Sunday, June 07, 2009

Week Twenty Four: Comings, Goings & Proof That TV Believes Everyone In England Is A Middle-Class Eccentric

To start this week's Top Telly Tips dear blog reader, I must record how sad I was to hear about poor old David Carridine's untimely - and rather embarrassing - demise. As Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu he taught an entire generation the noble ancient art of not kicking bullies heads in until five minutes before the end of the episode and he was every thirteen year old in the world's role model as the cool-as-milk Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (1975). He led a rather chequered career thereafter, with occasional moments of off-the-wall brilliance (his 'completely-over-the-top-and-well-down-the-other-side' role as Tempus in Charmed, for example) until Tarantino used him so effectively as the title character in the Kill Bill movies. David was also a talented musician and – like Dennis Hopper – close to many of the LA counter-culture groups. Mind you, he was always a bit odd. Once, at a funeral, Carradine reportedly arrived snowflaked off his bonce, approached the open casket and drunkenly shook the corpse (his friend, the former Byrds' singer Gene Clark) by his burial-jacket lapels howling, 'You fucked the girl! Wake up!' before being dragged off and restrained by security guards. He was said to be 'tired and emotional' afterwards. A genuinely great actor, though. Sadly, I've a horrible feeling that in years to come he will chiefly be remembered for the undignified circumstances of his death. (Being found in a cupboard with a rope tied around your neck and your 'nads is not a good way to go out of this life, it has to be noted.) And, whilst I fully realise that it's not a pleasant subject to find any trace of humour in, nevertheless I feel obliged to draw readers attention to the following quote from The Age website: 'There was a rope tied around his neck and another rope tied at his sex organ, and the two ropes were tied together and hung in the closet,' Lieutenant General Worapong Siewpreecha told reporters. 'Under these circumstances we cannot be sure that he committed suicide but he may have died from masturbation,' he said." Blimey, so my mother wasn't lying all those years...

Rumours are currently circulating concerning the first House casting scoop of the new season: Tony winner Lin-Manuel Miranda is said to have been cast as House's psych hospital room-mate. Miranda, best known for writing and starring in the hit Broadway musical In The Heights, will appear in at least two episodes beginning with the show's sixth season premiere this autumn. Reportedly, producers are also looking for what they describe as more 'interesting actors' to populate the psychiatric facility which became House's new home at the end of the previous series. I must admit, the thought of Hugh Laurie starring in a One Flew Over the Cuckooo's Nest knock-off for a few weeks does sound deliciously appealing.

The Sun is reporting that poor Foyle's War might be about to get axed yet again – for, remember, what would be the second time in a year:
http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/tv/2465600/Foyle-foiled-by-ITV-drama-cuts.html
Somebody at ITV really has got it in for that show. Poor old Micheal Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks, they mustn't know whether they're coming or they're going at the moment. Sacked, re-hired, possibly about to be sacked again. Listen, if anybody from ITV happens to be reading this, I know the show's quite a costly one to make (due to the period details and costumes) and I know that you're looking to be all cutting-edge and down wid da kidz at the moment but, trust me, you've got a show in a Sunday night slot that gets around seven million viewers each time it's broadcast. If you think replacing that is going to be easy, trust me, it isn't.

The latest series of Big Brother started with an audience of 4.8 million which is reported to be the lowest ratings figures for a Big Brother launch since Big Brother 3 - which, of course (ironically) went on to be possibly the most popular and highest-rated of them all; that was the one featuring Jade, Johnny the Mackem, Bitchy Adele, pretty-boy male model Alex, Alison from This Morning and Kate Lawler. Or 'whatever the hell happened to Kate Lawler?' as she's become universally known since Celebrity Wrestling went down the lavatory pan.

The excellent novel The Mercy Seat (which longer-term readers may recall I reviewed many moons ago when I was doing The Book Club for BBC Newcastle) set in Blakelaw and written by one of my favourite novelists, Martyn Waites, is reported to have been optioned by Coastal Productions. It is as yet unknown whether this will be something that Wor Robson will want to star in himself or merely produce (as with, for instance, last year's acclaimed A Place of Execution). Coastal are also set to continue their close working relationship with Wire in the Blood creator Val McDermidd, having optioned at least another two of her non-Tony Hill novels. It's genuinely good to see that the North East's premiere TV production company is still flying the flag proudly for the region. And, of course, with the success of Extreme Fishing (another series of which is soon to start filming, I understand) branching off into new directions. Gan canny, bonny lads and lasses, I'm with you all the way!

Time for some Top Telly Tips, I think -

Friday 12 June
Outnumbered - 9:00 BBC1 – inexplicably lost the best sitcom BAFTA to The IT Crowd which, frankly, was the final nail in the coffin for any smidgen of belief that the people who decide these things actually know what they're doing. Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton's witty, sharp little observational comedy about the absurdities of family life, and its brilliant, scene-stealing child actors, deserves far wider recognition than they get. It is, quite simply, the best situation comedy that Britain has produced in a decade – at least. Tonight sees the beginning of a repeat of series two: In the first episode the family, including hapless mum and dad Sue and Pete (the excellent Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis) are off to a wedding. As always they hover perilously close to being late as violence-obsessed Ben (Daniel Roche) debates if hitting someone who is attacking you with a shovel would be morally acceptable, Karen (Ramona Marquez) locks herself in the bathroom and Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey) worries about life in general. It's achingly funny and packed with hilariously absurd moments, including Karen's remorseless quizzing of the increasingly unnerved bride, that always end with the grown-ups being outmanoeuvered. The bit with the chocolate fountain is one of the true comedy diamonds of last year's TV. If you missed out on this last time around, take it from me, don't be a daft bastard, get yourself Outnumbered now. All the cool kids are doing it.

Saturday 13 June
In Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - 7:30 ITV - ten hopeful contestants compete for a place in the hot seat opposite smug, arrogant, chin-you-so-much-as-look-at-you host Chris Tarrant, and the chance to walk away with the top prize of a million pounds. Cheating helps, apparently. This show used to be quite good in the dim and distant past. Now it isn't. And ITV wonder why they're losing money hand over fist.

On the comedy front, The World's Greatest Stand-Up - 11:10 Channel 4 – is a selection of some of the biggest names in comedy performing live at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal. The acts featured tonight include Lee Evans whose stage-act divides opinion somewhat (although he was very good in the last Doctor Who let it be noted), the great Dara Ó Briain (quite possibly the funniest man on the planet since Eddie Izzard stopped touring to become 'a proper actor') and another quality Irish satirist Dylan Moran (from Black Books). There's also a couple of top American names, Dave Chappelle and the blackly funny Denis Leary (the latter, in particular, is not for the remotely faint-hearted) and our own Omad Djalili. Good line-up, that. It's on late so, as always, if you fancy a bit of this but you've got a bed to go to, use your recording devices wisely.

Sunday 14 June
In Stephen Tompkinson's African Balloon Adventure - 8:00 ITV - the Wild At Heart star goes up, up and away in his beautiful balloon, into northern Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park, in search of the mighty mountain gorilla. He meets local Pygmy tribesmen who are being literally changed from poachers into gamekeepers. His next stop is Kafue National Park in Zambia. Passing over Victoria Falls, he visits Shiwa Ng'andu - which looks like an English country house complete with lawns and rosebeds, built by Sir Stewart Gore-Browne in the early 1900s. Then it's on to Botswana and the Okavango Delta (that was where the Top Gear boys drove across in that stupendous special a couple of years back).

Immediately afterwards on Kingdom - 9:00 ITV - crop circles in a local field grab the attention of the Market Shipborough sci-fi community and Peter's pub quiz grabs everyone else's. Lyle falls for his nemesis in a compulsory purchase case, and Beatrice fills in for Gloria on reception. I do like Kingdom a lot. It's gentle, warm, witty and slightly eccentric but clever and fundamentally decent and honest – all of the attributes that one would readily associate with its creator, executive producer and star, Stephen Fry, in fact. The perfect Sunday evening switch-off-your-brain-and-look-at-the-pretty-scenery, to be blunt. Recommended.

Monday 15 June
There's a very welcome return at 9:00 for The Supersizers on BBC2. Food critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins experience the food culture of decades gone by. The previous series (in which this odd-but-very-likable couple spent a week at a time living and eating as, for example, Edwardians, during war-time or in the fast-food, plastic-fantastic world of the 1970s) was a constant delight and became something of a genuine cult hit last year. In this first episode of a new run, Giles and Sue go back to the 1980s. After what's described as 'a Tory meal' with Norman Tebbit and Jeffrey Archer in Westminster (that'll be all tripe, hot tongue and cold shoulder, I imagine), Sue samples Princess Diana's wedding breakfast while Giles tries out the most expensive champagne at the Stock Exchange. To round things off, they enjoy an eighties-themed dinner party with guests including Ken Livingstone and T'Pau's Carol Decker. Very witty and affable, this one and highly watchable.

Build A New Life In The Country - 9:00 Five – is a new series of the popular property and lifestyle series presented by Charlie Luxton. In this episode, as usual, a young couple seek to convert a Grade II-listed Yorkshire farmhouse and barn into a stylish modern dwelling. Sort of thing that happens all that time, that, isn't it? You notice, it's never a riveter from Wallsend who wants to paint and decorate one room of his council flat. I'm not sure why. Anyway, Charlie is especially worried by the couple's ambitious plan to found a hillside vineyard and winery. Is there an agency out there where desperate TV companies can ring up and find these sort of people? 'Hello, this is Five, we need a pretentious middle-class couple who knit their own yogurt as a matter of urgency.' 'Is it essential that they have nothing but total respect for Sting and his complex-but-bland lute-stylings which evaporate on contact with the ear?' 'Yes, that'd be perfect…'

Springwatch - 8:00 BBC2 – is still going on but, this week, as in previous years, we've got a series of one hour film specials in which the presenters get to talk about more specific subjects. In tonight's episode, the much-loved Simon King reveals his tricks of the trade in a practical guide on how to get up close and personal with some of UK's best-loved wild animals. Simon shares some of his favourite close encounters and shows how to get really close to wild otters or how to train a robin to feed from the hand, as well as how to go fishing for lizards and get a fantastic pedicure from a prawn. Now, I adore prawns, me. They're marvellous with baby corn, mushrooms and fried rice. Also, very nice with chicken in a curry. Or, just on their own in a chow mien. In fact, you can have them with chips. Or, in a nice surf and turf with a medium steak and barbeque sauce. I'm hungry now…

Tuesday 16 June
Occupation - 9:00 BBC1 - is a new three-part drama serial starring Jimmy Nesbitt which you’ll be able to see over the next three nights. During the British invasion of Iraq in April 2003, three soldiers from the same unit come under fire in a Basra flat. While there, an explosion has huge consequences for an Iraqi girl and radically changed the lives of Danny, Mike and Hibbs over the coming years. Failing to adjust to civilian life in Manchester, each man is inspired to return to Basra; one for money, one for love and one because he passionately believes in the mission to rebuild Iraq. Sounds terrific. Afterwards there's the suprisingly watchable Mary Queen of Charity Shops. This is an important show to highlight since it demonstrates something we've occasionally talked about in this slot in the past. That - seemingly unbeknown to most of the people who make TV shows - there are people who watch television who aren't in the sixteen-to-thirtysomething demographic bracket. Older people on the telly are (a few little pockets of resistence aside) pretty much invisible yet, in reality, they make up a massive part of the audience. In this show, presenter Mary Portas aside (who is actually good in her own way), it's the fifty-plus people who come across as being both relevant and important – even if many are stuck in their own ways. The show has a very emotional core, with several of the ladies not liking - or wanting - change and being very outspoken and honest about it. It's a brilliant bit of telly, quite frankly and highly recommended.

Comedy Songs: The Pop Years - 9:00 BBC4 – is a documentary which traces the modern history of the comedy pop song from the birth of the charts in 1952 to its reinvention in the new millennium. Finally, George Martin gets his just place in musical history as the missing link between The Goons and The Beatles, The Barron Knights are awarded the accolade of the inventors of the parody song and we learn that The Two Ronnies were not big fans of Not the Nine O'Clock News for one very specific reason. Well, they shouldn't have been such orni-porno-tholo-gists, I guess. The show includes material from the 1960s satire boom, the 1970s golden period of Monty Python and The Goodies and the wilderness years of 1980s novelty naffness. Hopefully they'll also include 'My Boomerang Won't Come Back' by Charlie Drake, one of the twenty greatest records ever made, by anyone.

I know that CSI: Crime Scene Investigation - 9:00 Five – is a particularly popular show with many blog readers which is one of the reasons why I mention the damn thing so often in these previews! Well, that and the fact that I like it myself, also. In tonight's episode, the CSIs are called to the murder of a motorcycle gang member at a biker bar. The investigation intensifies when the team discovers the victim was working undercover - but who revealed his true identity to the gang?

Wednesday 17 June
Celebrity MasterChef continues at 8:00 on BBC1. John Torode and Gregg Wallace continue the search for the country's top celebrity chef. This show features two more heats - in the first, Rav Wilding, Deena Payne and Iwan Thomas (only one of whom I'd actually heard of – this is obviously some new meaning of the word 'celebrity' that I hadn’t previously come across) cook for customers at Gilgamesh. In the second Colin Murray, Janet Ellis and Simon Shepherd (well, at least I've heard of all three of those. Although whether that gibbering unfunny clown Colin Murray deserves the term 'celebrity' or, simply, a good hard slap in the mush on general principle is another matter entirely) cook at Manicomio. Only two of them will get through to the week's quarter-final, taking them one step closer to the main title.

Spain: Paradise Lost - 9:00 ITV – is the first of two documentaries charting the fortunes of some of the over one million Britons who have settled in Spain, and those who are planning on joining them. With the recent economic turmoil having brought property prices crashing down, this programme looks at those who stand to benefit, and those who are now living a nightmare.

Sky's record of home-grown drama production is spotty at best. But tonight they start a major four-part adaptation of Martina Cole's best-selling novel about an Essex gangland family The Take - 9:00 Sky1. After being released from prison in 1984, Freddie Jackson returns to the underworld of London's East End. Having been promised protection by gangland boss Ozzy during his stint behind bars, Freddie begins his brutal ascent to the top of the criminal pile, and takes his cousin Jimmy along for the ride. Good cast, including the great Brian Cox.

Thursday 18 June
It's a big comedy night on BBC2 with three shows that all, in their own way, are sure to divide audiences down the middle. Kröd Mändoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire - 9:00 BBC2 – is a comedy series set in a sort of Dungeons and Dragons type fantasy world and starring Sean Maguire. It looks like a mixture of Lord of the Rings and The Office, if you can imagine such a beast and follows the story of a reluctant hero Kröd. He's the local dragon slayer but, the thing is, he's not actually very good at it – he's a bit shallow, thin-skinned and lacks confidence. But, frankly he's the best the local villagers have got so he's got the job whether he wants it or not. He's also got a gang of loyal helpers with him but, again, they're mostly misfits who do this because it's better than having a real job. They have to cope with the evil ruler, Chancellor Dongalor (played by Little Britain's Matt Lucas). This is a co-production between the BBC, Hat-Trick (who make Have I Got News For You among others) and Comedy Central in the US (where the show has already aired and got something of a cult following). Tonight Kröd and his band must fight off bounty hunters after Dongalor places a bounty on their heads. Dongalor's relationship with Cute Girl is threatened after a weapons inspector arrives at his palace.

Davey Mitchell and Robert Webb are back from their various solo endeavours for a third series of That Mitchell and Webb Look - 9:30 BBC2. This programme reveals the true purpose of the Giant Death Ray, presents a gangland villain made of wood and offers dating advice from a man who is almost Gary Rhodes. Plus a look back at the careers of Ted and Peter, Britain's least successful professional snooker players, in Screw Back in Anger. And an introduction to the world's least politically correct superhero. A particular favourite of mine, this one. It somewhat divides opinion amongst the comedy cognoscenti, many of whom feel that the duo's best work was done on radio but I think it's the A Bit of Fry and Laurie for the 21st Century.

Finally, Psychoville - 10:00 BBC2 – is the first episode of this comedy thriller from some of the League of Gentlemen team. It begins with a mystery being unearthed from the past. A blind recluse with an unusual hobby, a telekinetic pantomime dwarf, an embittered hook-handed clown, a serial killer-obsessed man-child and a deranged but caring midwife all receive the ominous message 'I know what you did.' The past catches up with these five seemingly unconnected characters as they go about their darkly comic present-day lives. Apart from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton it’s also got Dawn French in it. Which, doesn't auger well, frankly, as we've had a couple of changes of Pope since the last time she was in anything even remotely funny. I must admit, I was one of the few people in this country who didn't really get The League of Gentlemen for a long time. I kind of got there by the time it finished but I never found it as orgasmically, side-splittingly funny as many critics did. So, we'll have to see whether this particular comedy grotesque is more of the same, or subtly different. Time will tell. It usually does.

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