TV blog: Tracey Ullman’s Show

Benjie Goodhart / 14 January 2016

Our TV blogger welcomes back Tracey Ullman and gets ready to cast his votes in The National Television Awards, plus other highlights of the TV schedule.

Tracey Ullman’s Show, Monday 18th January, 10:45pm, BBC One

Tracey Ullman is back on BBC One with a sketch show. Am I the only person who found this a bit of a surprise? Her last show for the BBC was over 30 years ago, and her last programme for any British broadcaster was more than two decades ago. I assumed she’d long-since turned her back on the media and retired to Panama to run an ostrich farm. Actually, I didn’t – that would be quite a weird assumption to make, just because someone had stopped appearing on my TV screen. But I assumed she’d jacked it all in and decided to live life away from the public eye, in Devon, or the Cotswolds, or on Channel 5.

Turns out (I know regular readers will be astonished to discover this) I was totally and emphatically wrong. Our Trace has spent the last few decades conquering the States, with a whole host of TV shows that have seen her gain several armfuls of awards and a couple of quid. The girl done good.

In spite of this, I didn’t hold out much hope for her new series. Comedy dates very quickly, especially social commentary in the form of a sketch show. And she’s been living in the US for the last 25 years. Who’s she going to lampoon? The NRA? Dick Cheney? Shopping at Wal Mart? In all honesty, I prepared myself for something of a cringe-fest. (I should point out here I missed episode one, last week, so this is the second episode we’re talking about).

Once again, turns out I’m an imbecile, because her comeback show is actually really rather good. Some of her impressions are breathtakingly accurate (both Judi Dench and Maggie Smith are tours de force). She also does a winningly gung-ho Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and what I can only assume is a good Angela Merkel (I couldn’t tell you what Frau Merkel sounds like, only what the BBC’s disembodied translator-voice sounds like…).

There’s a lovely sketch about silver surfers, and another about a couple of Brummies taking in an asylum seeker. But the best of the lot is a sketch that sees her play a businessman. The make-up and her performance are so spot on, it took me an age to realise it wasn’t actually a man – I kept waiting for Ullman to appear in the sketch.

Welcome back, Tracey. Turns out we’d missed you, without even realising it.

The National Television Awards, Wednesday 20th January, 7:30pm, ITV

In some ways, The National Television Awards represent the ultimate gong for our creative chums in tellyland. They are voted for by members of the public, rather than chosen by a panel of London-centric media creatives wearing chunky specs, deck shoes and tattoos.

On the other hand, because they’re voted for by the public, they are – how to put this tactfully – slightly eccentric. Or, to put it less tactfully, utterly moronic.

The categories are, frankly, bizarre. There are awards for best drama, best serial drama (that’s a soap to you and I) best new drama, best drama performance, and best serial drama performance, but there isn’t a single award for factual programming.

And why do we have an award for best new drama, and not best new comedy? There’s an award for best talent show, and also one for best challenge show. Is that because singing is a talent and baking is a challenge? (Personally I find both a challenge…) And is it really important to have a category called Best Live Magazine show? It’s all just over-made-up people sitting around on soft furnishings talking about X-Factor and the Kardashians.

Anyway, all of that said, there are some worthy shows up for awards this year, and others that don’t deserve to have ever been put on screen, let alone nominated for award recognition. And, luckily for you, there’s still a chance to vote, at www.nationaltvawards.com.

Personally, I hope there is recognition for Bake Off, Peter Kay’s Car Share, Doctor Who, Doctor Foster, Gogglebox, Suranne Jones, Game of Thrones, Pointless and Mel and Sue. I’d also like to see awards for some of the outstanding documentaries that lit up our screens in 2015, but apparently that’s too much to ask. Still, at least I get to choose who the best newcomer in a soap was, so that’s all right then.

The Story of China, Thursday 21st January, 9pm, BBC Two

BBC Two is surely onto a winner with its new China season. This extraordinary country is not just one of the most complex and mysterious societies in the world, it is also about to become the most powerful. Add to that a hugely varied and beautiful geography, a swathe of different ethnic and cultural influences, and a glorious history stretching back millennia, and you have a rich subject matter indeed.

Which is why it’s such a shame that this series, a look at the historical and cultural events that have shaped China, manages to be so profoundly dry and academic. Don’t get me wrong – I applaud the sentiment – we are up to our ears in celebrity travelogs, finding out what One Direction think of post-conflict Vietnam, or how Sharon Osbourne feels about the geopolitical future of Mongolia. Good for you, BBC Two, for giving the time and resource to an academic to make an intelligent and thoughtful TV series. But… well… did it have to be quite so intelligent and thoughtful?

The problem was, there seemed very little in the way of coherent narrative. It felt like a collection of vaguely-related facts, delivered to the camera in breathless fashion by the excitable host, historian Michael Wood. We jumped around quite a lot, both geographically and temporally – but to little effect.

I confess, I did actually close my eyes for a few minutes at around the 40 minute mark, so maybe I missed the five most outstanding minutes in the history of television. But I simply didn’t have the energy to go back and watch what I’d missed.

That said, bonus points to any programme about China that manages to go 50 minutes before the first shot of the Great Wall. And the trains looked lovely and modern. I’m writing this on my bone-shaker of a train, trundling, late as usual, back to Brighton. If you think we don’t have a lot to learn from the Chinese, it might well be time to think again.

Date My Mum, Thursday 21st January, 10pm, Channel 4

Dating Shows are everywhere. With programmes including First Dates, Take Me Out and The Undateables, these days everyone seems to be determined not just to find love, but to do so while having £50,000 of camera shoved in their face. It’s all a far cry from my youth, when all it took was a bottle of Thunderbird and a collection of love songs you’d taped off Radio One.

The concept of this show is for kids to choose a date for their mum. (Why it’s just mums I don’t know, but there’s certainly room for a spin-off…) There is, it turns out, a website out there for kids to sign their parents up to. Mind you, I don’t know why I’m surprised. There’s a website for everything. I bet you there’s one specifically for photographs of potatoes that look like cats. And if there isn’t, I hereby patent the idea.

Anyway, the kids in question sign up their mums, and then sift through the collection of respondents, narrowing them down to three. They then meet up with them, and choose the one for their mum to date.

In this episode, mum of three Katie (39) has recruited her two older boys (aged 22 and 19) to find her a date. It’s probably sensible to leave out her youngest, who’s five, unless she wants to go on a date with Postman Pat. Meanwhile Danielle (38) is entrusting 12-year-old Jess with her love life.

It’s a neat conceit, both as a programme and as a recipe for life. As a parent, the most important thing in finding a new partner is that your kids like them, and do not feel marginalised in the process. (I say this as a parent who is still happily married, but it can’t hurt to plan ahead…) It also works pretty well as a programme – it’s an insight into life as a single mum, and the difficulties of combining that role with finding romance.

It’s also rather sweet, and you find yourself rooting for the kids and their mums in their search for Cupid and his constantly misfiring arrows. But you know what? If it doesn’t work out, there are plenty more out there. Dating shows, I mean…

Box set: House

My wife and I have a great time in bed. Sometimes we can barely wait to get the kids down and hop between the sheets together. Yep, it’s DVD time. Over the years, we’ve devoured many box sets together, and on occasion, she’s even managed to stay awake for an entire episode.

Some box sets come and go, half-watched and then discarded. House was not one of them. We devoured all 177 episodes with the kind of hunger our bedroom has never seen before. (I probably shouldn’t say that…) It is peculiar, derivative, repetitive – and somehow absolutely, unequivocally brilliant.

Much of its watchability comes from an absolutely towering central performance by Hugh Laurie. Laurie plays Dr Gregory House, a cold, tortured, hilariously sardonic genius, addicted to painkillers and quite conceivably the rudest man ever to draw breath. One stunning achievement, by Laurie and the show’s writers, is to make House both wildly dislikeable and yet a figure you come to care about enormously. House, by the way, is a medical Sherlock Holmes. The clues are everywhere: the names (House/Holmes, and their best friend, Dr Watson/Dr Wilson) to their address (House lives at flat B, number 221) to a shared drug problem and penchant for music, to outstanding powers of observation and deduction.

Deduction, you see, is House’s job. When a medical mystery comes along that flummoxes the profession’s finest, House and his team of (rather put-upon and abused) students is brought in to save the day. A typical episode sees them take a case, initially mis-diagnose it, apply the wrong treatment, almost kill the patient, until House deduces, in a moment of blinding realisation, what the issue is.

Almost every episode follows this template. Yet it is testimony to the show’s brilliant writing, superb cast of characters, and fabulous performances, that the recipe never gets tired. The show ran from 2004 to 2012, and won a host of awards, including a couple of Golden Globes for Laurie.

In 2008, House was the most watched TV show in the world, and Laurie was one of TV’s highest paid stars, at $400,000 an episode. It seems an awful lot, but take it from someone who’s not missed a minute of the show: It was money well-spent.

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