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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watched #05
My flat is quite small. Nonetheless, I was able to run the vacuum cleaner all around it during the third episode of The Jump (C4 Sunday, onwards) in between two skeleton time trials. And that included me unsheathing the nozzle and getting in at some corner bits. This is a show with a strong premise – celebrities undertake Alpine sports – but, unlike the events themselves, there’s not a huge amount of momentum. That’s because, due to logistics, all the racing bits have to happen in the past tense, robbing them of any immediacy. A hunching-from-the-cold Davina McCall links into the clips, and even Barry Davies’ perfectly compiled commentary has a slight shopworn tinge to it. In the show’s opening episode there was a lot said about the importance of aggression on the slopes, but there was not so much in the production. At the end, Ritchie from 5ive was left facing the jump. Which of the three would he select? “I’m only signed off for the small jump”, he said.

But, to business: Dragons’ Den (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm) and TV’s most preposterous title sequence is back. Five middle-aged superheroes (“Telecoms expert, Peter Jones!”), assembling on green-screened rooftops to survey a composited-in later cityscape. Meanwhile somewhere below street level lurks Evan Davis, ready to lean into the pro forma script he’s been delivering since 2005. “Cash-hungry entrepreneurs,” he says. Actually, I paint the picture as though Evan’s in situ on the same day as Peter, Duncan and the rest. There’s  no evidence of that whatsoever. He now has no interaction with any other person in the programme. For him it must simply be a weird day at the BBC studios in Salford, talking about stuff he wasn’t there for, then jumping into the voiceover booth to deliver a script that presumably doubles-up for whomever is signing for the deaf.

Despite the disconnection in the Den, the programme is fun. The Dragons themselves aren’t especially witty, more frumpishly fussy (“I’m irritated! Yes, I’m blinking irritated!” rails Deborah) and even relative youngster Piers seems like a fogey when he tries to celebrate with his new, twentysomething business partners. “Party on!” But the whole conceit of who will win, and how well they negotiate, will work forever. Plus, and I might be going out on a limb here, there always seems to be fastidious chat about poo. Perhaps I’ve just zeroed in on that since, some series ago, Peter shared the info that when he does one he calls it “big toilet”. Tonight, Deborah drilled down into the details of dog mess. “Often the consistency is not as tidy as you had down there,” says the leisure and marketing expert referring to some shit a cash-hungry entrepreneur had just pooper-scooped up from the Den floor.

The Restaurant Man (BBC2 Wednesday, 8pm) is another winner. Reminiscent of C4’s excellent but generically named Risking It All from about 10 years ago, this sees restaurateur Russell Norman advising folk who are attempting to open their own eateries. This week that was the pleasant duo of Rich and Matt who were launching an upmarket burger restaurant – 7Bone – in Southampton. “If we get the concept right,” reckoned Rich, “I personally think we can open up 10 units within five years”. But before that, there was the concern of whether or not the people of the Solent were ready for a place with stripped back walls.

Part of the strength of the programme was the way it presented a thoroughly unromantic view of the industry. When moustachioed Matt was taken for a stint at the grill in Byron Burger, London, head chef Fred revealed his secret to managing multiple beef patties: “You’ve got to be like a robot”. There was also a fascinatingly detailed discussion about the kind of ‘grind’ Rich and Matt were using on their mincer (10mm, in case you need that detail). In  Norman, the show has a winning focal point. Tanned, wiry, permanently adorned with a satchel, he felt like a TV natural – someone expert and efficient, who just happened to have ended up in front of the camera.

On 7Bone’s opening night, all was fraught. By this point Matt was looking physically frail, his Dali ‘tache even losing its loopiness. To see him and Rich clashing over the inevitable mistakes that come on such an evening was a little harrowing. But it looks like the business is going to do well for them, and further ‘units’ will surely  stalk the south coast.

Here’s a programme title that leaves no room for ambiguity: Hidden Histories: Britain’s Oldest Family Businesses (BBC4 Wednesday, 9pm). Like The Jump, it’s got a great premise, but in practice it’s… well, it’s a bit dull. The final episode in this three-part series traced the lineage of the Durtnell family of builders, who first got into the game in the 16th century.

But it’s full of horrible TV contrivances to try and manufacture some sort of through-line. We meet Alex Durtnell, who’s recently become the company’s chairman and chief executive and now – according to Margaret Mountford’s commentary (in which, slightly irritatingly, she delivers every sentence with a primary school teacher intonation) – “As he tries to come to terms in his new role as head of the business, Alex now wants to find out about its past.” Bet he doesn’t. I bet he’s just been approached by the production company and thought it would be a good thing to do. It gets worse. “Alex wants to find out how his grandfather Geoffrey got the business through the Second World War.” Maybe. “So he’s arranged to talk to Battle of Britain historian Robin Brooks…” He did? “…Who has told Alex to meet him at a wartime aerodrome called Detling.” Seriously?

There are some fascinating details within – the Durtnells failing to get into brick and mortar following the Great Fire of London, or the plight of Richard Durntell (the second) who nearly killed the business in the 18th century – and Alex himself is a likeable chap, albeit one who seems underwhelmed by every revelation. But, oh, still the tacking-together continues. “To get to know his grandfather better, Alex has found an interview Geoffrey made for the BBC 40 years ago. Alex has never listened to it before.”

Actually, I undersold Alex’s enthusiasm. There was a great bit where he found a manhole cover with the Durtnell name on it. He took a snap on his phone. It’s going to become his wallpaper.