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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re) Watched

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

Watched #20
“Oh well.” The last words uttered in Alan Bennett at 80: Bennett Meets Hytner (BBC4 Saturday, 9pm). Even if you didn’t see it, you can be certain which of that duo said them. Who sighed them. The Eeyore-ish response was prompted by director and Bennett’s sometime colleague Nicholas Hytner rallying for a suitable end to their TV hour together. He’d said, after Alan had talked uncomfortably of future works, “Well, I’m looking forward to as much more as you care to write!”

“Oh well”.

I came to this interview – two people in a studio with cameras self-consciously in shot or reverentially plaining around them as per the BBC4 house-style – not as a particular Bennett devotee. That isn’t a judgement, more I’ve never properly made the time. I’ve certainly enjoyed his work in theatre and on TV. And I’m aware of its critical worth. But I’ve never specifically sought it out. Perhaps I might make a start. His conversation with Hytner was unusually weighted, the interviewer, perhaps by virtue of also being a collaborator, talking rather a lot. Lucky he’s so clever. “What kind of literature do you find fellowship in?” he asks, not a question I would ever have thought to pose. But the real sparkle, of course, comes from Bennett. Bennett with his hair ruffled at the back, and arm, at times, slung around the back of the chair. He talks with a delicate wisdom that seems matter-of-fact. “The things that you remember,” he says, “are the things you didn’t do”. This leads into a clip from Talking Heads: Waiting for the Telegram (one of perhaps too many excerpts which break into the conversation) and a wonderful performance from Thora Hird, talking with bitter regret about the day she didn’t jump her fiancé‘s bones. Cut back to Bennett, who is gently shaking his head, as if trying to cast off that emotion.

Referring to that series, he says now: “They came like poems… but it’s not there anymore.” Then he reads a bit from his memoir, The Lady in the Van, his feet pulsing gently. Hytner talks about how they’re both trying to flog this project as a movie and that there’s “lots to come”. But Bennett, who can sometimes be a nostalgic, is no romantic. “I find it harder and harder to write,” he says. “All writing is writer’s block”. We’re back at the end, and another impeccably crafted phrase before Hytner makes that flourish. Bennett says his work isn’t like upholstery, you can’t lean back on it. “It’s not a comfort you’ve done all this stuff, it’s a rebuke you can’t do it now”.

The colon is  enjoying a purple patch right now. So many shows employing it to connect up their increasingly disclosive  titles, named almost with an eye on search engine optimisation1. Here, then, is The Comedy Vaults: BBC2’s Hidden Treasure (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm). I’ve written a lot about old telly over the years, and have come to bristle at phrases such as ‘rare’ and ‘archive’ in TV journalism when talking about the provenance of some obscure footage. They’re prissy, dead words. Nonetheless, it’s still kind of exciting when they pop up within the remit for a clip show. “We’re not going to be serving up the familiar classics,” says Tamsin Greig in the voiceover booth. And, let’s not get too nit-picky, it pretty much didn’t. The star turn, of course, was the horrendous Elton-Curtis-penned pilot for Madness, which from the small excerpt we got (and any more than that would have set the nation bilious) was lumpenly staged, performed and written, relying far too heavily on that 1980s stand-by of breaking through the fourth wall. I could have done with more, however, of Kevin Turvey: The Man Behind the Green Door, while the bit from Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt was exactly the right bit for me. I remember howling at the “she was actually carrying on the affair under him during this televised denial” back in the day, despite having no other memory of the show per se.

“Audi lying about safety standards, Sports Direct with discounts you shouldn’t believe, Sky Broadband punishing you for not having their products, plus the B&Q paint that left this woman allergic to her own sitting room.” Stay with me. “Yes, we’re back”. Here it comes. “It’s Watchdog, the programme you cannot afford to miss.” Let me just restate that in bold and italics with a bracketed bit for the sake of my format: Watchdog (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm). I thought MasterChef was going to be on at 8pm, you see. Here’s the consumer series mustering for another eight-part run, airing live and hosted by Anne Robinson. I’ve been nasty about the show before (blimey, nearly 10 years ago), but I confess it’s still a fascination. In part, because it conspires to create a world where people refer to Anne Robinson as ‘Annie’. We learn much about her life over the hour, that she drives an Audi, that it would be an affront to infer she might buy her lunch from a supermarket (Riz Lateef: “I’m not suggesting you do, Annie…”), that she doesn’t like high street sales, and that she owns a coat that costs a lot more than £88.

Desperate to loosen Annie’s grip is Matt Allwright, who works his Rogue Traders concession  vigorously, hawking hard for our attention. His report about a seemingly dishonest airport car parking firm ends up in a good place, Allwright challenging the MD’s assertion he’s not “obliged” to answer any questions by pointing out: “When you say ‘obliged’ it kind of goes with the territory of taking money off people that you don’t lie to them.” But along the way he throws in a million added-value gags, that just makes the whole enterprise seem nervy. Comedy riffs with Tony Hadley, because the company in question is called Gold Parking Ltd. And jaunty, please-do-not-change-channels banter like, “We need answers to this airport parky malarkey”.

When the end credits roll, he’s joshing away with fellow wagster Chris Hollins. Annie, meanwhile, presumably having the Audi brought round.

The Big Allotment Challenge (BBC2 Thursday, 8pm) is now over, with a perfect cob of sweetcorn – “Yes, you’ve got a nice lot of sheath on it,” confirms judge Jim Buttress – and a perfect melon. Followed by dahlias and a hanging design. “Shall we put borage in there?” And lastly a hamper, including a chilli vodka that nearly finishes dear Thane Prince. This is a corner of England, forever green, And like that image, it feels like something comforting from the past (specifically last autumn’s Great British Bake Off final). I’ve said beforewe’ve all said before – there’s nothing new in this. But I like it. I hope they turn the soil and do it all again next year.

  1. Big digression, but wither the pun show name? I remember when it was announced Alexander Armstrong was going to be playing Sir Clive Sinclair in a drama about his Spectrum years, the title, at that stage, was the excellent Syntax Era. When it came to screen? Micro Men. Sigh.

Watched #19
A long, long time ago, I used to watch TJ Hooker. Despite the fact it was the 1980s and, apparently, we were all less sophisticated, my brother and I still noticed how everything that went right in the show had to be credited to Hooker. There was one episode where, at the end, William Shatner was busy elsewhere so Heather Locklear threw her nightstick at an escaping perp. Thwwp! It spun through the air, then roundhoused into the guy’s legs, bringing him down. Adrian Zmed was understandably impressed by the move. “Hooker taught me,” she said.

24: Live Another Day (Sky1, Monday and Wednesday) brought this memory thudding back. As it ever was, Jack Bauer’s sheer righteousness must prevail. In the opening episode (first one back after four years, now in London, but you know all this) his character was set up as legend. The man himself didn’t even need to speak for half an hour. Instead, Yvonne Strahovski’s Kate Morgan was presented as his analogue – a CIA agent at odds with the organisation, whose last-minute hunches are destined to be both correct and unheeded by the suits. Although the story places her at odds with Bauer, mark my words, there will come a point where she will defect to his side. And another point where she’ll pull off a nifty manoeuvre of a ‘Hooker taught me’ ilk.

That all sounds like criticism, and it is. But it’s not major criticism. I should make it clear, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two episodes of this new series, much as I’ve enjoyed (nearly1) every preceding instalment. The real-time element and split-screen stuff be damned, there’s nothing particularly fancy about 24. It’s just super-solid, value-for-money entertainment, each edition straining to offer up as many thrills and twists as possible. As a result, Jack himself speaks almost nothing but plot – “Take me to her now,” is his first line – meaning those few moments when he offers something of his character are usually quite affecting. So it was towards the end of the first hour, Kiefer Sutherland blinking, head drooping: “I don’t have any friends”. I could have wept.

I don’t care either way about this series’ themes exploring the morality of “free information” or America’s use of military drones. They’re a completely ancillary element – as if someone were to comment on the font this review is written in. What I care about is the reliability of 24. That’s what will keep me here for the duration. There was a great bit where we were given a glimpse on a computer screen of Jack’s record, or more specifically his list of kills over the years. Someone on the Fox staff has lovingly compiled this; that or there’s a website. Ah, those names! Andre Drazen, Victor Drazen. At number 18, Nina Myers! More to follow…

TV is good, at the moment, for taciturn, bloody-minded men. Look at all the hunks in the picture I’ve bodged together above. Prey (ITV Monday, 9pm) aired its second episode this week. I came to the show late, deciding only to watch the first on Sunday. It was enough to secure my return the next day. Kind of like 24, there’s nothing fundamentally high-concept about this drama, following John Simm’s wrongly-accused DS Marcus Farrow as he attempts to find the person who murdered his wife and son. But, unlike 24, there’s a mass of added-value in the details. The fact that show is – and I don’t mean this unkindly – unglamorous and middle-aged. Rosie Cavaliero is given a brilliantly real character in Susan Reinhart, someone who, unlike CIA: London’s Kate Morgan, isn’t gifted with super intuition. Or masses of wit. Or anything other then a bit of determination to do her job properly. The additional layer revealing she’s obsessed with her ex, Tony, and does silly, slightly intense things like show up at his house with pastries or mess with his Facebook, really fill her out.

There are also little feints in the plotting that confound our expectations. The aggressive mob on the bus never deliver on the threat their presence promises, and Marcus doesn’t work out what the password is on Sean’s computer. There’s real verisimilitude in that and the dialogue which, rarely for a thriller, sounds like the kind of things people actually say: “He brought one down from, the attic but it didn’t have a USB or anything.” It means that when the show does shift gears, like the twist at the end of this second episode, it’s quite thrilling. Marcus is betrayed and into the soundtrack drifts Radiohead’s Karma Police: “This is what you get when you mess with us”.

Here’s Bear: “Twenty-first century man has come a long way from our hunter-gather origins…” Cut to beardy bloke: “Can I have a latte?” Bear again: “I wanna find out what happens if you strip man of all the luxuries and conveniences of modern living and then force him to fight for his very existence”. This is the pretext for The Island With Bear Grylls (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm), a five-part series in which 13 ‘ordinary’ men are dropped off on an island and left to get on with it. Bear’s role in all of this is simply to squat down in places on the mainland and deliver the odd bit of commentary. Otherwise, it’s all about the fellas, who aren’t nearly so gung ho as we might have feared. Tony, 71, missed his mum, Agnes, 91. Plus there was a lot of fretting about wee. “I’m not pissing on my own face,” declared Sam, after being stung on the cheek by a jellyfish. “My piss was the colour of Guinness,” shared Rupert, later. We got to see it in a pail. Why he was going in a pail, I’m not sure.

This show, it’s… it’s okay, but Bear’s Bond villain ambitions don’t really lend it sufficient impetus. It feels like Survivor without the game play, leaving us with aimless men trying to make fire and piss in and on things.

The second series of In The Flesh (BBC3 Sunday, 10pm) already seems like a less contained piece than the first. Silly comment, perhaps. This run is going to be six episodes, twice as long as before. But the small-town element is what has worked best about the show and that feeling the whole thing could have been based on a Barry Hines novel. I’m not so sure about the inclusion of a quasi-religious cult, a further element of heightened reality that could potentially capsize this well-judged zombie drama. But we’ll see.

If I hadn’t come to the show with those kind of worries, expectations preloaded by its brilliant debut, then I would have been more obviously impressed – because this is still a terrific programme. Its greatest quality is found in leading man Kieren (Luke Newberry) who doesn’t actually conform to this week’s theme of goal-orientated alpha males. Instead he’s a gentle portrait of a young guy who isn’t the hero of any kind of story, and nor does he want to be. He’s shambling through life. But, not like a zombie shambles.

  1. Obviously, the year with Jack’s letters-missing-brother Graem and non-Donald Sutherland dad, Phillip, was dreadful

Good Morning Britain
It’s not yet “MONDAY! 28th APRIL! 2014!”

It’s the Friday before, and on Daybreak Aled Jones is stoic. He’s shown us a man painting an Artexed ceiling in new Good Morning Britain colours, and now, with the dying of the light, he says this: “It’s been a fantastic time and we’ve enjoyed every minute of it”. A montage follows of Daybreak‘s best bits during the Aled and Lorraine era. It’s been drawn from such a narrow time-frame, there isn’t even the fun of seeing hairstyles change. Aled’s got a Saturday morning chat show to get to, so that’s good. As for the new programme, “I’ll be watching, definitely!”

Also watching, me. And – after some coercion – Ian Jones, the author of the definitive history of breakfast television (I’ve mentioned it before) Morning Glory.

Ian’s remarks will look like this.

06.00 – Monday arrives with a clarion call. Horns usher in a new breakfast show, and Susanna Reid will tell us what to do. “Good morning, Britain,” she says. “Children as young as two could soon be starting school – but is it too much too soon?” The titles, the music, it’s all quite impressive. As many have since pointed out, much of this owes a debt to NBC’s Today Show, but who cares? What ITV needed to establish at breakfast was something that’s always implicit in the BBC’s news coverage, a little bit of grandeur and authority. There’s a rare confidence here in the power of ‘ITV’ as a brand, which runs contrary to the current, unassuming network logo, all in cursive. We’re told “Live from ITV studios in London” as if that’s the be-all, and so it should be. The channel hasn’t been so swaggering since it was LWT at the weekends. And, fittingly, it’s all coming at us from what was once known at the London Weekend Television building. Inside, there are even ITV decals on the glass doors, like this is CTU.

06.01 – At the desk, Susanna plus Ben Shephard, Sean Fletcher and Charlotte Hawkins. Almost immediately there’s mention of Facebook and Twitter, the accompanying, always moving on-screen graphics constantly update like an RSS feed. The Good Morning Britain logo itself is unprepossessing. There’s presumably a consultancy firm out there who’ve been paid a lot to rationalise why the name seems to have been situated inside a plectrum, and this slightly unhappy shape informs a lot of the imagery. That said, it’s all neat and unobtrusive, if not mostly irrelevant.

06.02 – “Andi Peters is in Leeds for us…” He patrols Kirkgate Market, forcing locals to say “good morning” to loved ones on camera. They’re really going to be coining the “good morning” stuff today.

06:04 – A house fire in Sheffield, and Susanna listens, head cocked, to a report over the phone from their man en route, Gamal Fahnbulleh. The visual grammar of the show is beginning to make sense. Concentric circles and a whoosh take us into ‘Breaking News’ or ‘Developing Story’, the phrase then sitting above the ticker like an open tab on your web browser. It means you can jump into the show whenever – which is how most viewers will take it – and orientate yourself quickly.

Oh dear: the Sheffield fire is a genuine big story, and all they’ve got is someone on the end of a phone. There isn’t even a file photo of the reporter! They might as well not have bothered.

06:05 – I’ve counted four textbook breakfast TV blunders in the first five minutes. 1: Desks; they’ve never worked at breakfast time, and given most of us spend our working day surrounded by them, they’re the last thing you want to see first thing in the morning. 2: No explanation of what’s on when; I’ve no idea when to expect the weather, sport, local news or even the headlines. 3: Too many people; they’re already talking over each other, competing for my attention, and it’s really irritating. 4: Too much of the wrong kind of information; the screen is overloaded with stuff more befitting a rolling news channel, not a magazine show.

06:08 – Their lead feature on children going to school from the age of two was first being reported as a news story weeks ago. It’s a very contrary choice for such a key slot.


06:10 – Susanna is in a different part of the studio to talk to a guest from Citizen’s Advice. It’s a kind of a little breakaway room, that makes you wonder at which point did she have to sneak out from behind the desk.

I’m afraid I’m laughing out loud at the man who announces: “I’m living out of the pocket of my widowed mother.” It must be awfully cramped in there.

06:11 – Like ITN days of yore, a little inset photo of the story being discussed hovers to the side of the presenter. The camera operator’s gentle nudges right just manage to keep the plectrum-shaped image out of the way of Ben’s head which continually threatens to disappear behind it.

06:12 – “It’s been a very deadly night and morning in America.” Ah, so the rest of the world does exist. This is the first time we’ve heard about anything from anywhere not in Britain. A shame it’s not actually “morning in America” just yet, as we can see from the picture behind Cordelia.

06:14 – Charlotte tells us we can expect our local news and weather just before half-past.

– Susanna breaks out the first element of her ITV persona, exclaiming “Yay!” at the mention of the upcoming One Direction feature. There’s then a slight autocue fail, Susanna listing the countries in which the band has notched up number… number what? She plumps, hopefully, for “one”, but is slightly derailed by the hiccup. Ben jumps in, they pull it together: “That’s chemistry!” says Susanna. Ben wants mums to send in videos of their daughters responding to this upcoming item, be they “screamer or fainter”.

06:18 – The show has been front-loaded with One Direction, though I doubt any of the “million fans” will be up yet. Susanna’s appeal for people to “send in your photos and reaction to that video” sounds half-hearted. She says the words “Instagram” and “Vine” as if she’s encountering them for the first time.

06:19 – A newspaper review, the dailies appearing on an App Store-like carousel.

06:20 – A recap of the headlines, scored by that nicely pompous theme music. The four presenter set-up feels less unwieldy than we might have feared. In truth, the quartet are rarely in one shot together, instead they feature in single close-ups, each hosting their own strands of the programme.

06:22 – Laura Tobin with the “weather you’re waking up to this morning”.

06:26 – Following an interview in the break-out area with Nadine Dorries, MP (on video) and director of the Prison Reform Trust Juliet Lyon about compensation paid out to a convict when his belongings were mislaid, the blinking inverted-comma appears signalling the first commercial-break.

06:27 – There’s been no logic to the format of this first half-hour whatsoever. There was no mention we’d be getting a newspaper review, but one has turned up anyway. We’ve had no sport news at all. I’m still not clear what are the big stories of the day. What’s more important: the house fire, George Clooney’s engagement, tornadoes in America or the One Direction video?

“…Another TV legend, Andi Peters, will be joining us live from Leeds”

06:28 – And then into the local news, with an obviously pre-recorded link-cum-hostage video from Ben for viewers in the London area. This will be continually played out over the morning.

06:33 – After another news round-up, Ben hands over to Sean for sport. As is the way of things, there is a little impromptu chat to form a kind of segue. It’s textbook, even starting with the old “I dunno” staple of Nationwide vintage. Ben: “I dunno if, like, in our house you were gripped by the sport yesterday…” At the end of this section, after a mention of Tom Daley having to consult a sports psychologist, Ben makes another off the cuff remark about trying out diving himself. Time for Susanna to jump on this: “I’m haunted by the thought of you diving.” Sean one-ups her: “I’m haunted by the thought of you [Ben] in Speedos”.

06:38 – Andi Peters is struggling with a brass-coloured sheet in Leeds. He’s attempting a flourish, the unveiling of his Wheel of Cash. Then: “£50,000 could be yours and here’s how”. Oh dear. No matter what ambitions GMB might be nurturing to become some kind of national hub, the ITV mainstay of pleading for premium-rate telephone and text revenue remains a core element.

I’d forgotten you have this sort of thing on commercial breakfast television. Andi Peters’ Wheel of Cash feels like an idea Chris Evans would have rejected for TFI Friday, but not the early, good, TFI Friday – the show it became at the end, when it was shit. There must be more dignified ways of earning a living at this time of day. And that goes for both you, Peters, and you, Mr ITV.

06:40 – Oh heaven’s above, it’s Ross King “live” from the USA.

As ever it was, Ross has a giant Hollywood sign growing out of his back, as if there’s still something intrinsically thrilling about man’s technology to put another man on the west coast of America and then chat to him.

We’re now back in 1983 and Bob Friend doing links for Breakfast Time in front of a cut-out of the Empire State Building. I’m also sick of this “all the women will be disappointed – and you too Ben!” spiel about George Clooney getting engaged.

“Good morning, Ben, Good morning Susanna, Good Morning Britain!” says Ross. Kerching! Phrase coinage! “Well, I file this one under sort of hashtag-wee-bit-of-a-suprise, hashtag-girls-dry-your-eyes”. #Clunky. Ross then cuts to… Ross, in a Malibu restaurant where Clooney once ate a meal. Summing up the actor’s alleged fiancée – a lawyer – our man concludes: “Brains and beauty! Perhaps it’s George who’s the lucky one.” From Ross, back to Ross. And Susanna asks him about quizzing Clooney on his love life. Ross tells us, hope draining a little from his eyes, “He’s great to banter with on the red carpet”, teeing up a clip… that doesn’t arrive.

It amuses me that the link-up with Ross goes wrong. How come the technology worked in 1983 and not 2014?

06:42 – An expert! “Talk us through some top tips about how to avoid counterfeit goods online.” “Yeah, absolutely.” This bit seems to have dropped in from a late-1980s Channel 4 consumer programme, complete with gaudy scatter cushions.

06:45 – “Perhaps you’re already in the kitchen making breakfast for the family”. The programme throws to a reporter who’s in Morecambe, Lancashire, visiting the Radford family – “16 children and counting” as they say on their website (media enquires [sic] here)

06:47 – A headline round-up, over a bed of the GMB music.

06:54 – Maybe it’s nerves, but Susanna still seems uneasy reciting all the social media stuff. She commits the textbook error of telling us, “I know it sounds rather confusing…” thereby losing even more of our respect. Richard Arnold has two sentences to say, and even then he cocks them up.

Like the phone competition, Richard is part of the root and branch of ITV breakfasts. So much so, he’s spuriously wheeled on here, just so we know he’s still alive. As is his wont, he adopts a faintly derisory tone, hands clasped, smirk fixed. “Thanks boys,” he says throwing into a One Direction VT, which he has had no part in. And afterwards in a jaundiced tone: “And that’s not just any old pier! That’s Clevedon Pier – the pier of the year!”

07:00 – The show has completed one full rotation and we’re back at the top. Once more, the fanfare, “Live from ITV Studios…”, the shot of the tower, the headlines. As we’ve seen a lot of it before, we’ll (mercifully) go lighter on the details from hereon in.

I don’t get why the ITV Studios are given so much lip service in the voiceover and the title sequence. No one cares nowadays where ITV comes from, mainly because ITV itself hasn’t cared for about 20 years. I now think the set most closely resembles one of those posh estate agents where all the pictures of houses are behind intimidating glass panels rather than on noticeboards. Or maybe a “meeting room” in an open-plan office where all the walls are glass so everyone can see colleagues getting bollocked.

07:02 – Gamal Fahnbulleh still isn’t in Sheffield.

It’s been an hour. The faceless reporter is still on the phone. They could at least have dug out an old photo of John Stapleton.

07:04 – Dammit! The camera operator’s too slow and Ben’s head finally darts behind the plectrum-shaped inset.

07:07Someone has sent in an email, and it’s read out with great fanfare, like it’s the first communication from a Mars planetary rover. And now the repeats kick in. Here’s the man living in the pocket of his mother.

07:12Where are the big guests? So far we’ve had Nadine Dorries and Esther McVey: two politicians usually to be found turning viewers against them (and each other) on Question Time or Newsnight, not over coffee and cornflakes. We’re promised Paul O’Grady, but not until after 8am, as if we’re at school and we’ll get a treat but only if we’re good.

07:13 – “What better way to begin… start… begin… someone’s put some extra words in my head.” – Susanna

07:27 – Andi Peters in Leeds grabs the same girl from earlier for another chat. “What’s your name?” Then he accosts Mick the butcher, delighted that he was actually in the market before the trader. “But I couldn’t get in, the bottom door wasn’t open,” says Mick. Andi is contrite: “Sorry about that”. Mick, spins the wheel…

It can’t be helped that the first person to win anything gets only £50. What can be helped is the cringeworthy banter between Ben and Andi. “Andi is not the only prize on offer!” coos Ben as he hands over. “Oh, you know what… let’s not go there!” giggles Andi, meaninglessly.

Once Andi’s plugged the phone-in competition again, we see our final shot of Mick, now holding up a laminated card that reads: “£50”.

07:33“Breaking news, overnight.” An oxymoron from Susanna. I don’t remember her being this slapdash on the BBC.

07:36 – The presenters are working hard to keep bringing it back home. Sean’s had a text from his daughter which he reads aloud: “‘Dad, why didn’t you tell me about the One Direction exclusive?’ I’m just texting back, ‘Life is full of surprises.'”

07:39 – Ben has apparently been chanting “Crystal Palace” during Sean’s segment. I didn’t hear anything. “What’s it like doing a sports bulletin and being heckled at the same time?” asks Susanna.

This is perhaps the lowest point so far. Yes, that includes Soapy Dick.

07:46 – Still more about the presenters’ lives as we share breakfast with “Britain’s biggest family”. Ben: “I’ve got two boys at home…” Susanna: “I have a problem remembering the names of my children and there’s only three of them.”

07:49CLANG! “Find out more about what April showers are on my blog on the Daybreak website.”


07:54 – Ben makes a comedy reference about his devotion to Five Star. “We’ll park that for a moment, what an image!”says Richard Arnold, leaning on two well-worn humorous phrases (the parking and the image).

All morning we’ve been promised that One Direction will “talk about their love lives like never before.” Well, this is the last of the clips, and they don’t. It’s also the last of Richard, whose sole contribution has been to sit on a sofa and twice screw up a joke about One Direction’s entourage being bigger than that of Barack Obama.

08:00 – And here we go again, “Live from ITV Studios…”

Peak-time, the key slot, time for the biggest story of the morning. And it’s George Clooney, followed by Britain’s largest family. I’m utterly flummoxed: what kind of audience are they trying to attract? Who are they talking to? Not Paul O’Grady, who is shown looking dejected and half-asleep all alone in an enormous green room.

08:03 – Finally, someone makes it to Sheffield, but it’s not Gamal Fahnbulleh, it’s Adam Fowler. But Gamal? What’s become of him?


08:10 – Ross King is at it again. “Hashtag-girls-dry-your-eyes-and-Ben-stop-blubbing-away-in-the-corner”. This time, the red carpet clip of Ross accosting George Clooney makes it to air. Ross sounds a little desperate in talking up his fleeting acquaintance: “Great fun, great banter. He always gets back at me as well!”


08:18There’s an awful lot of presumption here. We should be flattered, the programme is saying, that there are no fewer than four people hosting proceedings, and that we’ve got a 90-second clip of One Direction, and that the only outside broadcasts we’ve done are with Nadine Dorries in a field, Andi Peters in a market, and in the kitchen of Britain’s largest family. Still, at least Lorraine’s coming up, and she’s got… oh. BBC newsreader Kate Silverton. “Do you like my new home?” she trills, in front of a row of saucepans.

08:19 – Cut to Paul O’Grady in the green room: “I’m nodding off, here!” Susanna roars with laughter.

08:23 – A last spin of Andi’s wheel, and Joe – one of many media students hanging around the market this morning – nabs £500. Andi hands back to the studio by plugging his daytime quiz show, Ejector Seat.

08:25 – It’s Paul O’Grady in a “rare TV interview” (according to Ben). Susanna asks after his dogs and explains what ‘twerking’ is. And that’s it, we’re nearly out.

Paul O’Grady gets just four minutes. Susanna seems more at ease here – a shame she’s left it until the programme’s dying breath. “George Clooney – he looked like a dog in Switzerland!” shouts Paul. He’s still at it as the closing music swells.

Susanna plugs their interview tomorrow with Zac Efron who’s starring in Bad Neighbours. “Who wouldn’t want to live next door to Zac Efron?”


Only Susanna and Ben get the chance to say goodbye. The other two have vanished. Good Morning Britain isn’t a show; it’s a piece of flat-pack furniture that’s been incorrectly and implausibly assembled from instructions dating back 40 years.

As history shows, ITV’s breakfast programmes will always draw reviews that, in the years to come, prove ironic. Praise for the original TV-am gang of five, brickbats for GMTV. As it happens, we’re providing both options here. Because unlike Ian, I see promise in Good Morning Britain. The structural elements seem right; the capable presenting line-up (although the reliance on a few jaded supporting players feels retrogressive), the self-important music and graphics and an implied promise of somehow being a definitive, all-encompassing service. Granted, the content isn’t there yet, and by that, I don’t mean the show necessarily needs more. If you analyze BBC Breakfast, or Daybreak or any other forerunner, you’ll see that essentially they’re only ever loaded up with 15 minutes worth of material. But there’s a relevance gap when it comes to the Radfords, two-year-olds at school or Richard Arnold coming on to talk about a One Direction piece he’s had no input into.

Shall I make a prediction? Yes, let’s seal Good Morning Britain‘s fate. Despite the papers reporting the programme has “shed viewers” I think this will – after a fashion – work well enough for ITV.

Who’s on tomorrow? “Patrick Kielty.” *Click*

I’m not going to say it was like a Crimewatch reconstruction, because that would be to imply it was crap. And it’s a cheap and unfunny remark anyway.


It was a bit like a Crimewatch reconstruction. This, in case a) you’re still here and b) wondering, was Tommy Cooper: Not Like That, Like This (ITV Monday, 9pm). At two hours, it was proper Easter hols viewing, up against BBC1’s Jamaica Inn – which I didn’t watch, so don’t worry. The drama saw David Threlfall genuinely transformed as Cooper, and although some scenes did play out in the shadow of the nose and the chin, even when the prosthetics were distractingly obvious, he remained invisible. What a performance.

The whole production was quite admirable; Simon Nye’s script showed the humour of  Cooper in his everyday life without it feeling too tiresome or show-offy.  Helen McCrory was lovely as Cooper’s mistress, Mary, talking in a precise, old-fashioned manner that you don’t hear anymore. And Amanda Redman also impressed playing what felt like another forgotten archetype in Cooper’s battler wife, ‘Dove’. But – this whole paragraph is constructed to lead into a ‘but’, isn’t it? – I didn’t find myself at involved with Tommy for almost all of the programme.

I seem to have been making this criticism a lot, moaning about shows that presume our interest rather than earn it. So maybe it’s just me. Yes, intrinsically, a drama about Cooper is a good idea, but it still needs to prove that. Where I did become fully engaged, I’m ashamed to say, is during the final sequence. And that’s why I was banging on about Crimewatch. Suddenly the thing becomes about the circumstances leading up to a person’s death. The caption: ’15 April, 1984′. Tommy coughing: “I’ll phone in sick”. Tommy groaning: “I’m not feeling funny”. Tommy on the phone to Eric Skyes, who tells him: “You’ve never called me before a show”. Mary vowing: “I’ll look after you”. It’s very portentous, although I doubt that’s Nye playing tricks. I’m willing to believe, insofar as it could be established or remembered, these were the conversations that just happened to precipitate something awful. This is a reconstruction.

Nonetheless I’m now hanging on – hanging on – waiting to see it happen. And when it does, I’m glad to say Cooper’s death during Live From Her Majesty’s (thankfully there’s no play on the potential irony of that name) denies any cheap thrills. It continues, pretty much, as it was, Cooper’s weirdly comic snores and all. Briskly, we cut from his son backstage rumbling his dad’s apparent pratfall – “He’s got a bad back, he’d never do that” – to the hastily cued in ad-break covering up the tragedy for millions at home.  There’s no dramatic weight in: “This is the new Acorn Electron…” We remain at a distance from the great man as he passes… just like that. 1

Perspectives (ITV Sunday, 10pm),  saw Alan Davies investigating the life and death of another legendary entertainer; Houdini. It was one of those workaday documentaries that seems to promise nothing much, and then delivers rather a lot. Best bits saw Alan taking part in a seance with a 90-something chap who actually saw Houdini perform, and the revelation the escapologist had invented for himself a fictional child when it transpired he and his wife couldn’t start a family. The way this programme told it, Houdini’s devotion to his craft meant he ended up trapped in a body riddled with pain and on a regimen that, every evening, saw him submerged upside-down into a water-filled cabinet. And yet, in that, he still found escape.

I like Kevin McCloud. He’s got a lovely voice. It’s like the aural representation of a crinkled forehead. There was a lot of Kevin hedging into shot on Kevin’s Supersized Salvage (Thursday C4, 9pm) and being all concerned and impassioned. The object of the documentary was to see if he and a team could ‘upcycle’ a condemned Airbus A320 into an array of “beautiful and useful objects”. Kevin tottered around throughout like a well-disposed college tutor coaxing and challenging his designers. He doesn’t mince his words so much as turn them into fine tartare. He was “inspired and moved” by the project’s results, and I very much like how he never becomes too self conscious to use such rarefied terms. At the end, as he always does, Kevin did a piece to camera and then wandered off, presumably on the scent of something else inspirational.

BBC2 had a big birthday. It wasn’t nearly as good as their last big birthday. Instead, as is the way of things currently with the corporation, it was nothing too self-aggrandising. The BBC not shouting about its own brilliance. So there was a thing about 50 years of sport on BBC2, and a thing about 50 years of music. I didn’t watch either. At some point there’s going to be another thing about comedy. And then there was All About TWO (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm), that title presumably run through the Beeb style-guide. 2 Did hearts sink or flutter in the planning meeting when someone – probably the same person who always pipes up – suggested that, hold on, why don’t we do a panel game to celebrate the  anniversary? You know, another one of those quizzes where there’s no real proper scoring, and we’ll flag up rounds that we’ll just ditch in the final edit.

Nonetheless, this was as reasonable a panel game as they get. Dara Ó Briain always seems engaged in whatever he’s presenting (“One thing we can guarantee you – there will be lots of montages!”) and, of course, Richard Osman… well, he’s marvellous. I loved the title sequence. I loved the clip from Starshot. I loved Richard going into the details of the industrial action prompted by the Play School clock. I really loved some of Dara’s chats with the guests (we only got a spit of what was obviously a terrific conversation with David Attenborough, Dara asking him about how he prescribed the vision for BBC2). And I was impressed by Gareth Malone making a marzipan representation of Babcock Power Construction’s buoyancy aids. But I wasn’t so keen on having the likes of Johnny Ball and Tommy Walsh come on simply to whistle. Or guests just ‘appearing’ beside Dara (where are your manners?). Or the boring ‘name the characters’ round, which involved a montage of characters, then a long sequence of a team trying to name them, then a long sequence of them being told the correct names – twice over. And I really didn’t like Dara fruitlessly asking for any other answers in the ‘what happened next?’ bit when Gareth had already offered up the correct prediction regarding Rick Stein’s dog. Sometimes you’ve got to forget the fun and just go with the right thing.

Well, there you are. At the end of all that, totting up the scores – there’s no clear winner! Good night!

Next week: Watched #18 will travel through the AM with ITV’s Good Morning Britain

  1. Was that a cheap out-line? Actually, maybe it was. Sorry.
  2. The upper-case ‘TWO’ is horrid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr Jones

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

Frank Bough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid? When they find out what? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sic transit gloria mundi, David.

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