Monday, 13 July 2009

Torchwood: Children Of Earth - Review

As the entire population of the World's children stop and in unison chant "we are coming... we are coming" Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd), on the run from the Government who are trying to kill him, looks on as a frantic mother desperately tries to free her child from its trance. When the chanting stops, Ianto approaches her, arms outstretched and asks her if she is OK.

Taken aback by this stranger's concern and fear for the welfare of her daughter, the mother snatches her and tells Ianto to "Piss off you perv". This brief moment amongst the special effects, drama, tension, excitement and tragedy of Torchwood: Children Of Earth strikes at the heart of a story which is about our relationship and obsession with children.

We perceive see children as innocents and under our collective protection. Unfortunately, in recent years we've also been forced to come to terms with the reality that, in some people's eyes, children are not special or precious or sacrosanct. Despite, all the press hysteria, panics, neighborhood riots, hatred and vilification of paedophiles and child abusers, sexual abuse and cruelty to children still takes place, often behind a veil of secrecy constructed by institutions and family.

In the UK, we have become much more uptight about the presence of adults who aren't parents among children, fearing that they may want to take their child away or that they are thinking evil and perverse thoughts.

In David Goldblatt's book "The Ball Is Round", a history of Football, there is this fantastic picture taken before the War of a crowded football terrace of men passing a child of no more then ten years over their heads to the bottom of the terrace so the young fella can watch the game. The idea of such a thing occurring today is unthinkable because we are too scared of leaving children in other's care, not because their are more abusers and paedophiles around, but because we are more aware of their existence or more willing to talk about them than we were back then, even if this discourse does take place in the form of tabloid headlines.

Perhaps it is right that we do this? Perhaps, after generations of refusing to discuss these matters openly, we are now paying a price for our collective complicity by being unable to interact with children without being family or passing a background check.

Yet despite our paranoia and suspision, over 4 million children in the UK live in poverty. As The 365 pointed out to Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) from behind its frosted glass, millions of children die from preventable causes every year but when it comes to surrendering 10 percent of the child's population, humanity suddenly becomes defiant. As though the act of surrender was more important than the fate of the children. When John Frobisher (Tony Capaldi) is told that he must give up his own children, he would sooner kill them, along with their mother and himself than hand them over.

Of course its not as simple as that, but Torchwood: Children Of Earth exposes an uncomfortable hypocrisy in our culture. Our kids are special and anyone who tries to interfere with them should be killed or castrated or both. But those kids on the other hand are a nuisance. They don't want to learn, they disrespect their elders and they're looking for trouble. And when it comes to the crunch, they are expendable. At no point during the British Cabinet's grotesque deliberations over whose children were to be sacrificed did the writers include the possibility that the human race may choose extinction rather than to give up their young. Perhaps it didn't occur to them or perhaps they felt it was unrealistic. Alien abduction is easy for a TV audience to swallow but self sacrifice is too hard a sell, even for Russell T Davies.

The symbol of hope of course is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and her unborn child. Plus Ianto's family who fight to defend their children and their community's children from the British Army. The story's climax of a mother's heartbreak and the exploitation of a child bring the programme's sub text to the fore and surely draws the Torchwood series to a close. It does so having made a significant contribution to television drama and British Science Fiction.

If this review hasn't given too much away and you live in the UK. All Five episodes of Torchwood: Childen Of Earth are still available on BBC's iPlayer.


Friday, 19 June 2009

Shelley: The likeable layabout

Fran is standing at the bottom of her stairs. “Shelley!” she calls up to her husband, and the fourth series of the BAFTA-nominated ITV sitcom begins.

James Shelley ambles down the stairs in his pyjamas and joins his wife for a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Shelley’s a work-shy layabout, but clever with it. Despite his sporadic dalliances with full-time employment, we join him two years on from the first series (originally broadcast in 1979) seemingly still as lazy as ever.

The truth is James Shelley is enjoying his last day on the dole before starting a new job with the Foreign Office. He and Fran now have a daughter, baby Emma, and with a mortgage to pay the chance to hold down a permanent job couldn’t have come at a better time. Yet as viewers of Shelley were already aware after three series, the Life of Riley was never far around the corner for our eponymous hero.

Shelley has often been referred to as a quiet comedy, distanced somewhat from the faster pace of today’s sitcoms, but therein lies its appeal. The main focus is on Shelley himself, played brilliantly by Hywel Bennett (Pennies From Heaven, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Eastenders), and the frivolous thoughts bouncing around inside his head.

As the audience, we are given time to work out what it is that makes Shelley so happy, apart from his wife Fran (played by Belinda Sinclair) and in this series, their young daughter. Being able to loaf around and watch the world go by are undoubtedly high on his list, but coming a close second would be the opportunity to occasionally play mind games with people he sees as less intelligent than himself.

Fortunately for him, those opportunities come along frequently whenever his ex-landlady Edna Hawkins (Josephine Tewson) pops by to pay him and his wife a visit. Mrs. H, as she’s known, is a nosy parker with a heart of gold but sadly isn’t the sharpest tool in the box. Though she’s worked out Shelley as being the bone idle slacker he obviously is, she often falls unwittingly for the flights of fancy he regularly reels off to brighten his otherwise dull day.

And it’s not just Mrs. H that feels the full force of Shelley’s sarcasm and vibrant imagination. More or less everyone he bumps fails to match his lofty insight on matters of pith and moment. Most memorably, it’s his run-ins with the staff at the Social Security Office that provide the most spiky exchanges, both sides reserving as much vitriol for each other as they can muster.

In Series 4, however, Shelley finds himself with a lot on his plate. Fatherhood quickly proves that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, there are bills to be paid and worse still the whole planet is walking a nuclear tightrope thanks to Reagan and Brezhnev not seeing eye to eye. Will Shelley cope? Is he capable of taking on so much responsibility at such a young age? The answer, of course, is yes – albeit on his own terms.

Shelley’s journey through life is always a joy to watch, thanks largely to the writing of people like Bernard McKenna, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, not to mention the acting of such a small but talented cast. At times the level of cynicism and acid wit delivered by the lead character are so well-honed that it's hard not to compare him with Basil Fawlty, and that's a high accolade indeed.

While some point all too easily at the lack of decent ITV sitcoms down the years, Shelley is invariably overlooked – unfairly so in many ways. Peter Tilbury’s creation graced our screens until 1992 and rarely showed a drop in standards throughout the entire thirteen years of its life, which begs the question “Why have none of the satellite channels snapped it up before now?”

Short of finding the answer, we should perhaps be grateful that we can at least rediscover this forgotten gem on DVD, and for my money it’s well worth hunting down. Shelley is without question an excellent comedy series and deserves every bit of the popularity it gained almost thirty years ago.

Shelley (Series 4) is available to buy from Network DVD from Monday 22 June 2009, priced £10.75.

(Photos courtesy of Network DVD.)


Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Commercial Break: John Cleese


Thursday, 7 May 2009

The TV List of Little or No Consequence #4

Replacing Deayton
14 People That Have Presented 'Have I Got News For You'

1. Tom Baker
2. Fern Britton
3. Charlotte Church
4. Jeremy Clarkson
5. Joan Collins
6. Ronnie Corbett
7. Bruce Forsyth
8. Boris Johnson
9. Des Lynam
10. Sir Trevor McDonald
11. Paul Merton
12. Moira Stuart
13. Chris Tarrant
14. Ann Widdecombe MP



Friday, 1 May 2009

Reinventing Reggie

Once upon a time (back in the late 1970's to be precise) there was a popular sitcom called The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. It featured Leonard Rossiter as a man gradually approaching a mid-life crisis fuelled by the ever-mounting irritations and frustrations of life. Running to three series, it was a huge hit with British TV audiences and now it's back, refreshed and recreated for 2009.

The first episode of the new series - simply titled Reggie Perrin - was shown last week and starred Martin Clunes in the title role. From what I've seen so far, it's a reasonable attempt to breathe some new life into an old comedy show, and that's not at all easy to do.

On occasions such as this when a classic show is practically re-written from scratch, the final product is often met with derision and negativity. That's because all the while you're watching the new version, your mind is picking up on the similarities to the old one instead of enjoying the programme itself.

It's only natural, after all it's the duty of the programme makers to give at least a slight nod in the direction of the original through visual or audible cues. That's certainly the case with Reggie Perrin right from the moment the remixed, reorchestrated version of the old theme tune is heard.

There's some subtle and not-so-subtle references to the old show (the 2009 version sees Reggie working for the company next door to Sunshine Desserts and his boss is 'Chris Jackson' rather than 'CJ') but Reggie Perrin never comes across as a direct like-for-like updating of the original scripts.

Those original scripts were written by David Nobbs and this time he's joined forces with Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly) to rework the stories seen back in the 1970's complete with modern-day references and an altogether different actor playing Perrin himself.

So far, it seems the choice of Martin Clunes as counterpoint to Rossiter is an inspired one. He appears more than competent at conveying the annoyance which prompts Perrin to react so irrationally. While Rossiter played the role as an at times frantic and neurotic man, Clunes' character is calmer and more likable while being considerably more sarcastic, which is just as valid.

Having not yet seen the latter programmes in this new six-part series, one cannot comment on how Perrin's complete nervous breakdown is dealt with by Clunes but the signs so far suggest he'll make a very good job of it. What may not be as enjoyable to witness is the overreaction of the audience (presumably due to a laughter track) heard during Episode 1 last week. We can only hope the BBC adopt a more subtle approach to conveying the comedic qualities of the show in subsequent episodes.

All in all, then, this experiment in repackaging a once greatly admired programme may well prove to be a success itself, albeit not on the scale seen thirty years ago. There is, however, much to like and the relevance of Perrin's irritation with the world around him continues to this day. If you're looking for office chairs that make flatulent noises and stock footage of waddling hippopotami though, you're probably best off sticking with the original.

Reggie Perrin can be seen every Friday on BBC1 at 9.30 pm.



Thursday, 23 April 2009

Going out on a high

In a world where the TV sitcom had become all 'sit' and no 'com', it was gratifying to see that someone (the BBC, naturally) could still unearth a truly great exception. In Not Going Out, the Great British public were treated to a hilarious and brilliantly written show that packed more laughs into a half-hour than some comedies can muster in an entire series.

But Not Going Out will soon be no more. The BBC have, in their wisdom, decided to axe the programme claiming that the 'show had run its course of late' but myself and many others disagree. Such is the following of Not Going Out that an online petition has been created which has so far been signed by nearly 1,600 people.

So what is it that sets Not Going Out apart from other sitcoms? Well to a considerable extent, it's written by an exemplary stand-up comedian who happens to be the show's main star, Lee Mack. What he brings to the scripts is an eagerness to pack in as many jokes and funny lines as possible within the framework of the plot during every half hour story. That he actually achieves this so successfully while slowly building up your familiarity with each of the characters is nothing short of a minor miracle.

But Mack is not the only writer on the show. Andrew Collins and Peter Tilbury are also major contributors to the programme, helping to provide extra punch to some brilliantly funny dialogue. The humour can be found in many a snappy one-liner, in double entendres and in a raft of clever set pieces involving wonderful word play. Here's one example featuring two kids playing Trick or Treat at the flat of lead character Lee:

KID #2: Trick or treat!
LEE: Get off me doorstep - we're not in America.
KID #2: There's nothing wrong with adopting a bit of American culture.
LEE: Alright... get off me doorstep or I'll shoot ya.

...or another featuring a downright silly but nonetheless clever bit of schtik:

LEE: What are you doing looking in my wardrobe?
LUCY: That's none of your business
LEE: No no, that's NARNIA business...

...and they're just two of the funny snippets of dialogue that come at you machine-gun style during every episode. Looking around at the comments written by members of the public on TV forum sites, it's amazing to see how some people initially bemoaned the fact that there were too many jokes in each episode. Having now seen three superb series on BBC1, those same fans of the show must surely be relishing this all-too-rare attribute as something to behold.

For my money, Not Going Out looked like it may reach an early end when Mack's American co-star from series 1, Megan Dodds, was replaced by English actress Sally Bretton in series 2. Somehow Bretton's abrupt character Lucy didn't seem as endearing or cutesy as Dodds' Kate, yet by the end of series 3 my discontent had been mollified as the comedy continued to meet the high standards it had set previously.

All of which makes it such a shame to think Not Going Out won't be back for a fourth series. Though the BBC are yet to broadcast one last episode this Christmas, the apparent ease with which it's seen fit to pull the plug on the programme has left a bitter taste in the mouth of all those who enjoyed it.

And as many fans have already said on the web, there's still the hope that another channel will take up the baton and produce the show instead, but whether that happens remains a mystery. For the time being, I, along with millions of others will be keeping my fingers crossed that it does. Not Going Out is an absolute gem and deserves the chance to thrill audiences for many years to come.


Monday, 13 April 2009

Film Review: In The Loop

The tradition of movies made from UK TV sitcoms is long and inglorious. Off the top of the head, Dad's Army, Are You Being Served, Bless This House and the On The Buses never really successfully crossed the bridge from cathode to celluloid.

The Thick Of It however, is more than your average half hour sitcom. It is a much more intense, thoughtful and I'm bound to say intelligent proposition altogether. The story line in Armando Ianucci's political satire has matured over its two series and when a cinematic release of the project was announce, there were very few doubts that it would be able to adapt to the big screen. It has the scope, the depth of story and lest we forget, it has Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the magnificent, fearsome, Machiavellian spin doctor from the deepest most fettered bowels of Satan's imaginings.

In The Loop represents the next stage of Ianucci's adventure in political satire. The story centres around the machinations of the hawks in the US state department who are trying to instigate a war in the middle east while fending off the doves within their own ranks who are trying to stop them. In the middle of it all is the diminutive, in both stature and presence, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), Minister of International Development for Her Majesty's Government who unwittingly turns both hawk and dove thanks to a succession of poorly managed meetings and press briefings.

Foster and his new advisor Toby played by Chris Addison (who played Ollie in the TV series) is sent to Washington at the request of the State Department and finds himself the poster boy for both camps. James Gandolfini plays, General Miller who thinks war is something that the US military can barely afford. Opposite him is Linton played by David Rache. A psychotic Rumsfeld type figure who is prepared to break any rule and plunge any depths to start a fight.

Eventually, Tucker joins the fray as all parties squabble, scheme, deal and no-deal around a single report that undermines the case for war and the evidence supporting conflict from the mysterious and possibly fabricated Iceman.

In places the film tends to suffer from its grander ambition. Most of the action takes place in true Whitehall farce fashion with people running in and out of offices and buildings. However, at times, you felt the film was restricted by this format and there was a bigger movie trying to break out. With some Hollywood funding, this film could have been a modern day Dr Strangelove.

However, these are only minor issues against what is a triumph for British comedy and political satire. The film features performances of immense stature and gravitas: Gandolfini as the lapsed Patton figure, devoted to his country but baffled by the way it does business; Tucker as the foul mouthed agent of Number 10. A cocaine charged genetically engineered ferret rampaging through the corridors of power on both sides of the Pond causing mayhem wherever he goes. Rache, is superb as the evangelical warmongering nutcase (fans of the 80's Dirty Harry spoof Sledge Hammer will particularly enjoy his performance). The exchanges between the him and Capaldi represent the highlight of a raft of magnificent set pieces in the film which are toe curling, foul mouthed, politically incorrect, appallingly cynical and very very funny.

The film also features a glorious cameo by Steve Coogan who plays a constituency member who's complaint about a collapsing brick wall threatens to not only bring down his mother's greenhouse but an entire Government department. It's Ianucci's instinctive understanding of the political process and how anything can be linked to everything if you are skilled, clever and devious enough that allow him to construct a story that is both unexpected yet inevitable.

In The Loop is released in cinemas April 17th.


Monday, 26 January 2009

'Give Me Darts Or Give Me Death': Good Arrows

I always thought that buried deep inside ITV4, beneath the endless repeats of The Professionals and CCTV porn, was a decent channel trying to get out. If Good Arrows is a measure of their commissioning policy then I might just be proved right.

Irvine Welsh's directorial debut is a one-off satirical mockumentary set in Merthyr about a former Darts world champion and self-styled 'Beckham of Darts,' Andy 'The Arrows' Sampson.

After winning the title, Andy (Jonathan Owen) naive, ignorant, inarticulate but probably good-hearted, is tempted away from his manager and wife by the buxom 'Big Sheila' (Katy Brand). The story is told from the standpoint of Sebastian (Joe McKinney), a documentary maker who follows them around with a camera crew. Sampson has literally grown fat off his reputation and makes a living playing exhibition tournaments in empty working men's clubs while his spiteful, shell suited, racist wife spends money he doesn't have and goes off with other guys. Inevitably, disaster strikes and with echoes of real life former champion Andy Fordham, Sampson suffers a heart attack.

As the story unfolds however, it becomes less about the darts and more about social decay, drugs, exploitation and poverty. These are the sort of themes you'd associate with Welsh's work. Merthyr Tydfil provides an excellent backdrop for this and the film-makers do a reasonably good job of conveying the urban bleakness.

At first, you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching That Peter Kay Thing. The characters have the same toe-curling ignorance that leaves you guffawing at their stupidity or watching them through a pillow depending on what you find funny. At other times you could be watching Shameless.

The performances of McKinney as the Louis Theroux wannabe Sebastian and Owen as Sampson are decent enough. Brian Hibbard's turn as Alwyn, the one-eyed stoner and Sampson's jilted ex-manager who deals in human effluence is superb.

It's Brand, however, who excels. She seems to revel in the role of the vile temptress 'Big Sheila'. This really is her vehicle and while not a great fan of her work she is clearly a very good comic actress who is capable of greatness.

While Good Arrows is perhaps a shade too derivative, the satirical dimension makes it a worthy piece, however at 90 minutes it doesn't have enough depth to justify its duration. Saying that, Welsh and co-writer Dean Cavanagh use the time to create an array of deliciously filthy characters and the dialogue measures up to the standard set by the writers. One word of warning though - the flashback to Sampson's world championship winning moment is atrocious, a measure no doubt of the film's meagre budget.

Good Arrows will be screened on Saturday 31st January at 11:00pm on ITV 4


Sunday, 25 January 2009

The TV List of Little or No Consequence #3

The world is your lobster...
31 Episode Names From The Sitcom 'Minder' That Spoofed Well-Known Movies

1. Gunfight at the O.K. Laundrette
2. Monday Night Fever
3. National Pelmet
4. The Beer Hunter
5. The Birdman of Wormwood Scrubs
6. Rocky Eight and a Half
7. Senior Citizen Caine
8. High Drains Pilferer
9. A Star is Gorn
10. Hypnotising Rita
11. From Fulham With Love
12. Minder on the Orient Express
13. An Officer and a Car Salesman
14. Day of Fines and Closures
15. Fiddler on the Hoof
16. The Wrong Goodbye
17. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Entrepreneur
18. Guess Who's Coming to Pinner?
19. The Last Temptation of Daley
20. The Greatest Show in Willesden
21. The Odds Couple
22. The Coach That Came in from the Cold
23. Uneasy Rider
24. Gone with the Winchester
25. A Taste of Money
26. A Fridge Too Far
27. One Flew over the Parents' Nest
28. All Quiet on the West End Front
29. On the Autofront
30. Bring Me the Head of Arthur Daley
31. The Long Good Thursday


Saturday, 24 January 2009

New Minder theme tune

There is a moderate amount of interest in Five's new series of Minder which starts next month. No doubt there will be a degree of speculation surrounding the theme tune.

For the uninitiated, or for the sake of indulgence delete where applicable, the following is a clip of the original theme lavishly reproduced by some geezer off Youtube (presumably its a geezer).

From the moment Five announced their intentions to bring this venerable broadcasting institution back to our screens, the question of what to do about the theme tune has been a vexed one, with us at least. They decided to commission an updated version performed by Attic Lights. Which we have embedded below.

As for the show itself, SPAOTT has yet to see it and will wait with trepidation as we see Shane Richie follow in the prodigiously gregarious footsteps of the legend that is George Cole. All we can say is, we hope they know what they're doing...

Minder starts on Wednesday 4th February at 9pm.


Monday, 19 January 2009

Tony Hart (1925 - 2009)

There was a time when presenters on children's television were all demonstrably adults. Nowadays, children are plucked straight from truanting down Shepherds Bush market, given an even worse haircut and some achingly trendy t-shirt, and stuck in front of TV cameras. The programmes they present treat children like idiots because the people who present them are idiots, and the overall effect is of one great morass.

It was not always thus, which brings us on to Tony Hart. In the glorious days before society in general and TV companies in particular decided to make a virtue of being stupid and useless, Tony Hart presented a series of long-running art shows for children on the BBC. In fact, his career spanned much further back than I thought it did, a testament to the fact that he never came across as being "that old bloke on the telly". Enthusiastic and encouraging without being patronising, adroit and authoritative without ever being patrician or preachy, Hart bestrode arts programming for children for thirty years.

Eventually, of course, he began to look like an anachronism as the schedules around him filled up with identikit presenters a quarter of his age, whose entire personality was contained within their wardrobe. His last programme - Hart Beat - was cancelled to make way for SMart, a programme with no ostensible differences in format to its forbear - and, indeed, that Hart himself contributed to in part until 2001 - other than the fact the presenters now boasted the combined artistic talent of a shoe. But this was the brave new world of the 1990s, where being more or less incapable of the thing you were supposed to be able to do was the new trend, and no-one noticed. Meanwhile, on ITV, Art Attack was breezy, colourful and full of invention, but it was never able to strike the same blend of enthusiasm and ability as any of Hart's groundbreaking shows.

Tony Hart made the news last autumn, revealing that after a series of strokes, he had lost the necessary control in his hands to draw any more. In an article in The Times, however, he refused to gripe on in oh-woe-is-me fashion, choosing to use the forum to get people excited and enthused about giving art a try. Such greatness of spirit was very much the mark of the man. Most children of my generation - and several before - grew up watching Tony Hart's programmes. Many of them owe people like him and his great contemporary, Rolf Harris, a huge debt of gratitude for opening doors to them. People like me, who still plug on with drawing despite the fact our short trousers barely fit any more, probably more so than anybody.

Thank you, Tony Hart.


Monday, 12 January 2009

David Vine (1936 - 2009)

Type the phrase 'Jack of all trades' into Google, and the chances are you'll see the name David Vine in your first page of results. If you don't, complain to Google.

David Vine's 34-year career with the BBC saw him take on a wide and diverse range of projects, most of them sport-orientated. He was the first person to present the Wimbledon tennis championships in colour in 1967, the front man for Ski Sunday between 1978 and 1996 and the man named 'The Voice of Snooker' by BBC viewers of the sport during a 22-year spell in front of the cameras that ended in 2000.

A friendly, jocular character, he was easily identifiable by his glasses and either a chunky tie and gaudy shirt or cosy jumper depending on which era you were watching him in. Composed, well-informed and seemingly unflappable, he was the perfect choice to front all manner of programmes from A Question of Sport (which he helped to launch in 1970) and It's A Knockout to Miss World and the Eurovision Song Contest (which he hosted only once in 1974 when Abba, of all people, won for Sweden).

But for me he will always be remembered as the face of Superstars, a show he was involved with on the BBC for twelve years from 1973. He managed to give the programme a real sense of purpose and authority, injecting enthusiasm into every show without appearing desperate to gain the audience's respect. Together with Ron Pickering, he guided us, the viewers, through every event ensuring we knew what was going on, who was doing well and who was struggling. He made the job of presenting Superstars and countless other programmes effortless - a real indication of just how good he was at his job.

Vine had to step down from his BBC duties in 2000 following a heart complaint but continued to act as consultant for the corporation thereafter. He was also on hand to provide a wonderful narrative on a BBC Superstars DVD that was launched to coincide with the revival of the programme in 2003.

His death from a heart attack yesterday at the age of 73 yesterday comes as incredibly sad news to the many millions of people that enjoyed hearing that wonderful West Country voice on their TVs. As the anchor man for so many programmes that were made better just by him being there, he'll be sorely missed.


Thursday, 8 January 2009

A triumph of beer over experience

Oz And James Drink To Britain

James May stands on the white cliffs of Dover to introduce the third series of what has become an annual booze-up starring himself and self confessed 'wine ponce' Oz Clarke. The past two series have been all about the wine. First they went to France, then to America. For this series however, the pair keep the home fires burning with a tour of Blighty and this time... its all about beer.

Television loves good partnerships and Clarke and May make a fine pair. They both have affable on screen personalities but their individual characteristics creates enough tension to provide just a frisson of tension without making the viewer think that they would rather be doing something else. Clarke's unbound puppy dog enthusiasm for the grape and the hop is complimented beautifully by May's delicious languidity.

Having made their introductions the pair set off in a green Rolls Royce Corniche convertible with a cheap caravan hooked on the back. They head for Yorkshire and there they discover the genesis of beer making while consuming volumous quantities of the local brew. Happily, the narrative does more than enough to stop the whole shebang from becoming a televised piss-up This is thanks to Clarke's instance on exploring the roots of the subject matter while celebrating each pint as though it were a rare vintage against May's insistence that its just beer. If you've watched previous series you'll get the idea of the philosophical divide twixt the two.

Clarke takes May to a barley field in Yorkshire to explain the basis of how the hardiness and versatility of that grain allowed us to make beer. He stands there grasping a single husk and posited the theory that people gathered, settled and built entire societies around barley fields for the single purpose of making and consuming beer. It is beer, he declared, that gave birth to civilisation. May stares at him with understated admiration and says "The was genuinely interesting... fancy a pint?"

Other excursions include a couple of trips to some Yorkshire breweries, one of which is run by an Italian and a Kiwi. There is also an unexpected trip to a vineyard by way as a revista to series past. I wasn't aware that they produced wine in Yorkshire but according to the governor of this vineyard, some variety of grape based falling down water has been in the county for thousands of years. Once it was decided that the plonk would go down well with a curry, they dropped off the Rolls and headed for Dewsbury Railway Station. In West Riding there's a train line with a pub at every station selling a wide variety of local ales. A train related pub crawl ensued which started as an attempt to discern the distinctive qualities of each particular ale and finished as a couple of bumbling middle aged men who had lost their tickets.

The first episode suffered with an introduction to the programme which was too lengthy. Naturally, there has to be a degree of contextualising before getting down to business. However, for a 30 minute programme, surly a simple "Hello its us again, we're off to explore beer in a big Rolls Royce" would have sufficed. It certainly worked for Paul Merton In India. However, such trifling matters aside it was a good watch.

Clarke's pursuit of knowledge made you feel as though you'd watched something improving. While May's unending thirst for unlikely similes and juvenile teasing of Clarke's extravagant bookishness gave the programme a lightness of touch. At no time did I feel as though I was learning anything. even if part of me suspected I was. They even managed to chuck in some sheep in a pub. Anyone fancy a pint?

Oz And James Drink To Britain is on BBC2 every Tuesday at 8pm. Episode 1 is still on the iPlayer.


Tuesday, 6 January 2009

What we watched over Christmas

Some might say the festive season just ended didn't throw up much in the way of televisual treats, but we beg to differ. There were plenty of programmes to please the eye, and to prove it, here's a selection of some of our favourites...

The Peter Serafinowicz Christmas Show
Sketch shows like these tend to divide public opinion in that oft-mentioned way that Marmite does, but we're big fans of Serra and his first series for the BBC in 2007 was on the whole excellent. This festive edition carried on where that series left off with one or two returning characters like Brian 'Bon-bon-bon-bonbon' Butterfield and some new but nonetheless brilliantly executed recurring themes like the ads for 'iToilet' and the 'Mactini'. Like all the best sketch shows, not everything hits the spot outright, but Serafinowicz has a pretty good average and is highly deserving of another series. Can't be long now, can it BBC?

Blackadder Rides Again
At long last, Rowan Atkinson finally agreed to be interviewed about the classic comedy programme he really made his own, and this documentary was all the better for it. UKTV Gold recently did a similar thing for the 25th anniversary of BlackAdder's first appearance on British telly, but this had an edge of credibility to it. Atkinson featured heavily (as well he should) along with the likes of John Lloyd, Ben Elton, Richard Curtis and all the cast, and the feeling you were left with was one of great effort they all put in to maximise the comedy in the show. Locations were visited, costumes were hauled out of the archives and behind the scenes footage was shown to complete a worthy celebration of one of Britain's best loved comedy series. Will it come back? Probably not, and nor should it. As was proved with Only Fools And Horses, some things are best ended while people still have respect for them.

Top Gear Vietnam Special
Messrs. Clarkson, May and Hammond gave us the latest in their international set-pieces, and though the programme had a strange atmosphere to it (largely due to their Asian surroundings), it didn't disappoint. Clarkson trying to ride a motorbike for the first time on severely pot-holed roads, May wearing a wok and a colander on his head as a makeshift crash helmet and Hammond phut-phut-phutting around with a large scale model of a Spanish galleon strapped to the back of his bike were just some of the things that amused throughout. It's just a shame the programme may be affected by budget restraints next year, thereby limiting the amount of times we might see this kind of thing. Let's hope it doesn't come to that, though.

Stanley Baxter: Now & Then
Once upon a time, Stanley Baxter was always on our screens, particularly around Christmas. His lavish shows would parody the great Hollywood movies in the most part and his impersonations of anyone from Greta Garbo to Jimmy Durante were every bit as good anything you'd see from Rory Bremner or Alistair McGowan today. It's somewhat ironic, then, that the expense of creating shows with such high production values proved to be his undoing in the end, but this programme rightly gave us all a chance to look again at those wonderful shows and to hear from the great man himself. Coming out of retirement for this one-off occasion, Baxter gave us an interesting insight into the way his LWT programmes were made and he even recorded some fresh material in the persona of Her Majesty The Queen. Quite impressive he was too, especially for a man aged 82. At a time of the year when everyone's thoughts turn to Morecambe and Wise, ITV should be proud of reminding us that Christmas was also once the terrain of people like Stanley Baxter who were equally as adept at making us laugh.

Shooting Stars: The Inside Story
Another retrospective took Vic and Bob's wonderfully silly panel game as its subject, and it too was celebrating an anniversary - 15 years since it was first broadcast. This documentary didn't take itself quite as seriously as those others we've mentioned, but it did at least give the likes of Paul Whitehouse, Lenny Henry and Johnny Vegas the chance to convey how much they enjoyed taking part in the programme. Not only that, but we also had ample opportunity to look once again at many of the best bits from the show's past including The Dove From Above, George Dawes on drums and Vic Reeves' jokes that always sent the tumbleweed rolling. Good fun and a great laugh throughout.

The Krypton Factor
Yes, the return of what's been billed as 'an old favourite' although we take issue with that a little bit. Though it undeniably had big audiences on ITV once upon a time, we don't remember this being a programme that people would watch avidly and talk about down the pub the next night. They probably watched it in large numbers because the alternative on the BBC was too poor to contemplate. Anyway, back on our screens it most certainly is and injected with 21st Century pizzazz too, but to our mind, that's part of its problem. For a start, the backdrop of the studio is now a ceiling-to-floor video wall displaying a psychedelic array of patterns and imagery that distract throughout, plus there's a new assault course which seems to be twice as complicated as the old one (like it needed to be...) New host Ben Shephard, it can be said, is distinctly lacking in sufficient personality to carry off the 'Gordon Burns' role, there's no sight of the studio audience like there used to be which gives the show a cold feel, and all in all this new Krypton Factor's seems a bit soulless, really. We could be wrong, but we don't think this will run much beyond a second series - or even this series perhaps.

Morecambe & Wise: The Show What Paul Merton Did
Finally, a fine tribute to the aforementioned Eric and Ern. There have been countless previous attempts to show the best bits of their work, to discuss the pros and cons of their routines and private lives, but this found just the right balance while bringing something new to the table. Hosted by Paul Merton, various guests were brought on to have a brief chat about 'Britain's Best Loved Comedy Duo' in-between various pieces of archive footage, but this is where the show excelled. Remarkably, someone had bothered to try and find some rarely seen material which made such a refreshing change as to set it apart from all previous efforts at this kind of programme. With Merton being an obvious fan too, it was a great way to reflect on the joy that Morecambe and Wise brought to many of our lives, and deserves almost as many re-runs as the original shows had themselves.


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