TV blog: Back in Time for the Weekend

Benjie Goodhart / 28 January 2016

A modern family takes a trip back in time to the 1950s, Come Dine with Me spawns a likeable spin off and a glimpse of life at the zoo after closing time.

Back in Time for the Weekend, Tuesday 2nd February, 8pm, BBC Two

Meet the Ashby-Hawkins family. They’re pretty normal, as it goes. Mum Steph is the main breadwinner, something to do with IT. Dad Rob is a child-minder who also does all the cooking and cleaning, which is ridiculous. He’s a man, for heaven’s sake, we’re not meant to have to work that hard! Kids Daisy (16) and Seth (12) are sweet, funny, and almost permanently attached to their screens. They seem to have a nice, comfortable, happy existence.

Until, that is, Giles Coren shows up to ruin their lives by banishing them back to the 1950s. This he does with the help of a wild-haired amateur scientist and a DeLorean car. No, reader, I’m being droll – nobody drives DeLoreans, and you’d never get a family of four in one anyway. Instead, with the help of social historian Polly Russell, he transports them back 66 years by transforming their house into a standard 1950 home, and making them live as families did back then.

The metamorphosis of the house is strikingly brilliant. They don’t just get rid of anything with a hint of modernity, but with a hint of colour and comfort about it as well. Their home ends up resembling a sort of monochrome temple to austerity, with all the joy and home comforts that implies.

Ah well, if the home was a fairly depressing experience back in 1950, at least there was food to fall back on. Except that in post-war Britain, that meant the delights of spam fritters, meatloaf, and blancmange. They didn’t even have Frazzles back then. And don’t expect to cheer up by immersing yourself in some enjoyable downtime. The women, it turns out, basically didn’t have any downtime, and the men could really let their hair down by retiring to the sitting room with a pipe and a book. Failing that, there was always DIY, or church.

Just when things can’t get grimmer, poor Seth is sent to Sunday School where his teacher turns out to be Ann Widdecombe, who presumably views the appallingly drab 1950s as a decade of obscene overindulgence.

This is an extremely watchable, funny and informative look at what seems to be a different world. The past is a foreign country all right, and not one I plan to visit, even for a weekend break. People like to hark back to simpler times, but if simpler means you spend your weekends making tables, bashing carpets and putting wet clothes through the mangle, I’ll take complex every time. Give me Netflix, white goods and Wifi, thanks very much.

Related: Fancy another trip back in time? 10 iconic moments that capture 1960s Britain

The Jump, Sunday 31st January, 7:30pm, Channel 4

I remember watching the first ever episode of The Jump (this is series three) largely because it was a show that was so teeth-grindingly awful I suspected it might actually herald the closure of Channel 4 and the execution of many of its senior staff.

The show featured the likes of Anthea Turner and Darren Gough slithering about in ill-advised and hallucinogenic lycra for an interminable length of time, before building to the much-heralded climax.

The climax itself involved the losing competitors taking on an actual ski jump. Well, and actual ski jump only smaller. Much, much smaller. The competitors took a number of deep breaths, strapped on their helmets, lowered their goggles, and set off down the ramp, before reaching the end and plopping off like a dead turbot falling off a coffee table.

And yet The Jump seemed to somehow capture the public imagination. It did well in terms of viewing figures, and returned for a second series, which also did well. So now it’s back for a third run. Channel 4 continues to broadcast, and no-one has faced the death penalty.

In truth, I am not immune to the show’s charms myself. Series two had a decent line up of celebrities, and it’s good for the soul to see the snow-capped mountains of Austria. It’s also occasionally good for the soul to see celebrities dicing with danger, and it doesn’t get much more dangerous than The Jump. Not the actual jump itself, of course. That continued to involve dead fish plopping off low structures, but the other events seemed risky enough, and the show boasts more injuries than Saving Private Ryan. Hell, it even made Britain’s hardest man, Sir Steve Redgrave, retire hurt.

Anyway, the show returns on Sunday, with the format largely intact, but with one or two modifications. It’s no longer on every night, but instead will be shown weekly until either someone wins or everyone is hospitalised. And – praise be! – they’ve changed the actual jump into one purpose built, so that the celebs will, in theory, jump further than ever. (Still, if you’ve never seen the jump, you would do well to limit your expectations…)

As ever, lovely Davina presents, and the cast includes Olympians Rebecca Addlington, Linford Christie and Beth Tweddle, plus the usual collection of pop stars, soap stars, It Girls and Reality TV organisms.

Come Dine Champion of Champions, Monday 1st February, 5pm, Channel  4

If you took the foundations out from underneath a building, you’d end up with little more than a big pile of rubble. If you took Come Dine with Me out of Channel 4’s schedules, you’d end up with a lot of blank screen time and a large number of panicking TV executives sweating into their fashionably chunky knitwear.

The (brilliant) daytime show, which features competitive cooking, snooping around people’s houses, just the requisite degree of arguing (ie lots) and a deliciously acerbic voiceover from Dave Lamb, has become a mainstay of Channel 4’s schedules in recent years, and a smash hit with viewers.

And if there’s one thing TV executives like, it’s… actually, it’s probably being taken out to dinner at the Groucho. But the next thing they like is a smash hit show. So much so that, generally, they like to flog the horse until it isn’t just dead, but has long since been turned into dog food and devoured by Fido. And so, with wearisome predictability, they have introduced a spin-off show to Come Dine with Me – Come Dine Champion of Champions, wherein past winners come back to cook against each other.

Spin offs. They don’t work. Think Mork and Mindy. Frasier. MASH. Actually, they’re all rather good. And – can I get a Hallelujah – so is this! It maintains just the right degree of similarity to Come Dine with Me (arguments, snarky voiceover, some highly variable cooking) whilst also being completely different.

The intriguing format involves three former contestants cooking against each other, and the clock, at their own counters, in a large kitchen, Masterchef-style. There are some nice twists involving what they are asked to cook, and in how the scoring works.  There’s also some a degree of culinary expertise offered by Michelin-starred chef Glynn Purnell.

But most fascinatingly of all, the show is presented by Dave Lamb, who has spent the best part of a decade gaining a cult following for his voiceovers. It turns out he’s an actual person! If it’s a queer shock for him to be dragged out of a sound booth, blinking in the natural light, be made to put on clothes and then asked to present a show, he doesn’t show it. Lamb is great fun – with his smooth, egg-like head, cravat, and weird asides to the camera, he brings to mind the great Richard O’Brien on Crystal Maze.

Oh, and the first episode features an erotic novelist from Sheffield, not one but two contestants poaching asparagus in (dear God!) milk, and the worst Black Forest Gateau you’ll ever see. What’s not to love?

The Secret Life of the Zoo, Tuesday 2nd February, 8pm, Channel 4

Everything’s “The Secret Life of…” on TV these days. We’ve had The Secret Life of Plants, 4-5-and-6-year-olds, Books and Machines. Now we’ve got The Secret Life of the Zoo. But how secret can lives in a zoo be? We go in and look at them all day. What do they get up to a night? Do the meerkats sell crack to the porcupines? Do the bacchanalian baboons organise all-night parties? Do the chameleons actually move?

Sadly, no such luck. There’s not much going on at the zoo that you’d classify as particularly secret – but that doesn’t stop this programme (the first in a six-part series) from being absolutely charming, as well as a riveting insight into animal behaviour.

Filming takes place at Chester Zoo, home to 12,000 animals and 300 keepers. The format is pretty standard for a Channel 4 documentary – cameras are set up all over the zoo, and footage of the animals is intercut with interviews about what they’re up to. Not interviews with the animals, you understand – there’s only so much light a mongoose can shed on their actions – but with the selfless and devoted keepers who tend to their needs.

Tonight’s episode focuses largely on the elephants. Ty is pregnant. She is a large female. Mind you, she’s pregnant, so you probably could have worked out that she’s female, and she’s an elephant, so you might even have surmised that she’s large. But she’s at that uncomfortable stage of the pregnancy when she can’t sleep. You know, ladies, when you’re well into your 22nd month…

The other elephants stand silent sentinel over her in her wakefulness, in an oddly moving sequence. All except Hari, a little brat of an elephant who likes rushing about and causing havoc. He’s rather brilliant, although he doesn’t react too well when the baby is finally born. The footage is extraordinary, and the reaction of the elephants is a treat. Baby elephants are, it turns out, extremely cute. My daughter would love one, though given their propensity to grow quite large, I think we might settle on a hamster. Perhaps a toy one.

There is plenty more to keep the viewer entertained, from a chimp who hates the vet so much she has a habit of hurling faeces at him, to an unusually ugly beast called a babirusa, a sort of buck-toothed, wrinkly, quadruple-tusked pig.

Dad’s Army: Box Set

In the mid-1960s, a young actor called Jimmy Perry, playing a minor part in the long-forgotten sitcom Hugh and I, approached the show’s producer, David Croft, with a script. It was based on Perry’s experiences in the Home Guard as a callow and rather sickly 17-year-old in World War II. The script was titled The Fighting Tigers, but you and I know it as Dad’s Army.

Croft and Perry’s collaboration yielded one of the great sitcoms of British television history. It was ranked the 4th best British sitcom in a 2004 BBC poll, and the 13th best British TV show ever in a 2000 poll by the British Film Institute. The show ran for nine seasons, was exported all over the world, and the repeats are still regularly broadcast on the BBC.

Executives were initially concerned about the idea of a show that appeared to be treating the role of the Home Guard with something less than reverence – so much so that large amounts of the script had to be rewritten – but in 1968 the show was finally ready to show to a test audience. They hated it.

The production team put the report containing the negative feedback at the bottom of Croft’s in-tray. Months later, after the show had been broadcast to stunning acclaim, Croft found the report.

In case you’ve been hiding in an Anderson shelter for the past fifty years, the show featured a pompous bank manager, Captain Mainwaring, and his ragtag collection of old men (plus a young boy and a spiv) who formed the Home Guard at Walmington-on-Sea. Among the show’s most popular characters were the dapper upper-class Sergeant Wilson, the mollycoddled Private Pike, and Lance Corporal Jones, the oldest of the group (played by Clive Dunn who was in his 40s, one of the youngest of the cast).

Over the last half-century, the show has seeped into the national consciousness. It is almost part of the fabric of our lives. Phrases such as “You stupid boy” and “don’t panic” are rich with meaning for anyone over 40. 

This week, a star-studded feature film remake of the series premiered in London. It features Bill Nighy, Sir Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Sir Tom Courtenay and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But even such an august roll-call of talent will be hard-pushed to take the place of the handful of unheralded actors who brought joy and laughter to generation after generation.

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