TV Review of the Year

Flipping Wotsit

In no particular order, here are my personal TV highlights of the year. Let’s all bask in the memory of the Olympics (BBC) whilst pretending to ignore that the coverage wasn’t actually all that good, with too many rotten presenters and commentators (hello Rob Walker). Even that couldn’t banish such moments as Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah winning Golds within minutes of each other on Super Saturday. The coverage of the Paralympics (C4) was far superior, if only because they were smart enough to poach the best of the BBC (hello Claire Balding).

Because of the unique way American TV transfers over here, both the first and second series of Homeland (C4) were shown this year, so we got double doses of Claire Danes’s twitchiness and Damian Lewis getting increasingly pained as the world refuses to leave him alone and let him be a terrorist. Whilst both series lurched from arch goofiness to all too plausible takes on the modern CIA (well, at least in comparison to things like 24), it never stopped being must-see TV even when the writers were clearly making it up as they went along.

In other imported news, Veep (Sky Atlantic) was essentially an American version of The Thick Of It from the same creators, with a smartly casted Julia Louis-Dreyfus suffering the sorts of privations and humiliations normally afforded her Ministerial equivalents over here. A show happy with both higher politics and toilet humour, it may take a few series before it transcends its British originator but there are signs of a classic show in the making.

Meanwhile, The Thick Of It (BBC2) itself returned for a final series, centred around a fictional version of the Leveson Inquiry that saw Malcolm Tucker finally get arrested for perjury whilst poor Rebecca Front went from Leader of the Opposition to being interviewed by a man dressed as a pork shop. Whilst her character may be down and out, Front herself starred in a particularly surreal episode of new political chat show The Agenda (ITV), where she told the actual Prime Minister exactly what she thought of him.

The year started out with three more episodes of Sherlock (BBC1), one of which was a load of nonsense based on the Hound of the Baskervilles whilst another featured some rather dodgy gender politics with regards to a dominatrix who implausibly melted under Benedict Cumberbatch’s somewhat misanthropic ‘charms’. Fortunately, the last episode, which featured a ding-dong battle between Holmes and Moriarty (Andrew Scott) was an absolute belter, climaxing in what may be the most talked about moment in TV of the year.

To shore up the increasingly large gaps whilst its stars play Bilbo and Smaug, there was Elementary (Sky Living), another modern take on the Holmes canon which, whilst not as smart as its British cousin, had a wonderful pulp sensibility which was actually closer to the original Conan-Doyle stories. It showed every sign of only getting better as stars Jonny Lee-Miller and Lucy Liu get to expand their characters.

Talking of Cumberbatch, which we were two paragraphs ago before he transmuted into a dragon, he popped up in the best unintentional comedy of the year in Parade’s End (BBC2), a lavish costume drama of the sort the BBC probably won’t do anymore since hardly anyone watched it. Cumberbatch played the virginal officer willingly fighting in the trenches whilst his wife, played by the wonderful Rebecca Hall, tried her best to make his war even worse. Throughout, the tone was of Cumberbatch as a hapless loser surrounded by befuddling idiots. A slapstick treat.

Equally bizarre of tone was The Hour (BBC2), although it also had a case of multiple personality disorder. Was it a hard-hitting period drama? Was it a light-hearted expose of attitudes and prejudices of the recent past? Was it a love triangle comedy, an office drama, a police procedural? It was all of these things but its schizophrenic nature, or indeed the sometimes arbitrary plotting, never made it less than compelling.

Just as enjoyable was Fresh Meat (C4), the epic saga of six halflings journeying through the dark lands of what was once quietly spoken of as university. So diverse was the cast that it’s difficult to pick out any favourites, but I’m sure we all loved Josie getting expelled for putting a drill through a patient’s face whilst hungover, Kingsley’s ‘meaningful’ efforts as a rock star, Vod accidentally killing a legendary poet during an epic bender, Oregon (or rather Melanie) going out with the son of the professor she slept with, or Howard’s befuddled love for a sour Dutch mature student. Or, indeed, JP being the finest upper class twit since Bertie Wooster.

The best TV programme ever returned for its 49th year of existence, although sadly in truncated iorm. Doctor Who (BBC1) only lasted five episodes and a Christmas special, but contained just about enough goodness to satisfy this moderately obsessed junkie. It had to contend with showrunner Steven Moffat’s most recent writing efforts showing notable tiredness; indeed this year’s best episode was a barnstorming piece of nonsense about dinosaurs on a spaceship that wasn’t written by him. It’s been a long time since the best episode of any of the revived series wasn’t a Moffat episode.

An even more quintessentially BBC show than Doctor Who was The Great British Bake Off (BBC2), perfectly positioned just after the Olympics to ease the withdrawal pains of those seeking light competition amongst talented amateurs. Mel and Sue were the perfect replacements for Clare Balding, as twelve gladiators of gastronomy went head to head with the only one who actually bled for his art, John, winning.

But programme of the year was undoubtedly Kathy Burke’s Walking and Talking (Sky Atlantic). Virtually nothing happened over its four very short episodes, as young Kathy and her best mate Mary wander around a sun-drenched London in the seventies, discussing all the things teenage girls obsess over without ever swearing, because they’re good Catholic girls. As charming a TV show as ever got recorded, Walking and Talking was so great precisely because it mattered so flipping little.

Best Actor: Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It)
Best Actress: Rebecca Hall (Parade’s End)
Best Writer: Kathy Burke (Walking and Talking)
Best Director: Armando Iannucci (Veep)
Best Presenter: Clare Balding (Olympics and Paralympics)
Best Supporting Player: John (The Great British Bake Off)
Best Sport: Wheelchair Murderball (Paralympics)


The Observer’s Guide to The Thick Of It – Series 1, Episode 3

Housing Bill

Much has been written about how The Thick Of It takes its inspiration from the real government of the time. Whilst the character of Malcolm Tucker was undeniably inspired by tales of Alastair Campbell, the character as presented distanced itself by deliberately being an amalgam. It’s only three episodes in and this idea is about to be abandoned, as we get our first character based unequivocally on a single real life figure.

We don’t meet our avatar in this third episode[1] straight away as Hugh is riding high after a presumably rare good performance in the House of Commons[2], ensuring the latest passage of a new Housing Bill. “A very satisfactory Report Stage Debate[3]” basks Hugh. Hugh’s balloon is punctured somewhat when Glenn notes a smarmy piece in The Guardian[4] about someone called Dan ‘fucking’ Miller, who dared try to steal some of Hugh’s thunder. Hugh tries to brush away talk of a possible usurper. “He’s just a bit green.” As indeed is Hugh.

Enter Dan Miller, as played by Tony Gardner (also a veteran of The Armando Iannucci Shows, as well as appearing in Chris Morris’s Jam). Immediately, there’s no getting away from the fact that Dan Miller is supposed to be David Miliband[5] – not just in the similarities of name but also that Gardner is a virtual look-a-like of the one-time Foreign Secretary. Having characters obviously based on real figures in government (and opposition) would become a large part of the show.

Hailed by Ollie as “Danny boy, man of the hour”, suggesting that he had a lot more to do with the Bill’s passing than Hugh, Dan is greeted frostily by Hugh whilst everybody else is delighted to see him. Even Malcolm wants a piece of him, calling him on his mobile and praising him for his work. Malcolm is in his office, so this is the first time we get a glimpse of his ever-present and loyal secretary Sam (Samantha Harrington), who doesn’t say much and seems to be the only person not intimidated by him[6].

The conversation doesn’t last long, as is Malcolm’s want. “Did you get bumped for someone more important?” sympathises Hugh, looking for any opening. But Dan has to go and play squash with Pete from the Treasury, to impressed noises from those present who aren’t Hugh.

Hugh also has an appointment. “It’s just supper with the Prime Minister,” he notes nonchalantly. Dan is impressed, as he should be in Hugh’s mind. “No it’s just what we do,” assures Hugh, turning his back on him. This is a far more aggressive and petty Hugh than the exhausted bewailer of his fate we saw in the last episode[7]. Exit Dan, full of overly effusive praise for everyone present.

Elsewhere, Malcolm is now on the phone to ‘Tom’, a rare person who he answers to[8]. Tom’s been discussing the Government’s recent failures with the PM, with Malcolm is defending himself because of having to work with the likes of Hugh Abbot (“bangers and mash”) when he could be working with Jerry from the Home Office (“fucking risotto and scallops”). Seeing as he’s had the equivalent of a bollocking from this Tom, he feels the need to pass it on, so cheerfully asks Sam[9] to send over Terri and Glenn.

Hugh, Glenn and Terri are the latest trio to be unhappily squeezed into the back of a car, carpooling on their way to Number 10 and two very different meetings. Once there Glenn innocently asks whether Hugh stayed in his Notting Hill flat last night. Hugh takes Glenn aside and gets to the nub of the episode. “Malcolm’s been on at me about the flat. There could be some problems with the Housing Bill.” Note how, for once, the Housing Bill doesn’t keep changing its name. This is not an on-the-fly policy. “But I need it,” carps Hugh. “Every other fucker’s got a huge grace and favour flat in London, why haven’t I got one[10]?”

“Leave it to me,” assures Glenn. “We’ll do what we said, the ‘sale and not a sale’.” Terri, overhearing, looks very suspicious. We see neither Hugh’s meeting with the PM nor Glenn and Terri getting chewed out, but we can assume that both went about as well as can be expected.

The next morning Hugh and Glenn practice interview questions for yet another interview with Angela Heaney. Hugh bats away questions with ease, even Glenn’s “Where’s the Nazi gold, you donkey shagger?” Apart from the swearing, this scene could have been taken straight from Yes, Minister. “I’m very please you asked me that, Angela…”

Dan and Ollie arrive after an early morning squash session, both looking every inch the next generation about to take over[11]. Old hands Hugh and Glenn can’t help but be prickly. Hugh claims to be a big squash player himself, although he’s mystified by Dan’s query over whether he’s on a ‘ladder’[12]. As they leave for the interview, Glenn asks Ollie whether he knew Angela was in the building and, looking pointedly at Dan, “will she be jealous?”

Malcolm is such an omnipotent figure that it’s odd to see him getting another phone dressing down from Tom, this time discussing Hugh’s housing arrangements. According to Tom there’s a piece about it in the offing but Malcolm assures him that Hugh is being interviewed by “that twatbubble from the Standard” before realisation dawns. “Fuck, she’s just gone to the Mail[13].”

With a twirl of his jacket he’s off, legging it down Whitehall whilst Hugh is shown getting increasingly hostile questions from Angela about why he hasn’t sold off his ‘empty’ flat, which the Bill clearly states he should. She sweetly enquires whether this is because a family who are particularly interested are Asian.

“No. God no! I’ve very glad you’ve brought that up because that gives me the, er…” This is not quite the practiced Hugh deflecting questions about Nazi gold. Fortunately, a puffing and panting Malcolm has arrived outside the ‘goldfish bowl’ office where the interview is taking place. In a wonderful sequence, we see but barely hear Malcolm giving a grinning Hugh a magnificent bollocking from inside the goldfish bowl (a bellowed C word is just about audible) until helpful Terri opens the door to offer coffee and biscuits, allowing us to clearly hear, “You’re a fucking prick!”

A jocular Hugh returns, apologising for a “bit of a disagreement.” Since Angela has herself been on the end of a Malcolm rant (see the first episode), he’s fooling no-one. This sequence is maybe the one moment of the first series that made a lot of people sit up and take notice, so scatologically funny is it. It’s a shame it doesn’t really belong in the general plot.

Glenn explains the grand scheme to a much calmer Malcolm. Hugh’s flat is on the market but they’re turning down all offers so he isn’t a zombie when he walks into the office. Hugh arrives, looking like a zombie. “That was supposed to be a nice interview,” he says, staring blankly at his underlings. He tries to look on the bright side. “I think I denied being a racist.”

Terri sighs. “So what’s the line on this then?” Emphasis on ‘this’ as it’s obviously the latest in a long line of ‘this’s. Hugh barely has time to open his slack-jawed mouth before Malcolm re-enters with the news that he’s sold the flat to the Asian family (he moves fast) for £40,000 below the asking price. Hugh’s already flaccid jaw hits the floor but it’s too late; the papers have got hold of the story and the word ‘scandal’ is already being bandied about.

Alone with a shell-shocked Hugh, Malcolm has to explain exactly why the situation is so bad. “It is a second home, in a borough with thousands of homeless people, that you have kept more or less empty for ages. Have you not read your own Housing Bill?” It’s entirely possible that Hugh hasn’t, or at least he has and hasn’t quite grasped it.

Hugh laments the fortunes of having something as outrageous as using a flat in order to get some sleep now and then. “Obviously on reflection I should have filled it with prostitutes and rent boys and crack cocaine pimp tattoo freaks.” Malcolm is not having it: the Housing Bill is a success – thanks to Dan Miller, as he pointedly says – and Hugh is threatening to derail the whole thing. Hugh utters the fateful words. “Well, what do want me to do? Resign?” Meaningful pause from Malcolm. “No, no. I’m not going over this… this is madness.”

Malcolm likes the idea of Hugh resigning. Hugh begs for his life, quoting himself from the last episode. “I need to sleep. I need to eat. Occasionally I need to take a dump. Do we put that on the Evening News? Minister in disgusting defecation outburst? Mollie Sugden[14] at Number 10, ‘Did you enjoy your shit Mr. Abbot?’” Hugh deplores the changing world, arguing that Malcolm would love to have cloned Ministers, “like that fucking brushed aluminium Dan Miller cyber prick!”

To no avail. Malcolm tries to convince him that resignation can be a good thing. “People really like it when you go just a bit early. You surprise them. ‘Blimey he’s gone, didn’t expect that. Old school. Respect. I rather liked the guy. He was hounded out by the fucking press.’ What a way to go.” Malcolm has to go and meet Tom and the PM, assuring Hugh it would be awkward if he was there too as they’ll be talking about him.

Hugh frets in Malcolm’s office whilst Ollie and Glenn discus options over a cigarette outside the Department[15]. Glenn is considering doing the honourable thing and resigning to take the flak from Hugh, although within seconds he’s accusing Hugh of dropping him in it after 37 years’ loyal service[16]. Ollie also decides to go, although he immediately changes his mind when Glenn agrees. “I’m just a counter man at McDonald’s,” argues Ollie. “You’re the clown running the shop[17].” They both agree that neither of them is going to do the decent thing.

Malcolm returns to a terrified Hugh with news. “There’s going to be an Inquiry[18].” Hugh is delighted, unknotting himself with joy and even shaking Malcolm’s hand. Whilst Malcolm takes a call from the PM, Hugh retreats to a back room to eat some nervous biscuits. He phones his conference-called underlings with the good news. “Yes!” erupts audibly from Hugh’s mobile.

They discuss which Lord would be best (for them) to head it up. “We’ve had this conversation before haven’t we,” notes Hugh, “about the ideal person to have an inquiry. It was a dead heat between Eamonn Holmes[19] and Alan Bennett[20].” Glenn suggests someone called Lord Monckton, whereupon Malcolm returns with news that it will indeed be Lord Monckton, to more noisy cheers down the phone.

In what seems to be another case of scenes missing, we cut to Hugh’s gang miserably huddled over the newspapers. Hugh is surprised they’re still interested in a story that’s gone on for “four… five days now.” As anyone who has followed the myriad Inquiries over the years would know, you’d be lucky to get one that lasted less than six months[21]. Malcolm calls having seen an early version of Monckton’s report, which quotes the driver Hugh got rid of in episode one. “I never liked him. He was a smirky bastard.”

The driver heard Hugh and Glenn talking about the flat. “It was just words. It’s not as though we were plotting like Guy Fawkes[22], concocting our evil master plan.” Malcolm wants Hugh’s guys over, but not Hugh, as they’re going to be talking about him again. Ollie leaves without a word. Terri at least says, “Bye. See you later,” with a muttered “probably anyway” as she’s out the door.

Glenn takes the time so say a proper goodbye. Hugh looks uncomfortable at Glenn’s inappropriate clutching. “We’ll ride again.” So for the second time, Hugh has to sit it out and await his fate, consoling himself with more biscuits.

Malcolm has the hairdryer on for Glenn, Ollie and Terri. “Department of Social Affairs? Department of fucking shocking shitty charlatan shits.”

We interrupt this alliterative flow to go back to Hugh who is visited by Dan, naturally looking for Ollie. Hugh tries to bluff away his lack of staff, before coming clean. “They’re talking about how fucked I am.” Dan cottons on immediately and tuts sympathetically. Hugh bemoans missing his ideal resigning point, as each delay mean it’ll be longer before he can get back in. Dan looks thoughtful at this, even though Hugh says, “If I resigned the day I was appointed, I’d actually be Prime Minister by now.”

Back to Malcolm’s ‘discussion’ and he’s outlining a plan where Hugh won’t be thrown to the wolves, so long as the press get another head from the Department on a plate, specifically either Glenn, Ollie or Terri. Cue more squabbling back at the office about who knows what, mercifully curtailed (at least for Terri) when Hugh enters, his thoughtful time with the biscuits having had an effect.

He world-wearily explains that he’s going to offer his resignation, rationalizing that if he goes before the report comes out he’ll be back in Government within two years and, best of all, will be “shot of this fucking department.” In a very meta monologue, Hugh ponders his Department’s vague brief. “Social Affairs? What the fuck does it actually mean? ‘Hello I’m Hugh Abbot, I’m the minister for, I don’t know, stuff.’”

Hugh leaves, but Malcolm is already accepting someone else’s resignation: Dan Miller. Malcolm looks delighted. “You won’t regret this Dan. Trust me, you won’t.” Hugh actually bumps into Dan coming out of Malcolm’s office but he’s too late. He’s stuck with the Department until the next resigning issue.

Back at the Department, Glenn and Ollie tell him that Dan’s resignation has caused admiration throughout the government, right up to the Prime Minister. Glenn reads out his words. “I’m immensely sorry to lose you but I predict you will one day find yourself in very high office indeed.”

Terri and Ollie (the turncoat) are for once agreed that they never liked him. Hugh avers that he thought Dan was “quite good”, which he certainly is when spotting an opportunity. Hugh can’t face going to his one distant home and returns to ask Glenn if he can sleep on his sofa. The postscript is that Dan would eventually find himself in very high office indeed, but not as quickly as the never-seen Tom Davis.

And so ends this brief first series of The Thick Of It. The second series will be equally brief but it was very quick to arrive at the time, and would quickly cast off the Yes, Minister trappings and establish its own rhythms. Which isn’t to say that the first series is at all bad. It’s very good indeed. Soon, it’ll be sublime.

[back] 1. This episode credited to Armando Iannucci, Simon Blackwell and Jesse Armstrong.

[back] 2. British Parliament is divided into two Houses: the Commons and the Lords (the equivalent of the US House of Representatives and the Senate). The Prime Minister and most Ministers sit in the Commons, and that is where most power resides.

[back] 3. The report stage is the fourth stage of a Bill as it goes through Parliament. It’s relatively unimportant – if kinks haven’t been knocked out in the first and second reading and the committee stage, they never will. There are a mere seven stages to go after this (mostly through the House of Lords).

[back] 4. The Guardian is one of the four broadsheet newspapers in the UK, and the only one to lean left (The Independent tries hard to live up to its title). As a result, it sells the worst (apart from The Independent).

[back] 5. Former golden boy of the next generation of Labour, who suffered a famous case of fratricide when his brother Ed beat him in what should have been a walkover for the leadership in 2010. At the time this episode was made, Miliband was no junior minister but Minister for Communities and Local Government, an absurd title that must have caught Iannucci’s eye.

[back] 6. Considering that she’s present right until the last episode, including In The Loop, you’d think there’d be an effort to flesh out her character some more, but it’s almost like she’s a calm and mute yin to Malcolm’s roaring monster yang. That she’s still working for Malcolm in the fourth series means she’s not a civil servant, suggesting that Malcolm actually wants her around. Her character is slightly more fleshed out in the Missing DoSAC Files book, presumably where there wasn’t an actress to get in the way.

[back] 7. There is an argument to be made that there was an ‘exhaustion arc’ planned, with this week being the second episode and the degeneration of Hugh completed in last week’s episode now he no longer has the flat, as this was how they were shot. However, there are a couple of references to the last episode here, including Hugh quoting his “I take a dump” speech and Malcolm referring to the ‘focus group’ mess. Answers on a postcard.

[back] 8. Tom (Davis) was also on the phone to Malcolm in the first episode, but this is the first time we hear that he’s someone of power. He would later take centre-stage (whilst remaining off-screen) in the Specials, where he became Prime Minister. He’s obviously based on Gordon Brown, of which more anon.

[back] 9. A noticeable mistake in the camerawork here, for a show that specialises in wonky camerawork, as the camera whips one way and then the other, seemingly trying to work out where Sam is.

[back] 10. This is possibly a reference to Peter Mandelson’s very agreeable town house, coincidentally in Notting Hill as well, and bought with a loan from millionaire fellow MP Geoffrey Robertson that Mandelson failed to declare, hastening his (first) resignation.

[back] 11. It’s interesting that Dan and Ollie team up so early, since by the last episode in 2012 they’re still together, top of the tree with everyone else fallen by the wayside. If that was the long-term plan it’s brilliantly executed.

[back] 12. A league of individual players, denoting the level you’re at and who you get to play.

[back] 13. As noted before, the London Evening Standard and the Daily Mail were owned by the same company at the time. The Mail is much bigger than the Standard though, so it’s a huge step up for Angela, giving her more leeway with Malcolm. Hence his panic.

[back] 14. Mollie Sugden was not a political reporter. She was a much-beloved sitcom actress, most famously as the pussy-addled Mrs. Slocombe in Are You Served. This and other creatively bizarre lines were written by Ian Martin, The Thick Of It’s notorious ‘swearing consultant’ on the first two series. He’s a writer who still lives in Lancaster and got Armando Iannucci’s attention with his website Martian FM. He later graduated to be a ‘real’ writer on the show.

[back] 15. The ban on smoking anywhere indoors came into effect in 2007, but many offices had banned it before then.

[back] 16. 37 years!? How old are these characters supposed to be? Has Glenn been carrying Hugh’s bag since they were in school?

[back] 17. The clown running the shop, as Glenn later states, is Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s long time mascot. He’s long since been dropped to avoid accusations that they were aiming for kids, despite a leering clown being exactly the sort of thing that would discourage children.

[back] 18. Judicial Inquiries, heading by a trusted Judge (with a natural inclination to support the establishment) are often used by governments to bury bad news. Instead of addressing a problem immediately, an Inquiry shunts a problem down the calendar until everybody has forgotten about it. Although there has been the odd Inquiry that backfired on a government (the Leveson Inquiry into Phone Hacking and related matters is a partial example), most have favoured the government, often to belief-stretching lengths (e.g. The Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly, which strongly favoured the government and gave the BBC a kicking wherever possible).

[back] 19. Corpulent and genial Northern Irish TV front man, then best known for presenting ITV’s breakfast show GMTV. Soon after this was broadcast, he moved to Sky to present their breakfast show Sunrise where he remains.

[back] 20. Alan Bennett is a beloved playwright and actor, possessed of the most unthreatening voice in Christendom and the perfect narrator of Winnie the Pooh.

[back] 21. At the extreme end of things, the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday killings commenced in January 1998 and the report was issued in June 2010.

[back] 22. Britain’s greatest monster, who was caught surrounded by gunpowder threatening to blow up the House of Parliament in 1604, a very early case of religious terrorism. His image has mellowed recently, both as a symbol of anti-government feeling (e.g. the blogger Guido Fawkes) and anti-establishment protest (the face of the anarchic masked ‘hero’ of the film V for Vendetta, based on Fawkes, has been taken up by Occupy and every ‘the world is shit’ organisation going).

TV Review – The Fear, The Town, Madeley Meets the Squatters, The Real Man’s Road Trip: Sean and Jon Go West, Peter Kay – In Conversation

The Fear
Tristan the Urban Womble

“I’m glad that I ended up as an actor and not a gangster,” said Peter Mullan in the Radio Times promoting The Fear (C4). We’re glad too, Peter, for who else could we get to appear in the many, many, many gangster dramas we constantly shit out? Of all the many films and TV dramas starring Scots growler Mullan, I’ve only ever seen one project of his where he wasn’t nutting, chinning, gouging and feeding drugs to people. The Fear isn’t it. (Answer at the bottom of the page).

Because there’s been so many gangster dramas, each new one has to have some kind of twist. With The Fear Mullan plays the Alzheimers Gangster, terrorising everyone by day and forgetting why he went into the kitchen by night. Or rather, failing to remember that he beat up the patriarch of a rival gang and started a turf war. Mullan might be losing his mind but he’s still got to be a tough bastard. The genre demands it.

Despite being set on the south coast, Mullan remains Scottish as well as a gangster. Range is not his thing. He also has two sons; one is posh, the other is a wide-boy Cockney. They’re having trouble with a newly arrived bunch of Albanians, or possibly ‘Kosovans’ – both get mentioned despite the latter not existing (natives of Kosovo are Kosovars). Both are fighting for control of that gangsta’s paradise Brighton, despite it being all Fatboy Slim and Green Party MPs these days.

In four episodes broadcast over four nights, Mullan’s world collapses around him both physically and metaphorically. But mostly physically. Women get decapitated, men get shot. Just about everybody gets beaten up and the only sign of the police is a corrupt golfing friend of Mullan’s who runs away at the first sign of trouble. The whole premise rests on a memory of Mullan doing something horrible to a young girl years before, but since he does horrible things all the way through it’s hard to build up any sense of intrigue.

The Who are evoked throughout, both in Mullan’s constantly burbling Baba O’Reilly ringtone and the cribbing from the film of Quadrophenia, also set in Brighton, right up to an ambiguous did he/didn’t he ending for the main character. The audience for Quadrophenia probably didn’t hope that Phil Daniels really had killed himself, though. Some of them might have liked the future possibility of Park Life

On to better things, and more memories of Quadrophenia in Phil Davies, confusingly cast alongside fellow shortarse Phil Daniels therein. If there’s a better opening to a drama this year than the first five minutes of The Town (ITV1) then I haven’t seen it. Last week, I was talking about the importance of not casting recognisable actors as minor characters in mysteries as it gives the game away, even mentioning Phil Davies’s sterling work in Sherlock. The Town opens with him and equally familiar Siobhan Redmond as they say good night to the rest of their family and go to bed, she telling him “I love you.”

The next morning they’re both dead, a joint suicide with painkillers and vodka. That’ll get your attention. Phil and Siobhan are carted off in body bags and only seen again in pictures, but their ghosts hover over the rest of the show like a suffocating raincloud. Masterfully written by playwright Mike Bartlett, subverting the expectations of TV drama, the remaining family try to make sense of what has happened.

Elder son Andrew Scott returns home from London for the first time in eight years, with old friends equally envious and dismissive of his time away. Younger sister Avigail Tlalim plays truant and hooks up with a random boy, explaining her intentions. “I want to find something that deserves to be burnt and burn it. In this town you’re spoiled for choice.” Afterwards, they jump in a pool, whilst Scott hits a different sort of drink with old school friends.

Meanwhile, mayor Martin Clunes is sleeping in an alcoholic haze in his office. He fires an underling for daring to suggest that he drinks too much, but when he hears about the double suicide he goes along to the funeral. He even makes a speech. “I didn’t know them but I’ve done some research.” Every scene in The Town intrigues and beguiles. Scott thinks that it couldn’t have been suicide, particularly as bits of paper turn up saying “I know”, but he’s been away. As his sister says, “They were messed up. Couldn’t deal with it. Now we’re on our own.” As are we.

By contrast, fluffiest show of the week was Madeley Meets The Squatters (ITV1). Richard Madeley is no-one’s idea of a tough investigative journalist – I’m sure he’s played by Steve Coogan – but he bravely acts the befuddled Englishman trying to make sense of what he’s convinced himself is a confusing situation. In Walthamstow, he meets the owner of a garage next door to an abandoned pub filled with drunken Lithuanians, or they might have been Latvians. In Bristol, he meets the vaguely annoyed owner of a building colonised by crusties. He also meets Mary, a woman with special needs, who got gazumped by a dastardly squatter.

The programme seeks balance, as all these shows try to do, but it can’t helped be noticed that all the squatters portrayed are either sympathetic or heroic. The Lithuanians are not resented by their neighbour, despite him having to wash their faeces off his pavement every day. He’s seen how they live and he even gets on with them, offering help when he can.

The Bristol squatters have organised a very unofficial Housing Committee. One of them, Tristan, who describes himself as an Urban Womble, takes Madeley on a ‘skipping’ trip round the back of supermarkets, looking for food the supermarkets have thrown out. When Madeley, as mildly as possible, accuses him of being a scrounger Tristan points out that he doesn’t claim any benefits, a point of honour for many squatters. When confronted by the actual owner of the building, Tristan the Urban Womble confronts him back by asking awkward questions like how much money he has and how many properties he owns. The owner refuses to say, but does cadge a cigarette.

Even the fiendish squatter who got into Mary’s flat before she did was turfed out in a number of weeks and left no noticeable damage. Madeley almost looks disappointed at the absence of any evidence of a month of White Lightning-fuelled mayhem and dirty protests.

“It’s a complex world,” points out Madeley, as he drives his Jaguar around the country, but he finds it hard to find any kind of dark side to squatting as portrayed in many a hysterical tabloid report. And that’s before he gets to an office block in London owned and neglected by a Greek shipping magnate (they still exist?), taken over by a group of poets and fashion photographers. Or the derelict ground near Heathrow Airport taken over by a hippie commune and actually welcomed in a nearby town. The passive aggressive slogans written everywhere do look a bit worrying though.

From fluffiest show of the week to what we now must call the Heston Blumenthal Most Pointless Show of the Week. The Real Man’s Road Trip: Sean and Jon Go West (C4) featured 8 Out of 10 Cats’ Sean Lock and Jon Richardson as they went on a cowboy ranch for no obvious reason. It’s not even clear why they’re paired up, apart from their joint professions. “They’re two of Britain’s favourite comedians,” lies the voice over.

Jon’s ‘character’ is that he’s an anxious OCD nerd whilst Sean’s ‘character’ is someone who doesn’t give a monkeys about anything. Sean explains that he doesn’t really like Jon. “He’s a prick.” Jon worries that Sean is more manly than him. In an absolutely hilarious bull castration sequence – so funny I can’t tell you about it as I was in the next room with my hands over my ears – Sean cheerfully slices a bull’s testes open whilst Jon converts to vegetarianism.

Despite such actions, nobody in America believes they’re comedians (“I thought you were computer boys”). Not surprising as they’re not being very funny, except when Jon tells a joke so spectacularly bad (something to do with how you pronounce ‘an onion’) it causes Sean to almost fall off his chair laughing. Everybody else is bemused. Still, it brought our stars together. As Sean sums up, “I like Jon. He’s a weirdo, but he’s an enjoyable weirdo.”

One of the reasons Sean and Jon might be throwing themselves at the screen at the moment is the urgent need to sell live DVDs before Christmas (the first question Sean asks Jon when they meet is “How was the DVD recording?”). Peter Kay – In Conversation (C4) was almost as pointless, in that it featured the comedian just chatting to his mate Danny Baker with suspiciously long clips from his many projects. Why Kay didn’t just do a stand-up comedy act was a mystery but fortunately the adverts showed that Kay has a new Stand-Up DVD out for Christmas. As does Jon Richardson and every other comedian in the country apart from Sean Lock. He really doesn’t give a monkeys.

And the film where Peter Mullan isn’t a violent psychopath is On A Clear Day. He swims the Channel instead. Sadly it’s rubbish.

The Observer’s Guide to The Thick Of It – Series 1, Episode 2

Focus Groupee

The second episode[1] is all about what it means to be a Minister and how making policy and delivering speeches are far from the only thing a politician should do. They also need to manage their time, know about The Bill[2] and take focus groups seriously.

Hugh arrives at the Ministry. “You’re late and you look like shit,” points out Glenn. The late nights of having to clean up various messes (see last episode) are taking their toll on the Minister, not helped by a long commute. We discover that Hugh has a wife called Kate and children, none of whom live anywhere near Westminster.

Semi-comatose, Hugh bemoans his life. “I work, I eat, I shower. That’s it. Occasionally I take a dump. As a sort of treat.” To ensure this moment of peace is attained, Hugh doesn’t even read New Statesman[3] whilst doing the aforesaid dump. Terri, whose previous job was Head of Press at Waitrose[4], once again shows how useful she can be by cancelling a radio interview that would have taken place at the same time as the minute’s silence for Remembrance Sunday. Note that nobody is wearing poppies; by season four they’re mandatory[5].

Terri also has bad news, which is an article in The Times[6] by a certain Simon Hewitt about Hugh, although she’s reluctant to actually show him it, protecting the feelings of someone who seems to have suffered enough. Hugh gets a call from a far less reluctant Malcolm and has him in his ear whilst reading what is unquestionably a bad review, albeit in the fashion of The Times. “At the moment he’s calling me the political equivalent of the house wine at a suburban Indian restaurant.” Ollie helpfully points out some of the worst parts.

But for once, Malcolm is being helpful, as only he can. “We’re gonna get this tosser, Hugh, don’t you worry.” Note, two episodes in and Malcolm has already stopped calling Hugh ‘Minister’. “He’ll be at the Sport[7], photoshopping the tits of Hollyoaks[8] extras by the end of the month.”

Hugh is delighted that Malcolm is backing him, but Terri counsels against getting back at “bloody Simon arsepipes titty twat,” as Terri sarcastically describes him. Ollie, missing the point, questions whether that’s the best swearing she can come up with.

Glenn also misses the point and states exactly what they’re going to do. “We throw so much shit back at them that they can’t pick up shit, they can’t throw shit, they can’t do shit.” Hugh, for one, is impressed, and not just by the swearing.

Terri, once again the voice of experience, sees where all this is going. “I hope you’re not going to toss off some announcement just to get back at some journalist?” Instantly cut to Hugh, Glenn and Ollie in a different room, sans Terri, in a visual gag reminiscent of Hugh’s instant departure from the non-announcement in the last episode. Glenn has block booked 14 meeting rooms to keep her off the scent.

In Yes, Minister, Sir Humphrey was super-competent and scheming to constantly get his way – his way usually being the maintainance of the status quo. We can see the DNA of Sir Humphrey in Terri, but her competence comes up against her exhaustion over constantly having to mop up after the hare-brained schemes of her employers. Like Sir Humphrey she would like to maintain the status quo but she hasn’t his deviousness.

Whilst hiding from Terri, they’re interrupted whilst spitballing ideas (“pollution… the environment… dogshit…”) by Malcolm, who could find them in a labyrinth. His spin on ‘Simon arsepipes titty twat’ is that he wrote the piece as a favour to Cliff Lawton, Hugh’s predecessor as fired in the last episode. Hugh is intrigued by this piece of gossip until Malcolm assures him he made it up.

As for Hugh, Malcolm has set up a ‘Me and My Media’ piece with tame journalist (since the last episode) Angela Heaney. “It’s a perfect opportunity to show how clued up you are. You know, the price of a pint of milk. You love HBO[9] imports, VH1[10], Pixar[11], you dig The Streets[12]…” Malcolm tails off as he realises Hugh has no idea what he’s talking about. “Who’s the only gay in the village[13]?” he barks at Hugh.

Pause. “…Eddie Grundy[14]?” Hugh corrects himself when he remembers Grundy is married, although he notes that a lot of gay people have children these days. “Ben at the Foreign Office[15].” Further enquiries as to what chavs[16] are produce similar results. Even Glenn and Ollie are shocked at Hugh’s ignorance. Here we see The Thick Of It first deviating from Yes, Minister with its embrace of cultural matters, reflecting the Tony Blair government’s occasional obsession with things like Cool Britannia[17]. Blair himself was once the singer in a rock band.

Malcolm’s obsession with managing all aspects of his party’s image means he can’t have any of his Ministers seem out of touch, something far too long associated with the Conservatives – later personified in Opposition Minister Peter Mannion, someone who is proud of his ignorance. A current Minister can’t be seen to be like Mannion, so Malcolm promises to send Hugh the Prime Minister’s weekly highlights package, or ‘Zeitgeist Tape’. Hugh is surprised as he thought the PM was “genuinely quite with it.”

Malcolm: “No, he uses phrases like ‘with it’ as well.” This too reflected real life as deeply religious Tony Blair was never quite the cool dude he was sometimes portrayed as. Malcolm gives Hugh 24 hours to sort out his policy on EastEnders[18], with Ollie helpfully supplying the dramatic closing music. “Even he knows,” points out Malcolm to Hugh.

Yet Hugh, Ollie and Glenn still try and cobble together a policy. Hugh can’t decide between Ollie’s ‘give bad kids more money’ or Glenn’s ‘give bad kids less money’ so goes to Terri for arbitration, but she refuses to choose. He gives her an apples and oranges analogy and Terri chooses apples, disappearing before Hugh realises he doesn’t know which idea apples represents. Then Ollie issues the dread phrase, “let’s throw this to a focus group.”

“Yeah, whatever,” slumps an exhausted Hugh. Focus groups are a necessary evil of government. The idea of proposing policies that might not be popular with the public and the press is anathema, but Governments also hate having to kow-tow to representative samples of the public, rightly or wrongly seeing them as ignorant reactionaries. And it’s hardly unknown for the public and press to have diametrically opposite interests.

One focus group later, Ollie rushes back with good news. Not the result of the focus group, but the result of one ‘focus group legend’, who likes Ollie’s policy idea, now called Art For Hearts and Minds – once again getting the name right is more important than the content. Mary the focus group legend (played by star of just about every sketch show of the last 25 years Morwenna Banks) is “totally core Middle England[19]”. Since Hugh is now so tired he wants a ‘precis’ of everything, including the Zeitgeist Tape Malcolm has sent over, he likes the idea of a one person focus group.

Despite Glenn looking very unconvinced – Mary doesn’t like his idea after all – she is called in, and even Ollie calling her a Focus Groupie doesn’t put her off. “Groupee with two Es,” assures Hugh. “You’re every woman,” he rhetorically states.

“It’s all in me,” replies Mary. Hugh looks blank, revealing Chaka Khan as one of the many gaps in his knowledge. Mary likes Hugh’s policy and even has a new name for it, joining in the policy naming merry-go-round: ‘Play for Tomorrow’. She is good.

They take the results of this grouplet to Malcolm, who reacts to Ollie’s spurious 93% approval rating with an “approving stiffy in the post”, despite his suspicions being raised by Hugh describing the focus group as ‘she’.

Hugh takes Malcolm aside to moan about Terri. “She’s shit,” interrupts Malcolm, getting to the nub of the matter. “She’s a box ticker, Hugh, and she can’t think outside of the box,” thereby confirming the government’s contempt for the generally competent civil service. In hindsight, Malcolm won’t feel quite so warm towards people who think outside the box in a few episodes. Has Hugh watched the Zeitgeist Tape? Hugh assures him that he has. “So you know your Little Mo from your Big Mo then[20]?” Hugh’s unconvincing impression of the EastEnders theme music suggests not. Malcolm gives him a bollocking for his cultural neglect.

Unlike Mary, the papers don’t like Ollie’s feelgood policy. “It’s all gone to shite, especially the Times.” Malcolm’s agitated as this is the area he should be in control of. Hugh wants to know how Malcolm knows, as the papers haven’t come out yet. “I’m plugged into the Matrix. I am the Matrix.” Once again, Hugh doesn’t know what he’s talking about, despite The Matrix being six years old by that point. However, Hugh does know who Pingu is, because he’s got a daughter called Alicia who’s obsessed by it. Malcolm the lawgiver speaks: the policy is dead.

Late at night, Malcolm receives a phone call from the now notorious Simon Hewitt (Matthew Marsh, one of those character actors who’s been in everything – as an example he later played Alexander Haig in the film The Iron Lady). He announces he’s writing a piece on focus groups and hints that he may have an inside story. Malcolm is clearly rattled as he responds with his biggest invective yet: “Fuck off back to your match reports, you twat.”

Next morning, Hugh enquires of his underlings exactly how fucked he is. Ollie and Glenn agree on the number 12, but Glenn’s was out of 50 and Ollie’s was out of 10. Malcolm arrives with a solution – the interview with Angela Heaney will be done this afternoon as a spoiler to piss on Simon Hewitt’s cornflakes, “sadly only metaphorical.” In a flash of the Malcolm we come to know, he finishes his instructions with “Bodie, Doyle[21], you go round the back.” Pause. “At times of stress I make jokes.” In a few episodes he won’t stop.

In preparation for the interview, Malcolm literally sits Hugh down to watch the tape. Whilst drifting off as the theme song to The Bill plays, Hugh suddenly takes notice with an expletive. “I know, but people watch it,” agrees Malcolm, otherwise looking at his phone. “This gets six million.” It’s not the quality of the programme that has got Hugh’s attention but the sight of Mary from the focus group playing the stereotypical surly housewife telling the visiting police her villain of a husband isn’t home. Malcolm isn’t bothered, as it’s not unusual to have the odd actor on focus groups[22].

Hugh asks Malcolm to pause the tape for him whilst he belts out, Malcolm looking suspicious. Hugh rushes to his advisors with the bad news, and the bickering begins. “I thought I recognised her,” says Terri. “She was in Midsomer Murders[23].”

In response Hugh hides in a cupboard, but he can’t hide from Malcolm’s staring eyes of doom, the attached brain of which has worked it out. “You said ‘she’.” Hugh refuses to come out of the cupboard, once again pleading ignorance of any cultural matters.

Hugh’s bollocking is put aside when Malcolm realises that Focus Group Mary must be the mole for Simon Hewitt’s forthcoming piece in The Times. He leaps into action, bringing forward the Angela Heaney interview. Late at night, Hugh suggests getting Mary in to explain herself.

There seems to be several scenes missing here, which might have explained why Hugh and Malcolm want to talk to Mary, whilst seemingly still under the suspicion that she’s already spilled the beans to Simon Hewitt and it’s therefore too late to stop her. This is partly confirmed in the audio commentary which reveals there was a whole sub-plot involving Simon running off with Malcolm’s former partner, thankfully dropped.

Pre ‘friendly chat’, Malcolm suggests Hugh look less intimidating. “You’re looking evening telly. I want you to look afternoon chat with the Daily Mail[24].” Despite sarcastically requesting a Hawaiian shirt, Hugh is informally decked out in a pullover when Mary arrives. Malcolm hasn’t changed, of course, and glowers in the background, making Mary thoroughly uncomfortable. “You know that film Notting Hill, have you seen that?”

“She’s probably fucking in it,” mutters Hugh.

Malcolm is stopped in his tracks – no easy feat – when he mentions Simon Hewitt’s name and Mary hasn’t heard of him. “He’s fat guy with a tiny little prick the size of a bookie’s biro.” But Mary is not acting this time, and the realisation slowly hits Malcolm and Hugh. Mary is bundled out whilst Malcolm goes nuts. Ollie asks if the Heaney piece can be stopped. Malcolm briefly stops screaming. “I’m good but I can’t hold back the tide, can I? That’s it, I’m going to bed. You’re fucking on your own.” Slam.

Hugh haltingly tries to make sense of everything. “So we’ve voluntarily… of our own volition… leaked the story to the press… unnecessarily… damn.” As Ollie ushers Mary out, she threatens to go to the press herself. Digging deep into the well of things the department could use as a bribe, Ollie offers to make her the face of the department. Mary is far from tempted by this.

Back in the office, Hugh tries to sleep on the couch. “There’s no point in going home. I’ll just pass myself coming in.” It’s been a long day, and tomorrow won’t be any better. We don’t even need to know what Simon Hewitt actually wrote about focus groups.

The second episode feels like it was taken directly from an insider, bemoaning their Ministerial life. Whilst it’s tempting to feel sympathy for a Minister with a protracted working day and a long commute, this, and the next episode, feels prescient of the 2009 expenses scandal[25] designed to help such Ministers and exploited to the hilt by some.

The efforts to not listen properly to focus groups should not invite such sympathy. The satire in this episode comes, as in all such political satires, from representatives being out of touch and not listening to the people who elected them. And that includes knowing your Big Mo from your Little Mo.

[back] 1. Credited to writers Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche, Jesse Armstrong and Armando Iannucci. Blackwell was a long-standing writer of mostly political comedy material, especially Have I Got News For You. Roche had only written the little-known World of Pub and Broken News beforehand. They both worked on Iannucci’s satirical TV series Gash.

[back] 2. A long-running drama on ITV1, variously retooled over the years as a dry study of police life, a hard-hitting drama and a soap. It started in 1984 was finally killed off in 2010.

[back] 3. Weekly political magazine, at the time of broadcast owned by Labour MP and former Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. In 2009 it was guest-edited by Alastair Campbell. Hugh reading it confirms this is a Labour government, as it’s a left-leaning publication. A Conservative minister would read The Spectator.

[back] 4. An upmarket chain of supermarkets. Managing their press would be relatively easy compared to the rapacious likes of Tesco or Asda.

[back] 5. The wearing of poppies around the time of Remembrance Sunday has recently become utterly essential for anyone in politics and at the BBC, thanks to hysterical tabloid witch hunts about these public figures ‘not respecting our heroes’ and such-like.

[back] 6. AKA The London Times, for foreign readers. Owned by Rupert Murdoch so not likely to be sympathetic to a Labour government, despite Murdoch’s public support for Tony Blair.

[back] 7. The Daily and Sunday Sport, easily the lowest rung on the British tabloid hierarchy (even worse than the Daily Star). As Malcolm hints, it’s a ‘newspaper’ that mostly consists of upskirt shots of celebrities you’ve never heard of.

[back] 8. Teenage soap with a high turnover of young, good-looking actors. No need to know anything else.

[back] 9. Even in 2005, the perceived quality of HBO was all-pervasive, most notably in Britain thanks to Band of Brothers, a high profile HBO/BBC co-production shown on the BBC. Other notable HBO shows on British TV at the time were Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Da Ali G Show (another co-production, this time with Channel 4).

[back] 10. VH1 at the time was quite interesting, thanks to its Behind The Music and I Love The… series. It isn’t any more, thanks to an over-reliance on reality shows.

[back] 11. You know who Pixar are.

[back] 12. The Streets were a British hip-hop/garage act consisting of Mike Skinner, forever on the edge of being cool or ridiculous depending on Skinner’s take on urban life.

[back] 13. As Hugh doesn’t know, this was a recurring sketch on Little Britain, where Matt Lucas’s Welsh Daffyd forever bemoans his singular status, despite all evidence to the contrary.

[back] 14. Character from long-running BBC radio soap The Archers (1950-present). He’s not gay, despite once being one half of a country and western act.

[back] 15. Could this be Ben Swain?

[back] 16. Chavs was the de rigeur insult at the time, essentially meaning aspirational but tasteless working class people who covered themselves in Burberry clothing. Mostly lived in Essex.

[back] 17. ‘Cool Britannia’ was originally a Bonzo Dog Band song then a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavour before becoming the catch-all description of life under the nascent Blair government, encompassing fashion, music (Britpop) and a general sunny optimism. It didn’t last long.

[back] 18. EastEnders is the BBC’s almost daily soap opera, shamefully the most regularly watched programme in Britain for the last thirty years.

[back] 19. Middle England is an almost mythical demographic, said to represent the average British voter and their interests, no matter how extreme.

[back] 20. EastEnders characters Big Mo Slater and her granddaughter Little Mo Slater (later Mitchell) were introduced in 2000. Little Mo left in 2006 but Big Mo is still there, as played by Laila Morse – Gary Oldman’s sister. Hugh wouldn’t know that.

[back] 21. Lead characters of 70s ITV Show The Professionals, an unlikely cop drama about terrorist-busting macho men.

[back] 22. The inspiration for this story came from Joanna Scanlon’s own experiences as an actress being paid £30 to represent a demographic.

[back] 23. Cosy detective drama set in a sleepy village that has a higher murder rate than Compton.

[back] 24. Right wing newspaper, the paper of Middle England (see 19). Obsessed with house prices, cancer scares and immigrants.

[back] 25. The Expenses Scandals was the defining moment of the fall of this Labour government, which was voted out in 2010. A full list of exactly what MPs and Ministers had been claiming on expenses (i.e. from the taxpaper) proved thoroughly embarassing for some (duck pond houses and the like), and actual criminal in other cases. This was particularly with regards to ‘flipping’: swapping ‘official’ residences with closer ‘parliamentary’ residences so that the state would pay the mortgages of rather agreeable, and eminently saleable townhouses. Hugh is not quite as guilty as this (some MPs went to prison), but it’s unlikely his career would have survived the Expenses scandal when it broke.

TV Review – Elementary, Heston’s Fantastical Feasts, The Aristocrats: Blenheim Palace, QI, Stephen Fry: Gadget Man


Compressed Melon

Last week’s review was a bit BBC-heavy, so let’s dip a toe in commercial waters. On ITV it’s nothing but The X Factor and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here so let’s move swiftly extraterrestrial and a little programme called Elementary (Sky Living), the American version of our own Sherlock.

Except it’s not. The BBC version simply wouldn’t work on American TV, because American TV doesn’t make programmes like Sherlock. Elementary is a show done in the usual US style, a constantly churning sausage factory of anything that the show’s makers believe works (belief is a big thing in these laboratories) endlessly repeated in the hope that the sausage meat is palatable to an audience who, at best, don’t really care about the taste.

The only part of Elementary that is challenging is the casting of Jonny Lee Miller as the modern-day Sherlock Holmes, in that he’s allowed to keep his English accent. Even when Hugh Laurie played another modern day version of Holmes in House, he had to acquire an American accent. The controversial casting of Lucy Liu as Doctor Joan Watson is nothing compared to this. American TV may be stuffed with British actors but they all have to give it the full ‘murkin (see Damien Lewis).

Everything else about Elementary is formulaic. It’s easy to recognise the signs, speaking as someone who watched every single episode of House. That’s 22-24 episodes a year for eight years – take that losers who think Lost’s mere five years was a commitment. Sherlock’s producers were worried that Elementary was ripping them off. You’d think they’d know how the US system worked.

Elementary is a mere seven episodes in – which means of course that it has more episodes than the British version – and it’s been judged a huge success, already penciled in for the prestige post-Super Bowl slot at the end of January. This sort of thing means nothing over here – it means everything over there.

At the beginning of the latest episode, Holmes is seen strangling someone. “This is important work Watson,” he assures his sidekick, as he climbs off a dead person and makes notes. This is about the closest Elementary gets to Benedict Cumberbatch thrashing dead bodies in St. Bart’s hospital, as Lucy Liu looks deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing, rather than passively tolerant as Martin Freeman would.

This Holmes also has Cumberbatch’s talent for blithely saying the wrong thing, as he points out her discomfiture is possibly related to her “being a disgraced surgeon and all.” Liu flounces out in annoyance, which is not too bright as her role in his life so far is a drug abuse therapist keeping him in her sights at all times.

Meanwhile, Holmes is briefly annoyed by a silent hospital cleaner. This cleaner is played by an actor who previously was the editor of The Baltimore Times on The Wire and coffee-loving Gale on Breaking Bad. Strange bit of casting for such a minor role. Do you think he might be more than just a hospital cleaner? At least the British version kept Phil Davies in the shadows.

Holmes stops the cleaner as he is just about to wipe away an important clue relating to someone who recently died of supposedly natural causes. With a murder proven, Holmes and Watson are on the case. They track down a woman who was the dead man’s last visitor. She doesn’t work in the hospital as a cleaner so she’s dismissed as a suspect. Holmes has a theory that the killer is an Angel of Mercy, a real type of serial killer who likes to bump off perceived terminally ill patients. “It’s just a theory,” avers Sherlock, “but I’ve been right about everything so far.”

His initial focus is not on a famous actor playing a cleaner but on the smooth Head of Surgery, whom Holmes eventually notes is “too indifferent to your patients” to be the Angel of Mercy. Then Holmes discovers that one of the patients only spoke Ukrainian, which in turn leads them to… the cleaner. Before he was a cleaner he was a doctor in the Ukraine, and is willing to confess. “I freed them.” So that’s why they cast such a well-known face. But wait, there is a twist. One of his supposed victims wasn’t terminal at all, and was in fact a set up by… the smooth Head of Surgery. It never helps to be smooth in shows like this. Or famous for other things.

Elementary is enjoyable nonsense and knows it. Simply by being produced in America it has the advantage over its British-made cousin. It would be far better if Sherlock was a series of six one-hour shows rather than the current formula of a feature length three part series. I think this is what Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss would have preferred too, as this is closer to Conan Doyle’s sparse original stories. Some arse covering dick in the BBC decided otherwise and went for the more flashy longer formula to which the show is now inextricably tied. To the show’s detriment. As it is, Elementary feels much more like getting a new copy of The Strand every week.

Onto other laboratories. If Jamie Oliver is the Annoying Cook and Gordon Ramsay is the Punchable Cook, what is Heston Blumenthal? The Pointless Cook, perhaps? In his latest show Heston’s Fantastical Feasts (C4) he’s tried to solve the problem of cooking sumptuous meals that we will never be able to taste by going for quantity rather than quality. We all know what ice cream or chocolate digestives taste like, but what if they were the size of compost heaps or bin lids?

He also feels the need to get cooking for the masses, rather than the usual Channel 4-friendly celebs. In the latest episode, he ventured to Chesterfield in a quest to make the ultimate sweets. Inspired by Willy Wonka, Heston has a deep, almost mystical sense for this mission. “I need to create the most amazing sweet shop they’ve ever seen.” Heston, you don’t need to do anything, other than whip up snail porridge for a millionaire in Bray who booked three years in advance.

Instead he makes giant Liquorice Allsorts, Rolos, Jelly Babies, Fruit Pastilles and a sweet Spaghetti Bolognese filled with “compressed melon”. It’s entertaining enough, but one can’t help feel we’ll be describing it to future generations who will look surprised and say, “what was the point of that then?”

The Aristocrats: Blenheim Palace (C4) was all about legacy. The occupants of this palace have the unbeatably posh name of Spencer-Churchill. The current Duke of Marlborough is a softly-spoken, kindly old duffer. He could make a lucrative sideline doing reassuring voice overs. His son and heir Jamie, Marquess of Blandford, seems to be the model for Peep Show’s Super Hans. He too finds crack very more-ish. The Duke, also known as Sunny – short for the Earl of Sunderland, another of his titles – tried to disinherit his wayward son back in the nineties.

“Two decades on, tempers have cooled.” Jamie’s now clean and they’ve sort-of reconciled, although the Duke has sensibly made sure that not everything will go to his wayward first son. Jamie is podgy, wild-haired and slurs constantly, but he helps his dad in ‘working the land’, which somehow seems to consist of driving around country lanes in Range Rovers, although never in the same Range Rover.

Otherwise the Duke is overseeing the building of a new lavatory block, when not getting married. He’s on his fourth marriage, so maybe his son’s instability is inherited, although Jamie has only two marriages under his straining belt. A passing historian notes that seven out of the 12 Dukes suffered from depression and had trouble with their wives. Jamie describes the palace as a “high maintenance wife”, something father and son can both relate to.

Meanwhile, Jamie pronounces about his frustrated ambitions in politics, somehow thinking he has his finger on the pulse of the nation. This seems to run to not particularly liking Peter Mandelson. “I don’t think there’s any honesty anymore. Any morality. It’s bent.” He promises to have a word with his local MP, one David Cameron. Why not just hand the palace over to Lady Henrietta, Jamie’s sister, who seems eminently sensible and is an interior designer to boot. The aristocracy needs less men.

I’m a bit worried about Stephen Fry. In the last episode of QI (BBC2) he was noticeably slower and slurring his words like the Marquess of Blandford. In the new series Stephen Fry: Gadget Man (C4) he is patently slimmer and has grown a debilitating beard. This all bodes ill for the next series of A Bit of Fry and Laurie now his comedy partner has been freed from the yoke of playing an American version of Sherlock Holmes on US TV. Which brings us back to the beginning.

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