Monday, March 30, 2009

Week Fourteen: Top Dogs, Underdogs And The Long And The Short And The Tall.

Another week is, thus, come upon us, dear blog reader.

Let we, therefore, open our hymn sheets in the good book Radio Times to page forty five and raise our voices to the God of the Cathode Ray. 'Is it nearly Easter yet? I'm getting flaming desperate for some new Doctor Who. (Even if the next one has got Lee Evans in it).'

All this waiting around for a new episode of an SF icon, it's fair doing my head in, so it is. Takes me back in time - TARDIS-like - to the early 1970s when the ITV, in their infinite wisdom, were showing the cult US SF series The Invaders ("A Quinn/Martin Production"!) at some quite ungodly hour of Saturday night opposite Match of the Day. Despite this not being a school night if yer actual Keith Tely Topping wanted to watch it (which, being the precocious and snotty brat that he was, he very definitely did) he was still required to go to bed around eight o'clock and then get woken up by his mother at, like, 10:30 (or whenever it was on). He would emerge - pyjama'd and bleary-eyed - into the living room, usually to his father's grumbling complaints about having to switch over from Crystal Palace versus Coventry. All, to watch David Vincent (sorry, 'Architect David Vincent' ... I always wondered why they were so very job-specific on that show until somebody pointed out, rightly, that 'Sheet Metal Worker David Vincent' didn't have quite the same authority to it) taking on yet more of the 'aliens-who-looked-like-humans-but-turned-into-smoke-when-you-killed-them.' I'm anguished to report that I rewatched a few episodes of the show again about two or three years ago and was totally shocked at how really badly they've aged. That's one of the main problems about growing-up. Stuff you liked when you were seven now looks, frankly, shit.

And on that shocking indictment and realisation that the passing of time leaving empty lives, waiting to be filled (as Morrissey once said) let us procede to the Top Telly Tips for Week Fourteen.

Friday 3 April
Top Dogs: Adventures in War, Sea and Ice - 9:00 BBC2 - is genuinely splendid fun, largely because it's so outrageously civilised and, you know, British. In this three-part series a trio of Top Chaps of Absolute Distinction - ace Foreign Correspondent John Simpson, arctic adventurer and former SAS commando Ranulph Fiennes and sailing circumnavigator Robin Knox-Johnson - saunter through adversity in a variety of locations and challenges. After last week's excursions in Afghanistan, tonight they attempt to round Cape Horn in a small yacht. At one point, just before the real rough stuff starts in earnest, they have a snifter of whisky on deck. 'Anyone else want ice?' asks Knox-Johnson in his thoroughly appealing and raffish Ian-Fleming-meets-Alan-Clark-down-the-Club style, before he pulls a lump from the freezing sea and hacks bits off. What's great, too, is that no-one lays on the melodrama with a fork-lift truck. All three of these men (now well into their sixties, remember) are perfectly sanguine about the serious dangers they will face - all that worries the unflappable Fiennes, for instance, is the potential seasickness (quite rightly, as it turns out), while Simpson is concerned about how he'll use the netty in a force nine gale. This is Three Men in a Boat with added gravitas and dignity – beat that Rory, Dara and Griff.

Saturday 4 April
Speaking of the Great Spirit of Adventure inherent in the British (for which read 'sheer bloody daftness') in Timewatch: In Shackleton's Footsteps - 8:40 BBC2 - a small group of British men have some unfinished family business in Antarctica. One hundred years ago their ancestors, under the leadership of the renowned explorer Ernest Shackleton, tried and failed to become the first men to reach the South Pole suffering incredible hardships before they were rescued. You probably saw the excellent biopic with Kenneth Branagh a few years ago. Stirring stuff. Anyway, following in their footsteps, the team set off on a 900-mile trek across frozen wastelands. Timewatch follows their remarkable journey. The furthest a spirit of adventure gets me is up off the sofa on a trek to the frozen fridge in search of a refreshing beverage I'm appalled to confess. This looks great, anyway.

The other thing of interest on Saturday night is BBC's Match of the Day. Apparently Shearer's not doing it this week. I wonder if he's got anything else on? Anybody know?

Sunday 5 April
It's a major - by which I mean Brigadier-General - drama night on Sunday with Five Minutes in Heaven at 9:00 on BBC2. Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt star in this powerful-looking drama which explores aspects of Northern Ireland's troubled past and the challenges which the future holds in coming to terms with the events of the seventies and eighties. Powerful stuff. Or, you may prefer a somewhat gentler drama with Lewis - 8:00 ITV. In this episode, Lewis and Hathaway are called in to investigate when religious fanatic Steven Mullan is found scalded and drowned in his bath. Actually, come to think about it, that doesn’t sound all that much less torrid and nasty than the worst that Ulster had to face. Mullan had been imprisoned for attempting to murder celebrity atheist Tom Rattenbury, and had only recently been released. Lewis is drawn into the fragile but glamorous world of the Rattenbury family, and finds himself unprepared for the dark and deadly secrets that the Rattenburys are fighting to keep hidden. Think I’ll go with Liam and Jimmy rather than Wor Kev and Mr Billie Piper, personally. Both look rather good, though.

The election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States last year - you might have noticed - was propelled, according to those who know about such things, as much by his skill as an orator as by any other factor. From the silver-tongued to the tongue-tied, Yes We Can! The Lost Art Of Oratory - 7:50 BBC2 - takes a look at the history of the political speech. Alan Yentob traces the power of oration throughout history. What makes a good speech great? How much is content, how much is presentation, how much is having the right audience and preaching to the converted? Has Obama brought eloquence back to 21st-century politics for good or is it just that, after eight years of a President who could barely form of coherent sentence that qualified as "English", he's merely reminding us of what politicians always needed the ability to do, talk their way out of trouble?

Monday 6 April
I like the look of tonight's opening pick: Channel 4's top historian, the spiky-but-rather-cuddly-when-stroked Doctor David Starkey (if I'd had a choice between him and Simon Schama for A-Level I'd've probably gone with Simon) presents a four-part biography on the psyche of a pivotal figure in British history in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant at 9:00. In the opening episode, Starkey studies the dramatic events of Henry's childhood, which helped to shape his gangsterish personality and his attitude towards the kingship that was thrust on him at the age of eighteen. One for all fans of The Tudors, this, I think.

In Coronation Street - 7:30 ITV - Tina plans a new future for an uncertain Joe. Norris makes a shocking decision. Can Peter persuade Michelle to go on a date? I have to say I've been a bit down on Corrie of late but the story last week about Fiz discovering Chesney was being bullied at school was really rather good. Thoughtful, balanced, a proper bit of socially-aware issue-based telly just like Corrie used to do all the time twenty or thirty years ago. More of this kind of thing, please.

I suppose we have to end tonight with Bradley and co. The plot for this episode of Law & Order: UK - 9:00 ITV, the last in the current series – sounds rather small potatoes for the team since it's been murderation and rapery all the way through the six episodes so far. When gynaecologist Alec Merrick is accused of sexually assaulting one of his patients during a routine examination, the team are called in to investigate. But how can they find enough evidence when it is just one person's word against another? Prosecutors James and Alesha find themselves up against unstoppable defence barrister Phyllis Gladstone. With a paper-thin case and a dangerous level of emotional involvement they have no choice but to battle it out in court - but who will the jury believe? If I was on there and was presented with evidence collected by Bradley and his mate Apollo-from-Battlestar-Galactica, I have no hesitation in stating that I'd be spending all of my time in the jury room talking about the manifest injustice of what happened to the Guildford Four. I'd be just like Tony Hancock in Twelve Angry Men – 'does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain…?'

Tuesday 7 April
The search is on to find Britain's best young speaker in this eight-part The Speaker - 8:00 BBC2. From across the UK, thousands of 14-to-18-year-olds applied, speaking out about what really matters to them: from knife crime to teenage love; global warming to vampires; pop music to mixed race families; what's going on in their street to what's going on in Coronation Street. The judges - Jo Brand, motivational speaker John Amaechi and performance expert Jeremy Stockwell - toured the UK in their mission to find the best whilst a series of mentors – including Katie Silverton and Alistair Campbell – were on hand to offer advice. At the end of the series, one person will be crowned The Speaker. The search begins with the first regional auditions from Glasgow and London. Hmmm… Okay, I'm quite prepared to give this one a go in the name of positive presentations of youth, and all that. But, let’s be honest, this is - conceptually - The X-Factor for articulate teenagers, isn’t it?

Willie's Chocolate Revolution - 8:00 C4 – is the first of a three-part special series following chocolate enthusiast the delightfully-named Willie Harcourt-Cooze as he attempts to introduce the nation to real chocolate, creating the world's finest, purest choccy bar particularly at a time when there are sour-faced, arid and joyless voices suggesting that chocolate should be heavily taxed to aid with the fight against obesity. Bastards. I'd dip 'em in hot fudge until they'd had enough, personally. Anyway, in this programme Willie demonstrates the versatility of chocolate through a range of sweet and savoury recipies and attempts to get the funding and equipment to produce his bars, which he hopes will change the way that people think about and consume chocolate. Me, I open me gob and stuff it in. I understand that's how most people think about and consume chocolate. It'll be interesting to see if Willie suggests we've all been doing it wrong over the years. In which case I suggest that we're right and he's wrong and I've got a vat of hot fudge here if he wants to argue his corner further.

Holby City - 8:00 BBC1 – has been on rather good form of late. Quite experimental too - the episode with Joseph and Jac trapped in a cordoned-off operating theatre was really, genuinely, clever and original. With Ric away dealing with the Hewitt case, Connie (the outrageously over-the-top Amanda Mealing) sees this as a chance to push for the Director of Surgery position and, upon discovering the truth about Annalese's breath-test, persuades Jayne to come clean to Hewitt's lawyers – resulting in a charge of manslaughter against Annalese. But, the duplicitous bitch is frustrated when Michael reneges on his deal to back her for the job she seeks. Meanwhile, Martha tries to engineer some family bonding between Elliot (the excellent Paul Bradley) and Ben, but when Samson joins the party it all goes terribly wrong. 'With hilarious consequences', no doubt. And, as usual Faye (Patsy Kensit) stands around pouting a lot and acting her little cotton socks off. Tremendous stuff.

Wednesday 8 April
What is it with Five and Hunky, Rugged, Manly-types doing Big, Sweaty, Dangerous Manly-type work? They’ve got Ice Road Truckers and now, they're premiering Oil Riggers at 8:00. This follows life on the oil rigs of West Texas. We are solemnly informed that 'teams of men work long hours in tough conditions to carry out one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.' You think? Anyway, this episode follows the story of three neighbouring rigs who have fifty days to find oil. A rookie faces a trial by fire; a veteran is put under intense pressure and a driller commits a major error of judgment.

Superhuman: World's Tallest Children - 9:00 ITV – is a documentary following the lives of the tallest children on the planet as the title very much suggests. These include a thirteen-year-old boy measuring an astonishing 7ft 4in, Britain's tallest family revealing their bespoke supersized home and a divorced father who is reunited with his 6ft 9in daughter - who only came up to his waist when he last saw her. The programme discovers how such children cope with the challenge of towering above grown-ups and what effects their extraordinary height has on their health. They can grow all they like, but they’ll never get up to Robert Pershing Wadlow's level... 'Eight foot eleven point five and THIRTY-FIVE STONE!' Ah, Roy Castle, how did I ever make it beyond childhood without you?

It's clearly 'Someone in Scheduling's idea of a joke to have the previous programme on directly opposite Extraordinary People: The World's Heaviest Man Gets Married, also 9:00 on Five. This edition revisits the morbidly obese Mexican Manuel Uribe, whom Five have done several documentaries about over the last few years, as he prepares for the biggest day of his life. Biggest day of his life, do you see, it's a … oh dear. Listen kids, fattie jokes aren't funny, take if from a certified lard-arse himself. Anyway, weighing in at a peak of just a shade under 600kg (that's approximately ninety stone for those of you still using Imperial weight measurement) when he earned the dubious title of the world's heaviest man in 2006, Manuel has since shed a lot of weight (he's now down to a slimline 360kg - that just fifty stone), found love with a lady named Claudia and got out of bed for the first time in four years to get married in October last year with the cameras present. Hence this documentary. Good on yersel, Manuel.

Thursday 9 April
It's really good to have My Family back at 8:00 BBC1. This sitcom about a dentist and his family starring Robert Lindsay and Zoë Wanamaker and was, until Outnumbered came along, frankly just about the only regularly funny sitcom the BBC had produced in years. There's nothing startlingly original or different going on here, it's essentially The Good Life: The Next Generation but the show's ability to tell one-joke-after-another (most of which, usually, work) within a framework of traditional sitcom family dysfunctionality is effective and, more often than not, genuinely funny. Tonight, Janey desperately wants to keep her new man under wraps, while a suspicious Ben tries to expose an affair between Susan and a client.

DIY SOS, the home-renovation show, return to BBC1 at 8:30. Tonight, the team is in Bridgwater to help the Robinson family. David was discharged from the army for medical reasons after being injured in Iraq. With few savings he has been forced to use his own DIY skills - only to discover that, like many people, he doesn't have any. Designer Julia Kendell and gaffer Chris Frediani are challenged with righting the wrongs of David's DIY disaster. If they want a real challenge, I need a couple of shelves putting up in the bedroom.

Lastly, a serious one to finish off. The Millionaire and the Murder Mansion - 9:00 Channel 4 – is a documentary about the tragic case of the Foster family from Shropshire, who hit the headlines in August 2008 when father Christopher murdered his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie before committing suicide. With exclusive access to West Mercia Constabulary's investigation and interviews with family members and friends, the film attempts to find out what drove the self-made millionaire to murder his family and then take his own life in this rather sad-looking bit of reportage.