Monday, March 23, 2009

Week Thirteen: Robin & His Hoods Vs Hannah & The Dinosaurs

Sad to report that your kindly blogger, Keith Telly Topping - Guv'nor of the Gogglebox, is feeling 'a bit poorly' this week. (A combination of a rather nasty stomach bug, a thumping headache that won't shift itself for love or pills and a general feeling of listlessness in the 'Oh, sod it, I can't be bothered with owt or nowt today'-type category). It'll pass. Everything else I've had past my lips in the last forty eight hours has. Rapidly. But, let us not dwell upon exploding diarrhoea and projectile vomitting if we can possibly avoid it, dear blog reader, and move us - swiftly - onto some Top Telly News in the area.

We start with a bit of thoroughly FINE news. The Greatest TV Comedy Show In The History Of The World. Ever [®™] Qi finished its sixth season with an audience of 4.6 million viewers last Friday. (It started at round about the same figure in January so the BBC will doubtless be delighted with that.) This was helped, in no small part, by being on opposite the interesting-but-sadly-unwatched Moving Wallpaper for the last three weeks. Similarly, another BBC Friday nighter, Not Going Out, has been massively aided by having the thoroughly wretched (and getting worse by the episode) Al Murray's Personality Disorder as its direct opposition (3.5m/1.2m respectively last week). Keith Telly Topping likes this news greatly ... Actually, that's a thing. Has anybody else noticed that I've started to refer to myself in the third person an awful lot on his blog. Very worrying development, that.

Another ratings coup: BBC1 won the entire day, from 6am until midnight last Saturday, except for the last half hour of Ant and Dec's Saturday Takeaway beating National Lottery show and first few minutes of Casualty. When it was head-to-head with Total Wipeout, Anthony and December came a (very) poor second. ITV did have a few shocking Saturdays last year during the period when Doctor Who was on (including one memorable occasion when – for an hour mid-Saturday night - it was actually the fifth most watched of the five terrestrial channels, their programming beaten by everything including a repeat on NCIS on Five - see *) but I don't think they've ever suffered a worse face-to-face day against the Beeb, certainly not in living memory.

[*] I've just checked through the files and I note that this actually occurred twice: On 14 July 2008 between 22:00 and 22:30 and on 28 July 2008 between 21:00 and 22:30

And so, to this week's Top Telly Tips. I've actually had quite a good few days, tips-wise - that fine Cleopatra-thing with Scottish Neil Oliver-and-his-lovely-hair, The Lion Cub From Harrods (which was, genuinely, heart-warming, touching and beautiful) and then ITV's excellent Brian Clough documentary on Wednesday. All winners, just like what yer kindly Keith Telly Topping (And His Top TV Tips) stated that they would be. Let's see if I can keep it going over the weekend and into next week.

Friday 27
In EastEnders - 8:00 BBC1 - Bad Old Archie begins to realise that Danielle is a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Tiffany helps Janine understand that some secrets are worth keeping and Ian's overcomplicated scheme to help with the family business backfires. With hilarious consequences. Of course, the really big news in Walford this week is that Edward Woodward has turned up in Albert Square breaking away from his traditional steely-eyed killer roles in Callan and The Equalizer by shooting questions rather than guns. His character, Tommy Clifford, is a charming and engaging journalist who is, he says, writing a book about the early Caribbean immigrants to London and wants to talk to Patrick (Rudolph Walker) about his experiences when he first came to England in the 1950s. But, as ever in this kind of plotline, are first appearances all that they would seem to be? Still, whatever the character's motives it is lovely to have the great Edward, one of the finest TV actors of his generation, back on our screens for a bit. Even if it IS in Easties.

Saturday 28 March
We've got a real "battle-for-the-same-audience" thing going down early on Saturday evening as Robin Hood returns for a third series at 6:50 on BBC1. When Robin arrives back in England from the Holy Land to avenge Marian's untimely murder, an epic battle rages between him and Guy of Gisborne, with both determined to fight to the death. Meanwhile, Brother Tuck (David Harewood) arrives in Nottingham believing that Robin is the only man who can unite the people and bring to an end the tyrannical reign of the Sheriff (Keith Allen, still the best thing about the show when he's at his eye-rolling, scene-stealing best) and Bad Prince John. I must say I do like Robin Hood, though it's often in spite of itself. They still haven’t, quite, got the tone right – the show can be very funny and also well-dramatic but, often, you get the sense that the production team are never too sure which one they should be going for and when. (And why, for that matter!) But, the actors all give it their best shot (I particularly like the lads who play Allan A'Dale and Will Scarlett, Joe Armstrong and Harry Lloyd respectively). What I most admire about this show, I think, is that unlike similar productions – Merlin is one that springs to mind – it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. Which, when you're poncing around Sherwood Forest in a pair of tights, is a good thing I'd've said.

Meanwhile, over on ITV, we’ve also got the return (and, also for the third year) of Primeval - 7:20 – delayed by nervous ITV bods because of the dreadful critical and commercial mauling that Demons got. And, seemingly, Primeval's future is in major doubt due to a combination of the expense of its special effects and because ITV appear on the verge of more-or-less giving up on creating their own Saturday family dramas and leaving the BBC to get on with it via Doctor Who, et al. That's actually a real shame because Primeval is a decent little show - like Robin Hood which it is partly up-against tonight, it has come a long way since some shaky beginnings. And, of course, it's got lovely little Hannah out of S-Club 7 in it. What's not to love? In tonight's episode, Cutter (the excellent Douglas Henshall) and the team are still reeling from Stephen's death at the end of the last season when an anomaly opens in the British Museum. A terrifying creature that resembles an Egyptian God emerges and the team must work with new Head of Security Captain Becker and Egyptologist Sarah Page to track down the creature, but are they facing an ancient curse as well? It's good to have Primeval back but, as previously noted, make the most of it now because it mightn't be around for too much longer.

Sunday 29 March
In the season finale of Time Team - 5:30 C4 - Tony and the team travel to the Suffolk coast to investigate a very special back garden. The new owners of a house in Blythburgh opened up their garden potting shed to discover a cupboard filled with human skulls. The archeologists try to work out whether the remains are connected with the nearby ruins of a medieval priory. Could this be the possible resting place of a Saxon warrior king? Or, is it merely the work of a previously undocumented serial killer? Tremendous stuff, Time Team. Relaxing on the eye, you usually learn something from it each week about some aspect of history and it's always enjoyably amiable – particular when lovely Ooo-Aaaar-Phil Harding gets going on his latest hobby horse to the caustic displeasure of poor put-upon Geophys-John and Landscape-Stu. Still, after sixteen years, one of my favourite shows, long may it continue.

Also coming to an end tonight is Yellowstone - BBC2 8:00. With winter just around the corner there are just two months for the animals to get ready or get out as a short autumn arrives. The elk move down from the mountains to find food, and beavers repair dams before ice freezes their ponds. As the snow and ice return, many animals move out from the heart of Yellowstone, away from the protection of the national park. Here, their fight is not only to survive the cold, but also to find what little wild space remains in the modern world. Truly staggering camerawork – that bit in the first episode of an arctic fox tiptoeing across the tundra, pausing to listen and then diving head first deep into the snow to emerge with a mouse in its mouth was one of THE great images of wildlife telly in years. Lovely, rich commentary - by the great Peter Firth - helps too. What with this and Nature's Great Events running at the same time, the BBC have overdosed us on national history of late. Where's our next fix coming from? Is it nearly Springwatch time yet?

Monday 30 March
Can Ken persuade the alcoholic Peter to seek help in Coronation Street at 7:30 on ITV? Also, Julie is dismissive of Kirk's plans for their future and Maria is shocked to hear about Natasha's latest conquest. My producer, Scunthorpe Steve Drayton has been badgering me for a couple of weeks to talk about Corrie again on the radio slot feeling that I've been far too dismissive concerning it of late. He reckons that the show is currently at its funniest for some considerable time. I did, dutifully, watch three episodes last week in search of some jokes ladies and gentlemen of the blog, truly I did, but I have to say it's not doing much for me at the moment.

As the number of empty properties in Britain's towns and cities looks set to top the one million mark, Jonathan Maitland investigates why so many homes remain unused at a time when the country faces an acute housing shortage in Tonight: Empty House Syndrome - 8:00 ITV. It's a problem that rears an ugly head from time to time, of course – the seventies, of course, was another period when squatting became a norm in many major cities.

The critically acclaimed drama series about drug dealers in West Baltimore and the police investigating them The Wire arrives on BBC2 at 11:20 for its long-awaited terrestrial debut. During the trial of D'Angelo Barksdale, a mid-level dealer accused of murder, the prosecution's star witness recants her testimony. After the trial, Detective James McNulty explains to Judge Phelan how he suspects that the Barksdale crew is responsible for a slew of related murders. Stars the excellent Dominic West, the second Old Etonian (after Hugh Laurie) to put on an accent and fool eighty percent of all Americans into thinking he's a native. I do admire the BBC's courage in strip-scheduling the series, five-nights-a-week. So, if you've got work in the morning, set your recording devices for this show every weeknight for the next twelve weeks and then watch them in batches over the weekend.

And, lastly, a quick reminder that Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle continues to be one of the most witty, intelligent and classy bits of comedy British TV has produced in ages. I could do without the sketches which add little to the overall show but the stand-up routines are outstanding. The opening monologue on the first episode made me laugh more than any debut sequence to a TV show since The Day Today started with the line 'Bottomley refreshed after three days on cross' in 1994. More people should be watching this brave and unusual little show. If you aren't, take a tip from me and do so ... and bring some of your friends with you.

Tuesday 31 March
All the Small Things - 9:00 BBC1 – is a rather interesting-looking new drama about the trials and tribulations of a small town choir featuring a genuinely top-draw cast that includes Sarah Lancashire, Neil Pearson (still one of my favourite actors although we don't see him on TV nearly enough as we used to back in the nineties) and Sarah Alexander. Sounding very good so far. The arrival of glamorous and mysterious soprano Layla turns local choirmaster Michael and his wife Esther's lives upside down. Ousted from her marriage and her choir, the last thing self-effacing Esther expects is to find herself leading the charge with a rival offering in the local music festival. But the needs of her troubled but gifted son give her a courage and a determination she didn't know she had.

Ever since he was at school, actor and comedian Alan Davies has hated maths. But with the help of top mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Alan is going to embark on a maths odyssey in Horizon: Alan and Marcus Go Forth and Multiply - 9:00 BBC2 - and featuring, by a mile and three-quarters, the best title for any TV show this week. Together the pair visit the fourth dimension, cross the universe and explore the concept of infinity. But did Alan's abilities to absorb and understand all this stuff peak twenty five years ago when he got his grade 'C' O-Level? It’s an interesting question – I, myself, never achieved a maths O-Level grade; I took it at CSE and got Grade Two. Twice. Some people don't have any problem with multiplication, division and, even, fractions it's when they start banging on about Cosines, Tangents and Logi that it all starts to resemble another language. That Pythagoras, what a utter swine he was… And, just don't get me started on bloody Fibonnaci and his flaming sequence...

Highland Emergency - 7:30 Five – is a rather lovely little documentary series following the work of the emergency services in the Highlands of Scotland detailing the volunteer work of those people who put their lives in danger every time some cretin decides to go hiking in the depths of winter armed only with a thermos flask, a compass and pair of shorts. Tonight, the medics at a small community hospital tend to a severely injured climber, searchers must rescue a lone hiker who is dangerously close to hypothermia and emergency back-up is called in to tend to a middle-aged man who is thought to have had a heart-attack on the mountain.

Wednesday 1 April
Here's three alternatives to the England/Ukraine match on ITV (which, I must confess, I'll be watching personally).

Waterloo Road - 8:00 BBC1 – was recently honoured by the BBC with a early renewal for next year. In tonight’s episode, a riot breaks out when a group of traveller children enroll at the school. Ooo, contentious. Have your complaint forms to hand, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been a very good couple of weeks for documentaries dealing with nostalgia subjects and there's another fine example of that tonight at 8:00 on BBC2. Ford's Dagenham Dream tells the story of the British love affair with the American dream cars made at Ford in the 1960s and 70s. These helped put the nation on wheels with fast, sexy (and affordable) cars such as the Zephyr, the Cortina and the Capri, which were pure escapist rock'n'roll and hugely appealing to the younger generation.

I’ll bet several of the Queens of British Pop featuring at 10:45 on BBC1 drove a Ford Zephyr. This is a two-part documentary celebrating twelve female singers who have 'influenced British pop music and fashion from the sixties to the present day.' The series features interviews with iconic stars including Sandie Shaw, Suzi Quatro, Siouxsie Sioux and Leona Lewis. Ah, Suzi Quatro and her tight leather pants. Got me through some long and lonely teenage winter nights did Suzi Q. She could can my can anytime she likes...

Thursday 2 April
After last night's documentary about the love affair between Britain and Ford comes Caravans: A British Love Affair - 8:00 BBC2 – a documentary about the love affair between the British and their caravans. Inevitably. Does Britain do nothing except have love affairs with various items of motor vehicle transport one simply has to ask oneself? It's hard to remember, these days but, once upon a time Britain was well-established as the world's largest caravan manufacturer during the 1960s and this fact transformed the holiday habits of generations of families. In telling the story of caravanning in Britain from the 1950s through to the present day, this film explores how changes across the years reflect wider changes in British society, in particular the increased availability of cars during the period. Of course, these days, the only time you’re likely to see a caravan featured on British TV is when the Top Gear boys come up with yet another ingenious way of destroying one, several or lots. For merriment and japery. As somebody who suffered more than one miserable summer holiday thirty five years ago on the Links at Whitley Bay allow me to say … good. Encore!

It’s all documentaries tonight. The Children of Helen House - 9:00 BBC2 – returns to the centre which provides care for children with life-shortening conditions. Helen House has revolutionised the care of sick children around the world, offering support for those with life-limiting illnesses. The philosophy of its founder Sister Frances Dominic, is that a short life does not, necessarily, have to be an unhappy one. Following the success of the previous series about the facility, the production team returned for three months during 2008 to witness the new life-and-death issues faced by the families and staff.

Finally, in December 2008, Woolworths went into administration, you might have noticed. And a nation mourned the loss of a high street institution. But Claire Robertson, who worked her way from humble Saturday girl to manager of the Dorchester branch, refused to let go. She rehired her employees, many of whom have devoted over thirty years' service to the store, and decided to set up shop once again, a story told in How Woolies Became Wellies: One Woman's Fight For the High Street - 9:00 BBC1. They now have just five weeks to return the empty shell to its former glory.