America would hope for in their leader – reflecting on the death of Audrey and his own slow demise to dementia. Two brilliant, devastatingly economic lines. “I won’t remember anything that happens today. I won’t remember anything, period”.

  1. I think it was that spate of high-concept US shows about six or seven years ago that tipped me over – with everyone expected to scurry around, digging up fictional clues to a fictional thing that could potentially change on the whim of a programme’s production team.
  2. Albeit only because an unlikely named fellow tweeted OTT to suggest I try.
  3. The same guy from the above footnote also suggested I look at it.

Watched #26
“I only pleaded guilty because I was scared of joint enterprise”. But by the time Johnjo O’Shea says this in Jimmy McGovern’s one-off, Common (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) we’ve long since got the point.

You can’t take it away from the writer – it’s commendable to highlight a seemingly perfunctory but lethal element in British law, a doctrine of shared culpability that can ensnare the innocent with the guilty. But in doing so, I think he too often deserts the drama. There was an earnestness and simplicity in Common that played out like an educational film. Almost every element of the production served as a tributary, trickling into the main theme: that joint enterprise is flawed. Adrian Johnston’s mournful incidental music lamented it. The dialogue underlined it (“It’s about getting working class scum off the street!”). The direction shone a light on it – literally when Johnjo was locked in a cell and walked with hunched shoulders into the one illuminated shaft of dust.

On the few occasions it deviated from course, Common felt as though it was finally letting in some of the messiness of real life. The scene where a murdered teen’s mum, Margaret, and an undertaker talked awkwardly about funeral arrangements was affecting. “It has to be a white one [coffin] because his friends want to write little messages on it”, she said. It’s probably “little messages” that did it, an odd phrase with the cadence of something a person might actually say, rather than a writer’s polemic. Rather than Detective Inspector Hastings roaring: “It’s called joined enterprise you know, and I love it!”

Documentary Guilty By Association (BBC1 Monday, 10.35pm) followed the next night. “For every family who sees joint enterprise as a threat to the liberty of their loved ones,” said narrator Lesley Sharp, “there are others who believe it was their only way of securing justice.” The debate is more complicated and nuanced than we might expect after Common. And despite detailing the tragedies of families on both sides, the language within was measured. Even placid. Francis FitzGibbon, QC, calls joint enterprise a “drift net”. Sally Halsall, whose son Alex is sentenced to life, says “they don’t have to find out, out of the four, who did it. It makes [the prosecution's] job easier, really, doesn’t it?” She has that thing on the wall, the thing you see everywhere: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Do you understand John Bishop? I’m not making a cheap-shot about his accent, I mean, do you understand what he is? I get he’s a solid stand-up, but I’m not sure why he’s an industry. What is it about him that makes people – thousands of people – want to watch him perform, rather than another equally capable comic? What’s his high concept?

Whatever it is, the BBC can see it, and so we have John Bishop’s Australia (BBC1 Monday, 9pm) a documentary which is founded on a strong premise. In 1992, desperate to forestall thoughts of marriage and settling into a career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Bishop set off to Australia to cycle across the country. Back then, he completed the journey head down. He returns now determined to see more than tarmac. Which, obviously, he does. He’s got a camera crew with him and there’s abseiling, milking venomous snakes and visiting a hospital for koala bears. But it’s all filtered through Bishop’s weirdly downbeat personality. “The first European settlers saw the Blue Mountains as the edge of civilisation,” he says in a dour tone. “And today, it feels like my first step into wild Australia. I’m about to try an activity that I’ve both fancied and feared for a very long time.” That reads well, but in the show it has all the gusto of an answerphone message. John Bishop is finding Australia, but I still can’t find John Bishop.

I have a memory of a long ago Wogan. A well-spoken girl, aged around 14, was along to talk about… her new book? Her unlikely newspaper column? I’m not sure. She fired off a stream of well-crafted lines, which, nonetheless, died. Jason Donovan then joined Terry and her, and from that point on, chaos. The audience, heavily stacked with more young girls, screamed and screamed. Terry asked Jason if he had any regrets. I’m not sure what Jason said, but the same question was then addressed to the girl, who made a comical remark that her biggest shame had been wearing that dress to a party on… some specific date that gave the joke verisimilitude. The witticism, yanked from her brain where it had been happily swimming around, lay there flapping. Meantime, screams of, “Jason!” and, “I love you!”

Believe me, I think of this during every one of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s intros and outros on Only Connect (BBC4 Monday, 8.30pm). In her case the lack of obvious approval is because there’s no audience physically present to give it1. But she has the same delivery as that girl; posh, wry, confident. The way her head vibrates slightly, almost in disbelief at her own wit. I wonder if maybe she was that girl who floundered upon verdant Shepherd’s Bush Green. Most likely not2, but I still think Victoria Coren Mitchell is great. And I think Only Connect is great too, despite the fact this year’s championship was again decided in the MS SNGV WLS round3

I am going somewhere with this. I’m heading towards the hope that when Only Connect reappears on BBC2 for the next run, it’ll  be allowed to continue in the same wonderfully prim, smart-arse form, doing that slightly embarrassing mind-meld of high-culture and ‘We’re drinking!’ jokes. Even if it’s being barracked by an audience calling for more obvious pleasures.

  1. Other than the players, but they’re too preoccupied formulating a limp response to the “What did you do to prepare for tonight’s quiz?” question
  2. Actually, yes! After this was published, the wonderful Simon Tyers tweeted me this video link. So, it was Victoria (actually aged 17) with Jason, albeit on an edition of Wogan presented by Sue Lawley. The whole episode is a weird kind of symposium on successful youths, and involves Victoria and Jason debating the death sentence. The audience are as badly-behaved as I remember, Sue getting quite grumpy. Victoria’s gag about regret is 24.15 in, if you want to see how accurately I remembered it, or just click here to jump straight to it.
  3. It’s the one element of the show that doesn’t feel of apiece with the rest – they could throw in an observation round, and it would make as much sense

Watched #25
Edge of Darkness (BBC4 Monday, 10pm) doesn’t need any help from me. And it didn’t need any help from the continuity announcer either, who casually sauntered over the drama’s first big shock (so prepare to look away, because I’m going to quote what she said) before fading up the show: “When a policeman’s daughter is shot dead in front of him, he vows to find her killer. Politics, conspiracy and some violent scenes now on BBC4, in classic BBC drama from the 1980s, The Edge of Darkness.” Yes, with an erroneous ‘The’ tagged onto the title too. Edge of Darkness didn’t need that either. It is, already,  definitive.

But it’s been a while since I watched it. First time around was, I think, a repeat showing some time in the early 1990s wherein it was as thrilling and as bleak and clever as I’d heard it was. Then again on video, on DVD… until I got rid of all my videos and DVDs figuring everything comes around again. And I’m so glad to see it. Shot in beautiful shades of blue on ageless film stock, we’re far enough away from the 1980s  for its world to feel, less like the past, but a whole other reality. It’s a beautifully drawn place where an impassioned Michael Meacher stands at the fulcrum of a group of dynamic and politically motivated students and the CND logo has a fearfully weighty relevance. It’s also a place where our leading man – Ronnie Craven – owns an AGA, but remains one of the proletariat, eating ratatouille from a can.

It’s all so good, in fact, it now nearly feels like cliche. Take the character of Pendleton played by Charles Kay. He’s the epitome of what so many political dramas try for, a charming but oblique civil servant who portends danger. We’ve seen his type so many times since. Meanwhile, Martin Kennedy directs with a real swash; roaming cameras and tons of crane shots. From thereon in, that’s how everyone’s tried to do it. And the music by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen sounds so hungry for the drama, today it borders on parody. When the urgent piano riff kicks in at the end, and a container train leaves London, it still works like an endorphin rush. You almost bodily know you’ve seen something brilliant.

But there’s one element that hasn’t ever been replicated – Bob Peck’s performance. He brings a stillness and a real certainty to Craven. And it’s unfancy, Peck forging on straight ahead through every scene. His hawkish face and the slight whistle on his ‘s’ sounds makes him seem almost predatory.

Let’s leave it there before I embarrass all of us with this florid praise. And, good grief, we’re still yet to properly meet Darius Jedburgh.

I’ll make small potatoes out of the fact that, earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to go along to the Monty Python thing at the O2. But it does give context to what follows. And that’s Imagine… (BBC1 Sunday, 10.35pm) in which Alan Yentob – because it was he – met up with the performers as they readied for their 10-night farewell comeback (if that makes any sense). Perhaps minded the BBC hadn’t won the rights to televise the Python’s last stand (Gold Sunday 20th, everyone), this documentary seemed adamant to dull the appetite for the revival, opening with 1999 clips of the Pythons variously talking about how embarrassing it would be if these old farts tried to get it together again. Cut from that to Eric idle and John Cleese napping on a sofa. Cut to a PR counseling them in the green room of Loose Women that they’re really excited to be back together. “I’m not entirely sure they can pull this off,” fretted Yentob in voiceover, never getting around to actually putting his worries to any of the participants.

Actually, that was probably because Yentob was too busy going in search of himself. Trying to leaven more Alan into the documentary, as if this was a subject that could only hold interest when refracted through his prism of Alan-ness. He might say he’d authored this piece. But it was more like a protracted bout of photobombing.

And then there was another type of artillery, John Cleese – who has has become quite the worst spokesperson for the group – bazook-ing any goodwill by banging on about his alimony, the press (“Treacherous British newspapers”, as if he’s owed some kind of loyalty) and even bad-mouthing the canon. “Oh sketches that I’m excited about doing? Hmm. None.”

Ignore that. Against all reasonable expectation, at least as far as I’m concerned, the Monty Python stage show is triumphant. I even felt emotional. Alan and John, say no more.

Last month I moaned that The Complainers on Channel 4 was based on a spurious pretext. One might be tempted to level the same accusation at 1964 (PBS America Wednesday, 9pm), a feature-length documentary by Stephen Ives, predicated on the fact it’s, well, 50 years since 1964. But that’s undue flippancy on my part. As Ives effectively lays out, this was a coming of age year for American politics, pivoting on Lyndon B Johnson bulldozing the Civil Rights Act into existence. Compiling a piece like this, of course you’re only going to pull upon elements that feed into the central narrative, but it was still an utterly compelling thesis. This was the year the Beatles met Cassius Clay (“Who were those sissies?” he asked when they left), The Feminine Mystique became a best-seller, there were riots in Harlem, the KKK killed three Freedom Summer campaigners and Sam Cooke sung A Change is Gonna Come. Ives calmly talks us through each, a reasoned voice in a storm of activity.

It’s a sad story too. LBJ, the most progressive and liberal president the country had seen, signs a memo to commit American troops to Vietnam, and commits himself to ignominy in history. But that’s more the story of 1968. I’ll happily be there for that come the anniversary.

The Secret Life of Students (Channel 4 Thursday, 10pm) follows freshers at Leicester University, cleverly mapping their social media interactions into the story. It’s very neat, texts, tweets and Facebook updates bobbing up into the picture, following the slant of a kerb, meshing with the environment. “I went home crying xxx” says one, appearing like a passing street sign. That’s the good bit. What I wasn’t so sure of was the way the programme baits you into sitting in judgement on the participants. I don’t want to do that. Not the ones who give their drinking game “a Nazi twist”. Not, Aiden who “loves his banter” and tells us he “loves pushing the boundaries on Facebook and Twitter” as if there’s some worth in that. I don’t want to feel a subsequent secret prickly pleasure when he’s diagnosed with an STD. He texts his pals, trying to turn the situation into capital for his boundary-pushing persona: “Got chlamydia banter”. Tempting, but no.

Watched #24
There was once a time when telly tried to standardise how everything appeared. I don’t mean by giving everyone the same hairstyle. I’m talking about something far more boring. I’m talking about how it treated footage that came from disparate sources, squidging it and colouring it so it all looked the same. On the occasions a documentary was forced to utilise something that had been caught on home video, it would apologetically hang a caption over it.

But some time recently that stopped being an issue, and now you’ll find shows made up of back-to-back 144p resolution YouTube video. In some cases, the variance in stock has become positively fetishised. That was certainly the case with Storyville‘s screening of the 2013 feature-length documentary, The Battle of the Sexes (BBC4 Sunday, 9pm), with cine film trims rattling away between clips, conferring a sense of authenticity upon them. The unwholesome greenness of the NTSC footage had a similar effect. Here we were, way back when.

In 1973, in fact, when Billie Jean King consented to play Bobby Riggs, the man who, in 1939, bet on himself to win the triple at Wimbledon and then did. By the 1970s he’d become a kind of John McCririck figure, referring to himself in the third person and chuckling as he took potshots against women’s rights. At no point did he ever seem to possess any conviction in being a chauvinist, it was more he found it a gloriously funny way of appearing contrary and – more importantly – courting attention.

But this was in a time when Billie Jean King was only considered to be pursuing her tennis career because “as yet [Larry has] not put his foot down about [his wife's] future”. An age when she (and eight other players) were excommunicated from the United States Tennis Association for setting up the first ever professional women’s tennis tour. And when Billie Jean or Margaret Court would have to smile nicely while being asked, “What’s it like to be a spinster on the tennis court?”

Riggs’ huckstering had to stop.

The match between him  and King – a 55-year-old man vs a 29-year-old woman -became the most watched tennis encounter of all time. I’d never heard of it before, but as the lime-hued, 525-lined footage revealed, even John Wayne was there. Alas, on this stage the mix and match approach to film-making finally got under my skin. You didn’t need Hawk-Eye to spot the bits of newly shot fare dropped in between the perfectly serviceable original video of the game. Suddenly there was Billie Jean’s racket in crisp close-up, or the back of Bobby’s head. Coughs of unreality, interrupting the flow. For no real reason.

But there’s me criticising a terrific documentary on the tiniest of details. Like moaning about the ball boy’s posture during a Centre Court final. So let’s cut to the good new which is – SPOILER! – King proved victorious. However, with tennis still being the only sport wherein both genders are now paid equally, I imagine she would say she still hasn’t really won.

Film and video nestled nicely together in a repeat of The New Statesman (ITV Sunday, 10.30pm) as tribute to Rik Mayall. How glorious to begin a sitcom with a grainy film-stocky sweep across the Yorkshire countryside. As Alan B’stard, Mayall feels apiece with the Cameron government; the big hair and the good, gesturing, fist-clenched left arm, punching home the rhetoric. Other bits were pure 1987, including Alan Hawkshaw’s obviously synthesised music and this comment from our antihero: “A whole Jeffrey?” says B’stard. “That’s £2000!” Applause.  But what a treat to recall Mayall at his most majestic. And the time he shared comedy scenes with Peter Sallis.

When I started up this website again – such a day! – and before I hit upon the not-so-high concept of just reviewing some TV shows each week, I lurched it into first gear with a something about Changing Rooms. A programme as influential on others in its genre as any Buffy or Broadchurch. The concept of eeking out jeopardy from the undertaking of home improvements has been a prevalent one on TV ever since. And now one of the big beasts returns to the plain; Linda Barker who hosts the undynamically titled Brand New House for 5K (Channel 5 Wednesday, 8pm).  It’s the same old, but none the worse for that… Actually, that’s not fair. There is a slight tweak. In a knowing conceit, a lot of weight is assigned to the fact  the £5k budget has genuinely been supplied by the homeowners, and nothing is blagged for free in that usual telly way.

And so off we go, with the scurrying and hurrying. Linda a little shrill, a little nervy (that loud laugh) but basically likeable. Often she’s her own disciple, as this week’s couple – Mervyn and Sam – lose  faith in her crazy-tiling plan for the kitchen. It worked out fine in the end though.

If there was one thing I particularly liked about the show, it was Linda’s rough relationship with her builder, the inexplicably nick-named ‘Pooch’. “I need him to be more resourceful,” she confided to camera while he moaned about the project’s lack of funding. In the end she went £33.95 over budget and everyone was basically happy. Except, in my imaginings, Graham Wynne who – I fantasise – was watching along at home, wondering why all the fuss, why it wasn’t him and then making for the door with an “Oh you!” roll of his eyes.

“This isn’t about the drones!” Of course it’s not. 24: Live Another Day (Sky1 Wednesday, 9pm) is now two-thirds done, and there are rules that have to be adhered to. In addition to every episode having some talk about going “dark” and what “play” is available, this is also the point in every series where the current threat gets nicely wrapped up and a new B-story terror emerges. So Jack throws Margot out of a window in Dalston and then finally gets credit from all the governmental types who’ve been doubting him. “I’m safely in my office and I have you to thank,” says the president. Copy that! Now get on your phone again, Jack, and start running…

Watched #23
“Oh Boris!” wails Jeremy Paxman, desperately looking for some grumpy bluster. “This is death!” Here he is, on his last edition of Newsnight (BBC2 Wednesday, 10.30pm) and he’s sharing a tandem with the Mayor of London in the hope comedy will ensue. It’s the kind of escapade put together – as Paxman says – by “some idiot” and founded on the notion both men are in their own ways treasurable.

It’s a wobbly way to wind yourself to the end. Although there’s humorous music underpinning the sequence, further cries of, “Oh Christ!” and, “This is a nightmare!” just reinforce the impression Jeremy’s long since become the workplace grump who, feeling he should be commanding a better gig, rolls his eyes at every initiative forced upon him. Sigh. To make matters worse, Boris Johnson is outpacing him. Challenged about the merits of the Shard, he says he sees it as a “cocktail stick emerging from a super-colossal pickled onion,” which gives his interviewer nothing. “[Jeremy] has kept the nation entertained,” says Johnson, now all-but doing links to camera, “if not always awake for many, many years.” Damn. Another good line.

A little earlier in the programme, and it was indeed Paxman himself unleashing the killers. Tussling with another former sparring partner, Peter Mandelson, he reminded us why – despite the lachrymosity and loftiness – he has been such a trailblazer in the discussion of politics on TV. There was no filler, every question, instead, a skewer. “Do you think Ed Miliband is the best leader you could have?” he asked. And that was the opener.

The show ended with a pile-up of gags. “Michael Howard – did you?”, a final post-credit Paxo-trample on the notion we might find a weather forecast somehow useful, and the profoundly odd spectacle of Jeremy keeping lonely vigil as The New Seekers sang I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing over the end credits. Most people, I think, have responded well to the man’s increasing contrariness over the years. But I’ve seen him more as someone in need of a new lease of life. In my imagination, the lights then came back up and Paxman made straight for the car park. On the way, he endeavored not to catch anyone’s eye and binned the farewell cards in the lobby. Goodnight and goodbye.

I’m deeply prejudiced against improvisation as a form of entertainment. If you’re taking up people’s time, it seems courteous to put some work in to ensure you’ll be doing so in a rewarding fashion. It’s lucky, then, I hadn’t grasped the (lack of) big idea behind Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled (Dave weekdays, 10pm) beforehand. The premise is Davies sits and chats with four guests. He has nothing particularly prepped in the way of questions, this is to be a free-roaming conversation in a pub-like setting1At the end, there’s a tiny bit of admin to deal with, coming up with a ‘name’ for the show. That’s it.

But against all my possible objections, I found it very enjoyable. The lack of preparation, of format points that need to be ‘hit’, brings about a nice tempo of its own. There’s no desperate one-upping of anecdotes as the participants clamber to be at the top of the heap. On Monday night, Davies was joined by Noel Fielding, Jon Ronson, Andrew Maxwell and Kerry Godliman. Jon told a story about being in a restaurant and realising a girl was mimicking the way he ate soup. It didn’t really have a proper ending. There was a bit where Noel was talking about being on the road with the Mighty Boosh. “We saw you on that tour!” interjected the host excitedly as someone might do in real life. No explanation as to who “we” were. At another point Kerry attempted a riff on the kind of comedy haircuts one might ask for: “Yeah, you could go Myra. What else?” and it finished up like that.

Who knew there was pleasure in people talking in such a fashion? Saying funny things, sometimes saying half-funny things, but not having to be productive in their chat. The laughs that then transpire feel all the more honest. And the dynamics… We see Alan’s eyes and nose scrunch up and his head bob when he feels there’s something humorous to be truffled out. There’s Noel, normally always so on it, advancing cautiously: “I don’t know I can even talk about this on television.” And Jon, about to get to the best bit in a tale, covertly communicating the fact that no-one should chip in for a moment by teeing it up with: “This was my favourite part of the whole day.” It’s wall to wall charm. Back at the beginning, Alan even stumbled over his scripted intro.

Pizzicato is TV’s way of signalling we’re in curious territory. The plink-plink of pizzicato strings always accompanies documentaries ‘lifting the lid’ (these things, it seems, come boxed) on eccentric sub-cultures. Thus the plinking plinked throughout The Auction House (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm). Maybe it plinked too much as it didn’t strike me there was anything especially challenging about Lots Road auctioneers in Chelsea, despite the fact overlord Robert Ross was happy to collaborate with the programme makers by describing himself as “the boss, and I always get my way.” Yes, there was some tension between him and his staff, but no real lip-quivering. Not even at a three-foot vagina set in bronze. I liked general manager Martin best, who professed his dislike for every item they currently stocked. For him it all came in varying hues of tedium. “Sometimes,” he began, and then a loud bang. “Sometimes things get broken.”

The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC4 Tuesday, 9pm) detailed a NASA-funded, Caribbean-set project in the mid 1960s, in which a two-storey house was flooded and a girl – Margaret Howe – set up home on the second floor with a dolphin – Peter – in the hope of teaching him to speak English. The couple’s relationship became intimate when Margaret decided it was too much bother to winch him downstairs to be attended to by the females. The experience wasn’t sexual on her part, albeit  “maybe sensual”. Admirably there was no hint of pizzicato. Instead those behind the camera kept their distance. The story documented was incredible enough. A tale of an undoubtedly good-hearted but massively wrong-headed endeavour, of course it came off the rails, with presiding scientist John Lilly deciding to dope up his creatures on LSD. Just to see.

It’s not the thing in a review to say something as straight ahead as “you should watch this show”. But you really should. It’s available here until the 24th.

  1. Because this is Dave, the chirpily-named channel that is yet to cancel its Loaded subscription

Watched #22
“Some of them are just delusional!” Ah yes, this is my World Cup. Just a couple of weeks after Ping lifted the trophy, we’re now into the exhibition match that is Celebrity MasterChef (BBC1 Tuesday and Thursday). Don’t worry, laboured football puns will stop here – in the main because I had to tweet just for someone to confirm that “exhibition match” is indeed the term I was searching for. But really, this is as close to TV sport as I get, and I love the conspired jeopardy that is MasterChef. Sophie Thompson’s monkfish dish has to be “served to perfection”. Meanwhile, “on the meat section, Susannah [Constantine] has to make sure her venison saddle is cooked to the right temperature”.

It’s not quite the same as regular or professional MasterChef, that’s true. There’s a slight strained air of everyone flapping around and exasperating their own uselessness, but that is soon dispensed with.  What remains remarkably clever about the flame-flavoured version of the franchise is the way the competition sneaks up on everyone – contestants and viewers alike. At the beginning, when Jodie Kidd, Russell Grant, Todd Carty and Sophie and Susannah are rounding the corner into MasterChef HQ, no one – in all honesty – can expected to be that committed. But as the rounds go by, and someone does a tidy julienne (accompanied by a dip in the music) while someone else burns their hand and someone else moves Gregg into a little greedy chuckle, we’ve undergone a process of indoctrination. Before I know it, I’m giving a massive flying fig about whether or not Sophie’s mousse would set in time. That’s despite the fact she always seems to know where the camera is.

At the end of the first episode, Todd was off and I approved. It wasn’t just that he’d used my personal bête noire twice – joshing “no pressure” to indicate the opposite – but that he’d employed shop-bought meringue too.

“No, no, no. I’m speaking. I’m speaking. No, I’m speak… No, I’m speaking. Yeah, no, yeah, no, I’m speaking.” The words, there, of “super-complainer” Ian Walker. Ian lives in Birkenhead and he’s unemployed – something that’s constantly restated over this week’s episode (the third) of The Complainers (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm). Ian is on the phone to a utility company he has a quarrel with, and makes a noise about involving his “legal team”. But he doesn’t have a legal team. Ian, remember, is unemployed. Nonetheless, one wonders if his imaginary lawyers are now drafting a stiff letter to the programme makers whose depiction of their not-actual-client, and all featured therein, feels a little contemptuous1. Although Ian, one of three complainants featured this week, is speaking, after the event he’s thoroughly filleted. We first meet him as he’s moving house, loading his “complaints cabinet” onto a shopping trolley. The director assiduously chooses to include every moment the thing crunches at a doorway or a kerb. “Fucking hell!” rumbles Ian, unaware we’re about to cut to a shot showing his boxers creeping out of his trousers.

And so it continues: “Ian is currently unemployed after being fired from nine different call centres. Now he spends his time complaining.” Then: “With time on his hands, unemployed Ian has started complaints with 15 different utility companies.” More? “Ian is still without a job, so girlfriend Holly has applied for a payday loan.”

The big idea of the programme is that “every second in the UK, someone somewhere is complaining”, which is as focussed a notion as saying every second in the UK, someone somewhere is reclining. But that show’s title alone is a gem, and of course we want to observe the likes of Ian and also Chris from Rawtenstall and Gaby from Stamford Hill getting annoyed at people down the phone. However for me, the real interest lay at the other end of the conversation and those call centres. Here there are white boards with buzzwords like “courage” and “openness” written on them. And there are resolution managers and motivational posters – E.ON has one that declares: “We’re making our customers feel good about energy”. So much effort devoted to placation and reassurance. I think that is the more intriguing mindset. But back to Ian. “Recently he’s fallen out with his GP, been banned from his local supermarket and made a complaint against a brand of crisps.”

Was ever a programme as perfunctorily named as Traffic Cops (BBC1 Monday, 10.35pm)? It drops in and out of the schedules, the BBC firing up the blues and twos seemingly on a whim. This episode was called – because they all have titles – ‘We’ve Got Runners’. But I like the show, I like the (bad pun) pedestrianism of it all, from Jamie Theakston’s unfancy commentary (baddies referred to as “the lad”) to the matter-of-fact exchanges between police and public. “Oh, have I taken something tonight?” paraphrases one young woman absentmindedly. “Heroin”. Another guy has hidden drugs up his backside, which are recovered courtesy of a policeman’s gloved index finger. Afterwards it’s: “What drink do you want?”/”Cup of tea, please”.

And then there’s The Mindy Project (E4 Tuesday, 9.30pm), which takes place in a whole other world, one I don’t understand but which Entertainment Weekly leads me to believe is somehow vital. What is the situation underpinning this comedy? I don’t know, but it’s super-perky and actually, there are a couple of great lines – Mindy responding to a wedding proposal with, “I want to Vine this,” and a middle-aged women (I’m sorry, I’m not great with names) venturing: “What’s the big deal? I masturbate all the time. I did during this discussion”.  I’ve series-linked.

  1. To the point of it using this piece of music, also often heard on The Hotel Inspector to similarly connote less than complimentary things about the week’s subjects

22 episodes of Pointless
I’ve got 22 episodes of Pointless sat on my digi-box. I’ve been chiseling away at them as much as possible. I’m defined by the fact I’ve never missed a single one. There was a week where that stack towered above 30, all of them a ‘do’ on a to-do list. A couple of nights purposefully Pointless-ing back-to-back helped.

TV-watching can be stressful. But I believe that can be made worse by Twitter. At times, I feel like it’s trying to micro-manage my viewing. I was watching a show the other week and when it came to the first break, I looked online. Scrolling back, it turned out that a minute earlier someone had posted a screen-grab of a scene from the programme, with a line to the effect that here was where the episode pivoted. Scrolling further, the same person had preceded that with a remark teeing up the fact we were about to get a scene where, yes, the episode pivoted.

It made me think about the mechanics of this. A  journalist with access to a preview copy, who’s watched it, enjoyed it, grabbed an image to deploy – just so – upon transmission. It took some forethought and organisation, certainly. Some imagination. One could argue they were using Twitter with panache. But in addition to trying to steer (or maybe even trump) discussion about the programme, it was also a tacit way of communicating their privileged access to it.

That’s a fussy detail I’ve spent two paragraphs outlining. But it was the thing that set me thinking about writing this post. The last two or three years have seen the rise of the ‘non-spoilery’ preview followed by the instant ‘spoilery’ review upon transmission of hot-button TV shows. I have to confess, I find it a bit wearing. The sheer acquisitiveness. As if websites are trying to plant their flag in these programmes. As if we can’t be afforded the space to make up our own minds first. As if we need another bit of admin to  take care of after watching something. The counter-argument to my gripes, of course, is that I’m under no obligation to read either the ‘non-spoilery’ or ‘spoilery’ variants. Which is true, but I’m still being nagged to do so by My timeline. Unfollow, then? Even though I feel that’s actually the passive response, it’s still not considered to be very friendly.

But while I wag my finger, I should confess I’m a sinner too. Look at this…

What exactly did that tell the world? Only that, yes, I’d managed to get along to the preview screening and - nnerr! – I’d seen Capaldi’s debut before you. I was simply boasting. Planting my flag. A  friend rightfully stopped following me for that. By coincidence, I spotted that and managed to persuade him back. I’ve checked; he’s still with me and he’s a useful presence out there, sat in my notional audience. In my mind, he will sometimes shake his head ‘no’ before I hit the button.

Today’s blog post has been prepared in advance, like that screen-grab tweet, because I’m currently taking a fortnight off. But I still wanted to provide something to read on OTT on a Friday when I would normally be punting up my review of four shows from the week. Those reviews go online with a good deal of space – hours, mostly days – between the end credits and my opinionating. Maybe that space means I’m sacrificing vitality, and that I’m not taking advantage of the online form. But I’d still rather you had time to gather your thoughts first before I pushed mine at you.

  • Graham Kibble-White is on holiday. Normal service will resume next Friday.

Re) Watched
Buried on this server is the old version of OTT, the one that ran from 1999 to 2010, and was written by many hands. I counted, and there are in the region of 670 TV reviews sat in the archive.

This is the first week of my fortnight off writing about the last seven days of telly, but I wanted to maintain some reason for folk to visit the site of a Friday. And so, I’ve taken a brisk trawl through that 670-or-so pieces to pick out 10 of my favourites. This isn’t a definitive list, please don’t get grumpy. I’ve been working backwards from 2010, and only got to 2005, so there’s still plenty more to do.

Until then, why not have a look at…

Richard and Judy (Watch, 2009) – Ian Jones demolishes the duo’s last ever episode after their unsuccessful move to the higher numbers on the EPG. I particularly like the way he employs quite a lofty metaphor: “There is a Sispyhean air to proceedings.”

Grange Hill (BBC1, 2008) – And here’s Ian again marking another, equally unloved and now forgotten, ending as the once seminal school saga flounced off our screens forever.

Noel’s HQ (Sky 1, 2008) – Jack Kibble-White gets to the nub of what’s wrong here: “Right from the outset… it presumes the viewers share the programme’s central thesis – that red tape (and by extension political correctness), is suffocating this great country.”

The IT Crowd (Channel 4, 2007) – TJ Worthington communicates real joy and excitement at the comedy’s second series. “The IT Crowd has gone beyond the novelty value of being a breath of comedic fresh air, and is establishing itself – or in fact probably already has – as a great series in its own right.”

Tycoon (ITV1, 2007) – Okay, I wrote this one, which is bad form. But I link to it more because the world deserves to be reminded of Peter Jones’ ill-fated South Bank-based assault on Alan Sugar’s empire. That and Frukka.

It Started With Swap Shop (BBC2, 2006) – Steve Williams captures a more pleasing side to Noel, and manages to quantify the sheer excitement of Saturday morning telly.

Prime Suspect (ITV1, 2006) – It’s another last-ever episode. It must be Ian Jones, then, and this time he’s impressed: “This was television drama of the highest and noblest of orders.”

The Outsiders (ITV1, 2006) – Remember this one? Rob Buckley is, it has to be said, terribly kind to something that was a monstrous misfire.

The Apprentice (BBC2, 2006) – Series two, in case you need some orientation, and Chris Hughes responds to, and writes brilliantly about, the show. And that’s how you build to a neat closing line. [NB. Also see Chris' take on The Apprentice USA]

Cheers (Channel 4, 2004) – Cameron Borland always wrote the most scathing, acerbic reviews. But also the most joyous.

  • Next Friday: I write a grumpy post about a thing. And it starts like this…

22 episodes of Pointless

Watched #21
In a hedging my bets kind of way, two weeks ago I inferred the second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) might not be quite so good as the first. I recant. The show is different, but it’s still terrific. My fear was that opening up the story was bringing in too many other elements – specifically a quasi-religious cult and a nascent political party. In a small way, my worries were exactly the kind of thing this series parodies. I didn’t want the drama’s fictional town of Roarton to change.

Granted, some of those parodies aren’t very subtle. Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers made to work unpaid for the community in a ‘Give Back’ scheme? Distrust being sown about those who depend upon the welfare state? An MP from a single issue party making capital with popular fears? You don’t have to scratch too hard to see the real-world parables. But there’s no reason why satire shouldn’t be overt. What makes In The Flesh particularly effective is the way so much else is brilliantly understated.

It’s an undead drama set in an aggregate-rendered world. Where PDS sufferers have to wear high-visibility jackets with ‘I’m PDS and I’m giving back’ written in the jolly Casual font on the back, or where undead Freddie camps out at his ex-wife’s “next door in the guest bedroom with [her new husband's] vinyl collection”. This approach – a domestication of horror – is best summed up by B&B owner Sandra. “Last thing we need is a Second Rising,” she sniffs. “We had enough trouble with the first”.

The other thing that strikes me about the show is very few of the characters feel like the kind of archetypes who would be useful in a zombie drama. Okay, Simon Monroe1, one of the 12 disciples of the Undead Prophet, is probably the most geared up, talking in a fairly declamatory fashion and specifically on a mission to freak people out. Then there’s Amy who, with her one-liners and Violet Elizabeth Bott dresses, feels like the writer and wardrobe department are a little too taken with her. However, look at Kieren’s parents, particularly his dad Steve. They’re  forever, and somewhat powerlessly, trying to put a sunny spin on things (Steve, passing the local paper over, reads out the headline: “‘The Give Back scheme – a winner’!”). In a similar vein there’s Philip, always destined to be someone else’s lieutenant, and cursed with enough self-awareness to know he’s lacking the kind of charisma he needs to fulfil his ambitions. And of course, Kieren himself. Our leading man is mostly on the back foot, allowing himself to be buffeted by events. By the end of this week’s episode he is finally taking the initiative, but he’s been a slow starter.

So I’m going to stop worrying about changes in Roarton, because in fact all of the new arrivals have been good for the show. In The Flesh has just won a Bafta, but BBC3 as we currently know it, will soon be gone. I’m sure at least one of them will rise again.

If A Poet in New York (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) is an accurate reflection, Dylan Thomas – played here by Tom Hollander – died from over-indulgence. He over-indulged in booze, while those around him saw his genius as reason to be over-indulgent of his excesses. This film, which cannily composited our man on 21st century Welsh balconies into 1950s uptown New York, tested my patience. In fact, it made me bilious. I didn’t like a single character in the production and as the self-pitying, self-important Thomas poured another drink and intoned another weighty truth about life, I got the sweats.

It’s probably an indication of how shallow I am that I found far more to enjoy in the pronouncements of the fictional Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) in Penny Dreadful (Sky Atlantic Tuesday, 9pm). Some of his lines were peaches: “Do not be amazed at anything you see.” And: “To save her, I would murder the world.” The latter was in reference to his missing daughter, Mina. And with that piece in place, you can take a stab (which happens a lot in this) at the game the show is playing. Like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic-book series The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, it’s a pea souper of a tale mixing together out of copyright characters from Victorian fiction. I enjoyed it a lot. Although, in reality, a lot of chasing and fighting, it was earnestly done. Some subverted religious iconography, eloquent dialogue and a turn from Simon Russell Beale flattered our intellect. That and the fact everything was in burgundy, the short-hand colour for quality and richness. I’m buying.

Which leads us rather too neatly into Four Rooms (Channel 4 Sunday, 7pm), back for a fourth series. Its stock of dealers has changed over the years, beginning with four, 12 last time around and now settling upon eight. We meet half of their number this week: Gordon Watson, Celia Sawyer, Alex Proud and David Sonnenthal. The game continues, that little drum roll upon every cash offer and the pun-filled narration (“Will the colour of Alex’s money match John’s palette?”). Fastidious Gordon is my favourite, and I like the bit where he asks a man flogging a Joshua Reynolds’, “Would £30,000 make you less crazy?” David, meanwhile, is painted as more of a bruiser. “Don’t really know much about baroque angel wings,” he says, possibly speaking for us all, “but I like ‘em and I want ‘em.”

  • I’m taking a fortnight off reviewing TV shows, but I’ve concocted a couple of ‘emergency’ features which – if I know how to work this thing properly – will appear on the site over the next two Fridays. Here’s a peep at next week’s…

Re) Watched

  1. Who reminds me a lot of Brookside‘s own cult leader, the similarly named Simon Howe. Coincidence?