The Left-Wing Bias on Celebrity Gogglebox Was Excruciating

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Ed Sheeran (image: Getty)

This week I want to put the boot in to Gogglebox (Channel 4, Fridays). Not the mostly likeable, everyday version, whose stars include our very own and much-loved Dear Mary, where ordinary-ish people are filmed reacting amusingly to the week’s TV. I mean the recent celebrity special, featuring former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher, a cricketer, a footballer, Ed Sheeran, Ozzie and Sharon Osbourne, the actress formerly known as Jessica Stevenson and Jeremy Corbyn.

The last couple were filmed together sitting on a yellow sofa at a smart-looking terrace address in Edinburgh. No explanation was given as to what the leader of the Labour party was doing with the former star of Spaced — Jessica Hynes, as she’s now known. Perhaps the producers were hoping we’d go: ‘Oh, how nice. Two old, old mates, probably, hanging out, as you do.’ But to me it all seemed very rum.

Corbyn didn’t exactly help himself. Though he’s clearly had a lot of media training in the past year — his dress is snappier, he’s less tetchy and defensive — he still comes across like an early-model replicant where the programmer couldn’t quite get the ‘normal’ function right.

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The Hilarity – and Horror – of Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David
Divine comedy: even if Larry David is as big a prize twonk in real life as he is on Curb we can hardly begrudge him for it.

Larry David is both the tragic hero with whom you identify and the comical idiot whom you love to see humiliated – long may he go on suffering!

The best episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm are the ones that make you want to hide behind the sofa, cover your ears and drown out the horror by screaming: ‘No, Larry, no!’ I’m thinking, for example, of the one where our hero attends a victim support group for survivors of incest and, in order to fit in, decides to concoct a cock and bull story about how he was sexually abused by his uncle. This, of course, comes back horribly to haunt him when out one day with his blameless real uncle…

But no, I shan’t try to elaborate, for the plots in Curb Your Enthusiasm are as convoluted as any farce. And besides, you should see it for yourself. So long as you don’t mind writhing in embarrassment, and wishing the ground could swallow you up, there really are few things more excruciatingly funny than Curb.

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Unlike Father, Unlike Son: The Whitehalls’ Double Act

One’s crabby and conservative, while the other is genial and impeccably PC. No wonder Jack and his dad Michael make such compelling TV.

The Whitehalls

‘Oh really I don’t mind. Whatever you want to pay me. I just want to do this job and I’m really looking forward it. How much were you thinking?’ says Michael Whitehall in an unctuous, good-natured, amenable voice. Then, in an instant, having been told the imaginary amount, he turns savagely nasty and bangs his fist on the table. ‘No fucking way are you paying me so little…’

Watching Michael Whitehall jokingly re-enact how he negotiated his fee for his son’s new Netflix series, Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father, three things become abundantly clear.

First, that he must have been a brilliantly effective agent (shrewd, tough, terrifying) during his previous career, when he represented such stars as Kenneth More, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and (Jack’s godfather) Richard Griffiths.

Second, that he really should have been on stage or screen himself much earlier (he became a star only in his early seventies), because his acting skills, timing and delivery are immaculate. (He’ll hate the comparison, but I was oddly reminded of the scene where Gollum’s good and evil sides have an argument in Lord of the Rings.)

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I Really Wouldn’t Bother Watching Sky Atlantic’s Tin Star

The Canadian detective drama is nothing but cliché and a terrible waste of a talented cast – including a lubricious Christina Hendricks

Tin Star
Kevin Hanchard as Rev. Gregoire and Tim Roth as Sheriff Jim Worth in Tin Star, which is like the rejected first draft of a really bad movie by Quentin Tarantino.

Tin Star, the latest Sky Atlantic drama, has a comfortingly familiar premise: Jim Worth (Tim Roth), an ex-detective from London with an alcohol problem, heads out to rural Canada with his family to start a new life only to find himself embroiled in crime, violence and personal tragedy far worse than anything back home.

It begins well. There’s a lovely establishing scene where Roth walks down the street with his new Canadian sheriff’s badge and everyone greets him, as people presumably do in sleepy Canadian Rockies towns like Little Big Bear, where everyone’s got time for one another. In the police station, his two junior officers have so little crime to solve they’re playing video games. At their suggestion, Jim heads off to the picturesque river nearby to fish for salmon and spots his first bear. Gosh, how delightful it’s all going to be: a bit like that gentle 1990s comedy series Northern Exposure

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The State Was Gripping, Moving and Shocking – But It Came at a Moral Cost

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Beyond belief: Sam Otto as Jalal in Peter Kosminsky’s The State

No, The State (Channel 4) wasn’t a recruiting manual for the Islamic State, though I did feel uneasy about it throughout the four episodes. The fundamental problem is this: if you’re going to make a watchable drama about bad people doing terrible things, you inevitably have to humanise them. And from there it’s just a short step to making them sympathetic.

Peter Kosminsky’s drama followed four British Muslims to Syria to join IS. Shakira, a black convert with a nearly-ten-year-old son, wanted to apply her skills as a doctor; Ushna was a teenager seeking to be a ‘lioness for lions’; Ziyaad was an amiable lunk looking for adventure; and his mate Jalal was a ‘hafiz’ — someone who has memorised the entire Koran — who wanted to follow in the footsteps of his dead brother and witness the Sharia in its purest form.

Needless to say, each was horribly, brutally disabused. But already you see the problem: here were some quite likeable characters — kind, sensitive Jalal, especially — a million miles from the hopped-up, insensate, savage killers we now see roughly once a fortnight bombing, shooting, slashing, van-murdering innocents for the crime of living a normal western life.

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Why Foreign TV Series Are So Enjoyable: The Sex Is Better

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Valkyrien (image: Channel 4)

Also, the trajectory of the story is never obvious, as in the latest new Scandi-noir on Channel 4’s Walter Presents, Valkyrien.

Valkyrien (C4, Sunday) is the hot new Scandi-noir series, which is being billed as Norway’s answer to Breaking Bad. In this case, the anti-hero having his mid-life crisis is a brilliant surgeon called Ravn (Sven Nordin). He has become disenchanted with The System because the fancy hospital where he works won’t let him use the potentially life-saving treatment he has devised on his dying wife. (It might kill her, they say — which Ravn, quite understandably, considers a ridiculous, faux-ethical excuse.) So off he goes to sulk in his Batcave — a disused nuclear bomb shelter, accessible via an underground station — for what will no doubt be a series of clandestine medical adventures, using equipment he has nicked from his old lab.

Ravn’s Jesse-style sidekick Leif (Pal Sverre Hagen) works for Norway’s civil defence unit — risk-assessing all the things that might bring the world to an end. It’s the perfect job because. . . .

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Sky Atlantic’s Riviera Is Fine If All You Want Is the TV Equivalent of a Computer Screensaver

Julia Stiles as Georgina and Iwan Rheon as Adam Clios in Riviera

Riviera is the new Night Manager,’ I read somewhere. No, it’s not. Riviera (Sky Atlantic, Thursday) is the new Eldorado — except, unlike the doomed early 1990s soap opera in which Tony Holland attempted to recreate the success of EastEnders on the Costa del Sol, it has at least been glamorously relocated to Nice, Monaco, New York etc.

The settings are the best thing about it. Those Mediterranean palaces with sun-bleached brick-red plaster and bougainvillea and shimmery blue pools and the sun-loungers arranged just so by invisible but discreetly attentive staff: we’ve most of us had the experience at some time or another, either because we’ve lucked out and been invited by an uber-plutocrat friend or, more likely, because we’ve paid through the nose for a weekend at one of the myriad hotels that now specialise in recreating that Onassis in the 1970s experience.

And when we’ve had it we’ve all thought to ourselves, ‘Yes. This is it. This is exactly how my life is going to be when I win the lottery/write my bestseller/cash in my small hedge fund.’ Then we’ve gone home and realised, ‘Actually, no, my life is shite and always will be.’ So watching a series about tanned women with sunglasses who’ve never had to work and men with linen suits, Ferraris and Vertu mobile phones becomes our next best thing.

 

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Hippies Gave Us Wonderful Things, but They Left an Evil Legacy Too

BBC4’s new two-parter, How Hippies Changed the World, makes me wonder whether it was all worth it.

There’s an incredibly addictive old iPhone game called Doodle God where you effectively invent civilisation from scratch by combining basic elements. So, for example, water plus lava creates steam; the steam, in turn, can be combined with another more advanced element, I forget which, later in the game to create steam power; and so on and on until, from the primordial ooze, you have, through continual experiment, created nuclear weaponry and computers and aeroplanes and all the things we take for granted today.

I was reminded of it while watching part one (of two) of The Summer Of Love: How Hippies Changed the World (BBC4, Friday). Hippiedom, it argued, emerged from the random collision of three disparate movements in the late 1960s San Francisco Bay area — the Nature Boys, the Truthseekers and the Political Wing.

We now take it for granted that organic carrot juice, psychedelic drugs and virulently left-wing politics go hand in hand, but by the documentary’s account this was an accident of geography and fate: it just so happened that the radicals from America’s most left-wing university, Berkeley, lived next door to the acid-taking sophisticates who’d all read Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and also to the back-to-nature freaks — such as Gypsy Boots, founder of America’s first health-food store in 1959 — who in turn had been inspired by the Lebensreform movement of late 19th-century Germany.

 

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In Rock ‘n’ Roll You Need an Accountant More than Talent

The music industry’s reputation for being full of bloodsucking parasites is spot on, if this BBC4 doc is anything to go by.

Birds have been giving me a lot of grief of late. There’s Tappy — the blue tit who has built his nest just underneath my bedroom window and makes rat-like scuffling noises that bother me at night and wake me early in the morning. And Hoppy, a mistle thrush fledgling who can’t quite fly yet, which means we have to keep the cat indoors, which means I have to deal with its horrible shit in the litter tray every day before breakfast. And the rookery in the big ash, whose inhabitants are very vocal, especially when one of their babies falls out of the nest and gets devoured by the dog.

I may be only a couple of dawn choruses away from losing it altogether, as my fellow Brummie Ozzy Osbourne once famously did with a pair of white doves. He had brought the doves into the offices of his record company, supposedly as a peace gesture to show that there was still life in his career now that he had left Black Sabbath.

The story — Osbourne gets drunk and, bored, bites birds’ heads off — is usually told to indicate just how dangerous, unhinged and metal Ozzy is. But actually, it tells us much more about the dark, calculating genius of his manager (and now wife) Sharon. Instead of trying to suppress the ugly story, which threatened to finish what was left of Osbourne’s career, she promoted it everywhere. His album, Blizzard of Ozz, went on to sell millions.

Sharon was an interesting choice to present Rock ’n’ Roll’s Dodgiest Deals (BBC4, Friday) on how rock stars are ripped off and exploited, given that that’s largely what her dad Don Arden — also a manager — did to bands such as the Small Faces. After the boys had had a string of hits, their parents went round to confront Arden, asking why their kids still had so little money. ‘They’ve spent it all on drugs,’ lied Arden.

But at least they had pocket money, accounts at Lord John of Carnaby Street, and a nice flat rented for them in Pimlico next to Honor Blackman’s. The Animals, who clearly would have been better off with a manager like Arden, got almost nothing for their ‘House of the Rising Sun’. According to singer Eric Burdon, when they went out to the Bahamas, where the $4 million they’d made was being held for their safekeeping, the holding bank— if it ever existed — had disappeared.

How accurate were these stories? Hard to say given that this was more an exercise in nostalgia than a properly forensic examination of how rock stars make their money. What’s clear is that the music industry’s reputation for swarming with bloodsucking parasites has not been overdone — and that bands really do need their Ardens, their Peter (Led Zeppelin) Grants and their Miles Copelands if they’re not to end up in penury.

Read the rest at the Spectator.

This Isn’t Drama as Most of Us Understand It: American Gods Reviewed

It’s gorgeous to look at and the characters are vivid, but why is the plotline so glacially slow?

The bemused protagonist with a stupid name: Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon in American Gods

Since completing season two of the brilliant Narcos, I’ve been unsuccessfully looking for a replacement serial drama that is more appealing than a bath and early bed. But the problem with TV these days is that series like Breaking Bad have set the bar so high that one ends up like a jaded emperor, forever rejecting good-but-not-quite-good-enough stuff for the most trivial of reasons.

Better Call Saul (Netflix original), for example. I’ve tried getting into it a couple of times now (and probably will again because so many people rave about it) because I love Bob Odenkirk’s dodgy lawyer character. But I found he worked better as light relief in the context of Breaking Bad’s otherwise relentless and unforgiving bleakness. In Breaking Bad, Mexican gangsters would never be talked, by hucksterish gab, out of killing their victims and just amiably break their legs instead. In Better Call Saul they can be, which seems to me a cheat: as if Reservoir Dogs had suddenly morphed into The A-Team.

Interestingly, Sneaky Pete (Amazon Prime) has a similar problem. I say ‘interestingly’ because it’s another Breaking Bad offshoot, the co-creation of Bryan Cranston, who appears in it as a vicious crime boss. But for all the Cranston character’s menace, the general tone is knockabout and caperish, which means that however bad things get for its conman hero Marius (the very likeable Giovanni Ribisi) there’s never quite the necessary sense of jeopardy to keep you on the edge of your seat. It pretends it’s The Sopranos; really it’s The Waltons.

My latest mild disappointment is American Gods (Amazon Prime), despite a hugely promising opening scene last week in which a longship of hairy Norsemen find themselves stranded and becalmed in the hostile New World, and realise that only an appeal to the appropriate viking god will get them home.

Read the rest at the Spectator.