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.’
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 TV masterpiece about Weimar Germany will eat up 16 hours of your life.
Babylon Berlin (Sky Atlantic), the epic German-made Euro noir detective drama set during Weimar, is so addictively brilliant that I’d almost advise you not to start watching it. After the two seasons to date you’ll be left feeling like the morphine-addicted hero Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) when deprived of his fix.
That’s because they haven’t even started making season three yet, so you’ll have an excruciatingly long wait to see what becomes of its cast of immensely captivating characters: Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), Rath’s corrupt, lying, whoring but affable sidekick; the treacherous White Russian Countess (Severija Janusauskaite), who dresses as a man for her floor-filling cabaret act; Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), the gorgeous flapper and occasional tart from the slums whose hopeless ambition it is to join the murder squad of the Berlin police; the Armenian gangster; Benda, the elegant, principled Jewish police chief; the sweet, Tintin-like student with the deaf parents.
Some of these characters, I should warn you, may not survive that far. Volker Kutscher, who wrote the novels on which the series is based, has a similar disregard for the sanctity of his characters’ lives as Thrones’s George R.R. Martin.
His only real talent is toeing the party line – which is probably why his feeble detective drama Collateral, with its right-on politics, attracted such a starry cast.
Shortly after my rave review of McMafia eight weeks ago, I got a long message from an old friend chastising me for being so horribly wrong. Could I not see that the series was boring, convoluted and badly acted? Was I aware of how many better series there had been on Amazon and Netflix recently because, if I wasn’t, she could give me a few recommendations…
Several other people wrote to me in a similar vein and I felt terrible. Life is short and TV production is so voluminous these days that now more than ever we need critics to sift the bullion from the dross. Sure, reviews are a snap judgment, usually based on just one episode and written under pressure. Even so, if you can’t be trusted to get it right, say, 90 per cent of the time, that makes you a critical fail.
The problem with Jez Butterworth’s series for Sky Atlantic is it can never stop smirking at its own irreverence
It’s a terrible thing for a TV critic to admit but I just don’t know what to make of Britannia, the new Sky Atlantic drama set during the Roman invasion of Britain, scripted by Jez Butterworth, starring a top-notch cast including David Morrissey, Zoë Wanamaker and Mackenzie Crook, and heavily touted as the next Game of Thrones.
Is it really in the Thrones’s league? I’d say not. You remember how Thrones started, all those seasons ago: the scouting party in the creepy frozen wood; the dead child with milky-blue glowing eyes; the shockingly draconian punishment meted out by Ned Stark to the party’s sole survivor. Within the first ten minutes it was all there: the gnawing tension, the ‘anyone can die’ cruelty and horror. But perhaps most important of all was the absolute seriousness. Here was a swords-and-sorcery epic determined never to sell itself short through flippancy or self-parody.
It’s at least as well acted, suspenseful and sexy as The Night Manager.
My third most fervent New Year wish — just after Litecoin goes to £20,000 and Jacob Rees-Mogg becomes PM — is for the BBC to retire to its study with its service pistol and a bottle of whisky and finally do the decent thing.
After all, as lots of people are beginning to notice, when you spend 40 per cent of your viewing time watching your £79-a-year Amazon Prime, and another 40 per cent on £96-a-year Netflix, your compulsory £145.50 licence fee starts to look like a lot of money to pay for the remaining 20 per cent’s worth of diversity outreach, anti-Brexit whining and green propaganda.
That’s why I was so very disappointed by the BBC’s first big New Year offering. McMafia (Tuesdays) is so brilliant that it almost disproves my point. It’s at least as well acted, suspenseful and sexy to look at as The Night Manager was. So far, it doesn’t look remotely PC. And, unlike its similarly classy, high-budget predecessor, it has the massive bonus of not being burdened by John le Carré’s weird, cartoonish, out-of-date geopolitics.
Ignore the PC nonsense – this telly Western is well acted, gritty, dusty, uber-violent and clandestinely old-fashioned.
Boy came to me the other night in a state of dismay. ‘Dad, I just turned on Match of the Day to watch England vs Kazakhstan and guess what: they never mentioned this, but it’s the women’s game.’
What bothered him was not so much being forced to watch a slower, less athletic, duller version of real football — though obviously that too — as that the BBC was being so utterly disingenuous about it. This policy of pretending there’s absolutely no difference between men’s and women’s international sporting fixtures has, I know, been operational for some time. But for those of us living outside the PC metropolitan bubble — i.e. most of the BBC’s actual audience — it still feels insulting, hectoring and dishonest.
But you can’t escape it. Even really good drama series that you might actually want to watch have been infected. The new Netflix cowboy drama Godless, for example.
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.
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.
One’s crabby and conservative, while the other is genial and impeccably PC. No wonder Jack and his dad Michael make such compelling TV.
‘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.)