BUSHELL ON THE BOX
*This is an edited version of my TV column. The real thing, plus contests, goofs, lookalike pictures and more, can be found each Sunday only in the Daily Star Sunday.
Oct 25. HAS A “charismatic” politician ever been as dull as Roadkill’s Peter Laurence? We can’t blame Hugh Laurie who positively crackled with loathsome charm in The Night Manager. No, the fault lies entirely with David Hare’s script. As my granddad used to say, you’d find more life in a tramp’s vest. Love rat Laurence boasted “Voters think of me as a character.” Why, though? He’s no Boris. (Mind you, these days neither is Boris). The posh, Croydon-born “man of the people” is like a composite of Jeffrey Archer, Nigel Farage and Jonathan Aitken without any of the attributes that make them interesting.
Peter has a talk-radio show (unlike any serving minister ever), but no populist policies to speak of. If anything, he’s on the wetter wing of the Tory Party. And everyone around him hates his guts. We meet him after he wins a £1.5million libel pay-out from a newspaper. Even his brief thinks he’s “as guilty as hell”. Laurence has a bit on the side and an illegitimate mixed-race daughter in a women’s prison (neither of which would play badly in Croydon). His big sin in Hare’s eyes is his secret plan to “privatise the NHS” (a process Labour started in 2003). But how would weaselly Laurence make that government policy?
Why not give the “evil” Tory a credible political agenda? Are they worried viewers might warm to him? (ITV scrapped Vote For Me after Rodney Hilton-Potts stormed to victory on a “cabbies’ manifesto”). Hare’s last drama flop, Collateral, preached student politics every week and saw millions turn off. Turks & Caicos was just as turgid. But the licence fee featherbeds failure and Hare’s hare-brained agit-prop ticks all the right BBC boxes... so on it goes. The chances of a Corporation drama inspired by Mandelson, Thornberry or Vaz are miniscule.
I’M loving Life despite myself. Mike Bartlett’s puffed-up soap has tastier twists than a Chubby Checker convention. David’s new squeeze Saira has turned out to be his late wife’s ex. Gail left Henry and may have found a fella already, so he’s after his ex-mistress Helen again. (Paging Paige!). Soon-to-wed Hannah clearly still wants baby-daddy Andy. And poor alcoholic Belle can’t get a leg-over drunk or sober. She should try the AA meetings on Roadkill. When journalist Charmain Pepper hit it off with junior barrister Luke, he invited her back to his place for coffee and on the signal “I don’t have any coffee” she tore off her clothes and ravished him. That’s what I call a red-hot chilli Pepper. Imagine her reaction if he’d said “Mine’s a large one”.
ON Tipping Point: Lucky Stars, brainy comic Miles Jupp and Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark lost embarrassingly to Kerry “Crazy In Love” Katona. Jupp looked gutted, but you were on her turf posh boy. Crackpot Kerry should chase her ace and challenge ’em to a rematch on Catchphrase. The regular Tipping Point continues to deliver glorious nitwits. This month a contestant, asked to name “an area of the North Sea named after a Nordic invader”, replied Christopher Columbus.” Asked which naval hero said: “England expects that every man will do his duty”, another numbskull answered “Napoleon”.
HOT on TV: Bill Bailey & Oti, Strictly... Sarah Greene, Roadkill... Sharpe’s Rifles (Drama)... Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You (Apple).
ROT on TV: Out Of Her Mind – as funny as third world famine... Spitting Image scripts – painfully lame... Roadkill – reverse over it, make sure it’s dead.
WATCHING Jason Manford and brother Stephen on The Millionaire Pound Cube Celebrity, did you get the uneasy feeling that he might have had another brother who he’s eaten? He’s going from Manford to Man Mountain.
*CUBE contestants enter a strange room where they repeat demanding challenges over and over until they get it right. They sweat, they struggle... there’s a masked woman involved... It’s basically Sex Box without the sex.
LOVECRAFT Country was the craziest sci-fi drama since Inception. One week, a sinister white woman morphed into a geezer to bed Ruby, a black woman. Elsewhere Ruby changed into a white woman and brutally abused a bloke with her shoe... The shoe wasn’t laced but the writers’ drinks may well have been.
*TV scheduling clash. Monday, 10pm: Channel 4, Adult Material. BBC2: The Ranganation, limp material.
*PAUL Hollywood wrecked Hermione’s signature challenge dish on Bake Off. Not the first tart to fall apart in his hands.
*OUT Of Her Mind? The Beeb must be out of theirs to let Sara Pascoe serve up such a self-indulgent, laugh-free mess of a sitcom. Think Fleabag without the wit... Rat-bag, perhaps.
SMALL Joys of TV: Norman Wisdom clips, Legends Of Comedy (SkyArts). I Am Richard Pryor. Bargain Hunt’s 20th Birthday. Andy Field. Schitt’s Creek (E4). Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes.
RANDOM Irritations: reverse racism in shows like Lovecraft Country where every white character was evil. Even in 1960s South Africa, there were hundreds of white anti-apartheid activists.
SEPARATED at birth? Jeremy Paxman and Victor Meldrew? One a notorious grump raging against the follies of modern life, the other was a misunderstood sitcom favourite.
CLASSIC CLANGER: John Inverdale was talking about a 225kg weight when he asked Britain’s Strongest Man competitor Johnnie Kiss: “Do you have to train to carry something of that magnitude between your legs?”
Oct 18. TODAY’S mainstream telly is as gutless as a pickled herring, but it wasn’t always so. BBC1’s Play For Today ran for 14years and begat memorable creations like Edna, the Inebriate Woman, Horace Rumpole, and Beverly Moss in Abigail’s Party. The best, Roy Minton’s electrifying Scum, was set in a borstal and starred Ray Winstone. It was so authentic the BBC banned it for 14years. Drama Out Of A Crisis celebrated PFT’s risk-taking legacy while reminding us most playwrights look like 1970s school teachers dressed by near-sighted tramps.
The format attracted top-drawer talent. The first, The Long Distance Piano Player, starred Ray Davies of the Kinks. Then came George Cole, Frank Finlay, Rosemary Leach, Tom Bell, Gemma Jones, Roy Kinnear, Donald Pleasance, Julie Driscoll... and that was just series one. The roll-call of writers was just as stellar: Colin Welland, David Edgar, Willie Russell, Leon Griffiths, Alan Bleasdale, Ken Loach, Trotskyist Jim Allen and Dennis Potter whose Brimstone & Treacle was axed before transmission.
Most were hardcore socialists, keen to “rattle the cages of Establishment”. We might not agree with their stale, failed politics, but the plays were rarely predictable and reminded us of drama’s power to move, expose, campaign and also delight. There were gentle joys alongside gritty social realism, like Peter Terson’s earthy comedies and David Rudkin’s peculiar Penda’s Fen, where a vicar’s son encountered the spirits of Anglo-Saxon king Penda and Edward Elgar in the Malvern Hills. ITV’s ground-breaking Armchair Theatre started TV’s one-off drama tradition, followed by BBC1’s The Wednesday Play – home of Cathy Come Home. Looking at schedules full of cooks, clapped-out soaps and “reality” muppets, it’s hard to believe British TV once had a backbone. Could we find it again, with free-thinking, less dogmatic writers? With theatre on its knees, actors could surely do with the work.
DREAMS are what Britain’s Got Talent trades in and dreams are what it ultimately crushes. In the days of New Faces, judges such as Mickey Most and Tony Hatch were respected because they were knowledgeable and honest. If an act stank, they said so. But BGT is bathed in insincerity. The puffed-up panel big up hopeless wannabes and push them through to the live shows despite knowing they have a publican’s chance in Liverpool. This year’s final was the biggest wash-out since Mr Stink got hosed down, thanks largely to poor judging decisions and cynical producers who fix the running order. Jon Courtenay went last and won. Who’d have thought it? He’s been compared to Victoria Wood but her songs had tunes, choruses and clever gags. His are more Victoria Wouldn’t.
ON Tipping Point, Ben Shephard was so chuffed when blonde Caroline won £10K that he lifted her off her feet, cuddled her, touched her shoulder and repeatedly hugged her. Mate, it’s a quiz show, not First Dates. At one point, I thought he was going for the Win Zone. What next, a late-night spin-off with an adult version of the “final drop”?
*THERE must be something in the ITV water. On This Morning, Holly told Gino “I’m a bit of a convert to Italian sausage.” Then she smiled and saucily added “You can really taste the difference”. Remind me to change my name to Luigi.
*GINO swore his sausage recipe was his granddad’s. Then his Aunt Sofia’s... then her neighbour Sally’s. “If you’re going to tell a lie be consistent,” advised Phil, who knows about these things. Gino replied “I’m not lying, I’m just giving you the wrong information.” He’ll be doing corona briefings next.
HOT on TV: Andrew Koji, Warrior (Sky1)... Michael Palin – Travels Of A Lifetime... Nina Sosanya, Brave New World.
ROT on TV: The Bridge – a bridge too far... Tommy (Alibi) – tommy rot... Britain’s Got Talent – needs fresh judges, real talent and less tedious “wokeness”.
ASKED on Family Fortunes to name something people predict, Chris said “their death date”. The Buckley clan were obsessed with dying. Asked for something you’d hate to be in when it broke down, mum Lynne replied “a hearse”. My answer wasn’t up there: Stacey Slater.
*THEY’RE serving Quorn sausages on EastEnders – a fake, tasteless substitute for something meatier. And the food is just as bad.
*EMILY In Paris copped flack for portraying Parisians as rude snobs with hygiene issues. Is this comedy or documentary?
*BOSS Paul told Emily: “Smoking is a pleasure and without pleasure who are we?” Snooty Sylvie, channelling the Pub Landlord, replied “German”.
*FUNNY, Black & On TV recalled the great Charlie Williams but not Josh White, Kenny Lynch or Sammy Thomas. Richard Blackwood was compared to Eddie Murphy, which is like likening a Trabant P50 to an Aston Martin DBS.
*DID you clock the size of Mitch Benn on Only Connect? He’s Much Benn now.
SMALL Joys of TV: Ivor Cutler by KT Tunstall. Bradley & Shaun mimicking Demis Roussos (The Chase). Bill Burr, Saturday Night Live. Angie Le Mar. Starbuck, Battlestar Gallactica. Spooks reruns.
RANDOM Irritations: Wishy-washy storm names. This year we’ve seen ’em called Alex, Ellen, Dennis and Francis. Leave it out. Scary storms need scary names. You wouldn’t want to brave the wrath of Storm Fury, Storm Evil or Storm Bastard.
SEPARATED at birth? Frank Skinner and Ann Widdecombe? One a constant source of eccentric hilarity, weird hair, crazy clothes and bizarre outbursts, the other is Frank Skinner.
Oct 11. WHAT’S the point of comedy? According to Alesha Dixon, it’s to make us “feel uncomfortable”. It should “push boundaries”, agreed Amanda Holden. And take us “right to the edge”. Yeah right. These people are so clueless they should be in the Cabinet. Nobody is watching ITV on a Saturday night to feel uncomfortable. We want escape, we want release from work, stress and fear, and most of all we want BELLY LAUGHS – something TV has forgotten how to provide. Comedy’s golden age gave us Eric & Ernie, The Two Ronnies, Stanley Baxter, An Audience With, The Goodies, Dave Allen and many more. Then TV bosses rained on our parade. Smug Oxbridge twerps waged war on old-school entertainers. ITV sacked Benny Hill, BBC1 shafted Les Dawson, Carry On films were banned. Old favourites were axed, new right-on middle class comics were embraced and viewing figures dived faster than Tom Daley with a full bladder.
It’s a long way from Frankie Howerd to Frankie Boyle and all of it has been downhill.
Can TV comedy be saved? Yes, but we need action. TV needs to stop using stand-ups who haven’t had time to develop their acts. It’s crazy to woo raw comics and blank brilliant pros like Jasper Carrott, Mick Miller, Adrian Walsh, Keith O’Keefe etc. We’ve stopped making sketch shows. Why? The Fast Show celebrations reminded how good they can be. I’d settle for Russ Abbot’s Madhouse. Satire must target the powerful with wit and intelligence as well as venom. And, most importantly BBC boss Tim Davie must launch a drive to find fresh writers and build new sitcoms. The best were warm and down to earth with recognisable characters, fuelled by realistic tensions – Harold Steptoe aspired to better himself, Victor Meldrew was exasperated by modern inanities etc. Come on Tim. Save our comedy. Make Britain Laugh Again.
*LOVED the Les Dawson Urban Myths. Steve Pemberton’s script recalled the immortal Les with lines like “if success breeds success, I was on the pill”.
MIKE Bartlett’s suburban soap Life is so full of tough moral issues, even Solomon would swerve making decisions. Poor Gail was about to leave her boorish husband when he announced he had months to live. He’s now confessed he had a two year fling with Elaine Page... should she stay or should she go? Go! Alcoholic neighbour Belle let her layabout lesbian niece move in with her, only to have her kindness abused and sex-life ruined by the entitled brat. Show her the door! Widower David is haunted by his dead wife Kelly (possibly auditioning for Ghosts). Kelly probably cheated on him, but he turns down the attentions of sexy student Saira (Saira “Luscious Lips” Choudhry), a woman who could French kiss Zippy. No debate – ghost out, Saira in. Hannah had Andy’s kid but is set to marry Liam... only for Andy to waltz off with the baby. Odds on she’ll end up with Andy.
THANKS Channel 4 for giving us another freakish perversion. Many people who watched Adult Material will have Googled “rosebudding” and instantly regretted it. (Don’t do it. Seriously. Life’s too short... as are rectums). The best parts of this dark drama were Rupert Everett as a porn sleaze-ball and Phil Daniels as a world-weary, morally flawed director. But the rape of rosebudding victim Amy, and Jolene’s lack of concern after her schoolgirl daughter had been abused in her sleep, were just grim.
HOT on TV: Melissa McBride, The Walking Dead (Fox)... Steve Royle, BGT... Courtney Henggler, Cobra Kai... Perdita Wicks, Magnum PI.
ROT on TV: Spitting Image – great puppets, shame about the scripts... Guessable? – guess again... third-rate talking heads on Comedy Legends.
HAVE you noticed the dodgy division of labour on Ray Winstone’s Sicily? If it’s eating or drinking, Ray gets to do it. If it’s talking to Mafia victims’ families or spending all night on a fishing trawler, he sends Matt Lorenzo. Ray’s still the daddy. But a bloody lazy one.
*FIVE sitcoms I’d like to see again: The Larry Sanders Show, Early Doors, Sykes, Lead Balloon... and most of all Hancock’s Half Hour – when it was repeated in the late 80s, this 1950s classic was an instant hit all over again.
*JEREMY Paxman in those glasses looks like Harry Potter queuing up to pick up his pension from Gringotts.
*CAN’T comment on the grub in The Savoy, but Gordon Ramsay’s attitude left a nasty taste in the mouth. He was so insulting it’s a wonder none of the kitchen staff took a swing at him. Then again, who would notice? His face already looks like a slapped arse.
*MILTON Jones: “I’d like to see a world without plagiarism. You might say I’m a dreamer... but I’m not the only one.
*HAVE you ever turned on the telly and started watching Spitting Image, relishing the grotesque politicians talking garbage, and then realised you were actually watching the TV news?
SMALL Joys of TV: Tara King’s miniskirts, The Avengers. Alfred Burke, Public Eye (TPTV). Elizabeth Tan’s cheekbones (Singapore Grip). Michael Palin. Sarah Paulson’s Nurse Ratched.
RANDOM Irritations: BGT judges – barely qualified to judge flans at a village fete. Clapped-out HIGNFY. Little Mix: The Search – we don’t need another X Factor, give us live bands!
TV questions: Frankie Boyle – New World Order or old school ordure? Was Danny Dyer chosen to host The Wall because he acts as thick as a brick?
CLASSIC CLANGER: A vicar was admiring his flower arrangement on Kirstie’s Handmade Treasures when he told a startled Kirstie Allsopp: “I’ve gone larger! I think that’s about 10 inches!”
Oct 4. THIS is my 700th column for this great paper. I’ve been reviewing TV for longer than most channels have existed. The questions I get asked most are: Why? How can you watch so much tripe? – I’ve cleaned that up – and doesn’t it drive you nuts? And that’s just my wife. The simple answer is TV is the most exciting, daring and immediate entertainment form going. Even in this godforsaken year, Tiger King and Normal People got everyone talking. Once Upon A Time In Iraq was heart-breaking. Cobra Kai was my latest guilty pleasure – I consumed two seasons of Netflix’s Karate Kid sequel at times only burglars are working. Yes, much TV is dross. But great shows still punch through, from Succession to Chernobyl via Catastrophe, Line Of Duty and anything from Attenborough.
When TV mucks up, it’s mainly due to the wrong people being in charge – people who know nothing about popular taste and prove it by making poor decisions. BBC Comedy, once the licence fee’s greatest defence, has been neutered. Reality TV, karaoke contests and celebrity travelogues have delighted us enough. Most modern British drama is either glorified soap or obsessed with gruesome crime. ITV would never make a Minder now, or an Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. British telly’s first golden age gave us The Avengers, The Champions, Thunderbirds and more – thanks to Lew Grade’s ITC. Showman Lew was all about putting bums on seats. Now the bums come down from Oxbridge to run the show and TV reflects their tastes and prejudices. When genuine entertainers break through, they seem amazed. I was singing Bradley Walsh’s praises in 1991! TV needs to stop virtue signalling and box ticking and concentrate on giving us what we want. A successor to Fools & Horses would be a great start.
RATINGS for EastEnders are plummeting like Amanda Holden’s cleavage. Is it any wonder? Last week Stuart got locked in a hearse and had to wed Rainie there and then in the Square. Walford is full of thieves and not one of them could open a car door! Apt I suppose, marrying in a hearse. All soap marriages are as doomed as poor Chantelle who perished in the show’s first dishwasher related fatality. Enders needs less death and two bob villainy and more reality. Show people as they are – not how the clueless middle class writers want them to be. More rampant adultery would help too. Where’s the passion? Roxy was at it so often her bedroom had a revolving door.
BRAVE New World shows a society where everyone is sexually available to everyone else. It’s Tinder Town! This series has more orgies than Berlusconi. But there are no families and no privacy in Aldous Huxley’s future. People are born in factories and suppress their emotions with drugs (“soma”). There just are two classes – the elite Alphas and the lowly chemically-assisted Epsilons. All is fine until you want more than your pre-determined drone life. If that sounds like ‘Hippies do Stalinism’, it should. Huxley’s satirical 1932 novel was inspired by 20s decadence, the rise of Communism and onward march of factory assembly lines. It’s a grim vision, impressively shot. But it doesn’t reflect the dystopia we’re living in now or have lessons for today’s concerns.
HOT on TV: Honour, and Keeley Hawes... Michael McIntyre: Showman (Netflix)... Alison Steadman, Life... Kelly Bunbury, Brave New World.
ROT on TV: Little Mix: The Search – the Xerox Factor... Jayde Adams, Stand Up For Live Comedy – then stand aside for someone funny.
BAKE Off delivered fresh innuendo – “I remember worrying a lot about your very large nuts”, Prue told a bemused Mark. It also saw the return of the Hollywood handshake. I’m sure they took Covid precautions, but take care Lottie if Paul ever asks you to help him “flatten the camel’s hump”.
*WHILE C4 gave us The Great British Bake Off, BBC2 aired The Shipman Files – The Great British Bump Off.
*I’M really enjoying Jonathan Ross’ Comedy Club and you could too. Just do what I do – turn the volume off and play a Billy Connolly album in the background. (This also works for Live At The Apollo.)
*JAYDE Adams turned up on Stand Up For Live Comedy looking like a blimp in a trouser suit. She gave us right-on virtue signalling, mild swearing and not a single joke. The perfect advert for BBC Comedy.
*LIKE many Cobra Kai addicts I’m convinced I could become a karate wiz with just a few months training. After all, the show’s novices became black belts in just one school year... Eat your heart out, Bruce Lee!
*BOFFINS say having a big bum and thighs puts you at a lower risk of dying. Gemma Collins could live forever...
SMALL Joys of TV: Ricky & Morty. Guy Garvey: From The Vaults 1977. C5’s Lawrence of Arabia doc. Duty Free (Forces TV). James Corden’s “Spill your guts or full your guts” segment.
RANDOM Irritations: Born To Kill psychologist Louis B. Schlesinger with his fancy dress moustache and Dick Van Dyke toupee, and the way Professor David Wilson Slowly. Emphasises. Every. Word. He. Says. With. A. Random. Arm. Gesture.
SEPARATED at birth? Eddie Izzard and Tina Malone? One forever associated with the word shameless. The other is a slightly potty actress.