Watched #30
“The ladies of Tilling do have a sharp eye for each other’s failings,” grunted Mark Gatiss as the too-young Major Benjy. So do folks on the internet, of course, so bear that in mind as we continue.

I’m already inferring that in Steve Pemberton’s three-part take on Mapp and Lucia (BBC1 Monday to Wednesday), Gatiss doesn’t have enough years under his belt to truly embody the bluff military man – even though he gave it his ruddy-faced best. But this was a production confidently staged and excellently cast and I laughed a few times. Although it did make me wonder, why? Why make this version? Is it reason enough the characters haven’t been on TV for 30-odd years? Perhaps. The novelty of EF Benson’s original concept – bitter social warfare conducted through garden fetes and bridge evenings – still feels strong, but as grand as this production was, I’m not sure it added anything more to the story.

Other than Miranda Richardson’s teeth. Oh, how beautifully detailed, her left lateral incisor just overlapping one of the central two. A small jumble that cleverly undermines Mapp’s perma-smile. I know Richardson has said she didn’t watch Prunella Scales’ version of the character in the 1980s LWT adaptation, but dentistry aside, I was startled by how similar this take was. Eyes crinkled, an effort at a placatory tone that remains forever on the verge of breaking, and even the voice. It could be Benson’s writing stipulates all of that – I haven’t read his books – however the parallel interpretations, I thought anyway, were fascinating.

I honestly can’t think of too much more to say about Mapp and Lucia. It was fine and jolly and the end of episode one, with Zadok the Priest blaring out as Anna Chancellor’s Lucia held her Tilling subjects rapt, captured the balance of utter triviality and magnified emotion that is at the heart of these stories. I’m sure it’s absolutely delivered on Pemberton and the BBC’s hopes for these adaptations. How could you say not? But I watched the other two episodes while doing other things. Napping, I’ll admit, in one case, because although its been beautifully put together, it didn’t feel essential.

On the other hand Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe (BBC2 Tuesday, 9pm) was a must. Part of the lure was seeing how his roughhousing would work on some of the more controversial and just plain nasty news events the year offered up. I confess, I was craning my neck when we reached the Rolf Harris trial, only for Brooker to pass the ball to Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas, comedic characters whose purpose is to show how vapid and disengaged ‘talking head’ cultural commentators normally are. So, a bit of a body swerve there, and yet you have to commend someone who’ll concede, “I suppose I’ve got to talk about Isis,” and manage to do just that. Of course, what Brooker’s really addressing – in every case – is the media coverage surrounding all of these events, rather than the events themselves, but his remark about “an accelerating viral cycle” around the terrorist group’s actions was just one of a million nicely honed lines that, for anyone of a broadly leftie viewpoint, seemed to cut through.

If there’s one thing we should upbraid him for, however, it’s the way he continues to employ that same incisor-like wordplay to make barbs at how people look. Sure, he is excellent at it – and in the attached footnote I’ve listed the many he employed during this hour1 – but is there any nobility in this? Particularly since blunt approximations of the same routine have now polluted the works of so many other writers.

I don’t think it would be controversial to assert Top Gear (BBC2 Saturday and Sunday) is leaning even more on tried and tested fare. Their two-part jaunt across Patagonia contained what some might describe as all the ‘essential components’ (others would say ‘usual bits’) of their foreign films – specifically nobbling each other’s cars, a sequence put to The A-Team music, lots of driving across rickety and makeshift bridges, Jeremy Clarkson’s weird intonation of certain words (as if that gives them instant comedy), occasional awkward segues into earnest travelogue voice-overs, and all of the above coloured by a vaguely jingoistic worldview. Well, it’s a format and I would agree that most of the time it makes for extremely well produced, self-consciously non-PC entertainment. But the final reel, in which the production team’s vehicles were stoned by protesting Argentinians did make you wonder… is it all worth it? All the bother? For those helicopter shots and three men mostly behaving in an unlikeable way? Top Gear is never ever apologetic. This time, perhaps it should have tried that.

Greg James is a name I’ve heard before and Gemma Cairney a face I think I might have seen somewhere. It was they who introduced the New Year’s Eve Fireworks (BBC1 Wednesday, 11.55pm). And to their credit, they just got out of the way, letting us enjoy the view from Central Hall, Westminster and handing over to the GLA the responsibility for the first 10 minutes of TV in 2015. “Keeeeeeeep drinking!” they trilled upon their return. “Responsibly.”

  1. Bake Off contestant Iain Watters is a “furious owl-man”; Nigel Farage is a “frogman of the people”; Gordon Brown is “the Gruffalo”; David Cameron is “Igglepiggle”; Ed Miliband has “the face of a rubber ear”; Russell Brand is “a cross between Jesus and Rise of the Planet of the Apes“; The Proclaimers once were “Frankie Boyle lookalikes”; Alex Salmond is the “automatic pilot from Airplane“; and Dapper Laughs’ Daniel O’Reilly appeared on Newsnight “dressed as a ’50s beat poet”
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Watched #06
Emma Willis and Marvin Humes host The Voice UK (BBC1 Saturday, 7.10pm). I know this because I read the blurb. However, watching the programme – which just starts, no ground-rules – the duo disappear. If you know who to look for, you might spot them in the green room, contorting and cajoling along with the well-wishers. Impotently calling out to Kylie et al to slam that stopper. “Come on!” At this point in the show’s process (‘The Blind Auditions’), it makes for the weirdest presenting job on TV.

It’s not snobbery that prompts me to say this, just context; but I haven’t followed a Saturday night talent show since the second series of The X Factor. But I was challenged to review The Voice UK by Ian Jones (and, yes, I do take requests). I’m a little off the pace – there’s some chat about how many acts each ‘coach’ has acquired, but I’ve no idea how big their final roster needs to be, or, indeed, the deadline for that. As a result, this episode felt a bit formless, it didn’t really resolve itself into anything, other than some stuff that happened. Not that I have a problem with the programme. A lot of things I recognised and enjoyed, such as the montage heroics with all sorts of different simulated film grades and loads of lens flare. Likewise the musical stings that round off each auditionee’s segment, laser-targeted for pathos. Other elements surprised me. Pleasantly. The unusual feeling of loneliness as singers find their way through seemingly deserted backstage corridors before stepping out onto a silent stage – save for some throat-clearing and microphone rustles – was interesting and quite at odds with the usual bombast of these things. Similarly, the loose chat of the coaches, deemed so important, so jewel-like, it is punched up onto the screen in subtitles. “Great”. “There’s two”. “What about Tom?” I was also taken with the audience’s arbitrary support for Kylie, or Sir Tom, or will.i.am, or Ricky at various points when someone has a choice of all four. There seemed no wisdom behind who was winning the swell, like The Price is Right studio suddenly fixating on the correct value of a microwave oven.

In one of those weird past-tense segments on bleached-out video, will.i.am talked to somebody stood to the side of the camera about how the show was about all music, the blues, opera, folk; at which point a stream of contestants representing each failed to win any sponsorship. But still, everyone leaves The Voice UK happy, and that’s the best thing about it. It’s a build ’em-up sort of show. “You were made for the stage,” enthuses Ricky to Leanne Jones whose performance of Skyfall has turned no heads or buttocks.

Now clocking up its 21st series of – as Noel Edmonds would say – its ‘modern era’, Top Gear (BBC2 Sunday, 8pm) returns doing what it does. The sheer confidence remains impressive, the programme never looking for a cute rationale to do what it wants to. Tonight, there’s an item on “hot hatches” which straddles the whole episode. The usual hi-jinks and explosions result and a smashing sequence of Jeremy Clarkson trashing a supermarket – the show, as ever, exploiting TV’s profligacy. These things are possible simply because it’s telly. It’s true the banter between Clarkson, Hammond and May can pall, the news segment often resulting in three mediocre wits attempting to upstage the other, and so many of the show’s ticks rely on age-old references (Clarkson’s: “Run away!” is a mildewy lift from The Holy Grail), but it is what it is and it does what it does. “Back in your box, Hammond!” roars guest Hugh Bonneville, tapping correctly into the abrasive, clubby ethos – to the point of even wearing an appalling sweater.

Ho ho! The final episode of The Route Masters: Running London’s Roads (BBC2 Sunday, 10pm) finally showed up, seven months behind its preceding instalment. This, presumably, was for legal reasons, as this reliably terrific hour was devoted to ‘Fighting Crime’ and criminal cases that perhaps weren’t resolved last July. Twinkly piano music and beautiful, dusky aerial shots of London ceded into astonishing CCTV footage of violence on board the buses. A man being kicked out of a top deck window alongside Finsbury Park was the most horrific scene. The rich seam, however, remained the staff connected to the transport system. Sgt Darren Birmingham, with glasses camply resting upon his forehead, policed Brixton streets with humour and good sense. “Be lucky, son!” he bellowed, having stopped and searched a group of teens. “Stay safe!” Later on, he showed us how to spot a junkie simply by the way they walked, before invading a drug den, jumping upon his quarry and declaring, “Alright son, nice to meet you!” Elsewhere, softly spoken Scot Lyle talked us through a pickpocket steaming pensioners on a bus. “Quite brilliant”, he whispered.

I wasn’t being willfully obscure in watching Diary of Britain (BBC Alba Friday, 9pm). Honest. I saw it on the iPlayer and thought it sounded good. This was a slightly repackaged repeat of an episode from the 1978 series, which followed a week in the life of various UK towns. So here we were in the Highland town of Newtonmore in a September, 36 years ago. The commentary by Finlay J MacDonald is sparse. “One of [the town’s] preoccupations is a kind of warfare – a team game called shinty”. In an inversion of our assumptions, we discover – thanks to a 2014 update appended to the start – that back in those days, the high volume of cars and lorries were a massive burden on the town, something that has since been alleviated by the building of a by-pass. Despite the dedication to arcane sports and poaching, this isn’t a bucolic, now-vanished paradise. “The traffic noises on the main street dominates the village. Everyone lives within the sound of it”.

So many of the sequences are functional. A Leyland lorry delivering Mother’s Pride, or sport try-outs on the hill. “An old cottage is demolished” says Finlay J MacDonald, and so it is. No one actually speaks on camera for 10 minutes, and when they do, it’s in a series of manufactured encounters. Billy, who’s Shell petrol station is nine days from closing, chats to a barman (in a blue overall, of course, fag on the go) about his situation. Bob, the owner of another garage, is worrying about being left in the lurch now one of the contractors working on the new A9 has gone out of business. “On Monday morning. I had a Laird in…” he confides in another staged chat to one of the local governors. The Laird has told him he’ll be taken care of.

This is a programme that feels clear-headed with acres of space, room for traffic noise and these conspired conversations. It ends with the “needle match” between Newtonmore and Kingussie, which is brutal. The goalie steals an opposing player’s shinty stick and they brawl. We’re told the match ends in a draw, but Newtonmore would go on to win the league and the Scottish Cup for the 24th time.