TV Review – Downton Abbey, Comedy World Cup, Big Fat Quiz of the Eighties, The Thick Of It

Trying Too Hard

Parade’s End got to episode four with virtually nobody left to watch it, bar the odd Benedict Cumberbatch fetishist. People should be watching it for Rebecca Hall as Cumberbatch’s wife, Silvia Tietjens, who regards the First World War as a terrible inconvenience. Silvia and her scandalous hobble skirts have only got one more episode of husband-torturing left. “I’ll make that wooden face splinter yet.”

Perhaps the reason nobody is watching Parade’s End is that everybody watched Downton Abbey (ITV1), despite it being Nickelback to the more sophisticated Parade’s End’s Steely Dan. Downton Abbey is a knuckle-dragging stew of aristocrats and revisionist history, served up with a beautiful Instagrammed look that stuns the brain even after the dialogue has removed most of its function.

When it originally started, Downton Abbey had relatively modest ambitions. Despite taking place in the sort of real estate today only occupied by Russian Oligarchs, it was a standard soapy drama about life above and below stairs. Once it became a hit, writer Julian Fellowes panicked a bit and delivered a second series set during the First World War so risible it might have been written by Silvia Tietjens.

Okay, the first series might have had the daft Affair of the Dead Turk, but the second series featured a man who claimed to have survived the sinking of the Titanic and acquired a Canadian accent in the process, plus the saga of Matthew’s war-damaged penis and whether it could spurt new heirs. A Christmas special steadied the ship but provided us with the prospect of a dreaded Matthew and Lady Mary marriage, precisely the sort of thing that should never be resolved in sudsy nonsense like this.

Fellowes has yet to come to his senses, so the marriage is still on, despite the last man she took to her bed (the aforementioned Turk) dropping dead as a result. Pretty much everyone else has managed to survive the war and the Spanish flu outbreak, except Matthew’s poor fiance Lavinia, carried away by a special disease that only affects people who are In The Way Of The Plot.

So all, including the viewers, are desperately waiting for the arrival of the stunt casted Shirley MacLaine. “Is your grandmother coming over from New York?” people say, apropos of nothing. “When does grandmama arrive?… I’m so looking forward to seeing your mother again… Do you think we should say something to your mother when she gets here?… Don’t worry, she’ll bring enough drama when she gets here.”

Before the drama arrives, Hugh Bonneville is still around as the Earl, looking only slightly less irritated by the ditherings around him than he did in Twenty Twelve. He’s got a significant meeting in London that’s only flagged as significant by him trying to treat it as insignificant. “It’s nothing to bother you with,” he tells his glamorous American wife Elizabeth McGovern, who still looks about 26 despite being in Once Upon A Time In America.

But it’s got a lot to do with her, because he’s managed to invest all his money into Canadian trains that have gone off the rails. “Are you really telling me the money has gone?” he anguishes to his banker, because the lord of the manor doesn’t do angry. He’s very decent. McGovern is forgiving and prepared to fall back on her raw Wild West upbringing. “Don’t worry about me. Have gun, will travel.”

In a huge dramatic irony, Matthew – already nailed on to inherit Downton, despite being a third Cousin (once removed) and a solicitor – stands to inherit a huge amount of money when another distant relative dies. “How can I possibly profit from her death?” he agonises, ever the decent cove even if he seems to think he has to kill this aged relative personally. This is the normal Fellowes blueprint: dramatic ironies that unfortunately render every plot movement utterly unbelievable.

Still no Shirley, so here’s another of Bonneville’s daughters who has had the gall to marry, gasp, an Irishman. They normally live in Dublin on a diet of potatoes and Guinness, but they’re here at Downton for the wedding and to scandalise Maggie Smith, who does excellent scandalization. “He’s still dressed like the man from the Prudential I see,” she says, peering through her lorgnette.

It doesn’t help that the Irishman in question, Mr. Branson, was not only a chauffeur at Downton but as Republican as Michael Collins. “You really think you can recruit Cousin Robert for Sinn Fein?” asks a mildly amused Matthew, ignoring the centuries long struggle for Home Rule.

Below stairs amongst his former workmates, Carson the jippy Butler is even more offended. “I’m not dressing a chauffeur,” he grumbles. Later, at dinner, Carson snaps a wine glass in half at Branson “insulting the King” over Mrs. Pants’s tempting delicacies. Fellowes loves slipping in historical references with all the subtlety of a bailiff delivering a summons. Branson gets wildly drunk at another dinner party (“Is there any way to shut him up?” asks Maggie) but it turns out he’s been spiked by a jealous rival. Oh Julian and your dramatic ironies! Imagine, a drunk Irishman.

Shirl still hasn’t turned up so let’s stay below stairs amongst scum class and see what they’re up to. There’s a new footman who is quite tall, and Carson is not happy. “I have no time for training young hobbledehoys.” And that’s enough of them. Fellowes has no real interest in the working class, and has only included them in order to stave off accusations that he’s wallowing in poshos at a time when they got proper respect. Certainly, the biggest villains of the series so far have been an uppity gay footman and a sour-faced Northern maid.

But wait, here’s another potential villain. Shirley MacLaine has arrived! You know, Shirley MacLaine – Hollywood superstar, won Oscars, was in good Billy Wilder films and bad Frank Sinatra films. The first Shirley that comes up when you type it in IMDB. She’s bound to be a match for the crotchety Maggie Smith, and not just because she’s the only actress on the planet who is actually older than her. What’s she going to say? “Mary, tell me all your wedding plans, and I’ll see what I can do to improve them.” Vicious!

Downton Abbey is visual gloop. It looks amazing, practically every frame making Ridley Scott weep with joy. No establishing shot is left unfiltered, un-misted and filled with loads of extras. But the writing is cack-handed and the acting is terrible, as normally decent actors have to spout terrible lines like “Be silent this instant sir!” in front of an audience of tens of millions.

Talking of decent actors slumming, what on earth has happened to David Tennant? At one point, he was Doctor Who and the RSC’s Hamlet, heading to Hollywood for possible American TV or film glory. Then he disappeared for a year and now here he is, presenting a panel show. Comedy World Cup (Channel 4) has big ambitions though.

Wearing an unhappy beard like Paul McCartney when the Beatles broke up, Tennant has got oddly dead eyes as he reads the autocue, the eyes of someone who once learned all of Hamlet and now can barely be bothered reading out lines scripted by the hackiest of hacks. Somehow, he comes alive during the bits where he isn’t staring down the barrel of the camera, perhaps because there’s a huge studio audience.

A braying crowd is not conducive to panel shows, which are essentially dinner parties. As with Downton Abbey, on Comedy World Cup everyone is trying too hard. Panel shows shouldn’t be an hour long either and, above all, they shouldn’t have lots and lots of clumsy cutaway shots of the panel laughing at something they’re clearly not laughing at. There is no way in the world Jo Brand is yukking that hard at a pathetic Kirstie Alley is a Scientologist joke.

The inspiration for Comedy World Cup was clearly Jimmy Carr’s annual Big Fat Quiz jamboree, now retooled for some reason as Big Fat Quiz of the Eighties (Channel 4) with subsequent decades to follow. But at least Big Fat Quiz is intimate, and is not really a panel show anyway, more a glorified pub quiz. Guests are not expected to entertain, so it’s great when someone like Adam Buxton is just allowed to be himself.

Moment of the week, maybe moment of the decade, came on The Thick Of It (BBC2), where the finally returned Malcolm Tucker described “that film you like” to a baffled Ollie: “The one about the fucking hairdresser. The space hairdresser and the cowboy. The guy, he’s got a tin-foil pal and a pedal bin. His father’s a robot and he’s fucking fucked his sister. Lego. They’re all made of fucking Lego.”

“Star Wars.”

“That’s the one.”

If you thought they couldn’t top Peter Mannion’s Twix line from last week, think on.

TV Review – The Thick Of It, Newsnight, University Challenge, The Daily Politics

The C Word

It is that dense and rich show The Thick Of It (BBC2), a rare TV offering that is impossible to take in fully on first viewing, hurling us straight into… well it’s there in the title. Reflecting modern politics as usual, the roles are reversed at the bottom end of the top end of government for the new series. Nicola Murray and the rest are off in Opposition (we see them next week) whilst the former Shadow Minister Peter Mannion and his associates are now installed in the fictionally broad Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship. Albeit a Department governed by Coalition.

Yes, the Liberal Democrats have joined The Thick Of It’s sweary shindig. Alongside Roger Allam’s strangely cuddly Mannion and his SpAds Emma and Phil, are their Coalition ‘partners’. Fergus is Mannion’s Junior Minister and Adam is Fergus’s SpAd, last seen as editor of the Daily Mail in an earlier episode. From editor of a right wing screed to LibDem special advisor, no wonder he’s angry.

For the beginning of the new series, Armando Iannucci and his rotating team of writers go back to the very beginning. The plot is exactly the same as the first episode: a new policy is wheeled out to be eventually shot down after a lot of U-Turns and reverse-ferreting. The catalyst of exactly how the policy is nullified may have moved from ball busting Malcolm Tucker (Alastair Campbell) to jargon espousing Stewart Pearson (Steve Hilton) but the machinations are the same.

The Lib Dems (as always never referred to by party name, which is why they acquire the nickname The Inbetweeners) have cooked up a ‘Digital Playground’ policy wherein schoolkids are encouraged to write apps. Stewart wants Mannion to front this, despite his not knowing how to right click a mouse. Stewart reasons that Mannion is the lead singer of this department. “He’s Florence,” he explains to the deeply sceptical Fergus and Adam, “and you’re the Machine.”

Mannion is already struggling to negotiate a 30th Wedding Anniversary and his deep loathing of long-term civil servant Terri, who fancies him. “She just made eyes at me. I wish I could make redundancy at her”. Luckily for him, Terri agrees and puts it out that she wants to spend more time with her Jodi Picoult novels (“just put in a bad word for me”). The Lib Dems are especially enthusiastic, seeing as they call her Nurse Ratched. Bit meta that, for those who remember Joanna Scanlan in Spaced.

Mannion gloomily predicts disaster as he makes his way to the school where he will make the announcement. “The only way this policy launch could be any worse is if I understood the bloody thing”. The very first episode’s announcement also took place at a school, but then politicians love announcing things in schools. Kids are less likely to ask awkward questions.

At the school, a kid starts asking awkward questions. “Are you saying I wouldn’t get paid?” Perspiring, Mannion explains that they will get a ‘digital dividend’ instead, to pay their tuition fees. Another kid says she doesn’t believe in tuition fees. Mannion is now drowning in an Atlantic of sweat, not helped by his casual racism. “Fuck me,” says Emma. “I feel like I’ve just been pushed out of a plane.”

Stewart is not pleased at a policy launch that already has the nickname ‘Mannion’s Workhouse Web’. When Fergus attempts to clarify his senior colleague to the press by contradicting him, Mannion is not happy. “I could not have looked more like a twat if I was dressed like a mermaid and had scallops on my tits.” Whilst you try to get that image out of your head, along comes Stewart and his attempt to defuse the situation, which involves shouting. Unlike his predecessor, Stewart doesn’t like shouting. “I reserve this level of anger for when I’m flying RyanAir.”

Stewart is an equal opportunities bollocker, accusing Mannion of being P. Diddy for drinking champagne in the afternoon and telling Fergus to back up his colleague in future. But Mannion is not interested, storming out with one of the best lines the show has ever come up with. “I’m bored of this. I’m going for a Twix.” For a short while when the show was aired, ‘Twix’ was trending on Twitter.

Eventually, the policy is killed by the PM that isn’t Peter Mannion. Stewart is especially dazed, although more by the way the message was delivered. “He’s never used a conduit to deliver bad news before.” Mannion and Fergus try to make up for the good of that dreaded C word, but Terri doesn’t get her wish of redundancy – her, and Mannion’s, wishes blocked by the Inbetweeners in an act of revenge on him. “We know she’s a fart in a frock, why can’t we waft her out the door?” pleads Mannion, to no avail.

Next week it’s the return of Malcolm and co., except Glenn won’t be there – he was in this episode having joined the Lib Dems, ignored by all including his own people. It’s a shame it’s been three years since the last series but it probably takes that amount of (real) Government blunders and bad-news-burying to get a series, so much fuel does it take for just one episode.

The Thick Of It re-appeared just after a cabinet reshuffle that demoted Mannion’s closest analogue: Ken Clarke. You’d think that there was no place for the Mannions in the current government but as a recent episode of Newsnight (BBC2) revealed, there is one that everybody has overlooked, simply because he’s so visible.

This episode of Newsnight was otherwise a downer, which usually suits Jeremy Paxman. He thrives on gloom, and tortures whichever Minister dares to submit to an interview accordingly. Not for nothing was he called the “Death Mask of Shergar” in The Thick Of It spin-off book, The Missing DoSAC Files. A few hours after the triumphant Olympics and Paralympic parade through London, Paxman was sighing as he moaned, “what, if anything, has changed as a result of the Olympics?”

Oddly, he lightens up a wee bit during a discussion with two Olympic medalists and a disabled performer. Even the dour presence of Will Self doesn’t thicken the mood, despite being “a fellow gold medal curmudgeon” (Paxman was entirely absent from the BBC during the summer). He does vent at the ‘patronizing’ Lord Coe, but you can see the perhaps naive arguments of the Olympians are partly mellowing him.

The rest of the show is at least trying to project some kind of optimism. Vince Cable’s new Industrial Strategy has both Labour and the Conservatives broadly agreeing, with Paxo chuckling that he can’t find a divisive point between them. By the time we get to a final piece on Boris Johnson and his barnstorming speech to close the parade, Paxo is now openly laughing – an unsettling concept in itself – and it’s not at BoJo’s innate ridiculousness, but the idea that Beano Boris has set himself up as a possible future PM.

In The Thick Of It, Peter Mannion is out of touch, laughable and strangely popular. As is Boris Johnson, although it’s inconceivable to the makers of The Thick Of It that Mannion would ever get as far as Downing Street. Saying that, they have made Nicola Murray the Leader of the Opposition. Satire is struggling to catch up with reality.

Paxman also seems happy on University Challenge (BBC2), a once reliable place to see him giving students a kicking. Admittedly, this week’s episode was a barnstormer – Lincoln College, Oxford against Manchester University, the latter the current champions and drawing from a student body sixty times the size of the former. The form book was tossed out when half way through the score was 90 to Lincoln and -10 to Manchester, with the Lincoln team looking like the sort of malnourished savants who would remember how many times you touched your face in any given two hour period.

Manchester started getting a few questions right, but with five minutes to go it looked like an impossible job. When the show was over Manchester had won, getting the very last question right on the G of the Gong to win 180-175. Even Paxman was shocked and elated by such a great game, the way the rest of us were on Super Saturday. “It was a great performance, congratulations.” If the Olympics has done nothing else, it has at least lightened up the Monarch of Misery.

Whilst writing this article, the Hillsborough panel reported and finally the truth was owned up to. Having The Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie and, yes, even Boris Johnson apologise on the same day was quite some thing. But most impressive was, I can’t believe I’m saying this, David Cameron. He faced the Commons with the same passionate honesty as he did when he reported on the Bloody Sunday inquiry. He gives good apology.

The Daily Politics (BBC2), fronted by the ever ridiculous Andrew Neil, cut away from this to give a particularly spurious critique of PMQs. Just as with MacKenzie’s far too frequent appearances on the BBC, one wonders why they continue employing former Murdoch lickspittles.

TV Review – Doctor fuckin’ Who, The X Factor

Well, This Is New

It’s been a long time coming, thanks to some nobs who used to produce it and are now rubbing foul-smelling unctions into tramps’ pustulating sores if I had anything to do with it, but Doctor fuckin’ Who (BBC1) is back. For just five episodes alas, once again thanks to those aforementioned nobs, suffering somewhere hopefully.

There’s nothing better on television than Doctor fuckin’ Who. This is a fact. Don’t even bother trying to argue with me. I’ll tear off your head and shit down your windpipe. And the first awesome episode was written by the awesome Steven Moffat (awesome) and featured lots of Daleks. Lots and lots of the angry little twats, most of whom are even more insane than usual, which is pretty insane seeing as they’re really into that genocide thing.

The opening scene sees the Doctor meeting a mysterious woman. Wait, this opening scene takes place in a cave which is actually in the eye bit of a giant Dalek statue on the actual fucking planet of Skaro (which the Doctor blew up in a previous story but, y’know, time travel). The Doctor figures out it’s a trap, but he can’t stop a cockblasting Dalek eye thing coming out of her forehead and a Dalek gun coming out of her hand. “The Doctor is acquired.” Holy shit.

Amy and Rory are similarly captured, “because it is known that the Doctor requires companions.” “Oh brilliant,” says Rory, just one more thing in his life he has to put up with. They all get transported into holy crappin’ space, aboard a shittingly big Dalek spaceship where there’s millions of the wankstaining things, all different shapes and colours. Amy asks how much trouble they’re in. The Doctor knows the answer because he knows everything. “Out of 10? 11”

The Daleks represent something called The Parliament of the Daleks – they even have a Prime Minister and presumably the recent reshuffle elevated the Culture Secretary even though he’s clearly working for the Cybermen. But the trouble they’re in is a lot less than 11 when the massed Daleks ask for the Doctor to, “save us.” They say it in a rising, grating shout but the sentiment is there. The Doctor looks surprised. “Well, this is new.” And this all takes place BEFORE THE OPENING FUCKING CREDITS.

The rest of the episode passes by in a blur of spectacle, action and witty lines. Tasked by the Daleks to go to their Asylum (“A planet where you lock up the ones who go wrong”) and turn off the force shield protecting it, the Doctor, Rory and Amy are more interested in a voice on the radio, claiming to be a crashed human (“Kind of keen to move on”). She turns out to be none other than Jenna-Louise Coleman, AKA the person who everybody knows is the next companion when Amy and Rory leave in a few episodes. What she’s doing turning up so early is anyone’s guess, but it’s best not to predict too much in Moffat-world.

Particularly as the final twist has her revealed as a figment of her own imagination; what she really is is a Dalek for whom the conversion didn’t quite take. The clue was there when she reveals she’s spent most of her time hiding out on a bonkers Dalek-riddled planet making souffles. Wouldn’t it be great if the next companion is actually a Dalek in some form or other? It’s so nuts it might just work.

But that sums up Doctor Who. An idea (“a madman in a box”) that has endured for almost 50 years. Okay, there are a few plot holes here and there (the force field off-switch is actually on the planet? How do they dump the Daleks there?) and Moffat is recycling a lot of his old ideas. But Doctor Who is simply fucking ace. Just don’t have bloody nobs messing it up next time.

Doctor Who is shown on Saturday night, as it has been for most of its history. But in many ways, Doctor Who survives and thrives because Saturday night television hasn’t changed as much as you would think. Saturday night television has long been about game shows and talent contests. Drama of any kind was barely hanging in there until Doctor Who came back (and inspired the likes of Primeval and Merlin), but for the most part, the old formula still adheres. Right after Doctor Who finishes, you can switch over and watch The X Factor (ITV1), a talent show no different from New Faces or Opportunity Knocks.

Currently in its early auditions phase, with a roadshow that this week is in Manchester, The X Factor is as subtle as someone screaming right in your ear whilst throwing spiked glitter in your face. The opening titles put the graphics of Doctor Who to shame, the music is O Fortuna from Carmina Burana and the voice-over could be warning about imminent nuclear apocalypse. Then we get The Lovin’ Spoonful’s lyrical Daydream over ordinary people gearing themselves up for the audition. Huh?

The X Factor doesn’t do subtle. It’s Simon Cowell telling a young girl she’s rubbish whilst a crowd bays for his blood. It’s wannabes wearing more makeup than clothes who think they’re one step away from becoming Lady Gaga. It’s ‘singing’ where every consonant and vowel has to be throttled out of all meaning. And it’s unnecessary sob story backgrounds to twang people’s heart strings.

But, at least in these early rounds, it seems someone has tried to apply at least some sense of tact and decorum on a show that normally has never heard of either. It lasts as long as it takes for the judges to seat their bottoms as we never see any of these people again.

Instead we meet a brash Northern lass in denim hotpants and boots. This is Nicola (35) and she’s incapable of shutting up or not laughing uproariously. “I want to be in the telly, now. Ha-ha-ha!” She’s like a character from one of Victoria Wood’s broader satires, except she seems to be real. The X Factor can fool you like that. Some people think that Simon Cowell is real, but he doesn’t show his weird face once this week. Maybe he’s just a myth invented by Steven Moffat to give the Daleks nightmares.

Instead it’s down to the incredible talents and sound judgements of Gary Barlow, Tulisa Verylongsecondnameos, Mel B and the perennial Louis Walsh to give their verdicts on Nicola. As usual, it takes an age to get to the singing as Nicola is interrogated on stage, something she’s perfectly happy with as she’d blurt out personal secrets to passing strangers. “I’m sorry if I’m sounding a bit of a div.” Mel B tells her to keep it quiet for a second. That’s Mel B. The loud one out of a group known for being loud. Eventually she sings “a dubstep version” of Taylor Dayne’s Tell It To My Heart, complete with splits that have Gary’s eyebrows hitting his hairline.

Mel “properly loved it”, recognising a kindred spirit. Louis, slowly slipping into senility, thinks Nicola looks like Davina McCall (she doesn’t). Tulisa and, especially, Gary think it’s more like “the opening to a magic act. It’s not current, it’s not now.” Gary, with his memory of things like magic acts, is down with the kids. But a genuinely young person like Tulisa (24) is unsure and is bullied by Mel into giving Nicola a pass. All this takes far longer than the actual song.

Alison (51) fares less well. She is the true spirit of X Factor’s auditions process, a gawk at a possibly mental self-delusionist who drags along her mortified teenage children to watch her doing a version of Gaga’s the Edge of Glory that’s on the edge of being in tune. Despite everyone laughing at her, she still gets a generous round of applause. In Spike Milligan’s war diaries, he recalls being visited by a terrible concert party and nevertheless giving them a huge round of applause after each act. He appreciated any attempt to entertain them, and the same goes for the seasoned X Factor viewer, who watches as much for the Alisons as for the Nicolas.

But the true cynicism of The X Factor floats by when a few obvious Brit School graduates are briefly seen getting handed passes. The stories of Taylor (Bieber hair), Jessica (Florence Welch hair) and Matt (doing an acoustic version of Seven Nation Army, a song I bet we hear a lot more of unless Jack White can put a stop to it) are clearly being saved for later rounds, ready-written contracts in their back pockets and rendering a nonsense of making us care for the likes of Nicola.

This year, Gotye’s Someone I Used To Know is the biggest selling song of the year and it’s as far removed from The X Factor as it’s possible to get. Despite the mythical Cowell’s best efforts to bend the pop world to his will, music remains immune to his efforts, as the likes of Matt Cardle, Joe McElderry and Little Mix will bitterly attest. No wonder it’s not about the music anymore. The X Factor is a talent show where the talent is the least important factor.

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