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 #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
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”

Back in the olden days, when lots of people wrote this site, we would all collaborate on an end of year TV review. The first went up – can you believe this? – 15 years ago. Ah, 1999. “Of course,” wrote Jack Kibble-White and Ian Jones1,” the phenomenon of the year has been ITV’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

From there up until 2009, no matter who was in charge of wrangling the thing together, there would always be a self-conscious mention of the Chris Tarrant quizzer, making it OTT’s marker buoy upon the changing tides of television. In 2014, it sunk beneath the waves forever with a couple of celebrity episodes and a clip show. Few noticed. There wasn’t any brouhaha, despite the bait of an easy ‘Final Answer’ headline.

2014, according to many, has been an exceptional year for British TV. Who Wants to be a Millionaire? doesn’t merit a mention. There’s been so much good stuff, I’ve successfully avoided quite a few of the biggest hitters2. Internet orthodoxy tells me  you no longer want to read an 8,000-word essay on the things I did watch. And luckily that’s not what I want to write. So, here are 10 of my favourite small screen viewing experiences from the the last 12 months3 in no particular order.


I’m not going to make any claim towards greatness in my selection. And in many respects this show – which squeezed out two series over 2014 – has little that’s truly commendable about it, other than in becoming a final stronghold for that much diminished phrase, ‘the wow-factor’. It’s people doing up other people’s homes. Host Tom Dychkhof asks each contestant exactly the same question in staggered interviews, the music cues are similarly repetitive and judge Daniel Hopwood wears intriguing trousers. But I find all of that reassuring, and I watched episodes at a time.


It’s true the series is perhaps lurching from one communities-at-war scenario to another, but it’s during the journeys in between it really impresses. The episode, ‘The Grove’, is utterly astonishing and in Carol Peletier, actress Melissa Suzanne McBride has the best female role on TV.


Looking at it from this end of the year, it appears smaller, somehow. Perhaps it was Jed Mercurio’s decision to yet again close out the series with a slate of captions telling us, in the past tense, what became of everyone. There’s no vitality in that. But think hard, and you’ll remember, Keeley Hawes’ amazing central performance and the brutality both dished out by and upon her character, DI Denton. Grey-faced and in a cheap grey suit, but luminescent. A beacon from last winter.


Rangy, calm and always carrying a medium slung satchel, I think Russell Norman is a proper TV find, and the type of personality who’ll be leading lifestyle programmes on either BBC2 or C4 (because, they must come calling) into the 2020s. Another series that has no claim on originality (C4’s Risking it All did this 10 years ago), it saw Russell advising new restaurateurs. In one case the proposed businesses never made it to opening day. Another saw a tea shop set up in a tiny village in Rugby. Our man cautioned the owners there wouldn’t be enough trade to make it sustainable – but it was an instant smash. Each episode, nonetheless, was terrific. So much so, I didn’t even feel cross when Russell wore a scarf indoors.


There’s another art show coming up in this list. I’ve always enjoyed people talking about their creative process, I guess. In this instance, I’m not highlighting the entire series. Despite its merits, I only watched one episode – the instalment in which we spent a night with Frank Quiteley while he illustrated page 13 of issue four of comic book Jupiter’s Legacy. These felt like private minutes with the man, who spoke well about the mechanics of what he does. “You do a lot of thinking in order for the reader not to.”


Written by TV newcomer Chris Lunt, it’s hard to imagine, in synopsis form, what made ITV commission this police drama. On the surface, it seems to offer nothing new – a cop is framed for the murder of his wife and one of his sons and goes on the run, while also attempting to a) catch the real killer and b) clear his own name. But the characterisation was surprising. Okay, yes, John Simm as Marcus Farrow was driven and intense as we’d expect, but also emotionally vulnerable. His pursuer, Susan Reinhart (Rosie Cavaliero) was arguably more interesting. So often in TV we’re invited to spend time with people who are better than us; gifted. She, though, was unglamorous, only reasonably witted and the type of person who’d spend time on Facebook checking up on her ex. It felt like a genre show being kitted out with non-genre personnel.


I’m cheating by wodging two programmes in together, but the comparative titles and subject matters do make these seem like book-ends. And both exec-produced by Caroline Wright. Obviously, I’m going to be drawn to documentaries rooting through the innards of TV – particularly workaday TV as explored in the first example, which sported a credit for my good friend and breakfast telly author Ian Jones. Cue Frank!: “Last time we had dinner, can we now have lunch, to talk about breakfast?” The second saw Michael Grade, who doesn’t have the easiest on-screen persona, cackle and gossip with old industry rivals about the scraps they got into in the competition for Saturday night viewers. Any programme that acknowledges Game for a Laugh as the seismic influence it was upon television is good with me.

THE SHIELD (Amazon Instant Video)

It’s not good news for LOVEFiLM’s successors that I just had to Google their name. And, okay, The Shield finished in 2008, but I only got around to watching it this summer. There’s a lot to resist in the series. The set design is atrocious, Vic Mackey’s Strike Team seems juvenile (they even have a crappily written ‘STRIKE TEAM ONLY! (That means you, Asshole!)’ on their club house door), the nomenclature is terrible (it’s based in somewhere named Farmington, and their police division is called The Barn) and the opening titles and music are horribly garish. But it’s full of so many surprises. Michael Chiklis’ bruiser Mackey is excessively sentimental, apparent comedic foil ‘Dutch’ Wagenbach is often shown to be a genuinely gifted cop, and the show’s writers prove unafraid of regularly altering and, at times, inverting the series’ status quo. Plotted to within an inch of its life, I’d go so far as to say it has the best final episode of any series ever.


Originally screened in art cinemas as An Honest Liar, this acquisition by the BBC’s Storyville strand looked at the life and times of magician and mythbuster James Randi. The man himself is hard-wired to entertain, and so made for an excellent, eloquent subject. Told almost in chapterised form, we followed Randi through his years as a performer, then a hoax artist and persistent irritant to Uri Geller (who nonetheless contributes to the film). The section where our hero discusses how he nobbled the spoon-bender’s appearance on The Tonight Show is a particular favourite. But at the heart of the thing there’s one more surprising layer to be peeled back…


The genius of this programme is its decision to base an art competition on portraiture. Because we can all have an opinion on a portrait. Now in its second series, the discussion around each artist’s merits feels more useful than ever before, with presenter Joan Bakewell openly stating her lack of enthusiasm in one of the show’s finalists, and Frank Skinner leading a discussion in an earlier heat about why all of the competitors failed to capture sportswoman Non Evans’ likeness. And, much as there’s something intrinsically televisual about The Great British Bake Off‘s hopefuls peering into their ovens, it turns out that following the creation of a piece of art makes for supremely satisfying viewing. Who knew?

There we have it, in no way definitive but 10 shows4 from 2014 that I’ve particularly enjoyed.

Like last January, the plan now is that when 2015 arrives, I’ll once again embark on a series of weekly reviews – until other commitments get in the way. In the meantime, if you feel so moved, please feel free to comment below on which programmes you rate from the last 12 months. Merry Christmas, one and all!

  1. More of us would jump in for subsequent instalments
  2. Only now am I doing the second series of The Fall, I might try Happy Valley over Christmas, but I’m still awaiting counseling for my James Nesbitt aversion, meaning The Missing will remain so in my house
  3. MasterChef and Pointless accepted, my devotion to both will never waiver. And as for Doctor Who, you can read what I think about that – in nigh-on-8,000-word-essay form – here
  4. Okay, 11

Watched #29
“The usual Scottish greeting: ‘You’ll have had your tea?'” This is Dr Bill Ayles, dressed in three-piece Harris tweed,  brimming with the wisdom of a long life. He’s surrounded by paintings in his home on Edinburgh’s grandest street, the Moray Estate. He, in fact, looks rather like a painting. He has a storybook face, too good, too archetypal to be someone living now. There’s a portrait of his children, they’re doe-eyed, captured – again – in some place only known to history. “Richard – he died… It was a blow”. A picture of his wife. “Happy, very happy,” he chuckles. She’s now in a nursing home. Bill gently redirects the conversation, dabbing at his nose with a hankie. Looking at all his keepsakes: “I’m lucky to have it all”. But he’s a man left alone. “Now, you said you would like a drink. What would you like?”

The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC1 Friday, 9pm) has swept back onto TV. It begins with all the drama and promise of stepping into a grandly appointed hallway. Steven Mackintosh’s immaculate voice-over and the stirring music capturing  and then ushering us onwards, through mazes of corridors, new discoveries around every corner. The show is blessed with one of those simple concepts – peeling back the history of a thoroughfare – that simultaneously offers up amazing detail and understandable complications.

This episode, set among Edinburgh’s elite, could have won easy points by skewering the toffs and their privileges, yet it did anything but. People like Dr Bill Ayles – quiet people – were allowed their moment, or allowed not to take their moment (the route Bill mostly opted for). “Do you ever imagine what it must have been like when they would have balls in this room?” asks the filmmaker to Katy, having taken the time to set up a projector to splay archive footage of courtly dancing across her 19th century ceiling. “Not really, no,” she replied. Another sequence featured Patrick and Henrietta. She moved the wheelie bin out of view for their stately to-camera shot. Later we saw her crinkle into her hatchback: “Such a killing little thing”. As you can probably tell, I like these little incidents very much. Slightly comic, sometimes, but full of dignity.

One boggles at the man-hours involved in this programme; the amount of ferreting through historical documents and maps. How long was the line of inquiry that resulted in someone coming across a 1961 BBC schools’ programme covering the 1822 Feuing Plan Of Drumsheugh? The detail. Still more detail.

At the end of the hour the doughty residents of the Moray Estate lined up for a final magnificent crane shot. As they waved goodbye, one of the old guys took up his walking stick like a shot gun. As if we were the grouse, because that’s his life and that’s his sense of humour. Next week Secret History is in Duke Street, Glasgow. Another avenue, another line of doors. Another massive story winding through.

Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home (Channel 4 Sunday, 7pm) also aims for a sort of global view of things, literally when inventor Tom Lawton sends a camera attached to a weather balloon up to the edge of space. Tom’s got very blue eyes and ruffled-handsome-man’s hair. He talks with a smile to someone just off-camera and says, “I think there’s always the opportunity to make things better”. Which is why, despite having no experience of boating, and with only “a few months”, he’s converting a near-derelict vessel into something that approximates the imaginings of his six-year-old son Barney (whom, Tom tells us, sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes). I can follow the first part of this equation, the making things better bit. But why that resolves itself in a boho houseboat still feels mysterious.

Tom spoke often as if he were opening up wonderful truths about life. Having capered around a field at sunset, looking for his equipment returned from somewhere just below the mesosphere, he said: “We sent a camera into space to get the best view, and then you get reminded that Earth’s got the best ones”.

For the record, I think Tom seems nice, and his inventions are also nice. But the relentless upbeat rhetoric, and the notion that a six-year-old’s fancies somehow come straight from a seam of innocent genius, aggravated me. What was that thing Barney had just drawn, wondered Tom, looking for more wonders. “They’re seats, you dumbo!

Sorry, but I  had even less time for Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (E4 Thursday, 10pm). Again, he seems like a pleasant chap – he welcomes the viewers personally – but this is the kind of show which, if you’re not ready to go with it, it goes on without you. And I’m probably too old or something. To me, it was like an episode of The Banana Splits played out by truculent fifth formers. Of the cast, only Noel himself seemed enamored with their world, glorying in its self-consciously styled brand of slightly-crap zaniness. The others underplayed, resistant to it all. As if they too preferred to be left behind.

This is the last weekly review I’m going to post up onto the site for a couple of months. Let’s work towards the explanation why by touching on – we were always leading to this – Doctor Who (Horror Channel daily, various times). I wonder who watches these reruns. Presumably those who aren’t sufficiently interested to have bought the DVDs or downloaded whatever is available from the wide array of sources out there. And what do those people make of what they see? This week it was the very first story, from 1963. The alchemy of An Unearthly Child still persists. It’s an obtuse instalment, that’s true, being barely indicative of what’s to follow. But its mysteries still feel vital. The first hum of the TARDIS interior continues to startle. A switch is thrown, and a journey (to where?) begins.

As of next week, God and Tom Spilsbury willing, I’ll be working on reviews of the new series of Doctor Who for Doctor Who Magazine. They’ll most likely end up here at a later date. So I’m going to focus on that and put OTT and these ‘Watched’ things to bed for a while. That said, if something1 comes my way in the interim,  I’ll do some kind of update. Should that possibility interest you and you ‘do’ Twitter, feel free to follow the site’s account. Or even follow me if you wish. Like Noel Fielding, I’d try to make you welcome.

  1. Let’s be honest here, something low maintenance

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