“Oh Boris!” wails Jeremy Paxman, desperately looking for some grumpy bluster. “This is death!” Here he is, on his last edition of Newsnight (BBC2 Wednesday, 10.30pm) and he’s sharing a tandem with the Mayor of London in the hope comedy will ensue. It’s the kind of escapade put together – as Paxman says – by “some idiot” and founded on the notion both men are in their own ways treasurable.
It’s a wobbly way to wind yourself to the end. Although there’s humorous music underpinning the sequence, further cries of, “Oh Christ!” and, “This is a nightmare!” just reinforce the impression Jeremy’s long since become the workplace grump who, feeling he should be commanding a better gig, rolls his eyes at every initiative forced upon him. Sigh. To make matters worse, Boris Johnson is outpacing him. Challenged about the merits of the Shard, he says he sees it as a “cocktail stick emerging from a super-colossal pickled onion,” which gives his interviewer nothing. “[Jeremy] has kept the nation entertained,” says Johnson, now all-but doing links to camera, “if not always awake for many, many years.” Damn. Another good line.
A little earlier in the programme, and it was indeed Paxman himself unleashing the killers. Tussling with another former sparring partner, Peter Mandelson, he reminded us why – despite the lachrymosity and loftiness – he has been such a trailblazer in the discussion of politics on TV. There was no filler, every question, instead, a skewer. “Do you think Ed Miliband is the best leader you could have?” he asked. And that was the opener.
The show ended with a pile-up of gags. “Michael Howard – did you?”, a final post-credit Paxo-trample on the notion we might find a weather forecast somehow useful, and the profoundly odd spectacle of Jeremy keeping lonely vigil as The New Seekers sang I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing over the end credits. Most people, I think, have responded well to the man’s increasing contrariness over the years. But I’ve seen him more as someone in need of a new lease of life. In my imagination, the lights then came back up and Paxman made straight for the car park. On the way, he endeavored not to catch anyone’s eye and binned the farewell cards in the lobby. Goodnight and goodbye.
I’m deeply prejudiced against improvisation as a form of entertainment. If you’re taking up people’s time, it seems courteous to put some work in to ensure you’ll be doing so in a rewarding fashion. It’s lucky, then, I hadn’t grasped the (lack of) big idea behind Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled (Dave weekdays, 10pm) beforehand. The premise is Davies sits and chats with four guests. He has nothing particularly prepped in the way of questions, this is to be a free-roaming conversation in a pub-like setting1. At the end, there’s a tiny bit of admin to deal with, coming up with a ‘name’ for the show. That’s it.
But against all my possible objections, I found it very enjoyable. The lack of preparation, of format points that need to be ‘hit’, brings about a nice tempo of its own. There’s no desperate one-upping of anecdotes as the participants clamber to be at the top of the heap. On Monday night, Davies was joined by Noel Fielding, Jon Ronson, Andrew Maxwell and Kerry Godliman. Jon told a story about being in a restaurant and realising a girl was mimicking the way he ate soup. It didn’t really have a proper ending. There was a bit where Noel was talking about being on the road with the Mighty Boosh. “We saw you on that tour!” interjected the host excitedly as someone might do in real life. No explanation as to who “we” were. At another point Kerry attempted a riff on the kind of comedy haircuts one might ask for: “Yeah, you could go Myra. What else?” and it finished up like that.
Who knew there was pleasure in people talking in such a fashion? Saying funny things, sometimes saying half-funny things, but not having to be productive in their chat. The laughs that then transpire feel all the more honest. And the dynamics… We see Alan’s eyes and nose scrunch up and his head bob when he feels there’s something humorous to be truffled out. There’s Noel, normally always so on it, advancing cautiously: “I don’t know I can even talk about this on television.” And Jon, about to get to the best bit in a tale, covertly communicating the fact that no-one should chip in for a moment by teeing it up with: “This was my favourite part of the whole day.” It’s wall to wall charm. Back at the beginning, Alan even stumbled over his scripted intro.
Pizzicato is TV’s way of signalling we’re in curious territory. The plink-plink of pizzicato strings always accompanies documentaries ‘lifting the lid’ (these things, it seems, come boxed) on eccentric sub-cultures. Thus the plinking plinked throughout The Auction House (Channel 4 Tuesday, 9pm). Maybe it plinked too much as it didn’t strike me there was anything especially challenging about Lots Road auctioneers in Chelsea, despite the fact overlord Robert Ross was happy to collaborate with the programme makers by describing himself as “the boss, and I always get my way.” Yes, there was some tension between him and his staff, but no real lip-quivering. Not even at a three-foot vagina set in bronze. I liked general manager Martin best, who professed his dislike for every item they currently stocked. For him it all came in varying hues of tedium. “Sometimes,” he began, and then a loud bang. “Sometimes things get broken.”
The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC4 Tuesday, 9pm) detailed a NASA-funded, Caribbean-set project in the mid 1960s, in which a two-storey house was flooded and a girl – Margaret Howe – set up home on the second floor with a dolphin – Peter – in the hope of teaching him to speak English. The couple’s relationship became intimate when Margaret decided it was too much bother to winch him downstairs to be attended to by the females. The experience wasn’t sexual on her part, albeit “maybe sensual”. Admirably there was no hint of pizzicato. Instead those behind the camera kept their distance. The story documented was incredible enough. A tale of an undoubtedly good-hearted but massively wrong-headed endeavour, of course it came off the rails, with presiding scientist John Lilly deciding to dope up his creatures on LSD. Just to see.
It’s not the thing in a review to say something as straight ahead as “you should watch this show”. But you really should. It’s available here until the 24th.
- Because this is Dave, the chirpily-named channel that is yet to cancel its Loaded subscription ↩