Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Week Five: Wounded By The War Or Touched By The Hand Of God

According to James Clerk Maxwell’s Third Law of Thermodynamics which deals with the unstoppable march of entropy, the universe is gradually slowing and will, eventually, collapse inwards on itself thus rendering all past, present and future human endeavour, ultimately pointless. Just something for you to think about if you're looking for a reason not to put up that set of shelves in the kitchen this weekend.

Friday 30 January
Tonight sees the second (and, sadly, last) series of Pushing Daisies - 10:00 ITV the quirky American drama about a man blessed (but, at the same time cursed) with the ability to bring dead people back to life. This was the last, and ultimately biggest, casualty of last year's writers strike as all of the momentum the series had built up to that point was pulled from under it by having to shut down production for six months. So, tragically, we've only got thirteen episodes of this delightful show left to enjoy. The candy-coloured sets and costumes, the rhythmical Doctor Seuss-style dialogue (with Jim dale splendid as The Voice of God), the numerous pie-flavoured puns and the brilliantly inventive plots are all back and all still working. First, however, there's a lengthy recap to bring any newcomers up to speed on the story of how Ned (the splendidly sympathetic Lee Pace) can bring the dead back to life and, just as easily, kill them off permanently and how, having revived his deceased childhood sweetheart Chuck (Anna Friel), he cannot ever touch her again. Then, we plunge head first into a typically insane story about a murder at Betty's Bees, a honey-based skincare product manufacturer, although there's also a glance back at last season's cliff-hanger about the true identity of Chuck's mother and a subplot - including an outrageous The Sound of Music pastiche - about the cloistering of Olive (the wonderful Kristin Chenoweth) in a nunnery. Charming, whimsical, escapist nonsense with just the right degree of self-awareness as to how delightfully batty it actually is, cherish this show whilst you've still got the chance before it's gone for good.

Saturday 31 January
Alfie was absolutely raving on Top Telly Tips a couple of weeks back about Anne Frank Remembered - repeated at 7:00 on BBC4 tonight – Jon Blair’s Oscar-winning documentary about the life and legacy of the 15-year-old whose diary records two years in hiding in an Amsterdam office building during World War II. With interest in Anne's life at an high following the BBC's recent (excellent) serial adaptation of her story, this film combines personal testimony, family letters and rare archive film with contemporary footage, telling her story from her childhood in Frankfurt and Amsterdam to her capture and death in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh.

On a related theme, if you’re not going to a match anywhere this afternoon, it's worth noting that BBC2 are starting a repeat of the entire twenty six episodes of Jeremy Isaacs' groundbreaking 1973 documentary, The World at War starting at 3:15. If you've never seen it before (or even if you have and you know it almost word-for-word) I defy anyone to watch the opening sequence of the first episode as Larry Olivier solemnly tells the story of the SS's massacre at the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane without having your hearts broken ("Down this road on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now.") The World at War is not just the best documentary series ever made, it's the best documentary series that will ever be made. If you have never seen it before, trust me, your life will be enhaced by putting that right. "They never rebuilt Oradour," concludes Sir Laurence. "Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, China, in a world at war." And then you get Carl Davis' music and that remarkable and chilling title sequence and you find yourself in a time when this stuff still, actually, meant something.

There's a new sitcom on BBC1, The Old Guys at 9:30. It's from Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong who wrote Peep Show and it sounds like a kind-of geriatric version of Men Behaving Badly, starring two genuine sitcom veterans, Roger Lloyd-Pack and Clive Swift as a pair of suburban pensioners who share a home and both lust after their glamorous neighbour played by another nostalgia figure, Jane Asher. Quality cast, good writing pedigree, I really hope this works. It's about time the BBC found one decent sitcom to go with Outnumbered.

Sunday 1 February
Passionate Darwinian David Attenborough, who sees evolution as the cornerstone of all the series he has ever made, shares his personal view on Darwin's ideas in Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life - 9:00 BBC1. Journeying through the last two hundred years, he tracks the changes in our understanding of the natural world, and asks three key questions: how - and why - did Darwin come up with his theory? Why do many people think he was right and why do some still continue to insist he was wrong? This is a bit of a departure for David getting into areas of science-versus- theology. Interesting move and, as a huge admirer of both the man himself and his extraordinary body of work, I'll certainly be watching. I understand from Radio Times that David's been getting a bit of stick of late from the God Botherers. I really find that sad. I mean, apart from the thought of anybody abusing David Attenborough in the name of the Lord is just sick. As an Agnostic, I like to think that I'm wholly open to all extreme possibilities but I do find it rather tragic that many Christians, seemingly, never bother to read the text that they're supposed to be following. Or, rather, they do but they pick and choose which bits to focus on, which bits to rant about, loudly, outside abortion clinics for the cameras and which bits to completely ignore because it/they doesn’t fit in with their life. Like the bit in Leviticus that makes the wearing of a garment woven from the threads of two different fabrics punishable by stoning to death. I take it, therefore, that polyester and cotton shirts aren't big with the fundamentalist right. If there is a God (and, as I say, I'm still perfectly open-minded about that), I imagine He/She/It is rather more pissed-off with those that do sinister naughtiness in His/Her/Its name than those who just get on with their lives without the need to (mis)quote Him/Her/It every five minutes. Mind you, aggressive Atheists are just as bad (if not worse). At least Christians have a faith in something greater to comfort them in times of stress and heartache - something which can, occasionally, move me greatly. What's Richard Dawkins got to keep him warm at night? Err … Lalla Ward. Okay, silly question, let's move on…

Monday 2 February
On its day Who Do You Think You Are? - 9:00 BBC1 – can be just about the best thing on TV (we all remember the numerous classic episodes of past series, I'm sure). Rory Bremner didn't know his dad very well. He was an older father, who was somewhat distant and who died when Rory was eighteen. In researching his father's life, Rory discovers some of his father's wartime letters, in which he talks about a battle for the Dutch city of 's-Hertogenbosch. Rory travels to Holland and then on to Germany. He learns about the part his father played in the post-war reconstruction and discovers that he managed to find time to get to know the locals. Look out for an episode later in the season featuring Wor Kevin Whately (nice bit of local interest there) and another I'm really looking forward to, Zoë Wanamaker. Next week is that luscious pouty vision on minxy goodness, Fiona Bruce.

Competing with that at the same time are not one but two excellent-looking crime drama series (it's at times like this that one appreciates the invention of recordable devices, iPlayer and, erm, "posties"). On BBC2, there's the three-part Moses Jones. When a brutally mutilated body of an African is discovered in the Thames, streetwise Detective Moses is put on the case by his superiors at Scotland Yard, simply because of his ethnic background. Paired with the young and inexperienced DS Dan Twentyman the new partners are initially met with a sinister wall of silence from the local community, until they are offered a clear lead from a very unlikely source. It stars Matt Smith - and is thus guaranteed an audience of curious Whoies quite apart from anyone else! - and the excellent Shaun Parkes in the title role with a quality support cast that includes Tom Goodman-Hill from Ideal and good old Dennis Waterman. Sharp.

Somebody (in fact, probably a couple of somebodies) wants a damned good kicking, however, for the crassly idiotic scheduling of the previous series opposite Whitechapel - ITV 9:00. When ambitious DI Joseph Chandler is assigned what looks like a simple case of domestic violence, he thinks a quick result will line him up for promotion. But when the investigation runs out of suspects, Chandler finds an alternative theory from Edward Buchan, an expert on Jack the Ripper. Buchan points out the similarities between the murder and the Ripper's killings, and the race is on to catch the copycat before he strikes again. Rupert Penry-Jones and Phil Davis star and, again, the support cast in mouth-watering – Steve Pemberton from League of Gentlemen, Claire Rushbrooke and Alex Jennings among others. Record one and watch the other is my solution to the scheduling dilemma.

Tuesday 3 February
Recently upgraded to a Class B substance again, Cannabis is said to be the world's favourite drug, but it’s also quite possibly one of the least well understood. Can cannabis cause schizophrenia as is often claimed? Is it addictive? Can it lead the user on to harder drugs? Or is it simply a herb, an undervalued medicine or, as the Rastas insist 'the weed of the field' as mentioned in the book of Genesis? In Horizon: The Evil Weed? - BBC2 9:00 - addiction specialist Doctor John Marsden discovers that modern science is finally beginning to find some answers to these, and other, questions. John traces the cannabis plants birthplace in Kazakhstan; finds the origins of our sensitivity to cannabis in the sea-squirt and finds out just what it does to our brains.

Doctors and Nurses at War - 8:00 ITV – is a documentary series going behind the scenes at a front-line hospital in Afghanistan for the first time. The cameras follow NHS trauma specialists who have volunteered to help run Britain's military hospital at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province and to give first aid on the front line to those injured by the Taliban. Many are ordinary hospital doctors and nurses in the TA. Orthopaedic surgeon Hugo Gutherie and nurse Sue James are shocked when they meet children who have become casualties of war and nurse Vanessa Miles flies into enemy territory to help civilians wounded by a suicide bomb. Narrated by Robert Lindsay.

It's a jolly good night for documentaries, actually. Boys and Girls Alone - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a series in which ten boys and girls are given the chance to live without their parents for a fortnight to prove they can take care of themselves. The children arrive in their new village surroundings and get to know each other. Each sex appear to quickly conforms to stereotype with the girls enjoying cooking and the boys getting into a water fight and happily eating junk food. But, after forty eight hours there's chaos and anarchy and the boys soon begin to miss their mums, whilst the girls start to get all stroppy like a bunch of proper little madams and split into a couple of squabbling factions. Will the watching parents stay out of it, or will they step in and help? This was a very controversial production when it was announced last year. A lot of the newspapers made a big thing about Channel 4 encouraging irresponsibility and all that. Which was inevitable really. I wouldn't have normally bothered with this – it's got all of the hallmarks of some bollocky "what haven’t we tried yet?" concept meeting at Channel 4 towers. However, if the tabloids have problems with it then, on general principle, I think I'll watch the first episode or two.

Wednesday 4 February
Bestselling author Terry Pratchett has early onset Alzheimer's, a disease he is prepared to tackle head-on. In Terry Pratchett: Living with Alzheimer's - 9:00 BBC2 - we will join Terry as he confronts living with his uncertain future and faces a world ultimately without words. Following Terry's progress through his first year with Alzheimer's, we will explore some cutting-edge science and weird treatments to reveal what it is like to be diagnosed with this terrifying illness. Now, this next bit could be controversial and, if it upsets anyone then I – genuinely – apologise in advance. I have to say, upfront that I really do admire Terry not only as a writer but also he seems, from his interviews (most recently a very fun piece in the Radio Times, for instance), to be a thoroughly likeable and decent chap too (witty, thoughtful and humane). And I do, again genuinely, sympathise with his condition. But, I've got to say, I don't remember him being the great champion of Alzheimer's sufferers before he discovered he had it. Last year he made a very bitter and angry speech in which he criticised various world governments (and, particularly Britain's) for not spending far more on Alzheimer’s research than they do. Since then, he's become heavily involved in charity fundraising for the cause (recently being knighted for his work in this area). What a pity he wasn't doing all that twenty years ago when his input might - just - have made a difference to, not only his own life, but also lots of other people who've had this awful, soul-destroying, dignity-stripping condition and not had access to the media to highlight it. And to their families. I'm sorry Terry's got it, I really am, but he's by no means alone. Like most things in life, it's only when somebody well-known suffers from something that anybody even notices it's there.

Nevertheless, only ff you've recently had a frontal lobotomy, are you likely to prefer Minder - 9:00 Five – to Terry Pratchett's story. This is, of course, the first in a new series of Leon Griffiths' classic comedy drama of the late 70s/early 80s. Archie Daley (Shane Ritchie), the legendary East End entrepreneur Arthur Daley, enlists the help of taxi driver Jamie Cartwright (Lex Shrapnel) to settle his debt to a pair of menacing property developers. Some TV remakes, re-imagingings or sequels work and work well – we've recently seen that with Survivors, for instance and there’s no finer example than Doctor Who. Some, however, you just look at on paper and think "NOOOOOOOOOOO!!" This would appear to be one of the latter.

Kirsty Wark interviews legendary French film actress Catherine Deneuve about her career and the directors that shaped it in Catherine Deneuve Talks to Kirsty Wark - 8:30 BBC4. From her early success in Umbrellas of Cherbourg to her notorious roles with surrealist director Luis Buñuel (in the classic Belle de Jour, and others) and in Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Deneuve has been not only a film star but also a genuine icon for the French for almost half a century. She talks frankly about this iconic status and her one hundredth film, A Christmas Tale. She reveals her distress about a book published in France claiming that her late father was a Nazi collaborator during World War Two. Hot subject. Hot lady (even in her late sixties). Make it a date.

Thursday 5 February
10 Years Younger: The Challenge - 8:00 Channel 4 – is a makeover show presented by Myleene Klass whose taken over from former presenter, the "I'll put you over my knee if you don’t do exactly what I say" dominatrixess Nicky Hambleton-Jones - much to the latter’s annoyance. (Which, I must say, I found hugely ironic to the point of rolling about on the floor laughing. Nicky having seemingly forgotten the period when she was Channel 4’s "hot young thing" at the expense of older, more experienced presenters). Fifty-year-old cleaning company manager Mary tries to turn back the years by undergoing cosmetic surgery, while Forty Nine-year-old Civil Servant Kathleen attempts to take an alternative route to youthfulness. Sounds wretched. Probably will be, too, but you never know...

Animal Rescue Squad the wildlife series with Michaela Strachan and Matt Baker - 7:30 Five – is a show we've mentioned a few times before (normally on nights like tonight when there's virtually bog-all else on). Conservation officers mount a rescue mission when a mother bear and her two cubs wander into a Vancouver garden. Matt is there to assist in getting the lost creatures back to their mountain home.

Cutting Edge: Killer in a Small Town - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a remarkably grim-looking documentary about the murders in Ipswich in 2006. One by one, the small community of sex workers that worked the dark streets around Ipswich Town's football stadium, Portman Road, began to disappear. At first it was a barely reported story of missing prostitutes, but then the bodies of murdered women began to turn up in the brooks and woodland of the surrounding countryside. Louise Osmond's film follows events as they unfolded and explores the lives of those who became victims of Steve Wright, the Suffolk Strangler.

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