Sunday, August 09, 2009

Week Thirty Three: Another Soap Wedding Goes Wrong

Before we launch into the latest batch of Top Telly Tips dear blog reader, Keith Telly Topping has a serious question for you: Which one of Girls Aloud ... would you? You know, if push came to shove and all that? It's a mad-toughie, innit? Because on the surface there's no debate about the matter - it's simply got to be either Lovely Nadine or Saucy Kimberley. But then let's be honest - both are, like, totally out of the league of anybody who's likely to be reading this blog, are they not? So that leaves one with Sarah ... Which is fair enough, I suppose. But then, there's all those memories of that dreadful perm she used to have which would conspire to make one feel like you'd spent the night with Fabricio Coloccini. Or there's gobby Geordie Cheryl. Err... no thanks. If I want some fish-wife from Waalsend with a paint-stripper voice and very questionable taste in men then I can get the Number Twelve bus down to the High Street and find one for myself. So, ultimately, it's going to be have to be poor old Ginger Nicola who gets the short straw. Again.

It's a really tough gig being a pop star and idol to millions, isn't it?

Anyway... Oh yes, Top Telly Tips.

Friday 14 August
In the noble spirit of Ealing Studios and their productions of the forties and fifties heyday, Grow Your Own - 9:00 BBC2 is a gentle film comedy based around a year in the life of a Liverpool allotment. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (24 Hour Party People) and Carl Hunter (formerly of Scouse chart-band The Farm), Richard Laxton's movie originally started life as a documentary project about traumatised asylum seekers who are given plots of land to work as 'therapy.' This fictionalised patchwork of stories sees the power-crazed allotment chairman Philip Jackson presiding over a motley community of local gardeners. An influx of refugees from Iran, China and Zimbabwe initially brings out the very worst prejudices in many of these Little Englanders, but as they unite against a common foe - a mercenary mobile phone company who want to erect a mast on the land - a sort of shared garden-shed socialism is achieved and valuable life-lessons are learned by all sides. With its mix of broad and witty scally humour, keen social comment and moments of truly affecting emotion, there's clearly a message here about the state of race relations in Britain today. And the state of community gardening too. A little winner and highly recommended if you haven't seen it before.

Steve and Becky have already had one desperate attempt at marrying in Coronation Street - 7:30 ITV. That failed miserably when the bride - resplendent in her pink meringue wedding dress - got totally rat-arsed before the ceremony. So we can only hope that Becky shuns the lager and behave decorously on her big day this time around. The signs are good to begin with, particularly after she stuck to orange juice at her hen night, determined not to mess up again. Yes, she does appear a little nervous, but Roy Cropper quickly calms her down and everything looks like it's set to go off without any hitches. Which would be a first for a soap wedding, frankly. There are even some pleasant surprises in store when Becky invites Steve's dad, Jim, to the register office ceremony. His mum, Liz, and long-absent brother, Andy, also attend. But this is a soap wedding, so there simply have to be some clouds on the horizon. And a big nasty shadow of a cloud is cast by corrupt police officer Hooch and the aptly named Slug, who hatch a devious plot to try and ruin the bride's big day. The dirty rotters.

Saturday 15 August
In tonight's installment of The Weakest Link - 6:20 BBC1 - nine stars of British and Irish boxing enter the ring (or, actually, the semi-circular ... sort of desk-type thing) for a celebrity edition. And the audience finally get the chance to discover if being constantly smacked about the skull for most of ones teens and twenties does, indeed, leave any permanent damage to the intellect, motor-functions and speech as some would argue. The line-up includes such legends of the fight game as Frank Bruno, Barry McGuigan, John Conteh, Steve Collins, Olympic Gold medallist James DeGale and current world title-holder Carl Froch. How will they cope when they go the full ten rounds with Smokin' Sugar Ray Anne Robinson? To the right we can see how poor old Henry Cooper looked after getting cut in the third the last time he faced off against the ginger ninja and felt the lash of her tongue after he forget what the capital of Bolivia is. (It's La Paz, Henry...)

Sunday 16 August
Jam and Jerusalem - 8:00 BBC1 - is, of course, a depressingly unfunny rural comedy set in the small town of Clatterford in Devon. It's co-written by Jennifer Saunders and stars Sue Johnston, Pauline Lynn, Saunders herself and her oppo Dawn French and The Sainted Queen of the Gurkhas, Joanna Lumley. Despite this fine cast of genuine talent, and despite using a Kinks' classic as their theme tune, the series itself is a thoroughly poxy, limp, lightweight and twee pool of stagnant diarrhoea. It's also, on the very few occasions when it attempts to be amusing rather than just 'charming' or 'eccentric', about as funny as sitting on a sharp spike for an afternoon whilst being whipped with barbed-wired. To be fair, that's been a regular problem with French and Saunders as a double-act and as part of vehicles such as this for a disquietingly long time now. In fact, I'm actually struggling to think of the last thing that either did which I would claim to have properly enjoyed on just about any level. (I know that The Vicar of Dibley was very popular but I just never got joke myself.) Anyway, in this, the second of three one-hour 'specials' (and I use the word 'special' quite wrongly as it turns out) Caroline is planning a dinner party for husband John and his friends from London. She has the brilliant idea of asking Rosie if she will help out in the kitchen, but Rosie gets the wrong idea and thinks she's been invited as a guest. An attempt to put this misunderstanding right via the vicar only ends up with him making the same mistake. With less-than hilarious consequences, I'm guessing.

And, from one member of a once-funny but often rather over-raated double-act to another. Here's Griff Rhys Jones - the Welsh one in Alas, Smith and Jones, remember? He's been quietly making a name for himself as a kind of cut-price Michael Palin doing gentle documentary series for the BBC for a few years since, seemingly, the BBC realised that he'd never been all that funny in the first place. They occasionally stick him in some format with some properly witty men (as in the Three Men in a Boat strand he does with Dara Ó Briain and Rory McGrath) which, merely reminds viewers that he really has become a rather annoying little tit these days whenever he tried to be humorous. Anyway, Rivers with Griff Rhys Jones - 9:00 BBC1 - is his latest venture. It's amiable and undemanding enough, I suppose as Griff explores how rivers have influenced, nurtured and powered our lives. And, mercifully, for the most part he stears a course well clear of anything approaching a joke. In this week's episode, Griff is in London, but instead of working his way up the Thames he heads off for another river which has been vital in the city's history: The Lea. As a part of his journey, he meets the Sicilian cucumber-growing community of Essex, sails a gunpowder boat and trains with a team of veteran rowers. And talks, in that very ... stilted ... and somewhat ... Donald Sinden-like way of his. At times rather too fast, on other occasions when he's suddenly realised this, deliberately - and irritatingly - too slow, his voice occasionally rising to a shrill squeak every time he gets enthusiastic or angry about something. Okay, I feel I've been a bit hard on old Griff in this as he genuinely is an inoffensive old duffer these days. But his TV career is a useful reminder that some comedy talents have a limited lifespan and it really is sometimes worth investing in a hobby that can become a career. See also Oddie, Bill. Next ...

In September 2009 the Girl Guides will celebrate their centenary. Formed as an offshoot of the scouting movement by the Baden-Powell family and with current a membership of over six hundred thousand it is estimated that nearly half of the female population of Great Britain has been involved with either the Brownies or the Guides at some time during their lives. 100 Years of Girl Guides - 9:00 BBC4 - delves into the movement's extraordinary archive and interviews a host of former Girl Guides from veterans to household names like Kelly Holmes, Clare Short, Kate Silverton and Rhona Cameron. See, I've now got this image of Clare Short in the guides uniform in my head. And it's not pretty. Sorry Clare. Katie Silverton on the other hand ... Anyway, sounds like a rather good little documentary this and a useful companion piece to Ian Hislop's excellent Scouts history programme, Scouting For Boys which he did for BBC4 last year. Once again, it's worth highlighting just what a very good service BBC4 provides with their beautifully Reithian 'something for everyone' attitude to commissioning. Best channel on British TV at the moment, frankly. Certainly the one with the most easily identifiable and likeable brand image.

Monday 17 August
In Future of Food - 9:00 BBC2 - George Alagiah travels the world to reveal a growing global food crisis. With food riots on three continents recently and unprecedented competition for food due to spiraling population growth and changing diet habits, there is a looming problem that is set to become bigger in the coming decades. George joins a Masai chief among the skeletons of cattle he has lost to climate change and the English farmer who tells him why food production in the UK has also been hit. George also investigates what is wrong with people's diets (oh, it's another one of those shows) and talks to top nutritionist Susan Jebb, DEFRA minister Hilary Benn and Nobel laureate Rajendra Pachauri to uncover what the future holds for our food. So, an important subject but likely to include at least a portion of its time devoted to sinister food fascism and preaching from the pulpit about how we're all eating ourselves to death. One day, perhaps, someone in television is going to realise that most viewers actually have a very low tolerance threshold for being finger-wagged at. And that they tend, by and large, to use their remote controls with some relish when they catch a bit of such glakery pointed in their direction.

Brothers in Arms: Basra - 9:00 Sky1 - is, as the name suggests, a documentary following British army troops as they prepare to withdraw from occupation in Iraq. This film featuring frank interviews with soldiers and access to regiments including 5 Rifles and B Company, revealing the feelings of those involved in one of the key events of the Iraq war. I'm never too sure about these kind of things. By and large I have a lot of time for the military who do a fantastically hard - and usually bloody thankless - job with patience, skill and - as much as anyone can when one has a rifle in ones hands - honesty. And yet, watching these kind of things (particularly on Sky - those Ross Kemp-fronted contrivances are the worst examples) I always feel as though I'm being forced to take sides when I should be experiencing only subtle empathy. It's that whole "WE ARE THE CHANNEL THAT SUPPORTS OUR BOYS ... AND IF YOU DON'T THEN YOU'RE LOONY-LEFTY-SCUM" thing, isn't it? Well, I'm not. Far from it. But I don't like war, xenophobia makes me uncomfortable and I really dislike being told how I should feel about as complex a situation as international relations in general and the Middle East in particular without the whole thing descending into simplistic cliches. So, I'll watch this in the hope that it isn't dreadful tabloidesque flag-waving nonsense but is, in fact, what the pre-publicity promises, a serious, thoughtful look at something that can't be quantified in soundbite-sized chunks.

How Not to Live Your Life - 10:00 BBC2 - if you haven't caught it so far is a sitcom, written by and starring the very talented Dan Clark. It's about twentysomething Don, a rather neurotic single chap with bad luck and even worse instincts, whose overactive imagination is always in full flow in the form of quick-fire fantasy sequences as he imagines what he would really like to say. My producer recently got me watching it and, I have to admit, although some of the situations are a little obvious, and some of the writing rather crude for my tastes, it does manage to pack a considerable comic punch at times. In this episode, a night out on the pull with Eddie (the very good David Armand) ends in all sorts of drama for Don. Coming back to the house, Don finds out that his true love Abby (Sinead Moynihan, who's the best thing in the show, frankly) has just split up with Karl, and Don ends up upsetting the girl he met in the bar. Worth catching at least one episode just to see if it's to your tastes.

And lastly, a mad-quick reminder that Channel 4 are repeating last year's thoroughly well-made Toffs and Crims documentary The Princess and the Gangster. This is all about the potentially scandalous and explosive association in the 1970s between Princess Margaret and the notorious hard-man actor and general bad lad John Bindon. That's on at 8:00. If you missed it last time around, take a tip and set the video or DVD recorders (or, them Sky+ boxes that I don't know how to operate) for this one. You won't regret it.

Tuesday 18 August
The Coast team head high into the wild Atlantic to the majestic Faroe Islands at 8:00 on BBC2. Scottish Neil (and his lovely hair) discovers how romance blossomed for British soldiers and Faroese women during the Second World War's 'Operation Valentine.' Kate Rew hunts for the marvellously named bone-eating snot flower (look, honest, that's what it's called!), a mysterious creature which lives on whale skeletons. Meanwhile, the divine goddess of punk archeology that is Dr Alice Roberts goes over the sea to Skye to explore what remains of a remarkable industry which grew up two hundred years ago to extract chemicals for the glass industry from seaweed. It's nice to see Coast expanding its horizons - they're due in Norway next week. Where, I expect, Scottish Neil will probably be given his own Viking longboat as a necessary token of how impressed the locals are with his flowing locks. I'm also delighted to be able to tell you, dear blog reader, that a fifth series has been commissioned and is due to be filmed later in 2009. The series is, once again, a collaboration between the Open University and BBC Birmingham. This is what I pay my licence fee for.

The Cell - 8:00 BBC4 - is a three-part series part of BBC4's extraordinary Beneath the Skin strand which had already produced such gems in Breaking the Mould and Spanish Flu: The Forgotten Fallen. In this documentary, Doctor Adam Rutherford tells the extraordinary story of the scientific quest to discover the secrets of the cell and of life itself. Every living thing is made of billions of cells, microscopic building blocks of almost unimaginable power and complexity. The first part of the trilogy explores how centuries of scientific and religious dogma were overturned by the earliest discoveries of the existence of cells, and how scientists came to realise that there was, quite literally, more to life than meets the eye. Sounds fascinating - and I've rather enjoyed the few bits and pieces I've seen of Adam's previous work. Another winner for BBc4, it would seem.

Vets in Action - 7:30 Five - is another documentary series, this one following four teams of country vets through their daily interactions with sick and dying animals. Feel-good telly, I guess you'd call it. In the latest installment, horse whisperer Sarah Kreutzer tries to help a racehorse called Pandora who has a terrible fear of the starting stalls. At least, that's what Pandora says, some of the stable staff reckon the beast has been on the sugar again. Presumably the first thing Sarah will whisper to Pandora is 'do you want to end up as dog-meat, or what?' I once backed a horse at twenty to one. It came in at ten to four. Nah, listen ...

And, finally, a necessary heads up to you, dear blog reader, that The Duchess on the Estate returns at 9:00 on ITV. Why anybody with so much as an ounce of self-respect or dignity would wish to watch this hideous and wretched excuse for 'entertainment' is beyond me, but I highlight its existence - as I did with the Hull two-parter last year - on the off-chance that someone just might. I mean there are, after all, a lot of very funny people out there on the Internet. It says so in the Daily Mail so it must be true. After her last, extraordinarily awful, television outing to Hull, Sarah Fergsuon claimed to have realised just how wide-ranging the problems across 'broken Britain' are. So, to help us all, she is spending a week living in part of the sprawling Wythenshawe estate in Manchester to gain some first hand experience of the problems of drugs, crime and a breakdown in community spirit. Can the Duchess help the mums on the estate improve life there? What do you think?

Wednesday 19 August
Who Do You Think You Are? - 9:00 BBC1 - if you've been asleep for the last five years, is a travelogue-style series which helps celebrities to trace their family trees and reveal the lives of their ancestors. As a rather neat second strand, it also seeks to explore some of the major themes in British social history and place then in the context of the present day. One of my favourite actors, Martin Freeman, is tonight's subject. Martin's father died when he was just ten years old. His parents had divorced some years before and Martin knows virtually nothing about the paternal side of his family history. Now he wants to fill in the blanks. This season has seen some mixed episodes; I thoroughly enjoyed the David Mitchell episode (particularly his lovely little rant towards the end about being middle-class and bloody proud of it!) and, oddly, also Davina McCall's which was unusual and nicely paced. Though the sight of Katie Humble blubbing away at any given opportunity when investigating her ancestry was a bit much, frankly.

Every lazy student in the country's surrogate TV mum, Lorraine Kelly, presents an emotionally charged series for Sky1 highlighting the heartbreaking stories of families who are desperate to find their missing loved ones in Missing Children: Lorraine Kelly Investigates - 9:00. This episode focuses on two widely-reported cases of child disappearance: Two year-old Katrice Lee vanished whilst on a family shopping trip in Germany in 1981 and Ben Needham, who was twenty months old when he went missing on the Greek Island of Kos in July 1991. Can Lorraine shed any further light on these tragic and unsolved mysteries. Now did you know, dear blog reader, that (according to the usually reliable Wikipedia, at least) in a survey published in 2007, Lorraine was voted the celebrity most people would like to buy a used car from? Isn't it just beyond amazing the crap that people get asked in surveys, I've always thought?

Skins - 11:00 Channel 4 - is the cult drama series, created by writers Bryan Elsey and Jamie Brittain following the chaotic lives of a group of Bristol teenagers. In this episode Effy (Kaya Scodelario) is feeling depressed and Katie makes the most of every opportunity to rub in the fact that she has replaced Effy as Queen Bee. On the way to a party in the woods, the car strains with tension with the gang are divided by secrets and rivalries. Effy finds some magic mushrooms but the fun ends when they hear gunshots. Now, I have to admit, I had real problems with this show when it started; it seemed to me to be a bunch of thirtysomething TV writers ideas of what teenager think about and get up to. And, despite the presence of actors of the quality of Harry Enfield, Peter Capaldi, Neil Morrissey, Morwenna Banks and Bill Bailey as the young characters' parents, I rather dismissed the first series as something of curate's egg and didn't catch up with it for another year. I was wrong. The writing team is one of the youngest on television and Skins has become, over three series, quite frankly one of the best drama shows on British telly. There was an interesting debate about Skins when the comedian Stewart Lee remarked during an interview on Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe that he felt lucky having been a teenager watching television made for teenagers in the 1970s and not the 2000s as 'there was something really comforting for nerds and weirdoes about programmes like Children of the Stones and The Changes.' He added that watching Skins as a teenager today would have made him feel lonelier and more alienated than he already was. I kind of get what he's saying, but Charlie defended the show magnificently. Like I, he felt 'the series had wrong-footed me,' comparing his initial expectation of Skins as a rather shallow and one-dimensional show to his admiration for it after he had finished watching the whole series. It's not the easiest of series to watch, perhaps, and sometimes you'll get as annoyed by the character's activities as you will be entertained by them. They are, after all, kids, and that's how kids behave. But it's one of the finest modern day examples of realistic television with a genuinely naturalistic flavour to it and, as such, deserves to be watched, discussed and critiqued. Check it out, providing you're not offended by strong language, and I think you might just learn something about the youth of today.

Thursday 20 August
Benefit Busters - 9:00 Channel 4 - promises in the pre-series blurb to follow both sides of the welfare state in Britain at a time when the government is paying out more in benefits than it raises in income tax. Hayley Taylor tries to help a group of ten single mothers re-enter the workplace. As well as aiming to provide lone parents with the skills and confidence they will need for their new jobs, Hayley attempts to convince them that regular employment is better than a life on benefits.

Five young British men spend four months travelling the world, taking on some of the most deadly creatures and hostile places on the planet in Tough Guy or Chicken? - 9:00 BBC3. Are those the only two options? I mean, can't we have something in the middle, perhaps? You know, 'nice chap, a bit of plank but, when the chips are down can display surprising amounts of courage and decency', maybe? No, seemingly we can't - you're either NAILS or you're a yellow-bellied coward grovelling in the mud. Them TV executives, they're a harsh and cruel lot and no mistake. Anyway to start our intrepid potential chickens travel high into the Andes (it's on the end of your Wristies if you're looking for it on the map) where they have to become chagras - the weathered, hard-as-Henry Rollins cowboys of Ecuador. They must do battle with the local, deadly fighting-bulls, many of which end up in bullrings all over South America. The lads have six days to prove themselves and, if they are good enough, to take part in a rodeo with the locals. This, ladies and gentlemen, is somebody at BBC3's idea of 'entertainment.' Sometimes, there just aren't any words...

In tonight's exciting installment of EastEnders - 7:30 BBC1 - Libby and Tamwar get their A-Level results. But which one of them will be going to Oxford? Also, Syed makes a promise to Christian, and Dot battles her emotions as Jim returns to the Square. And, finally, Mock the Week - 9:00 pm BBC2 reaches the halfway point in the current - seventh - series. Dara Ó Briain presents 'a special show' featuring 'unseen material and favourite bits from the series so far.' So, that'd be a clip-show in other words? Just tell us, we can take it! Having said that, I'll bet there's a few politicians out there mopping down their brows with relief that they're getting a week off from Mad Frankie's withering scorn.