Doctor Thorne, Sunday 6th March, 9pm, ITV
Goodness, but there are a lot of books around. I’m beginning to think I might not have time to read them all. To be fair, I’d stand a better chance if I spent a little less time watching telly. But telly is better than books. Everyone knows that. Telly is books with pictures and talking and nice houses, and you don’t have to waste all that time imagining things, because it’s all right there in front of you, and normally features Olivia Colman. If books were as good as telly, you’d have 20 million people buying books about the goings on in Albert Square and Weatherfield every week.
Anyway, Doctor Thorne isn’t just a book I’ve never read, it’s one I’ve never heard of. I’ve never read any Anthony Trollope – I’m not a great one for classical literature. It’s all either people living in slums and dying of syphilis, or people in bonnets worrying about who they’re going to marry. If you ask me, Pride and Prejudice would have benefitted from a secret agent coming in and gunning down Mrs Bennett after a car chase.
Doctor Thorne doesn’t exactly feature gun battles, motorbike stunts and a thumping rock soundtrack, but in terms of being fast-paced and diverting, it has the next best thing – a script written by Julian Fellowes. And, in Tom Hollander as the eponymous medic, it has one of the best actors currently plying his trade. Luminously brilliant in last year’s Dylan Thomas biopic, and a scene-stealer in the BBC’s current thriller The Night Manager, he brings charisma, humour and depth to everything he does.
Related: Read Benjie's review of The Night Manager
The story, it turns out, is very much of the ‘people in bonnets worrying about marriage’ variety. Thorne is the guardian of his niece Mary (a winning debut by Stefanie Martini) who is in love with her childhood friend Frank. It just so happens that Frank is being forced by his redoubtable mother, Lady Arabella (the ever-watchable Rebecca Front) to marry for money, and Mary – wouldn’t you know it – is worth all of two tins of beans and an old copy of Hello magazine. As the Doctor says to Mary one night, walking home from a ball, “Do you ever wish we had money?” She in a ball gown and fur cloak, he in top hat and white tie, their carriage trotting quietly behind them. How do they put food on the table, the poor loves?
Lady Arabella is concerned about Frank and Mary’s closeness, objecting that “there have been lovemakings of a very advanced kind.” (I’ve dreamed of someone crediting me with such skills for years, but I think I may be missing the point in this context…)
There’s also a splendidly hammy turn from Ian McShane as a wealthy, boorish railwayman who is drinking himself to death, and more beautiful houses and gardens than you’d get from an annual subscription to Country Life. It’s all jolly good fun, even though we’ve seen it countless times before (if Frank and Mary don’t end up together, I’ll deep fry and eat my own toes).
Related: Read our Q&A with Phoebe Nicholls, who plays Lady de Courcy in Doctor Thorne
Steve Backshall’s Extreme Mountain Challenge, Sunday 6th March, 8pm, BBC Two
TV titles are pretty much always hyperbolic. In this age of shoutiness and short attentions, you have to come up with something arresting to grab people’s interest. So a programme about going out and buying a sandwich becomes The Extreme Lunchtime Challenge, while someone moving house is embarking on a New Relocation Adventure. It is quite the hoggiest of washes, all of it. Except that, just occasionally, a programme comes along that is sufficiently hardcore to actually live up to its title. Or, in extraordinary circumstances, to exceed it.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Steve Backshall’s Extreme Mountain Challenge involves the naturalist taking a train up to the top of Snowdon and having to investigate sheep and earthworms in a spot of drizzle, while a breathless voiceover shrieks about terrible storms, zero visibility and hypothermia. It is, in reality, one of the most gripping and extraordinary documentaries I have seen in some time.
Backshall is taking a team to Venezuela to investigate Tepuis, of which there are a hundred in the Venezuelan jungle. If you’ve never seen one, they are pretty big, and pretty dangerous. Some are over a kilometre tall. I should probably point out at this stage that a tepui is not an animal. Instead, it’s an absolutely vast piece of rock, rising vertically out of the jungle, and completely flat on the top. As such, each could contain its own unique ecosystem. As Backshall puts it: “Anything that’s up there has been separated from the rest of the world for millions of years.” Um… unless it’s a bird, Steve. Or an insect.
They reach their Tepui after a hair-raising flight to a remote village, followed by a two-day paddle along a jungle river, camping at night among the most terrible creatures imaginable. One, a Wandering Spider, has an unfortunate priapic effect on men that is the stuff of nightmares. Another, a wasp approximately the size of a horse (-ish) has such a vile method of coming in to the world it made Darwin question the existence of God.
Eventually, the group (Backshall, a Royal Marine medic, two world-renowned climbers, the usual hardy camera crew) reach the bottom of their basically unclimbable tepui. Backshall admits to finding the sight intimidating, “maybe because it’s shrouded in cloud.” Or maybe because it’s 1000m of vertical, lethally slippery rock that is prone to collapse, and you’re about to spend five days climbing the rock face. That’s right. Five days – and nights – on an unclimbed rock face, in the middle of the jungle, in rainy season.
As they embark on the climb, spirits are high. They soon plunge through the floor as quickly as a climber might descend a tepui, if talking the, er, direct route. The whole thing is basically a big, stony invitation to an early death. And then a storm hits. You know you’re looking at something pretty extreme when you see hardy cameramen breaking down in tears. “Nothing is worth risking this for,” says a clearly terrified Backshall. “It may be beyond us.”
In which case, next week’s episode will just feature Steve and the boys sitting around at base camp, playing Twister. Something tells me this story isn’t done. (To be fair, it may have been the “Coming up next week” section at the end of the programme that tipped me off). Me? I’d be hiring a helicopter.
The Best of the Rest
It’s a good weekend for sports fans, with Great Britain facing Japan in the Davis Cup on Saturday and Sunday (5th and 6th) afternoon on BBC One and Two. Once upon a time, this would have been a bargain basement match, but in Kei Nishikori Japan now have the world’s 7th best tennis player, while the Murray family, sorry, Great Britain, are the reigning Davis Cup champions. On Sunday, BBC Two also features action from the Track Cycling World Championships in London. Traditionally, this has been a rich hunting ground for the Brits, but the team have struggled of late. Much like jam AND butter in The Railway Children, it appears we aren’t allowed success in both tennis AND cycling. For those of you who don’t mind paying for your coverage, BT Sport are showing the big Tottenham v Arsenal showdown on Saturday lunchtime, with Spurs strong favourites following Arsenal’s recent implosion.
Taking the definition of sport to its very loosest, we have celebrities competitively falling over in the final episode of The Jump (Sunday, 7:30pm, C4). The series has been a succession of catastrophes for Channel 4, with pretty much every contestant retiring hurt, then their replacements retiring hurt etc. Producers were starting to get so desperate for participants, I had begun to get excited every time my phone rang. Anyway, if you ever enjoyed The Jump, tune in tonight – I suspect we will not be seeing it again.
Still with the weekend, ITV is showing The Story of Cats on Sunday at 8pm. This is not an hour of people explaining the plot of the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical, but an examination of the behavioural similarities between domestic cats and big cats in the wild. You might want to take Fluffkins off your lap before watching this. He’s basically a mini tiger.
Someone told me the other day that in Lewes, the rival groups who go head-to-head on bonfire night are so competitive that the local newspaper has to ensure that reports of each display are exactly the same length, to the last word. I suspect that there is a similar rivalry between dog and cat owners, so having mentioned cats, it’s only fair to give dogs a mention – especially as Crufts is on this week (Channel 4, Friday, 7:30pm). I’ve never quite worked out why it’s so important for all the dogs to have such long and pretentious names. In fact, I’ve never really worked out the point of Crufts. In my book, if a dog doesn’t bite, bark excessively or relieve itself all over your beloved Persian (cat or carpet) then you’re on to a winner. But if pedigree breeding is your thing, well, this week is Christmas. Maybe that’s why it feels so cold.
Telly takes a more sober turn in the early part of next week, with TV medics Xand and Chris van Tulleken investigating the medical effects of the refugee disaster in Frontline Doctors: Winter Migrant Crisis (Monday 7th March, 9pm, BBC One). Wednesday sees BBC Two take an almost unbearably moving look at the horrific events of 20 years ago in Dunblane: Our Story, featuring testimony from victims who have never spoken in public before. Not an easy watch, but an important one.