Sunday, June 21, 2009

Week Twenty Six: He Found God In A Wiltshire Field. And You Did Not.

The Stig, the mystery driver who tests high-performance cars on Top Gear, will take his helmet off for the first time in tonight's opening episode of the show's thirteenth series, the BBC has confirmed. Jeremy Clarkson, writing in his column in the Sun, revealed the unmasking, saying Stig's identity would be a 'staggering surprise' to viewers. He said the Stig would barge into the studio in the pre-recorded BBC2 show before showing his face. The driver has previously been named by some newspapers as stunt driver Ben Collins. The BBC has previously refused to confirm or deny whether Collins, who has worked on many films including the James Bond movie Quantum Of Solace, is The Stig. Clarkson, said that, while filming the scenes, 'hardened, emotionless camera crews said the hair on the back of their neck prickled. As a television moment, it's up there with Neil Armstrong walking on the ... corpse of JR Ewing,' With a quite staggering po-facedness and lack of anything resembling the sort of humour that Top Gear specialises in, the BBC website states that it 'is not clear if the apparent unveiling is merely a publicity stunt which would mean that Stig's identity remains a mystery.' No shit, Sherlock. It's pretty damn likely I'd've said! Perry McCarthy, a former Formula1 driver, was the original Stig, wearing black overalls for his appearances. He was 'killed off' and replaced with a new Stig, dressed in white, after he had revealed his identity in his 2002 autobiography. Which, subsequently, nobody bought.

Troubled pay-TV broadcaster Setanta has failed to pay the latest chunk of the thirty million smackers it owes the English Premier League – and has thus lost the rights to show any matches next season. A potential rescue deal, led by a US investor who had proposed buying fifty one percent of Setanta, has also fallen through. The league will now put the rights to the forty six live matches which Setana had bought for the 2009-2010 season up for auction, after Setanta missed Friday's payment deadline. Offers to buy the rights will need to be made by Monday. The board of Setanta said it would 'consider its options over the weekend.' In the mean time, 'Setanta's sports channels continue on air,' it added. Late last week, Access Industries, controlled by the US magnate Len Blavatnik, tabled a twenty million pounds bid for a controlling share in the company. It had been hoped Access could lead a consortium of investors to provide fresh funding for Setanta. However Access has now said it was unable to proceed with a deal with Setanta. There had been concerns over how much tax Access could be liable to pay had it acquired Setanta.

The very definition of "yesterday's news" in TV terms - Big Brother pulled in a paltry 2.2 million viewers for their latest eviction earlier in the week, as Cairon became the third person this season to be evicted from the house. Big Brother came third in the 9pm slot, beaten by BBC1 and ITV. The return of Hotel Babylon opened with 4.3m (20%) for BBC One. A repeat of Doc Martin also rated well for ITV with 4.1m (19%), whilst 1.5m (7%) opted for NCiS on Five.

Broadcasters, sponsors and the other commercial partners were this week pouring over the details of their contracts with the Formula1 rights holder, Bernie Ecclestone, with most of them confident they will be able to break them if the sport fractures in two. On the eve of the British Grand Prix, senior broadcasting executives and sports marketing experts were mulling over the implications of FOTA's threat to quit the sport to start their own, rival, championship from 2010. The BBC, which is just months into a new two hundred million pounds five-year contract to cover the sport, is believed to be confident of its ability to walk away from the deal if, as threatened, eight major teams form their breakaway organisation. Lawyers believe the nature of the product would have changed so fundamentally that under common contract law they would be able to break the deal. Invoking the concept of 'force majeure,' they would argue that the product they had signed a deal for in good faith was no longer on offer, due to the fault of neither party. The clause usually applies to 'acts of God' but can also be invoked to cover other unforeseen events. However, it is likely that Ecclestone would challenge such an interpretation, adding to the slew of court cases that will likely be triggered if FOTA acts on its threat. The eight teams - which include Brawn GP, McLaren, Renault and Ferrari - promised in their incendiary statement on Thursday to take all their major sponsors and backers with them. 'The major drivers, stars, brands, sponsors, promoters and companies historically associated with the highest level of motorsport will all feature in this new series,' it said. 'Get the car started,' as David Lloyd would no doubt add.

The Daily Mirror carried out a major interview with ITV's director of programmes Peter Fincham this week in which he stated that he was thrilled to see the Britain's Got Talent final pull in nearly twenty million viewers. Such numbers have not been seen - outside of major sporting events - since the Only Fools and Horses Christmas special in 2001. Fincham noted: 'We didn't think we'd see audiences like that again. We've come through a period when multi-channel TV has grown enormously. Even in that fragmented world the right programme, brilliantly produced and with the right talent involved, can bring together an enormous audience.' It couldn't have come at a better time for the channel, which made a £2.7billion loss last year thanks to plummeting advertising revenues. Some six hundred jobs were axed at ITV and a number of popular veteran shows were either cancelled or rested. However, Fincham says the forty per cent pay cuts which were reported to have been threatened to shell-shocked BBC contracted starts will not be repeated on the commercial channel. 'I am not sure that it's a good idea to treat talent like children who've run amok in a sweet shop,' he said. Fincham is adamant his biggest stars - the likes of Simon Cowell and Ant and Dec - will remain with the channel, even though there will be pressure on them to take some sort of a pay cut. 'I don't want to give the impression ITV is at war with its talent,' he noted. 'We believe, perhaps more than any broadcaster, on having the best people on screen. We have no quarrel with the fact they are very well paid. There may be a number of channels who can get out the chequebook but can they get you ten, twelve, fifteen million viewers?' With regard to drama, Fincham noted 'This year we've had success with Place of Execution, Lost in Austen, Law & Order: UK and Whitechapel - all popular dramas appealing to broad audiences. In these tough financial times, drama is a harder genre to commit to at the levels we have been used to as it's so expensive to make. Heartbeat, The Royal and Primeval have been axed while a planned adaptation of A Passage to India was also canned. But we will do more period drama. Wuthering Heights will be shown later this year and I had a meeting yesterday about an important new period drama series. Whether or not it's the last Foyle's War is as much a decision for writer Anthony Horowitz as it is for us because it's set in the war and we've gone past VE day. We're making three more films taking us up to VJ day, but we're not saying this is the end of Foyle's War, not at all. As for Lewis, we're filming four more this summer. Primeval's been a big hit for ITV, but we're focusing more on 9pm dramas. These are tough decisions to make.'

ITV have finally confirmed that it will not be commissioning a second series of vampire drama Demons, despite a last-minute bid by the show's producer to save it by doing a deal with a US broadcaster. A question mark has hung over the Philip Glenister drama, which is made by Lis Murdoch's production company Shine, since ITV said it would focus its resources on post-watershed dramas and dropped another Saturday – more popular and, frankly much better – family drama series, Primeval. 'It will not be returning,' an ITV spokesman said of Demons with the kind of brutal finality that one normally expects to be followed by a 'good riddence to bad rubbish.' The Sun had reported in February that Glenister was quitting Demons, putting a big question mark over the show's future. It is understood that similar reasons to the cancellation of Primeval were given to Demons' producers by ITV when announcing their decision. Sources told Media Gruniad that the international distributors of Demons, Sony, had held talks with the Sci Fi Channel in the US, which would have seen the US cable broadcaster contributing some funding for a second series in order to make it cheaper for ITV. Sci Fi was also in concurrent talks to buy the first series of Demons, which would complement its existing - and popular - line-up of UK shows which includes Primeval, and a trio of cult-hit BBC series Doctor Who, Torchwood and Sarah Jane Interferes. However, now that ITV have officially confirmed it will not commission a second series, any deal with Sci Fi looks unlikely. Impossible Pictures, the producers of the dinosaur fantasy drama Primeval, tried a similar deal to finance a fourth series of their show. Sources have said that while ITV has not shut the door on all pre-watershed drama series, the ones it does commit to have to be 'cost effective' (so, that's cheap, basically) and 'work for the slot' as well as having a buzz around them.

That oily, full-of-himself cheb Piers Morgan has – for the second time in a few months - mocked Jonathan Ross's viewing figures, suggesting that Ross's popularity has not yet recovered from last year's scandal involving actor Andrew Sachs. Big fight, little people you might think. And, you'd be dead right. Ross, reader's may remember, was given a twelve-week suspension by the BBC after he and Russell Brand left obscene messages on Mr Sachs's answering machine during a radio programme. You might have heard about it. Somewhere. Speaking at the premiere of Bansky's Coming To Dinner in London, Morgan told London Lite: 'I don't think Jonathan Ross has bounced back from the Andrew Sachs scandal. Three million viewers, when I get over five million? If I were him I'd shoot myself.' Nice. Encouraging suicide, Mr Morgan. That's illegal, isn't it? Sort of thing you were rather infamous for when you edited the Mirror, wasn't it? Oh no, sorry, that was printing lies about British servicemen. My apologies, it's so easy to get those two things mixed up. Bit of selective boasting also, as it happens. Morgan's Life Stories did, indeed, attract an audience of a smidgen under five million viewers (not over it) for the episode where the presenter interviewed Katie Price about her various sexual adventures, but figures dropped to a low of 3.66 million for his talk with Richard Madeley a month later. By contrast Friday Night With Jonathan Ross had 4.74 million viewers on its return to TV in January, but has reportedly since settled down to an average of somewhere close to the show's pre-ban figure of around 3.75 million each week. Also, of course, there's the question of the lead-in shows for both. Ross has The Ten O'Clock News whilst Morgan had the hugely popular Dancing On Ice and, as a consequence, managed to lose vastly more of his inherited audience that Rossy could dream of doing. Morgan, of course, has 'form' relating to this kind of thing, having previously described Ross as 'smug' - yes, I know, very much a pot/kettle/black-type situation there - and said that the broadcaster and his peers were 'entertainers who wouldn't know a good journalistic question if it bit them on their backsides.' As opposed to Morgan himself, it would seem, who isn't either a good journalist or an entertainer, merely a pain in the rear. If there's one thing I - genuinely - hate in this world, it's wretched school bullies - particularly overgrown ones in their forties.

Some Top Telly Tips? You betcha.

Friday 26 June
It's been a long time coming, baby, but Neil Young makes his debut at Worthy Farm tonight as he brings his Revolution Blues down the mountain in a million dune buggies to Glastonbury - 10:05 BBC2. The rock goliath - one of Glasto founder Michael Eavis's favourite artists - is among several veterans playing on that oily stage in Wiltshire this year including, on Saturday, his former bandmates Dave Crosby, Stephen Stills and ... the other one. There's also the virry boss himself Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. Highlights of Young's performance can be seen on BBC2 around 11:00. Of course, Neil was actually due to play the festival about five or six years ago but he accidentally cut his finger whilst making a ham sandwich a few weeks before and had to pull out. True story! Less legendary perhaps, but making up in attitude what they lack in back catalogue, will be New York disco diva Lady GaGa (on BBC3), Friendly Fires and the hotly hot Little Boots. (Pictured, right, playing her organ in her pants - and, hey, whyever not?) This year's pop-rock sensation Fleet Foxes and the similar great white hope of several years ago, Doves, promise more traditional, guitar-based ballads, while a troupe of Radio1 presenters - including the still-great Marky Mark Radcliffe and Wor Luscious Lovely Lauren and the was-once-terrific-but-is-now-completely-up-her-own-arsehole Jo Whiley - pump out interviews and the backstage gossip. Hot-diggerdy. Look out, also, for Tom Jones, The Prodigy and Blur on Sunday. And, to complete your full Glastonbury experience, simply go into your back garden, hose the ground for half-an-hour until it's nice and muddy, drink a bottle of Tizer really quickly until your brain begins to throb, then take your telly about two hundred metres away and stand there squinting at it whilst ripping up twenty pound notes and you'll find it's be JUST like being there.

Saturday 27 June
Michael McIntyre takes his Comedy Roadshow – 9:30 BBC1 - over the Severn Bridge to Welsh Wales and Swansea's Grand Theatre, where he is joined - deep in the Valleys there's lovely, look you - by headliner that well-known Welshman Sean Lock (eh?). Plus Steve Williams, Ava Vidal and Alun Cochrane. I've liked bits of all three episodes so far (Shappi Khorsandi on last week's show, in particular - that was sensational) but it remains a rather patchy show and, essentially, what I described it as on the radio the week before the show even aired - The Comedians for the 21st Century. What you see is what you get.

Sunday 28 June
A bit of everything on TV tonight, which is good. There's Top Gear, of course - 8:00 on BBC2 – which, to be honest, I'd mention near enough every week if I could get away with it. Particularly as tonight's episode features dear old Stephen Fry as the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car. But, I feel it's only fair that I give some other shows a chance once in a while. Never fear, dear blog reader, we'll be mentioning The Gear a lot over the next six weeks. In Casualty 1909 - 9:00 BBC1 - the strain of being 'married to the hospital' takes its toll on Sister Ada Russell, as she nears collapse. On one of the London's Jewish wards, Nurse Goodley finds herself increasingly drawn to the charismatic radical Saul Landau - but Saul has a life-threatening illness. As mentioned last week, good little series this - my Beeb colleague Gilly Hope is a big fan. Lots of very good actors and, interestingly, although the drama is set a hundred years ago the writers are still able to tackle surprisingly modern issue-based stories (teenage pregnancy, addiction and pollution being three recent examples).

Alternatively, on Thin Ice - 9:00 BBC2 - James Cracknell and Ben Fogle, having rowed the Atlantic last year, attempt to race to the South Pole for an encore. Why? There's nothing there apart from some penguins. Anyway, the duo start their training and learn to cope with extreme cold and wind in a climatic chamber, expose themselves to hypothermia (you know, 'for a laugh') and, most importantly, find their third victim, sorry, team member – Trainspotting actor Jonny Lee Miller. Together, the three polar novices travel to Norway to attend their first race training session and to learn the basic skills required to survive the constant cold of Antarctica. When Top Gear did something like this a few years back, they just got in their car and drove. Much easier, I reckon. Cut out all of the unnecessary work.

The Secret Caribbean with Trevor McDonald - 8:00 ITV – is the first installment of a three-part series in which Sir Trev travels across the Caribbean visiting some of the beautiful, dangerous and vibrant islands that make this region so unique. First up is Necker Island - a family home for Richard Branson - which is, frankly, enough reason never to go there I'd've said - but also a luxury getaway for the super-rich. And that's a second reason. From there he discovers what life is like in Cuba before going to his birthplace, the gorgeous island of Trinidad, where he enjoys Carnival, a day of colourful and noisy celebrations.

Monday 29 June
Mark Evans presents a science series uncovering the anatomical secrets of some of the animal kingdom's most extraordinary species whilst evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins traces their place on the tree of life in Inside Nature's Giants - 9:00 Channel 4. Evolution has given elephants vast intestines as well as huge teeth and jaw muscles. The trunk is a wonder of evolution, capable of everything from picking up berries to ripping a tree from the ground.

It's the third week in a row where I've felt compelled to recommend The Supersizers - 9:00 BBC2. Which will be very popular round the office but not with my radio slot's producer who can't stand it or its presenters! Tough! This week, Giles and Sue go back to the 1950s, an era started with rationing and ended when Prime Minister Harold MacMillan remarked that we'd 'never had it so good.' Cookery writer Mary Berry helps Sue to become the perfect housewife as they start the week on rations with canned salmon and horse. Meanwhile, Giles has his boss from The Times round for Babycham and a dinner taken from Elizabeth David's contemporary bestseller, Mediterranean Food.

The ONE Show's resident interfering busybody, the gnomic Dominic Littlewood, claims to be 'battling of behalf of motorists' in Dom's On The Case: Road Rip-Offs - 7:30 BBC1. In this installment, Dom gets on the case in aid of drivers who've 'been driven mad by parking tickets' (what, actually properly 'driven mad' or, you know, just 'a bit annoyed and cheesed off'? I'm guessing it's more likely to be the latter). He also investigates why a government department is selling motorists' details to private companies. Yeah, rite on Dom. You stick it to The Man, brother. But then, a couple tell Dom how speed cameras are not just revenue-raisers and could have saved their fifteen-year-old daughter's life, the point at which, I imagine, most of the country's militant petrolheads will realise that this show isn't Top Gear's soul-mate and promptly switch over to Coronation Street on the other side with a 'hmmphf' of bitter disgruntlement. That's the thing about making bold claims about battling 'on behelf of motorists', pal, you can't go halfway - you're either Jezza Clarkson or you're Bill Oddie, there's simply no middle ground these days. Dom finally nails his colours firmly to the mast by challenging residents of a Southampton street to live without their cars for a week. See what I mean? That's 'battling on behalf of motorists,' is it? By getting them to stop driving? What a flawless plan.

Tuesday 30 June
Film-maker Dan Reed's Dispatches: Terror in Mumbai - 9:00 Channel 4 – details the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai via new evidence and interviews with those involved. The documentary features footage of the attacks and the carnage they brought and testimonies from senior police officers and hostages recounting their harrowing ordeals and dramatic escapes. It's nice to see that, in the midst of much of the crass nonsense it produces in the name of "entertainment" these days, Channel 4 does - just occasionally - still remember its public service broadcasting roots.

The World's Best Diet - 8:00 ITV – concludes a two-part special of hypocritical Food Fascism from the commercial network that's still perfectly happy to broadcast adverts for McDonald's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and all manner of other producers of lard-based obesity. Not that I want to see the back of such adverts, you understand, I've got no problem with them I'd much rather see the back of crass nonsense like this. Four overweight gut-bucket celebs (and again, as with Celebrity Masterchef last week I, and TV, use the word 'celebrity' quite wrongly) are adopting the diets of other cultures which have bucked the UK obesity trend to see who will lose the most weight and emerge the healthiest. And win a prize, probably - two weeks holiday inside a chocolate eclair of their choice no doubt. At least, however, they'll be able to get their overfed mush on TV for sixty minutes a week which is almost certainly the main point of the exercise. Today, the actress Linda Robson (remember her? She used to be in a sitcom about ten years ago) and columnist Carole Malone (whom?) head to Japan and LA to try out alternative ways of eating. Oh, they're going to just love their time in LA, wallowing in maple syrup in the land of the pancake breakfast. Plus presenter Jonathan Maitland reveals the winner of the six-week challenge. Who bloody cares?

In TV's Believe It Or Not - 9:00 BBC4 - comedian Sean Lock (second time he's been on my recommended list this week, dear blog reader) returns for another helping of extraordinary television from around the world. Essentially, this is Clive James on Television: The Next Generation only this time - unlike Clive, Tarrant, Jimmy Carr, Carrot et al - there's somebody who's actually funny presenting the format. Which is always a bonus, I feel.

Wednesday 1 July
On Coronation Street - 7:30 ITV - a stroll on the beach results in drama for Maria. Kevin comes up with an excuse to see Molly. Rosie's investment is greeted with horror at Underworld. Here's a little bit of Top TV Triv for you, dear blog reader - 'Underworld' is, of course, the name of the knicker-factory on Corrie. It was also the name of a 1977 Tom Baker four-part story in Doctor Who. Mike Baldwin changed the name of his factory at around the same time that a young writer (and rabid Doctor Who fan, author and, these days, script-writer) the lovely Gareth Roberts joined the Corrie production team as a Script Editor in the 1990s. Coincidence? I think not…

Tears, Lies & Videotape - Wednesday 10:35 ITV - looks at the behaviour of some notorious criminal liars, murderers and scum, including Shannon Matthews' mother Karen, Gordon Wardell, Tracie Andrews, Ian Huntley and Fadi Nasri. Some of these appeared, distraught, at televised press conferences to appeal for help and managed to fool the nation with their sinful naughtiness. Now psychologists Professor David Canter of Liverpool University and Professor Paul Ekman from the University of California examine the footage and investigate whether it was possible to tell that these people were lying. Were the signs there all along? If so, why were they believed in the first place?

Legends: Roy Orbison - The 'Big O' in Britain - 8:00 BBC4 – marks the twentieth anniversary of the singer's death. This documentary celebrates the extraordinary talent of Roy Orbison and his relationship with his most loyal fans and British musicians. Through a combination of interview and archive footage, it charts Orbison's career in Britain, from his early hits in the late fifties, through a sell-out concert tour with the Beatles in 1963 that rocketed him back to a level of superstardom that most thought was long since passed (he wrote 'Pretty Woman' on the bus during the tour whilst John and Paul watched, impressed) to the collaboration with his George Harrison in the Travelling Wilburys in the 1980s. This is the man who sang, in a voice marbled with passion and fear, 'Running Scared' one of the most remarkable and intense songs ever written (a particular favourite of John Peel, incidentally). What a fabulous performance. Really looking forward to this one. BBC4 music documentaries - the best thing on British TV at the moment by a considerable distance.

Thursday 2 July
It's all documentaries tonight, dear blog reader. RSPCA: On the Frontline - 7:30 Five – is a series following a group of newly qualified RSPCA inspectors as they start work on the front line of animal welfare. Pam is on patrol at a local agricultural show when tragedy strikes, Nic is called to deal with a nest of snakes in a shed and Amanda tries to save a hedgehog with a head injury. Ah.

Another impressive looking piece, The Best Job in the World - 9:00 BBC1 - follows the marketing campaign for an Australian State, which asked for potential caretakers for a beautiful barrier reef location, Hamilton Island, paying seventy thousand pounds for six months work, and with a luxury villa for accommodation thrown in. It was launched in the depths of credit-crunch January and caught the world's imagination with a cheeky Internet-based campaign. Thirty five thousand people (including me, actually) applied from across the globe with brilliantly funny and original one minute videos to sell themselves. Except mine was neither brilliant, funny nor particularly clever - just desperate - and that's, presumably, why I didn't get the gig! A lack of personality wouldn't have helped, mind! The winner, Ben Southall, starts work soon. Lucky chap! Enjoy yerself thoroughly, Ben, I'm sure it'll be the trip of a lifetime.

And, speaking of trips of lifetimes, Can I Get High Legally? - 9:00 BBC3- sees George Lamb diving, head first, into the world of legal party pills and herbal highs, sold openly and lawfully in shops across the UK and on the Internet. He sets out to discover why they are legal when seemingly similar drugs are not and whether this means they can also be called 'safe,' meets people who take and sell them and a doctor who says they are potentially more dangerous than class A drugs. He travels to Guernsey, where most of the young people he meets claim to have tried them and he finally decides to try one for himself. And, when he comes back from Neptune, he'll tell you all what it was like. Talk about the best job in the world, eh…?

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