TV blog: Stargazing Live

Benjie Goodhart / 07 January 2016

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart presents the pick of the TV schedule for the coming week, including a live link up with astronaut, Major Tim Peake.

Stargazing Live, Tues 12 – Thurs 14 January, 9pm, BBC Two

Major Tim Peake has become something of a hero to millions, thanks to his astonishing sangfroid and the unmistakable twinkly charm and enthusiasm he demonstrated in the programmes the BBC screened about him before Christmas.

It must have gone well, because they’re back for more. And why not? In a world where Donald Trump is regularly lauded as a sensible and worthwhile human being, it’s nice to see someone getting recognition who actually deserves it.

So our stargazing duo of Dara O Briain and Brian Cox are back for a new series – showing over the next three nights – in which they will link up live with Peake as he orbits 250 miles above the Earth. If they don’t greet him every day with the phrase “Can you hear me Major Tim?” I will be very disappointed…

Each night will also feature Liz Bonnin accompanying comedian John Bishop as he goes through regular astronaut training drills at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, to see if he has the ‘right stuff’. Don’t expect Bishop to be the first comedian in space anytime soon.

There also promises to be spectacular views from Pluto, a look at some of the Universe’s biggest stars and planets, expert discussion, viewers’ questions answered, updates from the Rosetta probe and the Hubble telescope, and a live interview with an alien called Sqrrrrrzzz from Neptune who communicates through the medium of clog-dancing. Possibly.

How to Lose Weight Well, Monday 11th January, 8pm, Channel 4

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. Why wait until the precise moment of the year when it is coldest, darkest and most depressing to start denying yourself some of life’s most treasured pleasures. If you want me to give up unhealthy habits like chocolate, or booze, or Take Me Out, ask me when the sun is high, the days are long and all is right with the world, not when the only thing keeping me from breaking down into uncontrolled hysterical sobbing is the prospect of a pint and a Mars Bar.

Nevertheless, every January people make these blasted resolutions, which means every January we are subjected to yet more shows about dieting. This year’s effort is a three-part series from Channel 4, How to Lose Weight Well, presented by TV doctor Xand van Tulleken.

I have to be honest, dieting is not a subject that interests me. I’m no more excited about someone detailing how few calories they’ve ingested than I am hearing boors bray on about how many units they’ve drunk. Do whatever you want to do, but don’t make us all applaud you for it. But this show is a particularly egregious example of how tedious diet shows can be.

Essentially, the format of the series involves putting members of the public on various diets, which involve varying degrees of lunacy, but essentially all entail eating less than normal. As a result, they all work, to a greater or lesser degree, though at the end, the advice is always dispensed that you’re better off simply eating sensibly and taking exercise. This, and I cannot stress this enough, is what happens in every diet programme ever made.

Along the way, we also have the dubious pleasure of Xand testing some diet pills. Though he takes double the recommended dose, and eats the exact opposite of what the pills’ manufacturer advises. He then poos a lot. Sometimes on camera. I’m not sure what this proves, but I think it might be that Xand van Tulleken really, really overshares.

Next year, I’m giving up diet programmes.

Derren Brown: Pushed to the Edge, Tuesday 12th January, 9pm, Channel 4

An intriguing psychological experiment wherein members of the public irritate Derren Brown by asking him if his name is Darren over and over again until he finally snaps. Not really. Despite the show’s rather confusing title, it’s not Derren who’s pushed to the edge, but an innocent and unsuspecting member of the public, in an experiment to show how authority, peer pressure, or ideology can be used to make people carry out horrific acts.

According to the blurb, this is Brown’s “most ambitious experiment to date”. Mind you, they always say that. I live for the day when I read programme information that describes “his third-most ambitious show ever”.

That said, they might have a point. This is as riveting, dramatic and remarkable a 90-minutes of telly as you could wish to see. The premise in question (and this is giving nothing away that doesn’t become clear in the first few minutes of the programme) is very simple: Can a perfectly ordinary, pleasant, decent member of the public be influenced, via social compliance, “to push a living, breathing [the two often go hand-in-hand] human being to their death”.

The project is remarkable not just for its subject matter, but for combining hugely ambitious scale with a forensic attention to detail. An entirely new reality is created for the subject, a gentle fellow named Chris, involving a huge cast attending a bogus ‘charity dinner’. After disaster strikes the evening, poor Chris is made to jump through a series of increasingly uncomfortable hoops as the pressure ramps up and the stakes are heightened.

This is a darkly fascinating experience, shot through with black humour and Brown’s trademark genius. Not to be missed.

Shetland, Friday 15th January, 9pm, BBC One

I’ve observed before in this blog that we aren’t exactly short of police dramas on British television. It’s that kind of astute insight and jaw-dropping revelation that keeps the readers hungry.

It’s simply not possible to watch all of them. I mean, technically, it probably is, but you’d have to forego sleep, and food, and all human contact, and you’d almost certainly end up seeing serial killers around every corner. So you have to be a little more selective about which ones you watch.

Not surprisingly, then, this low key, quietly intense, brooding series had slipped under my radar. So apologies to those of you who discovered the subtle pleasures of Shetland two series ago. I’m late to the party, but I won’t let that spoil my enjoyment.

I’d expected Shetland to be a slow-moving, bleak and rather noir-ish drama, full of rugged moonscapes, rocky outcrops, windswept bluffs and strange-sounding locals in a succession of anoraks. Which just goes to show how right one can be. 

What I wasn’t expecting was how involving it all is. The story is ostensibly your bog-standard missing person effort – but the plot, and the characters, are given time to breathe. There is no urgent shoe-horning in of a hastily-scrawled denouement here, but instead a gradual spinning out of discrete plot threads.

The show also boasts a fine cast, led by Douglas Henshall as Jimmy Perez, the widowed copper with (you’ll be astonished to hear) a troubled personal life. High on his list of suspects is the ever-watchable (and pretty much always villainous) Ciaran Hinds.

The truth is, nobody is ever going to mistake Shetland for Death in Paradise, and I know which location I’d rather visit for a holiday. But I also know which one I’d choose to watch again. If you’ve not seen it, this is certainly worth giving a go.

Box set: Clocking Off (series 1)

If ever you needed proof that the world is a terrible and bizarre place, it is this: You can buy DVDs of the Jeremy Kyle Show but you can’t buy a DVD of series 2-4 of Clocking Off, one of the finest TV dramas of the last 20 years. Still, series one, which won the Best Drama Serial BAFTA in 2001, is well worth an investment of both time and money.

Clocking Off was an early effort from the pen of Paul Abbott, who went on to create Shameless and State of Play. The action takes place in and around Mackintosh Textiles, a Manchester factory, and the complex lives of the ordinary people who work there.

Each week, a different character takes centre stage, in what is effectively a series of one-hour, one-off dramas, with other cast members simply passing by in the background. It was a conceit that went on to be used, to great effect, in The Street, Ordinary Lies and The Syndicate, but it was never done better than here.

This was the ultimate ensemble piece, boasting one of the finest roll-calls of talent ever assembled. Those who appeared on the show included Christopher Ecclestone, Sophie Okenedo, John Simm, David Morrissey, Ricky Tomlinson, Pam Ferris, Sarah Lancashire, Lesley Sharp and Maxine Peake. But the heart of the show was Philip Glenister as company boss Mack, a gruff, aggressive soul permanently putting his small change into the swear-box, but with decency running through him like a stick of rock.

Each week’s vignette was a gem – by turns surprising, funny, thrilling or poignant – and the characters were beautifully drawn, well-rounded and perfectly cast. I will never forget stumbling across an episode of series three one evening, and sitting with slack-jawed fascination. I never missed another episode, and went back and bought series one when it came out. But for me, series 2 will remain unseen and elusive, at least until someone at the BBC has the good sense to bring it out on DVD.

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