Watched 03

So, yes, I was expecting Sherlock (BBC1 Sunday, 8.30pm) to revisit the fall at some point over the remaining two episodes. I liked the tease, but begging the question of how he survived did, it seemed to me, create an obligation to definitively answer it. Ah well. Not that I feel especially miffed. His Last Vow was a terrific final episode, all over the place and packed with invention. The final feint, of running, then not running the closing theme, felt Python-esque.

“I was the one who was responsible for making the mask of the Hound of the Baskervilles”. It’s at that point you lean in. Timeshift: How to be Sherlock Holmes: The Many Faces of a Master Detective (BBC4 Sunday, 10pm – and apologies for the double-colons) was a beautifully made documentary. I’m no Holmesologist, so it may be the case that props maker Margaret Robinson is a regular on the convention circuit with her Great Dane hood, but I thought it was thrilling that, during a discussion about the effectiveness (or lack of) of the eponymous canine’s realisation in Hammer’s 1959 film, she suddenly popped up to take the blame. This is someone who could reasonably be considered incidental to the story of the Great Detective on screen, and yet there she was. Evidence of the sheer love poured into the project.

In truth, I had my suspicions from the beginning; a lovely sequence featuring the giant faces of Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch and Douglas Wilmer addressing the camera with Conan Doyle’s description of his character. It’s that extra dab of colour, that extra touch of care. As were the multiple dissolves between old footage or illustrations and the documentary’s contributors, conspired into similar poses. Lee, in particular, was a glorious talker, versed and enthused – like a fan – in his subject. Mark Gatiss was there, despite a poorly eye, and shockingly generous in his declaration: “My version of Mycroft is entirely extrapolated from Christopher Lee’s version”.

And meanwhile, in the voiceover booth, Peter Wyngarde’s million-year-old tones added both an instant gravity and a slight eccentricity. He, like Churchill, speaks of the “Nazzis”.

The Taste (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm) again, because last week’s episode didn’t really count. Scored like Inception, rumbling along full of its own importance, I still like it. Although it is kind of stand-offish. Judges promenading out grandly (and by the way, what is a “maverick food writer” – someone who does it from the back of a motorbike?), the plebs expected to show due reverence. On top of that, extra-reverence – gasps, hands flap to self-ventilate – for guest extra-judge Richard Corrigan. I’m sure he’s good, but why venerate him above Nigella, Anthony and Ludo? Richard, like most chefs, references himself in his first two utterances; talk of “my classic food” and “my humble seafood cocktail”. But once we get going, everything loosens up and it’s fun. Nigella has a  catchphrase, “Please answer me!” Anthony wafts around like a fart for a bit, before turning on his heel: “We can drag this out, but I know what I’m gonna do. It’s on you dude”. Ludo freaks constantly.

The only moment where I felt it came undone was the final – and let’s not shy away from the language, here – elimination. The apparent purity of the blind tasting is betrayed by the judges then coming to a consensus on who’s leaving the competition, now in the knowledge of who cooked what. Nigella scolds departee Barry. “You abandoned the concept of taste and went for the concept full-stop.” But Nigella, you and your colleagues abandoned the concept.

This week I only watched shows about Sherlock Holmes or cooking. “It’s time to grease your muffin tray and grab your jugs”. Ah, The Great Sport Relief Bake Off (BBC2 Monday, 8.30pm). And then, in a less perky intonation: “And Olympic boxer Nicola Adams will be in South Africa exploring how the money raised is really making a difference.” These gear changes work absolutely fine, we’re now well used to light fun equaling famine relief on TV. Similarly, we accept celebrity versions of shows aren’t as good as the regular ones, but we love Bake Off so we’ll take the crumbs. Even if it means Johnny Vaughan in a hat he presumably brought from home desperately trying to provide value for money in terms of chat. “Yesterday, where I messed up was really all day.” After sandwich biscuits, tarte tatin and novelty cakes, it ended in sweet form, with the celebs taking phone photos of themselves posing with Mary Berry. As anyone would.



Watched 02
I didn’t really enjoy Sherlock (BBC1 Sunday, 8.30pm) it’s plot mostly pertaining to John and Mary’s marriage. This was a story that meant a great deal to the characters (and probably the writers) but not to me. I don’t feel sufficiently invested in any of them to care as much as I needed to. That’s okay, though, I’m not saying either I or the show  committed a crime. Although I do wish more scenes would just end gracefully, rather than flouncing off the screen yelling, “BYEEEE!” with a look-at-me wipe.

There isn’t a lot that’s pretty in The Bridge (BBC4 Saturday, 9pm), one reason why this most preposterous of Scandinavian imports also works out as the most satisfying. With everything tinged in slate grey or, at best, a mossy green, there’s a kind of industrial estate lack-of-allure that works very well contrasted with a plot wherein “someone’s trying to cause an outbreak of pneumonic plague,” and the baddies leave a calling card. This house style, unlike Sherlock‘s, contains the excesses of the story. But that’s not to say it has to mollify the writing. The opening double-bill superbly portrayed Martin’s continuing grief following the death of his son. He’s a man who’s been calcified by the trauma, almost physically: he’s gone shockingly white.

It also helps that in Kim Bodnia the show has a true acting great who has created an unusual character for TV – someone who radiates both actual ordinariness and kindness. So many of his lines are delivered through laughs as he responds to the antics of the birdlike, almost sociopathic Saga (Sofia Helin, who’s also terrific, once you realise where she’s going). Meanwhile, it looks like this year’s story will play out as some kind of weird parable about shopping local, or, as someone says, “pathos-driven eco-terrorism” and I think that will be the least interesting aspect in all of this. But Martin and Saga and the lovely audacious turns in the tale will keep me happy.

Two of the shows I watched this week sported the P-within-a-P symbol, meaning I’ve been subjected to covert selling, although of what I’m still not quite sure. Dancing on Ice (ITV Sunday, 6.15pm) was one, but it was more plagued by another small on-screen graphic, namely that revolving inverted-comma that’s waving-in the commercial break. It felt like the whole programme was under the yoke of this angry punctuation point, Christine Bleakley forever telling us what’s “coming up” before it brought down the curtain. In fact, the production was so geared towards selling the future it began with a routine put to The Best is Yet to Come.

Despite that, there was also a lot of looking back. Plenty of noise was made about this being the last ever series – although why that should be was never explained – with old contestants returning and their various histories elucidated. I like all that sort of stuff, programmes getting into their own mythology. The result being, I felt more engaged by the potential last dances of Bonnie Langford and Joe Pasquale than Mr and Mrs Watson’s first waltz back on BBC1.

Another constant joy of Dancing on Ice – Christopher Dean’s continual drive to sound excitable. He deployed the phrase “tearing it up” twice over the evening. Much racier was Simon Reed in the commentary booth describing the moment Andrei Lipanov elevated Bonnie by means of a hand on her gusset as “something we’re calling ‘Too Hot To Mention’.”

Second sighting of that PP was The Taste (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm). Every food competition on TV, for me, is tested against MasterChef, as I run all the decisions the production team have made on a notional MC logic diagram. A kind of ‘what would John and Gregg do?’ One year, they opened their contest with an ‘auditions’ round, as if it was a requirement to show their working. Few people seemed to like it. The Taste‘s debut felt a bit like that, as if – again – the best was yet to come. I still quite enjoyed it though and in particular the tension between judges Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Ludo Lefebvre which – in as much as these things aren’t real – felt real, specifically the bits of grumbling that crept in after the obvious edit points. I’ll watch again next week, but I do reckon this is programme that’s been polluted by the aphorisms of other similar endeavours: the bit where the camera whips around then slows up as our trio are introduced, contestants pledging their “heart and soul”, a Dragons’ Den-style montage of those contributors who weren’t interesting enough to merit their own three minutes, plus talk of ‘mentors’, ‘auditions’ and ‘locking in’ decisions. This fidelity to those cliches meant the coining of the phrase “final 12” to describe next week’s participants. The rules actually state it must only be the final five or four who are celebrated. Because of the alliteration.

The same rules dictate any review should now exit on some kind of wordplay about the sort of flavour this show left us with. Can’t think of something, so instead here’s Richard Osman’s terrific pun from Pointless Celebrities (BBC1 Saturday, 7pm) about the “sequels” to erbium (erbium on a Saturday night!): Erbium Rides Again and Erbium Goes Bananas.


Watched 01

Here is something to hopefully keep OTT fuelled throughout 2014. A folly, maybe, but every Friday, I intend to publish a review of some of the TV I’ve been watching over the last seven days.

Sadly, the immediate effect of a project like this is I become self-conscious about my choice of viewing. I’ll grow out of that, but in the meantime I thought I should try The Thirteenth Tale (BBC2, Monday 9.30pm). Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the novel by Diane Setterfield, it’s not something I would normally pick. Weirdly, the apparent worthiness of a drama – its gleam of quality, its very artfulness – makes me feel as though I can’t get started. I’m not excited by something that demands reverence. But having my new remit gave me reason enough to push on, and in fact I found this ghost story rather satisfying.

Directed by James Kent, although it deploys some of the more gauche cliches of the genre (creepy twins, children’s laughter on the air – later Ring a Ring o’ Roses) the production is all about formality. The dialogue is measured – “Shall I leave you to rest awhile?” – and the camerawork stately. We slowly approach empty scenes and retreat at moments of resolution. Olivia Coleman and Vanessa Redgrave are deliberate in their playing, to equal effect. Their faces are often impassive, but that just makes things all the more fearful.

I wonder, though, how the drama would work if it was staged with more looseness in both direction and dialogue? Perhaps the ghostliness would escape through the gaps.

I also watched Sherlock (BBC1, Wednesday 9pm) – but I’m not sure the internet needs more words on that. The first episode contrasted with The Thirteenth Tale in that it was happy to unfasten more than a few buttons. I, for one, enjoyed and bought the cheeky manner in which the ‘how did Sherlock live?’ mystery was dispensed. Albeit I do demand real resolution before the series’ end.

As you’ll discover if you’ve the gumption to stick with these weekly reviews, I have a huge affection for a lot of plain, undistinguished programming. Perhaps the hardest-working of these is Pointless. The fame-flavoured, archly-named Saturday night version Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Saturday 6pm) is pretty much everything that’s great about this show in microcosm. Again, in part that comes down to a certain bagginess. Sometimes it takes the form of slightly faltering one-liners (“This guy’s a batch,” ventures Richard Osman, referring to someone and something that now escapes me) and the pleasing pauses when Alexander Armstrong is working out how to get the thing back on the rails. Other times it’s good old fashioned messing around; here that results in the duo adopting  Jeff Lynne-esque wigs and rolling up their sleeves, plus the title music getting an amusing Depeche Mode-style remix – all in celebration of the episode’s 1980s theme.

At the heart is a brilliantly simple quiz premise that nonetheless offers up a lot of cunning complexities. Like the round on coded Beatles titles: 1,4,2,4,4,4 1. And I love the fact that for regular viewers, the programme has become a soap opera of trivia. One of the places the Queen visited in her jubilee year? Tuvalu! Hooray!

I’m not going to try and draw a line between Pointless and Blankety Blank (Challenge, Sunday 8.30pm) but they’re not a million miles apart. Thanks to this year’s Challenge Christmas initiative, it was one of a handful of first-ever episodes we got to enjoy over the festive fortnight. Despite Terry Wogan’s early labouring upon the phrase “our new quiz game”, everything was very much up to speed. From the off, he was acting the slightly besieged host, flashing his stick mic away from its resting place on the nape of his chin, and, in admonishment of his celebrity guests (BACK ROW, L-R: George Baker, Wendy Craig, Bill Tidy;  FRONT ROW, L-R: Judy Cornwell, Lennie Bennet, Lorraine Chase) booming: “You’ve already met our creatures from the Black Lagoon… back, lest you feel the sting of cold steel!” He always had a nice, baroque turn of phrase did Tel. “Part, the second! Round two!” And, to greet the rotating contestants’ pod: “As if on wings of song, around it comes again”. It’s ripe stuff, and wouldn’t have sounded out of place in The Thirteenth Tale

“I rhymed ‘above’ with ‘love’, yes.” It’s one of the few real admissions made by the Kinks frontman in Ray Davies Talks Music (Sky Arts 1, Monday 9pm). He’s referring to the first song he ever wrote, when he was just 10 – Rocky Skies Above. Davies (it feels better to refer to him by his surname) has always been an evasive interviewee, and so is the case for most of this encounter with TV music producer Malcolm Gerrie. He’s an effusive and amiable host, but too many of his questions take the form, instead, of prompts. “You said you used to try your songs out on your dad.” Or: “You said you wrote [You Really Got Me] as a blues song.” Davies, to use his own phrase, finds it easy to “slip around the grid”. A Q&A section at the end with the studio audience does prompt a nice anecdote about The Kinks, The Who, The Rolling Stones et al regularly meeting up at the Blue Boar cafe – now Watford Gap services – to compare notes on recent bookings.

When I sat back at the end of an episode of Come Dine With Me feeling quite pleased all of the participants had actually had a thoroughly pleasant week, I realised that I was no longer watching for the right reasons. So I never came back. But I do still like the similarly-themed Dinner Date (repeats showing ITV, weekdays, 11.35am), in which the raison d’etre is actually to see people getting on. My favourite thing about it is it forces these ‘ordinary’ folk to carry the narrative weight, and thus we have Nicki in one episode – presumably at the prompting of an off-camera researcher – desperately trying to extemporise as she opens a can in her kitchen. “A nice, lovely tin of tomatoes,” she says meaninglessly, but leaving no gaps for any ghosts to get in.


  1. I Want to Hold Your Hand

With trailers now airing for the third series of Sherlock, here’s something to shamelessly cash in. But something old.

This is from a set visit in June 2011, before the start of the second series, so nothing spoilery or embargo-baiting here. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss took journalists around the interior of 221B Baker Street in Cardiff (including one funny old boy who, later on when interviewing the cast, referred to the leads as ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Watson’) and chatted about… Well, here are some bits.

On the show’s immediate success

Moffat: We joined Twitter to try and popularize it. That it was a hit was a big relief.

Gatiss: Really, within the space of the first episode we seemed to develop an enormous fan base.

Consolidating on the strengths and weakness of series one

Moffat: I don’t know how to put this well, but I’m not sure what didn’t work. It did seem completely successful and charming and lovely. There was a point at which I thought this was our vanity project. Our special little world. But when you’ve done something so nakedly ‘fan fiction’ as this and everyone loves it too…

Gatiss: One thing we discovered, to our surprise, was how much people love the relationship between Sherlock and John. We shouldn’t be surprised, that was the idea – to get back to that central friendship. There’s no formula to Sherlock. The approach has always been to rethink it. Not just modernize it, but look back at what Doyle did and think, “That’s why it always worked” and get excited about that again. A lot is to do with the pace of the storytelling, and the thing that makes it exciting is to be very cheeky with it. So there’s a lot of cheek. Probably even more than last year, in terms of accepted things about the characters we all think we know.

Moffat: One of the big differences from last year is that I no longer even think about the updating thing. Last year we thought about it all the time – now everyone’s bought it, we just think about it as working on Sherlock Holmes. I go for days without thinking this is different from any other Sherlock Holmes.

On nearly doing a Victorian Holmes

Moffat: It was at the very last minute when we were having lunch, I remember thinking, “Is this just a thought experiment? Should we just pitch it as a Victorian version?” Was it just a useful exercise in clearing away the debris? And then we thought, “No, let’s do it modern, ‘cos that’s cooler…” In a weird way, stepping away from the originals allows you to be more like them. The Rathbone versions have more of the original stories than the rather arid, two earlier adaptations. My favourite movie in the world is The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is a comedy. It’s the best Holmes film ever made. By being a comedy, by stepping away from what the original was like, it almost finds more of it… Something we’ve noticed – and a lot of people don’t – is that the original Sherlock Holmes stories are also very funny. A lot of Holmes films haven’t been. The recent one, the Downey Junior one is – and a lot of those jokes are taken from the books.

On the Jeremy Brett series

Moffat: Oddly enough they took a lot of liberties in that series. You have to. Some of the best ones they did are the ones where they took more liberties. Their thing was to fetishize fidelity. But what saves them is Jeremy Brett is, in a way, saying, “I’m just going to make this my star part”. So his Sherlock – as all the great Sherlocks are – is not quite the original. He’s a much madder more manic creature than the original. But it’s a great series. It sort of resurrected it, didn’t it, from it being something about to expire, and suddenly it’s back again.

Gatiss: It’s a wonderful series. One thing they did quite a lot of is give endings to stories that Conan Doyle couldn’t be bothered to finish. He used to write them at parties and quite often you’re waiting and waiting and then it’s: “But we were never destined to find out because the ship sank.” You go, “What?!”

Their respective visions of  Sherlock

Moffat: We sync like iPhones.

Gatiss: That’s how it started – on conversations on trains to Cardiff for Doctor Who. So it was that initial dance around admitting the modern Rathbones were our favourite – a slightly heretical thing to say. But once you sync on that…

Moffat: We might disagree a little bit. But only on a detail. But even on quite small things were pretty much in accord.

Gatiss: Also, Doyle contradicts himself a lot. Sherlock does – Lestrade changes a lot. So you can’t really be consistent in that way, except as a fan you want to have the details at your fingertips! So, it’s always a fun thing to play with and try to find a detail that someone might have missed or has never been done.

Moffat: We had one of our most traumatic conversations when we said, “They have to call each other John and Sherlock”. Because if they call each other Holmes and Watson that means they’re a particular kind of person in modern day terms, because you have to be public school boys to do that, and that’s not what they are. So we couldn’t do that.

Gatiss: We got used to that very quickly. It was a tough sell to the crew.

Moffat: And a tough sell to each other! I feel as though, with Benedict’s delivery, we’ve been able to be a little bit more like the original sometimes. I can almost imagine him saying, “Elementary” now. Not quite. But almost.

Did Mark feel self-conscious playing Mycroft?

Gatiss: Utterly! I was forced!

Moffat: He was actually more intent on playing all the parts.

Gatiss: It actually came about because I’d auditioned to play Peter Mandelson for something, and then we had a script meeting and Steve Thompson said, “You should play Mycroft”. And, actually, that was when we crystalised the idea that, what would be really good then would be that if we could try and convince people that – of course – the only person I’d ever play was Moriarty… and it absolutely worked. Which is why I wasn’t credited or anything – because we didn’t want it to leak out in advance. But it was lovely.

Moffat: It was a really good reveal, that. But it was the fact that you were demonstrating what made Peter Mandelson what he is – you were doing the body language and all that and Steve was saying, “You look a bit like Benedict, you should play Mycroft as Peter Mandelson”.