What’s amazing about Jeremy Thorpe is that it genuinely didn’t occur to him that murdering someone might be illegal or immoral.
Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little, so you can imagine how sickened I was by the magisterial TV adaptation of John Preston’s A Very English Scandal (BBC1, Sundays).
I’ve known Preston for years. It’s him I have to thank for the compendious collection of CDs rotting in my attic, from the ten years or so I spent working under him (he was the arts editor) as the Sunday Telegraph’s rock critic. But though I’ve hugely enjoyed all his quirky, low-key, sardonically amused novels — loosely on the theme of ‘quiet desperation is the English way’ —I never imagined he’d luck out quite so spectacularly as he has with this truly splendid all-star production.
When Winston Churchill was at the nadir of his career, he wrote a biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. In his wilderness years he needed to be reminded that even the greatest men of destiny go through periods when it all seems pretty hopeless. ‘Every taunt, however bitter; every tale, however petty; every charge, however shameful, for which the incidents of a long career could afford a pretext, has been levelled against him,’ Churchill wrote. Those Blenheim Palaces and Finest Hours: they don’t just give themselves away, you know.
I wish someone had told me this when I was younger. Unfortunately, like many of us, I suffered the misfortune of having parents who kept telling me how very special I was.
Plus: the joy of Only Connect lies in its absolute integrity and why Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is better off with Jeremy Clarkson.
Twenty years after it first appeared, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is back for a brief, week-long anniversary run on ITV —with only a few small amendments to the near-perfect original formula. Along with 50/50, Ask the Audience and Phone a Friend, you also get the option to Ask the Host. Given that the presenter is now Jeremy Clarkson (replacing Chris Tarrant) this is an option as risky as it is amusing.
As Clarkson cheerfully explained in the first show: ‘If it’s 1970s prog rock I’ll probably know the answer. If it’s anything other than that I probably won’t.’
Next time there’s a terrorist atrocity in Britain, here’s one of the things that will happen in the immediate aftermath: the mob will look for a scapegoat, someone wholly innocent of the actual crime but who must nonetheless bear the burden of its impotent rage.
Perhaps it will be a politician, usually Nigel Farage, though sometimes Donald Trump. More likely it will be Katie Hopkins or Tommy Robinson. They’ll say something robust and honest, most likely on Twitter. And instead of congratulating them on their courage in telling it like it is, the twitchfork mob will furiously brandish them as its Exhibit A — the hatemonger who created the atmosphere which made this terrible act possible. Meanwhile, the true perpetrators — at least in terms of moral responsibility — will be permitted to get off scot-free.
Quite why people behave this way, I find mystifying. But, as Ben Irvine describes in his fascinating book ScapegoatedCapitalism, we’ve been doing it in different forms since time immemorial.
Plus: gritty, gripping Euro noir on BBC4 and a stylish new country-house whodunit on BBC One
Because I’m a miserable old reactionary determined to see a sinister Guardianista plot in every BBC programme I watch, I sat stony-faced through much of Cunk On Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays).
Philomena Cunk (played by Diane Morgan) is a spoof comedy character who used to appear on Charlie Brooker’sWeekly Wipe and has now been given a full series. Though the character is amiable enough — a heroically thick Northern woman in a smart jacket who goes around Britain making stupid observations and asking celebrity historians dumb questions — I can’t quite work out what the point of the joke is.
Is it a send-up of dumbed-down Britain? Is it designed to make TV history experts look pompous? Is it Molesworth reimagined for 21st-century viewers who’ve never read Down with Skool!? Is it Ali G without the awkward racial element, which would likely never get past the censors now?
This ought to be the perfect time for a rant about how we’ve reached peak sourdough. It’s been all the rage for three or four years now and, really, someone needs to take a stand. As annoyingly overrated foodstuffs go, it’s up there with kimchi and goji berries and organic chia seeds: obsessively prepared by people with far too much beard, raved about in the Guardian and especially big in that epicentre of global communism, San Francisco. And it doesn’t even taste like bread — more like Mongolian yak’s yoghurt.
Problem is, I can’t. Because, like Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I’ve been got. It began when the Fawn passed me this photocopy of a recipe, together with a jar with a white-ish substance at the bottom smelling faintly rancid. They had been sent as a gift by a colleague who’d got the sourdough religion and wanted to spread the word. ‘Oh God, must I really?’ I muttered as I pored over the complicated details.
Plus: the latest variant on one of my favourite reality TV genres: unteachables go to brat camp.
I have decided to set up a cult, which you are all welcome to join, especially those of you who are young and very attractive or stupendously rich. The former will get exclusive membership of my JiggyJiggy Fun Club™, while the latter will be essential in financing all the cool shit I need on my 500-square-mile estate, viz: hunt stables and kennels, helipad, private games room with huge comfy chair, water slides, grouse moor, airstrip, barracks for my cuirassiers, volcano with battery of rockets inside, and so on.
What gave me the idea was this new Netflix documentary series everyone is talking about called Wild Wild Country. It tells the story of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the bearded guru who in the early 1980s decamped from India with his thousands of followers to set up a utopian colony on a remote and beautiful ranch in the wilds of Oregon.
If you didn’t know it was all going to go horribly wrong, you might find the early episodes ever so slightly dull.
Something extraordinary and largely unreported has just happened in a court in San Francisco. A federal judge has said that there is no Big Oil conspiracy to conceal the truth about climate change. In fact, Judge William Alsup — a Clinton appointment, so he can hardly be accused of right-wing bias — was really quite snarky with the plaintiffs who claimed there was such a conspiracy.
The case was brought by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland, which have taken it upon themselves to sue the five big western oil majors — Chevron, ExxonMobil, Conoco-Phillips, BP and Royal Dutch Shell — for allegedly engaging in a Big Tobacco-style cover-up to conceal the harm of their products. Apparently Big Oil knew about the dangers of man-made global warming but went on drilling anyway. So now the two Californian cities are trying to claim billions of dollars in damages to compensate them for all the walls and dykes and so on they’ll have to build to cope with rising sea levels.
Nice try. But so far Judge Alsup hasn’t been impressed. He said he had been expecting the plaintiffs to reveal ‘a conspiratorial document’ which proved that the defendants ‘knew good and well that global warming was right around the corner.
What make it are the tiny, beautifully observed details and its emotional heart.
Sometimes — really not often but sometimes — a programme that’s good and honest and true slips under the wire of the BBC’s jealously guarded PC agenda and makes a home run. The latest to do so is a deadpan comedy series called This Country (BBC3).
It’s so deadpan that it’s easy to see why an earlier pilot episode for ITV crashed and burned. If you were channel-hopping and lingered on it for five minutes, you might easily mistake it for an earnest, worthy, achingly tedious fly-on-the-wall documentary series about the poverty and despair of left-behind rural England. This impression is enhanced by screeds that occasionally appear on screen giving you, say, statistics illustrative of the funding crisis in healthcare outside the big cities.
But it is, in fact, a mockumentary. A rustic variant, if you will, on Ricky Gervais’s The Office. (Another of those rare BBC home runs. And, incidentally, do you know how long ago that was? 2001 it started. In fact, it predates 9/11.)
It’s so much easier to voice right-wing views if you’re a horny-handed son of toil.
‘No one wants to send their son to Eton any more,’ I learned from last week’s Spectator Schools supplement. It explained how parents who’d been privately educated themselves were increasingly reluctant to extend the privilege to their offspring; some because they can’t bear for their darling babies to board, others because the fees are way out of their reach, or because class prejudice is so entrenched these days it means their kids probably won’t get into Oxbridge.
Then again, if you don’t send your kids to public school, you’ll be denying them never-to-be-repeated opportunities like the ones that boys at Radley have had this week: the chance to see not one, but two of your favourite Spectator writers — me and Brendan O’Neill, both invited as part of the school’s admirable Provocateur in Residence programme — slugging it out in class after class on vexed political issues from Donald Trump to safe spaces, #MeToo to student snowflakes, Antifa to Islamism.