Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Time is Now - The Last Top Telly Tips of 2008

Let's get this out of the way straight off the bat. I'm not, actually, the world's biggest fan of Christmas, per see. Not in a Scrouge-style "Bah! Humbug!" way, let me hasten to add; I certainly don't mind other people enjoying themselves (although I must admit I've always thought there's a certain sort of desperately false-goodwill that you often see masquerading itself at Christmas and which, in other circumstances, could be taken as almost Stalinist). Anyway, as far as I'm concerned (since I was about fourteen, anyway) December 24th, 25th and 26th are just three days when most of the shops are shut so there's no particular point in going out and, because of that, you sit around the house all day eating (and drinking) more than is probably good for you. But, as a small compensation for all of this artery-hardening inertia, there's normally something quite good on the telly to take your mind off the boredom. Which bring us, dear blog reader, to the final fortnight of what was (TV-wise, at least, if not in relation to just about anything else imaginable) a pretty decent year. Here's the final batch of Top Telly Tips for 2008. And, it's been emotional.

Friday 19th December
Bit of a dead night all round, if truth be told - you sometimes get that right at the fag end of "that bit of December just before the Christmas schedules kick-in properly" and tonight appears to be pretty much the hole where the rain got in. Parents of the Band is, sad to report, a complete dead-loss (oh Jimmy, what were you thinking of?) although Clarkson's hosting the final Have I Got News For You of the year so at least we should get some laughs on the Beeb. Actually, quite a few laughs now I come to think about it as they've got Dara O'Brien and Frankie Boyle on Live on the Apollo too. Okay, so it's not that bad a night on the Beeb. ITV's Friday night consists of Emmerdale followed by two episodes of Corrie with half-an-hour of "something nobody's interested in" between them. (Tonight, it's Airline.) It's come to a sorry state of affairs when the clear ITV highlight of the night is a repeat of Foyle's War. At least Channel 4, after and evening of repeats (and, far worse, Jamie Oliver's Christmas Special) end the night on a high with The IT Crowd and Eddie Izzard's Circle. "I like my coffee like I like my women ... covered in bees!" Ah, shine on, you crazy diamond! And as for Five's offerings ... Pass the valium. Pass out.

Saturday 20th December
"I wish it could be Christmas every day," Frank Sidebottom once noted. "Then I'd get lots of lovely Christmas presents everyday..."

It's the Strictly Come Dancing Final at 6:40 on BBC1. Which, perhaps inevitably has gotten itself embroiled in a big controversy. Again. Now, however, it's time for Bruce and Tess to reveal whose twinkle toes are going to waltz off into the distance with the title. Waltz off, y'see, it's a ... oh, never mind. So, who's it gonna be then, do you reckon? Lisa Snowden or Rachel Stevens? As far as I'm concerned, as they said in the lyrics of 'S Club Party', "Wanna see Rachel doin' her thing." Hot-diggidy! Next year, I wonder if we should start a petition to get more fat people on the show? Will Arlene Phillips ever top the career highlight of choreographing the 'Every Sperm is Scared' sequence in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life? Is Bruno ever going to be able to pronounce the word "stylish" properly? Who knows...?

Philip Schofield and Fern Britton introduce All Star Mr & Mrs Special on ITV 7:55. Featuring Ronan Keating and his wife, Yvonne, former England manager Telly Vegetables and his wife Yvette and Tamzin Outhwaite and her husband, Tom. Bring back Derek Batty, that's what I say. I wonder if ITV have any more dodgy 1970s TV formats that they can bring out of mothballs because they can't think of anything new to make? Is that The Krypton Factor I see on the distant horizon? What about Tarby's Winner Takes All only with Vernon Kay? ... Knackers, I've probably just given somebody an idea, haven't I?

Sunday 21 December
There's a special Christmas-flavoured episode of one of the BBC's big costume drama hits of the year, the sweet and charming Lark Rise to Candleford in which Olivia Hallinan and Julia Sawalha are joined by an astonishing cast that includes Dawn French, Sophie Miles, Spaced's Mark Heap, Brendan Coyle and Sarah Lancashire. Gentle, warm, nostalgic and beautifully made Sunday night telly, fans of this show will be delighted to know a second series is due early in the New Year. And well deserved too.

Lastly, if you're anxious to avoid The Charlotte Church Nutcracking Christmas Special (and, let's face it, who'd blame you?) Robson Green and Mark Benton return as bickering chums Colin and Howie from Northern Lights in the two hour special Clash of the Santas - 9:00 ITV. In this comedy adventure the duo travel to Lithuania for the World Santa Championships with Howie representing England and Colin going along as his elf helper. It's nice to see that Robson has finally come to terms with his manifest lack of inches, isn't it? Anyway, hilarty and hi-jinx inevitably ensue. or something. Nice to see Edward Petherbridge (the chap who played Lord Peter Wimsey after Ian Carmichael) in a small role. He was on a Midsomner Murder earlier in the year and it reminded me what a thoroughly wonderful actor he was and, indeed, remains. There's also another of my faovurite actors, Simon Pegg, and one of my favourite bands of the last few years, The Jam, sorry, The Kaiser Chiefs on The Sunday Night Christmas Project (Channel 4 at 9:00).

A final thought for today. I couldn't help but notice that guy throwing his shoes at President Bush in Iraq. I'm really not sure about that sort of thing, you know. Particularly at this time of the year. Please try to remember, shoes have soles too.

Monday 22 December
We've only had one new episode of Qi so far in 2008 - thanks, effectively, to BBC1 hijacking the show from BBC2's schedules - although a new series is due to begin in January. And, as a thoroughly welcome prelude, tonight's Christmas Special (BBC1 at 9:00) which was, of course, filmed last July sees regulars Stephen and Alan joined by Rob Brydon, Clive Anderson and Dom Jolly. The latter, I must admit, I usually find about as funny as a severe dose of 'flu, but this show is, always, bright, smart and very amusing indeed. Will the move to a much more high-profile slot on BBC1 help or harm Qi? Only time will tell (I'm sure the Daily Mail are lining up their first complaint over something Stephen or Jo Brand says in the opening episode as we speak). But, certainly, one positive to come out of the switch is the potentially that far more people will get the opportunity to watch a show concerning intelligence and knowledge than had it remained stuck away at 10:00 on BBC2 opposite The News.

For the rest of the night, it's all nostalgia I'm afraid. Channel 4's major offering is a repeat of the classic Father Ted Christmas episode at 10:00. It might be a decade old but it's still - Qi aside - probably the funniest thing you'll see on TV all Christmas. This is the one in which Ted wins a coveted award from the church after averting a potential disaster involving a bunch of clergymen who find themselves stuck in Ireland's largest lingerie department. Absolutely delightfully bonkers. If you missed this Christmas cracker first time around, you're in for a treat.

Tonight also sees the first of eight nightly TOTP2 episodes on BBC2 at 11:00 leading up to Christmas Day. There's classic hits from The Police (ah yes, some of us do indeed remember when Sting used to be just about tolerable), Madness, Kylie and Girls Aloud and, each night, a festive cracker from the archives. I believe tonight's offering is from Wizzard. Can I say "IIIITTTTT's Chrrrrristmassss!!!" like Sir Nodster now, or should I wait for a couple of days? Steve Wright presents. And, of course, we must mention the return of Top of the Pops itself at 2 o'clock on Christmas Day (right after the turkey and just before the Queen's Speech). It really does feel as though God's clicked a little button somewhere up in heaven when you find out Top of the Pops is back on BBC1, doesn't it?

Tuesday 23 December
Now, I think it's very important that we remember, this week of all weeks, those unfortunate people who aren't having fun and festivities at Christmas. Some people, though no fault of their own, can find thesmelves miserable at this time of the year. In fact, some people can find themselves miserable all the year round. With that in mind, on EastEnders - 7:30 BBC1 - Jane is angry about her husband Ian's yuletide ban. Ian Beale going all Bah! Humbug! on us? Yeah, makes a weird kind of sense, I suppose. But, of course, the big news this week is that Nick Cotton's back. Aw, gawd! And Shirley attempts to prize Phil from Suzy's clutches. It shouldn't be allowed.

It's the final episode of Survivors - 9:00 on BBC1 - which has, actually, been great so far. A lot of the attention had been going on Patterson Joseph - and I'm starting to see why so many people believe he's an absolute certainty to be the next Doctor. But, a quick word about Max Beesley playing a very unsympathetic part but doing so with an energy and a presence that manages to, frankly, steal the show. Ratings have been solid rather than spectacular, but they've held steady and the BBC certainly seem to regard this as a reasonable-sized hit. As a consequence, a second series is expected next year. Well done to all involved, from "creator" Adrian Hodges on down. My doubts about the viability of the show have all, just about, been well and truly answered.

Speaking of ratings, when The Peter Serafinowicz Show was broadcast in 2007 it was considered, frankly, a flop. Which was a pity as I rather liked it. Peter's TV parodies can vary between very funny and somewhat arch, and I do realise impressionists are something of an acquired taste but there's a lovely silliness to his work, and his mimicry is often uncanny, so this one's cautiously recommended. That's at 10:55 on BBC2

Wednesday 24 December
T'was the night before Christmas and all over the house, nothing was stirring. Except for me, scoffing chocolate and searching down the back of the sofa for the remote control. Oh, there it is. Right, what's on telly.

Relegated from it's usual Christmas Day slot, BBC1's premiere sitcom, My Family, has it's now-annual Christmas special at 8:30. In this hour-long episode, the Harpers get trapped in a department store with Julian Clary. That's certainly got some comedy potential. When it's on from, which it usually is, My Family is as good as the best of American sitcoms simply in its ability to crack one joke after another in rapid succession. And, let's face it, Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wannamaker are always worth watching.

Meanwhile, the young pretenders on the sitcom block, Gavin & Stacey, also get an hour-long special at 10:00. This one has all the makings of a classic as the two families are gathered together in Billericay for Christmas Day dinner. Speaking of food, I went to new restaurant last night - German/Chinese. Lovely food but, half an hour later I was hungry for power. Great supporting cast, of course - Alison Steadman, Larry Lamb, et al - a witty and big-hearted script from James Corden and Ruth Jones and, as usual, Rob Brydon gets all the best lines.

Five's major present to the viewing public this year is Greatest Christmas Comedy Moments - a three hour banquet of classic clips starting at 9:30. Expect lots of examples from the Eric and Ernie, Del Boy and Rodders, Bob and Terry, Albert and 'arold and the Warmington-on-Sea platoon oeuvre. As much a part of Christmas as having a fight with your brother over who stole whose Dukla Prague away-kit subbuteo team in 1976, this stuff. You'd all miss it if it wasn't here.

Today's Top Telly Tips TV Word of the Day is "Christmas." Otherwise known as the 24th, 25th and 26th December when everything's shut and you're trapped in the house. But, by way of compensation, the telly's quite good.
As in, have a happy one, everyone.

Thursday 25 December
For the first time in about five years we've got a genuinely proper ratings scrap on Christmas Day. ITV have just seemed to have more or less given up the fight recently, culminating last year when BBC1 had nine of the top ten most watched shows of the day. So, let good battle commence upon the hour.

At 6:00 it's David Morrisey, Dervla Kirwan and the Cybermen in Victorian London in what looks to be another magical Doctor Who Christmas episode. That's - for the third year running - up against Emmerdale and, for the second time in three years, another murder related to some member of the King family. All things considered, including this being the first episode broadcast since David Tennant's "I'm leaving ... in about fourteen months time" announcement I think that, just as for as last two years, Doctor Who's going to cream this one.

There should be a much closer battle at 7:00 with the hour-long Christmas Day Corrie (featuring yet more potential murder in Soapville - this time Tony's wish to be rid of Jed) up against an ambitious looking Strictly Come Dancing Special starring previous winners Jill Halfpenny and Alesha Dixon plus Kelly Brooks. ITV then, and this is an odd one, pin all their hopes for the rest of the night around a ninety minute Dancing on Ice extravaganza (starting at 8:00) which is on opposite two episodes of EastEnders and the first new Wallace and Gromit adventure in thirteen years, A Matter of Loaf and Death, sandwiched in-between. I think that ninety minute period might just be a BBC landslide.

Then, at 9:30, a Nigella-inspired Denise (Caroline Aherne) decides she'll cook Christmas dinner in a welcome return for The Royle Family (featuring Tom Courtney and Helen Fraser as Dave's mum and dad) which is against Griff Rhys Jones introducing another It'll Be All Right on the Night on the other side. Lastly, the cast of one of my favourite ever sitcoms, Blackadder (including Rowan this time around) reunite for a Twenty Fifth Anniversary documentary (much of it filmed at Alnwick Castle, just up the road from here, where they shot a lot of the first series) at 10:30. And, here's the real curio of night, ITV have scheduled against that Stanley Baxter: Then and Now, a profile of their own alternative to Eric & Ernie back in the 70s. Good comedian in his day but, seriously, I can't think of anyone under the age of about fifty who is likely to get much out of a documentary-cum-clipshow about him. I may be wrong, of course, I often am! But, overall, I think the BBC are going to have a very good night.

Friday 26 December
BBC2 devotes most of Boxing Day evening to Christmas in the 70s Night starting at 8:00 with that classic Turkey Dinner Dad's Army episode, followed by The Man Who Made Eric & Ernie, a touching profile of the late BBC head of light entertainment Bill Cotton (which features contributions from a plethora of talent including Ronnie Corbett, Michael Parkinson and Brucie, among others). Later, there's the Morecambe & Wise 1975 Christmas Special (that was the one with Diana Rigg, Gordon Jackson and Des O'Connor for those of you who get your Morecambe & Wise Christmas Specials mixed up), a 1973 edition of The Generation Game and The Two Ronnies Old Fashioned Christmas Mystery. Well, that's when I'm going to be tonight, then. The 1970s. Some would say I never left. Other highlights of the evening include Caught in a Trap, a rather decent looked James Graham crime drama on ITV starring Connie Fisher which is up against Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest on BBC1. Stick to the 70s, trust me on this one.

Comic Relief Does University Challenge - 9:00 on BBC2 - sees a North versus South battle as a team consisting of Armando Ianucci, Neil Morrisey, Colin Murray and John Thomson take on Omid Djalali, Sarah Alexander, Hugh Grant and Stephen Fry. Well, the team with Stephen on it is OBVIOUSLY going to win. The man knows everything and has a brain the size of Canada. Even Paxman's clearly far too intimidated by Stephen's intellect and presence in the University Challenge studio for the first time since 1982 - it's Dizzee Rascal all over again, isn't it? - as he's letting Angus Deayton ask the questions this time. Poor old Angus, that's all he's seemingly good for these days, "filling in." First Jonathan Ross at the Comedy Awards, now this…

Sunday 28 December
Here's a great idea - let's take Rupert Penry-Jones, the classic and definitve British spy of the early 21st Century in [Spooks] and stick him in a new adaptation of John Buchan's The 39 Steps as the classic and definitive British of the early 20th Century, Richard Hanney. Clever. He really looks the part, too and the drama has the kind of great cast you'd expect from this kind of full-on "we're the bleedin' BBC, us") production (Patrick Malahide, Lydia Leonard and, get this, Roger De Courcey ... minus Nookie, tragically). That's at 8:00 and on directly opposite the much-trailed and much-anticipated Top Gear Vietnam Special on BBC2. Thank goodness for the invention of DVD recorders. In the latter, the boys face one of their greatest challenges yet, attempting to travel the length of Vietnam in just eight days but having only been given enough money to get two-wheeled transport. Clarkson on a moped. Can't wait!

Today's Top Telly Tips Thought For Today comes from Thomas Szasz, the Hungarian-born psychiatrist: 'Two wrongs don't make a right. But they do make a very good excuse.'

Monday 29 December
The BBC's habit of making a Sherlock Holmes special every couple of years has paid dividends with the recent pairing of Rupert Everett as the urbane sleuth and the great Ian Hart in one of the best Holmes and Watson double acts for a while. They're back in the swirling fog of Edwardian London in Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking - 9:00 BBC2. Looks terrific.

Alternatively you may prefer Tony Robinson and the Blitz Witch - 9:00 C4 - which tells the unlikely story of Helen Duncan, the last woman to be imprisoned under the 1734 Witchcraft act as late as 1944. After an investigation by MI5, she was considered to be a potential threat to national security because she publicly revealed details of the sinking of a ship which hadn't been published in the press. This is the first of three shows in which Tony and science journalist Becky McCall try to unravel various psychic mysteries and myths. The next, The Ghosts of Glastonbury is on tomorrow.

Harry Hill's TV Burp Review of the Year - 10:30 ITV - promises to be a memorable look back at all of those extra special digs little at Hole in the Wall, Louie Walsh's many facial expressions of the week, Dermott O'Leary's talent for hugging X-Factor losers and, of course, the best of the FIGHTS - Heather Mills versus Hitler over who was the person who gave vegetarians a worse name was a good one, I thought.

And, lastly, a mad-quick mention for The Perfect Detective, 8:00 on BBC2. A rather fine-looking one hour documentary about Britain's love of the classic TV sleuth - from Holmes, to Morse. And, the second time in 2008 I'm able to recommend a documentary featuring me. I hope I get another opportunity in 2009. It's either that or back to the day job. Keith Telly Topping, Private Gumshoe - he previews the telly and he fights crime. It could work...

Tuesday 30 December
According to recently compiled statistics, the average human spends fifteen years of their life watching TV. Average, eh? Who wants to be average…?

One of the most genuinely memorable TV moments of the last two decades was the stunning Ancient Mariner episode of Around the World in 80 Days (1988) where Michael Palin and his film team crossed the Arabian Sea from Dubai to Mumbai in a tiny dhow, the Al Shama. In Around the World in 20 Years - 9:00 BBC1 - Michael retraces his Phileas Fogg-like steps and travels through India in search of the Gujeratti crew who accepted Michael into their lives, shared his emotional and perilous six day journey, listened to Bruce Springsteen his Walkman with a genuine fascination and helped him through a bad bout of diarrhoea half-way across. Wonderful stuff.

I feel like I should have a fanfare for the next one because Vic and Bob are back, at last, on our screens in All New Shooting Stars - 10:00 BBC2. "What are the scores, George Dawes?" Matt Lucas (and his drum kit) and Ulrika-ka-ka-ka return too, with Jack Dee replacing … that bloke with the quiff who nobody can remember the name of these days as the other team captain. Other guests on the first show include Kate Garraway and the scourge of Paxman himself, Dizzee Rascal. Uvavu.

Sue is so terrified of knees that she even flinches at the sound of the word "kneecap". Her story is one of those featured in Britain's Weirdest Phobias - 8:00 ITV. Stranger still is the case of Jacquie, a well-balanced, rational lady who, nevertheless, believes that windmills are going to attack her. However, with expert help even the most bizarre of phobias can be if not cured then at least treated (graded desensitization is believed to be the most effective method).

Wednesday 31 December
Hoots-toots-och-aye, it's Hogmanay. Can you lend us a fiver till Friday, Jimmy? And a braw-bricht-moon-licht-nicht-the-nicht to you an'all. New Year's Eve is traditionally a night where many people drink a lot and then can't remember whether they were the First Foot or not. But, for some, it's also the traditional evening for TV to raid its archives and look back on the 364 days just passed and then reflect "hardly a vintage year, was it? More a sort of table vintage, perhaps." Richard Bacon narrates an irreverent review of 2008 in The Most Annoying People of the Year which starts at 7:00 on BBC3 and then goes on for about the next five hours. On BBC1, meanwhile, New Year Live - 10:50 - joins "the swinging party" (it says here) on board HMS Belfast on the River Thames where Nick Knowles and Kate Silverton introduce performances by Alesha Dixon and ... some other people whom you haven't heard of to toast in 2009. Celebrity guests Craig Revel Horwood, EastEnders Rita Simons and some Olympic Gold medallists (the ones who drew the short straw, presumably) will doubtless spend most of their time standing around looking bored and being underwhelmed by the fireworks. As usual. I've been to some bad New Year's Eve parties in my time but this one takes the biscuit.

Much more satisfying - both musically and intellectually - Jools' Annual Hootenanny at 10:55 BBC2 features the first British TV appearance by Martha & the Vandellas since 1974. Plus, the old Rockpiler himself Dave Edmunds, The Ting Tings, Duffy, Adele, the First Battalion of the Scots Guards (and, no doubt, Tom Jones and Paul Weller who usually turn up) joining Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra for a whoop-hollerin' crash-bang-wallop into 2009. If you're staying in tonight, and I know a lot of people do, then here's your soundtrack. Don't knock the rock, dad.

As Julian Cope once aksed, "Did we make it? Goodnight..." See you all in 2009.