TV Review – Parade’s End, Inspector George Gently, Jennifer Saunders: Back In the Saddle

Potty and Piggy

The BBC have been bowling unreadable googlies in the first wave of their Autumn drama schedule. What should be a prestigious drama is actually a zany comedy and what should be a fuzzy nostalgic wallow in yesteryear is a serious portrait of race relations.

First, the wacky comedy. Parade’s End (BBC2) follows the hilarious antics of a Tory statistician played by Benedict Cumberbatch as he pratfalls between two women and a bestiary of bizarre supporting characters. Channel 4 must be looking green with envy, as Parade’s End tops almost anything they served up for Funny Fortnight.

Paris 1908. The Great War is just around the corner, as is Panama’s independence from Columbia. Cumberbatch is not happy to be in the City of Light, as he’s embarking on a marriage with the thoroughly unsuitable Rebecca Hall. To prove how unsuitable she is, she shags a married man with a moustache the night before the wedding. But Cumberbatch has to go through with it because she’s pregnant (“trapped by a papist bitch carrying a baby”). Even though he’s not sure he’s the father, he’s such a decent, honourable chap that he’ll Do The Right Thing. Such is our straight man set up for the many red-nosed trouser droppings to follow.

Cumberbatch is from Yorkshire. We know this because his disapproving mother disapproves of Hall because she’s not from Yorkshire and by lowering his voice a bit. Otherwise, he sounds more like Geoffrey Howe than Geoffrey Boycott. Married life is palling as he has a wife who hates him. As she says to her live-in mother, “Do you know what he’s doing? He’s making corrections in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I could kill him and no jury would convict me.”

Eventually Hall leaves him for the married man in the moustache (who is called Potty), and Cumberbatch takes his anger out on his witless political masters, who are practically pond life compared to his superior intellect. “Angry with his wife I suspect”. One of them is played by Roger Allam with a huge moustache and Colonel Blimp-like waistline. He understands Cumberbatch’s marriage completely, “she’s a splendid girl, straight as a die.”

He also understands the burgeoning suffragette movement (“they say they’re all whores”) and is not at all pleased when a pair of the examples he so disdains invade his round of golf. However, stiff Cumberbatch is smitten with one of the girls, who are being chased by a whistle-blowing policeman straight from a Jeeves and Wooster story. As it turns out, he already knows this “Wannop girl” (Adelaide Clemons), who he helps to escape.

But Hall wants her man back, despite wanting to “shake some reaction out of that lump.” As she tells Potty, the married man in the moustache, “he’s spoiled me for every other man in London.” Potty is not happy about this and pulls a gun on her. “I hope you’re not going to behave badly,” an unfazed Hall says, as she turns her back on him. “The French understand these things.”

Straight man Cumberbatch feels he has no choice but to take her back. “I stand for monogamy,” he tells his loyal Tory party pal, played by Stephen Graham doing a vocal impression of Alex Salmond and a visual impression of Charles Darwin. “Aye, monogamy and chastity.”

Graham should laugh in his face at this, seeing as he’s fallen for Anne-Marie Duff, despite her husband. He’s the Reverend Rufus Sewell, who’s worried that he’s a lunatic. “I detect the pallor of self-abuse,” he intones, gazing at Graham. He quotes rude Latin and says “arsehole” at the breakfast table. He is a lunatic. “Alas with women, it’s more a case of having two cu…” The helpful Help knee him in the balls and escort him from the room.

Also present is “the Wannop girl” whom Cumberbatch is smitten with, despite all his assurances to his masters that his marriage failure was not due to him doing what politicians traditionally do to mess up their marriages. On a misty moonlit horse ride, Cumberbatch and Clemons bond over nightingales. “You should know, Miss Wannop, we are being talked about,” smoulders Cumberbatch.

“You’re not so dreadfully ugly really,” counters Clemons, her tongue toasting his balls to gas mark eight. They almost kiss in the fog but Allam’s new-fangled motor car almost crashes into them. Cumberbatch parts from Clemons to go back to the wife who hates him, clearly looking forward to the war to take him away from all this.

The first episode of Parade’s End was a farcical hoot, although maybe someone forgot to tell Cumberbatch he was in an Edwardian version of a Brian Rix play (I forgot to mention Miranda Richardson pursuing Graham around a table in order to secure a good review for her book). God knows how they’re going to keep up the hilarity in future when the war finally arrives. Still, if Blackadder can do it…

Inspector George Gently (BBC1) is a police show on Sunday nights, which means it has a certain weight of expectation. Warm and familiar with the odd murder to spruce things up lest you disappear into the comfy slippers of TV familiarity. Inspector George Gently is also set in 1968, so there’s nostalgia too. Even the word ‘gently’ is there in the title. It’s the BBC’s version of Heartbeat.

Except it isn’t. George Gently is played by Martin Shaw at his most gruffiest. He’s what Inspector Morse would have sounded like if John Thaw had played him as Jack Regan from The Sweeney. He may have a comedy sidekick in bumbling Lee Ingleby, all Beatles haircut and gormless features, but the subject matter is pretty grim. It starts with a black girl being killed for a start.

She was a regular at a Northern Soul all-nighter run by a couple of brothers, the elder the promoter, the younger the DJ. As with all of these shows, the first scenes are revealing but only in hindsight; turns out she was going out with the latter but may have been also seeing the former.

Shaw and Ingleby show up when she’s found dead the day after an all-nighter. Shaw goes to visit the promoter brother. “Tell me about Northern Soul.” The brother looks shifty, as well he might since the term wasn’t popularised until 1970. Shaw suspects that he’s a bit of a gangster like his notorious dad, only in it to sell pills to the alcohol-free patrons.

So he sends in Ingleby undercover, in tank top and carrying a record case. “Don’t be a wallflower.” Ingleby isn’t, as he hits on the dead girl’s best mate, played by Being Human’s Lenora Crichlow. He’s surprised she’s here, a week after her mate’s death. “They don’t care about the colour of your skin here. Most of our heroes are black.”

Then the entire show stops in order to watch something on the television. Is it the Cup Final or a moon shot? No, it’s Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech. “That’s all this country needs,” gruffs a pained Shaw. As it’s now an hour into the programme, Morse-law dictates there has to be another death and it’s the promoter brother who gets it. But whodunnit? Was it the dead girl’s father, played by Eamonn Walker, or Crichlow? Was it the DJ brother, upset that his dead girlfriend was pregnant? And how is the dead man’s father going to react, surrounded by his ‘Keep Britain White’ posters?

By now, the music has got decidedly less Wigan Pier and more sombre. Perhaps cheerful Sunday night telly isn’t the best place to tackle such subject matter and it doesn’t help that it’s not very believable. None of the police are racists (apart from one who mildly says Enoch’s speech needed saying) and the depiction of the era is unrealistic, beyond just getting the dates wrong.

To cheer us up after such a downer, here comes Jennifer Saunders on a great big horse. Asked by ITV to do one of their regular travelogue shows in the manner of Billy Connolly biking down Route 66, she obviously said, ‘sod that, can I do something about horses? I like horses.’ To which the researcher who rang her up took 0.0002 seconds to say, ‘okay!’

Jennifer Saunders: Back In The Saddle (ITV1) is the result. “It’s my mission in this Olympic year to re-engage the nation with the horses who jump.” But we’ve already ‘re-engaged’ with horses, precisely because of those Olympics. We even cheered the Dressage because we won medals in it. One suspects that this programme was commissioned to be shown before the Olympics, then someone got wise and thought it would boost ratings if the Olympics (shown on the BBC) were the advert for this show.

Which leaves Saunders looking a bit of a plum, as she talks to various horsey people with posh names (one of whom is actually called Piggy) about their chances of qualifying for an Olympics which has already happened. But there is a reason to watch, for Saunders has signed up for something called an Elite Amateur Event. Suspicions are alerted about this Elite Amateur Event when it turns out Saunders’s main rival is a 15 year old.

“I wish I’d never agreed to do this now,” says Saunders unconvincingly, for at the Elite Amateur Event Saunders’s massive horse doesn’t so much jump over the fences as step over them. I suspect that these fences are more for the likes of the 15 year old’s pony rather than the fully grown beast that Saunders has. She gets a clear round and is cheerfully patronised by the members of the Olympic squad she’s met over the course of the series. Horsey people are nothing if not polite.

Advertisements

TV Review – Popadoodledandy, Them Off That Thing, The Function Room, At Home with the Flynns, Mark Steel’s In Town


The Backsides of Milan

Channel 4 is an insular sort of channel, a lost plateau on a lost continent where the world outside is never discussed. As far as they’re concerned, David Mitchell is the guy from Peep Show and has never been on QI and Russell Brand is waiting in a green room somewhere to do the next series of Big Brother’s Little Brother.

Until recently, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer may as well have been dead to them. Although the groundbreaking Big Night Out was first shown on Channel 4, the relationship turned sour when the mad duo decamped to the BBC (what’s that?) and they were Stalinesquely written out of history. But as noted here a few weeks ago, when Reeves and Mortimer alum Angelos Epithemiou got his own show there, Channel 4 have been thawing the ice with their fallen brethren.

The defrosting is almost complete with the forthcoming Vic and Bob’s Lucky Sexy Winners. But first some atonement is in order. Funny Fortnight is the name Channel 4 gave to a raft of new comedies and old classics showing every night. One of the latter was The Weekenders, Vic and Bob’s almost legendary pilot sitcom that was never picked up because it was too expensive to make.

The opposite was Popadoodledandy (C4), a pilot for a music show presented by the two and never shown before. Channel 4 took the brave decision to finally show it at 1.40am, and you can kind of see why as it looks like the cheapest thing ever made. Shot on video in an all white studio, it features a mix of music videos (nothing was cheaper in the 80s and 90s) and live performances from artists who probably paid to appear.

The first band on are the dimly-remembered Cud. Vic mercifully interrupts their song for some tough questions. “Tell me, what National Insurance contributions do you make?” A Thomas Dolby video is shown for no apparent reason, as he was old news even in 1993. “We were lucky enough to bump into Kym Mazelle in the park, drinking cider with her friends.” Acid House diva Kym is asked some expectedly bizarre questions (“Would you wear a special harness if you were carrying meat?”) and is not allowed to sing a note.

A group allowed to sing are Milan, three strumpets with particularly large derrieres who probably thought that this appearance was their big break. Happy now, Channel 4 controllers? Bob is disappointed though. “You ruined that for me,” he says as they all head to the park, having bribed the girls with fags. “You could see your bra.”

The closing act is Denim singing Here Is My Song For Europe, with Lawrence in fishing hat and Bay City Roller trousers, nonetheless upstaged by Vic and Bob who watch the song wearing nothing but dirty underpants. The last words are Bob chastising Vic after the closing song. “You buggered that up didn’t yer.”

Someone buggered that up. Whilst presented as a pop music show, there’s so much of Vic and Bob just doing their stuff that it’s bizarre that Channel 4 didn’t pick up what was a cheap bit of harmless fluff that happened to feature the best comedians around at the time. To think, they preferred the interview stylings of Terry Christian.

Also part of Funny Fortnight were a few new series getting somewhat lost in comparison to old episodes of Spaced and Peep Show. A sketch show called Them From That Thing (C4) further highlighted the channel’s insularity. This sketch show’s USP is that it features lots of well-known names from other things – well-known if you watch a lot of Channel 4 that is.

So it starred Kayvan Novak (Phonejacker, Sirens), Sally Phillips (Smack the Pony), Blake Harrison (The Inbetweeners) and Morgana Robinson (The Morgana Show, Very Important People) and featured Krishnan Guru-Murthy (Channel 4 News) as a reporter interviewing Phillips about a new number she’s discovered (“somewhere between six and seven”), Sean Gilder (Shameless) as a hypnotized hypnotherapist and Dan Renton Skinner (the aforementioned Angelos Epithemiou) as a victim of a gangland torture session trying to come up with the best witty line for his torturer.

Them From That Thing most resembles Smack The Pony but at only two episodes it feels like nobody took it too seriously, something that affects a lot of the new programmes premiered in Funny Fortnight. Another new offering was a multi-camera sitcom called The Function Room (C4), with quite a starry cast not given quite enough to do. And this being a sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience, it’s also as broad as the backsides of Milan.

Set in the upstairs room of a pub available for hire, Paul Ritter plays Jim, “the residents’ association Fuhrer. Kidding.” Once he’s introduced Inspector Kevin Eldon in a Meet The Police event, he doesn’t say much else. Eldon in turn introduces Jessica Knappett as the new area beat officer, the last one having disappeared.

She’s a very earnest raw recruit, fully conversant with the bullshit of the modern copper. “I very much anticipate moving forward in partnership with yourselves in order to address community problems with very much community-based solutions,” she says, before not saying much else. We also cut away to the great Simon Day downstairs, essentially playing Billy Bleach without the wig (“of course, you know the etymology of the word police don’t you”), but only twice.

Instead, the main thrust of the episode centres on stroppy Daniel Rigby and his entreaties to catch someone called ‘The Shit Egg Killer’. Someone in the neighbourhood has been throwing small balls of compacted fecal matter through people’s windows, although each one has a sweet treat in the middle. “There was a sherbet lemon in the middle of mine.”

With five minutes to go, Reece Shearsmith turns up as the missing policeman who Knappett replaced. He’s been “lurking in the shadows, leaving no trail” for many months in his pursuit of the Shit Egg Killer (who hasn’t actually killed anyone). He is sure it’s Eldon, but he’s quickly disproved before James Fleet’s camp actor theatrically reveals himself. “No-one in this room is innocent. We’ve all got shit on our hands.”

The Function Room is a wholly adequate comedy, with some good yucks amongst the fecally obsessed filth. But it’s no work of genius, and that might be down to its format. The multi-camera sitcom filmed in front of a studio audience often gets read the last rites yet it never seems to quite die off.

Yet it looks as it always has done, utterly false. Betraying sitcom’s theatrical origins, it’s all too easy for actors to project to the back row and for the set to look exactly like a set. It’s pure nostalgia from watching old episodes of Fawlty Towers or Steptoe and Son, whereas they would not have been lessened if they had been made in a real hotel or junk yard. The old excuse is that it was cheaper to do in the studio, but with digital cameras that no longer applies.

Which brings us onto another multi-camera sitcom, In With The Flynns (BBC1), an old school, mainstream comedy written by Simon Nye, who has done thousands of these things. In With The Flynns is The Royle Family without all that arty nonsense, featuring a warm-hearted Northern family headed by dad Will Mellor and mum Niky Wardley, who still love each other despite having three kids and Mellor’s arsey dad (Warren Clarke) and weirdo brother (Alex Carter) constantly dropping in.

Also unlike the Royle Family, it is required to have a plot. The first episode of the new series starts with Will and Niky coming home to find a burglar trying to rob the family laptop. Mellor grabs him and stuffs him in the kitchen cupboard. With their visitor duly handed over to the police, the rest of the episode touches on vigilantism (“All due respect to Gandhi, he didn’t live in Manchester during a recession”), what can sometimes happen to have-a-go heroes (“There was this bloke who chained up a kid for stealing garden gnomes. Perfectly normal. He got six months!”) and possible child abuse, when it’s revealed that one of their sons was also locked up in the same cupboard (“You liked it! You were being Harry Potter”).

This makes it sound much more serious than it actually is. In With The Flynns couldn’t be more warm and fluffy if it had just came out of a tumble dryer. After all, most of the episode has Clarke wandering around carrying a giant fish. And everyone has a chuckle on the couch at the end.

The BBC is the most nostalgic channel, so whilst Channel 4 screening such a throwback as The Function Room is seen as daring, the BBC will never stop showing old school sitcoms in the same way they’ll never stop showing costume dramas. Like The Function Room, it’s not embarrassingly bad but it’s hardly must-see stuff. Even the Radio Times described it as “not totally awful.”

How really not to do TV is to film a radio show. A special version of the wonderful series Mark Steel’s In Town (BBC red button, oddly) revealed half an hour of one man reading stuff out. Even when he gets other people to say stuff, Mark still reads. It’s not exactly riveting.

TV Review – The Great British Bake Off, Thirteen Steps Down, Simply Italian, James May’s Things You Ought To Know

A Lovely Bit of Parsnip

“The tent’s up, the ovens are pre-heated and 12 of the finest amateur bakers are ready to do battle.” Now the Olympics have sadly passed on, with a Closing Ceremony so rubbish it practically told you to turn off the TV and go and watch something less boring instead, what else can sate those desires for bronze in an event you’ve only just heard of?

The Great British Bake Off (BBC2) is a perfect avatar for Olympic glory. It has flags everywhere, bafflingly banal competition and guaranteed British glory, as none of the contestants are pesky foreigners. And it has Mel and Sue as presenters, which is a step up from Mel (Clewlow) and Sue (Barker). Our hosts have been taking the piss out of this sort of stuff for so long, you always secretly knew they loved it.

“Today’s episode is all about cake,” says Mel and judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood are keen to get stuck in to the newbies. “We’re going to be on their backs from the very start.” Careful, cooking’s hard enough without having to carry a judge stuffed with cake around as well. The first challenge is an upside-down cake, says Sue, “or as the Australians call it, cake.” Only Mel and Sue presenting a show about baking could get away with a joke as rotten as that.

The contestants are gradually introduced. Cathryn is a housewife and a ball of nerves, rendered speechless by Paul’s Nazi Commandant eyes. “That’s a very busy cake,” he intones at her proposed idea. She’s clearly terrified, as her hands do that thing Butters does in South Park. With this and her hair slides, she could play a battered wife in a Mike Leigh film. But as wily fellow contestant Brendan (Company Director) notes, “don’t underestimate her, she’s very determined.” She sails through the first round, despite her ‘busy’ ingredients, and is safe for this week.

Others don’t fare so well. PE Teacher Stuart is making a tomato and ginger upside down cake, but forgets to put in the tomato jam. “Without that, it’s just a cake with tomato decorations.” Sounds delicious. Student James from the Shetland Isles, who fancies himself as a bit of a Heston Blumenthal, is making parsnip cake. Crazy! Paul is not impressed by “Professor Cake Maker”, and can’t find a trace of parsnip in the finished thing. Sue can (“I just got a lovely bit of parsnip!”), but she’s clearly flirting with young James, despite the many barriers there are to that romance.

For the second round, they have to make Paul’s recipe for rum baba, whilst the judges repair to a “secret teepee” in order to blind taste the finished product. Paul has chosen his recipe well, for it features a “tricky dough” and less than clear instructions. John, a student who isn’t from the Shetlands, does a Stuart and accidentally substitutes sugar with salt. When it comes for Paul to do the tasting, he’s practically retching. “God! Jeez!” There was almost a sweary moment there. Highly inappropriate.

But it’s poor, tiny Natasha (Midwife) who really gets it wrong. She ponders baking methods. “Something’s telling me to do a bain-marie, but it might be the wrong decision.” A mysterious timpani on the soundtrack suggests it might be, but she does it anyway. Her rum baba comes out looking more like sticky toffee pudding. “They’re a mess. Oh, I’m embarrassed.” Replacing sugar with salt may be bad, but not following the recipe is clearly a worse crime, especially as it’s the judge’s recipe. “I know who’s not going to say nice things,” says Mary, looking askance.

It all comes down to the last round, cakes with a pattern going through them. “I’m not good at 3D,” wails posh Victoria, a CEO no less. But she’s got nothing to worry about as it’s between Natasha and Stuart over who is going to lick the wooden spoon and get the boot from the show. “It’s down to ketchup cake or boiled rum baba,” Sue sums up. Stuart has got his speech to trackside’s Phil Jones all lined up. “If it’s my last bake I’d be pretty gutted. I don’t think I’ve shown my true potential.”

But it’s Natasha who messes up, trying to create a sunset in a cake that comes out looking more like a wet weekend in Scarborough. “It’s been a wonderful experience,” she says, melting the hearts of a nation if not the butter to a reasonable consistency. Next week: bagels! Why can’t this be on 24 hours a day, in front of a huge stadium with William and Kate in attendance? The ticketing might be tricky but I’d happily watch it, roaring on an anxious person standing in front of an oven. And there’d be cake for everyone at the end.

One of the things missing from the Olympics was the presence of ITV. They didn’t bother competing with the BBC, putting on lots of repeats of Midsomer Murders and Lewis, so now it’s all over they can put on the usual rubbish normally exiled to the Summer months. Thirteen Steps Down (ITV1) is one such example, an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel that doesn’t seem ripe for adaptation.

Bequiffed Luke Treadaway plays a troubled teen with two obsessions: a model who lives nearby and the serial killer John Christie. To satisfy the former, he cuts out lots of her pictures from magazines, for the latter he makes pilgrimages to where once was 10 Rillington Place. “Nice to see the spot where it actually happened,” he tells his haughty landlady, Geraldine James. “They should put up a blue plaque or something.”

But James has her own obsession. 50 years earlier, she could have got married to a nice doctor, but he married someone else. “He should have married me. I was his first love,” she avers with the flinty determination of someone who is going to do something about it, especially as she discovers the doctor’s wife has just died. Because of this, she’s distracted from noticing she’s got a complete loony in her house.

Treadaway discovers where his model lives, despite being put off by his (married) lover. “Girls like that don’t go out with ordinary mortals.” Nevertheless he follows the model’s Ferrari to the local health club. He’s got a plan of sorts and this involves seducing the Polish receptionist played by Victoria Bewick.

“You kind of remind me of an actress. Kim Hunter.” He’s especially impressed that she lives in a street where Christie killed one of his “tarts”. Despite this silver repartee, they fall into bed together although he’s not impressed with her messy flat, despite its heritage. He invites her back to his obsessively tidy one.

Now Bewick gets creeped out; Treadaway has got a collection of vinyl Cliff Richard records. Not just that, she finds his books on Christie and the pictures of the model. “The bedroom’s through there. Why don’t you go in and get your clothes off?” Bewick is finding young love’s blossom fading, so when she destroys a signed photograph (the model, not Christie) Treadaway beats her to death, soundtracked by The Young Ones. “I did it for you,” he tells the now bloody photograph.

In a possibly unwise move, he hides the body under the floorboards. James notices the smell and calls in Rentokill, but a sudden bout of pneumonia means Treadaway can head them off and properly bury the body in the back yard. In the rain, of course, and with a ghostly Richard Attenborough watching on. End of episode one. Thirteen Steps Down is a sordid little story that belongs in the pages of a fifties issue of The News of the World. What it’s doing on television is anybody’s guess.

Missed by most people otherwise following the Open Water Swimming was the latest food porn served up by Channel 4, a network that caters for all sorts of specialized fetishes. Simply Italian (C4) ably satisfies all those who really like to see young ladies grating parmesan in a selection of summer frocks. Michela Chiappa is the mistress of the grate, but sometimes she is helped by her sister for some forbidden group grating. Between them, they grate more than Ann Leslie when asked about Europe.

Chiappa and her family are originally from Italy but they live in Wales and have accents best described as Welsh. Despite this, they give it the full Italiano when pronouncing the name of any of their dishes. So Gnocci is actually “gno-chhee”, risotto is “ri-sotttt-o” and you can guess the full range of glottal stops and extended vowels employed when saying “parmigiano-reggiano”. When Michela goes to visit her friend Marina (“good Italian stock”) who owns a parmesan farm in north west Italy, I had to turn the television off. I was only calmed down by picturing Sue Perkins and James from the Shetland Islands snogging.

On James May’s Things You Need To Know (BBC2) our host covered Einstein. “The worst hairdo in physics,” pronounced the worst hairdo in television.

TV Review – London Olympics 2012

The Flags Are Going Mad

(This review brought to you by me not watching anything else all week)

Our plucky boys and girls have been putting in a hell of a performance, struggling to hold themselves together as records are broken and medals are won. Yes, the lads and lasses doing the arduous task of presenting and commentating on the Olympics (BBC Anytime) have really been digging within themselves to pull out that little bit extra. After all, everyone knows we British do it better sitting down. Preferably on a comfy sofa with a nice backdrop.

First, the presenters. Look, there’s the huge fee-justifying Gary Lineker-bot, emotionless and metal grey with a dark hole somewhere behind his eyes screaming, “I know about football and – at a pinch – golf. Who is Keirin Cycling?” There’s bland Matt Baker, blandly treating every sport like a particularly bland item on The One Show. There’s John Inverdale, wearing collars as big as Harry Hill and huddling up beside the rowing lake with Steve Redgrave, trying to make sense of everything (“was that above expectations?”). There’s Jake Humphrey multi-tasking all over the shop; interviewing the surly Mark Cavendish in the velodrome one minute or bantering with the brazenly brummie Sue Smith (she of the Sydney Opera House haircut) at the women’s football the next.

There’s more women presenting this year, reflecting the fact that they’re far better at it. Hazel Irvine is her usual reassuring self, although she may have been flagging in recent days: “If you’ve not been watching the Olympics in the last 24 hours, you may have been on the moon for all I know.” Nobody’s been on the moon recently, Hazel, although I haven’t checked. New girl Mishal Husain is very professional, all stiff hand gestures like a Thunderbirds character. Her best attribute is that she’s not at all matey, like an anti-matter Adrian Chiles. Gabby Logan oversees the evening highlights show and is endearingly enthusiastic about sticking cut outs of winners’ faces onto their respective medals.

The BBC’s true star, Clare Balding, rightly hasn’t set bottom on the studio sofas, preferring to do the real work out in the mobile broadcast units. She seemed a little out of her comfort zone beside the pool – she clearly doesn’t like the smell of chlorine, much preferring eau de horseshit. She got her wish once the plug was let out of the swimming pool and showed her worth by somehow making Dressage interesting. It didn’t hurt that the British team pranced to victory.

Then there’s the commentators. Thanks to the Olympics and the Tour de France, I think I’ve listened to Chris Boardman more this summer than I’ve listened to my mother over a whole lifetime. Even when he’s not commentating on the action, as in the middle section of the Triathlon, his name is written on the competitors’ bikes. He even finds time for pithy put downs, such as when the French complained that the all-conquering British were using ‘secret wheels’. “They’re the same wheels we used in Athens. The main thing about them is that they’re round.”

Athletics are in good hands with the reassuringly Geordie presence of Brendan Foster and Steve Cram (“The Japanese athlete is pretty slur out of the blocks”). The Equestrian commentators are naturally very plummy, with a nice contrast between Judith Harper’s hushed detail (“she had a short one in there”) and Michael Tucker’s braying (“This is Gold abite to happen!”). Similar chalk and cheese commentary is provided in the women’s boxing, supplied by Ron McIntosh (basso profundo) and Lucy O’Connor (soprano falsetto).

The worst commentator was the breathless Gary ‘herbert’ Herbert, AKA the cox who bawled his eyes out long before it became fashionable when winning an Olympic medal for, er, sitting down. The years have not tamed his emotions and his shamelessly biased screeching in the rowing (“the flags are going mad!”) as a British boat took a two inch lead was an embarrassment to the nation.

To be fair, all commentators struggled with the work of the true villain of the Olympics: Stella McCartney. It was her unshowy designs for the athletes’ uniforms (memorably described by Bradley Wiggins as ‘a bit Lucy in the Sky’) that meant most of the commentators hadn’t a clue who the British athletes were in any given race. “There’s the British competitor, or is it the Russian?” became the catchphrase of the Games.

Then there’s the worst of the lot, the pitchside, trackside, poolside, graveside ‘reporters’ who have clearly done something foul and depraved in their younger days and are now being punished by some divine force by having to ask a million variations on the question, “how do you feel?” to a clearly puffed and mostly pissed-off athlete. Why the athletes don’t immediately respond with a million variations of “piss off, not now,” is one of the Olympics’ biggest mysteries.

Some like the attention (Bolt), others are far too polite (all the British female cyclists except Pendleton), the rest just breathe heavily, put their hands on their hips and go through the motions. Some have clearly been coached to say absolutely nothing of interest. Trackside’s Phil Jones was constantly putting his arm around athletes (who tended to give him a bit of a look when he did) and asking, “how good is life for you right now?”, “how was that for you?” or, on one disturbing occasion, “give me your reaction. Give me your reaction now.” To be fair, he got a great interview out of Phillips Iduwo, pulling apart his veil of secrecy after failing to qualify in the triple jump. “Thanks Phil,” said Iduwo, glad to get everything off his chest.

One also suspects that a lot of the ‘piss off’ interviews happen off-screen. The robotic Brownlee brothers, having won gold and bronze in the Triathlon, notably didn’t appear to wheeze through an interview after their triumph. Instead they sent their domestique to do the same thing he’d been doing during the race – shielding them from the wind. Turns out one of the Brownlee-bots had short-circuited, and was being whisked away in a wheelchair.

When gold medalist Alistair finally turned up to be asked, “how do you feel?” he looked quite chipper considering he’d just swam, cycled and run more than you or I have ever done. “Bit of an anti-climax at the moment because Johnny’s just collapsed!” Yes, that exclamation mark belongs there. He even laughed. Siblings. “He’s fine!” waving it away like a playground chinese burn, as his bro threw up underneath a grandstand.

Worst of the ‘reporters’ was undoubtedly Rob Walker, the man who normally introduces the players at the World Snooker Championship, and is credited, if that’s the right word, with the phrase, “let’s get the boys on the baize.” What on earth he was doing in Weymouth, offering colour commentary on the sailing, is a matter between his agent and some no-doubt recently fired executive at the BBC. Perhaps he was the only person willing to venture so far out of the capital, although they could have asked Princess Anne since she was everywhere.

Bear in mind, this is the sailing we’re talking about, yet Walker, sitting in a boat (‘seaside’, if you will), was misguidedly offered by cooler and more knowledgeable folks to give his opinion. “When Ben Ainslie has a head to head, he’s a dangerous man. Look behind you, and Ben Ainslie is starting to hunt you down.”

Ainslie has been through all this four times before and is known as a frosty customer (interviewed by Lineker the next day, Ainslie shut him up instantly by testily replying to a question about whether he would do Rio 2016, “are you still going to be doing Match of the Day in 2016?”). So when Ainslee won by the narrowest of margins, Walker leapt from his boat on to Ainslie’s, wrapped his arms round his neck and bellowed in his ear, “You are the Olympic champion! Not just that, YOU ARE THE GREATEST!”

“Yeah,” said Ainslie, unusually rattled. “Thanks.”

No more was seen of Walker after this display, as the BBC quickly shuttled him back to the Crucible. Oddly, they actually had another reporter, Shirley Robertson, out in the field and she was quickly sailed out into the bay to cover all future interviews. She proved knowledgeable and not inclined to go ‘Full Herbert’ – she would have been perfectly acceptable from the start but some idiot somewhere felt they couldn’t have a woman commentating on a man’s sport.

The theme of the London Olympics, as laid out in the Opening Ceremony, has been a stand against totalitarianism and rigid structures imposed from above. This Olympics has seen more equality between the sexes regarding events performed – the cycling and track and field events are now wholly equal and the first-time outing for the women’s boxing was as good as the men’s. Even Saudi Arabia finally gave in and let its women perform. The BBC’s coverage has reflected this and the women have risen to the occasion. But, unlike the rest of the world, we knew this already, thanks to Clare, Hazel, Gabby and the rest.

TV Review – Olympics, Bert and Dickie, Sex Story: 50 Shades of Grey, Dinner Date

Hot, Hot, Hot

Yes, yes, the Olympics (All BBC Channels). I would love to say that I never watch it and can’t see what the fuss is about. Sadly, I’ve watched it all. It can’t be helped. Even when I’m out I’m checking my phone to see how the skeet shooting is doing.

So let us talk briefly about how the coverage has been pretty poor and biased (“It’s very much between Britain and Australia… [huge pause] for third place”), or Michael Phelps and Mark Cavendish – subsequent failures both – doing adverts for Head and Shoulders (“It’s very much about having a winning state of mind”), or commentators and athletes alike talking about “smashing it” despite what human drool Richard Keys brought to that phrase, or the Official Worst Sight of the Week: the little gymnastic girls crying their eyes out after losing, with shit-hearted TV producers going for big close-ups.

But there’s been some good stuff too: the bonkers and fiercely pro-free speech Opening Ceremony (the perfect riposte to Beijing at a quarter the cost), or South African Chad le Clos’s dad’s hoarse joy after his son’s surprising victory, or the proper volleyball being miles better than that Beach-based, American pervert-pleasing variety. But let’s leave the 2012 Olympics, with their unpleasant corporate sponsorship, shit music every time there’s a pause in the action and embarrassingly empty seats, and dip into the more sedate 1948 variety.

The last time London was chosen to host the Olympics was after the war had bankrupted us. Bert and Dickie (BBC1) told a slice of what this event was like, through the eyes of the eponymous Double Skullers (rowers to you and me) played by Matt Smith and Sam Hoare. He’s working class and bolshy. He’s posh and privileged. Bringing them together five weeks before an Olympics can’t possibly work. Or can it?

Yes. Of course it works, otherwise they wouldn’t have made a drama about it. Add in a few daddy issues on both sides and it’s a perfectly patriotic but bland drama. What’s far more interesting is the Twenty Twelve (the TV show) stuff around the edges, wherein Clement Attlee has nervous meetings with the Olympics team about whether they can actually put the thing on in such straightened times. “Olympic etching?”

No new stadia were built and visiting athletes were billeted in B&Bs. Despite all this, they somehow made it the most successful Games to that date, the world seemingly glad to be enjoying itself after a shattering war. Much like Bert and Dickie’s storming victory against the odds, Britain can sometimes win despite themselves. A perfect warm-up for whatever London 2012 might bring.

But you’re probably not interested. There are people who don’t like the Olympics at all. Most of these people are called ‘women’ and what they’ve have been doing all the time the rest of us have been pondering Ellen Gandy’s chances in the Butterfly is reading a certain mucky tome that has sold 30 million copies in a year. Sex Story: Fifty Shades of Grey (Channel 4) covered the book everybody’s reading because everybody else is reading it.

Fifty Shades of Grey is ramped-up lifestyle porn. It is also actual porn. It features a virginal female student called Anastasia Steele falling under the kinky spell of a multi-millionaire called Christian Grey and his Red Room of Pain. As a member of an all-female Book Group in Colchester notes, “I did find it titillating,” to enthusiastic nods, although they also found problems with it not being very feminist.

Another problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is its author. British housewife Erika Leonard, otherwise known as E.L. James, could never have expected the gaze of the world to settle on her. She isn’t interviewed for this programme and the only footage of her is from heavyweight US chat shows. A lot of authors would give their write arms to appear on the American version of Loose Women, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler and Oprah Winfrey. Not James. The cringe of embarrassment she gives when asked to talk about her book’s subject matter is there for all to see.

Instead, we get more serious authors (and Kathy Lette) trying to get their heads around the phenomenon. Since they haven’t got a clue, they mostly sneer. Bonnie Greer sarcastically reads extracts: “My tongue swirls around the end.” Jilly Cooper, once the doyen of middle-class smut, disapprovingly asks, “what is a genital clamp? Sounds extremely uncomfortable.” Rachel Johnson, sister of Boris, is most outraged. “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t know any women who want anal fisting of a Friday night.” Most damning of all, Amy Childs loves it. “It’s the sexiest book I’ve ever read,” at least confirming she can read.

One suspects that James would agree with all of this. She has described Fifty Shades as “my midlife crisis, writ large.” Fifty Shades started out as Twilight fan fiction, penned under the telling name ‘Snowqueen’s Icedragon’. A lot of fan fiction is just escapism both for reader and author and not meant to be taken seriously, even if the subject matter is. James may have agreed to its publication by removing all references to Twilight but she clearly didn’t expect it to be so widely read. As James says on another US show, clearly wishing the ground would swallow her up, “I had no idea so many people would read it, so it’s quite embarrassing really.”

Still, she does have the money to compensate. At the moment James is making a cool £1,000,000 a week, although she doesn’t seem about to spend, spend, spend. “I’ll have money, which will be nice,” she tells Oprah, who is making less money than her these days, “I can get a nice kitchen.”

The programme also asks ‘has Fifty Shades really transformed us from a nation of prudes to one of happy spankers?’ Despite sales spikes at Ann Summers (“Nipple clamps, we’ve seen a huge uplift”), James’s mortified reaction to being forever associated with such things suggests not. We British will forever be skirting around serious sexual matters with our usual prurient smuttiness. The epitome of that on television is Take Me Out, and if you’ve ever wondered what the middle-aged equivalent crossed with Come Dine With Me looks like, welcome to Dinner Date (ITV).

The premise: each day, a man or woman is given five menus prepared by five potential dates (heterosexual orthodoxy applies, so far). They choose three of these menus and go on dinner dates with the ‘lucky’ people, who have to prepare suitably impressive meals and then try to charm their date whilst the sweat is still running off them. One of them wins a proper date at a posh restaurant, whereby they never see each other again, except at Central Casting.

Now, I don’t wish to cast aspersions of just how real everything we are seeing here is, but nobody does bad acting like bad actors. Real people tend to be more natural, even in front of cameras, because they spend more time in the real world and don’t know any better.

Witness the star of today’s dinner, Tatiana, 41, a relocated Russian corporate lawyer who talks wid a pronounced accent and couldn’t be more Russian if she slept with a Liberal Democrat and stole all his secrets. She’s choosy about who she gets: “I vant good everything.” Although the producers make much of her enjoying pole dancing, this being 5pm on a weekday means sex has to be replaced by food, in theory.

Two men are dispensed with, based on their poor menu choices (“Vot is Wensleydale?”) never to be seen again. Maybe they go back into some central pool from whom reality show contestants are chosen by, let’s call them talent agents. Next week they could be showing up on the Jeremy Kyle Show telling their offspring to shut it.

First date is Dean, 48, a male model and, er, actor. He has a topless black and white poster of himself in younger days on the dining room wall. Despite both Tatiana and Dean being single and desperately looking for love, they both seem very, erm, experienced. He boasts of going out with many models (“…A Japanese girl, an American girl, A Brazillian girl…”) whilst she is not at all backward at going forward (“Oh my darling!”). Her initial reticence, what there is, is melted when she spots the poster, “That’s you! Hot, hot, hot!”

The programme tries gamely to make it all about the food, but the performers, I mean ordinary people, know what the public want – overt flirting. Tatiana barely touches the food but nevertheless drools. “Are you a risk-taker?” As subtle as a topless poster, she drops her hobby into the conversation. “I have a hobby.” You can practically see the pole and skimpy clothes skipping across Dean’s mental plane. One of his Roger Moore eyebrows shoots up.

Onto the next date, writer Alan, 38 (sorry for going on about everyone’s age, but the show has a tabloid-like obsession with them). He doesn’t have semi-naked pictures of himself scattered about but he makes up for it by being as cringingly direct as a charity mugger. “Vot is your type generally?” asks Tatiana.

“You are,” he simpers. He is so smitten he has written a poem, presumably during the camera crew’s tea break. “You are not allowed to laugh,” he tells her, warming up for the recitation. I did not remain mirthless, seeing as it had Vogon-like metaphors about seeds growing into trees.

“That is so powerful,” appraises a dazed Tatiana, possibly thinking it was all about a British cheese produced in Yorkshire.

Alan has no sense of shame, which is useful for someone appearing on a ‘reality’ show. “Let us open that seed, Tatiana. You and me tonight.”

Tatiana’s eyes narrow. “You do realise that sounds almost rude?” Even though Barry White is playing (the soundtrack is nothing if not obvious), this being daytime Tatiana must make her excuses and leave.

Last up is Darren, 39, a bit of a wide boy. Funny how everybody only has one character trait. “I’m not one for cooking,” he says, and proves it by serving up chicken served with a beer can where the stuffing usually goes. “It’s important to get a bird with a big enough hole.” Being neither a male model nor practising poet, Darren doesn’t stand a chance, particularly with patter like that. After all, Tatiana is, as he wincingly jokes to her, a classy bird.

“I’m not sure I’m very keen on classy bird name,” she avers, dismissing him as Catherine the Great would dismiss a lover on a cold night.

The final decision is between the arrogant male model and the dripping wet poet. Every woman in Britain would have chosen the nasty Christian Grey of the two (“I don’t think there’s any romance or any chance of social connection with Tatiana”), but she’s not some starry-eyed Anastasia, even though they share names with the daughters of Czar Nicholas II. She chooses Alan. “You are very lucky boy,” she husks over candlelight. A caption appears stating that a month later they’re still both single. Auditions are not always successful.

Now, back to the Olympics, back to reality.

%d bloggers like this: