Monday, March 09, 2009

Week Eleven: Would The Final Show ITV Cancel Kindly Turn Out The Lights

We start this week's TV round-up with this very amusing picture, to the left: Lord Clarkson of Bugatti and the Honourable Hamster of the Lost Moon of Porsche when they were both much younger than today. And, indeed, much less omnipresent on yer TV screens. (And, in the Hamster's case, if anything, shorter!) Minus Cap'n Slow, too. (I'm guessing that this was a publicity shot from circa series one of then-"new" Top Gear but before Big Jason came briefly a'board ship.) That is, it has to be noted, one Goddamn nasty shirt you were wearing there, Richard. You would never have become the housewives favourite on daytime TV if you'd carried on wearing shat like that. Even if it was for a bet.

Now, to a much more serious topic. It was with great sadness that I heard of the death of the magician Ali Bongo, yesterday. He was best known for his work in the early-to-mid 1970s on a range of ITV shows (The Tomorrow People being probably the most fondly remembered) and, in later life, as the magic consultant on Jonathan Creek. Ali was – as Half Man Half Biscuit, wisely, noted – good at contortionism. And prestidigitation, I should cocoa. A sad loss.

It was wonderful to see the great Janel Moloney (Donna in The West Wing) turning up in last week's episode of Life on Mars in the US. She was playing the role of a Patty Hearst-style professor-turned-radical-urban-guerilla in an episode that showed, once again, how short-sighted ABC have been in cancelling the show after just seventeen episodes. Apart from a guest slot on House about a year back, that’s the first thing I've seen Janel in since she and Josh went off to that great 'shipper party in the sky when President Santos took charge of the world. Why isn't a lady as talented and awesomely magnificent as her on our screens more often? She should have her own prime time series, at least. If not her own network. Donna TV. I'd watch it.

Meanwhile, in the UK, rumours reach me – from a couple of different routes - that Bill Bailey may be returning to Nevermind the Buzzcocks as team captain when the new series gets underway later in the year. Although, almost immediately, that seemed to be contradicted by other reports which appear to be coming from sources close to Bill himself. He was the only reason I watched it, I have to be honest. Again, it's been nearly ten years since Is it Bill Bailey? and seven years since Black Books. Yes, he is still on TV a lot thanks to Buzzcocks and Qi and the like but when you see one-joke (if that) comedy abominations like Katy Brand having time and resources lavished on them, it does make you wonder if the people in charge of commissioning would understand humour if it got up and gave them a red nose.

In other telly news, Ant & Dec Axed In ITV Bloodbath according to a screamed headline in the Sunday Express. Not literally, of course. Because that would be, you know, messy. You can never get the blood-stains out of the carpet – trust me I’ve tried many, many times. I have to say, I watched the trailer for last weekend’s episode of Saturday Night Takeaway during the Harry Hill’s TV Burp ad-break. Ant excitedly promised viewers 'coming up, we've got Christopher Biggins and Anthony Worrall-Thompson in Celebrity Sheep Dip.' Yeah ... ITV's real crisis in a nutshell there, I think...

It's now becoming something of a game in the press - what's going to be the latest ITV "show in crisis." Is, for instance, Taggart going to be the next series to face the axe as the Scotsman suggests? The Daily Record, on the other hand, claim that Taggart appears safe but that Lewis and Primeval are likely to be up for the chop in the next major culling (both, largely, because of cost).

Is all of this speculation by journos who are - Dave Charnley-like - running bets on the subject. It would appear that - if you believe everything you read - ITV are killing off most of their Saturday and Sunday drama schedules. Weekend evenings might end up being drama-free at this rate. Although, to be fair, whole weekends have gone by in the not-to-distant-past where Heartbeat, The Royal and Wild at Heart haven’t exactly provided all that much…

Meanwhile, the FA are reported to be getting concerned by the rapid decline in ratings for the FA Cup. Well Mr Barwick, sir, it was your own effing stupid fault for taking the offer in the first place, wasn't it? The Times has an excellent article - written by Greg Dyke – with Michael Grade's deal with the FA as, again, its main focus. Grade has already, reportedly, been around various other broadcasters, cap in hand, trying to flog the FA Cup rights but has singularly failed to find any buyers so far. Sky probably won't whilst Setanta remain a part of the picture - and, besides, they've got the Premiership, do they - like Manchester United - really need to do the double?!

Similarly, the Independent is reporting that The South Bank Show could also be under immediate threat. I'm actually astonished that TSBS has survived this long. Usually ITV very quickly forgets all about their collective public service commitments when times get tough financially. The network seem to be dropping shows left, right and centre at the moment - regardless of ratings or critical feedback and based purely on how much they cost to make. In fact I'm wondering if there will be anything on air at all this time next year - drama-wise - apart from Corrie and Emmerdale. Or, even if THEY’LL survive.

And, so to politics and according to yesterday's Mail on Sunday the Conservatives believe that the Beeb's licence fee settlement now looks far too generous in the wake of the recession and the financial problems at ITV. Should they win the next election, they intend to ask for the planned licence fee increases to be scrapped. Not exactly sure how that's supposed to help the situation, exactly. 'Everybody else is in deep, deep trouble so the BBC should be too.' Rather typical and predictably wretched Tory myopia, of course. Then again, it's a story almost made for the BBC-bashing Mail and their nasty readership, isn't it? If only they could have worked asylum seekers and benefit scroungers into there, somewhere ...

Saddest TV news of the week - for all of their fans, anyway. All two of them - Richard and Judy are to split as a TV double act. Who, one wonders, will get custody of the 8,000 viewers they have left? And on that bombshell let us, therefore, proceed quickly (and wearing the life-jackets provided) to the forthcoming week’s Top Telly Tips:

Friday 13 March
The hype and the preparations have been building for weeks and at last The Big Night is here (allegedly) with the arrival of the great TV fundraising events of the year; Comic Relief – BBC1 7:00 (till late). Of course, this year Comic Relief shows up bang in the middle of the worst economic recession in a generation-or-six. But then, so did Children in Need last November and that had a record-breaking night. Are we still a charitable nation, even when times are tough? Well, tonight's the night where we (and the BBC) find out. As usual, just about everyone who is anyone in British comedy (and, indeed, beyond) will be showing up and urging us all to put our hands in our pockets and give, give, give. The Little Britain pair have made a new sketch (featuring Robbie Williams), as has that loathesome oily little twonk Ricky Gervais (oh, I can hardly wait…), whilst French and Saunders, in an end-of-an era moment, perform their last-ever comedy sketch together. Again, that can’t come quickly enough for me (they haven't been consistantly funny since about 1987, I'm afraid). It's a Mamma Mia! parody, apparently, with Sienna Miller, Joanna Lumley and Philip Glennister among others. But there are new names too, notably the cast of my favourite current sitcom, Outnumbered who've recorded a special mini-epsiode for the event. David Tennant and Davina McCall introduce Enfield and Whitehouse turning the tables on the actual Dragons as Harry and Paul do another of their excellent Dragon's Den spoofs. The cast of the Harry Potter movies meet young fundraisers and Annie Lennox is live in the studio - something which is sure to increase the audience in Hampstead, Knighstbridge and Islington by about 1000%. Nothing but total respect for lady, man. Stop something that stuff, it's illegal. Just keep her away from the microphone, please, and I'll give you all the money you want. Catherine Tate, meanwhile, turns the tables on Little Britain's computer girl Carol Beer and Ant and Dec gan back to their Geordie roots, like. Yeah, we'll still have 'em - no one else seems to want them at the moment (not at ITV, anyway). There's a Royle Family sketch and Gavin and Stacey's James Corden takes Smithy to a hotel where he meets David Beckham and the rest of the England squad and 'teaches them a thing or two.' Shouldn’t be all that difficult, really, most of them have the IQ of a mollusc. Information retention might be a shade awkward in the long-term. Al Murray is the Pub Quiz Landlord - your starter for ten question is on Francophobia, no conferring - and my two favourite TV comedy double acts of the moment, Armstrong and Miller and Mitchell and Webb, join up as four very peculiar World War II pilots. Okay, this is actually starting to sound quite promising. Drat. Oasis perform live in the studio, Graham Norton presents the final hours with stand-up from Omid Djalili, Jason Manford and ... Lenny Henry - flown in by helicopter from a performance of Othello oop north. Seriously, you needn’t have bothered, Len. No, REALLY. If you want to have the night off, that's fine by me. Take Annie Lennox and your wife with you. Have a party. There's also an extremely dressed-down, star-studded version of 'You Can Keep Your Hat On' from The Full Monty, and Katy Brand's fashion daydream about Kate Moss and Sadie Frost comes true. Well, gentle blog reader, if that lot isn’t worth at least a couple of your hard-earned quid … I mean, Oasis live. And David Tennant. And … actually, I’ve got a couple of preview DVDs that I need to get watched pronto; Friday night might just be the ideal opportunity. If you want to come round my gaff for the night, bring your own pizza.

Meanwhile, continuing the theme on Saturday is Comic Relief Does Top of the Pops – BBC2 10:00 – a special edition of the "once, and hopefully soon again, premier music show" featuring, again Oasis (I'm guessing a repeat of last night's performance), U2 (just tell Mr Bonio not to SAY anything and just stick to singing and you'll be all right, lads), Tom Jones and the world’s best Big Country tribute band Franz Ferdinand. And, Rob Brydon and Ruth Jones perform their version of the Bee Gees classic 'Islands in the Stream.' Plus this week's Number One. Seriously, even at its worst (mid-80s, early-90s, early- naughties) Top of the Pops was a perfect indicator of what the public were listening to at any given time. We all know why it was dropped in 2004 ('because not enough people were watching it anymore') but, it remained until the day it ended a classic example of public service for a specific demographic - what the BBC are supposed to be all about. Bring it back, auntie.

Sunday 15 March
Yellowstone – 8:00 BBC2 - is a new series from the Beeb's natural history department which follows the fortunes of America's wildlife icons in Yellowstone National Park, the most extensive thermal area on Planet Earth. In the winter, Yellowstone is frozen solid - locked in snow 'as deep as a house' for well over six months. While herds of elk and bison are gradually weakened by the cold and the limited feeding opportunities, the park's wolf packs grow stronger as bone-chilling winter continues (latest score: Bisons 0, Wolves 3) - but with one of the world's largest supervolcanoes bubbling away beneath the surface, everything from the freezing cold to the creation of snow storms is determined by the awesome fury of power at Yellowstone's still-beating heart. Oh yes, I like the sound of this one.

After last year's very successful Screen One-style adaptation of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency – 9:00 BBC1 - a series based on the Alexander McCall Smith novels follows swiftly along in its wake - as, I think, we all pretty much suspected it would. Botswana's Number One Ladies' Detective Agency is desperately in need of new clients. To boost their business, Mma Makutsi prints up flyers, which seem to do the trick. Mma Ramotswe soon finds herself hunting down an absconding apostolic, finding a disappearing dog and checking up on a disturbed dentist. Excellent stuff. Genuinely charming, witty, slightly old-fashioned in some ways but with a warmth and decency that you just don't find in much modern drama. More, please.

Peter Kay: Raider of the Pop Charts – 9:00 - is, according to the pre-publicity blurb from Channel 4 'the story behind the video of Peter Kay's 2005 chart-topping charity pop-song, Is This the Way to Amarillo?' Of course, that’s a completely erroneous description for a kick-off because Peter Kay doesn’t feature on the record at all – it was a simple re-release of the 1971 original sung, of course, by the great Tony Christie. Peter was, merely, in the video. Okay, so that, and the featuring of the song on Phoenix Nights was the main reason for its success, but still... Anyway, all pedanticism aside, this (if you will) rock-umentary features contributions from Sir Michael Parkinson ('Have I ever mentioned that I once interviewed the late, great Gene Kelly?'), Gary Barlow, Matt Lucas, Richard Curtis and, of course, Peter Kay himself. Nah-nah-nah, nah, nah-nah-nah, nah. Ooo!

Monday 16 March
Panorama – 8:30 BBC1 - reveals how organised crime is collectively defeating attempts to claw back its massive profits. Reporter Samantha Poling (that's never her real name, surely?!) goes undercover - as what, my information does not reveal. I'm guessing possibly as 'a gangster's mol' (queue several Ripping Yarns jokes at this point) - and shows how major drug dealers and money launderers are making a mockery of high-profile laws designed to confiscate the proceeds of their naughty criminal ways. The programme also discovers how the Crown is now reduced to making deals with criminals that can result in a drug dealer paying less 'tax' than the rest of the population.

As the credit crunch bites (you might've noticed - every second programme on TV these days is on the subject, it would appear) there is, however, one industry which is currently thriving. Watch Out! Bailiffs About – 9:00 Channel 4 - follows Chris and Danny, two Cheltenham debt collectors and West Midlands veteran Brian Pearson about their daily business. They meet people such as Michelle, who owes £12,000 on a car which is now worth just half as much and Hereford retailer Martyn, who borrowed one and a half million pounds from his own family. At which point, no doubt, Chris, Danny and Brian reposes their telly. I’m sure that their mothers are all very proud of them. You know, when people say 'it’s a dirty job but SOMEBODY’S got to do it'? Well yes, lads, it is indeed. And yes, somebody probably does have to do it. But, for heaven's sake don’t showboat whilst doing it on national TV, please. That’s just tacky.

Addendum: Just to note that Danny actually friended me up on Facebook today and confirmed that, yes, his late mum was, indeed, very proud of him. Glad to clear that one up.

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle – 10:00 BBC2 - marks the long-overdue return to television, after nearly a decade's absence, of one of Britain's most highly regarded stand-up comedians - previously half of a brilliant double act with Richard Herring. (If you don’t remember Fist of Fun or This Morning With Richard … Not Judy then you’re either twelve or you have terminal amnaesia.) Stewart looks at the modern phenomenon of toilet books - where did they come from and who thought they were needed in the first place? And who on earth is reading them? Stewart always seems to find odd and quite provoking areas of comedy. I once saw him do an entire ninety minute stand-up routine which combined a literary deconstruction of Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat and his efforts to get his broken lavatory fixed, which he saw as a microcosm for the collapse of western civilisation!

Tuesday 17 March
Holloway – 9:00 ITV – is the first of three films in which cameras are granted unprecedented access to chart the lives of the prisoners and prison officers in Holloway, the largest women's prison in Europe, as they struggle to cope with the challenges of life behind bars. The programme follows some terrified first-time offenders, observes life in the infamous segregation unit where dangerous prisoners are eventually rehabilitated and focuses on some of the women who re-offend - one just hours after release. So, not a real-life version of Prisoner Cell Block H, I’m guessing.

The previous one sounds a bit grim and nasty, to be honest. And speaking of grim and nasty, in EastEnders – 8:00 BBC1 - as Peggy recuperates in hospital, Archie delivers an ultimatum to her. Danielle offers to babysit Amy, but ends up getting too close for Ronnie's comfort. Billy resolves to find Jay, and Lucas makes a suggestion to Chelsea. But will it backfire on him? Easties has, frankly, been unwatchable for the last month or so … as has Corrie (which is the main main reason why we've featured them so infrequently of late). What is it about February?

Award for – by far - the best title of the TV week goes, this week, to BBC3 for Eighteen Pregnant Schoolgirls – 9:00. Sounds like the punchline to one of Al Murray's Pub Landlord's more subtle jokes, doesn't it? Actually, this is a rather fine-looking documentary concerning events in the small US town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, last year when an unusually large number of teenage girls turned up for pregnancy tests at the local high school clinic. Within hours news of an alleged 'pregnancy pact' had travelled round the world, appearing in newspapers, on chat shows and the Internet and fueling stories of racey goings-on and out of control youth. Town officials denied these rumours describing them as scurrilous and sensationalist, but was there any truth in them? Featuring interviews with the girls, their families and friends, the film tells the human story behind the tabloid headlines.

Wednesday 18 March
Extraordinary People – 9:00 Five - is a documentary series which explores remarkable stories of human experience from all over the world. Sometimes it can be really very good indeed but, occasionally, they run the risk of being seen as "freak show TV." I’m not sure if tonight’s episode is going to fall into that category but it sounds potentially interesting. At the age of fifty seven, Ronnie and Donnie Galyon are the oldest conjoined twins in the world. This film follows the brothers as they attempt to fulfil a lifelong dream of watching their favourite American football team play.

In preparation for a motor journey around Britain, Richard Wilson is put through his paces as he learns how to use a gear stick again, having driven only automatics for the past thirty years in Richard Wilson Learns to Drive – 8:00 BBC4. In the programme, Richard drives classic cars, goes off road, experiences the thrills and spills of the skidpan and gets a lesson in driving high performance cars from five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell. So, that’s essentially Top Gear for grumpy old grandads, then? I don’t believe it.

Having thrilled us all with Big Cat Diary and Elephant Diary, the BBC are at it again, you might’ve noticed. Orangutan Diary – 8:00 BBC2 – sees Steve Leonard and Michaela Strachan introduce more stories from the world's biggest ape rescue centre, home to over six hundred orphaned and homeless orangutans. Tonight, the confiscation team set off on their most demanding rescue yet, Noddy starts at Forest School and the massive male, Hercules, enjoys a taste of freedom on the river islands. Vet David rushes to a medical emergency in the forest and Lone, the centre's director, finds somewhere to release more rescued orangutans. In the hope that they don’t get mugged by a gang of passing baboons, no doubt.

Thursday 19 March
When actress Wendy Richard was diagnosed with cancer for the third time in January 2008, she decided she wanted to make a film to help other people in a similar situation. Wendy Richard: To Tell You the Truth – 8:00 BBC1 - follows Wendy and husband John through one of the most difficult times in their lives, yet it reveals the dignity and stoicism that she maintained throughout. Her husband John explains why Wendy would still want it to be broadcast even though she sadly lost her battle with cancer on 26 February this year. I shall remember her as a witty panellist on Just a Minute ("'e's listing again. Nicholas! Tell 'im to stop listing!”) a contributors to one of the most endearingly awful hit records ever made ('Come Outside') and a regular cropper-up on half-a-dozen of my favourite comedy shows (Likely Lads, Dad's Army etc.). And that's even before you get to EastEnders. A lovely lady, she'll be very much missed.

Lonesome George and the Battle for Galapagos – 7:00 BBC2 – is a rather sad-looking documentary about the loneliest animal on the planet, George is the last remaining Pinta Island giant tortoise in existence. When he dies, his race will be extinct. Over the last few years, he has become an icon of his native Galapagos Islands and a symbol of the battle to preserve their unique wildlife which is under threat from illegal fishing, the demands of a booming population and an ever-expanding tourism industry.

From the near-sublime to the utterly ridiculous and Paris Hilton's British Best Friend – 9:00 ITV2. If you haven’t seen this before, congratulations, you’ve missed nowt that remotely deserved so much as a second of your valuable time. I mean, I get paid to watch TV and even I needed a shower after being exposed to The Blonde Leading The Bland. Tonight, it’s the final, and heiress Paris Hilton is taking three of the remaining four hopefuls to her LA home, leaving one heartbroken wannabe best bud behind. The lucky three get to party and hang out with Paris's "real" friends and family, as well as taking a road-trip to Vegas for the premiere of Paris's new movie. After Paris has one-on-one time with each contestant, she must choose between them. Just when you think TV hasn’t got anything new and jaw-droppingly original to offer, along come ITV to confirm your fears. Is it any wonder they’re going broke?

Also tonight, last part of Red Riding (Channel 4, 9:00). It’s been grimly hard work so far - but rewarding in patches.

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