The return of Richard Hammond from near death and Louis Theroux from self-imposed obscurity meant that Sunday night saw the very welcome return of two BBC documentary stalwarts, says Mark Lewis.
Clarkson shouted, James May quietly contemplated whether Clarkson was a bigger twat than wine ponce, Oz Clark, and Richard Hammond didn’t die. The first two we could have indifferently contemplated. The final one we have to be pleased about if only in the hope that it will arrest Hammond’s transformation into Clarkson’s Mini-Me.
On the evidence of the new series of Top Gear (Sunday BBC2, 8pm) ‘Hamster’ was a little thinner; perhaps a bit more fragile, but otherwise pretty much the same. Alas that probably means he will restart his transformation into a fat, curly-haired middle-aged man, despised by anyone who’s ever seen a copy of The Guardian. It also means the welcome return of Top Gear, and the scoop footage of the accident in which Hammond nearly died.
Inevitably the commentary he shot before his crash took on resonance not usually associated with the fripperies of the show. He. still. had. that. Clarkson-esque… staccato delivery, which is always more entertaining than apposite. But phrases like ‘this could be the biggest accident you’ve ever seen in your life,’ and ‘I’m so alive, I’m so alive,’ made him more right… than a 1930s Munich Bier Keller.
He could have been so wrong.
Not so wrong, however, that he could have featured in one of Louis Theroux’s weird weekends.
In The Weird World of Louis Theroux (Sunday, BBC2, 9pm), the unassuming assassin looked back over ten years of exploring unusual characters and persuasions.
It was rather like a long-running sitcom running out of ideas and rolling out a past clips show. (The show reminds us perhaps of the sit-com’s past glories but usually presages a decline in the quality, ending up with Fonzie jumping over a shark in a speedboat).
We hope that it will not be the same for Louis, whose never-let-it-go interviewing style has facades stripped quicker than paint in a Ronseal advert. A rapper, we are told in Theroux’s dad-at-a-disco-style, is ‘also a full time gangster and pimp.’
‘I been doing this since I was 11 years old,’ replies the rapper, pushing a gun into the waistband of his trousers. ‘This is who I am. You un’stand what I mean? For real.’
‘But you could shoot your testicles off.’
This is cringe comedy, which predates The Office and Extras, but because it is delivered in a conceptual documentary also managed to catch the zeitgeist of programmes like Wife Swap. Like the Channel 4 stalwart, the programme caught the imagination, not because of the freaks, but because of the humanity.
The fearless questioning and commentary sets people up for the TV freak show and invites us - mostly rather cruelly - to laugh at them. But Theroux’s genius is allowing for snippets of his victims’ humanity to shine through, layering his programmes with undercurrents of melancholy.
We hope it will survive into next week’s new series.