Mail on Sunday TV Review 17th December 2006
The Royal Variety Performance (BBC1, Tuesday) **
The British Comedy Awards (ITV1, Wednesday) ****
The Comedy Awards – 16 Dangerous Years (ITV1, Tuesday) ****
Pulling (BBC3, Friday) *****
Housewife, 49 (ITV1 Sunday) **
Bodies (BBC3, Wednesday) ****
Great British Christmas Menu (BBC2, Monday) ***

Many years ago, there was a BBC2 programme called Did You See? presented by Ludovic Kennedy, who was joined by a panel who to look at the week’s television.
One programme I remember in particular: a discussion about Jonathan Ross, who had just presented his first TV series. Was he just a flash in the pan, or someone who was going to be around for years? A well-known male journalist had no doubts: Ross was a one-hit wonder who would quickly disappear without trace.
I pondered this discussion after watching Ross present The Royal Variety Performance on BBC1 on Tuesday night. Then again on Wednesday, when he hosted the British Comedy Awards on ITV1. On Friday he was back with his own show, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. Not so much a flash in the pan as a whacking great inferno that looks in no danger of being extinguished – at least, not in my lifetime.
Ross, who has the quickest, sharpest and funniest brain in the business, deserves every penny the BBC pays him (though it’s a shame that he doesn’t dig deeper into his coffers to buy himself a decent haircut). On the Royal Variety Performance, he struck the right balance between slight irreverence and the dignity that must inevitably be bestowed upon the occasion.
The problem was that no one came close to him in terms of entertainment. There was an overload of “songs from the shows”, packed with those hideous head voices that so many West End stars are trained to perfect. Something called Wicked featured a lot of people in green singing lyrics and music that appeared to bear no relation to each other. Ken Dodd was simply awful, still making jokes about the Inland Revenue, many years after he beat them in court. Well, lucky you, Ken; they’re a lot tougher on the rest of us, and it still sticks in my gut to hear your gloating.
There was also an overweight man who appeared to have had a head too young for his shape transplanted onto his body. Apparently, he is a member of Take That.
As always, it was a slick, well produced show, but nevertheless made tedious viewing. It’s not often the Royals have my sympathy, but sitting through this, my heart went out to Charles and Camilla.
The British Comedy Awards was an altogether more enjoyable affair, not least for its being live and enjoying Ross a far greater degree of irreverence than he can get away with in front of royalty. The event could, he admitted, turn out to be like a Freepak hamper – “promises the world and delivers nothing.”
As it happened, it sped along with great ease and plenty of laughs, with ITV2 joining the party to present a few extra awards. It was great to see ITV’s Harry Hill receiving two awards, and also Charlotte Church, for Best Female Newcomer for her Channel 4 chat show.
On Tuesday night, Al Murray presented a very funny retrospective of the awards over the past 16 years, an event he reckoned was like “an AA meeting for comedians.” We must be grateful that it is.
One oversight in the Comedy Awards was Sharon Horgan, whose TV debut in Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive was one of the funniest performances all year (that’s my one criticism of the awards – too many good people falling by the wayside as a result of the judging system). In Pulling, which she co-wrote and which ended its run on Friday, she has revealed herself to be a performer of exquisite comic timing.
I loved this show. The basic premise is nothing fantastically original – three women sharing a flat, all undergoing personal crises of one sort or another – but its combination of one-liners and hilarious narrative set-ups with various disastrous men has made it the best show since Coupling.
Tanya Franks is a riot as alcoholic Karen, who this week tried to give up drinking. She was fine with it, she said, just so long as she thought about nothing else whatsoever. Donna (Horgan) told her she was going to a restaurant with her new bloke, Sam (Tom Ellis). Karen looked tortured: so there’d be a wine list there? Fortunately, her abstinence did not last long.
How many people made it through Housewife, 49 without reaching for a razor blade? Based on the real diary of a Lancashire housewife during the Second World War (heaven forbid, not more salt of the earth Northerners), it starred Victoria Wood (who also wrote it) as Nella Last, expressing in her diary the thoughts and feelings she found it impossible to convey to her uncommunicative husband, Cliff (David Threlfall).
The changes that the relationship underwent as Nella grew in confidence as a result of her work with the WVS were movingly conveyed by both Wood and Threlfall (who was unrecognisable – he really is the most versatile actor); but there was an almost unrelenting gloominess throughout: authenticity is all very worthy, but is difficult to absorb when it is at the expense of narrative drive.
BBC3 (which is simply magnificent) brought us an extra long episode of Bodies, in which Dr Rob Lake (Max Beesley) never got to sleep, owing to his possibly having contracted CJD. He had just started a job as a consultant, his partner was about to give birth, his old rival Roger had turned up at the same hospital, and then there were those damned things called patients to contend with.
The narrative was driven by the personal stories, which travelled along a wavering moral path that the best medical dramas always do. It was a bit gory in parts – an ovarian cyst is not something you want to think about when you’re eating your tea – and could have done with a few lighter moments to ease the constant tension; but the ever-watchable Beesley carried the extra minutes with characteristic ease and charm.
There are times when an ovarian cyst is more attractive than some of the stuff our top chefs turn out. On The Great British Menu, four chefs competed to produce the best Christmas menu that can be cooked at home.
Most of the canapés looked disgusting, and the brilliant Marcus Wareing easily outshone the others, both in terms of presentation and, according to the judges, taste. I have a soft spot for Mr Wareing, anyway, whose Savoy Bar and Grill provides the best service and food in London. As for the marrow, cod’s roe and prune puree delivered up by the others, I’ll give them a miss. Chefs, at the end of the day, are just like Farepak hampers and the Comedy Awards: there is always the threat of their promising the world and delivering nothing.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 10th December 2006
Jade’s PA (Living TV, Monday) *****

Simon Schama’s Power of Art (BBC2, Friday) ****

State of Play (BBC1, Thursday) ***

Casualty 1906 (BBC1, Sunday) *****

The Choir (BBC2, Monday) ***

Pulling (BBC3, Thursday; repeated Wednesday) *****

The worst part-time job I had as a teenager was stamping “Benn must go” for four hours on envelopes, in an office run by a very nice vegetarian who, for some reason, had it in for Tony Benn. He got into trouble with the post office for this anarchic act, and I lived in terror of prison when he chose to ignore their warning.

Now I have learned that there is one job worse than any I have encountered or am likely to: being Jade’s PA.

For those of you who have been living with your heads in a sand-bucket for the past few years, Jade was a contestant on Channel 4’s Big Brother, where she didn’t win, prided herself on being thick, and was so fat the press called her Miss Piggy. From this, the indomitable Jade has transformed herself into an attractive businesswoman who is one of the most adored people on the planet, if not in the universe.

I thought I might like to be Jade’s PA until I saw the series of the same name. Ten hopefuls began the competition and were put through their paces in the hope of winning the coveted title, the final of which was this week.

At the finishing line, it was between Chantelle and Rebecca, who were required to organise a charity event, complete with celebrities, on no budget, all the while ensuring that Jade had a great time.

Apparently, Jade is hard to please. Really? As far as I can make out, she turns up to the opening of a stop cock and has a great time. When you’ve been labelled with the title Miss Piggy, Chinese Water Torture is an upward step.

Anyway, Chantelle went for a fashion show, Rebecca for a party, complete with raffle prizes. Jade attended both events dressed as Jack, of Beanstalk fame (well, a hideous green dress that was only missing a rope ladder), and watched attentively.

Chantelle was great on the microphone, but let herself down by another bout of “nose-browning” (sic), as Jade had called it the week before. Amid much excitement and many tears among family and friends, Jade addressed the throng with all the intensity of the Gettysburg Address. “And the person I have chosen to be my PA is . . . Rebecca!”

Jade’s PA purports to be nothing more than it is – pure entertainment and, as Rebecca begins her new job, we can look forward to more tears and tantrums along the way. Good luck to you, Jade; you are a phenomenon.

Perhaps Living TV might consider doing Simon Schama’s PA, which would be hilarious (“Today, Chantelle and Rebecca try to buy an Old Master for Simon’s birthday”). Is the man capable of uttering an ordinary sentence? When I think of things such as “Could you pass the salt?” or “We’ve run out of toothpaste” coming out of his mouth, a shiver goes up my spine. It’s unthinkable.

The last programme in Simon Schama’s The Power of Art examined the work of Mark Rothko, who, until this week, I thought of as That Bloke Who Couldn’t Paint People. I based this on having had to review one painting for an arts show – a red square and . . . Well, that was it, really.

This programme, which chronicled Rothko’s work mainly during the Fifties, when he achieved his greatest success, was also about the major questions Rothko asked about the nature of art. How powerful is it? Can it change your life? Can it change the world? The brilliance of the direction, which, incredibly, captured the trauma in what, on the surface, appear to be mere painted shapes, more than made up for the script’s being a little cringe-makingly overwritten in parts. We’re not asking for Jade Goody’s The Power of Art, but come on, Simon, sometimes a word is just a word.

The final episode of State of Play was packed with words, too: most of them incomprehensible and half of them abbreviations? IA, EA, CMC, 6, DIA, EST, WMDs – what was it all about? In the end, it hardly mattered, because the beautiful Jason Isaacs, who starred as Sir Mark Brydon, carried the storyline with great conviction. Whether he was able to explain a word of it to his mates in the pub is anybody’s guess, but this much was clear: the Americans are bad and a bit dim; we are good and brilliant. That’s what I call an ending.

State of Play will doubtless go to another series, just as the excellent one-off drama Casualty 1906 is crying to be made into one. Set in the London Hospital 100 years ago in the deprived East End, it took individual stories from hospital records and cleverly wove them into a tale about love, duty, and degrees of commitment to both.

The horrific circumstances in which dedicated staff worked could not fail to impress. Radiologist Ernest Wilson (Jason Watkins) burnt his hands and lost his fingers as a result of his dedication to his work. “Even if I’d have known, I’d do it all again,” he said. He died of radiation poisoning five years later, at the age of 40.

It was one of several poignant stories at a time when anti-biotics were still 40 years away and the average life expectancy was 45. The way things are going in our NHS, that’ll be down to 35 by 2010.

Areas of deprivation are suddenly de rigeur in television – middle class people moving in with a crew and transforming the lives, often forever, of those less fortunate than themselves.

The Choir has sent London Symphony Orchestra choirmaster Gareth Malone along to Northolt High School in Middlesex, “an area of relative social deprivation”, according to its headteacher. His task is to put together a choir in the hope of its being able to compete at the World Choir Games in China.

There were some okay voices, but the overall effect when they made their CD was excruciating. Sorry, but if they make it on the strength of that, it’s a fix. Gareth is clearly a very talented individual, and full marks to him for embarking on this difficult project. But The X Factor it ain’t.

I’ll return to Pulling at the end of the run, but if you haven’t caught it, do, before it’s too late. Annually Retentive’s Sharon Horgan (who also co-writes Pulling with Dennis Kelly) is a huge comic talent; likewise, Tanya Franks, and the script is beautifully observational and often laugh-aloud funny. Donna (Horgan), by the way, works as a marketing consultant’s PA. She wouldn’t make it past the first post as Jade’s, but heck, she’s funny. Very.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 3rd December 2006
Plastic Surgery School (Discovery Home and Health,
Monday to Friday) *****
Churchill’s Girl (C4, Thurrsday) ***
The Secret Millionaire (C4, Wednesday) ****
Tsunami, the Aftermath (BBC2, Tuesday) ****
Random Quest (BBC4, Monday) ****
The South Bank Show: Nick Park and Aardman Animation
(ITV1, Sunday) *****

At last it seems that ITV has turned a corner with the
appointment of outgoing BBC chairman Michael Grade as
executive chairman. The clever, funny and colourful
Grade was born to the entertainment industry, both
literally and metaphorically, and viewers can at last
breathe a sigh of relief.
Grade will not appoint a new chief executive for
two years, so can I suggest a new show that would
bring forth the right candidate and provide the
broadcaster with some much-needed new entertainment:
Chief Exec Idle.
Candidates would be required to audition for the
post by undergoing rigorous tasks, such as (a) find
their way to a television studio without resorting to
satellite navigation, or going via The Ivy (b)
recognise and interact with the studio audience upon
their arrival (c) learn how to switch a television on.
It’s going to be a tough competition, but with Grade’s
help, I really think they can find the right person
for the job.
If you fail in your quest to be crowned Chief Exec
Idle, you might consider plastic surgery; in fact, the
two are probably not dissimilar – stick the knife in,
dig out the dross, mop up the spilt blood and take a
fat pay cheque.
Plastic Surgery School goes inside London’s
Institute of Cosmetic and Reconstructive Surgery,
which trains surgeons in a field that is,
astonishingly, unregulated. Under the watchful eye of
consultant Dai Davies, patients can enjoy cut-price
surgery with the trainees, whose standards have to be
of the highest if they are to make the grade.
As someone currently considering plastic surgery, I
confess to a new macabre interest in the slicing and
chopping of human flesh and the many different reasons
people why people choose to go under the knife.
Ex-model Vanessa, for example, wanted a facelift to
knock ten years off her looks. Dai did one side of her
face and trainee Andrew Lyons the other (personally,
I’d be worried about the possible Bell’s Palsy outcome
of this division of labour, but it worked very well).
The trouble was, Vanessa’s face was now terrific, but
her make-up and hair were still a mess. What is the
point of taking a few inches from your jaw when you
still paint your lipstick on to within a millimetre of
your nose?
Dai is an articulate, clearly brilliant surgeon, an
extraordinary teacher and an incredibly amiable TV
presence. His experience enables him to nail the
reasons why patients want to change their bodies, but
he is not there to make moral judgments, and his
realistic expectations make him a breath of fresh air
in an industry so full of bull. All I have to decide
now is which side of me I want him to do.
I wonder whether plastic surgery would enable me to
find a multi-millionaire to keep me in the manner to
which I have never become accustomed. Have you noticed
how some women just so happen to find them, wherever
they go in the world? I travel between four countries
on a regular basis and am lucky to find a thug from
Bolton who will stretch to a second pint of Stella.
Pamela Harriman married Churchill’s son Randolph
and used her new surname to mingle with the rich and
famous all her life. Her “courtesan” activities (ie
slapper) found her lovers and husbands in Britain,
America and France, and when she died in 1997, Bill
Clinton ordered her a State funeral.
It was she who was “choreographer in chief” when
the Democratic Party brought the young governor of
Arkansas into their fold, and her reward in 1993 was
the job of Ambassador to France.
Her story is a fascinating one, but one that was
irritatingly told here with a clichéd voiceover,
delivered by Clare Higgins in a dreadful Jackanory
style. Still, at least I learned how to manipulate the
male sex: it has nothing to do with getting your kit
off for the lads, but sending them a gift of a Cartier
cigarette box the morning after dinner. So that’s
where I’ve been going wrong.
The chances of meeting a multi-millionaire on the
streets of Hackney must be pretty slim, so imagine the
pleasure local residents felt upon discovering the
true identity of Ben Way in The Secret Millionaire.
He had gone into their midst with a camera crew,
posing as a youth worker making a documentary about
volunteer work. In reality, he was there to part with
his cash where he felt it could best be utilised.
Ben’s personal journey was incredibly moving, and
the pay-off had me sobbing; likewise, Ufu, who runs
the Pedro youth club for the disadvantaged kids of the
area and broke down when he received a cheque for
£20,000. I was less happy with Ben’s gift of £10,000
to ex-boxer James Cook, who had been engaged to his
partner and mother to his four kids for 19 years.
Their money was for a wedding that then took place
just two months later. If people put off marriage for
19 years, there is usually a good reason for it, and
this felt like pressure on the part of the
programme-makers to ensure happy endings all round.
The first part of Tsunami, the Aftermath, sent me
on another emotional roller-coaster in a drama
inspired by the terrible events of 2004 in Thailand.
Award-winning writer Abi Morgan brings us
individual fictional stories that highlight the
enormity of the wider picture. It’s a bit slow but
beautifully made, and Tim Roth is outstanding as the
journalist rediscovering his vocation amid the chaos.
I’ve never been one for parallel universes, as
there always seems far too much to do in this life,
without having to worry about doing the washing in
But it was the problem faced by Colin Trafford (Sam
West) in Random Quest, where the single, geeky
research scientist woke to find himself a married
author living an entirely different existence.
Based on a John Wyndham story, it was all rather
daft, but also very watchable in its central love
story that eventually saw Colin fall in love with and
marry the woman who had been someone else in life
number two. Parallel universes? A case of having your
cake and eating it, I’d say.
The only ITV I managed to watch was The South Bank
Show: Nick Park and Aardman Animation, which offered a
great insight into the genius that is Park and his
influence on the world of animation.
Melvyn was there, of course, the man who will still
be left standing if ITV crashes all around
him. Melvyn and Michael Grade both have a lot of hair.
Potential Chief Exec Idle contestants, take note.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 25th November 2006
Oz and James’s Big Wine Adventure (BBC2, Wednesday)
Rain in my Heart (BBC2, Tuesday) ****
The Brain Hospital (BBC1, Wednesday) *****
Lost (Sky One, Sunday) **
The Innocence Project (BBC1, Thursday) *
Without a Trace (C4, Monday) ****
Blunder (C4, Friday) *

There is very little I know about cars. My first
boyfriend’s registration number was NBH 693H. My
father drove NDW 71G. My schoolteachers’ numbers were
GLG 688N (Chemistry), 14 HWN (Music), TB0 440H
(History) – sold for MUH 853P. I could go on. But
that’s about the limit of my interest in motors.
There is only one thing that interests me even less
than cars, and that is blokes who are obsessed with
them. Real blokes. The ones with lots of hair who
shout every sentence and listen to nothing a woman
says. There is a big difference between someone who
listens and someone who is preparing to speak, and The
Car Bloke always falls into the latter category.
Jeremy Clarkson is one of them, although I have oodles
of time for him because he is one of the funniest
writers around.
I don’t know whether James May can write and
probably won’t bother to find out, because in Oz and
James’s Big Wine Adventure, he portrays himself as the
most pig ignorant, boring and boorish Car Bloke on the
Like Clarkson, he is a presenter on Top Gear and
has clearly modelled himself on his compatriot. He has
the hair, the casual look, the deafness to any opinion
other than his own, and the desire to prick bubbles of
what he perceives as pomposity. But modelling is where
it begins and ends. He has none of Clarkson’s wit or
charm, and, in the first programme of the series,
served only as an irritation.
The series purports to tell us “everything you ever
wanted to know about wine but were afraid to ask”, and
May, together with wine expert and writer Oz Clarke,
set off to explore the wine regions of France.
Clarke began by introducing different smells to his
companion. May couldn’t see the point. Next he told
him about the Bordeaux grape. Pointless. They went to
a chateau to hear about 70 year old Pauillac.
Pointless. Then to another, next door to Caudalie, a
magnificent spa that uses grape extract in its beauty
treatments. Pointless. All he wanted was a drink.
Why on earth has he even undertaken the trip? As a
viewer and someone interested in wine, I would have
welcomed a series that genuinely set out to tell me
things I don’t know in simple terms. Wine is a
fascinating subject, and the opportunities to make the
subject look good on camera are immense. When there is
a whacking great blot on the landscape such as May,
however, affecting blokeishness for the sheer hell of
it, you have to turn to the bottle just to get through
Any enthusiasm one has for alcohol would have been
quickly dissipated by Rain in my Heart, a documentary
following four alcoholics as they grappled with their
disease under medical supervision at the Medway
Maritime Hospital in Gillingham.
Film-maker Paul Watson spent months trying to get
anyone to participate, although quite what was
achieved by him showing himself on camera during this
arduous process is anybody’s guess. His pieces to
camera throughout were equally intrusive, as the
subjects told it all.
Heck, it was depressing. Two patients died while
making the programme; the other two endured an uphill
battle that saw them downing alcohol as if it were
water. Each had their own “gremlins” that made them
drink, and Watson’s sensitive handling of complex
emotional issues made this an informative rather than
a voyeuristic film. If you are reaching for the cider,
barley wine or Carlsberg Special, you’ve got a
problem, said one consultant: these are not normal
drinks. I don’t drink any of them, but it’s still
going to be a pint of Evian for me at lunchtime.
If Rain in my Heart did not get you worrying
sufficiently about your liver, The Brain Hospital was
there to send you into panic about another organ.
The National Hospital for Neurology and
Neuro-surgery in London is Britain’s leading brain
hospital, which sees, incredibly, a thousand people a
The surgery practised there is world-renowned and
at the cutting edge of brain surgery. We saw Ernest,
undergoing an operation for an aneurism; Stuart, who
was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease; Barbara, who,
until her treatment, was battling against desperately
painful cluster headaches several times a day.
The work at the hospital is extraordinary, and the
series thankfully does not rely on any gimmicks to try
to enhance the subject; it doesn’t need to. It is also
helped in its visual appeal by the rather gorgeous
Aussie surgeon, Stefan. He is also part of the local
community and we saw him drinking a pint with the
locals at a nearby pub. I’ve clocked the name. Oh, no,
I forgot: I’ve given up drinking.
In a rather medical-heavy week, Lost returned with
Dr Jack Shephard (Matthew Fox) recalling his time at
the hospital where, like his father, he was operating
as a spinal surgeon. Little did he know at that time
exactly how much backbone he was going to require over
the coming months.
We learned that he was on the plane because he was
bringing his father’s body home. He suspected his
father of having an affair with his estranged wife; in
fact, he was attending AA meetings. Well, it’s easy to
get the two confused. In amongst all this was the
usual drivel, with Jack being kept prisoner by “the
others” and discovering that they had a dossier on
him: “This, Jack, is your life.” Personally, I no
longer care.
If Lost bores you senseless, The Innocence Project
could well send you into a state of near rigor mortis.
What on earth is it doing on BBC1?
The drama features a team of young lawyers who,
each week, are put through their paces by having to
examine alleged miscarriages of justice. Words, words,
words: this isn’t a script, it’s a text book on
screen, and its being filmed seemingly from a hammock
is merely an irritation.
The ever-reliable Without a Trace delivered yet
again with a story about a young boy taken to stop his
father from spilling the beans on a pharmaceutical
company. It’s an old story, as many of the series’
invariably are, but was again incredibly well told –
albeit accompanied by too many overhead, cityscape
shots of which the Americans are so fond.
Blunder promised “a feast of new comedy filmed
before a live studio audience”, which is what it was –
minus the comedy.
Even the wonderful David Mitchell could not save
this infantile nonsense. I can only assume that the
audience, who bellowed throughout, were well and truly
plastered; they’d have to have been. There are times
when you really, really need a drink. Ask James May.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 19th November 2006
Midsomer Murders (ITV1, Sunday) ****
Spooks (BBC1, Tuesday) ***
Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (C4, Tuesday) ****
From Asbo Teen to Beauty Queen (Five, Tuesday) ****
The Martians and Us (BBC4, Monday) *****
I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! (ITV1,
daily) *****

Now I know I’m sick. My week away was spent watching
Murder She Wrote at least five times a day. It’s
everywhere. Living TV, Living TV+1, Hallmark, BBC1,
and even Serie Club in France, where it is called
Arabesque. I swear that for every one I watch, Angela
Lansbury is racing to a studio to make another six.
Even the American fashion industry has trouble keeping
up with the number of cardigans she needs for her
ventures, although where Jessica Fletcher finds the
time to write the novels everyone claims to love
remains a mystery.
You know that when Jessica enters a hotel lobby,
rigor mortis is never far away, just as you know that
when Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) turns up at a village
fete, someone will be impaled upon a tent peg within
He was back on Sunday in a one-off Midsomer Murders
in which a young man’s body turned up dead in an old
car. It was found by a jogger, as bodies invariably
are. When will people learn? Don’t go jogging! Ever.
You will always be stopped in your tracks by a leg
sticking out of a pond or, in this case, a bad case of
carbon monoxide poisoning.
Well, so it seemed. It turned out that the young
man had been whacked over the head first. His name was
Simon Bright, which seemed a little ironic considering
that he was clearly anything but. Nobody with any
sense gets themselves knocked out by a kennel-owning
lesbian, who also turned out to be a bit of a serial
You always know who the next person is on the hit
list in Midsomer Murders because they raise a glass,
say “Your good health” and wait for the orchestra to
strike up. Doomed!
Anyway, Barnaby solved it all with his inimitable
ease, and Joyce (Jane Wymark) even got to go to a
dance, where she also, miracle of miracles, managed to
exchange a few words with her husband before he dumped
her yet again to attend to police business. I’m
telling you: the woman is a saint.
They were also busy crime-busting in the last in
the current series of Spooks, where Adam (Rupert
Penry-Jones) delved in and out of his nervous
breakdown while trying to stop terrorists by the name
of Divine Earth from blowing up London.
These were not just any old terrorists, though:
they were “environmental terrorists”, forever bleating
on about damage to the planet. Gosh, as terrorists go,
they were boring. Global warming was invented to rid
the earth of such people. On and on and on, speech
after speech: “The warning signs are right in front of
our eyes and still we do nothing.” Oh, shut up and
watch Murder She Wrote.
There was too much speechifying throughout, but the
central action built up nicely to the climax of the
story that saw Adam and Ros (Hermione Norris) about to
drown. Earlier, Adam had put a piece of metal from his
son’s collage (a school project about the environment
– Boring!) in his trouser pocket. As he struggled with
the locked bolt under water, between wondering whether
to make a last chance saloon play for Ros (they only
got as far as touching faces), the screams of “Look in
your pocket!” could be heard across the land. The
environmental terrorists all died. Good.
The environment was under threat from a restaurant
called La Parra on the Costa del sol in Ramsay’s
Kitchen Nightmares. In a mire of filth and fat, 26
year old Lawrence Davey was battling to save the
restaurant he has owned for the past 18 months. His
specialities such as prawns in chocolate sauce and
chicken with banana were not going down well either
with tourists or the locals, and Gordon had no qualms
in telling him why.
Forget the “pretentious, novelty food” he said, and
cut the menu from 72 dishes to 12. Well, what Gordon
actually said was “**** you and ******* when **** oh
**** me”, but you get the gist.
Ramsay is undoubtedly a genius, and you learn more
about food from him in five minutes than you do from a
whole series of more conventional cookery programmes.
My only criticism is the tantrums, which at times can
seem rather laboured and engineered - for instance,
when Gordon angrily stormed out of the restaurant late
one night. Off he flounced, out of shot; cut to
exterior shot and him leaving – considerably some time
later, as the crew would have to have to set up all
their equipment on the other side of the road from
where they filmed his alleged hasty exit.
The good news, though, is that as a result of
Gordon’s advice, Lawrence’s takings are up and
chocolate prawns are off the menu. The local
gastroenterolgist can sleep easy once more.
Self-improvement was also the subject of From Asbo
Teen to Beauty Queen, which took nine ghastly girls
from Manchester – apparently “the Asbo capital of
England” – to try to groom them for the Miss Teen
International beauty pageant in America.
They are being helped in their task by former
beauty queen Michelle Fryatt, who looks like a horse
and wears so much make-up, her eyes have to keep
coming up for air. It’s all rather fun, even if the
experts did transform the girls into something you
wouldn’t want to see on the cover of a knitting
pattern, let alone an international stage.
I really hate science fiction (give me adultery in
21st century Hampstead any time), so it was a giant
step for mankind that I made it through the first
episode of The Martians and Us.
Part of this was down to the voiceover, which
combined the right level of factual information with a
sense of drama; it was also exquisitely delivered by
the awesome Peter Capaldi.
The rest was down to a story well told: a narrative
that began with H.G. Wells in 1895 and beautifully
merged evolutionary theories in literature, history,
film and television. It is a huge subject that was
finely edited to interest even the most diehard sci-fi
You would be forgiven for thinking that you had
entered an alien world in I’m a Celebrity . . . Get
Me Out of Here!” Is it just me, or is David Gest
really, really scary?
He is great value, though, with his insults and
name-dropping; likewise, Dean Gaffney, a surprise
guest who arrived on Thursday night to face a live
Bushtrucker Trial that was one of the funniest things
I have ever seen. Fear (complete with foaming at the
mouth) has never been so immaculately caught on
camera, and I thought the brilliant Ant and Dec, who
just get better and better, were going to expire from
Doubtless we are all already hooked. Between that
and Murder She Wrote, I’ll be lucky to answer the door
for the pizza delivery.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 22nd October 2006
Coronation Street (ITV1, Sunday, Monday, Wednesday,
Friday) *****
Blue Murder (ITV1, Friday) ***
Prime Suspect (ITV1, Sunday) *****
Vincent (ITV1, Monday) **
Spooks (BBC1, Monday) ****
Goldplated (C4, Wednesday) *
Extras (BBC2, Thursday) ***

What does it take to impress a teenager today? I was
thrilled by the prospect of a day trip to Cardiff
until at least my 16th birthday; and today, a decent
rugby game would excite me just as much as the idea of
a luxury holiday in the Caribbean.
As for Paris: never a day goes by that I do not
marvel at the greatest, most beautiful city in the
world, and count my blessings that I have the good
fortune to spend a chunk of my life there.
Coronation Street’s Sally Webster (Sally Whittaker)
is a girl after my own heart. When Kevin’s father Bill
offered the family a trip to the French capital as a
20th anniversary present, she could not have been more
overjoyed had she won the lottery. Announcing the
treat, her face fell as unimpressed daughters Rosie
and Sophie failed to respond. On the day of departure,
Sally nearly expired with breathless excitement when
she told the locals they were off to Paris, only to
have her bubble burst again: “Rather you than me,”
said Blanche (Maggie Jones).
On Monday the trip turned to disaster when Rosie
disappeared, having decided to run off to Berlin with
boyfriend Craig (Richard Fleeshman). The scene at the
Gare de Nord tore at your heart strings as she changed
her mind and fell apart when he went without her.
Helen Flanagan, as the distraught teenager, delivered
a performance worthy of a tragic film ending, and the
brilliant writing showed yet again why the Street
continues to be one of the best dramas on the screen.
DCI Janine Lewis (Caroline Quentin) was enduring
teenage stroppiness in Blue Murder, as her son Michael
(Geoff Breton) flounced around the house, moaning
about the responsibilities he had now that the nanny
had walked out.
Janine, meanwhile, was trying to solve the murder
of an ex-con who had been jailed for killing his wife
after she drowned their dog. Had she looked in Radio
Times, she would have been able to solve it instantly,
because John McArdle, we learned, was playing both
Colin and Stephen McAteer. There you have it! Every
time an actor is seen to be playing two parts, you
know that there will be a case of dual identity,
confusion all round, and a sublime moment when the DNA
reveals all.
Sure enough, Colin and Stephen turned out to be
identical twins, the latter having killed his brother
in a fit of jealous rage. I couldn’t quite work out
why, though. One or other of them was father to the
identical twin girls (Colin, I think), and hopeless
alcoholic Vinny (Tom Bell), who had always believed he
was the father, may or may not have died at the end.
Even Vinny’s drink problem was as nothing to that
which has now been inflicted upon Prime Suspect’s Jane
Tennison (Helen Mirren). She was so blotto one
evening, she could not remember a three minute
phonecall in which she was informed of a young girl’s
There are two things you should never do when
you’ve had a few: don’t drink and dial, and, as Jane
discovered, don’t drink and pick up the phone.
This is an extraordinary piece of work (part two is
tonight): a fine script (Frank Deasy) and directed by
Philip Martin at a pace that owes more to American
crime dramas than its plodding British counterparts.
Mirren is simply breathtakingly brilliant throughout,
conveying an inner life ripped apart with an intensity
that is all the more powerful for its stillness.
My money was on Sean Philips (Stephen Tompkinson)
from the start, and now so is that of the dead girl’s
father, Tony (Gary Lewis). Jane, however, is choosing
to ignore a video revealing what he believes is
irrefutable evidence that his daughter was having an
affair with the head teacher. Oh, dear. More vodka on
the corn flakes, I suspect.
Talking of plodding British crime dramas, Vincent
returned with a plot involving “Eastern block heavy
duty” i.e. a man with a funny accent, smoking a cigar
and having secret meetings in rooms with no
Vincent (Ray Winstone) was trying to find the
killer of a waitress murdered at the Eastern block
heavy duty man’s daughter’s wedding in his hotel. In
the process, he found himself framed and locked up for
the murder of another waitress. How anyone ever got
served any food in this hotel was a miracle.
Vincent is watchable enough (if you manage to see
anything through the blue light that dominates almost
every scene), and Winstone’s on-screen presence just
about saves the slowest moments (of which there are
There were more funny Eastern European accents
looming under 15 watt bulbs in Spooks, in an episode
that did not live up to the quality of the series so
I wasn’t convinced by Adam (Rupert Penry-Jones)
calling out to nanny Jenny (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) “I’m a
spy!” in an effort to get her to stay. Funnily enough,
it was enough to get her to get her kit off and leap
into bed with him, but not before foreplay – Adam
explaining how his wife died in his arms. Personally,
“Fancy a pint?” would have been sufficient enticement
to me.
Goldplated arrived amid much hype, and unjustly so,
as it turned out.
Set amongst the well-off Cheshire set, it is packed
with Footballers’ Wives types who lack the personality
or glamour of that series’ characters.
It failed to ignite interest from the start. Never,
ever, spend the opening of a drama on a building site
featuring men in fluorescent jackets: you’ve lost half
your female audience immediately.
All the female characters merged into one, with
their flat chests (another big mistake), cheap frocks
(what on earth was the budget for this show?) and
terrible hairdos. I care not a jot about any of them
and the dullness of their lives. Still, at least
Jarvis from Emmerdale died at the end of the episode,
with the TV remote control in his hand. To be honest,
I thought I was going to do the same.
The final (and possibly last ever) episode of
Extras finished rather flatly, with Andy (Ricky
Gervais) having become Jonathan Ross’s new best friend
and finding little time for his long-time loyal
friend, Maggie (Ashley Jensen).
Andy’s aspirations struggling alongside where he
really is in life have made for the best moments in
the show, as well as Stephen Merchant’s wonderful
performance as Andy’s agent: this week’s interview
with Robert de Niro was a joy. Sadly, they’re both
ultimately destined for the slow lane in life. Even
there, they’ll still pass Sally Webster along the way.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 15th October 2006
The Town That’s Looking for Love (C4, Wednesday) *****
It’s Me or the Dog (C4, Tuesday) ***
Wife Swap (C4, Monday) **
Cooking It (C4, Tuesday) ***
Jonathan King: Life on the Outside (C4, Tuesday) ***
Ancient Rome: the Rise and Fall of an Empire (BBC1,
Thursday) *

There are many things I have done to try to get a
boyfriend: some of them not involving 18 pints, A & E
on a Saturday night, and five years of therapy.
It’s not that there are no men out there. I
currently split my time between the capital cities of
Wales, England and France, plus the Costa del Sol, so
it’s not as if I don’t have the pick of several
bunches. I just don’t like the ones on offer. It’s
unfortunate, because I am fast running out of
I have every sympathy with Vince Peart, therefore,
who was so fed up with the lack of women in his home
town of Alston in Cumbria that he started advertising
to try to attract some to the area. He marketed it as
“the Ibiza of the north”, set up a website and waited
for the calls.
The Town That’s Looking for Love began with Vince’s
search for a girlfriend, when, on £5 a day, he was
working as a coalman with his father (or is the
politically correct phrase “anthracite practitioner”
these days?). Inevitably, the media picked up on his
story, Vince became something of a local celebrity,
and was a driving force behind the campaign to save
the local hospital – which actually was saved after
Vince used his 15 minutes of fame to lobby
politicians. He also briefly found love.
I loved this film – not least, because it did not,
as almost every documentary does, spend the end of one
segment summarising what was coming up, and the start
of the next summarising everything that had gone
It was a wonderful story of an articulate young man
of 21, dissatisfied with his lot, and making up his
mind to do something about it. Along the way, he
discovered new talents as his life became more
schizophrenic. He was, he said, sitting in his
father’s broken down coal truck, living the “lowest of
the low, highest of the high.”
Vince also discovered what it was like to have his
fingers burned by the media, when Jodie Marsh called
him a dreamer, who needed to get off the steam train
and into the fast lane. Given that she knows more
about the local bikes than anything else, I thought
that a bit rich. “What has Jodie Marsh ever done?”
asked Vince. Quite.
The film was as much a tale about the media, as
about Vince’s personal journey. One minute he was on
every show in the land, the next a has-been. There was
a happy ending, however: State of Play and Shameless
writer Paul Abbott is now making a film of his story.
Vince’s adorable father, whose answer to Vince’s lows
was a sandwich (“That’ll be the best thing”) concluded
that you can’t stand in anyone’s way. Where Vince is
concerned, I don’t think that anyone will – especially
a girlfriend.
The waste of space that is Jodie Marsh turned up in
It’s Me or the Dog, in which animal behaviour expert
Victoria Stilwell was enlisted to calm the model’s six
Having moved into a new house, Jodie decided that
her four Chihuahuas, which wee on everything that
stands still for long enough, would be better off with
her parents. Living in a canine urinal was not,
however, top of her mother’s wish list, and she wanted
Jodie to start taking responsibility for her clan.
The dogs were hilarious, but then it’s hard to go
wrong with badly behaved pets. Victoria was also a
riot in the seriousness of her approach. “The pack
dynamic’s all wrong,” she declared, staying remarkably
calm after one Chihuahua raised a leg to one of her
suede boots.
One of Jodie’s main tasks was to take her dogs for
walks. For someone whose idea of a marathon is a
stroll from one end of a catwalk to another, getting
her to move her butt was the programme’s main
Persuading her family to move their butts was the
task of Wife Swap’s Debbie, who is effectively a
slave. When she swopped with working mother Angie,
however, she was horrified to see how much the
latter’s children had to do around the house, and,
when she set the rules, admonished them for cleaning
The series, which began some years ago, as an
interesting social commentary, now too often descends
into a working class versus middle class war. The
former rarely come off well, and always reveal their
true colours during the final showdown. “I’ll take you
outside in a minute, love, I’m tellin’ yer,” yelled
Debbie to Angie, before leaving the room. Quite why
her husband was so pleased to have her back says more
about his sanity than her housekeeping.
Learning what happened next is the most interesting
aspect of the programme. This week, both learned from
the experience and made changes to their lives. For
how long is anybody’s guess.
Also looking to make a change in her life was
advertising executive Polly in Cooking It, where
teacher and gourmet Jun Tanaka sets out to prove that
“Anyone can cook.”
Polly began by being “absolutely clueless”, but
under Jun’s guidance and a spell working with
Michelin-starred chef Eric Chavot, managed to beat two
professional chefs in a competition, three weeks after
her initiation.
The series is full of useful tips - for example,
use a large knife to cut vegetables, only use cook’s
string when tying food – but please get someone who
can spell to do your graphics; the music is also
ridiculously intrusive. Polly was a jolly subject, and
won – just about – but then the other two chefs’
dishes looked like something you would be more likely
to see in a Manchester gutter on a Saturday night.
I seemed to spend most of the week tuned to Channel
4 but watched with incredulity as they broadcast a
programme about convicted paedophile Jonathan King,
called Life on the Outside. The man’s arrogance and
ego are monstrous, and his stance that he has “nothing
to hide, nothing to be ashamed of” since leaving
prison, breathtaking.
Nick Hornby’s film did not let him off lightly,
although it never got even close to reaching the core
of the man. I only remember him as the bloke who sang
Everyone’s Gone to the Moon. Pity they left him
Ancient Rome continues to sound like an Eton
reunion. This week, the thousands of Roman soldiers
fought hard, long, loud and extremely tediously
against the Jews, and there were male extras by the
tonload. I didn’t fancy one of them. Even in Ancient
Rome, I’d have been hard pushed to find a bloke. And
what woman can say that.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 8th October 2006
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard (BBC1, Tuesday) *
Cracker (ITV1, Sunday) ****
Wire in the Blood ((ITV1, Wednesday) ***
The Outsiders (ITV1, Tuesday) **
Spooks (BBC1, Monday) *****
Not Going Out (BBC1, Friday) ****

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the north.
Some of my best friends are northerners. True, they
have all moved south to work on the likes of Holby
City and EastEnders, their accents have all but
disappeared, and they now all opt for macademia,
rather than peanuts with their aperitifs. In fact, the
only thing that they have not changed about themselves
is that they are all still gay. Strange, that: I don’t
know anyone from the north of England who is not gay,
which is maybe what brought them down south in the
first place.
Anyway, like I say, I have nothing against
northerners per se; but what I cannot stand is the
romanticising of the north by virtually every
television programme set there. Northerners are salt
of the earth: whatever they go through, either
professionally or personally, they pull through. They
are down to earth, keep their feet on the ground, call
a spade a spade – on and on and on, the clichés come.
By contrast, the south (and in particular, London) is
a bad, bad place, filled with evil, inhumane people,
who call a knife a knife and have no hesitation about
stabbing each other in the back with it.
The Amazing Mrs Pritchard ticks all the cliched
northern boxes, and far from being the “amiable drama”
Radio Times promises it to be, makes you want to drive
a JCB across Watford Gap and hope that everything oop
north floats off into the Arctic Circle. Everything
about it is an irritation, from the characterisation,
to the ridiculous and unbelievable plot, to the
tinkling piano and percuussion accompaniment that
signals Salt of the Earth approaching: prepare to
smile benignly at the quaintness of it all.
It stars Jane Horrocks as wife, mother and
supermarket manager Ros Pritchard, who finds herself
an overnight celebrity after stopping a politicians’
fight and claiming that she could do a better job in
government. Whadderyerknow, everyone is overwhelmed by
her northern charm, and within a few months she is
Prime Minister.
Played for laughs as a half hour comedy, the script
might have got away with its ludicrousness; but in an
hour long slot, without a laughter track, it simply
Horrocks is a fine actor, but she has done this
performance so many times before, and here, the accent
really grates (“Ah horp sor”). She is never more than
a hair’s breadth away from Bubble, the dipsy
northerner she played in Absolutely Fabulous (or two
hairs’ breadths away from the Tesco ads, come to
Sally Wainwright is a hugely talented writer (At
Home with the Braithwaites was a masterpiece), but
with the recently screened Jane Hall and, now, The
Amazing Mrs Pritchard, one cannot help wondering if
she is being pushed down a path where subtlety must
always be sacrificed on the pyre of obviousness and
underestimating the audience’s power of concentration.
Just as northerners must always be, at heart,
decent sorts, so Liverpudlians must always be born
comedians. But come on: when was the last time Paul
McCartney told a decent joke (as opposed to marrying
someone who generated them?).
Writer and Liverpudlian Jimmy McGovern is another
exception, and we must be grateful for it. Far from
sentimentalising his roots, he takes big stories, such
as Hillsborough, and examines the relationship between
truth and lies, which is the subject of all great art.
This week’s one-off Cracker looked at the lies
surrounding the war in Iraq (albeit rather preachily
at times), as ex-soldier Kenny Archer (Anthony
Flanagan) turned killer, years after serving in
Northern Ireland.
Psychologist Fitz (the ever brilliant Robbie
Coltrane) was in fine form – still a rotten husband
and father, but unwilling to change. Having worked out
who the killer of the stand-up comedian was (I’ve been
to those clubs: I’m amazed there are not more
homicides in them), Fitz’s theory was easily formed.
The war in Iraq made a mockery of everything Archer
and his mates had been through in Northern Ireland,
rendering their war insignificant. That sounded to me
dangerously like saying the guy was just on an ego
trip, and, as with all television that employs a
psychologist character, it did not ring true.
Neither did the fact that in every home and every
hotel, all anyone seemed able to get were pictures and
stories about Iraq. Sorry, but even the most committed
turn over to Deal or No deal once in a while.
Cracker at least made you realise what a great
psychologist Fitz is, alongside his contemporary, Tony
Hill (Robson Green) in Wire in the Blood.
“There are no easy answers,” Tony told weird man
Kurt Merrick (Felix Scott). “That’s hard to face.”
Anyway, Tony managed to find some answers along the
following lines: “Sadism . . . human sacrifice . . .
middle aged men have feelings . . . It’s not pins,
it’s needles . . . consensual validation . . . white
man . . . agent of sin . . . “ Kurt finally jumped to
his death from a great height. Quite frankly, I didn’t
blame him.
It appears to be Incomprehension Year in
television. What on earth was The Outsiders about?
EastEnders’ Nigel Harman starred as code breaker
Nathan Hyde, re-recruited by someone or other for a
job that involved retrieving a stolen painting that
was either real or a fake, or a fake pretending to be
real, or . . . Oh, I don’t know. Neither, it seems,
did the cast, who seemed to be in a permanent state of
stunned incomprehension throughout.
Spooks is also completely incomprehensible, but at
least the cast make it appear as if they understand
it. I hated this show when it began, but Rupert
Penry-Jones, along with the equally watchable Peter
Firth as Harry (whose attempt at a love life is
desperately poignant) have transformed it into a much
more stylish product. Note to the props’ department:
your Union Jack was upside down in the opening shot of
the summit table.
After a slow start, Lee Mack’s comedy, Not Going
Out (he co-wrote and stars in it) turned into one of
the most laugh-aloud comedies on screen in aeons. The
ubiquitous shots of buildings lend it a distinctly
American feel, but it is the tightness of the scripts
with quite complex gags, built up over conversations -
particularly between Lee (Mack) and his friend Tim
(Tim Vine) – that make it so different.
At one point, Tim was trying to explain the nature
of conversation to Lee. “It’s all the rage down
south,” he told him. Let’s hope someone tells Mrs
Pritchard that before she moves into number 10.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 24th September 2006
Stephen Fry: the Secret Life of the Manic Depressive
(BBC2, Tuesday) *****
Wire in the Blood (ITV, Wednesday) ***
Spooks (BBC1, Sunday, Monday) ****
Low Winter Sun (C4, Thursday) ****
Doctors (BBC1, Wednesday) *****

What is depression? To different people, it is
different things; and to the same person, at different
times, it can also be different things. For instance,
this week, my psyche took a major tumble when I read
that EastEnders’ producer Kate Harwood wants to bring
back Frank Butcher because she thinks Mike Reid, who
plays him, is a great actor. I immediately Googled the
Priory and local hospitals to check for availability,
both for my instantly induced depression and the
producer’s obvious insanity.
Years ago, I had the other sort of depression: a
crippling illness that leaves you unable to work,
makes you lose enthusiasm for life and pushes you to
the edge of suicide. I take the condition seriously.
To go there is to enter a place (not of your own
volition) of darkness and nothingness: a place where
time and distance are distorted, and people become
shadows. A hologram of emptiness.
Eleven years ago, I went to the opening night party
of Simon Gray’s play, Cell Mates, and commented to
friends that Stephen Fry, who was starring in it and
whom I knew, seemed not altogether with us. When I
talked to him, it was as if the words were having to
pause and bounce before being registered, throwing the
time and distance of normal conversation out of sync.
I was not altogether surprised, therefore, when, after
three performances, he walked out and, after an
aborted suicide attempt, boarded a ferry to Belgium
and subsequently began treatment for depression.
Stephen Fry: the Secret Life of the Manic
Depressive left out the Belgium bit, saying that the
ferry was bound “for Europe” – presumably because any
depressive voluntarily choosing Belgium as their
healing ground is not going to get much sympathy with
Diagnosed a week later as being bipolar (manic
depressive), Stephen began treatment in America, and
in the first of two programmes we saw him question his
diagnosis, his treatment, and face the question of
whether his condition was actually getting better or
He also visited fellow sufferers, who were mostly
so creative, fascinating and funny they made you want
to rush out and sign up for bipolar membership. Robbie
Williams, for example. How cool would it be to belong
to a club of which he was a member? This great, great
star, claimed that he was diagnosed not as being
bipolar but “dead upset”. Despite being able to get up
and give it large to 35,000 people, privately, he
said, “I lost the cog to socialise.”
Stephen Fry is one of the cleverest, funniest,
sharpest, brilliant people one ever has the privilege
to meet; he is also one of the most private, which is
what made the openness of the Secret Life so special.
The fact that everyone who has ever felt a bit sad is
now queuing up at the doctor’s claiming to be bipolar
is, alas, a bi-product of Fry’s genius.
If only all would-be bipolars could have five
minutes with Dr Tony Hill. Now there’s a man who can
diagnose correctly. The genius doctor returned in Wire
in the Blood, having recovered from his brain tumour
and raring to go to track down yet another serial
killer and give ITV’s drama department the opportunity
to show what it loves most: handcuffed girls in their
undies being tortured by sexually frustrated men. In
fact, so fond of these images is ITV, I’m beginning to
wonder whether the torture chamber that so frequents
these dramas is, in fact, in the annals of ITV’s
Gray’s Inn Road building.
Tony (Robson Green) was up against newcomer DI Alex
Fielding (Simone Lahbib), who thought he was a waste
of space (ie they will end up in bed together by about
episode three). But he soon won her over with his
ridiculous brilliance. “She had a friend!” he
declared, of one teenager who had gone missing. A
teenager with a friend? Extraordinary! “She wanted to
control, she wanted to be controlled,” he went on.
“The way you talk,” said Alex, “it makes no sense to
me.” You and me both.
The basic premise of Wire in the Blood is
completely daft, but it has the best sound of any
drama on the box, and it is the tension and atmosphere
that this brings to the piece that stops you laughing
aloud at every turn.
Spooks also returned with another ludicrously
improbable plot that I will not even begin to try to
explain – not least because I’m still trying to work
it out. But you know something? I don’t care. Rupert
Penry-Jones is the most beautiful man I have ever seen
and I could watch his exquisite mouth spout any sort
of drivel and still not care one iota what the meaning
of it all was.
Happily, Adam (Penry-Jones) survived the bullet
wound that saw him floored at the end of the last
series and returned to get one over on MI6 and al
Quaeda, save the Prime Minister’s son, beat someone
up, rescue his boss and save the world. For all the
madness, the show is fantastically well made and, this
time round, has a polish that puts it right up there
with the best of American drama. Oh, but Rupert,
Rupert: why did you choose Dervla Kirwan over me?
Actually, don’t answer that.
Mark Strong is another of my heartthrobs and it is
good to see that this extraordinary actor is at last
being more fully utilised. Channel 4’s two-parter, Low
Winter Sun, lost something in its being spread over
two weeks, but Strong (Frank Agnew) and Brian McCardie
(Joe Geddes) delivered performances that made a return
for the second half a must.
It’s a shame that Joe blew his brains out at the
end, as these two Edinburgh coppers were ripe material
for a full-blown series. Still, maybe Frank could wake
up and discover it was all a dream.
The 1,000th exceptionally crafted episode of the
consistently good Doctors saw one death (a glamorous
coke addict) and a lot of doctors driving at
ridiculous speeds like an accident waiting to happen –
which it did.
One woman had cancer of the mouth, another was
unhappily pregnant, a man thought he heard dead
people, another kept trying to kill himself to try to
get his ex-wife back, a very angry man was being too
angry to talk about attending anger management
classes, the coke addict was undoing her blouse, a fat
jogger kept running in the path of vehicles. Gosh, it
was a busy day at the surgery. All that was missing
was a bipolar diagnosis. At the end of it, the only
thing they could be thankful for was that Stephen Fry
hadn’t walked in.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 10th September 2006

Aberfan: the Untold Story (BBC1, Thursday) *****
The Path to 9/11 (BBC2, Sunday, Monday) ****
Out of the Blue (Five, Monday) *****
Extras (BBC2, Thursday) ****
Angel Cake (BBC1, Friday) ***
Losing It (ITV1, Wednesday) ***

Chepstow Road, Newport, 1966. My mother’s salon. I
remember the smell of lacquer and the sticky marks the
plastic bottles left on worktops; armies of pink and
blue setting lotion in tiny tubes; banks of rollers
for the stiff beehives constructed on a daily basis.
And, one day, a shadow descending on the glamour: a
first aid tin with a slot engineered at the top to
collect coins, and the sides sealed with Elastoplast.
One word written on a piece of paper and sellotaped to
the top: Aberfan.
I was eight, and when a whole generation of
children lost their lives under the slag heap that
descended on their primary school on October 20th, our
parents seemed to cling to us with renewed love. We
were the saved. The chosen. And we never forgot.
Forty years on, the name of the village still has
the power to chill, and Aberfan: The Untold Story
invested it with even greater intensity in a story
that made you weep both for the lost generation and
the people they left behind. The footage of “Britain’s
first televised disaster” is familiar, but never loses
its ability to shock, and was shown here without
resorting to melodramatic voiceover. When a subject is
inherently dramatic, it is unnecessary to over-egg the
pudding, and this documentary was perfectly toned in
its restraint.
The people of Aberfan have waited 40 years to tell
their story, and if you have looked over to see the
rows of white graves united in the hillside as you
drive along the M4, it is not hard to understand the
villagers’ reluctance to re-visit the pain. But this
is a story of disgusting proportions that needed to be
told: a story of incompetence on the part of the Coal
Board, and Government neglect that ignited an anger
that burns to this day.
The remaining tips that Harold Wilson had promised
would be taken away finally were – but the villagers
had to pay, at a cost of £150,000, which was taken
from the funds raised in the aftermath of the tragedy.
In 1997, Tony Blair repaid the money, but only for the
original amount which, at that time, would have been
the equivalent of £1.5 million. Shame on the lot of
Just as I remember where I was when I heard about
Aberfan, I remember where I was on 11th September
2001: in London’s Groucho Club with Keith Waterhouse,
but then that that was where I was for pretty much
every major news event of the year.
The Path to 9/11 was another story of incompetency
at the highest levels, and although it claimed at the
outset that it was not setting out to assign
“individual blame”, that is exactly what it did. It
was abundantly clear that the power of political
correctness in Government overpowered the voices of
those who were taking terrorism more seriously.
Shot evocatively in the spirit of the film Mile 8,
it followed the tragedy through the eyes of John
O’Neill (Harvey Keitel), ex-FBI agent and, in 2001,
Director of Security at the World Trade Centre.
Blocked by “the guys upstairs”, as he tried to
convince them of the scale of the war in which America
was undoubtedly engaged, he eventually lost his job –
and, on 9/11, his life.
The Path to 9/11 effectively merged complex factual
information with O’Neill’s personal journey (the story
had been tailored “for dramatic purposes”), and the
result was a very watchable two-parter whose only
fault was the unnecessary duplication of the final
moments of the doomed planes. After all, it’s not as
if we needed to be told how the story ended.
We may all have been a bit tragedied out this week,
but I’m glad I caught the breathtaking work of genius,
Out of the Blue. Simon Armitage’s poem about the
events of 9/11, performed quite brilliantly by Rufus
Sewell, was Five’s greatest achievement yet.
Interspersed with first person stories both from
survivors and the bereaved, along with footage of the
tragedy, the programme captured the spirit of the
event in all its poignancy, panic and disbelief, and
the poem placed it within the context of a world that
is forever changed in the aftermath.
There were some truly great lines: a lift opening
to reveal “September the dragon”; “I see hard life
flying”; “The tower to the south now loses heart”.
And, ultimately: “Everything changed; nothing is
Thank goodness, in an inevitably heavy week, for
Ricky Gervais, who returned in a new series of Extras.
This time round, Andy has branched into sitcom but was
unhappy with the way the BBC was abusing his original
I suspect that there were a lot of “in” jokes
relating to the way that broadcasting works that would
have gone over the heads of those not in the know (and
how many people actually care?); but Gervais’s innate
sense of drama, great one-liners and exquisitely
measured performance still ensure that there is enough
common ground to enjoy.
I also love Stephen Merchant (co- writer/director
with Gervais) as the agent who will do anything to get
Barry from EastEnders a part. It’s a running gag that
never fails.
There were a lot of women cooking in the week’s
drama. In Midsomer Murders, a man paid a woman to play
the perfect housewife, baking him a sponge cake as a
prelude to him putting his hand up her skirt. In
Losing It, Martin Clunes played a copywriter best
known for a commercial in which a wife baked the
perfect fish pie. And in Angel Cake, Sarah Lancashire
starred as Elaine, a wife and mother dissatisfied with
her lot until she baked some rock cakes that came out
of the oven bearing an effigy of the Virgin Mary.
I’m a bit fed up with all these trapped women
currently populating our dramas; quite frankly, if
you’re not happy, change things. To be fair, that is
what Elaine did, albeit in a story that we have seen a
million times before. Lancashire, however, can do no
wrong, and I would tune in to watch her reading the
Yellow Pages.
Likewise, Martin Clunes, whose character Phil
discovered he had testicular cancer that made him
re-evaluate what was really important in life.
At least, I think that’s what Losing It was about.
I’m not sure, because just as I was getting into it,
the credits rolled. The gist of it, though, was that
you really do have to make the most of every day. In a
week of remembrance such as this, we need to remind
ourselves of that.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 10th September 2006
Life Begins (ITV1, Monday) ***
Aftersun (BBC1, Friday) ****
The Only Boy For Me (ITV1, Wednesday) **
Midsomer Murders (ITV1, Sunday) *****
Rebus (ITV1, Friday) ****
Dalziel and Pascoe (BBC1, Sunday, Monday) *

What do the following have in common? David Nicholls,
Mike Bullen, Mark Wallington, David Lawrence, David
Kane, Dusty Hughes? The first point is that they are
all men; the second, that all their names were
attached as writers to new dramas screened this week.
Male writers easily outnumber women in television
drama, and there is one simple reason for this: men
write soppy dramas that lots of women want to watch,
and very few women do (Kay Mellor and Sally Wainwright
are notable exceptions). Lynda la Plante, for example,
now writes gory storylines that have viewers clutching
their pillows in horror.
Our male writers instinctively know how to pull at
the female viewers’ heartstrings, and there was a
veritable orchestra tuning up this week.
Mike Bullen, who wrote the hugely successful Cold
Feet, returned with Life Begins, the saga of a
marriage that goes through . . . well, all the things
that the couples in Cold Feet went through: domestic
stress, adultery, sexual tension, et al. It stars
Caroline Quentin as Maggie, who is married to Phil
(Alexander Armstrong) and working in a travel agent’s,
where business takes second place to discussing sexual
problems (why do they need so many staff when no one
ever books a holiday?).
Phil appears to be over his mid-life crisis, which
saw him run off with another woman, and episode one of
the new series saw him and Maggie trying to re-kindle
their sexual relationship.
The problem was that we had seen it all before. The
candles, the interrupted seduction when something goes
wrong (here, the curtains catching fire), the
misunderstanding at the core of the plot (the
neighbours mistaking Phil and Maggie for swingers).
This is predictable comedy by numbers, ticking all
the right boxes for a tried and tested ITV1 formula
(i.e. it’s not funny, but you smile at the right
points because you know that you should), and,
dramatically, failing to ignite any empathy for the
couple. Few people write girlie drama better than
Bullen, but I always find myself craving for a Mafia
hit to break the humdrum of family life.
Aftersun was a one-off girlie drama that, as
another “comedy drama” was neither as comic, nor as
dramatic as it should have been, but it was
nevertheless a very watchable yarn with the bonus of a
Spanish Place in the Sun type setting, and terrific
central performances.
Why is no one capable of having a happy marriage in
TV drama? Here was another pair, Sue (Sarah Parish)
and Jim (Peter Capaldi), supposedly celebrating their
20th wedding anniversary and arguing about everything
from reading material to sex.
Arriving at the villa that their children had
booked for them, they were constantly reminded of
their stale relationship by the frolics of the young
Esther (Anna Madeley) and her Spainsh stud fiancé
(Felipe Juan Pablo Di Pace – more of him on our
screens, please), who shared their pool.
The emotional journey, which culminated in Sue
listing her husband’s many foibles, including “the way
you sit on the loo for hours reading about Nazis”,
brought them to a precipice in the marriage. Of
course, they stayed together, as we knew they would;
Felipe did a runner in the night. As, of course, we
knew he would, too.
The boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl
formula made The Only Boy For Me utterly predictable,
and even more so when you saw that Helen Baxendale was
in the lead.
She played Annie, single mother of the manipulative
Charlie (Karl Rogers), and stalwart of the local
school’s PTA. But whadderyerknow, she was walking on
the beach one day, and along came this gorgeous hunk,
Mack (Patrick Baladi), who immediately asked her out
to dinner following a discussion about limpets.
Why do scenes such as these only happen in TV
drama? Then, whadderyerknow again, Mack turned out to
be single, loaded and about to run an advertising
agency in New York. Should Annie go? Hmmm. Easy
decision – you would think. But no. Charlie started to
play up, and she decided to stay in her village where,
after reconsidering, Mack decided to join her. At
least it gave Baxendale the chance to show that she is
capable of playing someone whose speech is not
hampered by lockjaw.
Midsomer Murders returned, with Joyce (Jane Wymark)
spouting more words than she has ever managed to do in
a single episode. This had more to do with her being
in the choir and going to lots of practices, but
Wymark might be advised that if she wishes to enhance
her verbal part, she should put in a word for Joyce
joining more choral societies.
Death in Chorus followed its traditional format –
sunny day, village community, gruesome deaths messing
up the tablecloths – but, as always, it was so well
crafted and produced, you bobbed along on a wave of
contentment in the knowledge that the killer would be
caught, and Barnaby (John Nettles) would still be
wearing his winter suit, despite the 84 degree heat.
Talking of suits, Joyce lent one of Barnaby’s old
ones to Barnaby’s sidekick, Ben (the immensely likable
Jason Hughes), claiming that Barnaby had outgrown it.
How? He never eats anything. This week, he left Joyce
in a restaurant just as his chicken pie arrived (you
really shouldn’t have to keep putting up with this,
woman) and a breakfast. He did manage a meal with the
pathologist and Joyce, and even filled the dishwasher
afterwards; but it’s the first time he’s made it to
dessert in a decade.
Rebus also returned, shot in the proverbial blue
light that all British detective dramas now employ
because they think it makes them look like their
American counterparts. Thanks to Ken Stott in the
lead, Rebus manages it better than most, but parts of
the script were dire.
Stott is never less than compulsively watchable,
but the character’s shrink, Belinda (Lynsey Baxter) is
laughable. It’s not Baxter’s fault, just the fault of
appalling lines that reveal her to be the most
incompetent of therapists.
Dalziel and Pascoe returned amid even more blue
light, and a storyline that was as boring as it was
disjointed. Every time the story floundered, it was as
if someone said: “I know: let’s do another of those
shots of the people going in and out of caves”, and
off they went again.
“How much longer?” Dalziel (Warren Clarke) asked,
during yet another cave episode. It was a question I
was asking myself. Now what they really needed, to
alleviate the boredom, was a couple of girls trying to
get off with the cavemen. Where are you, Mike Bullen,
when we really need you?

Mail on Sunday TV Review 3rd September 2006
The Sharon Osbourne Show ITV1, Tuesday to Friday .....

Love Island ITV1, Sunday, Monday .....

Murphy's Law BBC1, Sunday Monday Tuesday .....

The Sopranos The Charlotte Church Show C4, Friday .....

E4, Thursday .....

There was a time when the Edinburgh Television Festival was a place where
desperate executives went merely to get free wine and their annual quota of
sex. They constantly declared: 'Well, that was a waste of time!' and always
regretted the trek to the opening MacTaggart lecture, where a suit talked
drivel for an hour.

How times change. At this year's event, which was the best yet, ITV's
outgoing Chief Executive, Charles Allen, set the tone in his MacTaggart
lecture with a robust criticism of Channel 4; elsewhere, you were spoiled
choice with regard to individual sessions.

Al Gore, the brilliant Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators and writers
South Park), Jeremy Beadle – don't laugh: the man is one of the brightest,
most articulate people in the business.

The biggest disappointment was prior to the session about the nature of
celebrity: contrary to what it said in the programme, we were informed,
'Charlotte Church will not be attending.' The collective sigh could be
in Fife. Had she pulled out because she would be sharing a platform with
Rebecca 'I'm very bright really' Loos (when is that woman going to stop
banging on about how she's been hard done by?). Or was she too busy
for her chat show? She would be justified in citing either as a reason.

Channel 4 threw a lot of money behind advertising Charlotte's break into
television, and in those adverts alone this incredible 20-year-old revealed
herself to be a terrific actor who the camera loves.

Twenty. She's only 20, for goodness sake.

She was a child superstar; she's an adult pop star; and, in her TV debut
The Charlotte Church Show, it is clear she is going to be a TV wonder as

Her smile lights up the screen; her intelligence shines; she engages in
repartee with guests rather than sits like a stone awaiting their
She is very, very funny; and she has none of the arrogance so rife among TV

Makeup experts turned her into a black man and she went speed-dating: it
a riot, and her ability to think on her feet with potential dates revealed
Charlotte's immense abilities as a comic. She adopted another persona for
item about the audience, and when she joined The Feeling for the final
she again reminded us of the talent that made her name.

It is desperately important that she sing at the end of each show: her
ability to do so makes her stand out from other chat show hosts and brings
variety element to the proceedings that is so lacking in television these

Any problems with the show are just a matter of tweaking.

Personally, I don't like the sidekick, who brings an air of falsity to the
event that slows up Charlotte's spontaneity; and, as yet, there are not
enough high-energy moments, such as that provided by the hilarious comedian
Michael McIntyre. But I loved the set. I loved the comedy. I love her. And
it's not just because she's Welsh.

Sharon Osbourne also brought her chat show to TV this week, albeit with a
shakier start. The speed of much of the proceedings made me wonder who was
the crew's Mogadon dealer; and the regular appearance of husband Ozzy's
sisters is just self-indulgence.

Sharon comes into her own, though, when she deals with ordinary members of
the public, among whom she reacts with more ease than she does with the

The Sharon Osbourne Show won't dent Paul O'Grady's ratings when he
to Channel 4, but Sharon is a compelling personality (and a stunning one –
don't care how many knives it took to get there) who will doubtless relax
into her new role.

I love her, too.

I also love Brendan Cole (the holiday sun I have just enjoyed has made me
temporarily mellow), on who I had, and continue to have, a terrible crush.
voted for him dozens of times on the last night of Love Island, and still
lost out to the desperately dull Calum Best, who won with the equally dull
Bianca Gascoigne.

It was George Best and Paul Gascoigne whom the public were really voting
for, otherwise my boy, with his great body and superior intelligence, would
have walked it.

I don't care how much people knocked this show; it was a great narrative
which personalities unfolded naturally in the way that Big Brother, before
became a freak show, intended their contestants to do.

I don't love Murphy's Law (I knew the effects of the sun would wear off).
What on earth was BBC1 thinking, putting it out over three nights? At least
it didn't prolong the misery over a number of weeks, but it was ironic that
an anti-drugs storyline made me wish I was on them, just to get me through
the thing.

Shot almost exclusively under blue light, it starred James Nesbitt looking
like a moustached Mexican trying to stop some incomprehensible Irishmen
doing bad things. Well, sort of. I could have been fluent in Russian in the
time it took me to understand a word of it.

There were lots of men doing bad things in The Sopranos, from which
Law could learn a lot of lessons. It is the detail of drama that makes the
story, not the big events. In the opening episode, Tony (James Gandolfini)
ate and ate and ate obsessively, and when he wasn't eating, he was often
talking about eating.

The ability to talk and eat is very difficult (ask any of the EastEnders
cast, who always sound like pigs at a trough), and Gandolfini does it with
immense naturalism.

Has he survived being shot by his uncle?

This week's Radio Times tells us that in episode two, 'Tony has an odd
dream'. You decide.

In A New Life: Risking It All (C4 Tuesday ***) budding entrepreneurs Craig
and Richard set up Loaf, a hairdressing salon that they hoped would be the
first of many on the road to their becoming millionaires.

Expert Martin Webb was there to advise, and the business went from
to strength. The problem throughout was that it succeeded with apparent
and the minor difficulties seemed to have been exaggerated by the programme
for dramatic purposes. Let's be honest, the smartest way forward for any
business is to get on a TV show.

Mark Watson was the comedy highlight of the week in Live At The Fringe
(Paramount 1, Tuesday *****). His act – a very exaggerated Welshman – is a
masterclass in standup, and in the week of Charlotte's Welsh triumph, it
another notch on the nation's belt. Apparently, he's from Bristol. I don't
care. Cymru am byth!


Mail on Sunday TV Review 6th August 2006
Dragons’ Den (BBC2, Thursday) *****
A Town Called Eureka (Sky One, Wednesday) ***
Stranger than Fiction: Death in the Deep Freeze (Five,
Monday) ****
A Swinging Murder (C4, Wednesday) **
Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive (BBC3, Wednesday)
The Funny Business (BBC3, Thursday) ****

Traumas relating to lavatorial experiences in the
middle of the night are manifold. Invariably, they
involve drunken men finding themselves in the wardrobe
rather than the bathroom. The closest I came to such a
mishap was when, a little the worse for wear, I
mistook the telephone and its table in the hall for
the toilet. Even sitting on the dial for ten minutes
did nothing to bring me to my senses, and it was only
the next morning, when I found myself having to wring
out the Yellow Pages, that I realised my error.
There was much talk of traumatic experiences with
toilets in the return of the hilarious and brilliant
Dragons’ Den, in which budding entrepreneurs seek
investment from five successful business executives. A
lady called Jacqueline was looking for £85,000 for her
company, Totally Different Ltd. She had two products:
a disposable toilet seat cover and a fluffy one. The
former was elasticated and, as new dragon Deborah
Meaden pointed out, required one to spend a great deal
more time fitting it and therefore looking down a
toilet bowl than you would ever wish to. The latter,
Jacqueline reckoned, would be especially good in
Scotland, where toilet seats are apparently colder.
Scottish born dragon Duncan Bannatyne explained that
Scotland has electricity and central heating now.
Jacqueline was incredulous that Deborah, as a
woman, declared “I’m out.” “What we have to go through
. . . “ she puffed. “I don’t know what traumatic
experiences you’ve had in the toilet . . . “ Deborah
went on.
This was one of the funniest exchanges in this
compulsive show that is both great entertainment and
an insightful glimpse into the world of business. The
other new dragon, softly spoken Richard Fairleigh, is
a great contrast to Peter Jones, whose love of over
the top acting is fast making Olivier’s seem like
still life. Theo Paphitis’s great business brain
continues to reveal itself in a remarkable ability to
absorb information, mentally file it and immediately
summarise the pros and cons. He is also the funniest
of the group, and his exchange with James, who had
invented an electronic egg boiler, was a riot.
On his first attempt at showing how the prototype
worked, James forgot to put the egg in. The next one
came out raw. So did the next one. Theo held his head
in his hands and decided that he was out. “I’m gonna
make this dead easy,” he said. “Animals, children,
electrical products.”
Peter and Richard split the £75,000 James required
in return for 20% each of the business. Personally,
like Peter, I think he will sell millions. That’s all
dependent upon it ever working, though.
If I were on the show, it seems to me there is a
foolproof way to come away with thousands. Theo made
his money by buying up failing companies and
transforming them into thriving businesses. Why not
just go into the den with a whacking great failure and
flog it to him. Brilliant!
There were more inventions on show in A Town Called
Eureka. The problem was, that even after the two hour
pilot, you still didn’t have a clue what they were.
Eureka is apparently where all the great scientific
inventions are developed, mostly in vats of liquid
nitrogen; but when something goes wrong, it really
goes wrong. First, everything outside the plant
liquefies and then it burns to a crisp. Lucky, then,
that the gorgeous Jack (Colin Ferguson) is around to
do a Kiefer Sutherland and save the day.
It is all utter nonsense, and only watchable during
the bits when it is played tongue in cheek. Ferguson,
however, is tasty eye candy when the car chases get
too much.
Liquid nitrogen was being used to more beneficial
effect in Death in the Deep Freeze, which examined the
science of cryogenics. Should you wish to live
forever, you can have yourself preserved in liquid
nitrogen when you die, and then, when society finds a
cure for what killed you, be reawakened and start all
over again.
That’s the theory, anyway. To others, such as Dr
Arthur W Rowe, it is all a con to make money and no
more possible to achieve than turning a burger back
into a cow.
I’m with Dr Rowe. Interesting as this documentary
was as science fiction (and it succeeded in making
scientific jargon comprehensible), that is all
cryogenics is. Every society since the beginning of
time has developed a system to help people cope with
the fact that they die (everlasting life in religion),
and this is just a 21st century version of that
notion: a mechanism to alleviate one’s fears that is
as daft as it is primitive.
Technological advances are not always for the
benefit of mankind, as we discovered in A Swinging
Murder, a totally inappropriate title, given the fact
that one of the people featured met his death by
hanging himself.
The documentary examined the case of Maria de Gois,
whose battered and half-strangled body was found in
the boot of a car in Melbourne in 2005. Her husband,
Joe, had become heavily involved with swingers he met
on the internet, and when he dumped his mistress, she
confessed to her part in the crime and shopped him for
the murder of Maria, who had died after being in a
coma. Shortly afterwards, he committed suicide.
The sensationalist style of storytelling, in
particular regarding the details surrounding the
swingers’ activities, detracted from the details of
what was a horrific crime, and the programme had a
grubby feel as a result.
Thank heaven for BBC3, which is the first port of
call for any decent comedy these days. Rob Brydon’s
Annually Retentive continues to delight with its
behind the scenes look at a panel show (terrific
appearance by Heat editor Boyd Hilton this week), and
The Funny Business was a beautifully made film about
comedy manager Ian Franklin.
It was hard to tell at the outset whether this was
a satirical show about its subject, a man on a
“mission” to change the way that comedy is run, by
“being nice.”
But it turned out to be a rather touching
documentary about comedy management. It would have
been easy to poke fun at Ian and his serious approach
to what were, mostly, rotten comics on his books;
letting the subject speak for himself, however, backed
by an understated commentary, made for a more
revealing show.
Will Ian and his acts change the world? No more
than Jacqueline and her toilet seat covers, I suspect.
But, as with them, the world will be a warmer place
for their being in it.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 30th July 2006
Love Island (ITV1, daily) *****
Love Island Aftersun (ITYV2, daily) *****
The Hades Factor (Sky One, Sunday) ***
Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole in My Heart (BBC2,
Wednesday) **
Sorted (BBC1, Tuesday) ****
The Boys Who Killed Stephen Lawrence (BBC1, Wednesday)
Death Detective (BBC3, Monday) ****

Apparently, we have been enjoying a heatwave. I have
no idea. Since Sky Plus has been installed, I have
rarely ventured off the sofa. If you are looking for
an excuse never to do any exercise ever again, this is
it. Heck, by recording stuff straight onto the box's
hard drive, you now don't even have to cross the
to search for a blank video. I can barely remember
what a video is, anyway. I may have put on three
stone, but at least my living room is a lot tidier.
You have to feel sorry for people without this
technical wizardry because they are currently stuck
with the news between each half of Love Island every
evening. I've never been a big fan of television
because it is largely so depressing. ITV has always
tried to lighten its load with a bit about a dog
making its debut at the Royal Albert Hall, or some
such nonsense at the end, but it's never been quite
enough to send one off to sleep soundly.
Now, the news is ruining Love Island. There we are
one minute, enjoying a load of Z list celebrities
frolicking in the Fijian sun, talking about nothing
but getting off with each other, then it's
Hezbollah, Hezbollah for half an hour, and boy, does
it make returning to the island hard work.
But it's worth it. I am obsessed by the show and,
after a dubious start, it is now compulsive viewing.
Patrick Kielty and Fearne Cotton have settled into
their roles as presenters, and the former's
provide much laugh aloud comedy. Over on ITV2 in Love
Island Aftersun, the fabulous Jayne Middlemiss is also
well paired with Matt Born.
Sophie-baiting again provided the greatest
entertainment this week, with the self-obsessed model
managing to find even more to say about herself. I
know, I know, it's hard to believe that there was
anymore, but her classic line was “I'd love to see
what you say behind my back.� “I'll tell you,�
Brendan, who, if he had managed to find a machete
hanging around, would doubtless have used it.
Sophie was concerned for Paul, who claimed to have
“hurt in my heart� because Lee had played a trick
him – a trick of Shakespearean proportion. He told
that Sophie fancied him and, if he kept smiling, she
would go for him. Armed with incorrect information,
Paul acted upon it and, like Twelfth Night's
went about inanely grinning and simpering and making a
complete twit of himself.
Another classic moment was Sophie pondering who
newcomer Dennis Rodman thought was “the bitch� in
group. On ITV2, Jayne and Matt held up a sign:
the bitch Sophie and Shane doesn't love you.�
Riotously funny. ITV may not be able to produce a
decent sitcom, but Love Island is pretty damned close.
Now, let's see if I can summarise The Hades
There is a man called John (Stephen Dorff) who has no
time to shave, a dodgy brunette who has died her hair
blonde, a few blokes with dodgy Eastern European
accents, a few more blokes with dodgy German accents,
and lots of people in uniform in Maryland, Guantanemo
Bay, Washington and Berlin. Oh, yes, and some suicide
bombers in Paris who are injecting themselves with a
virus which all the above-named people appear to want
to stop. Or spread. The CIA are in there somewhere,
too, and may or may not be behind the shootings of the
Germans and Eastern Europeans. Something happened in
Afghanistan somewhere along the line. I think. Oh, I
don't know. It's just all one big car chase to me.
I didn't really get Shiny Shiny Bright New Hole
My Heart, either; but for different reasons. I'm
not a big shopper, and the compulsion that drives
people to lose everything to feed their addiction has
always evaded me.
This drama did very little to explain it. Despite
the fine cast, including Daniela Nardini and Steven
Mackintosh, it only showed the effects of what is
undoubtedly an illness; the whys and wherefores
remained a mystery.
It's a little surprising that Sorted has been
tucked away in the summer schedules because it is
really rather good. It's a bit formulaic – all the
usual domestic and personal problems that make life
such a struggle – but the central characters (all
postmen) are an amusing bunch of blokes with hearts.
Eva Pope's character Cath, however, is still in a
coma, which is an incredible waste.
Mark Daly has spent the last year examining new
evidence pertaining to The Boys Who Killed Stephen
Lawrence. The murder of the black teenager on the
streets of Eltham 13 years ago continues to provoke
extreme anger, as no one has ever been convicted of
his murder.
The shambles of the initial investigation now
appear to be explained by the delaying tactics of a
corrupt officer in charge, and this can only be
further devastating news to the Lawrence family.
The whole process has been a disgrace and a farce,
and although there was too much repetition in the
documentary, it was a story well told, with convincing
reconstructions – always a rarity in such shows.
Death came to the screen in a more macabre fashion
in The Death Doctor, where we basically learned that
you can tell a lot about a person from their insides
(although I suspect that if you opened Sophie Anderton
up, you'd be hard pushed to find the organs amongst
the ego).
Forensic pathologist Dr Dick Shepherd has performed
over 20,000 autopsies, and the first episode saw him
applying his skills to determine how three people died
in suspicious or mysterious circumstances.
The only things I know about forensic pathology, I
have gleaned from Silent Witness (oh, how we miss
Amanda Burton) and Quincy. Dr Dick does not have the
latter's sidekick Sam (poor Sam, who never left the
laboratory), nor an angry boss telling him he is
always wrong, even when, week after week, all the
evidence points to the contrary.
He just gets on with his job, tearing apart flesh
with the precision of a top butcher and taking to his
subjects with practical ease – “Right. I'll
unzip him
and you do the head. Scalpel!�
Some scenes were a bit gory and it made you fear
for the dangers lurking out there that could put you
prematurely on the slab. One woman had died from
smoking-related lung cancer; a man from a drugs
overdose; another woman had fallen down the stairs
after heavy drinking. Think I'll just stick to
watching TV all day. It's a lot safer.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 23rd July 2006

Excuse My French (BBC2, Tuesday) ***
The Inspector Lynley Mysteries (BBC1, Thursday) ****
Silent Witness (BBC1, ~Sunday, Monday) *
Law and Order (Five, Friday) ****
The Chase (BBC1, Sunday) *
The Law of the Playground (C4, Friday) *

The real reason that Brits are hopeless at learning
languages has nothing to do with laziness or
incompetency; they have no aptitude for them because
language teachers in this country are, and always have
been, the most unpleasant in their profession. That is
why, at the first chance we get, most of us drop
foreign reflexive verbs and go for softer options such
as sociology.
I have never met anyone who liked their language
teacher. My Welsh teacher was very nice but bored us
rigid with tales of the Mabinogion (endless stories
about knights or some such nonsense). That didn’t stop
the careers teacher recommending that I take my mother
tongue for O Level, rather than French, because by the
time I left university Welsh would be “a worldwide
accepted language.” I’m still waiting.
Excuse my French is set in the horror that is the
world of languages. Three tutors from the Institut
Francais have the unenviable task of teaching three
“celebrities” in the hope that, after four weeks, they
will have learnt enough to perform their day job in
their new tongue.
The three victims – Esther Rantzen, Ron Atkinson
and Marcus Brigstocke – are presumably there for no
reason other than that they couldn’t get onto Love
Island. Why else would someone come up with such a
bizarre trio to throw together in a Provencal villa
for four weeks? Marcus is a very funny writer and
comedian, and he will need his sense of humour if he
is to survive what already appears to be sheer hell.
The tutors are a humourless bunch who do not think
the group are taking the experience seriously enough;
however, traipsing around the streets of southern
France in the worst rainfall for 50 years, you really
would need to have a few laughs. Attempting to reach
the island of Porquerolles, speaking only French
(English can only be spoken after 6pm), poor old
Esther bravely tried to keep a smile on her face as
she struggled with her rucksack and umbrella. Marcus,
meanwhile, was having a great time on the TGV, and
Ron, who has no French at all, incredibly made the
journey with ease and even found time to stop off for
a two hour lunch break en route.
Generally speaking, there is only one thing worse
than trying to learn a language, and that is watching
people trying to learn one. The programme works,
though, because it turns what is essentially a sitting
down experience into an active one. The threesome are
out on the streets, trying to converse with the
locals, and the mistakes they make are often very
funny. “I would like the horrors, please,” said
Marcus, when trying to ask for a timetable.
Was it Liza Tarbuck week in television? She did the
commentary for Excuse My French, presented Britain’s
Top Dog, and also starred in The Inspector Lynley
As DI Fiona Knight, Tarbuck delivered a strong,
compeeling performance that made this first episode a
great deal more watchable than previous ones have ever
been. The normally simpering Havers (Sharon Small)
acquired a new lease of life, and the vapid, suspended
Inpector Lynley (Nathaniel Parker) was sidelined as he
awaited news about his future.
Fiona was a very gutsy character who could quite
easily carry her own series, and Tarbuck’s delivery
enabled the script to get away with some very dodgy
lines. Fiona should have explained to Havers, though,
that if you hide behind one weed, roughly three yards
away from your suspect, you are going to be in
trouble. “I think he saw me!” panicked Barbara at one
point. You don’t say.
Silent Witness also returned with what was easily
the worst episode in the show’s history. The subject
of people trafficking is always a tough one, not least
because it is, by necessity, breathtakingly dark. But
it doesn’t have to be dull, and this was.
Even the gory selection of limbs that kept turning
up was not enough to sustain interest, and there was
none of the usual tension and camaraderie between the
pathologists. “Contains scenes some viewers may find
upsetting,” the Radio Times had warned. Perhaps. If
they managed to stay awake that long.
Our own crime dramas continue to look amateurish
alongside their American counterparts. The storyline
in Law and Order was a bit predictable this week, but
heck, it’s so well written. “Home alone’s a movie, not
an alibi,” said Briscoe (Jerry Orbach), admonishing a
Britain continues to hide its dross in the summer
schedules and, hot on the heels of Jane Hall comes The
Chase, which is typical Sunday night viewing – jiggy
music, rolling countryside, and a family business
passed on to a generation which doesn’t want it. But
they’ll take it anyway: in this case, a vet’s practice
passed no by George (Keith Barron) to his daughters,
Anna (Gaynor Faye) and Sarah (Nicola Stephenson).
It will doubtless be hugely popular as it ticks all
the cliché boxes of Sunday night drama; plus, it has
animals, which is the big green light on any show
these days. Does this stuff just keep getting to our
screens because our commissioning editors can’t get
Channel 5 and its great American output on their sets
and are therefore learning nothing?
What the best American dramas do is to bring
Hollywood values in terms of production and writing to
well-budgeted, creative and original shows. Here, we
continue to throw money at exactly the same products
whose sameness is the reason for falling audience
If you thought you didn’t know any of the people on
Love Island (Sophie Anderton is really, really getting
on my wick now; doesn’t the woman ever stop banging on
about herself?), how did those featured on The Law of
the Playground fare?
I knew only Vic Reeves and That Bloke from Peep
Show. “Inspired by Jonathan Blyth’s website and book”
said Radio Times, although I was no clearer what
either are by the end of the programme.
The first of seven featured people talking about
different aspects of their schooldays, including the
school disco and breaking wind – a subject of endless
fascination to boys, which is why there were so many
men talking about it here.
The trouble was, none of them had anything vaguely
interesting or insightful to say about their pasts.
For instance, Iain Lee (I think he’s That Bloke from
That Late Night Thingummyjig) said he never had the
last dance in the school disco, but then everyone says
If only they had spent more of their time at school
learning French rather than sharing their bowel

Mail on Sunday TV Review 16th July 2006

Love Island (ITV1, daily) ***

Poker Face (ITV1, daily) **

Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive (BBC3, Tuesday) *****

Jane Hall (ITV1, Wednesday) *

Soundproof (BBC2, Wednesday) ****

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Five, Tuesday) *****

Bad Girls (ITV1, Thursday) ****

The list of celebrities willing to humiliate themselves on national television is now so far down the alphabet, we are beyond Z and coming round a second time.

But then so are many of the so-called celebs. Fran Cosgrove appeared on I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! and Celebrity Love Island (I still don’t know who he is – a DJ or something, I think). The model Sophie Anderton also appeared on I’m a Celebrity and turned up this week on Love Island, which, returning for a second series, has dropped its “celebrity” tag.

Just as well. Who on earth are these hangers-on? Chris was introduced as “the son” of actor Pierce Brosnan; Victoria as “the sister” of somebody else of no importance; Shane “used to” be in a boy band.

And then there was Sophie. Tearful, whingeing Sophie. Not content with making a complete fool of herself on her last reality outing with her vacuous self-obsession, she was back to do it all over again. Yes, we know she had a problem with drink and drugs years ago; did we really need to hear about it all again?

Clearly nobody else wanted to. In a cruel start to the series, the six “boys” were each required to choose a “girl”, leaving one without a partner. Guess who. Step forward Sophie, who cried. Quelle surprise. There was more to come, but some of the girls gathered round to reassure her that she really was a wonderful person, blah, blah, mwaah, mwaah.

The problem with the group is that, with just a couple of exceptions, they know nothing (their inability to identify basic countries on a map was shameful), have little interest in anything but themselves and talk drivel. The combination of presenters Patrick Kielty and Fern Cotton (who has replaced Kelly Brook) works well, but please Patrick, kill the rotten jokes; you are much smarter than this.

Love Island is nevertheless light, summer, mildly entertaining viewing, although if any of these people wonder why they are still single, upon eviction they should just watch the series. It’s not hard to see why most of them are incapable of pulling anything better than a toilet chain.

ITV entertainment was out in force this week and trying to woo the Big Brother audience not only with Love Island, but Poker Face. This gameshow creation, the brainchild of presenters Ant and Dec, is attempting to fill the shoes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and after a week’s build-up, tonight it promises to give away £1 million.

However, Millionaire it is not. Not even close. The lights, music and production values are present, but style is nothing without substance; the format is only halfway there and should have endured a great deal more fine-tuning if it was to stand a chance of mimicking its predecessor’s success.

For a start, we have no idea where the contestants come from. Millionaire’s selection process is part of the fun, but what is Poker Face’s selection process? Second, there is no suspense. The basic idea, that people must bluff others into thinking they have done better than they actually have, is a thin, unexciting concept, because we do not identify with the contestants’ emotions – again, as we do in Millionaire.

The questions are a strange mix of the ridiculously easy and bizarrely difficult, which makes the show feel like a strange hybrid of University Challenge and The Weakest Link. As for the banter between contestants, as they try to bluff, it feels at best, forced, and at worst, highly embarrassing. These are not actors, and nor should they be trying to be.

Despite the always entertaining Ant and Dec, the responsibility for injecting a bit of life into what is actually a rather boring show, lies too heavily on their shoulders. The whole thing needs to go back to the drawing board. A very big one.

Rob Brydon’s Annually Retentive has spent so long at the drawing board, it has a multi-layered feel that owes more to American shows such as Larry Sanders and Seinfeld than anything home grown.

Written by producer/director Paul Duddridge and Brydon, it stars the latter playing himself, but characterised in a career doldrum that leaves him with no option but to present a panel show. In addition to sending up our own stars who do precisely that, it satirises the panel show formula and lifts the lid on the kind of behind-the-scenes discussions that influence such apparently spontaneous shows. Between these scenes, (which contain the best jokes: “Gail Porter – someone on the show with less hair than me”), we view the outcome on the actual panel show, where performers appearing as themselves also send themselves up in character – which is especially funny, given the fact that some of them are regular panellists elsewhere.

This character-within-character, and show-within-a-show format is very clever and, at times, laugh aloud funny. I loved the “What does a demographic actually mean?” discussion. Brydon might be taking a risk by using his own name as the egotistical, often nasty host, but it adds another layer to this complex, multi-layered show.

Having been a huge fan of Sarah Smart in At Home with the Braithwaites, I was disappointed in Jane Hall, which appears to be little more than an advert for London buses. Jane (Smart) has moved from the north to the capital, where she does daft things like fall in puddles and carry out three point turns in dead ends.

The dipsy character is too thin to sustain interest, and apart from the ever reliable Geraldine James as Jane’s overbearing mother Lorraine, just not very funny.

There was better drama on offer in Soundproof, in which Penny (Susan Lynch), who was fluent in sign language, was helping the police interview Dean (Joseph Mawle), who was suspected of murder. She had also fallen for him and was having to struggle with the possibility that he might be a killer.

The signing made for difficult viewing at times, but the two central performances carried the love interest elements throughout. The successful combination of romantic and thriller elements was also helped enormously by Max Richter’s terrific music.

The last episode in the current series of the fabulous CSI: Crime Scene Investigation contained, among other things, a story about a man who enjoyed dressing up in very tight corsets in memory of his war-serving grandfather. Whatever turns you on, I suppose.

And Bad Girls returned with an outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease and a story about Muslim fundamentalism. Given the choice between Larkhall or being banged up with Sophie Anderton on Love Island, it’s the prison every time for me.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 9th July 2006

The Hotel Inspector (Five, Thursday) ****
Gordon Ramsay’s F Word (C4, Wednesday) *
Property Ladder (C4, Wednesday) **
Las Vegas (Sky One, Friday) ***
Law and Order (Five, Friday) ****
The Shield (Five, Friday) *****

Never ask people to tell you what they really think
about you – they might just tell you. I once asked my
best friend to do so, and she willingly obliged, at
some length. True, I chose the wrong moment, having
just accidentally spilt a litre of beer into her lap,
but seeing yourself through someone else’s eyes is
never easy. The good news is, that her jeans dried
out, I turned into a perfect human being, and we
remain best friends to this day. But I never asked
anyone the question again.
Criticism is hard to take, but it seems there is an
endless supply of people offering themselves up as
sacrificial lambs to be criticised onscreen. Experts
are everywhere, spouting their views on how to live,
dress, clean, look younger, cook better, make more
money etc. etc. We are in the How To age of
television, and although the advice heeded in front of
the camera appears to bring about dramatic results,
the chances are that when the crew packs up, the
victims revert to the status quo, declaring that said
experts never knew what they were talking about
The first programme in the return of The Hotel
Inspector saw Ruth Watson – an expert, by virtue of
her being a successful hotelier – arrive at the
Saxonia guest-house in the faded seaside town of
Weston Super Mare. Run by Jon and Sandie Harrup, it
looked like something from the Seventies and, in
Ruth’s eyes, was one ghastly car boot sale.
What followed was hilarious, and the casting of the
owners, stuck in their ways and reluctant to take any
advice from Ruth, was inspired.
You couldn’t blame them for being a little scared
of her; you could almost smell their fear. Not if
Caesar had turned up to witness the final touches to
the entire Roman Empire and declared “I’ve changed my
mind – let’s do it all again in wood”, could so
intense a reaction have been expected.
The awnings were shabby and looked too much like
the ones next door – “You’re either blind or stupid,”
declared Jon. The living room, crammed with bric a
brac, bore too much of Jon’s personality – Jon
reckoned that it was part of his job to change guests’
opinions about life, just by their looking at
different things. As for the bathrooms, they were
filthy. At this point, Jon insisted that filming be
There was something rather touching about seeing
two people being dragged kicking and screaming into
the 21st century, and Ruth, who gives sound advice
that brings about instant improvement, is a great
leader. The highlight was Jon and Sandie’s visit to a
nearby establishment, where Ruth hoped they would pick
up on the cleanliness and modernity.
Alas, no. “The tissue box,” said Jon, hugely
impressed, pointing to a box on a dresser. “We’re
gonna ‘ave to do these tissue boxes.”
The dreadful, clichéd commentary did no justice to
the programme. Get that right, and The Hotel Inspector
will be the best expert programme on the box (yes, for
a large fee, I am available).
Gordon Ramsay is an expert in the chef department,
but it has all gone horribly wrong in The F Word,
where his proverbial use of the swear word that is his
trademark is merely an attempt to cover up the fact
that not very much of any interest is happening.
The brilliance of Hell’s Kitchen and Ramsay’s
Kitchen Nightmares was that they catalogued a process,
during which people learned and developed new skills;
both were aspirational. The F Word is a magazine
programme that is mainly dominated by watching people
not get fed, as Gordon yells at the amateur chefs to
get their act together.
The other snippets are not lively enough to sustain
interest. The ongoing saga of Gordon rearing pigs, in
an effort to teach his children where food comes from,
is tedious and faintly cruel (apart from his naming
the beasts Trinny and Susannah, which of course is
hugely entertaining); and the Celebrity Challenge
needs to be more personality driven. Concentrate more
on substance, rather than effect.
This week, diners refused to pay for 104 plates,
either because the food was late, or they just didn’t
like it. Pretty much as impalatable as the series,
Sarah Beeney is the expert in Property Ladder,
which this week featured amateur property developers
in Nottingham and Brighton. In the former, Damon and
Corinne were trying to do up a house on money gleaned
from ten credit cards, despite already having £50,000
worth of debt between them. Down south, Habib Khan was
doing up a seaside apartment.
I’m not sure about Sarah. She has a know-all
quality about her that refuses to acknowledge people’s
dreams. Of course it is her job to offer practical
advice, but her lack of warmth and seeming inability
to empathise with the developers makes her a less
watchable expert than Ruth Watson.
Part of it is her voice: she sounds as if she just
can’t be bothered, and the voiceover segments she
delivers sound like an ice-cream van bell winding
The show is also badly cast. Quite frankly, I end
up not caring if any of the dull people in it end up
in a paper bag on the street.
There was major development work going on in the
return of Las Vegas, in which the Montecito casino
found itself with a new boss. She is Monica (Lara
Flynn Boyle), whom nobody likes because she married an
83 year old billionaire when she was 25 and inherited
all his dosh.
This first episode lacked the energy of the last
series, but then most of it was spent trying to
recruit the old staff for the new place. They managed
it, of course – all gorgeous blokes and blondes with
legs up to their armpits and ten-inch waists. It’s a
world away from the Penny Falls in Weston Super Mare’s
In the always watchable Law and Order, Jack (Sam
Waterson) was furious when a woman employed her
brother-in-law to bump off her violent husband. Even
his female sidekick objected and delivered the
proverbial heavy-handed moral message: how can women
claim equality in the workplace, if they are not
asserting it at home?
The female cops in The Shield were having trouble
even asserting themselves in the workplace. The main
reason? Macho-man and Grant Mitchell lookalike, Vic
Mackey (Michael Chiklis).
The testosterone returned, hitting the ground
running, and it’s a shame that our own dramas balk at
displaying Vic’s kind of hard-hat realism. No, that’s
the job of our entertainment shows and the likes of
Ruth, Gordon and Sarah.

Mail on Sunday TV Review 2nd July 2006

House (Five, Thursday) ****
Out of Practice (Living TV, Thursday) *****
Francesco’s Italy (BBC2, Sunday) ***
The Singing Estate (C4, Sunday) ***
Coup! (BBC2, Friday) ****

They are dropping like flies. First we lost Prison
Break; next, Desperate Housewives; there are just two
more episodes to go in CSI: Crime Investigation; and,
this week, it was farewell to House. As if that list
of departing series were not enough (although all will
be returning), the Dog who played Eddie up until the
last series of Frasier died this week. Moose, the Jack
Russell terrier, was 16 and had enjoyed a long life in
show business, retiring just six years ago. Rest in
peace, fair canine.
If the world is an emptier one without Moose/Eddie,
it is a black hole of desperation without House, the
irascible, misanthropic doctor whom Hugh Laurie has
made one of the most compelling characters in TV
The final episode began quite shockingly when a man
walked into the hospital and shot House twice at close
blank range. The shock was not so much that it
happened, but that it hadn’t happened before. What
followed was an extraordinary narrative in which House
found himself in a bed next to the would-be assassin
(we learned from the cast list that his name was
Moriarty), who took the opportunity to make him
examine his life and his soul.
As bedside manners go, this was no bunch of grapes.
Moriarty claimed that House’s irresponsible behaviour
had led to his girlfriend’s suicide. House claimed not
to like rules, he said, but “All you do is substitute
your own rules for society’s.”
There were some heavy questions: “Why do you want
so bad not to be human?” and some not very helpful
analyses: “You’re miserable for nothing. I dunno why
you wanna live.” The upshot of all this was that House
finally said: “I’m sorry”. Oh, yes, and he also found
he could walk, following Cuddy messing with his brain
during surgery.
Of course, what we were watching was a morality
tale and not reality. Why, after all, would they have
put Moriarty in the bed next to his intended victim?
Why would House have gone out for a burger with the
man? As events became more surreal and horrifyingly
gory, House too questioned what was real. In fact,
none of it was, as the episode ended where it had
begun, just after the shooting, with House being
rushed through the hospital on a trolley.
So, in effect, he woke up and it was all a dream;
but the episode served its function in that, just for
a second, in the “I’m sorry”, we recognised that
beneath that seeming heart of stone, a man who wants
to be human after all, lurks.
ITV’s Controller of Entertainment Paul Jackson
spoke to the Broadcasting Press Guild this week about,
among other things, the difficulty of finding
successful new sitcoms. In America, from where he has
just returned after three years, he witnessed a team
of writers working on a script: hour after hour until
each joke was the best it could possibly be.
It is the intensity of this writing process that
makes the best American sitcoms much funnier than our
own. Out of Practice is another one and, from the
start, featured laugh aloud one-liners, delivered by a
cast that already sound as if they have been spouting
them since the cradle.
It helps to have Henry Winkler, who has lost none
of his charm or comic timing since playing the Fonz in
Happy Days. He plays doctor Stuart, separated from
wife Lydia (also a doctor); they are parents to
lesbian Regina (Paula Marshall) and Oliver (again,
doctors – in Oliver’s case, a plastic surgeon – played
by Ty Burrell), and Ben (Christopher Gorham), who
feels inferior because he is a therapist rather than a
“real” doctor.
It is, like Frasier, a theatrical set-up, with
characters entering one door stage right, doing a bit
of family stuff in the middle and exiting stage left
to the kitchen. It is, interestingly, directed by
Kelsey Grammar, who played Frasier, and in spirit and
pace bears all the same marks. It is also very, very
funny, with set-up comic situations characterised by
the build-‘em-up, knock-‘em-down kind of jokes that
Americans love. For example, when Oliver was trying
his best to be sympathetic when Ben’s wife left him:
“When you’re ready,” he said, “I’m gonna find you a
nice, sweet, intelligent, down to earth girl – and I’m
gonna give her a set of knockers you’re gonna need
oxygen to climb.” Okay, so I like knocker jokes.
There aren’t many of those in Francesco’s Italy:
Top to Toe, which is a cerebral journey around the
country with a man who looks like a cross between
journalists Rod Liddle and John Walsh. This makes for
slightly disturbing viewing, because his voice doesn’t
match his look. Francesco da Mosto is undoubtedly
Italian and speaks with a strong accent, often in his
native tongue, and yet looks so English.
There are way too many set-up shots of him knocking
on doors, ringing bells and such like (Some directors
spend hours on such things, but why? We all know how a
bell is rung), and this detracts from some of the
exquisite camerawork elsewhere. It is hard to bring
out the beauty of sculpture on television, but the
lighting and slow, lingering shots of Bernini’s pieces
(among others) made you want to leap on the next plane
to Rome. The use of exquisite Italian music in parts
made me weep, in particular a shot that left Francesco
silhouetted in an archway, drawing back as the light
faded to a dot and then blackness. This was narrative
photography at its best.
The choir that has been put together from Oxford’s
Blackbird Leys estate has just returned from a
disastrous trip to Italy, and this week they were
still struggling with O Sol Mio.
Conductor Ivor Setterfield is a terrifying creation
(“I love you all, but you are all bloody rubbish
sometimes”) who has the unenviable task of getting the
mob ready for singing Carmina Burana in the Royal
Festival Hall. Nice idea, shame about the voices.
Coup! told the story of the failed coup in
Equatorial Guinea in 2004, in which Mark Thatcher,
among others, unwittingly offered to finance for old
Etonian and former SAS soldier Simon Mann (Jared
It was an astonishing story of greed, money,
secrets, lies and gullible men. The basic plot was a
little hard to follow at times, but made watchable by
many amusing one-liners penned by writer John Fortune.
Like House, Simon Mann discovered what happens when
you substitute your own rules for society’s:
sometimes, you get your fingers very badly burned. Or
you get shot. Take your pick.

Past reviews click here