“Character acting is my line of country,” wrote Arthur Lowe, a sweet turn of phrase that in itself entirely validated the commissioning of BBC: The Secret Files (BBC4 Monday, 9pm). This was one of 25 job-seeking letters the actor addressed to the Corporation between 1946 and ’48. Letters that, for him, were surely disappeared as soon as sent. But no.
The notion of rolling back doors and pulling out drawers in the BBC Written Archives is a particularly unsexy and untelevisual prospect – but also a completely beguiling one for the likes of me; someone who wants to see the signatures and thrills at the letterheads. If the nicely fusty, deskbound BBC4 didn’t exist, one could imagine an exec quickly nixing the email trail pitching the show (“What would the visuals be? Who would really care?”). However, it does, and let’s give thanks.
Hosted, most perfectly, by Penelope Keith, the programme sensibly brought us into Caversham through the actress’ own story, as documented therein. She read to us her hopeful letter of employment from 1960, and there then followed a small revelation. The archives had also retained a similar missive secretly penned by her mother, Constance M Keith (nee Nutting). “I found it very touching after all these years,” said Penelope.
This was the joy of it, no huge disclosures – even during the brouhaha between Kenny Everett and Radio 1 – but small disagreements administrated in beautifully-written memos. A favourite was Michael Mills, having been told to remove Nazi footage from the opening titles of Dad’s Army, moaning the Comedy department wasn’t afforded the same leeway as other units in the BBC. Paul Fox, Controller of BBC1, was having none of it, declaring such comparisons to be “invidious and irrational”1 and adding, “After what I have seen so far, I think one must be allowed to wonder whether Dad’s Army does indeed ‘advance Comedy output into new arenas’.”
The camera panned slowly from right to left, and Penelope spoke to us with a smile in her voice. This was a gentle production, the fine frontispiece for a stack of research. Diligent, beautifully-made, and so, so welcome. “At present I am walking around with sandwich boards, but am desirous of a change,” wrote Derek Nimmo in 1956. But today we should remember that it’s only the BBC that could have – and has – brought us such a programme.
I’m not sure if this is a new series of 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4 Monday, 9pm) or just some more of it after a gap. It seems to thump into the schedules in much the same way Traffic Cops does on BBC1. Whatever: It remains excellent, and comes with a montage title sequence that offers much participatory fun (I chip in with: “Start explaining”, “I’m a lover, not a fighter” and “Good news… Yeah… Got ‘im”).
This episode, titled ‘Bad Blood’, detailed the life and crimes of Dylan McEwan. One pertinent sequence saw Detective Constable Cathie Layton scrolling through his arrest records and mugshots, which go from boy to young man. “Basically, Dylan McEwan terrorises the community,” she said. DC Layton is a quiet hero who’s got enough back story for a six-parter (“I’ve just remembered – say, ‘Happy Birthday’ to my sister. She’s in heaven.”) Much as the Caversham programme spoke of conscientiousness, so did this. Officers with Scot’s Porridge Oat packets on their desks, putting in the long hours. The most pointed encounter took place in the interview room, with McEwan’s solicitor. “We like our battles,” confessed Cathie beforehand, but he had a neat move to delay due process: “I need to go to the toilet. It’s all this tea and coffee I drank.”
In the end, the CPS deemed McEwan should be charged, and a 19-and-a-half hour-shift for DC Layton was over.
I won’t say much about Partners in Crime (BBC1 Sunday, 9pm), but the show’s central mystery is one it can never resolve. What is up with Tommy and Tuppence? While she (Jessica Raine) is vivacious and thrusting, he (David Walliams) seems a bit of a duffer, with all the poise of a Babybel. If we didn’t know the show’s pretext was a jolly couple going on adventures, we would assume their lack of chemistry is a plot point and there was some secret to be wheedled out about their clearly-fake marriage.
Taskmaster (Dave Tuesday, 10pm) comes with a clever format (Greg Davies has five comics competing in a series of pointless challenges), but the cleverest aspect of all has been the decision to retain the competitors over the show’s run. It gives both us and them reason to dig in, particularly as – in a panel game first – the scoring actually means something.
Filmed like a gig in front of an audience (albeit mixing-in pre-recorded segments) it’s got a startlingly slow pace, bordering on loose. When Greg introduces Frank Skinner, he points out he’s wearing a suit because “he’s a different generation to the others”, and it sounds like something that’s just popped into his head. Might not be, but that’s how it sounds.
For me the fun only derails at the bits it all becomes too self-conscious, trying to tackle the admin of TV in novel way. “Shall we have a little bit of banter?” says Greg’s lieutenant Alex Horne2. And then there’s the self-conscious ad break intros, which are clumsy rather than arch. But here’s me criticising this endeavour because it’s trying. I actually liked it quite a bit, and, in a rare moment, liked everyone in it too.