Monday, February 23, 2009

Week Nine: Welcome To The World Of Tomorrow!

These days, it's becoming increasingly difficult to escape an inevitable - not to mention crushing - realisation that life is, well let’s be honest here, a huge and towering disappointment in oh so many ways. It’s 2009, people of Britain: Where is the world that we were all promised when we were growing up in the 1970s? Where are our jet-pack and our motorised rocket-pants? Where are our colonies on the moon? Why don’t we have Star Trek-style transportation capabilities yet which would cut Transatlantic flight times from eight hours to, you know, eight seconds? Why hasn’t time-travel become a reality for the masses? I want to visit Anicent Rome and I want to visit it NOW! Why isn’t Jason King the President of the World? I mean, he’d be SO good at it. Why isn't Bill Oddie funny anymore (except when he doesn't mean to be)? When did all music stop having proper tunes (like it did in't maaa day with 'White Riot', 'Borstal Breakout', 'In the City' and 'Holidays in the Sun') and turn into blippy-bloppy noises like you get out of a Space Invader? No, I’m afraid that life appears, once again, to have handed us Fortysomethings with a right rotten bum-deal. What did we get instead of the things that James Burke and Raymond Baxter promised us - jet-packs, food in pills and robots doing our hoovering and making the tea? We got the Big Brother house, flesh-eating Ebola, the Gulf War, McDonald’s Happy Meals and Edward Woodward soon to star in EastEnders. It’s all wrong on so many levels, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t even know where to start. Still, let’s look on the bright side, it could be far worse. We could be French. That doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

And so we come to another week of Top Telly Tips. Another batch of programmes that veer wildly from the very good, through the “half-way decent” and the “not-bad-if-you-like-that-sort-of-thing”, to the average, the below-average, the tripe, the below-tripe and … The Jeremy Kyle Show. This picture on the left, taken two decades before I was even born, surely sums up the current state of most sensible people's attitudes towards British television far better than anything I can convey. Still, that is, after all, what I get paid for so let’s be having you, week. What have you got for me this time around?

Friday 27 February
Nine o’clock see the return to ITV of Moving Wallpaper, the office-based sitcom about a TV production company. Last year, it concerned the making of the truly dreadful soap opera Echo Beach in one of the most disastrous forced marriages TV has ever attempted. It didn’t work. Moving Wallpaper was pretty funny and got good reviews (even if the ratings were hardly spectacular), Echo Beach - which immediately followed it - was simply lousy and was cancelled almost immediately. So, now Moving Wallpaper returns to resume its comedy behind-the-scenes tales of fictional television folk. With the cancellation of Echo Beach, quite rightly dismissed (just as in real-life) because "it was shit and nobody watched it," according to producer Jonathan Pope (the excellent Ben Miller), the neurotic production team anxiously awaits news about the future. The first series, whilst undeniably clever and superbly observed was, perhaps, too TV-insidery for a broad audience. ITV has said that this year Moving Wallpaper will revolve around the production of a one-off "zombie show" called Renaissance. Miller, so good on Qi last week, is as watchable in this as ever as, as long as he's on form, this show remains worth half an hour of anyone's time.

Saturday 28 February
Sometimes, the title of a show tells you, literally, everything you need to know about it. This is definitely the case with Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock – 9:00 BBC4. In this, as you might expect from the title, the satirist, observational comedian and all-round good bloke Paul Merton explores Alfred Hitchcock's early British films from the late 20s and early 30s. Paul sees Hitchcock as a man immersed in the visual language of cinema (much as American had the "camera poets" like John Ford and John Huston). A director who knew how to use camera movement and lighting for dramatic purpose. Paul, who both presents and directs the film, sees "the Master of Suspense" as the man who understood how to use movement (both physical and conceptual) better than any other director since. For Hitchcock, heavily influenced by the German Expressionist cinema, pictures were always far more important than dialogue. Using clips and archive interviews with Hitch himself and with those who worked with him including actress Anna Massey (Barry Foster’s murder victim in Frenzy) and cinematographer Gil Taylor, Merton weaves together a playful narrative of the director's early career, revealing a man with an, often misunderstood, dark sense of humour. This is one of those great odd-couple matchings that TV occasionallythrows up. To wit: I like Paul Merton and I like Alfred Hitchcock. Should be good, then!

In Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway – 7:45 ITV – Wor Anthony and Wor December are joined by American songstress Katy Perry who will perform her new single ‘Waking Up in Vegas’ apparently. Great. Never heard of her. Anyway, in a brand new feature - Escape From Takeaway Prison - twelve prisoners will be reduced to nine. By means of televised state execution, one hopes. Plus, there's a new Grab the Ads game in which one lucky member of the studio audience will be given the chance to win the contents of the commercial breaks. Albeit, tragically, this is occurring during a period when just about the only things getting advertised on ITV at all are Injury Lawyers 4U. Which means that what the person will actually win is a broken leg, which they’ll then get a tenner's compensation for. All of this, of course, coming in the week that it's been widely reported the duo are in discussions with the BBC about a possible return to the broadcaster that gave them their first big break. If you’re expecting to get the kind of money you were getting at ITV lads, trust me, it ain’t gonna happen.

Sunday 1 March
Marine biologist and professional diver Monty Halls turns his back on city life to become a 21st-century beachcomber on the west coast of Scotland in Monty Halls' Great Escape – 9:00 BBC2. Inspired by his childhood love of otters (is that strictly legal?), Monty moves into a run-down cattle shed overlooking an isolated beach. With the help of a team of locals, he soon turns it into a comfortable, if basic, home. The spring weather is the best anyone can remember and Monty is soon having loads of fun bringing the croft to life, with a crystal-clear sea inviting him in to explore. Yeah, I like the sound of this. If nothing else, again, the cinematography should be worth a bit of your time. Interesting chap, Monty – former Royal Marine, he’s filmed crocodiles in Belize, dived with the Giant Humboldt squid AND survived a close encounter with the deadly killer Miranda Krestovnikoff. Not many have lived to tell that tale...

Monday 2 March
Hexham-born Kevin Whately, famous for playing working-class characters in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Inspector Morse has, in fact, a surprisingly affluent family history which he explores in the final episode of the current series of Who Do You Think You Are? – 9:00 BBC1. Kevin begins in Newcastle (where else?!) investigating the careers of his grandmother Doris, an opera singer, and her father, Fred Phillips the self-made 'fishing king of the North-East.' Subsequently, Kevin discovers another of his forebears on his father's side was an 18th-century turkey trader (a kind of Georgian Bernard Matthews, if you will) and that his ancestors, the Thomson brothers, were among the richest and most powerful men of the 17th century who picked the right side to fight on in the English Civil War. Now, here’s a good Did You Know? for you – did you know that early in his career Kevin auditioned as a presenter on Blue Peter but lost out to Peter Duncan?

It would appear to be pretty much all Geordie Bloke Telly tonight at 9:00 as Five have the start of a new series of Extreme Fishing with Robson Green. Robson ventures out on the rapids of British Columbia in search of caviar-rich sturgeon and salmon. He also meets a group of intrepid commercial fishermen and enters an angling competition with a difference. Now, I know we took the mickey a lot out of this show last year – mainly due to its very silly title, admittedly – but, in actual fact it turned out to be a rather entertaining little romp. Robson obviously loves his subject and is very enthusiastic about it which is always a help in these kind of things.

Channel 4’s Toffs and Crims series – which has been compelling viewing – concludes at 8:00 with The Real Pink Panther. This is a profile of the sixth Marquis of Bristol, Lord Victor Hervey who, in the 1930s, cast himself in the role of criminal mastermind. He was thought to have used aristocratic connections to plan a series of jewellery robberies. Hervey also set up a finance firm in 1936 as a front for arms dealing with General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and investigations, led by the famed Scotland Yard detective Robert Fabian, also unearthed allegations of drug-running. When eventually arrested, as ringleader, Hervey was jailed for three years at the Old Bailey. He confessed to being the brains behind a gang of former public schoolboy thieves, known as The Mayfair Playboys, who - in one particularly nasty episode beat up and robbed a Cartier jewel salesman in the Hyde Park hotel. Their attack was so vicious that two of the gang were sentenced to be flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails. When Hervey was released on licence in 1941 he set up a film company but police suspected he was back to his old tricks though they could never prove it. An informant tipped off the police that Hervey's black Rolls-Royce was supposedly used as a getaway vehicle by four masked men who broke into Hever Castle, the home of Lord Astor, bound and gagged the night-watchman and made off with historic treasures includeing Henry VIII’s signet ring, Elizabeth I’s prayer book and a book of psalms owned by Anne Boleyn. Police kept watch on Hervey’s houseboat, the Dry Martini, moored at Thames Ditton, for weeks hoping to catch him with the loot but they could never prove any definitive links to criminal activities. In later life, Hervey achieved some respectability as a businessman and rebuilt the family fortune via publishing and estates in the West Indies. Declassified police documents, however, reveal he may have still been heavily involved in crime.

Tuesday 3 March
New Homes from Hell 2009 – 8:00 ITV - follows the stories of people whose luxury properties have, quite literally, ruined their lives, including families who invested their money into improving their homes, only to have their dreams dashed by cirumstances and incompetence. In this episode, we see one new high-tech house which was scuppered by rotten building work and a hidden mine shaft as well as the London riverside penthouse which is costing millions of pounds in repairs. We also meet the interior-designer-turned-property-developer who ended up squatting in her own Norfolk farmhouse.

Why are people embarrassed about their bodies? Horizon takes a group of volunteers and subjects them to a series of psychological and physical tests to challenge attitudes to the naked human form in What's the Problem with Nudity? – 9:00 BBC2. Humans are the only creatures that can be 'naked' - but why, how and when did humans lose their fur? The answers may be found in unexpected places: the chest hair of Finnish students, the genetic history of lice, the sweat of an unusual monkey – and, as usual with just about everything Horizon covers - this “may hold the key to the success of the human species.” Just for once wouldn’t it be nice if they did a show which focused on something really important? Like finding out something which "may be the key to why Newcastle United haven’t won a trophy (except for the Intertoto Cup) for forty years"? Now THAT would be public service broadcasting.

CSI – 9:00 Five – continues its merry way now well into an eighth season. Tonight’s episode Young Man With A Horn (no jokes please) takes a very modern phenomena - the killing of a teenage singing sensation from a reality TV show – as the starting point for a story in which the CSI team re-examine a 1950s murder case packed with scandal, mystery and intrigue which shocked Las Vegas society. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in episodes currently being show in the US (we’re about eight to ten weeks behind) that great black actor Larry Fishburne has joined the team to replace the sadly departed Bill Petersen. The good – albeit completely expected – news is that he’s tremendous in it. The even better news is that his arrival has seemingly given the show a real burst of adrenalin and the last five or six episodes with him in them have been among the best CSI has produced in years.

Wednesday 4 March
Here's something a bit different. In today’s Top Telly Tips slot we’re actually going to look at some shows which are on tomorrow afternoon. We don’t normally cover daytime TV in Top Telly Tips (because it’s our direct oppositon, mainly) but it does seem to be one of the few real growth areas in broadcasting at the moment. Particularly with more and more people, sadly, finding themselves with increased time on their hands because of the current economic crisis.

Anyway, essentially terrestrial daytime telly – the bits of it that aren’t repeats of Diagnosis Murder, that is - can be split, basically, into three distinct areas: Infotainment, Tittle-Tattle and … Infortainment-As-Tittle-Tattle.

In the case of the first category BBC1 specialises in those "sell some of your old junk, it's a right good laugh"-type shows like Cash in the Attic (11:30) and Bargain Hunt (12:15) which are harmless enough in their own way. They’re a bit averice-like at times, perhaps although they’re nowhere near as blatant about it as The Antiques Roadshow. But, they’re amiably presented and feature some realitvely nice and normal "ordinary people." They’re certainly preferable to the second genre of shows that daytime TV specialises in.

Trisha Goddard (in Trisha, 10:30 on Five) desperately wants to be “Britain’s Oprah Winfrey.” Jeremy Kyle (in The Jeremy Kyle Show, 9:25 on ITV) desperately wants to be “Britain’s Jerry Springer”. Neither get even half-way to succeeding although Kyle, arguably, comes closer with a show that is often offensively patronising and usually ends in a huge slanging match. I really dislike daytime chat shows – they’re often sanctimonious, intrusive tabloidesque nonsense of the worst kind. The sort of thing that gives TV a bad name. Genuinely, I’d like to know, who on Earth would put themselves through the embarrassment and ignominy of telling the intimate details of their personal lives to an audience of baying voyeurs and hundreds of thousands of strangers at home. It’s cold, impersonal, and smacks of a desperation to gets ones face on TV no matter what the cost.

Lastly, if you put elements of the two styles together, you end up with Loose Women (12:30 on ITV), a British take on the US gossip-show for ladies The View. It’s actually quite entertaining if you’re in the right mood and they do feature some very good guests – who, occasionally get a word in edgeways between Lynda, Jane, jackie and Andrea comparing nail-varnish tip and “phwoar!”ing Rupert Penry-Jones.

This was Keith Telly Topping reporting from the arid desert that is daytime TV. Tomorrow, we’ll be back where it counts, in the hours of darkness.

Thursday 5 March
Billy Connolly continues his journey through some of the more remote regions of Canada, via the fabled North West Passage in Billy Connolly: Journey to the Edge of the World (9:00 ITV). Normally this route is impossible because the sea is completely iced up, but with the changing climate, the ice has now started to melt for a few weeks each summer. Thus, Billy gets the chance of a lifetime to explore a part of the Arctic seen by just a handful of people. Isn’t it interesting that, as we mentioned a couple of weeks ago, like Michael Palin, there's now a whole generation out there only know Bill through these travel shows (and, the odd dreadful Hollywood film that he's in) rather than his stand-up. As evidenced by some of the reviews this show has been getting in the press lately (“Oh, there’s that nice old duffer Mr Connolly off on his travels again!”)

Britain's booming curry industry is now worth more than three billion pounds annually. In Cash and Curry – 7:30 BBC2 - Saira Khan meets those making millions from curry, including the ready meal king Sir Gulam Noon and the Cobra beer magnate Lord Karan Bilimoria. Saira also talks to a team with ambitions to modernise the high street curry experience. While there are around fifteen thousand Indian restaurants and takeaways in Britain, no-one has yet done for Indian food what Strada or Pizza Express has done for Italian cuisine. I like a nice Chicken Tikka Masala with Mushroom Pilaw and a Naan Bread, myself. Just thought I'd throw that in if anyone fancies buying me one!

There’s a fantastic episode of Bones on Sky One at 9:00. The Grave Digger, a serial killer who kidnaps his victims and then burries them alive, returns and kidnaps Agent Booth. Last year, you may remember, he had Bones and Jack Hodgins buried in a car up to their necks in horrible nastiness before they were rescued. Can Brennan and her team find Booth before it's too late? It’s almost impossible to believe that this clever, witty, really well-acted drama started out with such low expectations attached to it by pretty much everyone (myself very much included). It’s now turned into one of the best US imports, right up there with things like House and Lost. I really like the fact that it doesn't take itself too seriously, either. It's something we in Britain could learn a lot from. A bit of self-depracation can go a long way.