What is it like to be featured on the news and see oneself captioned as ‘witness’ or, worse, ‘victim’? As if that’s what it’s all been leading to. However many years you’ve had, whatever philosophies you’ve cultivated, however you part your hair – this is what you are. That thought occurred while watching Permission Impossible: Britain’s Planners (BBC2 Tuesday, 7pm) because here’s tenant farmer June Reed, ‘objector’. And her husband, David Reed, ‘objector’. Frodsham siblings Dennis and Liz Rowley, who think modern architecture is better suited to Altrincham – ‘objector’ and ‘objector’. Ellesmere Port pensioner Graham Penness. ‘Objector’.
You can’t blame TV for boiling lives down to one line, because we’re not really in this for Graham Penness’ story. So instead he becomes a supporting character in a more interesting (sorry, Graham) scenario as the documentary series picks at the tension between the government’s drive for the UK to build itself out of recession, and our own resistance to backyard developments. More people require more homes, but where? The overlaps in the argument are succinctly summed up by Steve Morgan, the chairman of property developers Redrow: “We build homes for the objectors of tomorrow.”
The stars of this show are, as you would expect, the planners, whom we follow on their day to day. No one can rival Stroud’s Phil Skill, who not only comes equipped with an awesome name, but acronyms too, hitching up a foot and looking out over an AONB. Nial Casselden in Cheshire tries to jolly car journeys along by musing that Cheshire cheese is “not my home cheese, my home cheese is Stilton.” Plus there’s Graham Boase, fighting to save Denbigh Hospital. He tells us: “The reason we carried out those urgent works was for that very reason – they were urgent”. MI:BP is full of these low-density pleasures. An additional thrill is the bit in every instalment where councillors trot onto a mini-bus and go on a field trip to see a contested plot. In Frodsham, they’ve brought wine gums.
The hour culminates in the final council judgement on the episode’s three dilemmas. There’s normally no theatre in this; short perfunctory statements, a show of hands. It’s the fall-out that’s the thing. “You have to move on with grace,” says Liz Rowley when her objection is ruled out. “We’ve had our Neil Armstrong giant leap for Frodsham’s architecture,” reflects Dennis. But in Little Sutton there’s something more stirring. “The National Planning Policy Framework,” sighs councillor Armstrong, taking one small step towards drama, “it virtually takes the legs away of all of us… it’s a tragedy we have to live with”. The result is, the land tilled for 22 years by June and David Reed is to become 1,500 or so new homes. The couple are now no longer farmers, or indeed ‘objectors’. What will they become?
These words, I have learnt, are an after-the-event rationalisation for a biased decision I took in mere moments. A decision that was both quick and lazy, based more on prior experience and prejudice than anything else. It’s my System 2 cognitive process footing the bill for my System 1 automatic mode of thinking.
Horizon (BBC2 Monday, 9pm) outlined these gears in an episode titled ‘How You Really Make Decisions’. Thanks to the Nobel prize-winning work of Professor Daniel Kahneman, in the last few decades it’s been revealed that when it comes to making choices “we are stuck with our intuitive inner stranger”. This stranger is reactionary, even knee-jerk. He or she can’t be bothered to think things through and instead draws a little on experience and confirmation bias to offer up an easy answer. At which point System 2 then has to improvise a more joined-up sounding rationale to justify System 1’s thinking. Various simple experiments proved this, including asking passers-by if a hypothetical shy and retiring man called Steve who lived in America was more likely to be a librarian or a farmer. Most answered librarian. There are 20 times the latter in the US.
As with all good factual broadcasting, this simple premise was allowed to branch out in complicated ways – we saw how it may lead to huge oversights in US intelligence and cataclysmic fails in the financial industry (Kahneman’s Nobel prize was for economics). The thesis was fascinating, the pictures sometimes less so. It’s a cliche that when TV thinks deeply we end up having to look at slow-motion shots of passers-by. Such was the case here. There’s a lot of footfall outside Benugo.
With the cruel certainty of a twist-in-the-tale, I’m getting around to writing about Inside No 9 (BBC2 Wednesday, 10pm) just at the point this impressive series hits a dud note. Nonetheless, the fourth episode, ‘Last Gasp’, still showed that Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have a gift for details – the No 9 being a beige, suburban dwelling where the beigely-named Jan and Graham (I know) offer coffee with a Canderel “she nicked… off a train.” But while the core premise – three parties arguing over a balloon that seemingly contains the dying breath of a famous crooner – comes from a sturdy line of fiction featuring miscreants coming a cropper when it gets to sharing out the loot, it lacked accompanying tension. The characters didn’t really go anywhere. Even their eventual conspiring in murder didn’t feel at all transformative. In the end, daughter Tamsin opened the window and set the balloon free. All the way along there was just too much air in the story.
Consistency is at the core of Chris Lilley’s TV series. His mock-docs We Can Be Heroes, Summer Heights High, Angry Boys and now Ja’mie: Private School Girl (BBC3 Wednesday, 10pm) all feel of a piece, to the point that even the title sequences are comparative – like a picture forming over the spines in a DVD box set. The result of this approach is real polish. Ja’mie’s series is meticulously cut together, saccharine high-energy pop music playing over sped-up montage footage, fading through a shock of white back into the narrative.
Lilley will turn 40 in November, but the fact he’s playing the 17-year-old title character seems like the least of the show’s novelties, so nuanced is his performance. Ja’mie’s life is one of constant high-stakes pivots, where one moment she’s “so devo” [devastated], the next she’s jumping up and down in excitement about the prospect of outraging her school by turning up in “like, slut socks”. There perhaps aren’t many surprises in an episode, but the way it’s been honed (Ja’mie’s bedroom wall is festooned with photos of boyfriend Mitchell, until he dumps her, at which point we see just blu-tack marks), and the sheer belief that underpins it makes it a continued, reliable pleasure.