Zen arcade 2016

Behold, the promised Telly Addict: Zen Roundup of The Year! Officially Telly Addict #26, the 26th Telly Addict of my half-year contract with UKTV, who resurrected the show and treated it with care, attention, love, personnel, marketing and doughnuts during that allotted time – so a big thanks to all who sailed in her, not least Dave, Joel, Matt, Cherish and Justine (upstairs). It’s not over yet, but there will be a hiatus, during which I shall endeavour to maintain the blog, and with a prevailing wind and a bit of luck, the Telly Addict brand will continue in a modified form. You watch this space, and I’ll keep watching the glowing box in the corner of the room.

Rather than spoil the show, here are a few screengrabs in the traditional style that, I think, cumulatively say “the second half of 2016 in televisual terms”. If you want to ease our passage into the New Year, all comments, views, thumbs-ups, “likes” and shares either here, on YouTube, or on Twitter, will help make the case for its free-to-air return. There will be no crowdsourcing – I don’t feel comfortable begging for money – but where there’s an audience, there’s a way. If you haven’t watched all the 25 previous Telly Addicts yet, why not go back and do so: every hit helps. If you find a TA with a lowly view-total of around a thousand to 1,500 , give the runt a glance.

Thanks for watching thus far. See you on the other side.

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You have been watching

Apologies for the delay of the blog entry of the 25th Telly Addict, which will be the last regular Telly Addict of 2016. After this week’s promised Zen round-up, which is going to be a corker, we’re taking a break. But Telly Addict will return in 2017. Look out for some special Telly Addicts in the New Year, and – fingers crossed, MPs lobbied, YouTube clips and blog entries “liked”, “shared” and Tweeted – we’ll be back under the same UKTV umbrella, the one which has kept Telly Addict dry for the last 26 weeks, after the Guardian made it homeless in April. (I have genuinely cancelled my subscription to the newspaper.)

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In the last regular Telly Addict, a review of the finale of The Missing (BBC Two), which ought to be far enough in the past now for some footage of three main characters walking through the woods in what is actually Belgium for tax reasons no longer to constitute an active spoiler. I loved this second series, perhaps even more than the first, which for me was at least one episode short of an eight episode drama. This one confidently expanded to fill the slot, and even went so far as to reveal the villain in episode six, without losing our rapt attention. Fantastic work, Jack and Harry Williams, and director Ben Chanan. The cast were top-flight, too: Roger Allam, David Morrissey, Tchéky Karyo, Anastasia Hille, Keeley Hawes (an actress so often called upon to be sad and vexed who will be smiling again in the New Year in The Durrells), Laura Fraser and Derek Riddell.

It’s ongoing, but I’m enjoying the sheer, unvarnished gloom of Rillington Place (BBC Two). Those of us who hold the movie version with Richard Attenborough dear were always going to have trouble erasing his eerie performance from our minds, but Tim  Roth, whispering his way to the gallows, gives him a run for his money, with Samantha Morton particularly strong as Ethel. Considering this is the season to be jolly, there’s not much in the drama department to support that cliché. (Even the Christmas Radio Times seems to be filled with murder and melancholy. Maybe that reflects the shitty year we’ve had.)

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A little treat to remedy the mood: We Have Been Watching (Gold), a simple knock-off of Gogglebox except with the stars of comedy watching comedy, in a couple of cases, comedies they are literally in. It works because of the rapport between the couples doing the watching. We share their excitement as, say, the Father Ted logo fades up.

The happiest bits come from Him and Her, Sarah Solemani and Russell Tovey, who seem to be the very best of pals, and the saddest bits come from Ricky Tomlinson, forced to watch the clip of him and Caroline Aherne from the 1999 Royle Family Christmas special, which has all sorts of emotions flying about and making the party hats look ironic.

Quite how three working MPs fit in to all this festivity and murder, I don’t know, but here they are, Nick Clegg, Naz Shah and the fictional character Jacob Rees-Mogg in MPs: Behind Closed Doors (Channel 5), a valuable one-off doc showing the three of them in surgery, dealing with the people who elected them, or didn’t, including some persuasive and adamant constituents who won’t take no for an answer. Not that politicians ever say yes or no, they just waffle and prevaricate and avoid confirmation or denial. Which is why Nick Clegg comes across the best. Give it a spin on catch-up. You’ll be proud to be part of the electorate, even if you disagree with the assessment that Jacob Rees-Mogg is “quite human.”

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Also recommended, if you have a strong heart as it’s very sad, is UB40: Promises & Lies (BBC Four, where else?), anything but a standard rock doc. I had caught wind of there now being two UB40s, but I had no idea how this split had destroyed the Campbell family, and how ongoing the acrimony seems to be. It’s on iPlayer for a couple more weeks, and needs to be seen.

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The final Telly Addict of the year, and for now, will be up on Thursday, that bumper round-up I was talking about. A year like the one we’ve had requires extra Zen.

Oh boy

 

As you know, we shoot Telly Addict on a Wednesday morning for a Thursday airdate. This mean we shot Telly Addict #21 on the morning of 9 November, 2016, an historic date and not a nice one. I’d already written it and chosen the clips. I added in a brand new opening based upon the US Presidential Election of the night before. Like a lot of people, I get my headlines from the Internet, but turn to the TV for context, then to the newspaper for analysis. As such, I rely on TV news to confirm or deny what I’ve already gleaned online. This reflects my age, my generation, born in the 60s, raised on analogue TV, an early adopter of video, then DVD, satellite and more recently streaming. If someone dies, I need to see it on TV before I fully believe it. On Wednesday morning, I turned on the TV to see the full horror of Donald Trump’s tsunami.

It did not put me in a tremendous mood to pretend nothing had happened and film some humorous links about some telly I’d watched in the previous seven days. But I’m a professional, and here it is. (The very first Telly Addict for my new patrons UKTV was filmed just after the EU Referendum. So we have form in this area.)

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Life goes on. Life must go on. Regardless of the US Election result, I knew it was never going to be a “slow news week”, so, in an attempt to build in a sense of calm, I ran the story of a pygmy three-toed sloth and his quest for a mate throughout Telly Addict. It was a rare non-fatal, danger-free strand from the first part of that wise old Galapagos tortoise David Attenborough’s latest bulletin from the natural world, Planet Earth II (BBC One) – a rather blunt title, I find, for such a display of wonder.

I’ve long been a fan of Dave Gorman’s books, shows and concepts; a man called Dave on a channel called Dave – he has found his spiritual home, and shows no signs of running out of things to point out in PowerPoint, hence we’ve reached series four of the labour-intensive Modern Life is Goodish (Dave).

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This first episode – part of which I was lucky enough to see Dave road-test, live, at the recent UKTV Live event, in a packed NFT1 at London’s SouthBank – moved seamlessly from “extractor fans” to specialist magazines (no not that kind), via Homes Under the Hammer. our genial supply teacher confirmed that he represents his own special intersection in the Venn diagram of stand-ups who are funny, stand-ups who are clever, and stand-up who use Venn diagrams.

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As you’ll have spotted, in fond tribute, I’m wearing a brand new Dave Gorman-style shirt for the occasion. But this shirt, it turns out, says something about me. I know, because 80s style commentator Peter York says so.

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In Peter York’s Hipster Handbook (BBC Four), he took a sociological-economic spin around the Captain Haddock-bearded, white, urban, entrepreneurially artisanal dandy and it was truly hilarious. Watch it. The further away from London and other urban centres you are, the funnier it will be. I live in London, and when I worked temporarily in Shoreditch in East London, I was proud to be the only clean-shaven man in the postcode at that time. Because for the hipster, a beard is the aerial that picks up signals from the cosmos. Now, more costumes …

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The really big show of the week was The Crown (Netflix), the ambitious BBC drama about the reign of the current queen, planned for six BBC series, that the BBC couldn’t afford, or afford to commit to. So it’s on Netflix. And that means all ten episodes of the first series are available NOW, if you’re signed up. Though it starts in the 1950s, a simpler age, it says everything there is to say about the current age we live in, when the BBC is no longer the broadcaster bound to be showing a drama about the royal family, written by Peter Morgan, directed by Stephen Daldry, and starring everyone. It’s forensically calibrated to appeal to an international audience and spells everything out, but you can’t fail to be awed by the sheer scale and poise of the thing.

There’s a new ruler now, and it’s Netflix.

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That said, here are two further, terrestrial catch-up recommendations for two less showy, and way less expensive dramas that won’t require you to keep coming back for future series. The first is The Moonstone (BBC One), a diversity-sensitive BBC Daytime adaptation of the Wilkie Collins whodunit that is worth your while. They kind of threw it away in five consecutive afternoons – although I guess the assumption is: people who watch telly in the afternoons watch it every afternoon. All five are here for the next couple of weeks.

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I also enjoyed HIM (ITV) – not sure why the caps lock, but that’s the way it was billed – a three-part, finite horror story about a young adult with telekinesis, which seems to be linked to having divorced parents, by Paula Milne. I admired the direction, and the writing, but especially liked the two young unknowns in the leads. All three eps are on ITV Player.

It’s been a funny week to think meaningfully about anything other than the Bad Thing, but also, therapeutic. Life really does go on. And at the beginning of Telly Addict, you will hear my Homer Simpson alarm clock, a symbol of all that is still great and not terrifying about America.

Oh, and The Moonstone even worked in a BBC Daytime Poldark moment for new face Joshua Silver. Honestly, they treat fit male actors like meat.

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Textual Ealing

Warning! Not many laughs at the top of this week’s NEW! IMPROVED! Telly Addict (we have a new crew and we’ve changed the lighting to a more complimentary hue, as well as bringing the caption style in line, and making the first, “wide” shot a little longer, so that you get longer to gaze in awe at the object on the coffee table). That’s because the lead show is National Treasure (Channel 4), an “issue”-led drama from the unstoppable Jack Thorne, which reunites director Marc Munden and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer from the mighty Utopia. It’s about a beloved entertainer, bulked out in every single way, including emotionally, by the great Robbie Coltrane, accused of “historic” rape, at which his life begins to fall apart.

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I can’t fault it. It’s a fictionalised tale but all too raw, played with sensitivity and ambiguity by a cast led by Tim McInnerny as Coltrane’s comedy partner, Julie Walters as his loyal wife, Andrea Riseborough as his damaged daughter, and Jeremy Swift as a showbiz manager, and pitched at a world that has long since been tarnished by its collective past (whether physical, mental and sexual abuse, abuse of power/celebrity, or the crime of looking the other way). It begins at an awards ceremony – where else? – where Coltrane’s veteran, walking with a stick, is greeted with the respect of his younger peers, represented by Frank Skinner, Robert Webb and Alan Carr, playing “themselves”. A bold move. As was the decision to mic Robbie up so that we could hear his laboured breathing – which reminded me of our intimate relationship with Tony Soprano. Brave, too, to have his character take the name of Savile in vain.

For laughs, we must turn to an even more distant past.

Richard E Grant on Ealing Comedies (Gold – Gold! – a channel whose name should always be sung in the voice of Tony Hadley) is a three-parter designed to tell you again, and again, and again (because it’s true), that the classic comedies made by Ealing studios during and after the war, are quintessentially British. You might say quintessentially English if not for The Maggie and Whisky Galore!, which are quintessentially Scottish – actually, quintessentially Hebridean – but the pitch is usually the same: little people stand up to authority, whether in the form of bureaucrats or industrialists or Americans. The documentary is an excuse for Richard E Grant to have a marvellous time, whether operating a steam train’s whistle or thumbing through the archives at tins of film. He’s a superb guide. But the talking heads are of a top stripe, too – Paul Whitehouse, Celia Imrie, Matthew Sweet – and even though it lacks a certain depth of analysis thus far, there are two more episodes to go. Gold – Gold! – have also been showing some of the films, too. I hope you’ve taped them.

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Dave, the channel, not the Dave who produces Telly Addict, although he also works for Dave, resurrected Red Dwarf for its tenth series, and the eleventh has begun, showing on UKTVPlay first, and Dave second. There are 51 episodes available on UKTV Play, which is handy for me, as when I sat down to review Red Dwarf XI, I checked my records and realised I hadn’t watched it since 1989, somewhere in the middle of series three. It looks amazing in its new incarnation, and draws a huge crowd, but then, reassuringly, it’s exactly the same.

I didn’t much care for Paranoid (ITV), the latest crime drama in which socially inept detectives must solve the grisly murder of a woman – in this case, stabbed horribly to death in broad daylight at a children’s playground in full view of other parents and toddlers – but I commend director Mark Tonderai, who staged the murder well, and who used to be a DJ on Radio 1 when I was, in the early 90s! Solidarity.

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For supreme writing, may I again recommend Ripper Street (Amazon Prime/BBC Two), still hurtling eloquently towards its series-four conclusion, intertwining three series arcs with a case-of-the-week and never once dropping the ball, even during this football-themed episode. My favourite line? “You diagram fastidiously, Sir!”, uttered by Matthew Mcfadyen. No other shows speaks like this, so all hail its writing staff, especially creator Richard Warlow, who minted the technique, and my own personal favourite Toby Finlay, who leads a double life as a Nazi-hunter on Twitter.

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This week’s object on the coffee table is an excellent new non-fiction book, The Bottom Corner, by my old Word magazine cohort Nige Tassell looking at non-league football. When the top of the game looks as dodgy and greed-riven as it does after the Allardyce sting, this book makes an even more pertinent case for those toiling nobly and for little more than a hot meal at the bottom.

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Oh, and if you didn’t catch Keith Richards’ Lost Weekend (BBC Four) – three nights of Keef lustily and chalkily remembering his long life and honouring the films, cartoons, TV shows and footage that helped shape him, as directed by his new medium, Julien Temple, who collects musical icons like football cards – catch it while ti-i-i-ime is on your side. (Temple’s evocative, witty, thought-provoking feature-length doc, London Babylon, was among the delights curated by Mr Richards: a must-see for all Londoner either born, bred or adopted.) All 17 of the interlinking parts of varying length remain on iPlayer, if not the nuggets Keef selected. These three nights justified the £145.50 Licence Fee alone.

Wow!

Since last week’s Telly Addict, the hoo-hah about the Bake Off hit the fan. And the fans. Actually, I liked the way its BBC audience grew as if in an act of defiance (“We are going to watch the show even more! That’ll show Channel 4 and Love Productions!”), but the outlook is still grim. (Oh, and check the caption on the grab below.)

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It’s all over, too, except without manhandling, for Parks & Recreation (Dave), which also switched channels in the UK, but found a fond permanent home for its latter seasons at Dave, and even though I have to admit the final season was a bit soppy – loads of hugging, plenty of learning – I devoured it hungrily all the same, until the plate was empty. On this Telly Addict, I present a masterclass in glancing to camera.

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Also on Dave, it’s Dara O Brain with his massive briain! This time hosting Go 8 Bit, which is a big-hearted videogame show based around the universally acknowledged truth that games were better in the old days. The first episode, authoritatively co-helmed by games journalist Ellie Gibson, saw Susan Calman and David James throwing themselves all around the sofa-based set in the name of Tetris and Tekken.

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BBC Scotland put together some preeminent talking heads for British Sitcom: 60 Years of Laughing at Ourselves (BBC Four) and the forgot to give their jobs in the captions. I ought to be a lot more bitter about the fact that the one successful mainstream sitcom I have been involved in was tossed off in a quick montage at the end, but 60 years is 60 years, and I’m proud to have made it into a footnote (albeit represented by a clip that I had no hand in writing – I did come up with the title!)

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Joanna Lumley, who might as well just change her name to Joanna Luvley and be done with it, proved a briskly enthusiastic tour guide in Joanna Lumley’s Japan (ITV), a three-parter so full of breathless exclamations it ought to have an exclamation mark at the end of it. (Incidentally, if you think Joanna is being a bit of an air-miles Pollyanna, in Ep1 she does visit the contaminated site of the Fukushima nuclear accident, with a Geiger counter in hand, and in Ep2, which I have yet to see, she watches dolphins being slaughtered on a beach.)

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And it’s safe to enjoy this beautiful cat from HBO whodunit The Night Of (Sky Atlantic) without fear of it giving away who the murderer is, or are.

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Oh, and here’s a little DVD extra:

We, the Telly Addict crew, made a five-minute film at UKTV Live, the industry showcase that took place the other week at London’s BFI Southbank. It was nice to get out.

Naughty

Again, apologies for the delay, but Telly Addict‘s benefactors at UKTV were not in the office yesterday. I have no idea why. In any case, one of my favourite televisual experiences of last week was All Aboard! The Country Bus (BBC Four), a two-hour journey of the actual kind (as opposed to the emotional “journey” usually taken on TV today) from Richmond in North Yorkshire across the Dales, in real time, as part of the Slow TV movement originated in Norway.

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If you require volume, there’s always Joe Wicks: the Body Coach (Channel 4), a cross between Jamie Oliver and Russell Brand who’s already a superstar on Instagram, which is something you can be in this day and age. If he’s real, and not a sensational hoax played by a genius character comic who created him for an Edinburgh show, then I warn you against him if you find “healthy eating” anathema. I quite like him, in tiny doses. (Spot the difference in the following two photos.)

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I remain vexed by the BBC’s Sitcom Season (BBC One, BBC Two), which marks 60 years since the corporation broadcast but didn’t record or keep Hancock’s Half Hour. Rather more reverence is afforded the form these days, but not in the case of Are You Being Served? (BBC One), a karaoke version with a top-drawer cast having the time of their life doing impressions of beloved characters from the 70s and early 80s. I loved this show between the ages of seven and 12. And I don’t blame seasoned Benidorm writer Derren Litten (with whom I briefly worked on the early days of Not Going Out), for taking it on and pushing the envelope of taste (there’s a double entendre about “seamen” that might not have made it in 1972). But I just don’t know why it was on my telly. Surely you celebrate classic sitcoms by showing them, not remaking and rebooting them?

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Victoria (ITV) started well, and beat Poldark (BBC One) in the overnights. That’s despite Poldark giving its hyperventilating fans (I’m among them) a pumped male torso glistening with sweat in the first 20 minutes. Victoria has no such titilation, just upstairs-downstairs intrigues and protocols for the Downton crowd. I’m hooked already.

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I’m also hooked on The Night Of (Sky Atlantic), a remake, eight years after the event, of Peter Moffat’s legal drama Criminal Justice, re-set in New York and New Jersey and inflated to eight episodes. By the time you read this, I may well have binged on the whole series, which is utterly addictive. Even if, as I do, you remember the original really well, including the outcome, which I hope they’ve changed. One objection: the credit “Created by Richard Price and Steve Zaillian”. Created? Really? Like Derren Litten “created” Are You Being Served?

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A nod to John Bishop, whose In Conversation With (it’s on W, which always look odd when typed) chat show slot is proving worthwhile. It’s no mean feat for a man who talks for a living (I’ve interviewed him – he’s a superb guest) to shut up so respectfully and professionally, leaving guests like James Corden and Charlotte Church to take centre stage for the best part of an hour.

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There is no prize for working out what’s on the coffee table this week (because there never is), but someone out there might get it. Here are all the Telly Addicts gathered in a YouTube playlist.

I wish I was a little bit taller

I wish I was a baller. Actually, I don’t wish I was one, judging by the portrayal of that particular lifestyle of the rich and fatuous on sharp and sharp-suited comedy Ballers (HBO/Sky Atlantic), returning for a second season of wry, self-lacerating Cribs-style aspiration. As I say in my review on the new Telly Addict, which features an expensively animated duck, the parts for women may be few and far between on this show about insecure Miami-based football players and the men – and it is apparently always men – who move their money around, but the gentlemen don’t come out of it that well. They’re just big babies. And Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson even looks like one. In a suit.

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Sticking with HBO, I celebrate the return after one of those irksome “breaks” of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (HBO/Sky Atlantic), just in time for the aftershock of the Conventions. I am a little bit in love with John Oliver, although we are stablemates at the same management company, so I should probably work on that. I’ve genuflected at his creative use of HBO-excused swearing in the past (and sometimes calling Donald Trump a “fucking asshole” is the only sensible response, even for a Wildean wit), but this week, he brought the house down on the much less promising subject of Hillary’s running mate Tim Kaine with a simple, “Is it?”

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I’m saving the new HBO comedy from the people who brought you Eastbound & Down, namely Vice Principals, until next week, for fear of an HBOverload. The Amazon Prime sensation Mr Robot (Universal) arrives on steam-powered TV, while the early adopters binge on Season Two, which is already up on the bookshop. I’m hooked, as I knew I would be, and if I’m hallucinating the gentle allusions to The Third Man (more paranoia in supposed peacetime), I apologise. But I like TV fiction that encourages that kind of tangential response.

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The BBC seems to be spoiling us beyond its usual Ferrero Rocher pyramid of music documentaries this summer, with – and look out for clickable links to that garden of earthly delights BBC iPlayer – Julian Temple’s archetypally esoteric Keith Richards film The Origin of the Species (BBC Two), Jon Savage and Paul Tickell’s 1966: 50 Years Ago Today (BBC Four), from Savage’s book of the same year, and part two of the ongoing People’s History of Pop (BBC Four), wherein Danny Baker proved the eager and appreciative conduit for other folks’ curios and souvenirs from 1966-76. A very good sort-of-decade. Watch all of these programmes, please.

I expect if you’re a diehard fan of Robot Wars (BBC Two), you’ll need no cue from me to watch its return to the Corporation after a “lend” to Channel 5. This amiable, foam-finger-waving scrapheap challenge is aimed at me in no way whatsoever, but I do get why people go nuts for it. And it celebrates ingenuity, hobbyism and craftspersonship, as well as Sunday league-style competition. I am more than able to wield a screwdriver or bradawl when required, but I am no mechanic and find Robot Wars a little outside my comfort zone, but far more nerdy than nearest touchstone Top Gear, and I mean that in a positive way, clearly.

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Afore we go, a promise that if you’ve never before sat down to view Friday Night Dinner (Channel 4) by Robert Popper, an autobiographical Whitehall farce set not in a bedroom but, mostly, a dining room, it will not let you down, so please do remedy that. You can box-set all three previous series on All 4. It is a joy. Brilliantly cast, with Tamsin Greig, Paul Ritter, Tom Rosenthal and Simon Bird as the family, and Mark Heap as neighbour Jim, and various supporting players, its most recent episode had the most satisfying one-line ending (after half an hour of ever-spiralling disaster that seemed to know no end) I almost stood up and saluted.

Here’s that duck. (Forgive me, but I haven’t forgotten which Collings & Herrin fan gave it to me as a thoughtful gift circa 2009, but if it’s you: look, I’ve still got it!)

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Take a seat

Firstly, please do click this link and visit the YouTube page, get the conversation going below the line. Thank you!

There will be spoilers, as this week on the slightly delayed Telly Addict #3 I’m daring to assess the two-episode finale of Season Six of Game Of Thrones. (I was once admonished below the line at the Guardian not for the content of a GoT-bearing Telly Addict, but for the use of a supplied publicity still for Season Three at the top of the page, which enraged one particularly tardy user still catching up with the box set of Season Two because the very act of illustrating my review with a photo that contained some characters from Season Three meant that those characters didn’t die in Season Two. Incidentally, those characters had been heavily featured on hoardings placed by Sky Atlantic advertising the new series.) Clearly, if you haven’t seen it yet, DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WATCH THIS EDITION OF TELLY ADDICT.

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For me, Season Six of Game Of Thrones scored in the 87th minute, and washed away the clogging, A-to-B frustration of what went before. Stuff happened in episodes 9 and 10, and I mean really happened. They won on penalties.

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As well as GoT, the new Telly Addict also reviews Billions (Showtime/Sky Atlantic), which you can also read in written form on this blog here. It’s halfway through its run on Sky, but it’s been available to subscribers as a series-dump box set since May. I am currently considering re-watching the whole thing for a second time. That’s how prime I feel it is. To mangle Paul Giamatti’s US attorney: the decisions it makes, the judgements it brings, have weight. Talking of serious, there’s a defence of Bettany Hughes’ Nietzsche programme from Genius Of The Modern World (BBC Four) – I say “defence” as I’ve read a couple of sniffy reviews from critics who want to make plain how much they already know about the subject (also, Freud, Marx). I was eager to learn.

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Throw in a couple of references to the Euros, Celebrity Masterchef and the ongoing delight that is Versailles, plus a weird HBO animation called Animals, and it looks like we’ve got ourselves an under-ten-minute YouTube show. Keep clicking and subscribing and liking and all that. It’s your visible support that will make Telly Addict V 2.0 a going concern at the garden of earthly delights that is UKTV, where there are pastries, and skills, and facilities. Tune in, turn on, turn in.

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Multimedia postscript: you can also hear me discussing Game of Thrones S6 on the brand new and tremendous Bigmouth podcast with regulars Andrew Harrison and Matt Hall (who, incidentally, produced the first Telly Addict in 2011 when he worked at the Guardian), and fellow “Thronehead” Sarah Bee, who knows GoT in a far more profound way than I, and was thus confident enough to be even more critical of the way it’s been going since they waved goodbye to the novels. Listen to it here. (We also discuss Glastonbury and Roisin Murphy’s splendid new album.)

The art of seeing

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Two exceptional programmes about art in as many days: Forest, Field and Sky: Art out of Nature (BBC Four), available on iPlayer here, and Grayson Perry: All Man (Channel 4), available on All 4 here. I know quite a lot about art, and I know what I like, so programmes about art have me at hello.

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Dr James Fox is an art historian, and a young one, too. When I first wrote about him in a Top Trumps-style article comparing TV art buffs for Word magazine in 2011, I wasn’t sure if he or equally youthful small-screen boffin the Telegraph’s Alastair Sooke was the youngest, so I got in touch with Dr Fox via his email address at Cambridge University, where he is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College (I couldn’t verify his date of birth anywhere and the BBC Press Office were rudely ignoring me). I didn’t expect a reply from the man himself but got a very cheery one that same afternoon. Professing himself a fan of Telly Addict, he confirmed that he was an embryonic 29 but born a few months after Alastair, so officially the youngest art critic on television! He added, self-deprecatingly, “He’s an art critic while I’m an art historian; he’s a glamorous journalist while I’m a dowdy academic.” (I liked them both on telly, but preferred dowdy.) Dr Fox and I have corresponded often in the years since, as I’ve reviewed his regular series on BBC Four and BBC Two – British Masters, A History of Art in Three Colours, A Very British Renaissance, Bright Lights Brilliant Minds – but never quite managed to buy each other the coffee at the British Library we continually threaten to do.

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I find him a bright, sincere and witty TV guide, a boyish expert with the look of the young Bob Dylan about him (something I suspect he plays up to – I recall a sequence in, I think, Three Colours which seemed deliberately to be lit and framed like the cover of Freewheelin’ – minus Suze Rotolo). His catchphrase is, “But I think …”, which comes after a preamble stating the received wisdom about a painting, or a sculpture, or an era, at which he presents his own thesis. “But I think …”

His latest excursion is very different. It’s still authored, and it’s still him, in his skinny jeans, and with his hair pointing skywards, but Forest, Field and Sky is first of all a one-off, not a series of three (Fox’s usual metier), and secondly, it features artists who, by and large, I’d never even heard of. I am an enthusiastic if not Mastermind-ready weekend art historian so can usually find a number of points of entry with even the more arcane artistic dig; not here. This was all new to me, and refreshing for that. Dr Fox wandered in search of art hewn from nature itself, beginning by forming a small pebble circle on a beach and accurately defining it as a primal “cultural act.”

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With this primordial beginning as a starting point, he stood in geo-agricultural awe of Andy Goldsworthy’s stone sculptures (and watched him attempt a Sisyphean dry stone wall up a tree that collapsed like a Jenga tower, twice), sat for hours in one of James Turrell’s extraordinary sky-bunkers (see: view above), found David Nash’s 1978-conceived “forever” sculpture Ash Dome in a genuinely secret corner of North Wales, lost himself in landscape architect Charles Jencks’ extraordinary Garden Of Cosmic Speculation in Dumfries, and witnessed Julie Brook building a beacon bonfire in the middle of an outer Hebrides sea loch, designed to snuff itself out with the tide, gone forever. (A London art dealer must have looked at this show and wondered, “How the hell do I make any money out of art that falls down, burns itself out or exists in secret?”)

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My only touchstone in this documentary, often about touching stones, was Richard Long, whose work I discovered through Bill Drummond (the only living artist with whom I’ve personally performed an improvised art lecture). The good Doctor walks ten miles in a straight line across Exmoor as per one of Long’s most famous pieces, which ought to come with a free pedometer. Our host’s awestruck joy at these living artworks was infectious, and in HD, you really got a sense of it. I also really felt like a good walk in North Wales or the outer Hebrides or through the Yorkshire Sculpture Park after watching it. It’s roughage enough in and of itself. But I think … a good art series will always make you want to see art.

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Grayson Perry is an artist and more; just about as popular and recognisable in his field as Andy Goldsworthy and the others aren’t, even in an actual field. He’s a natural showman, or show-woman, depending on the day or the occasion, but ought on paper to be a difficult sell to a mass audience, thanks to his deal-with-it transvestism – which even in this incrementally progressive era of gender fluidity and same-sex acceptance might still be a turn-off to, say, readers of the foxhunting broadsheet paper Alastair Sooke writes for. And while our most visible and famous modern artists – Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst – make a big noise with installations and provocations, and fellow populist (but shyer human being) Antony Gormley scores through scale, Grayson is more of a humble artisan, making pots and tapestries in the mediaeval style, and his manner of drawing is that of a cartoonist, or a children’s illustrator. And even in these techniques, he dares to draft not with a pencil or a brush but an electronic pen on a CAD screen. He is a folk artist for a digital age. With a massively infectious guffaw.

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In brief, he refuses to conform to any of the stereotypes of what he is, including, in a previous TV adventure, an Essex man. And yet, look how comprehensively he has insinuated himself into the lives of people who might without thinking say they knew nothing about art, or cared less for cross-dressing. Perry is a sort of messiah figure – potentially divisive but actually unifying. He couldn’t be without also being a TV natural. While Hirst is boorish, and Emin fidgety and self-conscious, Perry loves the camera, and it loves him back, and this symbiosis rewards him with a vast constituency.

It seems pertinent, or at least irresistible, at this juncture to reprint the photo of me and Grayson (or, technically, Claire) at the 2014 Radio Times Covers Party, taken by choirmaster Gareth Malone, and [right] the photo of me and choirmaster Gareth Malone, taken by Claire. (I’m calling the latter an actual Grayson Perry artwork.)

He/she is as charming and down to earth as we’ve now all come to expect having seen so much of him interacting with ordinary people on TV. In All Man, he’s exploring masculinity, and in part one of three (art programmes do seem to come as triptychs), he’s in the northeast, interacting with cage fighters, ex-miners and beer drinkers mourning the loss of a friend who, with statistical inevitability and without sharing his woes, committed suicide. Whether investigating class, identity, fame or socio-geographical roots, his shtick is to meet the general public (or, in the case of Who Are You?, Rylan Clark and Chris Huhne, who are still ordinary people but made famous by extraordinary circumstances), and to turn their true stories into artworks, generally in clay or textile. All Man already cleaves to that winning formula, but once again, he takes people he’s just met into his confidence, earns their lifelong trust by giving just enough of himself, and wins them over, before exploiting their insecurities and strengths through customised earthenware.

Even if, like me, you’re a Perry completist – I’ve seen every one of his shows for Channel 4, and gazed in Dr Fox-like awe at his artworks at the National Gallery in London and the Turner Contemporary in Margate – the magic is never dulled by repetition. When he memorialised the lad who took his own life in the first episode of All Man, his mother was moved, and so were his tough mates, and so, visibly, was the artist. Some may dismiss all this as post-Diana mawkishness, but I believe it is art therapy, nothing less. And it makes us better, not worse, people.

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Both James Fox’s sensibly-shod art odysseys and Grayson Perry’s more interactive and democratic art hugs are vital things to be on our tellies. It’s key that both the BBC and Channel 4, who sponsor and curate these shows, are in line to be “eviscerated” in the words of Peter Kosminsky at the Baftas. Sky Arts, funded from the private purse, has proven itself a key player, too, but without public subsidy, art withers and dies and, like a sculpture made of ash trees in the forest, can it really be said to have existed at all?