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.