I watch a lot of television during my three weeks in England, at least more than I watch at home. In Texas, it's usually the mighty Wheel of Fortune followed by King of the Hill as my wife and I eat dinner, then an hour's worth of something or other around nine once the kid has gone to bed - or at least to his room. At present we're working our way through all three series of Better Call Saul; and previously we've serially watched The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Wentworth, Weeds, Orange is the New Black, Fargo, Ugly Betty, and Jersey Shore. However, in England, I'm staying at my mother's house, and it's her telly so I watch whatever she wants to watch. It isn't always the sort of thing I might otherwise choose to view if left to my own devices, but my mother refuses to entertain anything too crappy so it isn't a problem, and in some ways it's educational; and when it isn't educational, we have the mutual pleasure of taking the piss out of it. No-one can deliver a barbed observation quite like my mother. Therefore, for the benefit of future generations, and in rigorously alphabetical order:
I'm not convinced that Blackadder was quite the greatest comedy series ever made, but series two and three came pretty close. We watched the one with Tom Baker and it still delivers the goods thirty years down the line, against all odds, not least of those odds being the authorial heritage of Ben Elton and Richard Curtis, both of whom have peddled far more than their fair share of smugly unmitigated shite over the years; so I've no idea how that works. Anyway, masterpiece though it may well be, I'm not sure the enduring status of Blackadder quite warranted Blackadder's History Week on Dave or UK Gold or whichever cloyingly nostalgic channel it was. Blackadder's History Week - given the possessive as though actually curated by the fictional Edmund - entailed a run of episodes of Blackadder interspersed with spuriously related documentaries on periods of history referred to in the series, one about trench warfare, one about the wegency and so on. Had someone made a documentary about pie shops, I'm sure they would have scheduled it in honour of the fictional Mrs. Miggins. It was all a bit Doctor Who Discovers Dinosaurs, if anyone remembers that particular attempt at fooling children into learning stuff. If you don't remember, the following paragraph copied from one of the more disturbing corners of virtual fandom almost certainly tells you as much as you really need to know:
An in-universe reference to these books appears in the audio story The Kingmaker. In the story, Doctor Who Discovers was a series of books actually written by the Fourth Doctor during his time working with UNIT. As in the real world, only five books were published, despite more being planned.
Bletchley Circle, The.
The proliferation of English detective shows in the last few years seems a possibly ironic phenomenon, at least in the Alanis Morissette sense, given how many years of the youth of my generation were spent laughing at Americans with all their detective shows; or it could simply be that, Star Trek and Steve Austin excepted, English television companies of the seventies were interested in buying only the detective shows from America; or it could simply be that my mother has become unusually fixated on detectives. Oddly, my wife's mother seems to share a vaguely parallel interest in crime fiction, so maybe there's some kind of quantum entanglement thing at work, particularly given that my wife and I share the same birthday. Anyway, The Bletchley Circle is about four women who spend the duration of the second world war deciphering Nazi code, and who then similarly apply themselves to the decipherment of various crimes once the war is over. It's all faintly ludicrous, but well made and fairly enjoyable - at least based on the first episode.
I think I've seen four of these since I gave up watching about five minutes into an episode so poor that it made me feel sorry for Adolf Hitler. I haven't since seen anything which made me wish to resume my viewing on a regular basis, and this one similarly failed to change my mind. Peter Bacardi was very good, and his new assistant seemed acceptable, but there wasn't much of a story - some shite about a spaceship made of water as framework for the usual rapid fire montage of Spielbergisms designed to make you say gosh and to fill your big Manga-style eyes with twinkling sparkles of routine wonderment. It wasn't terrible, but I don't know how anyone can be satisfied with something which seems so generic, obvious, corporate, and eager to please.
'Well, I didn't understand any of that,' my mother muttered darkly once it was over.
Fuck me, I thought to myself, doesn't she ever get tired of detective shows?, and yet once again I had to eat my cynical thoughts, so to speak. Maigret was originally a series of something like four-million novels by French author Georges Simenon, father of that bloke who was in the Clash. The Beeb adapted some of the books for a series back in the sixties, and it's been periodically remade over and over ever since; and this is the most recent version, starring Rowan Atkinson as the pipe-smoking Gallic rozzer. It took me a little while to get over certain incongruities which probably didn't bother anyone else in the universe - namely that Maigret is set in Paris, and is filmed in Paris, and all of the characters are French, and all of the street signs and newspaper headlines are in French, and yet our characters are not only speaking English, but English with a Cockney barrow boy lilt in some cases. I realise that the practicalities of the production impose certain limits in the name of anyone actually bothering to watch the thing, but when you have lines like, strike a light, guv' - I only seen the saucy cow-son workin' Alfie's pie stand dahn the Rue St. Montmartre, with the actor switching between accents mid-sentence, it's difficult to ignore the glue squeezing out of the join. Nevertheless, after an hour or so I was sucked in to the point of being able to overlook such details, so powerful was the atmosphere of the production. Maigret struck me as very refreshing in featuring a softly spoken, thoughtful detective who looks as though he's taking it all personally, particularly after so many years of Danny Dyer types screaming, you're nicked, you muppet! My mum's verdict was that Rowan Atkinson makes for a disappointing Maigret after whoever played his previous incarnation, but then I've never seen it before so it worked for me.
This one exists at the absolute limit of detective show credibility, beyond which lies the realm of horseshit such as Rosemary & Thyme, crime-solving ice cream truck drivers, and their increasingly desperate ilk. Midsomer Murders works providing you take each episode in isolation, because otherwise you have a picturesque rural community with crime statistics which make New Orleans look like Nutwood, or wherever it was Rupert Bear used to live. Possibly for this reason, whoever wrote this show was nothing if not inventive in finding new avenues down which to ferry a suspicious corpse without it becoming too repetitive and therefore patently absurd; and the prize in this respect probably goes to the episode in which DCI Barnaby investigates some sort of turf war going on amongst rival teams of bell ringers.
I lived at my mother's house for about eighteen months prior to moving to the United States, and have consequently probably seen more or less all of John Nettles' run on Midsomer Murders, which is a lot of episodes; and the one aspect of the show which always annoyed me was not the increasingly preposterous rural body count, but Cully, Barnaby's entirely unnecessary daughter. Even aside from the fact that no-one in the history of the cosmos has ever been named Cully, Barnaby's domestic situation serves as little more than a distraction in the narrative. Cully's role seems limited to listening to her father mumble something about whatever case he's working on, then to notice a mysterious stranger abroad in the village and to accordingly pull the same fucking face of problem-solving intrigue she pulls every other fucking week as though her vapid half-assed suspicions really amount to shit; and it is doubly-galling that this sort of entirely non-crucial plot point usually suffixes scenes of Cully hanging around with the braying upper class pricks she calls her friends - none of which goes any distance towards shedding light upon why the groundsman should have ended his days upside down in a ditch with the handle of a shovel protruding from his back passage.
My mother also loathes Cully, by the way.
It's actually called Endeavour, but I found it difficult to keep from thinking of Muppet Babies given that this is the early years of Inspector Morse, as played by one of those David Tennant style young men with the massive Adam's apple and sideburns like the drummer from the Dave Clark Five. I never really warmed to Morse and found myself tiring of unlikely nobby crimes to be solved at the opera house, the Earl's garden party, the place where they print those Gutenberg bibles and so on; and as a kid, it's clear that our boy set off on the very same course of a crime fighting career steered around cello lessons and shops which only sell French cakes, but Endeavour was still very watchable. Of course, given how Endeavour is his actual name, it seems a safe bet that his dinner money never once made it so far as the till in the school canteen, which explains why he's kind of skinny, and which you would think might have toughened him up a bit, but never mind. This episode was something about some member of the landed gentry taking naughty photos, and cello lessons were involved. I think the scarf-wearing varsity dude who was blackmailing the pornographic toff may also have been shagging the man's wife under the pretext of learning to play cello. Anyway, they all got it sorted out in the end, except for cello woman who committed suicide for some reason or other.
I had to raise an eyebrow at this one, a travelogue following a Conservative party politician I almost certainly once regarded as evil. That said, I can't actually recall the specifics of why I regarded him as evil beyond his membership of an evil political party, and that would be evil in old money, so he'd probably look like fucking Gandhi if you stood him next to Michael Gove, Nigel Farage or any of today's pseudo-parliamentary shitehawks.
'I know,' said my mother, noticing the faces I was pulling. 'I'm as surprised as you are, but there's something about him that's quite likeable. He seems very comfortable in his own skin.'
It struck me as a disconcerting turn of phrase, suggesting that living hides freshly flayed from their unfortunate donors had once been an option; but as usual, she was right. Portillo remains a slightly rubber-faced upper-class goon, but crucially he doesn't appear to give two shits about securing my approval, and neither does his bumbling charm seem to represent a calculated distraction from any other more sinister agenda, as with floppy-haired Boris Johnson. If anything, Portillo has matured into the gay Kenneth Clark with a more pronounced sense of fun, give or take some small change. The travelogue is specifically Michael Portillo making his way across the United States by train, clearly having a whale of a time and barely able to contain his enthusiasm for almost everything he encounters. I'm genuinely surprised at how difficult it is to not like the guy after seeing this show. Who would've fucking thunk it, eh?
Red Dress Discovery Channel Woman.
I'm not even sure what this show could have been, except that it was on either the History Channel or National Geographic or one of those, and that the subject, whatever it was, seemed initially promising. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, a homeopathic percentage of genuinely interesting historical material was padded out with re-enactments and horseshit. Call me a hopeless optimist, but I genuinely believe most viewers are able to get their heads around concepts such as the great plague or witch burnings or even the past being different to the present without a bunch of drama school also-rans hopping about in medieval robes and addressing each other as my liege to a soundtrack of ominous synthesiser music. More annoying still was how much time the cameraman of this particular show - whatever it was - spent on the presenter in the red dress. I'm not sure if she was an actual historian, but the minutes spent lingering upon her looking thoughtful as she opens a large, heavy book seemed unnecessary bordering on ludicrous.
'What the hell is she doing now?' my mother wondered, furrowing her brow as Red Dress Discovery Channel Woman slowly ascended a flight of stairs in an Elizabethan house to no obvious purpose.
Bess and I first encountered Lucy Worsley when she presented a documentary series entitled The Secrets of the Six Wives about the various women beheaded or otherwise inconvenienced by Henry VIII. It was fairly interesting, but there was something about the presentation of the documentary which got in the way. Not only did it feature actors dressed in Tudor garb acting out scenarios from the lives of Henry and his unfortunate succession of birds, but many of these scenarios incorporated Lucy herself, our presenter, gurning away in the background in hope of catching our attention; and thus didst the camera zoometh past His Royal Highness to Ms. Worsley, disguised as a serf and taking us, the viewers, into her confidence, whispering, now the thing we have to remember about that man over there is that he was a keen pipe smoker, or similar. At the risk of seeming like a snob, I've watched Kenneth Clark's Civilisation several times over, and not once do I recall seeing him dressed as a rustic farmhand bringing in the turnips as some monk slaves away with his felt-tips over the Book of Kells, before turning to us with a wink and launching into an account of how Christianity ended up in this part of Ireland. That Lucy adopts this approach would be bothersome enough by itself, but the problem is exacerbated by her coming across like an overenthusiastic upper-class schoolgirl anticipating those super scrummy cakes that Nanny Tiggy promised for afternoon tea. Also, it was kind of hard to avoid noticing that she seems to have a speech impediment which makes it difficult for her to pronounce the letter r...
Okay, so it doesn't need to be a problem. Overenthusiastic upper-class schoolgirls who anticipate super scrummy cakes are as much qualified to present historical documentaries as anyone, particularly when they've been so heavily involved in the production of the same; and Lucy quite clearly knows her stuff; and no, enthusiasm isn't a bad thing; and there's nothing funny about a speech impediment...
Nevertheless, she makes for exhausting viewing as she gushes and enthuses and dresses up as yet another serving wench in hope of coaxing us towards an understanding of how working in the royal kitchen was probably a pretty tough gig back in the sixteenth century, because no way would we otherwise have been able to wrap our heads around that one. Furthermore, as my mother and myself take to our separate sofas to engage in postprandial digestion whilst watching something historical, informative, and hopefully not too silly, there she is once again, dressed as Moll Flanders and telling us all about King George and the wegency era. She's back the following evening with something about the wule of the Womanovs in seventeenth century Wussia, leaving us wondering if some commissioning editor at the BBC historical documentary department might not be taking the piss, just a little bit.
Nature documentaries have always been a bit of a minefield, and I've more or less stopped watching them since that year when every single fucking one seemed to open with a shot of a baby elephant forlornly prodding its dead mother with a sad little trunk. This offering, a year in the life of a volcano big enough to destroy the planet should it ever go bang, was mercifully low on the actual killing and maiming of critters in the name of a camera crew refusing to interfere with the natural order 'n' shit, but what it lacked in slaughter, it more than made up for with its heavy emphasis on the general concept of doom.
The elk finds brief respite from his hunger in foliage still left uncovered as the snows move in, our narrator assures us, but it won't last; and so it went on. Every single glimmer of hope, each golden moment in the flourishing of new life served only as prefix to reminders of the wolf pack being on its way down from the forest, or that winter's a-comin' and then we'll all be completely fucked, or boy - that ice sure looks thin! Watch out, Mr. Buffalo!
Of course, this kind of thing is still preferable to those wildlife documentaries at the other end of the scale where meerkats cavort as an old man - almost certainly wearing a hand-knitted jumper - chuckles and observes, I guess we all know what it's like when you got yourselves an unruly teenager living at home. Nevertheless, I still say there's a happy medium, and Yellowstone wasn't it. Nature documentaries should be about nature, not about doom, and this had more doom than Doctor Doom playing Doom with the Doom Patrol whilst listening to MF Doom and the World of Shit album by the band Doom on Doom Mountain, as featured in Lord of the Rings - according to Wikipedia.