Thursday, 30 May 2013


This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 25th May 2013.
Thursday, BBC Four, 8:30pm

Thursday, Sky Arts 1, 9pm

Today, BBC Two, 9:20pm

Paul Whitelaw

From Monty Python and The Holy Grail to Blackadder, it's long been established that one of the give-or-take rules of historical comedy is to subvert the period setting with knowingly incongruous nods to the present day. Which is all well and good when employed as part of a wider comic arsenal, but cheap and wearying when overdone.
Unfortunately, that's the fatal undoing of Jessica Hynes' Edwardian-era sitcom UP THE WOMEN, which drills away at the supposedly hilarious spectacle of characters from the past failing to comprehend things we now take for granted.

Thus we have Adrian Scarborough's hapless caretaker getting into a pickle over the installation of a light bulb, and Rebecca Front's bullying snob sniffily dismissing electricity as a fad that'll never catch on. These moments, I should point out, are clearly regarded by Hynes and her five co-writers as rib-tickling conceits of massive comic import. Given that Hynes is a fine actress and co-writer of fondly regarded sitcom Spaced, the unrelenting weakness of her latest effort is hugely disappointing. It's not unreasonable to expect more from one of Britain's foremost comedy performers.

The only truly notable aspect of Up The Women is that it's a traditional studio-bound sitcom accompanied by a live laughter track (and the last, alas, to be recorded in Television Centre). It's an ancient form new to “high-brow” BBC Four. But that presents its own problems; you can clearly hear the underwhelmed audience almost willing themselves to laugh as gag after gag falls flat.

Lines such as “I've had to swaddle mother again, and she really does put up quite a fight” and “Does your husband know you're cavorting with skirted anarchists?” have the rhythmic cadence of funny dialogue, but they're not actually witty in themselves. A sense of embarrassingly forced whimsy hangs over its attempts to revel in florid language a la Blackadder. But Hynes and co aren't in the same league as Curtis & Elton at their peak.

The characters speak in a combination of BBC Edwardiana and anachronistic contemporary argot, which, if one were feeling charitable, could be regarded as a parody of Andrew Davies' penchant for dropping contemporary terms into his period dramas. But the paucity of wit on display means it's all for naught.

As for the set-up, Hynes plays a timid yet worldly-wise idealist whose belief in the suffragette movement throws her into sharp conflict with Front's stubbornly immovable conservative. And that's about it. All concerned – including an almost unrecognisable Vicki Pepperdine from Getting On as a daffy, buck-toothed housekeeper – deliver game performances, but no amount of gusto can compensate for such poor material. Having wasted such a fine cast, Up The Women merely wanders along to unremarkable effect.

Even taking into account the inherent difficulties of introducing a brand new sitcom over the course of thirty minutes, this lifeless groaner has to be regarded as a failure.

A somewhat more successful attempt at female-fronted comedy is PSYCHOBITCHES, in which Rebecca Front crops up again as a therapist whose patient roster consists solely of famous women from throughout history. Essentially an excuse for a fast-paced series of disconnected sketches, this simple premise is only semi-successfully executed by co-writer/director Jeremy Dyson from The League of Gentlemen.

Resembling a surreal parody of the great In Treatment, the series begins with a neat visual gag involving Rosa Parks – I suspect that's the first and last time I'll ever place those words in that order – before roaring into gear with Front's Grandma's House co-star Samantha Spiro delivering a pitch-perfect evisceration of Audrey Hepburn's irritatingly kooky screen persona.

Unfortunately, it then devotes far too much time to a mirthless series of Bronte sisters sketches – no, it wouldn't be hilarious if they were portrayed as gruff, foul-mouthed northerners – and Julia Davis as Sylvia Plath, which, while beautifully performed, hammers its one joke into the ground. 
Elsewhere, Frances Barber and a dragged-up Mark Gatiss (Dyson's League of Gentlemen cohorts crop up throughout the series) sell the hell out of a warring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but without banishing memories of French & Saunders' superior take on their feud. The only other sketch that really takes flight is Sharon Horgan as a glamorously self-obsessed Eva Peron.
As an excuse for a cast of talented, funny women to show off their versatility, Psychobitches is a success. But reducing Front to a straight role feels like a waste of her abilities, which merely adds to the overall air of mild disappointment.

The Dame receives his due in DAVID BOWIE: FIVE YEARS, a globe-trotting, pan-dimensional documentary charting pivotal moments in his career. Gloriously awash with rare archive footage – thrill as our man mimes his own disembowelment while Andy Warhol coos off-camera! - it's narrated by a disembodied Bowie culled from old interviews, while various music journalists pontificate earnestly in artfully deserted warehouses. Key collaborators, including Brian Eno (chasing after his cat, no less), Tony Visconti, Nile Rodgers and, resembling a gnomic bank manager, Robert Fripp also crop up to discuss his creative process in some depth. It's a lovingly assembled tribute to one of rock's most restlessly innovative artists.

TV PREVIEW: The Fall, Frankie, The Supicions of Mr Whicher

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 11th May 2013.

Monday, BBC2, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC1, 9pm

Sunday, STV, 8pm

Paul Whitelaw

Hello. Is that J. Jameson Spotlight, big-shot representative of famed actress Gillian Anderson?”

Yeah. Whaddya want?”

I have a part she may be interested in. It's an aloof, icy, enigmatic professional whose emotional distance causes...”

She'll do it.”

Now: I'm not suggesting that Anderson is a one-note actress. Her ethereal performance as Miss Havisham in the BBC's 2011 adaptation of Great Expectations proved she's more than capable of playing something other than emotionally withdrawn maidens. But it's true that she's frequently typecast as glacial beauties who shrink from matters of the heart.

And so it is in THE FALL, an absorbing five-part thriller in which she casts her inscrutable gaze over the gloomy streets of Belfast, in search of an elusive serial killer. Yet despite initial suspicions that this is Anderson on autopilot, she gradually reveals an enjoyably arch and self-aware approach to the role of DSI Stella Gibson. It's an astute match of performer and part.

Called in to review an ongoing investigation into an unsolved murder, Gibson quickly connects it to the subsequent death of another young professional woman. So far, so-so. But the twist in The Fall is that we know who did it. Like Columbo, it reveals the identity of the killer upfront, thus turning it into a suspenseful “Howcatchem” rather than a traditional “Whodunnit”.

Our villain in this case operates along the Norman Bates principle: a good-looking, outwardly normal young man who happens to be a psychopathic murderer. Married with two young children, Paul Spector (a subdued, intensely creepy performance from Jamie Dornan) is an unsettling creation who feels far more dangerous than the zany lunatics who usually dominate this landscape.

While the director is perhaps slightly overfond of darkly ironic juxtaposition, the switching back and forth between Gibson's investigation and Spector's double-life plays out very effectively. Both desensitised and diligent - “You and I are very much alike, Mr Bond!” - they're a compelling double-act who never share the screen.

Despite some fleetingly silly moments – the serial killer genre practically demands them – this a relatively understated production boasting a ring of authenticity. The minimal use of incidental music is a notable, welcome touch. However, the suffocating scenes of violence against women are arguably gratuitous, and I can't say I feel entirely comfortable with them. That they appear in a largely female-led drama (written by a man) merely compounds the sense of unease.

That caveat aside, its an addictive, twist-ridden study of grief, obsession and identity (or: a grisly thriller that's read a few books). Boosted by uniformly fine performances, it's Anderson's subtly eccentric turn as the outwardly emotionless, alpha-female Gibson which suggests The Fall has the potential to run beyond a mere five episodes.

The female protagonist in FRANKIE is practically Gibson's polar opposite. Indeed, it's possible to glean whole seconds of fun from imagining these two characters awkwardly attempting to relate to each other (Gibson wouldn't bother, Frankie would overcompensate). Played by Torchwood star Eve Myles, she's a winsomely fun-loving district nurse who gets her kicks from singing along loudly to her car radio, and dancing around sassily in the kitchen. She may as well have “I'm mad, me!” stencilled on her forehead.

Like one of those Here Come the Girls Boots ads with added medical trauma, Frankie combines excruciating whimsy with well-intentioned attempts to explore human dilemmas via the dedicated exploits of an overworked NHS professional. And that's partly the problem: would even the busiest district nurse deal with so much dramatic incident over the course of a few days? I'm all for suspending disbelief, but Frankie comes across as a sort of feisty superhero with a heart of gold.

Its main saving grace is the charm of Myles, an appealing, believable actress whose natural warmth tends to compensate for the material she's lumbered with. This, remember, is a woman who survived ghastly episodes of Torchwood written by Chris “Redeemed himself with Broadchurch” Chibnall. But even she can't override supposedly funny yet cringe-inducing lines such as “I laugh at cutbacks! I sneer at them!” At one point a loveable old man with Alzheimer's says her profession is a funny one. “Well, I'm a funny sort of woman,” she winks. True, Frankie, you're bonkers.

In fairness, the Alzheimer's storyline is handled fairly well, and Frankie isn't depicted as entirely perfect. Her saviour complex is shown to have a detrimental effect on her private life, although her boyfriend, played by Dean Lennox Kelly, is such a nuisance, she'd be better off in the arms of her male nurse colleague (Scots actor Derek Riddell, with whom Myles shares an engaging chemistry).

The criminally underexposed Olivia Colman crops up in THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER, the second candlelit drama based on the real-life exploits of the pioneering Victorian detective. Paddy Considine is on reliable form as the troubled, upstanding Whicher, as he investigates the murder of Colman's runaway niece in Jack the Ripper London. It's a mildly diverting mystery, marred by a ludicrous contrivance in the final act. Also, fans of the Olivia Colman Crying Game are advised to imbibe sensibly.

TV PREVIEW: Vicious, The Job Lot

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27th April 2013.

Monday, STV, 9pm

Monday, STV, 9:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

No-one would've believed, in the early years of the 21st century, that human credulity would be stretched to breaking point by the arrival of a sitcom power-hour on primetime ITV. But it's true, it's here. It's happening. In a turn of events so shocking and bizarre it's actually quite frightening, the notoriously laughter-shy broadcaster – whose pantheon of classic sitcoms amounts to piddling single digits – has decided to take comedy seriously again.

Given the BBC's total domination of the field, it's long felt as though ITV were simply unwilling to compete, preferring instead to concentrate on glum thrillers, cloying dramas, and Ant & Dec's pension plan. But the huge mainstream success of BBC sitcoms such as Miranda, Outnumbered and Mrs Brown's Boys has obviously spurred them into belated action.

What's even more remarkable – staggering, even – about this dedicated comedy offensive is that one of their new efforts, VICIOUS, is actually very funny. You may wish to take a moment to process that information.

A studio-bound, single-set, multi-camera sitcom, it's a gratifyingly old-school farce in which thespian deities Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi have a char-grilled whale of a time as an incessantly bickering homosexual couple. Sealed within their sepulchral Covent Garden abode – they shriek like vampires when the curtains are accidentally opened – pompous actor Freddie (McKellen) and retired bar manager Stuart (Jacobi) tussle waspishly over decades of perceived slights, while never missing an opportunity to mock each other's supposed decrepitude.

Now, these are hardly original comic creations – the vituperative, hammy old queen has long been a staple of popular culture - and there is nothing especially notable about the premise. But that simply doesn't matter when the execution is as strong as this.

Resembling a startled, wounded guinea pig, Jacobi squeals and frets amidst a knowing flurry of camp mannerisms, while McKellen booms fresh insults in that oak-lined voice of his. He also pulls some of the funniest “Why, I've never been so insulted in my life!” expressions this side of imperial phase Frankie Howerd. It's an impeccable dual assault of seasoned comic timing.

Enjoyment is magnified by the addition of Frances de la Tour as their dotty, man-hungry pal. Famously, she starred in Rising Damp, one of ITV's few great sitcoms, and it's tempting to view her presence here as a deliberate nod to the past. Not that her involvement is merely symbolic – she's a peerless comic actress – but you could argue that she's essentially playing lonely Miss Jones thirty years on. Even the dingy brown set recalls her most celebrated role.

Broad and boisterous in the best possible sense (i.e. it's nothing like that aforementioned avalanche of horror, Mrs Brown's Boys), Vicious is jam-packed with gags, hitting the ground running with an impressive opening episode which establishes set-up, character and backstory with consummate ease.

A co-write between acclaimed playwright Mark Ravenhill and Gary Janetti, a former executive producer on Family Guy and Will& Grace, it revels in its camp bluster with such benign relish, I doubt it'll get into too much trouble for reinforcing stereotypes. It's obvious that Freddie and Stuart are blissfully happy in their enmity, and it's that undercurrent of warmth – the spoonful of sugar beneath the barrel-load of bile – that make these characters so engaging.

I'm no soothsayer – I've never said “sooth” in my life - but I predict that Vicious will be huge. A hit sitcom! On ITV! Nurse, the smelling salts...

The madness continues with THE JOB LOT, which, while nowhere near as sharp as Vicious, is a perfectly amiable and amusing sitcom set in a drab job centre (is there such a thing as a bright, welcoming job centre?).

Despite being a single-camera comedy with no laugh-track, it's essentially a traditional sitcom populated by dysfunctional characters and daffy situations. It is, however, blatantly influenced by The Office, not because it's a workplace comedy – Gervais and Merchant didn't invent that genre – but because of the exceedingly Tim-like lead played by Russell Tovey. A bright, likeable everyman trapped in a job he detests – his feelings for an attractive female colleague stop him from leaving - the similarity is compounded by the fact that Tovey appears to have partially based his acting style on Martin Freeman.

While Tim-bot 2000 is mildly distracting, he doesn't detract overall from a show which, given the danger inherent in its recession-fuelled premise, mercifully refrains from sneering at the unemployed. Granted, one of the regular job-seekers is portrayed as a harmless oddball, but it's significant that the villain of the piece is a rude, sadistic and actively obstructive job centre employee played by the excellent Jo Enright.

This character has an obvious antecedent in the monstrous Pauline from The League of Gentleman. She also shares a few genes with Little Britain's “Computer says 'No'” grotesque. And yet despite these visible origins, Enright imbues her with a distinctive, deadpan venom.

What this all adds up to is a derivative yet serviceable sitcom with a smattering of potential. But it undoubtedly succeeds in being an ITV sitcom that's Not Appalling. I still can't quite believe it and Vicious exist at all.

TV PREVIEW: Endeavour, The Ice Cream Girls, Doctor Who

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 13th April 2013.

Sunday, STV, 8pm

Friday, STV, 9pm

Today, BBC1, 6:15pm

Paul Whitelaw

Try as I might, I've never quite managed to adjust to the meandering tempo of ITV detective dramas. The peerless Cracker aside, they've never captured my interest. Even the much-loved Inspector Morse, which continues in perpetuity via afternoon repeats, failed to grab me. An indisputably classy production, it's something I always admired from afar, but never fell in love with as so many others did. Call me a blundering philistine – you wouldn't be the first – but I just can't engage with melancholy detectives solving crimes slowly.

So it's hardly surprising that I was underwhelmed by ENDEAVOUR, the 1960s-set prequel in which the precocious Constable Morse first makes his mark on the death-caked streets of Oxford. Again, there are aspects of it I admire, from Shaun Evans' subtle, well-observed evocation of John Thaw's distinctive speech patterns, to the understated chemistry he shares with the great Roger Allam as his pipe-smoking boss. Indeed, any drama which unites Allam and that other fine character actor, Anton Lesser, must have something going for it.

But the interminably convoluted storyline, involving the mysterious death of a young woman and the murder of a doctor in a public lavatory, is, while mildly diverting, hardly the stuff of great drama.

Recently promoted, with his deductive genius and antisocial quirks already in bloom, Morse uses the case to prove his abilities to Lesser's sceptical commanding officer. I actually find this aspect of Endeavour, the character-driven plight of an alienated young man, more interesting than the cases themselves. There's nothing more frustrating for a critic than reacting to something with indifference, but Endeavour doesn't excite me in either direction.

Following a successful pilot last year, this inaugural series will almost certainly do well. It's not for me, but it's there if you want it.

What is it with ITV and murder mysteries? They're like the broadcasting equivalent of the serial killer-obsessed David from Psychoville, forever offering up stabbed and strangled corpses for our morbid delectation. They're at it again with THE ICE CREAM GIRLS, a drab thriller which, a la Broadchurch, takes place in yet another picturesque coastal community. But whereas Broadchurch compels with its addictive central mystery, The Ice Cream Girls is just another middling ITV potboiler.

A po-faced saga of guilt and retribution (coming soon to ITV: Lynda La Plante's Guilt & Retribution), it begins with Serena, a successful middle-class woman, moving her family back into the house she grew up in, so as to care for her sick mother. Haunted by a terrible incident from her past – “It was seventeen years ago!” bleats her sister, helpfully – she's terrified of the police, as well as the prospect of her husband and daughter discovering her secret. “I think this move might be a good thing for me!” beams the former, betraying a tragic ignorance of ironic foreshadowing.

Meanwhile, another woman, Poppy, is released from prison – after seventeen years – and returns to the same town. Her life in tatters, she's determined to track down Serena. So what's their connection? Told via conveniently prominent newspaper cuttings and intermittent flashbacks to the 1990s, the story introduces a slimy schoolteacher played by Scots actor Martin Compston, and his inappropriate relationship with the doe-eyed young Serena. Suffice to say, things don't go well.

The pedestrian nature of The Ice Cream Girls is enlivened somewhat by an arrestingly unsettling performance from Compston, and Jodhi May playing the vulnerable Poppy as the physical manifestation of a repressed scream. Their combined screen presence holds the attention, even while the story trundles along familiar lines.

Last glimpsed in 1974 adventure The Monsters of Peladon, classic DOCTOR WHO baddie The Ice Warriors make an effective comeback in Mark Gatiss' Cold War. Guest-starring a curiously underused David Warner as – wait for it – an Ultravox-obsessed scientist (the episode is set in 1983), it finds the Doctor and Clara landing inside a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine harbouring something potentially far more dangerous in its belly.

Making good use of its claustrophobic setting, it's an Alien-esque thriller which also recalls the base-under-siege yarns of the Patrick Troughton era. Of course, Alien was itself influenced by the classic 1950s sci-fi film The Thing From Another World, which in turn inspired classic-era Doctor Who stories such as The Seeds of Doom. Gatiss, who is famously a Doctor Who uber-fan and horror aficionado, is clearly having fun with this never-ending feedback loop in an entertaining – and somewhat surprising – addition to the canon.

Talented chap though he is, the former League of Gentleman star and Sherlock co-creator is hardly one of the most inspired authors of 21st century Doctor Who. But Cold War is undoubtedly his strongest effort since The Unquiet Dead back in 2005. And the fact that the imposing appearance of the Ice Warriors has barely been altered since its first appearance in 1967 (their leader played by Bernard Bresslaw, fact-fans) is testament to one of the most distinctive creature designs in Doctor Who's history.

TV PREVIEW: Doctor Who, The Voice UK, The Village, Life's Too Short

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 30th March 2013.

Today, BBC1, 6:15pm

Today, BBC1, 7pm

Sunday, BBC1, 9pm

Today, BBC2, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

The problem with previewing new episodes of DOCTOR WHO is that, because it thrives on shock and surprise, you're left with little to say beyond a few gentle hints. To go into any more detail would be like telling a child what it's getting for Christmas. Which I might actually do one day as a social experiment, but that's another story.

So, what I can tell you is that as series seven resumes, the Doctor is brooding over the bizarre ongoing mystery of Clara Oswald, a young woman who, on the two occasions they've met, has died in different periods in history. How can this be? This being Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, the eventual answer will probably be convoluted and disappointing, but I'll gladly be proven wrong.

In any case, the Doctor is now obsessed with tracking down yet another version of Clara, only this time with a view to keeping her alive. And sure enough, as anyone with even a passing interest in Doctor Who already knows, he meets Clara Mark III in Moffat'sThe Bells of Saint John. It's one of those purely entertaining episodes best described as a romp, as the Doctor sets himself up as Clara's galactic guardian while struggling to save humankind from being enslaved by alien Wi-Fi.

This, of course, is a standard Moffat trick: take an everyday facet of existence and invest it with horror. He must spend his days wandering around thinking of ways to make door knobs and carpets scary. Here he takes our real-world concerns about internet identity theft, chucks in one of his other favourite tropes, the creepy child, adds a possible reference to The Exorcist and a fan-pleasing nod to a former companion, and voila! 45 minutes of fun, pacy Moffat Doctor Who.

Matt Smith is a note-perfect delight as usual, although the day he stops being a note-perfect delight as the Doctor is the day he regenerates into the unfortunate thesp who has to follow him. After Clara's introduction in last year's Asylum of the Daleks and the most recent Christmas special, Jenna Louise-Coleman continues to impress with her likeable, charming, understated performance (she's far less annoying than she was in her sass-talking début). She and Smith make for an endearing team.

Also, watch out for a surprise cameo from John Simm's Master and classic series baddies the Zygons.

Dear internet forums and fellow media outlets: please note that this last statement is an outright lie, humorously pertaining to the dilemma established in my opening paragraph. Thanks.

Also returning to BBC1's Saturday night line-up is THE VOICE UK, the torpid X Factor clone that drew flack last year for its repetitive, drawn-out format and excessive overuse of Jessie J doing that thing with her head. But the producers have apparently made some game-changing improvements to the format, despite retaining the same set of judges. So expect another billion weeks of Tom Jones looking like he'd rather be at home having a nap, and standing on his chair whenever he feels he's not getting enough attention.

A big week for TV dramatists called Moffat continues with THE VILLAGE, in which Peter Moffat (Criminal Justice; Silk) abandons his usual peregrinations around the legal system for an epic trek across the entire 20th century. Or at least, that's the plan. Moffat has declared that The Village, which is entirely set within a rural community in the North of England, will unfold over 42 episodes. So that's seven series in as many years.

This ambitious concept automatically confers upon The Village the sort of “event TV” buzz one doesn't normally associate with Sunday night period dramas. It's frustrating, then, that episode one feels like little more than a flat, silly parody.

Leaving no trope unturned, it begins in 1914 by introducing a sadistic farmer (John Simm – genuinely this time – glowering for all his worth) who brutally torments his cowering wife (Maxine Peake) and children, one of whom tops and tails each episode as a centenarian reflecting over his life. There's also a sadistic schoolteacher who is, of course, directly countermanded by a kindly schoolteacher. Meanwhile, up at the Downton-esque big house, the conversation at dinner is preoccupied with the suffragette movement and dark rumblings about war with Germany. It practically writes itself.

Although it's clear that Moffat is trying to do something interesting here, he struggles to settle on the right tone. The unrelenting misery actually becomes funny after a while, a problem hardly alleviated by the persistently mournful brass and harmonium soundtrack. It feels at times like a deranged Hovis advert. However, the more idiosyncratic elements of The Village begin to click into place in part two, with part one feeling in retrospect like a formally self-conscious introduction. So it may be worth sticking with. Over seven years, if need be.
Finally, Gervais & Merchant's dismal sitcom LIFE'S TOO SHORT returns unbidden for a one-off finale. Drab and mean-spirited, it sidelines its nominal star, Warwick Davis, in favour of the supposedly hilarious spectacle of ha-ha-has-beens Keith Chegwin, Shaun Williamson and Les Dennis making fools of themselves. It's truly desperate stuff.

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of DOCTOR WHO

This article was originally published in Scotland On Sunday on 24th March 2013.


On 23rd November 1963, the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the BBC launched a new Saturday tea-time adventure serial ostensibly aimed at children.

Enigmatically titled Doctor Who, and swathed in an eerie electronic theme tune, episode one, An Unearthly Child, introduced a pair of inquisitive schoolteachers who, concerned by the strange behaviour of a brilliant young pupil, followed her home to solve the puzzle.

What they discovered, much to their understandable alarm, was that the girl lived in a junk yard. Not only that, she lived in a police box in a junk yard. Except it wasn't a police box at all, but rather a bigger-on-the-inside alien spacecraft capable of travelling through time and space. Its pilot, a crotchety old man known only as the Doctor, wasn't best pleased that his teenage granddaughter had unwittingly led a pair of meddling apes into his secret world. Fearing discovery by the rest of humankind, he saw no choice but to kidnap the teachers and exit the Earth post-haste.

The episode ends with the TARDIS – an acronym for Time and Relative Dimensions in Space – materialising on a barren, forbidding landscape, as the ominous shadow of a misshapen figure falls into view.

It's one of the most arresting introductions to a television drama in the entire history of the medium. Over the space of just 25 minutes, the craftspeople responsible for this curious new programme managed to establish a premise so original, strong and bewitching, it has endured practically unchanged for fifty years.

Without access to a time machine themselves, they could never have foreseen that in 2013 we can say, without much fear of contradiction, that the ever-regenerating Doctor is one of the greatest heroes in all of fiction. And yet here we are, with the world's longest-running science-fiction television series still reigning supreme.

So why has it endured for so long? Is its quirky character in some ways a reflection of our own national identity? Of our affinity with underdogs and loveable eccentrics?

One of the things that's interesting about Doctor Who as a cultural phenomenon over the whole fifty years is that its selling point has really been its Britishness,” says Dee Amy-Chinn, a senior lecturer in Media and Culture at the University of Stirling. “The Doctor has always in some way embodied a kind of quirkiness that's specifically British. When it started in the 1960s it was reflecting Britain's back-room boffins who'd won the war through Bletchley Park and building the bouncing bomb. Britain had never been able to chuck troops at the Second World War in the way that America had, but it could do something that was something just a little bit different and British.”

The Doctor is a classic hero. Decent, honest and brave, he despises intolerance in all its forms and stands up for the oppressed wherever they need saving. Sure, he's made mistakes. You don't traverse the farthest reaches of the universe for over a thousand years without cracking a few eggs and causing the odd rip in the fabric of time and space. But, as current show-runner Steven Moffat says, “He's such a moral man. He's a good, clever man, that's all he is. I think that's about as positive a message as you could possibly give.”

Conceptually, the show is unique in that the periodic replacement of its lead actor is actually ingrained within its fictional lore. When first Doctor William Hartnell became too ill to continue in the role, the production team came up with the inspired idea of having him physically regenerate his appearance into that of Patrick Troughton. It was a risky move which ultimately paid off, and an enormous factor in Doctor Who's longevity. The fundamental genius of its infinitely flexible format is another major component. What other TV show can hop across so many genres – horror, comedy, western, period drama, space opera etc. - with such ease every week? “

Today regarded as a cultural institution, it can attract guest stars of the calibre of Simon Callow, Penelope Wilton, Timothy Dalton and – both in the role of the Doctor's arch-nemesis The Master - Derek Jacobi and John Simm. Notable writers during the current era include Richard Curtis, celebrated fantasy author Neil Gaiman, and Men Behaving Badly creator Simon Nye.

But it wasn't always so feted. After reaching its peak of popularity in the '70s under the stewardship of the dashing Jon Pertwee and the incomparable Tom Baker – viewing figures frequently peaked between an impressive ten and twelve million – its popularity declined following the early 1980s tenure of Peter Davison. It became the butt of tired jokes about wobbly sets (they didn't actually wobble) and cheap monsters (they maybe had a point there). Even its fans were derided as sad spotty virgins laughably obsessed with a tatty kid's show.

And yet to be a fan in 2013 simply means you're an ordinary viewer who enjoys one of the most treasured jewels in the BBC's crown. No longer the niche concern that it was during the twilight years of Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy, it's now a shiny bauble of block-busting Saturday night entertainment: the space-hopping yin to Strictly's fox-trotting yang. It's finally won the widespread respect it always deserved.

Of course, this is something of a double-edged sword for long-time fans such as myself. While we're thrilled that it's now one of the UK's most popular TV shows – and it's finally gaining a significant audience in the US too – one can't help bristling at the fact that many of those now praising it were once only too eager to dismiss it out of hand. Vintage Doctor Who couldn't boast the Hollywood-standard special-effects of the revived series – no TV show could in those days – but it was basically always the same wonderfully imaginative and unique show that critics and awards panels adore so much today. So what took them so long?

One explanation is that in the last ten years, the sort of paraphernalia enjoyed by “geeks” – computer games, sci-fi, superheroes, comics etc. – has been assimilated into the mainstream. So there's no longer any stigma attached to watching Doctor Who. As Steven Moffat has often said, it's a show which “fetishises” intelligence. Thankfully, today's audience responds to that in droves.

It's remarkable to consider that if you were born in Britain before, say, 1985, you'll have been aware of Doctor Who for most or all of your life. “It's part of a series of shows today that appeal to both children and adults,” says Dee Amy-Chinn. “But I think Doctor Who does that better than other dramas in that slot, things like Merlin, because adults remember it from their own childhood.”

Even if you've never seen a single episode, you'll recognise the TARDIS and know what a Dalek is. That, it must be said, is one powerful cultural imprint for a television programme to leave behind.

Similarly remarkable is that no-one seriously expected Doctor Who to be in this position in 2013. After being quietly dropped in 1989, ostensibly due to dwindling ratings – although the BBC essentially killed it off by scheduling it opposite Coronation Street – it mainly continued to exist on home video, the convention circuit and in a teeming range of spin-off novels, some written by the very people associated with the series today.

A 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, while greeted favourably at home, failed to spark the hoped-for comeback when the US co-producers pulled out due to its poor performance over there. And that, it seemed, was that. Generations would grow up without the comforting presence of the Doctor by their side. He was yesterday's hero.

Except, as we know, he wasn't. You can't confine a Time Lord to the past, after all. As much of a pioneering hero in his way as the people responsible for creating Doctor Who back in 1963, lifelong super-fan Russell T. Davies – who also happened to be an award-winning TV writer of huge renown – revived the show in 2005 to spectacular effect . Casting “proper actor” Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor came as a surprise to some, but it also helped to convince sceptics that this revival meant business. Since then it's gone on to win five BAFTAs, six Hugo Awards, and fourteen National Television Awards. It's also been credited with reviving the phenomenon of communal family viewing.

As media consumption becomes more fragmented,” says Dee Amy-Chinn, “anything you can do to bring people together in the way that Doctor Who does, with something for everybody because it works on so many different levels, then that show is doing something quite rare and unusual. It's success says that audiences are interested in good storytelling, well drawn characters, high production values, and something that can be a shared family experience.”

Not everyone loves it, of course. It's been criticised for being emotionally manipulative, over-complicated, inappropriately sexualised and self-important. Some say it's changed too much. And they're right, as well as wrong. It has endured because it has constantly evolved over the decades, but without ever losing sight of its fundamental reason for being: to inspire and entertain. Like the Doctor himself, it's changed several times, yet always remained the same.

That simple yet inspired idea, cooked up fifty years ago in the corridors of the BBC, about an eccentric alien in a time machine has travelled farther than even the Doctor's wildest dreams. Why? Because at its heart, it's a triumphant celebration of inquisitive knowledge and heroic rebellion, of loyal endeavour and noble sacrifice, of liberal morality and the thwarting of evil. Plus it's got loads of crazy aliens and explosions in it.

Few cultural artefacts have managed to cover so much ground in a way that appeals to such an enormous, disparate audience. It's an incredible achievement. Happy birthday, Doctor. Long may you roam.

TV PREVIEW: In The Flesh, The Lady Vanishes, The Challenger

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 16th March 2013.

Sunday, BBC3, 10pm

Sunday, BBC1, 8:30pm

Monday, BBC2, 9pm

Paul Whitelaw

Q: What's the best way of surviving an onslaught of zombies? A: Refusing to engage with popular culture on any level.

More ubiquitous and malignant than even Sue Perkins, zombies are bloody everywhere at the moment. From The Walking Dead to Warm Bodies and practically every piece of modern horror fiction in between, the brain-guzzling undead are second only to vampires in an over-saturated market of zeitgeisty ghouls. So you'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes in anticipation of BBC3's new zombie drama IN THE FLESH. But wait! This one comes with a novel twist! And it's a rather good one.

Taking place in the aftermath of a zombie uprising, it depicts a world in which, having being cured of their nasty affliction, reanimated corpses attempt to reintegrate into society via a government-backed rehabilitation scheme. The focus rests on Kieren Walker (his surname an in-joke for zombie fans), a wan young sufferer of Partially Deceased Syndrome who's tormented by harrowing flashbacks to his untreated past.

After being released from hospital – where patients partake in support groups and restore their human appearance with contact lenses and flesh-tone mousse – Kieren returns to the bosom of his family in a northern village riven with anti-undead feeling. Given that zombies almost always function as an allegory for something or other, here they're depicted as victims of knee-jerk prejudice, epitomised by Rev star Steve Evets' hate-spewing militia, the Human Volunteer Force (basically the EDL/BNP with guns). Naturally, they're as rabidly single-minded in their crusade as the zombies were in theirs.

If this sounds heavy-handed, writer Dominic Mitchell actually succeeds in exploring his premise with bleak wit and intelligence. A satirical social-realist take on familiar horror territory, it echoes the recently departed Being Human in its efforts to explore the hardships of unfairly vilified “monsters” living on the margins of society. Its ruminations on bigotry also recall HBO's vampire romp True Blood, although stylistically they couldn't be more different.

Bathed in mistily desaturated colours, its persuasive depiction of a world gone mad is anchored by a sensitive performance from Luke Newberry as Kieran, whose fake tan and forlorn demeanour suggest a human mannequin at a closing down sale. Ricky Tomlinson also turns up as a nosy neighbour, thus adding to the general Ken Loach via George A. Romero feel. Watching Jim Royle coping with a thwarted zombie apocalypse is pleasingly absurd and disturbing.

Despite being gilded in the moody emo trappings that every youth-skewed fantasy drama must come with these days, In The Flesh rarely feels earnest or corny. My only major qualm is that, by referring to his zombies as “rotters” throughout, Mitchell makes his characters sound like sub-par Terry-Thomas impersonators whenever they're mentioned. Mind you, they are a bunch of cads, that zombie shower.

Why bother remaking a Hitchcock classic? It's not as if you'll feasibly improve upon his work. Although its based on an obscure novel, THE LADY VANISHES is to all intents and purposes a Hitch original. And yet the BBC's latest adaptation surgically removes everything that was good about his 1938 film – mainly the droll humour, amusing characters and sparkling sense of playfulness – and turns it into the sort of dull, bland, turgid thriller he would never have dallied with in his prime. It's like painting over the Mona Lisa with a pencil sketch of Emma Bunton.

As superfluous as Hammer's failed 1978 remake, it takes the bare bones of this familiar story – spoiled young socialite searches for a missing spinster on a train full of people who appear to be conspiring against her – and locks them into a dreary parable about British xenophobia and entitlement. Tuppence Middleton and Tom Hughes – recently seen to greater effect as the psychotic Julian in Dancing On The Edge – make for a pair of colourless, pretty leads, while the surrounding glut of character actors deliver the sort of “Who's just blown off in my pantry?” performances familiar from countless make-weight Agatha Christie adaptations.

Better by far is THE CHALLENGER, a solid co-production between BBC Scotland, the Science Channel and the Open University in which the magnificent William Hurt stars as Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. Tracing his determined quest to uncover the truth behind the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, it's a classic David versus Goliath tale in which our irreverent, dishevelled hero takes on the stonewalling mendacity of the authorities who desperately tried to evade responsibility for this tragedy.

A thorn in the side of the Presidential Commission tasked with investigating its causes, Feynman is a tenaciously independent spirit who refuses to accept the pussyfooting excuses offered in NASA's defence. And thanks to his tireless studies, he eventually helped to make the space programme safer.

It would be very easy for a story of this nature to descend into a quagmire of Hollywood cheese. And yet despite a couple of hokey eureka moments, The Challenger tackles its fascinating subject matter with a satisfying degree of control and charm. And Hurt's wry, understated, entirely believable performance is an absolute delight. As far as studies of ethical and political dilemmas in which brilliant boffins investigate engineering data are concerned, it's a lot more compelling than most.

Interview with KEVIN ELDON

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 7th March 2013.

Kevin Eldon's CV is so festooned with riches, it borders on the ridiculous. His instinctively funny bones have blessed practically every outstanding British comedy of the last 20 years, including I'm Alan Partridge, Brass Eye, Blue Jam/Jam, Big Train, Spaced, Fist of Fun, Look Around You, Nighty Night and Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle.

And yet despite his reputation as one of the most versatile comic actors in the business – and the only person ever to nail a stunningly accurate impersonation of Beatles producer George Martin - only in the last couple of years has he decided to tip his malleable fizzog into the solo limelight. The putsch began with his critically acclaimed, sold-out live show, Kevin Eldon is Titting About, followed by his début TV starring vehicle, the delightfully silly sketch extravaganza It's Kevin. So what took him so long?

I did the [live] show in 2010 as a bit of a personal challenge,” he explains, “just to see if I could. It was to stop me being so lazy for a whole year. And because it was actually quite scary, I thought it might therefore be worthwhile trying to get it right. I was very nervous about doing it, and very relieved when it generally went down okay.”

Despite having his name in the title, he's keen to stress that his show is a collaborative effort. Indeed, it's rather heartening that, having given invaluable support to so many great writer/performers over the years, he was able to call upon many of them to support him for a change. With a cast including such luminaries as Julia Davis, Simon Day, David Cann and Simon Munnery, not to mention core script assistance from Father Ted/Big Train co-creator Arthur Mathews, It's Kevin is delirious catnip for comedy nerds.

It's just a marvellously fortunate coincidence that some of my friends happen to be really good comedy actors,” he smiles. “But I never took it for granted that they would say yes. They're certainly not doing it for the dosh.”

A naturally self-effacing sort, Eldon is happy to let his co-stars dominate certain sketches. “I didn't want everyone to be staring at my stupid mug for half an hour non-stop every week. It's about giving the audience some time off. Tomato coriander soup is very nice, but you wouldn't want three courses of it. Not that I'm saying I'm a soup.”

Like most comedy of a surreal, offbeat nature, It's Kevin is unlikely to become a huge mainstream hit. But does he worry that a starring vehicle on BBC2 will still manage to compromise his relative anonymity? “I honestly don't know if it'll slip under the radar or whether it'll do brilliantly,” he says. “I think it'll probably do okay. I don't think it's going to be a complete life-changer. The recognition thing is a double-edged sword - I have a number of friends who are instantly recognisable and quite famous, which can be very nice. But from what I've seen it can also be very intrusive and wearing.”

Although born in Chatham, Kent, Eldon spent much of his childhood in Dunfermline, where his father worked in nearby Rosyth Dockyard. Following three years at drama school in England, he quietly emerged on the early 1990s stand-up circuit, mostly in the guise of his pompous, deluded poet character Paul Hamilton (a Hamilton book is in the pipeline, which Eldon regards as another late-flowering personal challenge). It was there that he became friendly with comedy duo Lee& Herring, who harnessed his talents as a prominent supporting player in their cult radio and TV vehicle Fist Of Fun. And from there he's never looked back, having caught the eye of every major British comedy player from Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris, to Simon Pegg and Graham Linehan.

He concedes that his impressive body of work is largely thanks to his careful selectiveness. “I do think that good comedy is hard to get right, and that's why it's fairly rare, in my opinion. So I've got to really like it to be in it. I've made a few mistakes along the way, but I think mostly I've done a pretty good call on it. If it doesn't get me at script stage, then I usually knock it back. Or if it isn't my style, because there's certain stuff that is funny but just isn't really me. So I am quite selective. I think I'm a bit of a snob actually.”

Welcome to the club. So does it upset him when he sees the art of comedy being mistreated?

I get furious about it,” he says, without hesitation. “I get very angry about lazy comedy. But when it comes down to it, it's absolutely a matter of taste. It's very easy to judge, but it's a subjective thing. Stuff that I'd label as lazy gives brilliant, genuine pleasure to lots of people, and you can't knock that. If people are enjoying it, then fair enough, I'll just sit and brood in a corner. But I've got be careful, as there's no mileage in being negative. And yet weirdly enough, there's a lot that I feel extremely negative about! But brilliant stuff is being made all the time, which makes me a happy man. As long as there's stuff like Charlie Brooker or Rev or The IT Crowd, then everything's fine.”

It's hardly surprising that his high standards and passion for comedy bleeds into his creative process. “I'm a perfectionist to the point of slight obsession,” he admits. “It's almost bordering on OCD. So my poor girlfriend, if I'm getting ready for one particularly intricate bit, she will hear it said around the house literally hundreds of times. Especially if it's word-based and fast delivery, you first of all have to learn the muscle memory, and then you have to get the comedy out of it. And you can't really relax until your mouth and brain know it off by heart. Otherwise I feel uneasy. But that doesn't always work in a positive way. By over-rehearsing you can sometimes wring the life out of it.”

All artists are neurotic to a degree, and while the avuncular Eldon hardly embodies the bogus “sad clown” cliché, he's clearly aware of his faults. “I'm rarely completely happy with what I've done,” he says. “But I've tried to change that because someone formed the theory that that's actually a form of massive egotism, that you have this need to be absolutely perfect. But why should you be perfect? Not many of us are perfect. So I've tried to transform that into just doing the very best I can.”

IT'S KEVIN begins on Sunday 17th March on BBC2 at 10:30pm.

TV PREVIEW: Mayday, Broadchurch, Bluestone 42

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 2nd March 2013.

Sunday to Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Monday, STV, 9pm

Tuesday, BBC3, 10pm

Paul Whitelaw

Typical. You wait ages for a British drama blatantly influenced by series one of The Killing, and two come along at once. In a shattering week for fictional close-knit communities, independent production company Kudos stands back and watches as BBC1 and ITV pitch their thematically identical Whoddunnits up against each other. Who will win? YOU decide.

Putting aside the curious question of why Kudos produced two such similar dramas simultaneously, we first come to MAYDAY. Stripped throughout the week for maximum “event TV” impact, it's a broiling cauldron of grief and paranoia in which a picturesque English village fails to adequately keep it together following the abduction of its teenage May Queen (She's abducted on May Day. Hence the distress signal “Mayday”. Clever, no?).

Given the pagan trappings, it's inevitably doused in flecks of The Wicker Man. Written by the team responsible for Whitechapel, it also boasts a slightly heightened, skewed atmosphere, milking the underlying dread of the balmy British sunshine for all it's worth.

Like The League of Gentleman without the (intentional) laughs, it delves forensically into a rural community full of dysfunctional locals, including an unhappily married middle-aged couple, a teenage “weirdo” in love with the missing May Queen's emo sister, a cruel, smarmy git played by – who else? - Aidan Gillen (I swear he gets these parts based on his smirk alone), and a man with mental health issues who enjoys climbing trees.

Within hours of the girl's disappearance, the latter's blowhard brother inevitably gathers a vigilante posse – consisting of Phil Mitchell and Hairy Biker lookalikes - and it's not long before escalating torrents of suspicion are aroused behind twitching curtains and the surrounding woods. Why are the menfolk behaving so strangely? What's their connection to the missing girl? Why does the wine-guzzling misanthrope have a hugely symbolic model village in his attic? What's going on?!

Despite over-egged moments of contrived weirdness – dismembered doll parts and leering slow-motion feature heavily – Mayday is a sharply-written, atmospheric pot-boiler bolstered by high-calibre performers such as Sophie Okonedo, Peter Firth and, especially, Lesley Manville.

Despite its flaws, Mayday outdoes its close cousin, BROADCHURCH, in which David Tennant's taciturn beard and Olivia Colman's soggy orbs investigate the murder of a child in a sleepy Dorset community riven with suspicion.

Written by no-one's favourite Doctor Who scribe Chris Chibnall, it makes good use of its coastal location, with the camera sailing ostentatiously over precipitous cliffs, and vast blue skies gazing down at the despair below. Like The Killing, it focuses – albeit rather thinly – on a grieving family and the emotional involvement of the investigating officers. It also tries to say something meaningful about the importance of faith and trust in a Godless universe. If anyone can carry that off, it's Chris Chibnall.

New in town, Tennant's troubled character is strictly by the book, whereas Colman's local police officer is warm and empathetic to a fault. Why, it's almost as if they're a deliberate study in contrasts. The friendly locals, meanwhile, aren't as they seem, which is par for the course in dramas of this nature.

Stretched over eight episodes, Broadchurch does tend to dawdle at times, whereas Mayday assaults the same subject matter with more pace and precision. And with a cast which includes the likes of Pauline Quirke, Vicky McClure, Andrew Buchan, Arthur Darvill and David Bradley, it sometimes feels like a star-studded tourist video for its Dorset setting (tragic murder element notwithstanding, obviously).

Is the war in Afghanistan a suitable topic for comedy? Well, of course. Everything is a suitable topic for comedy, depending on how its handled. The problem with BLUESTONE 42 – a new sitcom about a British bomb disposal unit based in Helmand Provence – isn't that it's offensive, it's that in going out of its way to avoid causing offence it ends up as just another bland, obvious, middling sitcom. That is, unless you're deeply offended by the very idea of an apolitical comedy about an illegal war.

As if eager to get the troubling issue of death out of the way as quickly as possible, it kills off a character within the first five minutes. But he's very deliberately portrayed as a roaring idiot who the rest of the team don't really know or like, thus fudging the issue of whether we're supposed to acknowledge the horrors of war or not. Otherwise, Bluestone 42 is a determinedly light affair focusing on the team's efforts to amuse themselves while stationed at camp.

The amiable Gary: Tank Commander has been here before, of course, as has the estimable M*A*S*H. Suffice to say, Bluestone 42 isn't M*A*S*H. The lead character is a hapless, cocky Prince William/Ben Fogle clone who thinks nothing of exploiting his rank and supposed hero status to clumsily woo the attractive new female padre. A sweary Scotsman and a tough, straight-talking woman are also involved. It all adds up to very little.

But given that it fails to portray “Our Boys” as selfless saints, it will doubtless upset Daily Mail types across the land. So that's something, at least.

TV PREVIEW: Complicit, Meet the Izzards, Funny Business

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 16th February 2013.

Sunday, Channel 4, 9pm

Wednesday and Thursday, BBC1, 9pm

Today, BBC2, 11:30pm

Paul Whitelaw

If I asked you to imagine Homeland with a steadier grip on reality, I'd essentially be asking you to imagine a different show altogether. It'd be like trying to imagine Doctor Who without the sci-fi and time-travel elements (that would be quasi-surrealist daytime soap Doctors, by the way).

And yet I found myself unable to avoid that strained comparison while watching COMPLICIT, a solid standalone thriller inspired by the (obviously true) allegations that Britain secretly sanctions the torture of terror suspects on foreign soil. Like Homeland, it revolves around a troubled government agent and their obsessive pursuit of a suspected terrorist supposedly planning an imminent attack on home soil. It explicitly questions the dangers of following a fanatical creed. And it endeavours to explore the mindset of opposing forces, both of whom believe they have objective morality on their side.

But whereas Homeland embraces these themes with enjoyably deranged brio, Complicit slowly coils around them with the crushing intensity of a boa constrictor at feeding time. Abandoning the need for gunfights and explosions, it instead focuses on what one can only presume to be the real world of counter-terrorism: interminable, sleep-deprived hours of painstaking investigation, and the frustrating lethargy of every maverick agent's ultimate nemesis, meddling bureaucracy.

At its centre lies the thought-provoking question of whether, in times of national crisis, our saviours might be forgiven – or at least understood – for compromising their ethics to protect the greater good.

David Oyelowo stars as Edward, a taciturn MI5 agent who's spent years on the trail of Waleed, a fanatical British Muslim played with electrifying charm and intensity by Arsher Ali. Convinced that Waleed is planning a ricin attack in the UK, he convinces his initially hesitant bosses – who, in his view, have ostracised him due to his ethnicity – to follow him to Egypt. When David first interviews him in local police custody, Waleed alleges that he's been tortured, much to the consternation of Stephen Campbell Moore's curiously obstructive embassy bod.

Furiously intelligent and cognisant of international human rights laws, Waleed protests his innocence and runs rings around his hands-tied captors. Fearing that the risin has already been shipped to the UK, David gradually succumbs to desperate measures to secure the information he needs. But has his own paranoia and persecution complex compromised his outlook?

The deliberate pace of this nuanced polemic may be too testing for some. But I was captivated by its oppressively slow burn, which is dramatically punctured by some explosive confrontations between Oyelowo and Ali.

It's a noble addition to Channel 4's sporadically laudable history of pointed political dramas; indeed, it's precisely the sort of thing they should be making more of.

Eddie Izzard is going on a journey. Why? Because ever since TV decided that we cud-chewing dimwits couldn't tolerate matters of science and history unless they're filtered through a celebrity on an emotional quest, that's what the likes of Izzard do.

It's fortunate, however, that Izzard is more witty, charming and inquisitive than most, thus transforming MEET THE IZZARDS into one of the more tolerable examples of the genre. Never less than fiercely ambitious, the cross-dressing, multi-lingual, multi-marathon-running comedian is on a mission, not only to trace his personal ancestry using his own DNA, but the global migration of humankind as a whole.

In an effort to vaguely locate ourselves towards the ancient African man and woman who begat us all – as he says, there's one in the eye for yer racist silly-billies – he zips around the globe at tremendous expense, amusing Kalahari bush-people with his nail polish, chatting with a man who's sired 93 children, and dancing with pygmies in the forests of Cameroon. You know, as travelling UK TV presenters are contractually obliged to do.

It feels like a sprawling miscegenation of a survivalist documentary, an extended Comic Relief segment, and an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? that's sailed wildly out of control. But Izzard's laid-back charm undermines the project's rather inflated sense of self-importance, and further amusement is provided by his enthusiastic sidekick, Dr Jim Wilson from Edinburgh University, who appears to be angling for a starring vehicle of his own.

Izzard crops up again in the delayed second episode of FUNNY BUSINESS, in which the machinations of comedy agents and promoters fall under scrutiny. But the focus is largely on the rise during the last 30-years of stand-ups earning ludicrous sums of money from sell-out mega-tours, thanks in part to the heavily monopolised likes of Live at The Apollo.

The most fascinating portion of the programme by far is when a comedy historian delves into the BBC's Written Archive – housed in a modest bungalow in Berkshire, believe it or not – to contrast the earnings of today's top comics with those of the heroes of yesteryear. One particularly sobering revelation is that when Ernie Wise died, he left behind an estate worth over just half a million pounds. In 2011 alone, Peter Kay earned an estimated take of over £20 million from touring and DVD sales. As the formerly funny Boltonian might himself remark, what's all that about?