Watched #29
“The usual Scottish greeting: ‘You’ll have had your tea?'” This is Dr Bill Ayles, dressed in three-piece Harris tweed,  brimming with the wisdom of a long life. He’s surrounded by paintings in his home on Edinburgh’s grandest street, the Moray Estate. He, in fact, looks rather like a painting. He has a storybook face, too good, too archetypal to be someone living now. There’s a portrait of his children, they’re doe-eyed, captured – again – in some place only known to history. “Richard – he died… It was a blow”. A picture of his wife. “Happy, very happy,” he chuckles. She’s now in a nursing home. Bill gently redirects the conversation, dabbing at his nose with a hankie. Looking at all his keepsakes: “I’m lucky to have it all”. But he’s a man left alone. “Now, you said you would like a drink. What would you like?”

The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC1 Friday, 9pm) has swept back onto TV. It begins with all the drama and promise of stepping into a grandly appointed hallway. Steven Mackintosh’s immaculate voice-over and the stirring music capturing  and then ushering us onwards, through mazes of corridors, new discoveries around every corner. The show is blessed with one of those simple concepts – peeling back the history of a thoroughfare – that simultaneously offers up amazing detail and understandable complications.

This episode, set among Edinburgh’s elite, could have won easy points by skewering the toffs and their privileges, yet it did anything but. People like Dr Bill Ayles – quiet people – were allowed their moment, or allowed not to take their moment (the route Bill mostly opted for). “Do you ever imagine what it must have been like when they would have balls in this room?” asks the filmmaker to Katy, having taken the time to set up a projector to splay archive footage of courtly dancing across her 19th century ceiling. “Not really, no,” she replied. Another sequence featured Patrick and Henrietta. She moved the wheelie bin out of view for their stately to-camera shot. Later we saw her crinkle into her hatchback: “Such a killing little thing”. As you can probably tell, I like these little incidents very much. Slightly comic, sometimes, but full of dignity.

One boggles at the man-hours involved in this programme; the amount of ferreting through historical documents and maps. How long was the line of inquiry that resulted in someone coming across a 1961 BBC schools’ programme covering the 1822 Feuing Plan Of Drumsheugh? The detail. Still more detail.

At the end of the hour the doughty residents of the Moray Estate lined up for a final magnificent crane shot. As they waved goodbye, one of the old guys took up his walking stick like a shot gun. As if we were the grouse, because that’s his life and that’s his sense of humour. Next week Secret History is in Duke Street, Glasgow. Another avenue, another line of doors. Another massive story winding through.

Tom’s Fantastic Floating Home (Channel 4 Sunday, 7pm) also aims for a sort of global view of things, literally when inventor Tom Lawton sends a camera attached to a weather balloon up to the edge of space. Tom’s got very blue eyes and ruffled-handsome-man’s hair. He talks with a smile to someone just off-camera and says, “I think there’s always the opportunity to make things better”. Which is why, despite having no experience of boating, and with only “a few months”, he’s converting a near-derelict vessel into something that approximates the imaginings of his six-year-old son Barney (whom, Tom tells us, sees the world through a six-year-old’s eyes). I can follow the first part of this equation, the making things better bit. But why that resolves itself in a boho houseboat still feels mysterious.

Tom spoke often as if he were opening up wonderful truths about life. Having capered around a field at sunset, looking for his equipment returned from somewhere just below the mesosphere, he said: “We sent a camera into space to get the best view, and then you get reminded that Earth’s got the best ones”.

For the record, I think Tom seems nice, and his inventions are also nice. But the relentless upbeat rhetoric, and the notion that a six-year-old’s fancies somehow come straight from a seam of innocent genius, aggravated me. What was that thing Barney had just drawn, wondered Tom, looking for more wonders. “They’re seats, you dumbo!

Sorry, but I  had even less time for Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (E4 Thursday, 10pm). Again, he seems like a pleasant chap – he welcomes the viewers personally – but this is the kind of show which, if you’re not ready to go with it, it goes on without you. And I’m probably too old or something. To me, it was like an episode of The Banana Splits played out by truculent fifth formers. Of the cast, only Noel himself seemed enamored with their world, glorying in its self-consciously styled brand of slightly-crap zaniness. The others underplayed, resistant to it all. As if they too preferred to be left behind.

This is the last weekly review I’m going to post up onto the site for a couple of months. Let’s work towards the explanation why by touching on – we were always leading to this – Doctor Who (Horror Channel daily, various times). I wonder who watches these reruns. Presumably those who aren’t sufficiently interested to have bought the DVDs or downloaded whatever is available from the wide array of sources out there. And what do those people make of what they see? This week it was the very first story, from 1963. The alchemy of An Unearthly Child still persists. It’s an obtuse instalment, that’s true, being barely indicative of what’s to follow. But its mysteries still feel vital. The first hum of the TARDIS interior continues to startle. A switch is thrown, and a journey (to where?) begins.

As of next week, God and Tom Spilsbury willing, I’ll be working on reviews of the new series of Doctor Who for Doctor Who Magazine. They’ll most likely end up here at a later date. So I’m going to focus on that and put OTT and these ‘Watched’ things to bed for a while. That said, if something1 comes my way in the interim,  I’ll do some kind of update. Should that possibility interest you and you ‘do’ Twitter, feel free to follow the site’s account. Or even follow me if you wish. Like Noel Fielding, I’d try to make you welcome.

  1. Let’s be honest here, something low maintenance
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