Emma Willis and Marvin Humes host The Voice UK (BBC1 Saturday, 7.10pm). I know this because I read the blurb. However, watching the programme – which just starts, no ground-rules – the duo disappear. If you know who to look for, you might spot them in the green room, contorting and cajoling along with the well-wishers. Impotently calling out to Kylie et al to slam that stopper. “Come on!” At this point in the show’s process (‘The Blind Auditions’), it makes for the weirdest presenting job on TV.
It’s not snobbery that prompts me to say this, just context; but I haven’t followed a Saturday night talent show since the second series of The X Factor. But I was challenged to review The Voice UK by Ian Jones (and, yes, I do take requests). I’m a little off the pace – there’s some chat about how many acts each ‘coach’ has acquired, but I’ve no idea how big their final roster needs to be, or, indeed, the deadline for that. As a result, this episode felt a bit formless, it didn’t really resolve itself into anything, other than some stuff that happened. Not that I have a problem with the programme. A lot of things I recognised and enjoyed, such as the montage heroics with all sorts of different simulated film grades and loads of lens flare. Likewise the musical stings that round off each auditionee’s segment, laser-targeted for pathos. Other elements surprised me. Pleasantly. The unusual feeling of loneliness as singers find their way through seemingly deserted backstage corridors before stepping out onto a silent stage – save for some throat-clearing and microphone rustles – was interesting and quite at odds with the usual bombast of these things. Similarly, the loose chat of the coaches, deemed so important, so jewel-like, it is punched up onto the screen in subtitles. “Great”. “There’s two”. “What about Tom?” I was also taken with the audience’s arbitrary support for Kylie, or Sir Tom, or will.i.am, or Ricky at various points when someone has a choice of all four. There seemed no wisdom behind who was winning the swell, like The Price is Right studio suddenly fixating on the correct value of a microwave oven.
In one of those weird past-tense segments on bleached-out video, will.i.am talked to somebody stood to the side of the camera about how the show was about all music, the blues, opera, folk; at which point a stream of contestants representing each failed to win any sponsorship. But still, everyone leaves The Voice UK happy, and that’s the best thing about it. It’s a build ’em-up sort of show. “You were made for the stage,” enthuses Ricky to Leanne Jones whose performance of Skyfall has turned no heads or buttocks.
Now clocking up its 21st series of – as Noel Edmonds would say – its ‘modern era’, Top Gear (BBC2 Sunday, 8pm) returns doing what it does. The sheer confidence remains impressive, the programme never looking for a cute rationale to do what it wants to. Tonight, there’s an item on “hot hatches” which straddles the whole episode. The usual hi-jinks and explosions result and a smashing sequence of Jeremy Clarkson trashing a supermarket – the show, as ever, exploiting TV’s profligacy. These things are possible simply because it’s telly. It’s true the banter between Clarkson, Hammond and May can pall, the news segment often resulting in three mediocre wits attempting to upstage the other, and so many of the show’s ticks rely on age-old references (Clarkson’s: “Run away!” is a mildewy lift from The Holy Grail), but it is what it is and it does what it does. “Back in your box, Hammond!” roars guest Hugh Bonneville, tapping correctly into the abrasive, clubby ethos – to the point of even wearing an appalling sweater.
Ho ho! The final episode of The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads (BBC2 Sunday, 10pm) finally showed up, seven months behind its preceding instalment. This, presumably, was for legal reasons, as this reliably terrific hour was devoted to ‘Fighting Crime’ and criminal cases that perhaps weren’t resolved last July. Twinkly piano music and beautiful, dusky aerial shots of London ceded into astonishing CCTV footage of violence on board the buses. A man being kicked out of a top deck window alongside Finsbury Park was the most horrific scene. The rich seam, however, remained the staff connected to the transport system. Sgt Darren Birmingham, with glasses camply resting upon his forehead, policed Brixton streets with humour and good sense. “Be lucky, son!” he bellowed, having stopped and searched a group of teens. “Stay safe!” Later on, he showed us how to spot a junkie simply by the way they walked, before invading a drug den, jumping upon his quarry and declaring, “Alright son, nice to meet you!” Elsewhere, softly spoken Scot Lyle talked us through a pickpocket steaming pensioners on a bus. “Quite brilliant”, he whispered.
I wasn’t being willfully obscure in watching Diary of Britain (BBC Alba Friday, 9pm). Honest. I saw it on the iPlayer and thought it sounded good. This was a slightly repackaged repeat of an episode from the 1978 series, which followed a week in the life of various UK towns. So here we were in the Highland town of Newtonmore in a September, 36 years ago. The commentary by Finlay J MacDonald is sparse. “One of [the town’s] preoccupations is a kind of warfare – a team game called shinty”. In an inversion of our assumptions, we discover – thanks to a 2014 update appended to the start – that back in those days, the high volume of cars and lorries were a massive burden on the town, something that has since been alleviated by the building of a by-pass. Despite the dedication to arcane sports and poaching, this isn’t a bucolic, now-vanished paradise. “The traffic noises on the main street dominates the village. Everyone lives within the sound of it”.
So many of the sequences are functional. A Leyland lorry delivering Mother’s Pride, or sport try-outs on the hill. “An old cottage is demolished” says Finlay J MacDonald, and so it is. No one actually speaks on camera for 10 minutes, and when they do, it’s in a series of manufactured encounters. Billy, who’s Shell petrol station is nine days from closing, chats to a barman (in a blue overall, of course, fag on the go) about his situation. Bob, the owner of another garage, is worrying about being left in the lurch now one of the contractors working on the new A9 has gone out of business. “On Monday morning. I had a Laird in…” he confides in another staged chat to one of the local governors. The Laird has told him he’ll be taken care of.
This is a programme that feels clear-headed with acres of space, room for traffic noise and these conspired conversations. It ends with the “needle match” between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which is brutal. The goalie steals an opposing player’s shinty stick and they brawl. We’re told the match ends in a draw, but Newtonmore would go on to win the league and the Scottish Cup for the 24th time.