TV blog: Greece with Simon Reeve

Benjie Goodhart / 04 February 2016

Simon Reeve goes behind the headlines to take a look at the real Greece. Plus, a drama that brings to life the popularity of snooker in the 80s.

Greece with Simon Reeve, Sunday 7th February, 8pm, BBC Two

Simon Reeve loves putting himself in harm’s way. He’s a danger junkie. In his TV career, he’s travelled to Afghanistan and Mogadishu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia, and some of the world’s harshest deserts and most perilous mountain ranges. He’s been arrested by the Soviets for spying in Transnistria, caught malaria, and almost been shot in Caracas (sounds painful!).

So what’s he up to for this two-part series? Wrestling tigers in Bengal? Nipping over to Syria to have a quick word with ISIS? Um… not exactly. He’s pootling about in Greece.

Making a series which involves skipping around the Mediterranean from one golden beach to another doesn’t sound arduous. What’s next? Simon Reeve Does Tonbridge Wells?  Antiquing in the Cotswolds with Simon Reeve?

Except it quickly becomes apparent that Simon Reeve is capable of sniffing out violence, lunatics and human misery wherever he goes. There is more to Greece, it seems, than sun, sand and souvlaki.

First, the misery. He visits Lesbos, where hundreds of immigrants land every day, and meets some of those risking their lives in search of a better future. In one truly affecting sequence, he meets a cameraman and his family from Syria. Perhaps it is because, in another world, the two might have worked together – whatever the reason, Reeve breaks down.

Danger stalks Reeve to Crete, where he is taken for a ride on a sort of parasailing tricycle that you wouldn’t get me in for love, money or Charlize Theron (complete with her love and money). Then he meets a gun-toting priest, who takes him into the mountains to meet some shepherds who seem even more obsessed with guns than your average adolescent boy.

Next, it’s off to Athens, where he encounters Europe’s poorest neighbourhood, where families live in shipping containers and depend on bread handouts. There’s also an extraordinary and disturbing visit to one of Europe’s biggest landfill sites. Finally, Simon encounters some violent and angry anarchists, who threaten to attack and shoot him and his crew.

This is an intriguing, warts-and-all look at Greece, and Reeve is, as ever, an engaging host. 

Royal Navy Sailor School, Monday 8th February, 9pm, Channel 4

While I bow to no-one in my admiration for the armed forces, I am not what you’d call military material myself. I’d rather have a slice of cake and watch Homes Under the Hammer than go on a yomp, and I’d much rather go to work in a nice, warm office, with biscuits and fizzy water in ready supply, than be careering about all over the world eating ration packs and getting shot at. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never been in mortal danger whilst working in telly (if you exclude the threat of DVT from too much sofa time) and that constitutes something of a success for me.

In fact, truth be told, whenever I see someone in uniform, I’m a bit intimidated. I assume that they’re exceptionally hard, possessed of both the desire and ability to snap my neck with little more than a look. (I’m talking about a military uniform, I’m not freaked out by the cash till staff at ASDA or anything…)

But if Royal Navy Sailor School is anything to go by, I really needn’t have worried. Turns out that recruits to the Navy are basically just like you and me – except a bit more lachrymose and prone to homesickness, bless their little (impeccably ironed) cotton socks.

This series looks at the young men and women undergoing their ten weeks of training at HMS Raleigh, the Royal Navy’s training school. It’s not particularly original (it’s basically like the recent Royal Marines Commando School, except less full of people who look like they’d enjoy killing you) but it is actually rather touching and sweet.

The recruits are all normal men and women (kids, actually) and most are living away from home for the first time. Learning to do your own washing and ironing is bad enough – learning it where someone is going to shout at you if you get your creases wrong is tough indeed.

But the camaraderie and the supportiveness of the recruits is a thing to behold. Even the staff don’t conform to the traditional stereotype of sadistic drill sergeants. They’re more likely to offer you a cuddle than administer a punishment beating. It makes them much more humane and well-rounded, and it certainly provides for surprisingly affecting viewing. 

Britain’s Weirdest Council Houses, Thursday 11th, February, 10pm, Channel 4

This gentle and involving film reveals that behind closed doors reside some Great British eccentrics, each with their own story to tell.

There’s David, who lives in a rather lovely council flat in Kings Cross. David has collected a lot of stuff over the years. He’s like a cross between a hoarder and a magpie – something shiny and a bit naff catches his eye, and he just has to have it. There’s not a square inch of flat surface or wall space in the flat that isn’t hosting some picture or trinket. You’d have to eat your dinner off your knees – although if you sat for more than two minutes, you’d have a faux-Chinese vase in your lap instead. He has 19 cushions on his bed, for heaven’s sake. You have to feel sorry for husband Mark, who describes his own style as minimalist.

Then there’s Robert, who spent a lifetime painting and decorating. Aged 53, he began painting pictures, and hasn’t looked back. Now his Brighton home is a temple to the Renaissance period, complete with ceiling frescoes and iconic religious imagery. His latest project is footballers as religious figures – including Jose Mourinho, who doubtless sees himself in similar terms. Robert decided to paint Wayne Rooney when he watched him miss a chance in a game and thought “He looks just like that picture Francisco de Zurbaran did of St Francis of Assissi.” I’m sure the 70,000 inside Old Trafford were thinking much the same.

Later on, we have a flat that houses a baked bean museum, a council house that is an 18th-century Dutch cottage, a gloriously ornate flat 11 floors up, a flat with an idyllic and illegal garden, and a multi-coloured migraine of a home in Chelsea.

Our homes say a lot about who we are, and as their occupants open up about their lives, this becomes a programme not just about bricks and mortar, but about hopes and disappointments. As such, it is not just interesting and quirky, but oddly moving.

The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer

Once upon a time, before we had Freeview and Netflix and On Demand and multi-channel TV and DVD box sets, you watched what was on telly, when it was on, and that was that. People would watch anything. How else can you explain the colossal popularity of snooker in the mid-1980s? Back then, people couldn’t get enough of it, in spite of it basically being a sport for people who considered bowls both dangerously exciting and too physically exerting.

In 1985, almost 20 million people stayed up until 12:20am watching Steve Davis lose the World Championship final to Dennis Taylor. (Although it may be that only 3 million were watching, and 17 million were out cold). Today, you could have the end of the world screened live on BBC One, presented by Brad Pitt and Mila Kunis wearing nothing but baby oil, and it wouldn’t get 20 million viewers. (It would to be fair, also make quite odd viewing…)

Snooker was the new rock’n’roll – albeit with Steve Davis as the front man. Actually, for a while, it literally was the new rock’n’roll, with a number of players performing on the execrable single Snooker Loopy, marking an unmistakable low for snooker, music and mankind’s existence.

Anyway, this rather tremendous new comedy-drama currently available on BBC iPlayer, tells the story of snooker’s salad days. The main characters are Barry Hearn, Steve Davis and Alex Higgins – with Higgins taking centre stage, as he was wont to do.

Naturally enough for a comedy drama, there is an element of caricature about all the characters – Hearn is the unshakeable wheeler-dealer with the ready comeback; Davis is the milk-drinking ingenue who lives only for snooker; and Higgins is the hard-living, self-deluding egomaniac. But the story rattles along at the pace of a Higgins break, with a magnificent 1980s soundtrack behind it. There is also a brief snippet of Snooker Loopy, which makes Higgins destroy his television. Would that we’d all had the courage to do the same.

There is much to admire here, not least the genuinely excellent snooker played by the leads (I assume it’s not all done with CGI…) And the fact that you know what’s going to happen (and we all do know because, as we’ve established, we couldn’t seem to get enough of snooker 30 years ago) doesn’t matter in the least.

Ultimately, this is Alex Higgins’ story, and the performance of Liam Treadaway as the sport’s wild man is at times unbearably poignant. By the time the film ends, the laughs have thinned out – as I suspect they did for Higgins - drowned in a lake of alcohol and self-pity. But not every story worth telling has to have a happy ending.

Our Friends in the North, Box set

If I were to tell my son that there was once a TV series that featured both Doctor Who and James Bond, he’d probably burst into flames on the spot. We don’t want that. We’ve just put in new carpets.

Besides, the drama would ultimately be a disappointment to him. He’s not into grown up, nuanced socio-political dramas. I’m not sure I was, at the age of seven. And besides, neither Christopher Ecclestone nor Daniel Craig actually play the Doctor or 007. It would be slightly odd if they did, this being a show about the lives of four friends from Newcastle. One is a local politician, one is a council worker, one is an international spy and one is a time-travelling alien with two hearts: it wouldn’t exactly get to the heart of life on Tyneside at the end of the 20th century.

The show does indeed look at the lives of four friends – the other two are played by Gina McKee and Mark Strong. The plot covers 31 years, from 1964 to 1995, and the epic scale allows writer Peter Flannery (adapting his 1982 play) to address themes of happiness, heartbreak, loyalty, betrayal, poverty, desperation and resilience, all against the backdrop of the changing political and economic face of a nation.

It’s easy to forget what a huge risk the show represented. The four leads, all household names today, were largely unknown at the time. The series comprised ten parts, but episodes were all different lengths (between 64 and 75 minutes). There were 160 speaking cast and 3,000 extras, and the cost of the show came in at £8 million, which would buy you a Championship striker these days, but would have bought you Northeast England when it was made in 1996. And finally, some of the shadier local politicians and businessmen depicted bore such a resemblance to real people that a senior BBC lawyer threatened to resign if the show got made.

But it did get made, and how glorious were the results. The show won sackfuls of awards, including three BAFTAs, and went on to be named the third best drama of all time in a Guardian poll. The Daily Telegraph was spot on when it said of the series: “We are not likely to look upon its like again.”

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