Watched #45
Any programme that starts with the pretext we “as a nation” share some specific attribute gets me suspicious. “Spend, spend, spend! We love doing it!” bellows Anne Robinson in Britain’s Spending Secrets (BBC1 Wednesday, 9pm).

I immediately thought of all the fun I was going to have being rude about a show, which, yes, does also use the quasi-witticism “retail therapy” at one point. Sadly, I soon found myself enjoying it, and on its own terms.

The fact of the matter is, let out from her Watchdog dungeon and given the time to follow conversations where they might go, Anne Robinson is an excellent journalist. She tees up a sequence with Charlotte by acknowledging this young mother on benefits, deep in debt, is the “perfect punch bag” for the programme. Charlotte has an expensive fridge, bought on HP, which lights up blue. “They gave me everything I wanted…” she says, the ‘they’, as ever, going undefined.

Another contributor, Laura, is wealthy and profligate. You can tell where she is on that continuum by the fact she refers to her clothing purchases as ‘pieces’.

But the person who fares worst of all is Darren. He’s the father in a family who, we’re told, bring in £100k a year. And in the programme’s most obviously formatted element, he plays host to Claire who’s from a £25k household. Darren’s wife pulls a two-hour commute  everyday to net 90 per cent of their income, while he’s shown arsing around in his “man cave” (another now spent wisecrack) and extolling the virtues of Starbucks. The programme-makers throw he and Claire into a debate about the merits of sending his kids to Eton. He tells her: “The guy who played Stephen Hawking in the latest film about his life – he was an Etonian”. On the reciprocal visit to her house in Malvern, he’s on his app, checking. The nearest Starbucks is Tewkesbury.

Meanwhile, Anne has realised she’s onto something when it comes to white goods. “Let’s have a look in your fridge!” she cries, visiting the home of Romany zillionaire Alfie. “People’s fridges always find them out.” She has a knack for loading up the right question. At home with the spendthrift Baroness Jenkins, she asks what search phrase she uses when looking for clothing bargains on eBay: “Mother of the bride”. And then visiting societal drop-out Jedi and his troupe – who live in makeshift homes in the forest – she immediately recognises that more conventional concerns still dominate, with these eco-warriors worrying about having the best plot of land and foraging food from only the nicest supermarket bins.

There’s a canny eye at work, one far better deployed in this kind of reconnaissance than tipping a wink to Chris Hollins.

I haven’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation (Syfy Monday, 7pm) since it was beamed over here onto BBC2 at the start of the 1990s. As was the way back then, because the show was from America it came to our screens in a slight blur. Everyone inside a corona.

But today, it looks great. Crisp, presumably HD, and the only auras are those inferred by the script. “What would Picard do?” is Riker’s advice as ship’s mascot, Wesley Crusher, is struggling in a new leadership role. Everyone’s a hero inside these walls, so much so the aforementioned first officer can never be at rest. Instead he has to stand at things. Or when he does take a load off, he does so by hoofing his leg over a chair and then descending onto the seat.

I’m sufficiently informed to have recognised this episode – ‘Pen Pals’ – came from the show’s second series, when Dr Pulaski practised medicine and the uniforms had detailing on the shoulders. But I’ve no idea how this one is regarded within circles. Poorly, I would guess. The story is slight, and has been pickled by the intervening years into something inadvertently unpalatable. You see, Data has been secretly chatting to a little girl on a planet somewhere, and now the two are going to meet. “Does your family know where you are?” he asks her, in an alien-planet-room with pot plants.

Looking at this today, it’s obvious it comes from a time when sci fi wasn’t allowed to tarry with nonsense. We learn the Enterprise (never uglier than its Next Gen revamp) is on a boring-sounding “planetary mineral survey” in somewhere called the Selcundi Drema sector, a name that’s such a dirge it leeches any possible drema – sorry, drama – from any possible situation.

Captain Picard does poorly too. Pompously lecturing Counsellor Troi1 on the art of horsemanship as he pops on his flat cap and jumps onto a steed conjured up by the holodeck. It looks, and feels, like a dubbed scene from Châteauvallon. Later, he’s in his office, reading a book that doesn’t have an illustration on the cover (because that would be trivial), grandly allowing a, “Come” when his doorbell chimes.

Meanwhile, everything is scored with insistent orchestra, telling us this bit’s heroic, this bit’s uplifting, this bit is touching (“Understanding that has brought you a step closer to understanding… humanity”).

Such resolute earnestness in the end breeds only derision. Data’s new pal, Sarjenka, is an alien endowed with a pinky that’s as long as her index finger. Why shouldn’t an alien have a long pinky? You can imagine that question being work-shopped. Alien fingers might well deviate from our own. This is good. But it doesn’t leave room for the unthinkable – that it might look stupid.

A quick word for The Great British Bake Off (BBC1 Wednesday, 8pm) which produced from the oven a wonderful lion’s head in bread. The series itself remains a proper treat, but the noise around it is such a bore. If you search #GBBO on Twitter, you’ll find companies trying to attach themselves to it. There’s the Good Food channel, there’s someone selling oven gloves, a brilliantly spurious one shilling vitamin pills that simply drops in the hashtag with no attempt at relevance… I even spotted a car company trying to riff off the episode. Worst offender, though, is the official BBC1 account, which smothers Bake Off during its transmission, every double entendre regurgitated in a JPEG. It’s not written down anywhere, but Twitter feels like it should be the fans’ domain. Alas @BBCOne won’t let them play with its show unsupervised, and join in as unwelcome, over-zealous parents. #GBBO-off!

Whenever ITV stages a big retrospective (and it has plenty to come) it  feels uneasy, as if they don’t really own that space. It’s not really a channel given to introspection. But The Saturday Night Story (ITV Saturday, 8pm) is one it’s well-equipped to tell, having contributed as much to it as the BBC over the last 60 years. And despite the Siri-like narration of Stephen Mulhern, there were some delightful nuggets here. Best of all was the unapologetic praise heaped on Game For A Laugh, a show Jonathan Ross described as a “hand grenade in the Saturday night schedules”. Even now, it still looks kind of edgy. Host Sarah Kennedy recalled that they were denied autocue and had to wing it on the night, and maybe that’s where part of that energy came from. But it also made me sad at the passing of – yes – another once communal ‘joke’. The whole business of wondering, when something was going array, “Is Jeremy Beadle going to pop out in a minute?” No one says that any more.

Still, his influence outstripped even Bart Simpson’s over here. A shot of a banner in the Gladiators bit read: ‘Eat my shorts, Wolf’. Eat my shorts. Remember that?

  1. Whose line, “I had a Betazoid kitten once” is the worst I’ve ever heard

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