This is the Fall group

Tuesdays are so last week. Telly Addict has moved to Thursdays, so … hello! (The new slot is intended to make it easier for me to review hot shows from the weekend, which are harder to do if I have to prepare the script and clips on a Friday to make a Monday morning shoot feasible. If we record on a Wednesday morning, I can more easily cover the big shows on Saturday and Sunday night without having to work all weekend, as I understand the weekend is traditionally intended to be two days of rest.) The impact of this is mainly that this week’s covers nine days of telly, instead of seven. So we have a lot to pack in. First, some other people who watch television for a living.

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I dare to assume you know my official ties to Gogglebox (Channel 4). If not, I spent quality time with all of the main households last spring as research for the second companion book, Gogglebook, which came out for Christmas and was a joy. It thrills me still to see the Malones, the Tappers, the Siddiquis et al, having actually sat between them on those sofas and watched TV. What the experience failed to do was dampen my ardour for the programme, which I still watch religiously, and miss terribly when it’s not on. It’s always great to have it back, and to simply be a viewer and fan again.

tauktv16goggle2I guess the big news for this, the eighth series, is the introduction of three new households, two in Bristol, one in Dorset. I will assess the newcomers (unfortunate word after Westworld) in a future week when they’ve had time to bed in. The other big return last week was The Fall (BBC Two), the serial-killer thriller that might have been a classic had it ended after series one, but market forces demanded that it not end and to return. So it did. And it strained credibility. I tuned in to what ought to have been an even less necessary third series, and was pleasantly surprised.

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Not surprised that hunky murderer Paul Spector (played by hunky star of 50 Shades of Grey Jamie Dornan) was in a critical condition after being shot at the end of series two, but surprised at the courage of devoting the whole of episode one to an almost-real-time A&E procedural. Richard Coyle was phenomenal as the doctor in charge, and while Jamie was manhandled about, doing very little, and Gillian Anderson did some of her best, wordless face-acting, the other actors got all the screen time: John Lynch, Colin Morgan, newcomer Aisling Bea. It was a superb, taut, believable return. I hope they keep it up.

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Another great British bird spotting moment on the Great British Bake Off (still BBC One) last week. It’s a grey wagtail.

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Another return: Dr James Fox, with a one-off Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? (BBC Four), a personal journey through the prickly subject by the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan lookalike, which failed to answer the big question: why are so many prominent conceptual artists working in this country Scottish? Answers on screwed-up ball of paper please. It’s on iPlayer here – very much worth a look. So, less self-evidently, is this:

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I have never knowingly watched DIY SOS, but three of its team – presenter Nick Knowles, builder Jules, electrician Billy – were convinced to attend a 28-day spiritual, psychological and gastric detox, and the result was The Retreat (BBC Two); it ran across five consecutive nights last week and can be viewed here, if you fancy casting aside your prejudices about Reiki and colonics – as our three heroes sort of eventually did – and open your mind to what Nick and Jules keep dismissing as “hippie stuff”. And finally …

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No, not Sue Perkins. Talented mimic Morgana Robinson doing a decent impression of Sue Perkins in her new vehicle, The Agency (BBC Two). I admit I have a soft spot for the form, having been raised in the 70s, when you couldn’t move for impressionists on TV, as they were the kings of light entertainment comedy. Morgana is versatile and smart, and her writers are good, so the result, though clearly formulaic, is above average. I particularly enjoyed her Adele, her Fearne, and her Natalie Cassidy, who I worked with on a project that never came to fruition a few years ago and like very much. Morgana’s impression of her is accurate and seemed to me to be not overtly cruel. (Natalie may feel differently.) Here it is! When I say I don’t think she should do Danny Dyer I’m not being sexist, I just don’t think she’s as good at his voice as she is at Miranda or Joanna Lumley.

Also, please watch The Hip Hop World News (BBC Four), a 90-minute personal journey through the prickly world of hip hop by Rodney P, who allowed us to see a tearful epiphany he experienced at Chuck D’s ancestral home. It’s a golden TV moment and reflects well upon Rodney for letting it go out.

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If you want to see more Aisling Bea, she’s very good in Jo Brand’s latest knockabout comedy set in the social services, Damned (BBC Two), which I’ll review on next week’s Telly Addict, along with Westworld (Sky Atlantic), The Apprentice (BBC One) and Taskmaster (Dave). See you then … and here’s the object on the coffee table, for your pleasure and consternation. See you next Tues … Thursday!

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Top team

Burning question. How do you pronounce Poldark (BBC One)? I sense that it’s perhaps more authentically Cornish to put the emphasis on the second syllable: Pol-dark. But the more homogeneous acceptance puts the accent on “Pole”, as in Pol-dark. Most people are spending no time worrying about this, as they are too preoccupied with the view. As Francis Poldark says of his condemned cousin in Episode 2 of the surprisingly downbeat new series, “Which of us does not secretly adore him?”

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It took just 20 minutes in Ep1 for Aidan Turner to lose his shirt and oil up down the mine, but there are other lovely things to look at: the cliffs, the hills, sky, the exquisite tailoring. Without a masterplan – as I just review what I have watched on the telly – this week’s Telly Addict, #13 if you’re taking inventory, I seem to have reviewed four dramas, but of four different stripes. Pol-dark/Pol-dark covers costume/historical drama sumptuously, while contemporary drama, albeit one that’s been away for 13 years so still feels distinctly 90s, is embodied by Cold Feet (ITV), which I understand drew a consolidated audience (and what other kind is there?) of 7.9 million last Monday. I have no idea if anyone under 40 tuned in, but if not, there are enough of us ancients to keep it a hit.

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It’s not all hugs, pints, amigos and jokes about James Nesbitt’s hair transplant (“Have you got more hair?”) – indeed, it is to life-chronicler Mike Bullen’s credit that the comeback already hits a gloomy note. “I wish my future was still ahead of me,” says Pete. “I’m not happy,” says David, in some of the  best acting of the show so far. This was not melodrama; it was closer, in fact, to Scandinavian theatre.

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It will not be for everyone, but the return of The Strain (Channel W, as I call it) is a camp, comic-book classic from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan about a vampocalypse in New York (as usual played by Toronto) , and at least star Corey Stoll (above) has been allowed to lose his ridiculous wig. I can’t imagine how much fun it must be for Brits David Bradley and new arrival Rupert Penry-Jones to play this kind of schlock.

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More fine British acting talent dominates the educational re-enactment show Barbarians Rising (the History Channel), where thesps at the level of Nicholas Pinnock (above) battle against the might of diagrams, computer simulation and retired four-star American Generals as talking heads. I love it. That is all of drama, I believe. And Telly Addict’s Moment of Zen is another fabulous, sentient scene from Ripper Street (Amazon Prime/BBC Two), in which Matthew Macfadyen and Jerome Flynn might well be discussing the resurrected show itself.

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Even though literally NOBODY is interested in the unusual, personal objects I leave on the coffee table each week, I’m sticking with the unloved extra. Anybody have any feelings at all about Top Team?

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No?

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Incidentally, after recording this week’s, the big news about The Great British Bake Off (BBC One/Channel 4) broke. None of us knows exactly what went on behind closed doors during production company Love and the BBC, but it has been mentioned that Channel 4 poached the Corporation’s most successful format by bidding three times what they’re currently paying for it. If that’s true, it reflects badly on capitalism and its precarious relationship with a Tory-diminished public sector. I admire Mel and Sue for declaring their independence so soon; this at least means that a commercial incarnation will not be the same. I can think of nothing more irksome than having to watch a show we have come to enjoy uninterrupted shot through with ads and, worse, bumpers paid for by Mr Kipling or Smeg fridges. Such a transfer from public to private has happened to plenty of beloved US imports like Seinfeld, The Simpsons and Mad Men, which, manhandled by the BBC, found happier homes on smaller, commercial channels, but very rarely has a format migrated. When BBC stars have been transferred, it has nearly always been a terrible disaster – I think of Morecambe and Wise, the Goodies, Trinny and Susannah?

I guess we Bake Off fans will have to enjoy this series while it lasts. It’s not been a classic so far. Although the glimpse of a Red Kite almost made up for its deficiencies of contestant.

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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.

Gold!!!

Woah! Eleven minutes and seven seconds?! What happened there? By all means watch all nine Telly Addicts so far and compare the running times. I do try my hardest to keep them under ten minutes, but sometimes – as with this week’s – I find that the clips are just so good, I have to let them run. There’s a full-scale Laura Kuenssberg montage! And two very long but exquisite pauses from Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag (BBC3; BBC Two, like all BBC3 shows), which I feel sure you’ll appreciate. We are all in the appreciation game, after all. AA Gill, Marmite TV critic of the Sunday Times, made a poignant remark in his review of the new Clive James book about binge-watching box sets, basically asking how any TV critic could possibly criticise TV if they hated TV? You have to love it, he said, in order to dislike it. If you didn’t care about it, why would you criticise it? What would be the point. I know what he means. Anyway.

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The good news: Versailles (BBC Two), that addictive slice of wiggy court life flounced to its conclusion, with an announcement over the end credits promising a second series “next year”. Hooray! I have loved every second of this pricey-looking historical romp with its tendency to slip into Ultravox video mode and have fallen for its – to me – previously unknown stars George Blagden and Alexander Vlahos (the king and his brother). I’ve also appreciated Kate Williams and Greg Jenner’s polite little lectures, Inside Versailles (BBC Two) after each episode. So gossipy and yet informative at the same time. And it has an easel. Not enough shows have easels.

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Sad to hear of the cancellation of The Living and the Dead (BBC Two) this week – the Yin to the previous piece of news’s Yang. Another of my favourites since taking Telly Addict to the badlands of YouTube, the bucolic ghostbusting mystery shall be sorely missed in my house. Fingers crossed for a return for Brief Encounters

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To Fleabag, then. Waller-Bridge is 30, I think, but has her finger on the pulse of what it is to be young and urban and anxious, and a daughter, and a sister, and a lover, and single, and in a relationship. This show might have slipped under my demographic radar had I not been alerted to its beauty by other critics. So thanks to them, I am now watching a sex comedy. We’ve seen “mockumentaries” before (we’ll be seeing one again in a minute), and post-Office naturalism (ha ha, Post Office) done to death, but Waller-Bridge’s theatrical trick of talking, or gurning, to camera so that ONLY WE CAN SEE HER is its genius move. And the guy with the false teeth in the grab above, Jamie Demetriou, was in Fleabag this week, and also in this mockumentary:

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I understand why jobbing actors end up in two things that end up being on at the same time on different channels, but I like it when it happens. It’s sort of spooky and foretold. And Demetriou is very funny at nice but dim, as proven by Ep1 of Fleabag, and Ep1 of Borderline (Channel 5), about which I was cautious, although I met its star Jackie Clune at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000 and she was lovely company, and a caution. She’s the only really familiar face in this new comedy set in a tiny airport, but the rest of the cast, who seem to freewheel, are excellent, especially James Michie, whose name I looked up especially. I am often reluctant to criticise comedies, as I write comedy and comedies, but it’s nice when two come along at the same time that are funny, and appealing to me.

Here’s something a bit more grave.

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A clip of Michael Gove when he was Government Chief Whip and not that important, before he became important, and then stopped being important again, once the thing he was important enough to be trusted in selling to the electorate actually happened and then he went away again, thank God. In the clip, for James Delingpole’s YouTube channel (hey, we YouTubers should stick together, but maybe not all of us), Gove compares himself to Tyrion Lannister. Watch Telly Addict to see the full horror. Laura Kuenssberg really proves her mettle in this otherwise depressing film, Brexit: the Battle for Britain (BBC Two, again) which was really well made.

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I wasn’t expecting to see hopeless Labour leadership hopeful Owen Smith turn up on Dragons’ Den (BBC Two), selling a thimble, which he can use to collect all his votes in. Hey, enough of my Trotskyist propaganda! I only watched the Den see if it had changed, and it hasn’t (they’re still using that ancient looking air conditioning system out of Saw, but three of the Dragons who were on it last time I tuned in have been replaced by other Dragons, whose provenance is not yet known to me).

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And finally … Parks & Rec (Dave), which nears the end of its road. But by forwarding the action by three years, the writers have invigorated the arc for its valedictory run of 13. I will be bereft. If you haven’t yet viewed Telly Addict #9, look out for my cuddly sparrow, bought from a garden centre and made in China for the RSPB. It makes a realistic sparrow noise when squeezed. I thoroughly recommend one for therapy in this squalid world. We didn’t start the fire.

It takes a game man

Did Gregg Wallace really say this on last week’s finale of Celebrity MasterChef (BBC One)? “It’s a gay man who comes on to a final of MasterChef and does octopus.”

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No. It turns out he didn’t. But it sounded like he did when he said, “It’s a game man who comes on to a final of MasterChef and does octopus.” (Surely it’s a game man who comes on and does partridge?) On this week’s Telly Addict, I wave a fond farewell to one programme with the prefix “Celebrity” and say a cautious and transient hello to another programme with the prefix “Celebrity“. It all seemed so optimistic for pantomime dame Christopher Biggins when he went into the Celebrity Big Brother (Channel 5) house with every intention, one assumes, of not coming straight out again after insulting bisexuals and a Jewish woman (I had stopped watching by then, so have to take the tabloids’ word for it).

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From one game man to another bunch of game men. It’s a funny time of the year for TV. Most of it is now filled with the Olympics, which I’m boycotting, as I don’t really enjoy the Olympics, and it’s a bit of a silly season for the rest of telly. I’m delighted that my favourite gay drama Looking (HBO/Sky Atlantic) came back for a valedictory, feature-length episode, and I beamed all the way through it, wishing I lived in San Francisco and moved in this social circle as the token heterosexual. It would have been preferable, of course, for Looking to have continued with a third, fourth and fifth season, but it was not to be.

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This is a grab of me giving a sideways look at TV. Why? I am honouring pop historian Dominic Sandbrook and his trademark three-quarters-on delivery style. I’ve had my quibbles with some of his previous 20th century history lessons, not least the Thatcherite way he looks at the past, but since his new series The 80s With Dominic Sandbrook (BBC Two) is about the Thatcher Years, one can hardly complain. (Except, of course, he says it isn’t about Thatcher, it’s about us, somewhat letting her off the hook.)

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As you’ll see in the various clips used in this week’s Telly Addict, Jimmy Osmond, runner-up on Celebrity MasterChef, is one of my heroes of 2016, for his joie de vivre and his propensity to cry while still calling everyone and everything “Awesome.” No, you are!  He’s come a long way from Andy Williams to Gregg Wallace.

Oh, and look out for the tiny clockwork mouse on the coffee table at the beginning. I found it in my goodie bag after the National Cat Awards at the Savoy during the week, at which I am proud to say I was a judge! Here’s a photo of me with some fellow dignitaries, and then one of me with the judges and the winners! Awesome!!!!

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As ever, you can view the full YouTube playlist of every UKTV Telly Addict here. Why not subscribe? I do.

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?

 

 

 

 

We British

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My education into British colonalism began with Carry On Up The Khyber and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. I guess I must have been about ten or eleven when I first saw the film on TV, which was concurrent with the start of the popular BBC sitcom. I gathered that both were set in the past, and the military aspect helped me correctly place It Ain’t Half Hot Mum at the time of the Second World War. (Up The Khyber is set much earlier, as evidenced by the uniforms, although such historic subtlety wouldn’t have occurred to me at that young age; the BFI synopsis says 1895.) The Carry On was prototypically subtitled The British Position In India, which clarified things somewhat. Here’s what I learned about the British Raj at that time: “we British” – as the Indian bearer Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum used to ironically say – seemed to rule over India, where Indians live, on the other side of the world. Quite why was not made clear to me then. But you accept the world as it is handed down to you at the age of ten or eleven.

CarryOnUpTheKhyber

Without the luxury of historical or ethnic context, I followed the crux of the comedy in both film and sitcom: that “we British” were a bunch of arses. Pompous, incompetent, cowardly, entitled, and no match for the cunning and wisdom of the Indians (“There is an old Hindu proverb …” as Rangi used to say in wrap-up). In Up The Khyber, an Indian uprising is quelled by a kilted regiment revealing to the revolting natives that they wear no underwear beneath their kilts. In It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, our military heroes belong to a camp concert party, and their militaristic sergeant major’s attempts to man them up are a constant source of frustration for him and laughs for us. In the Carry On, Kenneth Williams plays the Indian ruler, the Khasi; the equally Caucasian Angela Douglas is his daughter, Princess Jelhi; and the Jewish Bernard Bresslaw is Burpa leader Bungdit Din. More infamously, Rangi Ram in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum was played by an even more vigorously “browned-up” Michael Bates, who was born to British parents in British India and spoke Hindi, but was not by any stretch of the imagination Indian. (The usual excuse for this is that there weren’t many Indian or Pakistani actors working in Britain in the early 70s, which may have been statistically true, but they managed to cast the other two key Indian roles with Bengali Dino Shafeek and London-born Babar Bhatti. It’s sobering to remember that David Lean cast Alec Guinness as Hindi professor Godbole in A Passage To India in what you might have hoped was a more enlightened mid-80s.) Is it any wonder my view of the British Raj was somewhat shallow?

IndianSummerstitle

I am older and wiser now, further-educated by a wealth of drama set at the time of the British position in India: A Passage To India, Gandhi, The Jewel In The Crown, The Far Pavilions, The Man Who Would Be King, even Black Narcissus. These have all been far more helpful than the two formative comedies. I’ve also read India: A History by John Keay, which I ordered from a book club and found very informative. And now we have Indian Summers (Channel 4). Or, in fact, maybe we don’t, as I just read that C4 have pulled the plug on it after two pricey series.

My politics place me in historical opposition to the British Empire. The very idea of it feels foreign, bullying and distant: lording it over large parts of the globe? Ruling the waves? We seem unable to run a whelk stall or organise a piss-up in the brewery in the 21st century. For me, our imperial past is nothing to be proud of – I’m vehemently against medals being handed out in the name of the British Empire – and I expect my dramatists to feel the same. What’s refreshing about Paul Rutman’s ambitious drama, which opens in 1932 but was planned to go on, is its clear focus. It revolves around the community of civil servants and hangers-on who repair up the mountains of Shimla during the unbearably sticky summers, where they rule a hilltop fiefdom, dress to the nines (at one party as French aristocrats), drink, cavort, patronise, put on plays, wheel, deal and throw their weight around with the “natives”, who are of course not to be trusted, except for Aafrin Dalal (Nikesh Patel), a clerk, who is, but perhaps shouldn’t be.

Indian Summers

Now here’s my confession. I watched the first episode of series one last February, and, despite the strong cast (Craig Parkinson, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Patrick Malahide, Edward Hogg, Fiona Glascott), and some fetching locations in Malaysia, I felt I’d seen it all before and took it off series link. When it returned for its second series, we decided to give it another go, watched episode one and realised very quickly that we were lost. (There are ten episodes a series.) Conveniently, C4 has the whole first series on catch-up, so we rewound to the beginning and started again. Not since The Knick have I been so wrong about a TV drama based upon my first impressions. The series-one binge was glorious: all the internecine intrigues and secrets (Chris Chibnall once gave me the sound advice: “Give everyone a secret”), and despite the inevitable clashes between civilisations, the line between Good Indians and Bad English was never too thickly drawn. Rutman, who claims no Asian credentials but who worked in India as a drama teacher and fell in love with the culture then went home and read up on the Raj, is interested enough in the more extreme cultural difference and racial divide – the club run by Julie Walters actually bears a sign warning “No dogs, no Indians” in series one – but finds subtleties of conflict to explore dramatically too.

IndianSummersDalal

One of the Brits asks how an Indian from one social caste can recognise that another Indian is from a different caste. There is no concrete answer: you can just tell. This cleverly shows the extent of the remove at which the colonialists operate from the indigenous population, and how complex a board game they have taken on – or at least, the one the East India Company took on. (Indian Summers does not get bogged down in history, concerned chiefly with the here and now, which has enough local difficulty to be getting on with: Gandhi’s hunger strike, the rise of the Indian National Congress, political representation for the “untouchables”, the Government of India Act, provincial elections, terrorism, snakes. On top of these tensions and shifts, Rutman weaves further stories out of the hockey-sticks comings and goings of the colonial whites: affairs, illegitimate babies, power struggles, marital disharmony, fraternity with the natives, financial ruin. Dalal’s family has conflicts enough for its own soap: between him and his fiercely rebellious sister, his sister and his Anglophile father, both parents and his girlfriend Sita.

Although Julie Walters plays the old-fashioned lovable music-hall racist and hostess Mrs Coffin (which sounds like a Wood & Walters character name) for broad melodrama – in one scene wearing a massive headdress to her latest free lunch on the verandah which opens up to reveal a live dove – and Patrick Malahide’s viceroy could have stepped out of the dinner party scene in Up The Khyber, picking bits of plasterboard out of his pith helmet, the most striking “baddie” is far more complex, Lloyd-Hughes’s Ralph Whelan, boyish viceroy-in-waiting, who runs the gamut from dastardly to benevolent and treats those impostors just the same. A lustily sneering political climber, he’s brilliant. You want him to get the gig, even though he’s willing to do anything to get it.

Indian Summers

So, I’m behind on series two, but literally catching up, with a suddenly empty goal ahead of me, simultaneously berating myself for getting it so wrong at the start and grateful to have had the luxurious experience of racing through series one at a lick. Paul Rutman, incidentally, is one of those writers who’s been plugging diligently away on big TV brands like Lewis, Vera and Marple, and this is his big passion project. Even if it must end before its time, his passion shows, and I’m pleased he got to make two series of it, at a lofty price tag. If you, too, have denied yourself this big, colourful pleasure, please adjust your position.