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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