Watched #26
“I only pleaded guilty because I was scared of joint enterprise”. But by the time Johnjo O’Shea says this in Jimmy McGovern’s one-off, Common (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm) we’ve long since got the point.

You can’t take it away from the writer – it’s commendable to highlight a seemingly perfunctory but lethal element in British law, a doctrine of shared culpability that can ensnare the innocent with the guilty. But in doing so, I think he too often deserts the drama. There was an earnestness and simplicity in Common that played out like an educational film. Almost every element of the production served as a tributary, trickling into the main theme: that joint enterprise is flawed. Adrian Johnston’s mournful incidental music lamented it. The dialogue underlined it (“It’s about getting working class scum off the street!”). The direction shone a light on it – literally when Johnjo was locked in a cell and walked with hunched shoulders into the one illuminated shaft of dust.

On the few occasions it deviated from course, Common felt as though it was finally letting in some of the messiness of real life. The scene where a murdered teen’s mum, Margaret, and an undertaker talked awkwardly about funeral arrangements was affecting. “It has to be a white one [coffin] because his friends want to write little messages on it”, she said. It’s probably “little messages” that did it, an odd phrase with the cadence of something a person might actually say, rather than a writer’s polemic. Rather than Detective Inspector Hastings roaring: “It’s called joined enterprise you know, and I love it!”

Documentary Guilty By Association (BBC1 Monday, 10.35pm) followed the next night. “For every family who sees joint enterprise as a threat to the liberty of their loved ones,” said narrator Lesley Sharp, “there are others who believe it was their only way of securing justice.” The debate is more complicated and nuanced than we might expect after Common. And despite detailing the tragedies of families on both sides, the language within was measured. Even placid. Francis FitzGibbon, QC, calls joint enterprise a “drift net”. Sally Halsall, whose son Alex is sentenced to life, says “they don’t have to find out, out of the four, who did it. It makes [the prosecution’s] job easier, really, doesn’t it?” She has that thing on the wall, the thing you see everywhere: ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.

Do you understand John Bishop? I’m not making a cheap-shot about his accent, I mean, do you understand what he is? I get he’s a solid stand-up, but I’m not sure why he’s an industry. What is it about him that makes people – thousands of people – want to watch him perform, rather than another equally capable comic? What’s his high concept?

Whatever it is, the BBC can see it, and so we have John Bishop’s Australia (BBC1 Monday, 9pm) a documentary which is founded on a strong premise. In 1992, desperate to forestall thoughts of marriage and settling into a career as a pharmaceutical sales rep, Bishop set off to Australia to cycle across the country. Back then, he completed the journey head down. He returns now determined to see more than tarmac. Which, obviously, he does. He’s got a camera crew with him and there’s abseiling, milking venomous snakes and visiting a hospital for koala bears. But it’s all filtered through Bishop’s weirdly downbeat personality. “The first European settlers saw the Blue Mountains as the edge of civilisation,” he says in a dour tone. “And today, it feels like my first step into wild Australia. I’m about to try an activity that I’ve both fancied and feared for a very long time.” That reads well, but in the show it has all the gusto of an answerphone message. John Bishop is finding Australia, but I still can’t find John Bishop.

I have a memory of a long ago Wogan. A well-spoken girl, aged around 14, was along to talk about… her new book? Her unlikely newspaper column? I’m not sure. She fired off a stream of well-crafted lines, which, nonetheless, died. Jason Donovan then joined Terry and her, and from that point on, chaos. The audience, heavily stacked with more young girls, screamed and screamed. Terry asked Jason if he had any regrets. I’m not sure what Jason said, but the same question was then addressed to the girl, who made a comical remark that her biggest shame had been wearing that dress to a party on… some specific date that gave the joke verisimilitude. The witticism, yanked from her brain where it had been happily swimming around, lay there flapping. Meantime, screams of, “Jason!” and, “I love you!”

Believe me, I think of this during every one of Victoria Coren Mitchell’s intros and outros on Only Connect (BBC4 Monday, 8.30pm). In her case the lack of obvious approval is because there’s no audience physically present to give it1. But she has the same delivery as that girl; posh, wry, confident. The way her head vibrates slightly, almost in disbelief at her own wit. I wonder if maybe she was that girl who floundered upon verdant Shepherd’s Bush Green. Most likely not2, but I still think Victoria Coren Mitchell is great. And I think Only Connect is great too, despite the fact this year’s championship was again decided in the MS SNGV WLS round3

I am going somewhere with this. I’m heading towards the hope that when Only Connect reappears on BBC2 for the next run, it’ll  be allowed to continue in the same wonderfully prim, smart-arse form, doing that slightly embarrassing mind-meld of high-culture and ‘We’re drinking!’ jokes. Even if it’s being barracked by an audience calling for more obvious pleasures.

  1. Other than the players, but they’re too preoccupied formulating a limp response to the “What did you do to prepare for tonight’s quiz?” question
  2. Actually, yes! After this was published, the wonderful Simon Tyers tweeted me this video link. So, it was Victoria (actually aged 17) with Jason, albeit on an edition of Wogan presented by Sue Lawley. The whole episode is a weird kind of symposium on successful youths, and involves Victoria and Jason debating the death sentence. The audience are as badly-behaved as I remember, Sue getting quite grumpy. Victoria’s gag about regret is 24.15 in, if you want to see how accurately I remembered it, or just click here to jump straight to it.
  3. It’s the one element of the show that doesn’t feel of apiece with the rest – they could throw in an observation round, and it would make as much sense
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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.

  1. © Zeppotron