Tuesday, February 20

Not so happy and too many hours

Nick Yates gets an insider look at the weekend's latest late night TV

Like some kind of fame parasite, the Al Murray look-alike sat on the back row of the auditorium wearing the sort of contorted grin that suggested he’d just done a particularly satisfying poo.

His presence in the audience at the filming of an episode of Al Murray’s Happy Hour (Friday and Saturday nights, ITV1) raised several questions. Was this middle-aged baldie, dressed in an outfit carefully put together in homage to the comedian’s right-wing pub landlord persona, a regular in audiences for Al Murray’s shows? If so, what was in it for him?

Because sitting through nearly four hours of Happy Hour being filmed – as I did last Tuesday at ITV’s headquarters in Southwark, London – was certainly not an experience most sane people would want to repeat in a hurry.

I thought I’d give the whole live audience member thing a pop after being offered a freebie for the event. I was underwhelmed. The evening involved 20-minutes of stand up by Murray. This was presumably a kind of payment to the audience for turning up because it didn’t seem to be getting filmed. A good deal up to this point.

However, what happened for the rest of the evening was another comedian acted in the role of a porn film’s fluffer, keeping the audience entertained and up to the job between periods of filming. Sadly, all this comprised was a series of gay jokes. His wearying sign-off line was, as I remember, ‘bums in; chests out; girls, throw them over your shoulder; boys, tuck them into your socks’.

In a slick operation, the audience was herded into seating, urged to laugh like goons and clap uproariously even if the comedy wasn’t comic. The guests they had lined up were chat show icon Jerry Springer, page three beauty Linda Lusardi… and Len Goodman. Worst of all, we were forced to make like an appreciative concert audience to a miming Lemarr and backing band. There have been, and surely will be, better rosters of stars during this series of Happy Hour.

The episode was filmed in sections determined by where the ad-breaks will fall. The links, the quips that Murray as presenter uses to introduce the show and each guest, were repeated over and over until perfected – each time with us reminded ‘bums in, chests out’, you know the rest.

While I like Murray’s racist and misogynistic pub schtick as much as the next man, his interaction with the guests was constrained by a rigid script. The bits that were obviously improvisation hinted at the real reasons why he has won the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award.

But, hell, why I am telling you about it? Judge for yourself when Happy Hour is broadcast (Saturday, ITV, 9:50 pm and Friday, ITV, 11pm).

We were assured by the fluffer that footage of the audience would make up ‘80 per cent of the episode’. Look out for my forced laughs about 10 rows below a fat man dressed in a red blazer, white shirt and tie

Monday, February 19

A Fish Needs a Bicycle

Helen Parton looks over Sunday night’s TV with more than a little bile against the unfairer sex

By rights, I should hate Top Gear (8pm, BBC2). It’s presented by men for a start, and I’m none too keen on them at the moment (I’ve not turned lesbian or anything, I’ve just come over a bit ‘I-got-to-thinking-were-all-men-schmucks’ Carrie Bradshaw stylee). And not just any men, but bawdy, sexist, middle class Tory voting men. Well, that’s Clarkson neatly summed up – Richard Hammond’s clearly a nice guy and James May as docile as an elderly spaniel, which is handy ‘cos that’s what he looks like too.

I kind of like all the torque talk, carburetor chat and turning a Robin Reliant into a spaceship, don’t ask me why. I was mainly watching this episode though for special guest star in a reasonably priced car Simon Pegg (my erstwhile TV crush before Noel Fielding appeared on our screens and I started stalking him around Camden). Success seems to have turned Pegg into a bit of a smug idiot sadly. And Clarkson’s assertion that 4x4s were now uncool because, ‘socialist women hate them and they’re better in the bedroom than Tory women’ plus ‘there’s very little room in the back of this Porsche 911 but you’ll have thin children anyway, because driving this means you’ll have a thin wife’ did stick in my craw, so I speedily turned over to Leewiiiiiiiiiiiiiis (ITV 1, 9pm). I defy anyone to read the title of this post-Morse comeback for the Oxford constabulary in any other fashion than John Thaw’s exasperation at his sidekick’s inability to appreciate the finer things in life like classical music, stout etc.

The Geordie philistine needn’t fear in this new series, because now he has his own mini Morse in the form of Sergeant Hathaway (played by current Billie Piper knobber Laurence Fox) who has a neat line in Nietzsche, classic mythology and, er, phoning up sex lines in order to catch the woman responsible for the demise of a group of self-satisfied middle aged blokes who’d murdered her friend during their drug addled youth so they could remove her adrenal gland and get high on the contents (and you thought the infamous Morse ‘rave’ episode was a substance too far).

Strong stuff for a Sunday night - as was Meerkat Manor (6pm, BBC2). And you thought it was all fluffy-wuffy creatures living happily ever after? Not so – the alpha female Flower has not only banished her one daughter Tosca from the entire group for challenging her authority, but she made another one, Daisy, leave her pups to die when the group moved burrows. Whether mendacious meerkat or murderous cleaner just remember, boys, hell hath no fury….

Sunday, February 18

Never Mind the cocks

The latest series of Buzzcocks marks its progression from the tedious to the merely banal, says Television Review's latest columnist Daniel Stour

TV Highlight if the Week, as Harry Hill might say: well, hardly a screen-shattering experience but we have to take what we can get, don't we? Never Mind The Buzzcocks, the pop panel show equivalent of an elderly dog begging to be put down,was almost worth watching for once as rent-a-celeb singer Samuel Preston, having achieved the notable feat of being more tedious than the show he was appearing on, threw a cartoon strop and walked out after being teased about his wife's literary prowess. New presenter Simon (ex-Popworld) Amstell has at least injected some hostility into the show's dying format, which otherwise continues to rely upon a succession of dull rounds and insipid guests.

Team captain Phil Jupitus is still with us, sadly, whileBill Bailey sits bemused and possibly drugged, like someone's dad held hostage by a gang of jabbering kids. Having been tipped off about this week's incident I made an effort to watch the whole sordid thing. Preston's self-awareness-bypass was soon apparent; after some early jibes he pointed his origami face towards Amstell and declared himself upset. And when, to everyone's amusement, the host began reading aloud quotes from his wife Chantelle's searingly banal autobiography, the Ordinary Boy looked about as happy as a freshly pissed-on lamppost.

'Haven't you read it? I don't want to spoil the ending for you,' quipped Amstell; but as he embarked upon a second excerpt Preston got up and stomped off, presumably to demand another outlet less offensive to his artistic vision, such as a last-minute spot on All-Star Supermarket Sweep, maybe. A replacement team member was recruited from theaudience, a reluctant young borehole driller called Ed who instantly overtook the rest of the Buzzcocks panel by virtue of a) having a real-life skill; and b) not spraying the studio with human beatbox saliva. One ofthe more successful half-hours of trash TV, then.

Tuesday, February 13

The review what said a programme were good

The titles are as stupid as the plot of Eastenders, but Five has proved with last night's film about a deformed Ugandan boy, that it can make documentaries as well as anyone, says Mark Lewis.

Had George Orwell called it ‘the bloke what got tortured with a big rat in a scary room,’ then ‘1984’ might not have been the transformative novel it was destined to become. No doubt it would have seen print, but it would have been the print of a third rate publisher – a Channel 5 of the book world, if you will.

Yet the words would have been no different. And so it was in the latest of Five’s Extraordinary People series. The title might be more infantile than a shitty nappy, but The Boy With A New Head (Monday, Five, 9pm) could almost have been on BBC1.

It would come as no surprise, in fact, if the scriptwriters for the BBC’s flagship soap opera turned out to be moonlighting as the Channel 5 documentary-naming department.

For while The Boy With A New Head told the story of a 13-year-old Ugandan boy whose life-threatening birth deformation is corrected by a series of American operations, Eastenders (Monday, BBC1, 8pm) had just been telling the story of a doctor who encourages her husband to continue an affair with his mistress in order to gain custody of her unborn child.

The pictures of the gruesome operation on the Five documentary, during which Petero’s face was rolled up and down his skull like a rubber grip rolled off a cricket bat handle, would almost certainly have been scaled down on the BBC. But this was otherwise an uplifting tale of a near-impossible life transformed by medical science, compared with the utterly improbable stupid plots served up by bad actors on Eastenders.

There was, for sure, more than a touch of the colonials about it, as scientific curiosity replaced the religious zeal which Orwell would have recognised from the missionaries which ventured to Burma when he was a policeman there in the 1940s. And there was a transparent comparison at work as the bullied boy whose eyes petruded from his face like red-glazed snowballs and whose head pointed up in the shape of a cone, came to Texas and discovered ‘the machine which cooks food,’ and ‘the machine we keep food in.’

It was, nevertheless, difficult not to sympathise with his desire by the end to leave the country where a Witch Doctor said his life would be saved by the blood of two sacrificed chickens, in favour of the country which saved his life and furnished him with a new face. ‘The most amazing thing were the doors which open by themselves,’ he told the, now friendly, Ugandan children on his return. At 13, he’s on the brink of discovering that in his life doors are more likely to remain shut.

Thursday, February 8

The Truth About last night's TV

The only good reason to have watched Liza Tarbuck on BBC2 was to avoid her on ITV1, says Mark Lewis

It’s rich to be told what we should be eating by The Truth About Food (9pm, BBC2) when the first thing the programme tries to make us swallow is the fact that Liza Tarbuck (pictured) is in good shape. ‘I like to look after myself,’ she says. Which is about as convincing as Ian Brady saying he likes to look after kids.

She ambles through an hour of joyless pseudo science, swatting away signs of interest with her bingo wings while a non-threatening voiceover man addresses the audience as if we’re stupider than an average ITV1 viewer.

The soft midlands accent slowly delivers scientific platitudes with exaggerated EMPHASIS on every COUPLE of WORDS making the programme seem like its narrated by Simon Schama with a lobotomy after a coaching session from Jeremy Clarkson.

But even a lobotomised Clarkson would turn his nose up at narrating a programme, which spun-out an hour to tell us that tomatoes and spinach are good for you, detoxes don’t work and boozing on an empty stomach gets you jolly smashed. Not to mention having to introduce such luminaries in the field of nutrition as an alcohol scientist and a doctor of berry research.

In fact, the only reason to have watched The Truth About Food is to have avoided watching ITV1 at the same time, where Tarbuck - looking unsettlingly like her dad, Jimmy - was scheduled against herself in hour-long comedy-drama, Bonkers (9pm, ITV1). The scheduling prevented me from actually watching it. But just calling a programme Bonkers is the televisual equivalent of a comedy tie.

Thursday, February 1

Party Like It's 2007

Helen Parton's a lady not for turning when it comes to praise of this new political drama

Politics always reminds me of great times being a smug student, sitting in a grotty pizza parlour in Hull watching Tony Blair storming into power while my then best friend, a Tory, sulked. But I won't go on about how good things were then in 1997, before myspace, microscooters and the Arctic fucking Monkeys (yes I'd rather hear about the Arctic Circle too, Gordon, you got that one right).

Because ten years on the makers of This Life have given us Party Animals (9pm, BBC2) a new drama about the personal and professional lives of a select bunch residing in the palaces of Westminster. Mostly being smug. And despite all my initial misgivings, it's good.

You wouldn't have thought there was room for it in the BBC schedules either, given the sublime Thick of It's return not so long ago and the fact that the This Life reunion was such a fuck up.

It begins with the likeable but undeniably ferrety faced Danny, a Labour researcher, leaving a key speech in some pub toilets the night before his Blair Babe boss was due to deliver it. Another equally ferrety faced Tory researcher (clearly you have to look like a northerner would want to shove you down their trousers to get on in parliament these days) steals it, thus giving his boss the chance to get one over in the House. Cue a huge bollocking from the (obligatorily Scottish) chief whip.

For a first episode, it's a bit try-hard and the cultural reference points are a bit in-yer-face - look they are PLAYING THE SCISSOR SISTERS in the pub, then the two lobbyists are TAKING COCAINE and people are DRINKING CONTINENTAL LAGER and SHAGGING. But you do begin to care what happens to these characters fairly quickly - whether that's sympathising with the hapless yet passionate Danny or wanting the Tory MP to get his comeuppance for shagging his researcher. And the hollowness and self-serving attitudes of all who walk the corridors of powers are beautifully nuanced from the sharp suits, even sharper dialogue through to the endless series of portraits of Tony and (call me) Dave bearing down from the walls. And as for the journalist who is portrayed as a posh, slightly slutty shameless networker - well that's not exactly inaccurate either.

The action all comes to a head when the party hard lobbyist gets killed, not something I could have seen coming - and neither could the taxi driver who ran him over, ho ho! That’s not to say there’s not things I’d like to change – the Blair Babe MP, played by ‘er what was in the first series of Teachers’, looks a bit too mumsy to be that bitchy and frankly the lobbyist guy that didn’t get killed should spend more time with his shirt off, but apart from that (ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE PUN ALERT!) it gets my vote.