“Oh well.” The last words uttered in Alan Bennett at 80: Bennett Meets Hytner (BBC4 Saturday, 9pm). Even if you didn’t see it, you can be certain which of that duo said them. Who sighed them. The Eeyore-ish response was prompted by director and Bennett’s sometime colleague Nicholas Hytner rallying for a suitable end to their TV hour together. He’d said, after Alan had talked uncomfortably of future works, “Well, I’m looking forward to as much more as you care to write!”
I came to this interview – two people in a studio with cameras self-consciously in shot or reverentially plaining around them as per the BBC4 house-style – not as a particular Bennett devotee. That isn’t a judgement, more I’ve never properly made the time. I’ve certainly enjoyed his work in theatre and on TV. And I’m aware of its critical worth. But I’ve never specifically sought it out. Perhaps I might make a start. His conversation with Hytner was unusually weighted, the interviewer, perhaps by virtue of also being a collaborator, talking rather a lot. Lucky he’s so clever. “What kind of literature do you find fellowship in?” he asks, not a question I would ever have thought to pose. But the real sparkle, of course, comes from Bennett. Bennett with his hair ruffled at the back, and arm, at times, slung around the back of the chair. He talks with a delicate wisdom that seems matter-of-fact. “The things that you remember,” he says, “are the things you didn’t do”. This leads into a clip from Talking Heads: Waiting for the Telegram (one of perhaps too many excerpts which break into the conversation) and a wonderful performance from Thora Hird, talking with bitter regret about the day she didn’t jump her fiancé‘s bones. Cut back to Bennett, who is gently shaking his head, as if trying to cast off that emotion.
Referring to that series, he says now: “They came like poems… but it’s not there anymore.” Then he reads a bit from his memoir, The Lady in the Van, his feet pulsing gently. Hytner talks about how they’re both trying to flog this project as a movie and that there’s “lots to come”. But Bennett, who can sometimes be a nostalgic, is no romantic. “I find it harder and harder to write,” he says. “All writing is writer’s block”. We’re back at the end, and another impeccably crafted phrase before Hytner makes that flourish. Bennett says his work isn’t like upholstery, you can’t lean back on it. “It’s not a comfort you’ve done all this stuff, it’s a rebuke you can’t do it now”.
The colon is enjoying a purple patch right now. So many shows employing it to connect up their increasingly disclosive titles, named almost with an eye on search engine optimisation1. Here, then, is The Comedy Vaults: BBC2’s Hidden Treasure (BBC2 Sunday, 9pm). I’ve written a lot about old telly over the years, and have come to bristle at phrases such as ‘rare’ and ‘archive’ in TV journalism when talking about the provenance of some obscure footage. They’re prissy, dead words. Nonetheless, it’s still kind of exciting when they pop up within the remit for a clip show. “We’re not going to be serving up the familiar classics,” says Tamsin Greig in the voiceover booth. And, let’s not get too nit-picky, it pretty much didn’t. The star turn, of course, was the horrendous Elton-Curtis-penned pilot for Madness, which from the small excerpt we got (and any more than that would have set the nation bilious) was lumpenly staged, performed and written, relying far too heavily on that 1980s stand-by of breaking through the fourth wall. I could have done with more, however, of Kevin Turvey: The Man Behind the Green Door, while the bit from Clinton: His Struggle With Dirt was exactly the right bit for me. I remember howling at the “she was actually carrying on the affair under him during this televised denial” back in the day, despite having no other memory of the show per se.
“Audi lying about safety standards, Sports Direct with discounts you shouldn’t believe, Sky Broadband punishing you for not having their products, plus the B&Q paint that left this woman allergic to her own sitting room.” Stay with me. “Yes, we’re back”. Here it comes. “It’s Watchdog, the programme you cannot afford to miss.” Let me just restate that in bold and italics with a bracketed bit for the sake of my format: Watchdog (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm). I thought MasterChef was going to be on at 8pm, you see. Here’s the consumer series mustering for another eight-part run, airing live and hosted by Anne Robinson. I’ve been nasty about the show before (blimey, nearly 10 years ago), but I confess it’s still a fascination. In part, because it conspires to create a world where people refer to Anne Robinson as ‘Annie’. We learn much about her life over the hour, that she drives an Audi, that it would be an affront to infer she might buy her lunch from a supermarket (Riz Lateef: “I’m not suggesting you do, Annie…”), that she doesn’t like high street sales, and that she owns a coat that costs a lot more than £88.
Desperate to loosen Annie’s grip is Matt Allwright, who works his Rogue Traders concession vigorously, hawking hard for our attention. His report about a seemingly dishonest airport car parking firm ends up in a good place, Allwright challenging the MD’s assertion he’s not “obliged” to answer any questions by pointing out: “When you say ‘obliged’ it kind of goes with the territory of taking money off people that you don’t lie to them.” But along the way he throws in a million added-value gags, that just makes the whole enterprise seem nervy. Comedy riffs with Tony Hadley, because the company in question is called Gold Parking Ltd. And jaunty, please-do-not-change-channels banter like, “We need answers to this airport parky malarkey”.
When the end credits roll, he’s joshing away with fellow wagster Chris Hollins. Annie, meanwhile, presumably having the Audi brought round.
The Big Allotment Challenge (BBC2 Thursday, 8pm) is now over, with a perfect cob of sweetcorn – “Yes, you’ve got a nice lot of sheath on it,” confirms judge Jim Buttress – and a perfect melon. Followed by dahlias and a hanging design. “Shall we put borage in there?” And lastly a hamper, including a chilli vodka that nearly finishes dear Thane Prince. This is a corner of England, forever green, And like that image, it feels like something comforting from the past (specifically last autumn’s Great British Bake Off final). I’ve said before – we’ve all said before – there’s nothing new in this. But I like it. I hope they turn the soil and do it all again next year.
- Big digression, but wither the pun show name? I remember when it was announced Alexander Armstrong was going to be playing Sir Clive Sinclair in a drama about his Spectrum years, the title, at that stage, was the excellent Syntax Era. When it came to screen? Micro Men. Sigh. ↩