Saturday, 8 May 2021

THREE FAMILIES + INSIDE NO. 9 + LINE OF DUTY

This article was originally published in The Courier on 8th May 2021.

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Three Families – Monday and Tuesday, BBC One, 9pm

The Abortion Act 1967 made abortion legal in the UK, but that legislation didn’t extend to Northern Ireland. This vital drama is based upon the true stories of some of the people involved in a campaign to reverse injustice and change society.

It begins in 2013. Theresa (Sinead Keenan) believes that abortion is a mortal sin, but then her teenage daughter becomes pregnant. She makes a decision, borne of a mother’s love, that could see her facing a prison sentence for breaking an archaic law. Meanwhile, a young couple are told that their baby is expected to be stillborn. They’re given no other option.

Sensitive and angering, Three Families is wreathed in authenticity. It hits hard. It lingers.

Unbeatable – Monday to Friday, BBC One, 2:15pm

This generic daytime quiz show is almost fascinatingly undercooked and lacking in atmosphere. Your host is Jason Manford, who goes through the motions with the genial confidence of a man who knows he’s landed a sweet and easy gig.

The rules don’t matter, it’s just a procession of general knowledge questions. The weird production details are of far more interest. Unbeatable is haunted by listless canned applause that sounds like it’s been beamed in from a crypt full of Ray Harryhausen skeletons.

I’m all for social distancing, but Manford is so far away from the contestants they may as well have stuffed him in a capsule orbiting the moon. But, you know, there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Between the Covers – Monday, BBC Two, 7:30pm

A cosy little show, Between the Covers is a televised book club in which Sara Cox and some celebs review the latest big releases while talking about their own personal favourites. The guests this week are Mel Giedroyc, Griff Rhys Jones, TV presenter Rick Edwards and Oti Mabuse from Strictly Come Dancing.

The tomes under review are The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard. Meanwhile, Giedroyc heartily recommends all 900 pages of Les Miserables.

This is nothing more than an unpretentious piece of schedule filler, but sometimes that’s all you need. Also, it reminds me that Cox is an excellent broadcaster. She’s charming, funny and natural, a likeable presence.

Inside No. 9 – Monday, BBC Two, 9:30pm

I’m a big fan of Inside No. 9, but the latest series begins with an absolute misfire.

A parody of overly-stylised British heist thrillers combined with commedia dell’arte, it’s meta-textual to a fault. The fourth wall is constantly broken. “It’s series six,” smirks our nominal narrator, “you’ve got to allow for a certain artistic exhaustion.” Which would be funny if the episode as a whole wasn’t so terribly laboured and pleased with itself.

It exists purely to comment upon the expectations that Pemberton and Shearsmith have built up over the years. I get what they’re trying to do – it’s wilfully aggravating, which is an attitude I can get behind in theory – but as a post-modern experiment it goes too far in the wrong direction.

Oh well. Better luck next time, lads!

Hospital – Tuesday, BBC Two, 9pm

The latest series of this superior medical report was filmed in the Coventry hospital that delivered the world’s first Covid vaccine outside of a trial.

Nearly five million people in England are waiting to start treatment, forcing doctors into the difficult position of having to decide who should be treated first. It’s not a decision they take lightly. Patients who can’t afford to go private are stuck on a vast waiting list. NHS staff can only apologise – there’s nothing they can do.

This typically humane episode captures the intense frustrations of an NHS coping with the huge challenge of recovering itself one year into the pandemic. “It doesn’t feel like we’re anywhere near back to normal,” sighs one consultant.

Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause – Wednesday, Channel 4, 9pm

In this commendable programme, McCall highlights the failings of menopause care and finds out what can be done to improve the lives of menopausal women.

The main problem is a lack of proper information and a continuing distrust of hormone replacement therapy (HRT), a stigma largely based on a misleading yet widely publicised report from 20 years ago. McCall meets experts who want to put those fears to rest. They also stress that anti-depressants are no substitute for the benefits of HRT. The key message is this: we must continue to talk, listen and learn.

“You don’t have to be menopausal,” says McCall. “You don’t have to be a woman. This is something everybody needs to know.”

Saved By a Stranger – Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm

As this compassionate series continues, we meet two more ordinary people who survived traumatic events thanks to the life-changing help of others. 

David, a veteran of the Falklands conflict, was aboard the SS Atlantic Conveyer when it was set ablaze and sunk by an Exocet missile attack. Twelve men lost their lives. David now wants to reunite with some his fellow crewmembers as a way of stressing how important it is to talk when you struggle with PTSD. 

We also meet Darryl, who was four when his family fled Kenya for a new life in Britain. They discovered a country mired in vicious racism, but Darryl’s primary school teachers gave him the confidence to succeed in a hostile society.

LAST WEEK’S TV

Line of Duty – Sunday 2nd May, BBC One

So that’s that then. The revelation that “bumbling fool” Buckells was The Fourth Man should’ve worked as an angry comment on how corrupt chancers always rise to the top, but the whole thing was executed in such a flat and clunky way. A bore.

I’ve always enjoyed LoD for what it is – superior hokum with something to say about systemic corruption – but series six, despite occasional highlights, was hard work. Jed Mercurio’s laborious efforts to tie every last detail together sucked all the fun out of it.

I admire his wayward ambition and subversive intent: draw viewers into a populist show then hit them with a pessimistic political message. I just wish he’d managed to do that in a dramatically satisfying way.

Ian Wright: Home Truths – Thursday 6th May, BBC One

Ian Wright’s step-dad was a psychologically and physically abusive man. The family lived in constant fear of him. He’s never fully dealt with what he went through as a child, hence this frank and tender programme in which he examined the long-term effects of domestic abuse.

In the last year, 1.6 million women in the UK experienced domestic abuse. In 90% of such cases, a child is always present. Wright confronted some upsetting memories while talking to a psychiatrist and other people from similar backgrounds. He also met school pastoral carers and social workers who have been trained to spot signs that a child is struggling.

Hats off to Wright for making such an important piece of television.

 

Saturday, 1 May 2021

KILLING ESCOBAR + LINE OF DUTY + THIS TIME WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE

A version of this article was first published in The Courier on 1st May 2021.

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Killing Escobar – Tuesday, BBC Scotland, 10pm

In 1989, Glasgow-born mercenary Peter McAleese was hired to assassinate all-powerful drugs kingpin Pablo Escobar. His mission didn’t go according to plan. This 90-minute documentary explains what happened while fleshing out the details of McAleese’s often troubled life. 

A grizzled raconteur, he understands why many may regard him, a hired killer, as morally reprehensible. But, he argues, “This is the profession I chose.” Killing Escobar makes for uncomfortable viewing. On the one hand it’s a gung-ho celebration of repulsive machismo, but on the other it’s a fairly nuanced study of a philosophical and rather lonely man whose early years were steeped in anger and violence. 

The film ultimately invites viewers to make their own judgement. It’s like an unusually wistful episode of The Professionals.

The Violence Paradox – Tuesday, BBC Four, 9pm 

“Has violence really declined?” asks esteemed psychologist Steven Pinker, who hosts this far-reaching study of the worst of human nature. 

That does, of course, sound like the sort of deliberately glib and unanswerable question Chris Morris would pose at the start of Brass Eye every week, but Pinker is serious: he really does think that we could be living in the most peaceful time in history. And he’s got a vast dossier of facts and research to support his controversial hypothesis. 

Whether he’s right or not – and the programme allows room for dissenting voices – it’s an engaging essay. Hey, maybe we’re not doomed after all. The vaguely hippie-ish Pinker, with his lovely fluffy hair and relaxation tape mien, is someone you want to believe in.

The Money Maker – Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm

The star of this new series is big-hearted venture capitalist Eric Collins, who each week throws a lifeline to ailing British businesses. Collins, a suave American gentleman, exudes a sort of benign intensity; Zen and the art of trouble-shooting. 

His first port of call is a building repair and restoration company in Manchester. I zone out whenever business types start talking about equity stakes etc. – my brain isn’t wired to compute such information – but The Money Maker is more acceptable than the relentlessly sneering Dragons’ Den. At least Collins tempers his essentially self-serving impulses with a certain degree of empathy. 

But this is such a standard-issue TV format. We’ve seen it all before.

Johnny Vegas: Carry On Glamping – Wednesday, Channel 4, 10pm

In this amiable new series, the comedian and camper van enthusiast follows his dream of setting up a bespoke glamping site full of renovated buses from the 1950s and 1960s. 

Among his friends and family, Vegas is affectionately known as someone who is always coming up with big ideas before getting bored and abandoning them. But he’s keen to stress how serious he is about this project. It’s not just a lark. 

Accompanied by his best pal and personal assistant Bev, Vegas searches for a site and travels to Malta to examine their first bus (he bought it online at 2am without checking the location). He also visits his mum, who’s glad he’s doing this instead of “filthy stand-up”.

Bloods – Wednesday, Sky One, 10pm

This new sitcom about paramedics, while fairly amusing, veers uneasily between likeable workplace shenanigans and self-conscious gallows humour – patients in episode one include a crack addict and some people involved in a car crash. 

Our odd couple protagonists are Maleek (Samson Kayo) and his new partner Wendy (Jane Horrocks). Maleek is a short-tempered fool with a high opinion of himself. Wendy is a kindly chatterbox who isn’t quite as naïve as she seems. Meanwhile, back at hospital HQ, the always watchable Julian Barratt plays a lonely widower who doesn’t seem to be aware that his boss is in love with him. 

Bloods isn’t bad by any means. It’s fine. But I will never watch it again unless someone I trust tells me that it significantly improves. And no one will ever tell me that.

The Dog House – Thursday, Channel 4, 8pm

As the latest series of this wet-nosed comforter concludes, we meet Stanley the Staffie, Ellie the Chihuahua and Zoe the effervescent Beagle. As usual, the staff at Wood Green Animal Shelters must manage that careful negotiation between matching these abandoned dogs with the right humans. 

The main storyline this week involves Dexter from Malaysia, who was shunned by his mother when he came out as gay. He’s now happily married to Aaron. If Ellie accepts him too, their lives could be complete. 

We all know that these programmes tend to favour neatly satisfying narratives - ah, if only life were really so straightforward – but The Dog Pound is a quietly profound little show. It has a good heart.

Britain’s Favourite ‘80s Songs: 1989 – Friday, Channel 5, 10pm

And so, this cheap and cheerfully pointless list show comes to an end. As we knew it always must. 

I suppose Channel 5 should be applauded for doggedly carrying on with the nostalgic pop culture rundown format, which even Channel 4 abandoned about ten years ago after trampling it into the ground. 

You don’t need to have seen previous episodes in this series to know what it involves: 1980s pop videos interspersed with talking heads trotting out all the usual clichés. That’s talking heads as in whoever they could round up at the time; David Byrne and Tina Weymouth don’t barge in to declare their love for Jive Bunny. 

A perfectly adequate way to while away your Friday evening. 

LAST WEEK’S TV

Line of Duty – Sunday 25th April, BBC One

For all its blatant flaws, Line of Duty is hard to resist. Those blatant flaws are part of its maddening appeal. 

To take it seriously is to miss the point; it’s entirely composed of red herrings, cliff-hangers, exposition and convoluted call-backs, but it’s all put together with a certain amount of flair. Case in point: introducing James Nesbitt as a surprise guest-star in episode five, then killing him off in episode six. He hadn’t even uttered a line of dialogue. That whole bait and switch routine was amusing. 

Nevertheless, it’s definitely time to end it now. It’s been a fun ride, but this series has shown clear signs of fatigue and Greatest Hits repetition. There’s nowhere left to go.

This Time with Alan Partridge – Friday 30th April, BBC One

Since 2010, Steve Coogan and co-writers Neil and Rob Gibbons have produced some of the very best Alan Partridge material. Mid Morning Matters, those two outstanding audiobooks and last year’s podcast From the Oasthouse were all premium Partridge. This Time is broader and doesn’t quite scale those heights, but it’s still a very funny show. 

Coogan as Partridge – one of the greatest comedy creations of all time - is an absolute joy to behold; an impeccable comic actor inhabiting a three-dimensional character he knows inside out. 

Last week’s obvious set-piece highlight was his time spent in a monastery, but I laughed more at the subtle cracking of his knees during a ludicrous display of ‘entering a conference room’ etiquette. I do love Alan so.

 

 

Saturday, 24 April 2021

VIEWPOINT + SAVED BY A STRANGER + BABY SURGEONS: DELIVERING MIRACLES

This article was originally published in The Courier on 24th April 2021.

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Viewpoint – Monday to Friday, STV, 9pm

Another one of those stripped-throughout-the-week dramas designed to cause maximum social media impact, Viewpoint is deeply indebted to Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the paranoid claustrophobia of 1970s New Hollywood classics such as Coppola’s The Conversation

Noel Clarke stars as a CID surveillance detective tasked with solving the disappearance of a primary school teacher. While covertly stationed in a neighbour’s flat across the road, his professional distance becomes compromised by a growing sense of panicked moral responsibility. Viewpoint falls back on some standard cop thriller tropes, but it’s quite compelling and intense. 

Clarke and co-star Alexandra Roach hold it all together, though; their performances are nicely understated. You can believe in them if nothing else.

How to Save a Grand in 24 Hours – Monday, Channel 4, 8pm

Anna Richardson and a cavalcade of cost-cutting gurus get to work in this new series, during which they show families how easy it can be to slash bills, credit card spends and monthly subscriptions. 

The core message is this: do you really need most of the stuff you own and pay for? Speaking as someone who would probably be quite happy living inside a heated Perspex cube on an uninhabited Scottish island, it’s a philosophy I can get behind. 

The subjects this week are the Kofi family, who receive some advice on how run their household on a reduced budget. This isn’t must-see TV by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s perfectly benign and potentially useful.

Baby Surgeons: Delivering Miracles – Monday, Channel 4, 9pm

Please take heed: this intimate series is, while sensitively handled, heart-wrenching. Filmed in one of the UK’s leading foetal medicine units, it follows heavily pregnant mothers whose unborn children are in urgent need of care and attention. 

Becky’s baby has a lung tumour which requires prenatal laser surgery. Anne-Marie was pregnant with triplets, but one of them died after nine weeks in the womb. Randika, who has dwarfism, has suffered three miscarriages. Their surgeon is Professor Basky Thilaganathan, whose delicate bedside manner is frequently called into play while he explains the educated risks he must take to save the lives of his patients. 

There is, I assure you, some tearful joy to be had amidst the tragedy.

Our Yorkshire Farm – Tuesday, Channel 5, 7pm

The Owen family – mum, dad and their nine children – live on one of the most remote farms in Britain. This delightful series chronicles their daily lives. It’s The Brady Bunch in mud-caked wellies; Whistle Down the Wind without an escaped convict in the barn. 

A programme about nice people enjoying their idyllic life may sound rather bland, but I find Our Yorkshire Farm very comforting. It provides some generous respite from the horrors of the world. It also captures the innocence of childhood. 

This week, the kids go back to school after their time spent in lockdown; it’s five-year-old Clemmie’s first day in the halls of academe, and she enjoys every minute of it.

Bent Coppers: Crossing the Line of Duty – Wednesday, BBC Two, 9pm

The final episode of this propulsive series about police corruption in the 1970s revolves around that shady euphemism, “taking a drink”. Corrupt police officers and violent criminals made a tidy living from their mutually beneficial arrangements. And for the most part, those uniformed villains got away with their crimes. 

As the episode reveals, the real-life AC-12 – which had to be set up to cope with the problem - were ill-equipped to deal with such an overwhelming torrent of allegations. We also meet honest ex-coppers talking about the anguish of being trapped within a toxic institution. They felt helpless. 

And once again, that evocative archive footage positively reeks of stale cigarette smoke and urinal cakes.

Saved By a Stranger – Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm

Hosted by Anita Rani, this new series focuses on ordinary people who became caught up in some of the darkest events in living memory. It tries to reunite them with the strangers who came to their aid during times of dire need. 

Karl is looking for the woman who held his hand when they were trapped underground during the 7/7 attacks. In his panic to escape from the tunnels, he pushed in front of her and has struggled with the guilt ever since. Emina and her family fled from war-torn Sarajevo thanks to the efforts of a paediatrician. They want to thank her for saving their lives. 

It’s a humbling celebration of selfless humanity.

Intergalactic – Friday, Sky One, 9pm

This new British sci-fi drama is an unabashed blast of camp, clichéd hokum. And that’s why I’m recommending it. 

Set in 2143, it follows a young space cop with an unimpeachable record who is convicted of – you guessed it – a crime she didn’t commit. Sent into exile on a brutal prison planet, she has to prove her innocence while struggling to survive in an environment that doesn’t take kindly to law enforcers. It’s basically the first episode of Blake’s 7 on a big Sky budget and taken at a frantic pace. 

Highlights include Dot from Line of Duty as a sinister government official and metaphor-spouting beekeeper. If that hasn’t sold you on it, then nothing will.

LAST WEEK’S TV

Call the Midwife – Sunday 18th April, BBC One

I was amused by the all-conquering chutzpah of last Sunday’s evening schedule on BBC One. Call the Midwife followed by Line of Duty? Beat that, ITV (other channels may have been available). 

The tenth series began with a typically affecting episode; Call the Midwife is reassuringly old-fashioned in the way it weaves at least four storylines into a neat thematic whole. This one encompassed a crisis of faith, a family tragically affected by radiation poisoning, a young black couple struggling to build a new life for themselves, and a compassionate case in favour of the NHS vs exclusive private health care. 

Even after nine years and 80 episodes, this restorative formula hasn’t run dry.

Line of Duty – Sunday 18th April, BBC One

As expected, the latest episode of this uneven series revealed that Jo Davidson is the daughter of deceased OCG boss Tommy Hunter. That was such a foregone conclusion, writer Jed Mercurio tossed it out of the way before moving swiftly on. 

But it did contain at least one decent surprise – the introduction of James Nesbitt as a senior police officer embroiled in the overarching conspiracy plot. Line of Duty is an enjoyable puzzle powered by admirably righteous anger (the Stephen Lawrence case was woven in last week), but it feels like Mercurio is now hastily ticking off everything he’s ever wanted to say at the expense of narrative cohesion. 

I’m still watching, obviously. He’s some kind of dastardly hypnotist.

 

 

Saturday, 17 April 2021

LUCY, THE HUMAN CHIMP + GRETA THUNBERG: A YEAR TO CHANGE THE WORLD + MAKEUP: A GLAMOROUS HISTORY

This article was originally published in The Courier on 17th April 2021. 

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Lucy, the Human Chimp – Monday, Channel 4, 9pm

In 1966, two psychology professors from the University of Oklahoma embarked upon a radical nature vs nurture experiment. They decided to raise Lucy, a female chimpanzee, as if she were human. 

But by the time she was 11, Lucy had grown too large and unpredictable to continue living with her surrogate parents. So they were forced to make a difficult decision: ostensibly for her own good, Lucy was shipped off to an African nature reserve in the company of a young student called Janis Carter. This touching documentary recounts their extraordinary story. 

Via archive material, dramatic reconstructions and a revealing interview with Carter herself, the film makes a resonant statement about the complex relationship between humans and animals.

Ackley Bridge – Monday to Friday, Channel 4, 6pm

Basically Grange Hill aimed at a slightly older audience - or Hollyoaks and Skins with a soul – Ackley Bridge returns in a new early evening slot stripped throughout the week. 

The newest protagonists are two Asian pupils and a member of the travelling community. Connor McIntyre, who played Coronation Street’s greatest ever villain, Pat Phelan, also turns up in a recurring role. Ackley Bridge handles Big Issues and the everlasting teenage themes as a matter of course, but never in an earnest way. 

It’s sharp, sensitive and self-aware. Peppered with characters delivering snappy Russell T. Davies-inspired monologues to camera, I find the whole thing quite sweet and fairly amusing. It’s worth delving into.

Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World – Monday, BBC One, 9pm

During the second leg of her global fact-finding mission, the inspiring climate activist conducts a brief yet moving interview with David Attenborough. “People are listening,” he says. “Self-interest is for the past, common interest is for the future.”

When he compliments her campaign, she has to hold back tears. But the centrepiece of this episode is her appearance at the 50th World Economic Forum in Davos, where she tried to persuade world leaders to abandon fossil fuels. Thunberg is dismayed by the press coverage, which ignored her message in favour of a pantomime narrative pitting the Swedish teenager against Donald Trump. 

Meanwhile, various leading scientists and experts provide a battery of facts. There are solutions. There is hope.

Makeup: A Glamorous History – Tuesday, BBC Two, 9pm

“Makeup can be seen as a frivolous subject,” says professional makeup artist Lisa Eldridge, “but I think it’s hugely important… a window on the world we’re living in.” She proves her point in this new series, which functions as a novel piece of social history shot through the prism of lipstick, powder and paint. 

Her essay begins with the high society Georgians, whose shameless ostentation and towering ice cream wigs were viewed as a symbol of wealth and status. Eldridge, who has been collecting vintage makeup products for over 30 years, applies her research to a model using authentic period techniques. She’s an engaging expert; her enthusiasm for the non-frivolous subject at hand is palpable.

Scotland’s Home of the Year – Wednesday, BBC Scotland, 8pm

In the latest episode of this rather calming series, we nose around some stunning homes in rural Aberdeenshire, the actual Aberdeen and St Andrews. 

As always, your expert judges are interior designer Anna Campbell-Jones, blogger Kate Spiers and architect/lecturer Michael Angus, who, with his large yet softly-spoken Man in Black image, wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Deadwood (he’d be a goodie, obviously). 

It’s all presented in such a friendly way, it never invites viewers to feel envious of these dream homes. 

Another point in the programme’s favour is Anne Lundon’s gentle Hebridean narration, which makes a pleasant change from that incessantly wry lifestyle television tone I’m sure you’re also thoroughly sick of. 

Bent Coppers: Crossing the Line of Duty – Wednesday, BBC Two, 9pm

In the early 1970s, Soho was a sordid hotbed of vice ruled by enterprising porn barons and an underground network of corrupt police officers. That murky world of fake raids and suspicious brown envelopes is the setting for episode two of this series, which once again wallows in amazing archive footage steeped in grime and sleaze. 

It also features contemporary contributions from investigative journalists and former cops. Narrated by – who else? – Philip Glenister, it’s a solidly-researched history lesson. My only criticism of this series is the way it suggests that police corruption and harassment are a dark and dusty relic of the Sweeney-fingered past. If only. We’ve all seen the news and that hit documentary Line of Duty.

Second Hand for 50 Grand – Wednesday, Channel 4, 10pm

According to this glitzy celebration of rampant consumerism, so-called second-hand chic is the latest must-have. In recent years, an entire industry has grown around the acquisition of luxury vintage goods and “modern-day bling”. 

The programme follows the staff at Xupes, a Millennial-run business that hopes to corner the market. Their clients include a young millionaire with a walk-in wardrobe full of absurdly expensive handbags, a retired insurance broker who collects watches, sunglasses and old toys, and an elderly man who wants to buy a Cartier watch for his window cleaner son, as a thank you for looking after him. 

Believe it or not, at least two of these stories contain a bit of depth.

LAST WEEK’S TV

I Can See Your Voice – Saturday 10th April, BBC One

Well this is certainly something. It’s a Saturday night singing talent show in which a panel of celebrity judges and Some Contestants have to guess who might be a gifted vocalist either by merely looking at them or assessing their miming skills. 

The joke, such as it is, involves laughing at bad singers while assuaging your conscience with the knowledge that these pitch-starved funsters are in on it. When a singer is revealed to be quite good, that’s supposed to be a jaw-dropping moment – oh wow, that mousy little bespectacled fella can hold a tune! – but this thin format is stretched out over an endless hour. And “let’s hear your voice!” will never gain traction as a popular catchphrase.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

GRETA THUNBERG: A YEAR TO CHANGE THE WORLD + TOO CLOSE

This article was originally published in The Courier on 10th April 2021.

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World – Monday, BBC One, 9pm

The world-renowned environmental activist has galvanised millions in the fight against climate change. Towards the end of 2019, she took a year off school to examine the effects of global warming first-hand. A co-production between the BBC and PBS, this vital series follows Thunberg as she travels around the world – by boat – to meet leading climate experts. 

In Canada, she encounters melting glaciers and evidence of our biodiversity crisis. She also witnesses the devastating after-effects of California’s worst ever wildfire. 

Meanwhile, Thunberg and her supportive father discuss the pressures they’re under, although she’d clearly rather not talk about herself at all: “I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the science.”

Too Close – Monday to Wednesday, STV, 9pm

Emily Watson stars in this morbid psychological thriller as Emma, a forensic psychiatrist tasked with assessing a woman branded in the tabloid press as a ‘yummy mummy monster’. Connie (played with considerable intensity by Denise Gough) tried to kill herself, her daughter and a neighbour’s child by driving into a river. She claims to have no memory of the incident.

Connie is arrogant, angry, cynical and manipulative. The scenes between her and Emma inhabit familiar territory: the intelligent patient/prisoner turning the tables on their interrogator. 

I only had access to episode one, but Too Close is quite intriguing and almost admirably bleak. I’m always suspicious of dramas about mental illness, they’re often quite tawdry and insensitive, but we’ll see.

All That Glitters: Britain’s Next Jewellery Star – Tuesday, BBC Two, 8pm

Comedian Katherine Ryan hosts this new “TV competition slash talent search format.” How deliciously ironic. I actually prefer it when derivative TV shows just plough ahead with the job at hand, instead of drawing attention to themselves with a knowing wink. It’s a cheap get-out clause. 

Anyway. This one finds a bunch of up-and-coming jewellers working on bespoke pieces that could last for centuries. You know the drill: they’re set a series of challenges while being judged by soundbite-spouting experts. 

Even if you have no interest whatsoever in jewellery, this is a fairly pleasant way to while away an hour of your life. But it is, like most programmes of its ilk, clearly better suited to a daytime slot.

Stacey Dooley: Back on the Psych Ward – Tuesday, BBC Two, 9pm

Last year, Dooley made a programme about life on an NHS mental health ward. This is her follow-up report. 

With characteristic sensitivity, she spends time with staff and patients to find out how they’ve been coping during the pandemic. Since COVID, the demand for beds has shot up. For so many people with pre-existing mental health issues, the isolation has been impossible to deal with. Young people have been affected more than any other age group. 

I don’t want to go into the specific details of what the various patients that Dooley meets are struggling with, as those details may prove triggering to some readers, but suffice to say it’s a programme made with the utmost care and integrity.

Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs – Wednesday, STV, 8pm

During this week’s visit to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, O’Grady meets some pooches in desperate need of TLC. Staffie-cross Roxi has far too much nervous energy to burn, so the staff try to calm her down with a gentle regime of stroking and exercise. 

The other star of the show is Dottie, a bulldog with the saddest face. Dottie has been overbred by her former owners; she’s exhausted and scared of pretty much everything. But then she’s paired with another lonely dog in need. 

I tend to get moist-eyed at the most ridiculous things, but For the Love of Dogs really is such a lovely, uplifting show. It makes the world feel like a slightly kinder place.

The Great British Sewing Bee – Wednesday, BBC One, 9pm

It’s back! From their new home on the banks of the Thames underneath London’s last surviving lighthouse, Esme Young from Central Saint Martin’s School of Fashion, Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant and cuddly host Joe Lycett welcome twelve new sewers competing for this year’s prize. 

A likeable bunch, they include a Bowie fan and former dinner lady, and a Frenchman who plays lead trumpet for London’s Gay Symphony Orchestra. 

It’s jolly old business as usual, during which they must design a loose-fitting buffet dress, a collarless 1960s-style blouse and transform a standard t-shirt into an imaginative item of clothing for any age or gender – one of the bold designs sends Grant into a giggling fit.

Bent Coppers: Crossing the Line of Duty – Wednesday, BBC Two, 9pm

With trust in the Metropolitan Police currently at an all-time low, this timely documentary travels back to an era when the public regarded the fuzz as an unassailable paragon of virtue. But as we now know, bent coppers exploited that myth for their own benefit. 

In early 1970s London, a secret network of corrupt CID detectives inhabited a murky world of extortion, fit-ups and racist violence. They preyed on defenceless working-class people and ethnic minorities, as well as tofu-munching political activists such as Caroline Coon. 

Propelled by a funky cop soundtrack and evocative archive footage, the episode also features covert recordings of bent coppers colluding with criminals: “We’ve got more villains in our game than you’ve got in yours.”

LAST WEEK’S TV

Freddie Mercury: A Life in Ten Pictures – Saturday 3rd April, BBC Two

This touching account of Sir Fred’s life featured contributions from some of the non-famous people who knew and loved him. They pored over private and professional photographs of Mercury as a way of providing insight into what he was really like. 

It began with the earliest known image of him, as an infant in Zanzibar, and ended with a photograph taken just a few months before he died. 

Although the story of Mercury’s life is familiar, the programme managed to untangle the private man from the self-made myth. A sensitive soul, he was an introverted extrovert who craved companionship. He was also a gay immigrant who overcame the odds stacked against him. Intimate and honest, the programme did him justice.

Line of Duty – Sunday 4th April, BBC One

Now we’re sucking diesel. This series began with an uninspiring, poorly-paced episode, but it has ramped up considerably since. 

Episode three contained one of those great LoD set-pieces: corrupt copper Ryan, who we first encountered as a terrifying child in series one, attempted to bump off Terry, the framed young suspect with learning difficulties, by staging a car crash in a reservoir. Terry survived, but Ryan drowned the other officer who was in the car. Brutal. 

LoD is essentially a daft yet compelling melodrama made up on the hoof, but I do admire the way it confronts contentious real-life issues such as the murder of Jill Dando and Jimmy Savile’s connections within the highest echelons of power. Why, it’s almost subversive.

 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

AGATHA & POIROT: PARTNERS IN CRIME + LOUIS THEROUX: SHOOTING JOE EXOTIC

This article was originally published in The Courier on 3rd April 2021.

NEXT WEEK’S TV

Agatha & Poirot: Partners in Crime – Monday, STV, 9pm

Hosted by Richard E. Grant and his ostentatious Paisley scarf, this tribute to Agatha Christie and her most enduring creation is an agreeable time-passer. 

A galloping galaxy of famous fans including Stephen Fry, Caroline Quentin and Zoe Wannamaker pitch up to explain what Christie’s work means to them, while Grant recounts the main beats of her life as well as her decades-long relationship with the fastidious Belgian sleuth. 

It unfolds in a strangely comforting world of genteel Torquay tea rooms, opulent steam trains and gallons of deadly poison. It easy to take Christie for granted, but she was obviously a genius. David Suchet is conspicuous by his absence, presumably because he’s said everything he has to say about Poirot.

Canal Boat Diaries – Monday to Thursday, BBC Four, 7pm

A mild-mannered man pootling around on a narrowboat - what’s not to like? In series two of this comforting diversion, Robbie Cummings – who looks like a happily retired member of Basement Jaxx - continues his existential escape from society via the heart of Britain’s canal network. 

Here we find him during lockdown, tending to the needs of his vessel while enjoying the serene vistas of this murky green and pleasant land. This is slow television in the most acceptable sense: a solitary traveller navigating waterways while providing little nuggets of history. 

I envy Robbie’s life. If I wasn’t tragically lumbered with a timid housecat and a total lack of practical ability, I’d be out there in a heartbeat.

Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic – Monday, BBC Two, 9pm

Ten years ago, while making a documentary called America’s Most Dangerous Pets, Theroux spent time with the controversial zoo owner Joe Exotic. 

At that time, Exotic was just one of the many strange and dubious characters Theroux has encountered over the years. But in 2020 he attained global infamy as the, shall we say, eccentric star of the Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. He’s currently serving a 22-year prison sentence after being found guilty of a murder-for-hire plot and 17 charges of animal cruelty. 

In this programme, which wasn’t available for preview, Theroux meets with a team campaigning for Exotic’s release. He also interviews friends and family-members who haven’t spoken on camera before.

Snackmasters – Tuesday, Channel 4, 9:20pm

TV’s resident maitre d’ Fred Sirieix is only too happy to be a living parody of himself – the first words out of his mouth as this series returns are “Ooh la la!” That’s not a ‘diss’, good luck to the man. He’s making hey while ze sun shines. 

In Snackmasters, he presides over professional chefs as they attempt to unlock the secret recipes of cheap popular snack foods. The duellists on this occasion are a Prince Harry lookalike and “a no-nonsense Yorkshireman”. Their mission: to successfully recreate a KFC meal. 

If you can ignore the finger-licking product placement and the innately condescending concept of Michelin-starred artisans lowering themselves into the deep fat fryer of high street gruel, then it’s quite good fun.

Food Unwrapped – Friday, Channel 4, 8pm

This light-hearted factual series is basically an extended version of those little educational films they used to show on Play School. It trots around the globe with a view to exposing the (usually benign) truth about what we’re eating. 

This week, Helen Lawal visits a futuristic Nescafe factory and solves the mystery of how those crazy caffeinated cats put the froth in instant coffee. Their exact methods are a closely guarded secret, but it involves nitrogen gas. 

Meanwhile, Matt Tebbutt dons a Man from Del Monte fedora and travels to Mount Vesuvius to find out why so many of our tinned tomatoes are Italian, and Kate Quilton visits Genoa to explain how panettone has such a long shelf life.

Rosie’s Trip Hazard: My Great British Adventure – Friday, Channel 4, 8:30pm

Comedian Rosie Jones hosts this scenic round-Britain travelogue in which she tips a knowing wink to the clichéd conventions of the genre (narrator Olivia Colman almost overdoses on irony). 

The series begins in the Lake District, where Jones and her celebrity guest Scarlett Moffatt visit the home of William Wordsworth, ride a traction engine and take part in a Viking battle re-enactment. 

Jones, who is gay and has cerebral palsy, opens with a good gag. Her world-weary agent (played by an actor) says, “In a way, you tick a lot of boxes. Woman, disabled, gay, northern…” Her reply: “I don’t identify as northern.” It’s a slight vehicle, but Jones is funny. Her best work is presumably ahead of her.

LAST WEEK’S TV

Reel Stories: Dave Grohl – Saturday 27th March

This occasional series revolves around a simple yet sometimes quite effective format. The affably bland Dermot O’Leary interviews musicians while showing them choice highlights from their own career as well as clips of some of the artists who have inspired them. It’s designed to jog their memories, and it worked well here with the Foo Fighters frontman, former Nirvana drummer and Nicest Man in Rock ™. 

His default setting is hirsute bonhomie, but he became introspective while discussing the tragic loss of his friend and former bandmate Kurt Cobain. His thoughts on dealing with grief were movingly and eloquently expressed. As usual, he came across as humble, good-natured and self-aware. Grohl doesn’t take any of this for granted.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

BLACK POWER: A BRITISH STORY OF RESISTANCE + FOOTBALL'S DARKEST SECRET

This article was originally published in The Courier on 20th March 2021. 

NEXT WEEK'S TV

Black Power: A British Story of Resistance – Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm

This stirring 90-minute documentary traces the dramatic rise and fall of the British Black Power movement in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Inspired by the civil rights struggle in America, and in particular the uncompromising rhetoric of Malcolm X and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, these young black and Asian radicals fought back against the brutal institutional racism they endured on a daily basis. 

The film features compelling testaments from some of the still-defiant members of this hugely important yet often overlooked movement. 

A vital piece of social history, it also reaches out to the Black Lives Matter movement and considers the lessons that can be learned from their pioneering forebears in the self-empowering revolt against racial discrimination.

Football’s Darkest Secret – Monday to Wednesday, BBC One, 9pm

This landmark series examines the shockingly vast amount of cases of historic child abuse which took place in British youth football from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s. In doing so, it exposes the culture of silence that surrounded these heinous crimes. 

Preview copies weren’t available at the time of writing, but this is quite clearly an essential report.

For decades, coaches and scouts connected to top football clubs abused their positions of power to prey on vulnerable young boys. Many of the victims were shamed into silence until, in 2016, former player Andy Woodward chose to speak out publicly. This encouraged more than 800 other victims to follow suit. 300 suspects have since been identified.

24 Hours in Police Custody: Bedfordshire’s Most Wanted – Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm

The umpteenth series of this bleakly compelling observational crime-doc begins with 23-year-old Barry, who is being held on suspicion of multiple burglaries and numerous driving offences. Barry reckons he’s been in custody more than a thousand times. Due to a lack of fresh evidence against him, the police have no choice but to release this smirking recidivist. He clearly thinks he’s untouchable. 

But within a few weeks, the police receive calls from two terrified teenage girls who accuse Barry of sexual assault. And then the tense, queasy interviews, for which this series is renowned, begin. Barry, his bravado visibly disintegrating, insists the sex was consensual. Barry is a liar. It’s a timely episode, for obvious reasons.

The Detectives: Fighting Organised Crime – Tuesday, BBC Two, 9pm

Filmed over two years, this disturbing five-part series follows Greater Manchester Police officers as they struggle to cope with the ever-growing problem of organised crime groups.

 “It’s the biggest threat to the UK in terms of security,” says one of the detectives tasked with infiltrating this violent criminal underworld. Drug-trafficking, people-trafficking, extortion, fraud, kidnap and murder, these groups will do anything to make enormous sums of money and consolidate their power. Despite the detectives’ best efforts, the entire situation feels hopeless. 

Warning: like 24 Hours in Police Custody, this is strong stuff. It’s not gratuitous, but we do encounter a victim with severe injuries, and the descriptions of violent acts may prove upsetting for some viewers.

Strangers Making Babies – Tuesday, Channel 4, 9:15pm

Co-parenting is the term used to describe people who decide to have children outside of a conventional romantic relationship. In this sensitive new series, we meet single people who, for various reasons, feel that time is running out. So now they’re ready to enter into mutually beneficial platonic arrangements. 

As cold as that may sound, Strangers Making Babies is a touching dating show. It’s overseen by trustworthy experts; I have no reason to doubt their extensive vetting and matching process. There is nothing in this show to suggest that anyone is being exploited or coerced. 

Emotional complications inevitably ensue, but not to a traumatic extent. The overall tone is encouraging and sympathetic. Good luck to ‘em all.

This Is MY House – Wednesday, BBC One, 9pm

A sort of reverse polarity version of Through the Keyhole, this daft new series asks celebrities to correctly identify a luxury house-owner from a group of suspects. Three of them are actors, and the only one who knows the truth is the owner themselves. 

The fundamental flaw in this format – which was co-devised by media powerhouse Richard Bacon – is that the actors are visibly acting throughout. You can instantly tell who the ordinary member of the public is, but the celebs have to pretend to ignore that for the sake of the game. 

Okay, I’m willing to be proved wrong, as my preview copy cut off before their identity was revealed - presumably to prevent this nail-biting spoiler from leaking into the public domain prior to transmission - but I suspect I’ve got it bang to rights.

First Dates Hotel – Wednesday, Channel 4, 9pm

Time now to return to that glamorous five-star hotel in sun-kissed rural Italy, where Fred and co play host to another nervous gaggle of amour-chasers. 

First up is Thalia, a young woman whose confidence has been shattered by her ex. Thalia’s date is Jack, a cancer survivor. We also meet Tony, a dapper septuagenarian widower from Essex. Tony has, shall we say, robust political opinions. His date, Lesley, does not. So you can imagine how that goes. 

As always, it’s all rather lovely. The First Dates franchise is basically a benign endeavour, it doesn’t mock or judge its participants. We’re nosy by nature, but I do believe we want the best for people. Naïve of me, perhaps.

LAST WEEK'S TV

Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday – Saturday 13th March, BBC Two

In the early 1970s, American journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl set out to write the definitive biography of the late jazz great Billie Holliday. Her stated aim: “to go beyond the romantic myth of tortured artist and hopeless junkie.” 

Her research involved numerous lengthy interviews with Holiday’s friends, lovers and colleagues. But the book was never completed, as Kuehl died in 1978 at the age of 38. The police deemed it suicide, but her family believe she may have been murdered. 

This documentary, while undeniably interesting when it focused on Kuehl’s interviews with Holiday’s confidantes, failed in its attempts to tie the lives of these women together. What was the director trying to say exactly? A confused endeavour.

Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency – Tuesday 16th March, BBC One

Last year, Roman Kemp’s best friend, Joe Lyons, took his own life. Kemp had no idea that Lyons was struggling with mental health issues. There were no signs as far as he could see. 

In this commendably honest, delicate and responsible programme, the TV presenter and radio DJ went in search of answers: why do so many young men feel unable to talk about their problems? 

Teenage suicide rates in Britain are on the rise. The pandemic has exacerbated feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety. People feel hopeless. But Kemp’s message was clear: it is so important to open up about your feelings. Talking provides a cathartic release. You will not be judged, you are loved. Help is out there.