Watched #45
Any programme that starts with the pretext we “as a nation” share some specific attribute gets me suspicious. “Spend, spend, spend! We love doing it!” bellows Anne Robinson in Britain’s Spending Secrets (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm).

I immediately thought of all the fun I was going to have being rude about a show, which, yes, does also use the quasi-witticism “retail therapy” at one point. Sadly, I soon found myself enjoying it, and on its own terms.

The fact of the matter is, let out from her Watchdog dungeon and given the time to follow conversations where they might go, Anne Robinson is an excellent journalist. She tees up a sequence with Charlotte by acknowledging this young mother on benefits, deep in debt, is the “perfect punch bag” for the programme. Charlotte has an expensive fridge, bought on HP, which lights up blue. “They gave me everything I wanted…” she says, the ‘they’, as ever, going undefined.

Another contributor, Laura, is wealthy and profligate. You can tell where she is on that continuum by the fact she refers to her clothing purchases as ‘pieces’.

But the person who fares worst of all is Darren. He’s the father in a family who, we’re told, bring in £100k a year. And in the programme’s most obviously formatted element, he plays host to Claire who’s from a £25k household. Darren’s wife pulls a two-hour commute  everyday to net 90 per cent of their income, while he’s shown arsing around in his “man cave” (another now spent wisecrack) and extolling the virtues of Starbucks. The programme-makers throw he and Claire into a debate about the merits of sending his kids to Eton. He tells her: “The guy who played Stephen Hawking in the latest film about his life – he was an Etonian”. On the reciprocal visit to her house in Malvern, he’s on his app, checking. The nearest Starbucks is Tewkesbury.

Meanwhile, Anne has realised she’s onto something when it comes to white goods. “Let’s have a look in your fridge!” she cries, visiting the home of Romany zillionaire Alfie. “People’s fridges always find them out.” She has a knack for loading up the right question. At home with the spendthrift Baroness Jenkins, she asks what search phrase she uses when looking for clothing bargains on eBay: “Mother of the bride”. And then visiting societal drop-out Jedi and his troupe – who live in makeshift homes in the forest – she immediately recognises that more conventional concerns still dominate, with these eco-warriors worrying about having the best plot of land and foraging food from only the nicest supermarket bins.

There’s a canny eye at work, one far better deployed in this kind of reconnaissance than tipping a wink to Chris Hollins.

I haven’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syfy Monday, 7pm) since it was beamed over here onto BBC2 at the start of the 1990s. As was the way back then, because the show was from America it came to our screens in a slight blur. Everyone inside a corona.

But today, it looks great. Crisp, presumably HD, and the only auras are those inferred by the script. “What would Picard do?” is Riker’s advice as ship’s mascot, Wesley Crusher, is struggling in a new leadership role. Everyone’s a hero inside these walls, so much so the aforementioned first officer can never be at rest. Instead he has to stand at things. Or when he does take a load off, he does so by hoofing his leg over a chair and then descending onto the seat.

I’m sufficiently informed to have recognised this episode – ‘Pen Pals’ – came from the show’s second series, when Dr Pulaski practised medicine and the uniforms had detailing on the shoulders. But I’ve no idea how this one is regarded within circles. Poorly, I would guess. The story is slight, and has been pickled by the intervening years into something inadvertently unpalatable. You see, Data has been secretly chatting to a little girl on a planet somewhere, and now the two are going to meet. “Does your family know where you are?” he asks her, in an alien-planet-room with pot plants.

Looking at this today, it’s obvious it comes from a time when sci fi wasn’t allowed to tarry with nonsense. We learn the Enterprise (never uglier than its Next Gen revamp) is on a boring-sounding “planetary mineral survey” in somewhere called the Selcundi Drema sector, a name that’s such a dirge it leeches any possible drema – sorry, drama – from any possible situation.

Captain Picard does poorly too. Pompously lecturing Counsellor Troi1 on the art of horsemanship as he pops on his flat cap and jumps onto a steed conjured up by the holodeck. It looks, and feels, like a dubbed scene from Châteauvallon. Later, he’s in his office, reading a book that doesn’t have an illustration on the cover (because that would be trivial), grandly allowing a, “Come” when his doorbell chimes.

Meanwhile, everything is scored with insistent orchestra, telling us this bit’s heroic, this bit’s uplifting, this bit is touching (“Understanding that has brought you a step closer to understanding… humanity”).

Such resolute earnestness in the end breeds only derision. Data’s new pal, Sarjenka, is an alien endowed with a pinky that’s as long as her index finger. Why shouldn’t an alien have a long pinky? You can imagine that question being work-shopped. Alien fingers might well deviate from our own. This is good. But it doesn’t leave room for the unthinkable – that it might look stupid.

A quick word for The Great British Bake Off (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm) which produced from the oven a wonderful lion’s head in bread. The series itself remains a proper treat, but the noise around it is such a bore. If you search #GBBO on Twitter, you’ll find companies trying to attach themselves to it. There’s the Good Food channel, there’s someone selling oven gloves, a brilliantly spurious one shilling vitamin pills that simply drops in the hashtag with no attempt at relevance… I even spotted a car company trying to riff off the episode. Worst offender, though, is the official BBC1 account, which smothers Bake Off during its transmission, every double entendre regurgitated in a JPEG. It’s not written down anywhere, but Twitter feels like it should be the fans’ domain. Alas @BBCOne won’t let them play with its show unsupervised, and join in as unwelcome, over-zealous parents. #GBBO-off!

Whenever ITV stages a big retrospective (and it has plenty to come) it  feels uneasy, as if they don’t really own that space. It’s not really a channel given to introspection. But The Saturday Night Story (ITV Saturday, 8pm) is one it’s well-equipped to tell, having contributed as much to it as the BBC over the last 60 years. And despite the Siri-like narration of Stephen Mulhern, there were some delightful nuggets here. Best of all was the unapologetic praise heaped on Game For A Laugh, a show Jonathan Ross described as a “hand grenade in the Saturday night schedules”. Even now, it still looks kind of edgy. Host Sarah Kennedy recalled that they were denied autocue and had to wing it on the night, and maybe that’s where part of that energy came from. But it also made me sad at the passing of – yes – another once communal ‘joke’. The whole business of wondering, when something was going array, “Is Jeremy Beadle going to pop out in a minute?” No one says that any more.

Still, his influence outstripped even Bart Simpson’s over here. A shot of a banner in the Gladiators bit read: ‘Eat my shorts, Wolf’. Eat my shorts. Remember that?

  1. Whose line, “I had a Betazoid kitten once” is the worst I’ve ever heard
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Watched #44
It was the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993. An evening that Nicholas Briggs, in a 2015 editing suite advises, featured two special moments – an announcement and an anniversary.

Hence, I’m pushing aside any thoughts of talking about what’s been on telly this week (Great British Menu, Bake Off, New Tricks… pah!) and simply sticking on – streaming in factthe recently completed  Myth Makers #118: Virgin Publishing (available to buy or rent from Time Travel TV).

In doing so, I am obliged to provide lots in the way of context.

First up, what is Myth Makers? As succinct as I can do it: A series of semi-professional straight-to-video documentaries about Doctor Who produced by Reeltime Pictures (mostly in the 1990s), and now made available online. Secondly, the Virgin Publishing side of the colon divide. It’s a seemingly self-evident reference – however it’s not. This is specifically focusing on the company’s imprint of original Doctor Who novels (New Adventures) which ran from 1991 to 1997.

The video was recorded at the Conservatory Bar and Cafe1 where the editor of the book range, Peter Darvill-Evans2 had gathered his authors together for sandwiches, crisps, pasta salad and business.

Also in attendance were a camera person and the aforementioned Briggs, interviewing from behind the lens. “We never completed that Myth Maker – until now!” he says in 2015 with great potency. He is a man adapt at wrangling this kind of mediocrity. And I honestly don’t mean that unkindly. The production is really a corporate video for Doctor Who nerds – but what a brilliant thing to be! – and he knows how to jolly it along. “The celebration didn’t go quite according to plan…” he teases, as we cut to a low-jeopardy incident where burnt-down birthday cake candles set off a fire alarm.

The crux of the evening is Peter Davill-Evans’ speech to his troops. Even more context, I’m afraid: 1993 marked four years since Doctor Who had ceased production on television, and pretty much the point when people were beginning to face the possibility it was never to return. Taking the power in these uncertain times were this group of young creatives, writing new Who stories in their university computer rooms. They had become the show.

Well, not quite. There was a little frustration in that they couldn’t take complete control. In his speech, PD-E laments, in a rhetorical question, “Can we put Sylvester McCoy’s body in cold storage for a while and have another Doctor?”

The main thrust of the event – as the cocktail sausages and ketchup go around – is the announcement of the supplemental Missing Adventures line, devoted to past Doctors. And then Briggs gets to work, pressing the authors, who are captured in naïve, greying Betacam, on various issues. Talking about his dearest Doctor Who memory, one of the show’s future script editors, Gary Russell3 recalls an encounter with Tom Baker at the BBC in 1976: “And I also got him to sign my Genesis of the Daleks novel, which I’ve still got.” Other future-people are also in the room. Paul Cornell talks with the pleasant lilt of a boy who learnt emphasis from BBC continuity announcements, and admits he was once scared of plant life. And we’re absolutely in the moment for Gareth Roberts; this very afternoon he delivered his manuscript for the novel Tragedy Day.

To the side, eating wax-less bits of cake, are co-writers Andy Lane and Jim Mortimore. The latter flips his sunglasses up and down and plays to the camera with unease. It’s as if he’s the only one here who truly doubts the evening could  be considered worthy of documenting. He’s sort of right. It’s really a works do, nothing more. Except… it’s Doctor Who-related so I want it all. I want more of those scattershot bits of conversation captured in covering shots. Terrance Dicks telling Marc Platt, “This is gonna cost a packet…” Rebecca Levene (then assistant to PD-E) conjuring something: “And a mud-replica of Ace, oozing out…”

No one would ever sensibly hold this Reeltime Pictures production up as an example of dynamism in filmmaking. But it does capture a kind of dynamism in imagining. A modestly heady evening, with ideas that still have some purchase today, being exchanged in a pub that no longer exists. Plus Australian author Kate Orman using the word ‘diskette’.

Within this storm, two constants –  Nicholas Briggs and Peter Darvill-Evans. Briggs, of course, is the humble spear-carrier but, in interviews from 1993 and 2015, the other proves why he was right for Doctor Who high office. Young PD-E tells us, “I answered an advert in The Guardian” and that the book range was the “rump of WH Allen”. The older PD-E says “I made the assumption [the programme] was never coming back” and that he was lucky enough to tap into a “diaspora” of talent – a word I’ve only ever read, never heard. “I don’t think I can claim we kept Doctor Who in the public eye,” he adds, “but we did sustain some people and sustain an idea for that decade.”

It’s wholly improbable that, on the evening of Tuesday 28th September 1993, someone thought it a worthwhile endeavour to film the Virgin New Adventures authors sharing around plates. It’s even more improbable that 22 years later, someone (very possibly the same someone) then thought it worthwhile to dig out the  tape and finish off the documentary. But at the periphery of Doctor Who – and we’re right out at the gates here – wholly impropable things have often taken place.

  1. 15 St Giles High Street, London – the place then became a gargoyle-encrusted heavy metal hang-out called The Intrepid Fox, before ceding completely to Crossrail development… and that is indeed how we measure out the passing of time
  2. Who was to become a tax inspector
  3. Leaning over the back of a wicker chair that brings to mind the seal of Rassilon

Watched #43
“Character acting is my line of country,” wrote Arthur Lowe, a sweet turn of phrase that in itself entirely validated the commissioning of BBC: The Secret Files (BBC4 Monday, 9pm). This was one of 25 job-seeking letters the actor addressed to the Corporation between 1946 and ’48. Letters that, for him, were surely disappeared as soon as sent. But no.

The notion of rolling back doors and pulling out drawers in the BBC Written Archives is a particularly unsexy and untelevisual prospect – but also a completely beguiling one for the likes of me; someone who wants to see the signatures and thrills at the letterheads. If the nicely fusty, deskbound BBC4 didn’t exist, one could imagine an exec quickly nixing the email trail pitching the show (“What would the visuals be? Who would really care?”). However, it does, and let’s give thanks.

Hosted, most perfectly, by Penelope Keith, the programme sensibly brought us into Caversham through the actress’ own story, as documented therein. She read to us her hopeful letter of employment from 1960, and there then followed a small revelation. The archives had also retained a similar missive secretly penned by her mother, Constance M Keith (nee Nutting). “I found it very touching after all these years,” said Penelope.

This was the joy of it, no huge disclosures – even during the brouhaha between Kenny Everett and Radio 1 – but small disagreements administrated in beautifully-written memos. A favourite was Michael Mills, having been told to remove Nazi footage from the opening titles of Dad’s Army, moaning the Comedy department wasn’t afforded the same leeway as other units in the BBC. Paul Fox, Controller of BBC1, was having none of it, declaring such comparisons to be “invidious and irrational”1 and adding, “After what I have seen so far, I think one must be allowed to wonder whether Dad’s Army does indeed ‘advance Comedy output into new arenas’.”

The camera panned slowly from right to left, and Penelope spoke to us with a smile in her voice. This was a gentle production, the fine frontispiece for a stack of research. Diligent, beautifully-made, and so, so welcome. “At present I am walking around with sandwich boards, but am desirous of a change,” wrote Derek Nimmo in 1956. But today we should remember that it’s only the BBC that could have – and has – brought us such a programme.

I’m not sure if this is a new series of 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm) or just some more of it after a gap. It seems to thump into the schedules in much the same way Traffic Cops does on BBC1. Whatever: It remains excellent, and comes with a montage title sequence that offers much participatory fun (I chip in with: “Start explaining”, “I’m a lover, not a fighter” and “Good news… Yeah… Got ‘im”).

This episode, titled ‘Bad Blood’, detailed the life and crimes of Dylan McEwan. One pertinent sequence saw Detective Constable Cathie Layton scrolling through his arrest records and mugshots, which go from boy to young man. “Basically, Dylan McEwan terrorises the community,” she said. DC Layton is a quiet hero who’s got enough back story for a six-parter (“I’ve just remembered – say, ‘Happy Birthday’ to my sister. She’s in heaven.”) Much as the Caversham programme spoke of conscientiousness, so did this. Officers with Scot’s Porridge Oat packets on their desks, putting in the long hours. The most pointed encounter took place in the interview room, with McEwan’s solicitor. “We like our battles,” confessed Cathie beforehand, but he had a neat move to delay due process: “I need to go to the toilet. It’s all this tea and coffee I drank.”

In the end, the CPS deemed McEwan should be charged, and a 19-and-a-half hour-shift for DC Layton was over.

I won’t say much about Partners in Crime (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm), but the show’s central mystery is one it can never resolve. What is up with Tommy and Tuppence? While she (Jessica Raine) is vivacious and thrusting, he (David Walliams) seems a bit of a duffer, with all the poise of a Babybel. If we didn’t know the show’s pretext was a jolly couple going on adventures, we would assume their lack of chemistry is a plot point and there was some secret to be wheedled out about their clearly-fake marriage.

Taskmaster (Dave Tuesday, 10pm) comes with a clever format (Greg Davies has five comics competing in a series of pointless challenges), but the cleverest aspect of all has been the decision to retain the competitors over the show’s run. It gives both us and them reason to dig in, particularly as – in a panel game first – the scoring actually means something.

Filmed like a gig in front of an audience (albeit mixing-in pre-recorded segments) it’s got a startlingly slow pace, bordering on loose. When Greg introduces Frank Skinner, he points out he’s wearing a suit because “he’s a different generation to the others”, and it sounds like something that’s just popped into his head. Might not be, but that’s how it sounds.

For me the fun only derails at the bits it all becomes too self-conscious, trying to tackle the admin of TV in novel way. “Shall we have a little bit of banter?” says Greg’s lieutenant Alex Horne2. And then there’s the self-conscious ad break intros, which are clumsy rather than arch. But here’s me criticising this endeavour because it’s trying. I actually liked it quite a bit, and, in a rare moment, liked everyone in it too.

  1. You can see for yourself here
  2. Who actually devised this series, and produced the theme tune

Watched #42
This could have been LL-B’s ‘Denzil Xavier’ moment. Upon arrival in Shanghai, the cabbie held up the damning sign: ‘LAURENCE RODERICK LLEWELLYN-BOWEN’. But the man at the mantelpiece of The House of Laurence  breezed through. Instead our takeaway wasn’t ‘Roderick’, but the next bit, where some sort of miscommunication had left the driver outside the hotel, uncertainly holding the LL-B luggage while our hero had already checked in and was now ascending in a mirrored lift.

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen: Cracking China (BBC2 Monday, 9pm) was a delightful portrait of someone who, as it happens, likes to gift his own delightful portrait. Having lost a couple of big contracts at home, he was looking to global markets and hoping a new range of knickers would wave the flag for his ‘home collection’ in China and Mexico. The “bad boy star of Changing Rooms” was how Samantha Bond’s narration had him, but plying his UK trade in a shop above Circencester, the velvet-faced designer knew he could never really be termed bad. “Oh my goodness!” he exclaimed, describing the financial risk he was about to take. “Where are the school fees coming from?” Indeed, not truly a star, either, with LL-B absolutely aware  he was flogging a slightly concocted level of celebrity overseas. At one point he briefed Chinese shop workers on the selling points of his furnishings, advising them this gear is what “everyone in the UK is very much into”… before looking sideways into camera.

I’ve always liked Laurence. A natural communicator on television, some might consider him glib, but I think it’s more he has an anxiety to provide value for money when he’s with his public. Fill those interactions with information or entertainment. It was therefore fascinating to see that instinct butt up against an even more overriding desire – to seal a deal. Meeting with Mr Gao, the executive director of the Sainty conglomerate, he’d been briefed it was good form to receive a business card with a display of fascination. “Such an eye-catching but very comforting shape,” he observed at the appropriate moment. Then, when the pitching began, he made heavy water every time he had to circumnavigate the vast desk to hand over an item. “I’ll come round.”

Throughout the documentary, Laurence’s excursions were scored with tracks like Rule Britannia as if he was somehow embodying a particularly British ethos. He wasn’t. He was selling himself (“I am the product”) to the “fast growing middle classes” of these new markets. His Britishness was only about aesthetics, calling one range Glam Britannia for marketing heft. And good on him. There he was, filling gaps in the often stilted, translated conversations, with laughter; and chinking glasses enthusiastically while sat at an endless montage of Lazy Susans. Always with his eye on the prize: “I think you’re going to find the prices very… flexible”.

Back in the hotel room – on camera but talking only to us – he was more relaxed. “This couldn’t be more swankazoid,” he concluded, summing up that day’s outfit. And by the end of it all, it seemed like LL-B might just have cracked China and started on a good route into the Americas. “We worked very hard at making them want me.”

I know, I do keep writing about Dragons’ Den1 (BBC2 Sunday, 8.15pm). I was going to add a line  of justification (10th anniversary series, three new Dragons) but in truth, I just enjoy going around on the same ride. One continuing pleasure is the epic new levels of preposterousness the production team are able to wring out of the opening titles2. For this series, our five superheroes3 survey Mordor while Evan Davis details their powers: “Global fashion tycoon!” etc.

From this we arrive in the faux warehouse, where Deborah seems over-tired, and Peter is breathing through his mouth. Luckily, our new tycoons settle in well, fingering their prop loot. At one point there’s genuine electricity when Touker advises an entrepreneur to target the high street with his yoga product, rather than the gyms. Sarah disagrees, breaking protocol to hiss, “No!”

The show’s bottom-line remains gripping – people pitching for investment on TV – but there is too much nonsense floating around the room. If it’s not the Dragons competing for a thudding pun-endowed pay-off, then it’s the voiceover, breaking its back to convey information and stage a drama: “Fighting talk from keep-fit fanatic Thierry”. This is the silt. The riches are found if you can drill down into the details. It’s in the spontaneous moments of stress (a woman selling her own version of Spanx can’t recall her cost of sales) and jubilation (“Deborah’s BlackBerry contacts are next-level!”). Peter Jones once told us “turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”. He was probably just pleased because it rhymed, but it’s a good maxim.

“A drama upgrade!” That continuity announcer, pressing the button for Humans (Channel 4 Sunday, 9pm) likely then celebrated with the most odious of things right now – a “mini fist-bump”. We’re at episode five, but the show is sagging. It’s as if, after positing so many fascinating discussion topics in the beginning, it’s now run out of conversational steam – throwing in talking-points like: “You can’t get rid of of someone just because their old!” which remained unchewed.

The main point of interest is Joe facing the terror of having his daughter unearth naughtiness in his History. Although it’s Mattie – with her black nail varnish, and ‘Headcracking’ proclivities – who now feels like the focal point. Joe’s more a Hollyoaks dad who’s lucked into a storyline.

Meanwhile,  The Outcast (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) kept its theme all too prevalent throughout its opening, indulgently-long, 90 minutes. Forever gloom. Adapted by Sadie Jones from her own novel, perhaps this was where the problem lay? That – ironically given the name – an outsider might have asked more questions of the text, rather than assuming our instant fascination with moody Lewis and his plight. Although performed with utmost conviction, and at times quite harrowing, as I reflect now I’m still more shaken by that one word: Roderick!

  1. Here, here and here
  2. Incredibly, the brilliant Adam Cadwell’s storyboard for that is here
  3. Now finally sporting proper superhero monikers, as per the opening spiel: “Wealthy!  Astute! Innovative! Fearless! And Shrewd!”

Watched #39
This was the bravest bit of Drugs Live: Cannabis on Trial (Channel 4 Tuesday, 10pm): “Did anyone here come in with one view and have had it change during the course of the programme?” Dr Christian Jessen went there in the final minutes of this hour-and-a-half “live from London” event. A pause. “Anybody?”

Set in a studio decked out with fake brick walls in an effort to manufacture an element of integrity, insofar as a I know anything I don’t think the science could be doubted. An exploration into the differing effects of skunk vs “the old-style hash”, this was valid territory for a TV programme. But there was something resolutely 1980s about the whole endeavour, which was hosted by the aforementioned Dr Christian and Channel 4 current affairs figurehead Jon Snow. It prompted memories of the old BBC ‘…Watch’1 strand (Hospital Watch, Childwatch, Railwatch and, as it happens, Drugswatch); that notion of bringing together a group of people who know better to  patiently and brightly explain an issue for the rest of us.

There was a lot of explaining. Sometimes at a giant brain model which – because I’m wired like that – made me think of another 30-year-old BBC effort Bodymatters. It didn’t help that Dr Christian was Alan-Maryon-Davis-ing for all his worth, his limbs undulating as if he was bobbing on the wake of his own words, convivially emphasising the fascination of this fascinating study. Going into the first set of ads, he was about to reveal C4’s own skunk farm. “Actually,” he said, suddenly digging in his heel, “I think I’ll show you that… after the break!”

It was this disarming attempt at friendliness that was getting on my wick. It conferred a layer of mediocrity over everything. Well, nearly. Snow’s reaction to imbibing high-grade cannabis cut through. “This was aggressive filth. This robbed me of my personality”. But at the end, the programme – which “continues to trend on twitter” – couldn’t even get it together for a good old row. The presenters darted around the studio, drawing opinion here and there, but never letting anyone interact directly. Points for and against the decriminalisation of cannabis were left to hang. “No doubt arguments will rage all evening,” said Jon Snow as they signed off.

Anybody?

I cottoned on late that Three Up, Two Down (BBC2 daily) is getting a repeat run. I was banging on about the ’80s a couple of paragraphs ago, and this is that decade in a capsule. With its rough diamond-meets-cut glass format, it’s broiling a very domestic concern of the time: The confluence of the working class with the Sloane Ranger set. The episode I caught (‘Just Desserts’) aired on Monday afternoon, but in 1985 went out on the same day of the week at 8.30pm. Straight after Fame. “Doctors come in all shapes and sizes, you know,” says ‘wallyish’ best friend Wilf. “It’s not compulsory to look like David Owen.”

In this one, Michael Elphick’s Life on Mars-prefiguring Sam Tyler is trying to persuade Angela Thorne’s Daphne to give up an antique case so he can use it to display his stuffed snake. He also hopes that feigning illness might prompt some show of affection from her. And Wilf’s been collecting discarded iced buns from the Rhino enclosure at the zoo. With its light jazz-funk theme and beige title sequence, two minutes of location filming, constant misunderstandings and scenes of Ms Thorne lying on the bed with her head hovering just above the pillow (lest she mush her hairdo), a lot of the vitality has since left the show. But it was a reasonable-sized deal in our house back then, one of my dad’s shows. With his marriage on the rocks, perhaps he saw a potential future for himself in the form of roguish bachelor Sam.

It’s taken me a little while to get into Let’s Play Darts for Comic Relief (BBC2 from Sunday). The opening episode, in fact, kept the first three words of the title at bay for an inordinately long time. “We’re just minutes away from the first match…” said host Gabby Logan, as if getting wind of my groaning. When the darts did finally arrive – with Lee Mack and Martin Adams playing Martin Offiah and Anastasia Dobromyslova – it didn’t quite feel as if we’d got to the point of the evening. It was a bit pedestrian, much of it told in a “we rejoin the action” synopsis. Then it was back to Gabby, who could have been in a bunker in a different town on a different day. “I was good enough just to be bad,” confessed Martin, joining her for a post-match debrief. She said they’d be back tomorrow and my heart sank.

But I’m glad they were. Over the course of the week, this has rather grown on me. The bit when Tim Vine nearly opened with 180, or Roisin Conaty checking out to secure her place in the next round, that’s great telly. Sure, I do fast-forward through the opening chat, but it knocks this down to an even nicer-sized 25 minutes.

Crappy kids’ show titles, outdated comedic archetypes, a shocking slot in the schedules, a muzak score that’s so embarrassed it hides as far back in the soundscape as possible, three writers, scenes that end on a fade to black… is there anything good to say about Matt Lucas’ Pompidou (BBC2 Sunday, 6.30pm)?

Anybody?

  1. As does the font being in Rockwell, but I think I’ve allowed myself to get waylaid by typography too much in these things of late

Watched #37
“Poor old Reg” – Radio Times, 16-22 February 1985 edition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poor old Lucy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, it will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Which I’ve done here and here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watched #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