Monday, March 02, 2009

Week Ten: Over Paid, Over Sexed and Not Yet Over Here

We start this week, dear blog reader, with proof positive that playing The Doctor gets you the complete attention of all the tastiest ladies in da house. Bar none. Here's Wor David, for instance, being hit-upon - large - in the area, by that divine vision of minxy tremendousness Jemima Rooper at some Radio Times soirée or other. You lucky, lucky Timelord. Still, I'd make the most of it now if I were you, Dave. In five years time, I doubt you’ll be getting anywhere near as much of this sort of thing as you are right now when you’re playing Henry V at Stratford. Although, that Shakespeare fandom, I've heard they produce the odd lovely lady...

I do wonder if young Matt Smith will be getting anything like the same attention? Probably not on a school night, I'd've thought. Not without a note from his mom, at least.

Anyway, before we kick-off with the latest batch of Top Telly Tips, I want to highlight three (relatively) new dramas from the US which may be turning up over here on Five, or Sky (or on one of the obscure digital channels) and which I think you should keep your eye open for.

Leverage is a kind of US-take on Hustle - same essential idea, a team of con artists conning nasty people out of their fortunes. It's got a nice flashy Ocean's 11 style and stars Oscar winner Tim Hutton, the great Gina Bellman (Black Eyes, Coupling, Jekyll) in her US debut and, a particular favourite actor of mine, Christian Kane (who was so good as the evil lawyer, Lindsay in Angel a few years ago). It's rather fun, actually - fast, witty, clever plots. If you liked Hustle (or caper movies generally) then you'll probably enjoy this a great deal. Made by TNT, of all the three shows I'm highlighting this one is the most likely to make it over to the UK since it has already been recommissioned for a second season. Seek it out when it gets here.

One of the most surprising delights of the latest season of US TV is just how good the American remake of Life on Mars is. No, I couldn't believe it, either. But trust me, they've GOT IT. They understand the concept - something I thought no Americans would manage. Life on Mars had a very complicated route to screen (a pilot was made last summer, featuring Star Trek's Colm Meaney and written by Ally McBeal's David E Kelley) which was actually okay as far as it went although the weak spot in it appeared to be the actor playing Sam Tyler, Jason O'Mara. ABC then took the extraordinary step of moving Kelley from the project entirely (this is the man who created Boston Legal, remember), getting a bunch of new writers in, relocating the show from Los Angeles to New York, scrapping the pilot completely and recasting everyone. EXCEPT O'Mara. This, I thought, is going to be a complete disaster. Astonishingly, it isn't. They've stuck to the British scripts for the most part (suitably modified for a Starsky and Hutch/Kojak-style world rather than The Sweeney-inspired one we had over here). They made the truly inspiring choice of the great Harvey Keitel to play Gene Hunt and also brought in The Sopranos' Michael Imperioli (as dry, cynical Ray Carling) and the beautiful Gretchen Mol as a Earth Mother-like Annie. But, most amazing of all, O'Mara is just BRILLIANT in it. It proves, I guess, that a naff script can really screw with ones perception of an actor's abilities. Sadly, it isn't getting much in the way of ratings and rumours are that it may not be long for this world. (We shouldn't complain, I guess, they've made about seventeen episodes - twelve broadcast so far - which is, near enough, exactly the same number as we had from the British original.) But, trust me, if a British broadcaster does eventually pick it up, make a date, you will not regret it.

Another show that might not even make enough episodes to find its way over here is Dollhouse, which I mentioned a couple of weeks back. It's the new one from Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel/Firefly) and stars the sensational Eliza Dushku (who played Faith in Buffy). The story's rather difficult to describe in just a few words, as I mentioned last time. Basically, it's a thriller about people with forced multiple personalities and an FBI agent (played rather appealingly by Battlestar Galactica's Tahmoh Penikett) investigating the sinister organisation that they work for. It's very clever, fast-paced and, if it lasts more than half-a-dozen episode, is virtually guaranteed a cult following. Fingers crossed because there's a lot of potential involved in this. Sadly, the ratings are dreadful.

Right, let's have a look at what next week has in store for us with some Top Telly Goodness.

Friday 6 March
In Al Murray's Multiple Personality Disorder - 9:30 ITV - the multi-award winning comic returns with a sketch show full of new characters. Now, I have to say up front, I like Al Murray as a person (very sharp and intelligent man and very funny in interviews - he was particularly amusing last week on The ONE Show, for example) but I've got something of blind spot when it comes to his comedy. Some of which, frankly, worries me because I don't think Al's audience is anywhere near as clever as he, himself, is. His Pub Landlord character, for example, is essentially Alf Garnett for the 21st Century but suffers from exactly the same problem that Johnny Speight's finest creation also has to contend with. Some people just don't realise he's supposed to be a bone-ignorant racist, homophobic numbskull and actually TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY. I note that the new series, in which Al has studiously avoided having the Landlord in, has also been getting some outraged comments over Al's gay-Nazi character which might be a case of some Gruniad columnists having far too thin a skin when it comes to humour but, it must be said that if you get into the sort of confrontational, edgy areas of comedy that Al sometimes deals with, such reaction is always a risk you take. There's a very fine line between being funny and being genuinely, horribly offensive. That aside, most of the characters in Al's new show are pretty much Harry Enfield-lite (particularly Prurient Dad) although I do rather like the camp seventies rock-star Gary Parsley and the upper-class thief Barrington Blowtorch. Those prove that Murray is a versatile comic actor and that he clearly has what it takes to make a really good decent comedy someday. I wonder when he'll manage it.

Saturday 7 March
Hollywood portrayed them as two of the most glamorous outlaws in American history, but the reality of life on the run for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow was one of unremitting violence, hardship and danger. With unprecedented access to gang members' memoirs, family archives and recently released police records, Timewatch: The Real Bonnie and Clyde - 8:00 BBC2 - takes an epic road-trip through the dustbowl badlands at the heart of depression-era America, in search of the true story of Bonnie and Clyde. And, finds a pair of psychotic thugs far removed from the Robin Hood-style image of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the Arthur Penn movie.

There's something of a luvvies overload on Qi: XL (10:30 BBC2) tonight as Stephen Fry is joined by his old school pal Emma Thompson, David Mitchell - who is always entertaining on this show - and Johnny Sessions (I know he can be a bit of a pain in the arse at times can dear old Johnny, but just how good was he in Margaret last week?). Alan Davies, as usual, is on hand to provide a bit of balancing old-fashioned Essexness to proceedings. Tonight's episode focuses on films and fame. This season has been something of a curio with the thirty minute episodes on Friday night on BBC1 now, seeming, almost redundant as the show's fans mainly gravitate towards the extended, Beeb2 XL editions on Saturday. It's also interesting that the XL versions are getting (marginally) higher AI figures than the standard episodes, although the latter still gets, slightly, more viewers. The BBC, however, seem delighted by the show in ALL its forms and have ordered a series of sixteen episodes for next year (they've usually done series of twelve or thirteen in the past). Good. One can simply never have too much Qi!

Sunday 8 March
High Altitude - 10:30 BBC2 - is a spin-off from that classic staple off BBC2's weekend schedule for the last thirty odd years Ski Sunday. Presenters Graham Bell and Ed Leigh invite Duran Duran front-man Simon Le Bon and his brother Jonny to a frozen lake in Sweden in a quest for sailing supremacy - on ice. On catamaran-shaped boats, they will speed across the ice at up to 100kph in an exhilarating - and potentially very dangerous - competition. Wild boys. There really should be a far better Duran Duran joke that I could make at this point but, to be honest, I can't think of one. Notorious for that sort of thing, me. Anyway, Ed and Graham are then set the challenge of accessing the highest mountain peaks in the region using only natural means, such as animals (are they going to use a pair of badgers as snowshoes? Cos, if so, I think they should be stopped) and wind, instead of cable cars and helicopters. A couple of Sci-Fi-style jet-packs might help, I'm thinking.

Monday 9 March
That utterly gorgeous, bright and lovely example of the thinking man's totty, Fiona Bruce guides viewers through some of the most memorable moments from thirty one years of the Antiques Roadshow in Priceless Antiques Roadshow - 6:30 BBC2. So, a thirty-first anniversary special, then? Were they doing something else last year and I missed it? Experts and former host Huge Scullery recount the tales behind some of the most valuable finds the show has ever seen - from rediscovered masterpieces to the first million-pound object - while pictures man Rupert Maas travels north to defend a remark he made about Shropshire ankles. It's to be hoped that they show the clip which, I suspect, most viewers remember; the time when a lady brought in a very odd-looking art deco teapot and proudly showed it off to one of the experts. 'Can I ask how much you paid for this?' he asked. 'Five pounds' she replied proudly, clearly expecting that he was next going to tell her that her junk-shop investment had brought a massive potential profit. 'Hmm,' he said, thoughtfully. 'About four pounds fifty too much, I reckon.' You just don't see anywhere enough of that sort of thing on The Greed Roadshow, tragically.

Tonight sees the second episode of Grow Your Own Drugs - 8:30 BBC2 - a six-part series exploring plant-based natural remedies and beauty treatments. Presenter, the ethnobotanist James Wong, turns the spotlight on flowers. He reveals the historical use of marigolds, violas and elderflowers as ways to help relieve the symptoms of everyday ailments such as sore throats, acne and eczema. Sufferers of each of these, who are keen to find a natural solution to their health problems, try out James's remedies. I've currently got a pimple on the arse, I wonder if James has a suitable remedy for that. 'Watch less TV,' probably. Not a bad idea, sometimes...

The consumer technology series The Gadget Show returns for a new series at 8:00 on Five. The regular presenters are all back - Jason Bradbury, Jon Bentley and, of course, the truly divine Suzi Perry, seen on the right modelling her Emma Peel for the Naughties look. Certianly works for me. And for most other viewers, it would seem. Tonight, Suzi and Jason are gripped with Oscar fever as they put to the test a range of special-effects technology. Elsewhere, the team examine 3D-TV, Jon looks at the best home-phone deals available and Jason visits the London Toy Fair. What a great job, eh? I do like The Gadget Show, it's a series we've featured a few times in the past. Unlike a lot of these kind of shows, these guys don't take themselves (or, importantly, the products that they're testing) too seriously thus making The Gadget Show, in effect, the Top Gear of the consumer affairs sub-genre.

Tuesday 10 March
Astounding as it may be for all of us to believe, dear blog reader, today's Top Telly Tips is the 500th radio episode we've done since we went to a six-day-a-week schedule in May 2007. (Actually, to be honest I think it might be something like the 502nd as Scunthorpe Steve filled in and did a couple when I was in America last year. But, let's not quibble over minor matters such as that.) I think a - very small - fanfare might be in order. Right, that's quite enough of all that self-indulgent nonsense. Let's talk TV and, specifically, ABBA's Biggest Secret: Revealed - 8:00 Five. This documentary concerns 'the dark secret' held by Frida Lyngstad, singer with Swedish pop superstars ABBA. She was the illegitimate child of a Nazi officer and was in fact Norwegian. Well, neither of those "facts" are, in actual fact, secret at all - they were openly reported in the 1970s and both brought Frida much attention (and, indeed sympathy) at the time. Let's face it, being Norwegian, though marginally less of a social stigma than being the bastard-child of a goose-stepping fascist invader, is still something worthy of a hug, I'd've said. Hitler, of course, encouraged his soldiers to father as many Nordic children as possible with Norwegian women - he considered them to be racially pure - and Frida was the result of one such dangerous liaison. Some of these Five The True Story or The Big Secret-type documentaries are great and are rivetting TV but some can fall flat on their face as their massive 'revelations' turn out to be stuff that you knew anyway. I've a horrible feeling this one may be an example of the latter.

When disaster strikes who lives and who dies is not purely a matter of luck - in every disaster there are things that can be done to increase the chances of getting out alive. In Horizon: How to Survive a Disaster - BBC2 9:00 - a team of experts try to produce the ultimate guide to disaster survival. Through experiments, computer simulations and analysis of hundreds of survivor testimonies, they will reveal what happens in the mind in the moment of crisis and how the human brain can be programmed for survival. I wonder, however, if they'll be able to produce something that is as effective as the Keith Telly Topping Guide To Surviving A Disaster If You're In Bed. 'Roll over and go back to sleep, there's probably nowt you can do about it. And, anyway, you're not wearing pyjamas for goodness sake.' Pretty flawless, I'm sure you'll agree.

Wor Luscious Lovely Local Lauren Laverne and Big Quiffed Fifties Throwback Marky Kermode present another mix of cultural highlights in one of my favourite series' The Culture Show - 10:00 BBC2. Seattle rock band The Fleet Foxes give an exclusive performance and Arty Andrew Graham Dixon explores the Tate Modern's exhibition of Russian constructivist art. However, the highlight of the show, this week, is an interview with the original punk poet John Cooper Clarke. His work has inspired not only every - British - poet to have emerged in the last thirty years but also rock bands like the Arctic Monkeys - so why was his wider fame so short-lived? As he turns sixty, Lauren speak to him about his life on the literary edge. And, if you want to read an example of JCC himself, at his finest, seek out online something like You'll Never See a Nipple in the Daily Express or The Day My Pad Went Mad. Marvellous stuff. "In an x-certificate exercise/Ex-servicment excrete/Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies/In a box on Beasley Street."

Wednesday 11 March
We haven't mentioned Relocation, Relocation - 8:00 C4 - for about four weeks so it's clearly time I put that situation to right. Tonight cult figures Kirstie Kirstie and Phil Phil catch up with James and Vikki who, two years ago, asked for their help in finding a family home in England, and a holiday home in Wales. Ah, yet more members of the notorious Two Homes family whom both this show and Grand Designs have been featuring on an almost daily basis this year. IS ONE HOUSE NOT ENOUGH FOR YOU PEOPLE? Don't you know there's a recession on????

Nature's Great Events - 9:00 BBC1 - has been simply brilliant so far (I think I've previewed three out of the four episodes). Tonight, the great flood in the Okavango turns four thousand square miles of arid plains into a beautiful wetland. Elephant mothers guide their families on an epic trek across the harsh Kalahari Desert towards it, siphoning fresh water from stagnant pools and facing hungry lions. Yes, yes, we get it, BBC Natural History Deparment. Everyone loves elephants, everyone loves big cats, everyone adores David Attenborough. Put the three of them together and, bingo, it's another winner! Elsewhere, Hippos battle for territory, as the magical water draws in thousands of buffalo and birds, and vast clouds of dragonflies. Will the young elephant calves survive to reach this grassland paradise? It's true that this sort of thing can be an example of occasionally crass and sentimental anthropomorphism (the attribution of uniquely human characteristics to animals) and, yes, it can also be shamelessly manipulative and tear-jerking. Don't care. Still, comfortably, one of the best things on TV. Stick that in your fur and scratch it, you naysayers.

Building the Olympic Dream - 9:00 BBC2 - is a three-part observational documentary series charting the journey to the London 2012 Olympics. After unexpectedly winning the bid to stage the Olympic Games in 2012, the authorities waste no time in clearing the land for the Olympic park in East London. The ambition and scale of the project is huge, but resistance to the plans comes from some unexpected quarters. As resistance usually does, I've found. Because, let's face it if you could predict, in advance, whom was likely to resist stuff and whom was not then you'd already be one step ahead of the resisters. And, thus, on your way to a global domination and a gold medal. A bit like Britain's cycling team. Only, you know, not as good.

Thursday 12 March
In The History of the Future: Cars - 9:30 BBC4 - Phill Jupitus looks at how we thought the car of the future was going to turn out and finds out why it didn't happen that way, focusing on the classic era of the 1950s and 60s. In his quest to trace the dream car of his childhood, Phill visits the places where the future of motoring seemed to have arrived and learns about those visionaries who let their imaginations rove in the heroic days before marketing and 'sustainability' domesticated the car into the bland homogenous transports we see today. As mentioned previously, however, I'm very disappointed with the future we got. It's not what I was promised back in my childhood. Where are our jet-packs and our motorised rocket-pants? Where are our colonies on the moon? No, I'm sorry, this just wasn't in the brochure. The future is not as advertised. We've been sold a lemon.

Nine celebrities put their reputations and fitness on the line to raise money for Comic Relief in Kilimanjaro: The Big Red Nose Climb - 8:00 BBC1. An extraordinary gathering of talent from the worlds of music and entertainment (Gary Barlow, Fearne Cotton) - plus a few people who have no talent in either like Cheryl Cole and Chris Moyles - attempt to scale Africa's highest mountain to raise as much money as possible to alleviate suffering in the UK and Africa. Every step and stumble, every wheeze and groan of their climb is documented, in a tough-but-entertaining chance to meet the people behind the reputations. And laugh at their mountaineers clumsiness. What a shame. When I heard Comic Relief were doing 'something with Kilimanjaro' I was hoping for an all-star tribute rerecording of The Teardrop Explodes classic 1980 debut LP of the same name. That would've been good. Gary Barlow singing 'The Thief of Baghdad.' Again, I feel like I've been conned. Running theme tonight.

I briefly alluded to Red Riding - 9:00 C4 - on last week's Top Telly Tips. Tonight sees the second in the trilogy of connected films set in Yorkshire during the 1970s and 1980s, and adapted from the cult novels by David Peace (author of the best novel of the 21st Century so far, The Damned United). The cast is quite astonishing, including Paddy Considine, Jim Carter, Warren Clarke, David Morrissey and Sean Bean among many others. Tonight, the story reaches 1980: Detective Peter Hunter is brought in by the Home Office to conduct a review of the handling of the Yorkshire Ripper investigation. Hunter has been involved with West Yorkshire Crime Squad before - having failed to complete an investigation into a shooting back in 1974. This time, the Man from the Ministry is determined not to leave Leeds without getting results. Top stuff.