Sunday, January 31, 2010

Week Six: Nature Is A Language, Can't You Read?

This week saw another splendidly manic episode of Qi, dear blog reader. (And, of course, of Qi: XL - now the preferred option for the cognoscenti, it would appear). I think that yer Keith Telly Topping's favourite line on the show ever might just have been when Stephen Fry noted that, contrary to common belief, Catherine the Great did not die whilst on the lavatory. 'Although she did have a stroke on the commode,' he added. 'Is that a euphemism for something?' asked Alan Davies with impeccable comic timing! Friday also, sadly, saw the final episode of Dollhouse in the US - cancelled after two series due to general viewer apathy despite its brave and smart construction. Joss Whedon's exploration of the nature of human identity ended pretty much as it began, with much intelligence, wit and fabulous acting. And hardly any viewers at all. Sometimes, as The Smiths once noted, The World Won't Listen. Better luck with the next project, Joss. Although, it has to be said there does seem a remarkable reticence on the part of the general public to actually watch any of the TV shows the man produces - however good they may be. (And, they've all been more than merely 'a bit good,' trust me. You should, too, I'm a highly respected television reviewer, apparently!) Come on Joss, try writing something big, dumb, mind-blowing and a hit. You owe it to yourself. And, possibly, to your bank manager as well.

Let's have the next batch of Top Telly Tips.

Friday 5 February
My Boyfriend The MI5 Hoaxer - 7:30 Channel 4 - is an Adrian Gatton documentary which recounts the extraordinary story of an innocent nineteen-year-old woman's year-long relationship with her hoaxer boyfriend. A man whom she believed was an MI5 agent. Swept off her feet by conman Wayne Gouveia, Oxford-based shop assistant Leanne McCarthy was embroiled in a series of stake-outs and car chases as Gouveia attempted to convince her of his fake identity. As it transpired, Gouveia was an extremely sophisticated hoaxer with a track record of duping young women into his fantasy world.

Yer Keith Telly Topping caught a recent episode of Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World - 9:00 BBC2 - almost by chance (mainly because it was on BBC2 before Qi!) and was, frankly, rather impressed with it. I'm always a bit of a sucker for a good populist historical documentary. In the last of this four-part series, Dan Snow explores the ups and downs of a climactic century in naval and British history. The Nineteenth-century Navy used 'gunboat diplomacy' - not to mention rum, sodomy and the lash - to push British interests further afield. Technological advances saw Britain and France engage in an arms race over battleships. When Germany emerged as a new threat, Admiral Jackie Fisher was called to reform the Navy. Fisher believed in peace through deterrence and had plans for a huge new battleship. Dan Snow is rapidly becoming the BBC's go-to guy when they need somebody young and interest to present a history show (that used to be Neil Oliver's job). Since that battlefields thing he did with his dad, Peter, Dan's become a very accomplished presenter with a nice enthusiasm for the subject that drags the viewer in.

Saturday 6 February
As with the previous show The Virtual Revolution - 8:15 BBC2 - was something that Keith Telly Topping caught the first episode of and feels thoroughly justified in recommending that you all try to catch up with if you missed it. In this series the articulate and personable Doctor Aleks Krotoski continues her investigation into how the World Wide Web is transforming all of our lives and the both positive and negative effects of technological advances. In this episode, she charts how the web is forging a new brand of politics, both in democracies and authoritarian regimes. With contributions from Al Gore, Martha Lane Fox, Stephen Fry, Tim Berners-Lee and Bill Gates, Aleks explores how interactive, unmediated sites like Twitter and Youtube have encouraged direct action and politicised young people in unprecedented numbers. And, take a well-deserved bow all of you good people of Harrogate, which, according to the research conducted for this programme, is Britain's capital for online porn consumption! It always looked such a quiet, unassuming place as well.

Or, if you have only sludge for brains then you could try the vomit-for-entertainment that is All Star Mr & Mrs - 8:30 ITV instead. Comedian Robert Webb and his wife Abigail, actor Andrew Sachs and his wife Melody and Anthea Turner and her husband Grant Bovey endeavour to answer questions about their relationships, in the hopes of winning up to thirty thousand pounds for their chosen charities. Fern Britton and Phillip Schofield are the hosts. Poxy, lice-ridden misery-in-a-bowl. Those responsible should be whipped to within an inch of their lives. And then whipped some more.

Sunday 7 February
The Great Rift: Africa's Wild Heart - 9:00 BBC2 - is a rather fine looking series investigating the geological forces that have shaped East Africa's Great Rift Valley, one of the most spectacular natural structures in the world. The valley provides the stage for an epic battle between trees and grass - its course influenced by volcanic eruptions, landscape and rainfall. On its outcome rests the fate of Africa's great game herds. In the Rift's savannas, grazers and their predators struggle to outwit each other, forcing one group of primates to develop a social system that paved the way for the evolution of mankind.

In case you hadn't noticed, 24 is back - 9:00 Sky1. Day Eight of the real-time drama continues a-pace and Big-Hard-Angry-Violent Jack Bauer teams with a damaged, hollow-eyed Renee Walker (his ex-FBI girlfriend in the previous series) to chase some dangerous leads. Meanwhile, cross-eyed but loveable President Taylor learns of a threat that seriously jeopardises the peace accord with Hassan (played by 'him out of Slumdog Millionaire'). Bit of a slow start to the series, so far, but it all picks up a bit when you get to a couple of 24 staples - a helicopter getting blown up and somebody having their hand cut off with a hacksaw for dramatically shaky purposes. Good old fashioned family entertainment, so it is.

Monday 8 February
In Dispatches: Post Office Undercover - 8:00 Channel 4 - two reporters go undercover to Copper's Nark on whether the Royal Mail has made any effort to improve its service. Perhaps inevitably, they find that staff are struggling with an antiquated system, poorly trained agency workers and defective equipment, yet some managers express contempt for the customers and complain that the service disruptions are caused by union disputes. Because, let's face it, if they hadn't found that, they wouldn't really have much of a programme, would they? 'The Royal Mail? It's doing ... all right' doesn't really have much potential for the Shock! Horror! Pictures! stuff that Dispatches usually goes for. Nevertheless, with millions of pounds a year being paid to compensate customers for lost post, Dispatches asks whether the Royal Mail can deliver on its promises. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that their likely answer is going to be 'no.' And, having recently had to weight seven days for three package sent from London to Newcastle, first class, to be delivered, then for once I'm going to agree with them.

Getting Our Way - 9:00 BBC4 - sees former British Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer, looking back at five hundred years of intrigue and adventure to construct a history of British diplomacy from the inside. Interesting idea for a series and it's very well presented. Christopher begins by putting himself in the shoes of diplomats battling to protect British national security at three stages of our history - Sir Henry Killigrew in Elizabethan times, Lord Castlereagh at the Congress of Vienna following Napoleon's defeat and David Ormsby-Gore manoeuvring to acquire nuclear weapons from a reluctant America. Sounds fascinating.

The Good Wife - 10:00 Channel 4 - is a legal drama series starring the excellent Julianna Margulies about a woman who returns to her job as a defence attorney to support her family after her husband is sent to jail. Alicia puts her misgivings behind her and represents the son of a former friend who snubbed her as soon as news of the scandal broke out. The boy has been accused of murder. Alicia also sees Peter who takes a call from a prostitute while she's there. This imported drama looks to have the makings of a minor cult hit for Channel 4 in the way that Boston Legal did a few years ago.

Tuesday 9 February
One Born Every Minute - 9:00 Channel 4 - is an example of something we haven't had from TV for a while: The fly-on-the-wall documentary series filmed in a busy maternity ward. In the first programme, Tracy is upbeat about the birth of her fourth child until the baby's heart rate slows and the midwife must hurry to deliver it quickly. Meanwhile, nervous first-time mother Lisa is even more frightened when she learns she will need a Caesarian section and that her baby's first few precarious days will be spent in an incubator.

Two years ago, Taiwanese-born chef Ching He-Huang's delightful Chinese Food Made Easy got something of a cult following on BBC2. It was a particular favourite of Yer Keith Telly Topping who loves a bit of chilli salt and pepper King Prawn with fried rice to a point that is almost beyond all laws of God and Man. Well, Ching's back, albeit on a different channel in Chinese Food in Minutes - 7:30 Five. Tonight, two gospel singers cook up a feast for their choir. On the menu is a sizzling chicken and black bean stir-fry and succulent sweet-and-sour ribs. Will the singers, with Ching's help, prove to be gifted Chinese chefs?

If you like witty and fun food shows on TV then it's a great night for you because we've also got another episode of The Hairy Bikers: Mums Know Best - 8:00 BBC2. On your one special day of the year, you deserve the best dish on the menu and who better to steer you in the right direction than Davey Myers and Si King, the Hairy Bikers? Join them as they visit three mums and discover what they hold dearest for the day of many happy returns. The lads rustle up a summer berry trifle (oh, stop it, I'm feeling hungry now), while our mums treat the boys to such varied dishes as a Manchester tart, Greek stuffed vine leaves and a Caribbean Saturday soup. Scrummy.

Wednesday 10 February
The latest episode of Natural World - 8:00 BBC2 - is called The Wild Places of Essex. It's all wild, isn't it? Particularly on a Friday night. Anyway, in this multi-award-winning writer Robert Macfarlane sets out on a journey to explore the unexpected landscapes and natural history of Essex, revealing that there is far more to the county than the stereotypes of white stilettos and boy racers. Allegedly. Macfarlane spends a year travelling the county's strange and elemental landscapes of heavy industry, desolate beaches and wild woods. He encounters massive knot flocks over the Thames and peregrine falcons at Tilbury Power Station. Them Essex birds, eh? Always a handful.

Vampires are all the rage at the moment, you might have noticed. What with the Twilight movies, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries and, from a few years earlier, yer Keith Telly Topping's own particular favourite Buffy The Vampire Slayer. BBC3 seem to have noticed this trend. Hence, Vampires: Why They Bite at 9:00. Vampires are 'officially' hot. Apparently. But, as historian and self-confessed vampire nut Lisa Hilton reveals, this isn't society's first bout of vampire mania, merely the latest of several. She uncovers why we have been obsessed with these fanged fiends for centuries and charts their transformation from bloodsucking monster to romantic lead taking in the Victorians overt thirst for a decent bit of vampire lust.

Speaking of flavours of the month, some of the more pretentiously vocal TV critics, most of whom I despire worse than syphillus (and I'm thinking, chiefly, of that utter waste-of-space Alison Graham in the Radio Times here), seemingly can't get through a sentence at the moment without mentioning Mad Men. You know, it's those same people who were saying The Wire was 'the greatest TV show that has ever - or will ever - be made' six months ago, and were pure-dead into name-dropping The Sopranos a year before that and The West Wing a year before that. Which is all vastly annoying to those of us who watched these fine shows from the first episode and already knew they were a bit special. I hate Johnny-or-Jennie-Come-Latelys, me. Except when, as in the case of The Sopranos, yer Johnny-Come-Lately Telly Topping was just such a bore, himself. But, it is especially annoying in the case of Mad Men where, as Metro recently noted 'the chatterati are out in force, jumping on the Mad Men bandwagon and claiming it as their own, even though they only caught up with the first two seasons on DVD in a rented cottage in Cornwall over Christmas!' Anyway, if you haven't come across the series before, then where the Hell have you been? It's a US drama which takes an unflinchingly harsh and venal look at the world of advertising in 1960s Madison Avenue New York. In tonight's episode a new client with money to throw around is very excited about doing business with the firm, but his father is a friend of Bertram's - will they take the money? Peggy searches for a new roommate and Betty receives bad news.

Thursday 11 February
In tonight's episode of Coronation Street - 8:30 ITV - David Platt rides to the rescue after Joe's vanishing act in the Lakes. Come again? David doing something noble and honest for a change? How'd that happen? Meanwhile, Leanne goes to Ken to help Peter in his hour of need. And, Sunita is in a situation and only the dashing Dev can help.

Bill Bailey's Birdwatching Bonanza at 9:00 is Sky's attempt to do a birdwatching show that features somebody marginally 'cooler' than that wretched little Communist Bill Oddie. The great and wonderful Bill Bailey certainly qualifies. This is, of course, a birdwatching series with something of a twist; you'd expect nothing less either from Bill or, indeed, from Sky. The final stars to take their place on the twitching challenge are Trudie Goodwin and Josie D'Arby. Both of whom I actually had to look up to find out who they were. So, this is clearly the I'm A Celebrity (And I Use That Word Quite Wrongly) ... version of Top Telly Twitching. Through it all, however, Bill is his usual witty and knowledgeable self. It's a bit like Extreme Fishing With Robson Green I guess. Only with more birds, obviously. And, less fish.

It's a very good night for those viewers who enjoy watching talented chaps with beards on their TV. Derren Brown: Something Wicked this Way Comes - 10:50 Channel 4 - a repeat of Dazzling Dezza's award-winning stage show filmed live at the Old Vic, London, featuring audience participation, shocking stunts, mesmerism, prestidigitation and many subliminal mind games. This is one of Derren's best theatre routines and won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Entertainment Show 2006. Viewers are warned, however, you might want to close your eyes at the bit where Derren appears to walk over a carpet of broken glass.

We mentioned Simon King's Shetland Diaries - 8:00 BBC2 - last week in which cruel and wicked Simon takes his wife and and daughter and makes them live with him for a year in the Shetland Isles. Spring arrives in Shetland, bringing with it an influx of wildlife from all over the world. Simon dives in the sea and discovers starfish, dead man's fingers and moon jellyfish. He also gets very close-up to a seal. Did you know, dear blog reader that in 2007 Simon and an assistant were attacked by a rabid cheetah in Kenya while filming for Natural World? They were both given rabies jabs and did not develop the disease, although the cheetah itself later died. That's what happens when you bite Simon King, all you animals out there. You get dead. Don't do it, it's not worth it.

And, so to some Top Telly News. John Barrowman has reportedly joined the cast of Desperate Housewives. According to the Daily Mail, Big Gay John has signed up to appear in several episodes of the drama. The Torchwood actor is said to be playing a villain in the show, but the storylines are currently being kept secret. He will allegedly begin filming his scenes in March so that they can be broadcast in the US this spring. Oh, John's gonna love that the mostest, baby. I'm supposing that him getting to wear shoulder-pads will be part of the deal?

Cage fighter Alex Reid was voted the winner of this year's Channel 4 series of Celebrity Big Brother on Friday night. Singer Dane Bowers came second in the competition and ex-footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones came third. Reid, who was booed on the launch night of the show, said he was 'overwhelmed' at winning the show.

Bryan Batt has been dropped from the upcoming - fourth - season of Mad Men. The actor, who played the gay art director Salvatore Romano in the show, revealed his concerns earlier this week that he had not secured another year with the drama. Show bosses have now confirmed that Batt will not be returning for the programme's forthcoming season, Starpulse reports. Series creator Matthew Weiner said: 'Losing Bryan was a tough moment for the show, but that's where we are. I know how people felt about Bryan. I obviously love working with him, and he has been an indelible character since the pilot. But I felt it was an expression of the times that he couldn't work there anymore.'

Snoop Dogg has revealed that he would love to add a guest stint on Coronation Street to his list of cameo appearances. The US rapper said that fans are often surprised to hear that he is a huge fan of the ITV soap. He told the Sun: 'When I'm in Britain I love to eat Indian food and chill in my hotel room and watch Coronation Street. I've done guest roles in shows in the US. If Coronation Street want me to make a cameo then, cool, let's do it. Maybe I could just play myself doing a concert in Manchester and I could come in to the pub for lunch.' Snoop said the soap is as iconic in Manchester as the Statue Of Liberty is in New York. 'I'm not interested in other soaps like EastEnders, Coronation Street is what it's all about,' he said.

NBC has revealed that it will lose two hundred and fifty million dollars when it puts its regular programming on hold to bring the Winter Olympics to US viewers. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the massive - eight hundred million plus dollars - broadcast rights fee has caused the slide. 'It would be tough for anybody,' said John Skipper, executive Vice President of ESPN. 'The current economy is overwhelmingly a factor.' The network's troubles have apparently surprised many observers, who have gotten used to NBC and its sports impresario Dick Ebersol meeting challenges. Vancouver is NBC's sixth consecutive Olympics, the longest streak for a US station. NBC Universal will offer more than eight hundred hours of live coverage, which is more than the past two Winter Olympics combined. 'They weren't really anticipating having the economic problems that they've encountered in the last several years,' said Dennis Mazzocco, a Hofstra University professor and producer of twelve Olympic telecasts. 'It was a gamble, no question.' Well, that's what you get for dropping The West Wing you stupid bastards. What goes around comes around.

GMTV presenters reportedly feel like they have been given a 'slap in face' by executives who have issued viewers with 'humiliating' surveys about them. Would it be possible, I wonder, for Kate Garraway to be given an actual slap in the face? Just, you know, for comparison purposes. Insiders claim that the questionnaires are worded in an 'incredibly loaded and negative way' and have led to fears that feedback could help producers decide which of them will get the sack. According to the Mirror, the first survey is on sports presenter Dan Lobb and gives a list of comments about him such as 'his presenting style lacks energy.' Andrew Castle, John Stapleton, Kate Garraway, Ben Shephard, Emma Crosby and Penny Smith (seen left, wearing kinky boots and a short skirt like an Avengers-girl for the noughties ... So, it's to be hoped they keep her) will be the focus of further such sudies in the coming weeks. 'The poll feels like a massive slap in the face for the presenters. Half of the statements are loaded and immediately put a negative spin in the viewer's mind,' an insider said. 'The presenters are extremely upset that their perceived failings will be laid bare for all to see. They are already feeling very insecure about the review that's taking place and the poll just adds to the paranoia.' GMTV chiefs claimed that the surveys have nothing to do with possible cost-cutting changes, with a spokesman saying: 'We do regular research to take account of viewers' feedback. It's not related to ITV's review of the GMTV business.'

Fiona Bruce was forced to ad-lib on the Six O'Clock News last week when the weather-girl was late on set. According to the Daily Mail, Bruce handed over to Louise Lear for the weather before being told that Lear wasn't ready. 'She will be getting here in just a moment,' Bruce told viewers, with that husky, minxy delivery of hers. 'She's getting ready. She's poising herself beside the weather. We are on tenterhooks to find out what she's going to say. I could tell you about the weather myself, actually, as Louise gets ready. But I don't really know what it's going to be like. But Louise is the woman to tell us. Louise, are you ready?' Lear was then seen, still fastening her jacket, when the cameras finally moved to the weather and she apologised to viewers. 'Slowly but surely, we will get there in the end,' she joked. 'You will have to excuse the unfitted jacket, but never mind.' At the end of Lear's segment, Bruce congratulated her and said: 'Masterfully done, Louise.' A BBC spokesperson explained that the confusion was caused when the running order was changed to accommodate the news of JD Salinger's death. That sod. First he puts Holden Caulfield in an asylum, then he causes Fiona Bruce some on-air kerfufflement. Literary genius he might've been, it's true, but frankly there's just no mercy for the latter crime.

Tesco has been criticised for banning shoppers in pyjamas in light of an advert for the supermarket which featured Martin Clunes shopping in his nightware. The Men Behaving Badly star was shown in the 2007 TV commercial running into the store for some milk, clad only in his jammies. A shopper told the Sun: 'Why is it OK for posh Mr Clunes, but not for normal people like us?' I don't, actually, think Martin's poshness has anything to do with the matter, frankly. Anyway, Tesco spokesman David Nieberg said that the irony had not been missed by the company. However, he added that the commercial was not meant to reflect reality. 'Another ad shows a shopper getting picked up in a hot air balloon - and we do not provide parking facilities for balloons,' he said. Good answer. Albeit, I'm sure somebody will complain about the lack of such facilities. Probably the Daily Mail.

As one of the country's leading dramatists, Stephen Poliakoff is used to getting his own way at the BBC. In fact, the veteran writer once boasted that at the corporation, 'nobody has tried to interfere' with his work. So when a BBC executive attempted to do exactly that, Poliakoff created such a furious scene that staff ended up calling security after becoming alarmed by the shouting, claims the Daily Mail. The row reportedly happened at Television Centre in West London after he was told that in future he would have to submit his projects for approval. The fifty seven-year-old award-winning writer was in a meeting with the BBC's drama commissioning controller Ben Stephenson. Poliakoff - who infamous once said: 'I don't have to refer casting decisions upwards, and that is a right I guard tenaciously' - was is alleged to have told by Stephenson that he would have to submit to the same process of pitching ideas as the rest of the BBC's stable of writers. He was also told his next project would not be commissioned without him writing a script first. A source said: 'He was shouting and yelling - the noise coming from Stephenson's office was extraordinary. One of his staff called down to security to make sure nothing happened. By the time they arrived, the moment had passed so no action was taken.' The meeting was also attended by Lorraine Heggessey, one of the most powerful women in television and the boss of independent production company Talkback Thames, which produces Poliakoff's dramas. Poliakoff has developed a reputation as one of Britain's premier dramatists. His TV plays attracted large viewing figures for work such as Shooting The Past, about a library threatened with closure, starring Timothy Spall and Lindsay Duncan. But his more recent films have not been so popular. His latest, Glorious 39 - a conspiracy thriller about British appeasement of Hitler and co-produced by the BBC - cost almost four million pounds, yet has made only three hundred thousand at the UK box office since it was released late last year. Pride & Prejudice screenwriter Deborah Moggach criticised Poliakoff this month, saying: 'I think he is complete rubbish, actually. People think he is profound. I just don't rate him very highly. I resent him for having an over-reverential coterie of people at the BBC who think he has something significant to say.' A BBC spokesman refused to comment on the incident. He said: 'The BBC has enjoyed a long and successful working relationship with Stephen and continues to do so with the recent film Glorious 39 and new dramas currently in development that we are very excited about.' The question has to be asked of course - if this story is genuine (and, with Mail, that's always something that needs to be taken with a decent sack of salt) then why should Poliakoff be exempt from the process? If it's good enough for acclaimed, award-winning scriptwriters like Russell Davies and Jimmy McGovern to have scripts vetted then why not him? That's if it's true. Which it might not be. Perhaps, we'll never care.

Mouthy, opinion-on-just-about-everything Coleen Nolan has reportedly said that Heather Mills should focus on her skating, rather than talking about her artificial leg. What any of this has to do with Ms Nolan, you might wonder? Keith Telly Topping, to be honest, couldn't give a monkey's chuff. I just report the news, kids. The former Dancing On Ice contestant added that Sir Paul McCartney's ex-wife should also stop reminding fans that she is giving her fee from the reality show to charity. Mills, who lost her left leg in an accident in 1993, recently twatted (or, whatever it's called) that she has ordered a new leg socket after losing weight while taking part in the show. She earlier said that her determination to stay in the competition would see her skating on one leg if the pain in the socket gets too much. Which would be a sight worth seeing, I'm sure you'll agree ladies and gentlemen. 'Heather Mills is great - but my advice to her would be stop talking about your leg and your charity work and be judged on your dancing,' Nolan said. But, if she doesn't talk about those things then what's she got left to talk about? Her divorce? Nah ... I think there might be a gagging order in force there. According to the Daily Mail, the charity which Mills is donating her fee to is The Hunts Point Alliance for Children in New York's South Bronx. No More Landmines - the organisation which she was previously linked to - has folded, the paper claims. 'They let me go as a patron and I was not allowed to have anything to do with them because of all the lies written about me,' Mills said. 'Paul was supposed to continue to support them. I still do work behind the scenes for minefield charities, but I don't speak loudly about it.' Except on this occasion, of course. Just a one-off. Honest.