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.
July 30. THE best part of The Rise Of The Murdoch Dynasty was the old footage of politicians sucking up to the billionaire media mogul. Blair couldn’t have got more up Rupert’s arse with a tube of lube. But the BBC2 three-parter only skimmed the surface of the Aussie media giant and let itself down with a glaring lack of balance. The talking heads rubbishing Rupe had mostly been exposed by his papers: Hugh Grant of Hollywood hooker fame... bondage orgy enthusiast Max Mosley... Tom Watson, famously caught out by a paedophile fantasist – the Beeb didn’t see fit to tell us that Watson has been lavished subbed by Mosley. Nor did they mention the role Roy Greenslade, an IRA apologist and former Maoist, had in a rival paper’s massive Spot The Ball fraud.
Love Murdoch or loathe him, it’s hard not to acknowledge the good he’s done for the dying newspaper industry, not least losing millions keeping The Times afloat. He modernised Fleet Street and changed TV (and sport) for good by gambling every red cent on Sky. In the event, his power was only curtailed by the phone-hacking scandal, largely but not solely conducted by the News Of The Screws, whose staff were needlessly sacrificed for the Murdoch empire. The claim that the paper had deleted messages on the phone belonging to murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was later disproved, although the Beeb neglected to tell us that. They also got facts wrong, including the date the Sun reported that Tory MP Alan Amos had been collared for alleged sexual indecency. They were a whopping five years out. Did Murdoch know about the hacking? I sincerely doubt it. Oddly the BBC didn’t question the claim that Rupe “builds” politicians. Not so. He actually spots who’s on the rise and hitches his wagon to them. The main objection to him wasn’t mentioned – here we have a foreign national using his newspapers to push political policies that suit his global empire rather than the interests of the British people. The Sun, once the foundation stone of his business, is now a toothless PC shadow of its former self. No wonder its sales have plummeted. That said, buccaneering risk-taking publishers always make better owners than play-safe corporations.
July 26. WAS I too hard on Ghosts? When the sitcom first aired I dubbed it ‘Rentaghost with the jokes exorcised’. Now it feels like an oasis of daft joy in the mainstream comedy desert. Cash-strapped Alice Cooper (not that one) inherits a crumbling country pile from a distant aunt. Unfortunately Button Hall is more haunted than Scrooge was, and the spirits aren’t happy when she and husband Mike plan to turn it into a hotel. So trouser-less MP ghost Julian shoves her out of a first floor window. When Alice comes round she can see dead people. And older viewers see the spectres of The Ghosts Of Motley Hall, Beetlejuice, and Hubert from Sir Henry At Rawlinson’s End.
The spooks – played by the Horrible Histories team – are the real draw. There’s Lady Fanny Button who plummets from a window every night screaming loudly enough to wake the dead, gormless love-struck poet Thomas, and Scoutmaster Pat with an arrow through his neck. Others include a World War II captain, a stake-burnt witch (a MasterChef dish waiting to happen), a headless man, naive Kitty, and Robin a grunting caveman who still makes more sense than Alan Carr. Oh, and plague victims pollute the cellar.
The BBC1 show could play on CBBC if it wasn’t for the odd risque line. Fanny was murdered by her husband after she’d caught him enjoying a “mandwich” with two male members of the staff. “It’s actually known as a Moroccan tea party,” sleazy Julian explains. Alice is played by Charlotte Ritchie, who died herself on Call The Midwife. Although the phantoms are shocked by her appearance – “She’s exposing her knees! She’s got a tattoo!” – they quickly fall for her. Ghosts isn’t packed with one-liners but it’s a welcome a break from the fad for joyless middle class sad-coms. Added bonus? Kitty’s smile. Worth losing your head over.
PITY the makers of Mrs America. They produce a quality drama about Phyllis Schlafly’s 70s stand-off with women’s libbers and all anyone talks about is Gloria Steinem’s aviator sunglasses... even though the syrup Rose Byrne wears to play Gloria is the real thing of wonder. Cate Blanchett sparkles as ferociously bright anti-feminist Phyllis; Tracey Ullman is on top form as grouchy Betty Friedan. But Elizabeth Banks’s Jill had this week’s best line: “You wanna get ahead climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis? Fine. Just know they’re looking right up your skirt.”
THE Luminaries was harder to follow than The Flash in a pea-souper. Anyone who stuck with it to the bitter end was left wondering why they’d bothered. First, seasoned criminal Francis Carver confessed to killing Crosbie Wells simply because Emery Staines said he had in court. But it was just his word against Frank’s, so why would the hard-boiled rogue hold his hands up? Frank was then murdered in his prison van by Te Ra, the Maori. No idea how he got in and out of the van to do it. Anna’s final scene on the beach was just as puzzling. She went up to Lydia – who’d robbed her, hooked her on opium, put her on the game and tried to frame her for murder – and gave her a box of gold. I’d have half-drowned the rat-bag! The story jumped about in time like the Tardis with its throttle jammed, and clarity wasn’t helped by the maddening mix of mumbling, murkiness and mumbo-jumbo.
HOT on TV: Fear City: New York Vs The Mob (Netflix)... Once Upon A Time In Iraq... Matthew Rhys, Perry Mason (SkyAt).
ROT on TV: Cursed (Netflix) – worst King Arthur spin-off since Avalon High... Strasbourg 1518... The Old Guard (Netflix) – the new dull.
ANYONE else confused by the overlap between Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels and Perry Mason? Both are set in 1930s LA, both have murderers, racists and weird religious sects with hot blonde figureheads. Granted one has actual Nazis rather than common-or-garden bigots, but the only big difference is that Penny Dreadful also has Natalie Dormer’s shape-changing demon and is consequently way more fun.
*CORRIE’S villains special missed one of the worst – the soap’s former exec producer Brian Park, the mad axe man who sacked Percy Sugden and Derek Wilton...
*LUCY Worsley, who struggles with her Rs, presented Womanov Wussia. What will the BBC inflict on her next? Rousseau’s Revolutionaries? Ronald Reagan’s Republicans?
*THE funniest part of Trump In Tweets? When the Donald sued comedian Bill Maher for joking that he was the love-child of “a human woman and an orang-utan from Brooklyn Zoo”. Daft. Everyone knew his real Dad wasn’t an orang-utan. It had to be an Oompa Loompa.
SMALL Joys of TV: Proper Cockney accents on The Real Eastenders. Diane Parish. Ghosts. Crissy Rock saying her MasterChef sea bream looked like “a CSI crime scene”. 30 Rock repeats (SkyCom).
RANDOM Irritations: The too-camp Trump mimic (Trump In Tweets). Unnecessary and unwelcome footage of Miriam Margolyes squeezing into a campervan khazi. Piers Morgan’s six week holiday.
FATHER & Secret Son: Sir Keir Starmer and Icelandic comedian Ari Eldjarn? One posh, likeable and tipped for success... the other’s a politician.
TV questions: Will lovelorn spirit Thomas ever put the willies up Alice on Ghosts? Why does Naked Attraction’s credits include wardrobe assistants? If people get more rightwing as they get older, how old will Katie Hopkins be when she invades Poland? And if we’re more extreme left-wing when we’re young, does that make Owen Jones seven?
July 19. WHAT if the Yanks had sat out World War II? What if they’d elected isolationist Charles Lindbergh president? The heroic aviator was determined to keep the States neutral. “It’s not Lindbergh versus Roosevelt, it’s Lindbergh versus war,” he thunders in The Plot Against America. Lindy’s election would have done for Britain what Wigan just did to Hull City. But the series is more concerned with how it might have played at home. It tells the story from the viewpoint of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey, capturing the mounting unease brilliantly.
Hardworking insurance agent Herman Levin and his wife Bess drive past a German-American bar full of brazen Nazi sympathisers. He rants at the radio when he hears Lindbergh’s real-life speech about “powerful elements” pushing the Yanks towards war – Britain, Roosevelt’s hawkish administration and American Jews. “This is how it starts,” he says before calling “lonely eagle” Lindberg a “fascist bastard” and more poetically “the lonely ostrich”. But Herman doesn’t see how charismatic Lindy thrills his eldest son who rushes to see him land his plane, The Spirit Of St Louis, at a campaign pit-stop. His sister-in-law Evelyn is involved too, through her relationship with conservative rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf who backs Lindberg.
The tale is seen as a warning about Trump, yet Philip Roth wrote it in 2003 when the US was busy “liberating” the Middle East. He was making the case for US intervention overseas. In reality, Roosevelt was opposed by Wilkie in the 1940 election – a Republican, but not an isolationist – and Thomas an anti-war socialist who made little impact. The America First movement was largely libertarian and Lindy although anti-Semitic went on to support the US war effort, flying 50 missions as a civilian consultant. But “HEIL to the Chief” is a better story. Oddly, the threats to liberty from super-woke rent-a-gobs and tyrants like Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping has yet to interest drama commissioners.
*TV shows if the Germans had won: Coronation Strasse, London’s Burnt, They Think It’s Hanover, The Old Horst Wessel Test... featuring SS Club 7 live from the Kaiser Bill pub in Walford.
HOW does Steve McDonald do it? Look at the women he’s married on Corrie: Karen, Michelle, Becky... he couldn’t punch higher above his weight if he climbed into the ring and took on Tyson Fury. Granted it’d be easier to break wild horses than live with any of them but think of the fun you’d have trying. As Coronation Street: Weddings recalled Becky turned up to the registry office half-cut with a fag on. Even her beehive looked tipsy. “The bride is DRUNK!” roared the registrar, calling it off. Toxic Tracy, Steve’s current wife, tricked him down the aisle after wrecking his other weddings – Karen whacked her with her stiletto at theirs. Tracy took her revenge on Michelle by seducing her son Ryan. I’m not sure if it was her real son... and neither was Michelle. Or the writers... They do love a wedding in Weatherfield. It’s the “forsaking all others” bit they struggle with.
SUPPORT for the BBC is plunging like Demi Rose’s swimsuit neckline. They’ve made themselves as popular as a Kiss-Me-Quick hat on public transport. Once unique and precious, the Beeb looks increasingly greedy, elitist and unfit for purpose. Yet if they delivered decent dramas and quality mainstream comedy, campaigns against the licence fee would wither away. Instead we get the murky mess of The Luminaries and sub-soap melodramas like The Secrets She Keeps where every “twist” is telegraphed in advance. BBC sitcoms, once the jewel in their crown, now appeal almost entirely to middle class tastes and values... much like their dodgy news agenda.
HOT on TV: Winona Ryder, The Plot Against America... Uzo Aduba, Mrs America... Once Upon A Time In Iraq.
ROT on TV: Miracle Workers – beyond the help of prayer... The Secrets She Keeps – it’s called a “pot-boiler” cos all the suspense has been boiled out of it.
MIRACLE Workers has become Horrible Histories without the wit. Season one was set in heaven with Steve Buscemi as God and Daniel Radcliffe as a prayer-granting angel. Now, with no explanation, we’re in the Middle Ages. Buscemi is shovelling sh*t, Daniel is a halfwit Prince, there are no angels and precious few decent gags. It’d take a miracle to make it funny.
*ON Celebrity MasterChef, Gethin Jones served shepherd’s pie with a pot of peas. “I’m impressed with your ambition,” said John Torode. Eh? It gets better, mate. Next week: cheese on toast.
*BLIND contestant Amar Latif did brilliantly. Any idea who he is?
*MICHAELA Coel is a huge talent, but giving I May Destroy You three different endings was a cop-out. We have enough confusing messages to deal with from the government.
SMALL Joys of TV: Iraqi moustaches (Once Upon A Time In Iraq). Regimental Stories (PBS America). The Directors (SkyArts). Last Laugh In Vegas. Bears About The House. Doom Patrol.
RANDOM Irritations: The endless bombardment of “celebrities” so obscure they don’t even qualify for a Wiki page. Zoom broadcasting. Giles Coren. Po-faced twerp Billy Bragg joining the anti-free speech brigade.
SEPARATED at birth: Baga Chipz and Ursula the Sea Witch? One a ludicrous two-dimensional caricature full of self-importance... the other’s Ursula.
TV questions: Will Johnny Depp develop Heard immunity? How can you tell a real report on fake news from a fake report on real news? Why does the BBC churn out ITV2-style dross like How’s Your Head, Hun? And how do they have the brass neck to show it on BBC1?
July 12. PITY the unsuspecting Downton Abbey fan who stumbled across The Secrets That She Keeps. For there was Lady Edith as bold as brass talking dirty on a laptop with Hayden, her sailor ex. Poor Crawley. You’d expect that kind of wanton behaviour from Lady Mary but not mousey Edith. There are parts of Mr. Carson that haven’t stopped shaking.
Laura Carmichael plays Agatha, a troubled grocery shop worker, who is faking pregnancy in this imported Aussie pot-boiler. You’d feel sorry for Aggie, who lost a child at 32weeks, if she wasn’t completely bonkers. The woman is consumed with envy over middle class Meghan, a heavily pregnant Sydney based yummy mummy and blogger. In between sending vile messages – “Die, bitch, die!” – lurking in her bushes and toying with abducting Megs’s young son, Agatha plays mind-games with her own ex-boyfriends. She scams cash out of Hayden’s family with her fake pregnancy bump. And hovers miserably by the edge of a cliff – risky for someone so clearly unbalanced.
Meghan’s life isn’t quite as perfect as it looks. Her accidental third pregnancy – her “oops baby” – was almost certainly fathered by husband Jack’s best friend, Slimy Simon. We see the pair cavort in a series of torrid slo-mo flashbacks. Blog that! Meanwhile TV sportscaster Jack has lost all interest in getting jiggy with his attractive missus. Either he’s allergic to cashmere or he knows the kid’s not his. You wouldn’t be surprised if he’s over the side himself or has secretly had the snip. Everyone here is lying about something and everyone is cursed with entirely predictable plot twists. You probably guessed that Agatha was faking her pregnancy. You probably won’t be surprised if she abducts Meghan’s new tot as soon as she pops him out. It’s pure hokum and rot on many levels, but as long as they keep Dowager Countess Violet away from the webcam I’ll keep watching.
THE Kemps: All True had laugh-out-loud moments. It also had jokes that hit the post and ideas that petered out pointlessly. Spoof docs are hard to pull off. The realer they feel, the funnier they are. At least five rock bands swear blind that This Is Spinal Tap was based on them. But great swathes of All True were just daft. Martin has five kidneys and “the purest pee in pop”... Gary flogged a vegan meat substitute that was 65% meat... Little Mix pelted their three-wheeler with turds (better, I suppose, than releasing them as singles... ) The sibling rivalry worked. You believed Gary was petulant and Martin grounded – his super-villain time travel movie sounded a hoot. But why no mention of Martin’s chronic telly sofa adverts, that embarrassing Bold ad, or Spandau fans missing Tony Hadley? The brief Hadley mentions were the only bits that rang true. Neither of the battling brothers was miserable or resentful enough for the spoof to really work. The Bros documentary was far funnier, even though it didn’t mean to be.
*MARTIN Kemp isn’t married to both Pepsi & Shirlie of course, but what a beautiful 80s dream... my thoughts about Mel and Kim are best left unsaid.
DARK Side Of The Ring is a knock-out hit for grapple fans. It started with the shocking true story of the 1988 murder of wrestling legend Bruiser Brody – a character portrayed by former NFL star Frank Goodish. Brody was a fur-booted, chain-swinging, scar-faced wild man in the ring; Goodish a shrewd businessman outside of it. When Frank was stabbed to death in Puerto Rico, his killer got away with it because the jury believed he actually was Brody “this wild-looking psychopath, hulking figure”. Even family members had trouble separating wrestlers’ characters from the reality. “Macho Man” Randy Savage was banned from his wife’s grandfather’s home as the old man thought he’d genuinely abused wife/manager Miss Elizabeth. Fascinating, heart-breaking viewing.
HOT on TV: Dark Side Of The Ring (Vice)... Get Shorty (SkyAt)... Cate Blanchett, Mrs America... OJ: Made In America (BT Sport).
ROT on TV: Celebrity Snoop Dogs – poop show... The Secrets She Keeps – more tripe than Heys...
R.I.P. Linda Cristal, the Argentina-born actress who made High Chaparral a must-see show for a million teenage boys. She played Mexican beauty Victoria, who was as brave and fiery as she was elegant; stubborn too, with “a mind like a wild horse”. Her picture was on my bedroom wall, along with Barbara Windsor and the American political activist Angela Davis (well I never said I was normal).
*BBC Breakfast’s Sally Nugent asked comic Shazia Mirza: “How important is an audience to a comedian?” D’oh. Next week Sal asks the crew of the International Space Station: “How important is your oxygen supply?”
*RUSSELL Brand turned up on Neighbours spouting cobblers and not getting any laughs. Same as normal then.
*EACH Neighbours episode is shown twice a day, largely because nobody can believe how bad it was the first time.
SMALL Joys of TV: New The Good Place. Terry & Mason’s Great Food Trip. The Battle Of Britain: 3 Days That Saved The Nation. Huey Morgan’s Latin Music (BBC4). Porridge repeats (Yesterday).
RANDOM Irritations: Dan Brown’s self-regard. Absurd editing on Live At The Apollo showing folk in fits over lame jokes. ITV3 referring to “the village of Midsomer” – it isn’t a village it’s an entire county. If it were a village it’d have a higher death rate than Catatumbo. Or even Walford.
SEPARATED at birth: Ralf Little and Man U’s Bruno Fernandes? One scores constantly, the other took two series to get a girlfriend on The Royle Family.
TV questions: do kids on Dr Who’s Tardis ask “Were we there yet?” Where do people in Hell tell people they hate to go? How did Anna on The Luminaries wean herself off opium? Why aren’t cosmetic surgeons better looking?
July 5. THE British Soap Awards are as puzzling as Eva Green’s accent in The Luminaries. Why do we bother with them? They’re lightweight, they always feel fixed and they rarely reflect public opinion. ITV’s 21st anniversary “special” reminded us that June Brown was one of the few winners who ever said anything funny. “I didn’t even know this existed,” the Dot Cotton star said of her gong, adding “My god wasn’t I awful at the beginning? Dear me. And those teeth... ”
The show felt like a requiem for a dying genre. Yes, it was terrific to see Liz Dawn, John Bardon, Wendy Richard and all again. But it reminded us that the best-loved faces are dropping faster than the ratings figures. Our soaps, once so rich in humour and reality, have had the joy squeezed out of them by endless issues, stunts and unlikely disasters. Take the award-winning scene when Janine Butcher killed Fat Barry on their wedding day in Scotland. It was a new spin on the Highland Games – she didn’t toss the caber, she pushed a pillock down a hillock.
Like many EastEnders’ “classic” moments it was nuts. She’d married Barry for his money, even though he obviously didn’t have any. And she turned on him because he’d got a health all-clear. Bazza rang Dr Leroy for permission to bed his bride. Luckily, both the GP and his receptionist were still at the surgery – at ten past midnight on New Year’s Day! Janine then had Barry cremated before the Old MacBill arrived. You’ve heard of the Kwik Fit Fitters, this was the Kwik-Fry Crem. And on a bank holiday too…Over-pushed and under-funded the soaps are caught in a spiral of bad writing and escalating misery. They could use lockdown to bring back laughter and warm-hearted storylines. But don’t hold your breath.
*PHIL Schofield claimed soaps “changed the way we think”. True. I used to think, “Oh good, Corrie’s on tonight.” Now it’s “What’s new on Netflix?”
*NEXT from the EastEnders vaults: Thick & Thin – the Ricky and Bianca years.
*LETITIA Dean said Enders “looked far and wide” to cast Sharon. They certainly got the wide.
THEY have a Mexican demon called Magda on Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels, whispering into men’s ears and persuading them to do the wrong thing. I swear she talks to me every time I pass the fridge in my bar. Shape-changer Magda is plucked from Mexican folklore and is far more pro-active than her “good” sister Santa Muerte (the pleasantly named angel of death). Moving from rain-sodden Ripper-era London to sun-drenched 1930s LA has given the show a new lease of life, along with a shed-load of Nazis. Rory Kinnear plays Dr Craft, a Hitler-loving German paediatrician who gives speeches in the park with a jolly band of psychopaths. Meanwhile sinister architect Goss dreams of a Nazi victory parade down Wilshire Boulevard (shouldn’t it be Spring Street for Hitler?). The flashpoint is the local Mexican community’s doomed attempt to resist the city’s campaign to drive them off their land. Many have died. More to follow...
HOT on TV: Perry Mason and Tatiana Maslany (SkyAt)... Natalie Dormer, Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels... the Das Boot finale.
ROT on TV: Freud (Netflix) – shrink shrunk... Batwoman – putting the ham in Gotham... The Luminaries – no light in this tunnel of sh*te... Maigret? – mais non.
CAN we talk about Talking Heads? Yes the acting is terrific, but isn’t it all a little dreary? What we desperately need from TV right now is escapism. Jokes would be good. I once met Jimmy Cricket up a Swiss mountain (long story) and he had everyone in stitches. Stick him on Live At The Apollo, BBC, with Mick Miller and Keith O’Keefe. You won’t need to “dress” the laughter then.
*FREUD re-imagines the Austrian shrink as a coked-up witch hunter. What next, hard-loving architect Christopher Wren in Wren Behaving Badly?
*ANYONE who tittered when Celebrity MasterChef’s India Knight said “Across the kitchen, Shyko’s nearly ready to plate,” should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
*CITV is bringing back How!, but without the traditional Native American greeting... in case it offends. The Comanche, Navajo, Apache, Seminole and Sioux folk scattered around the UK must be so relieved.
*MICHEL Roux Jnr enjoyed a perfect ham on Remarkable Places Eat. But enough about Fred Sirieix.
*BOWIE in 2000, Oasis, 1994, the Stones, 2013, Jarvis nearly over-come with emotion... Glastonbury 2020 was full of gems. Tea Time Legends with Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Al Green, Dolly Parton etc was pure bliss.
*EVERY man “wants his whore to be unhappy”, according to The Luminaries. Feminist claptrap! Haven’t they heard of The Happy Hooker?
*SARAH Miles told Jimmy Tarbuck about her new film The Love Tunnel on a vintage Palladium show (TPTV). “I’d like to go down to that... at the cinema,” quipped Tarby. Pure filth. And in 1965 too.
SMALL Joys of TV: Queen Sono (Netflix). Elvis: The Searcher (SkyDocs). Golden Girls re-runs. The Osbournes on Celeb Googlebox USA. Ross Kemp, Sharongate.
RANDOM Irritations: Over-loud, intrusive backing music. Darkly shot dramas. Mumbling actors. The Nationwide poetry adverts. Modern lingo in period shows. Alan Carr mangling Bullseye.
FATHER & Secret Son: Zak Dingle and The Bidding Room’s Simon Bower.
TV questions: would any woman dare to spoon with Uri Geller? Why is no one deafened on TV dramas when guns go off at close range in enclosed spaces? If you recognise less than half of the “celebs” on Celebrity MasterChef, isn’t it just MasterChef? Why do US dramas “ghost” the white working class?