I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Sunday 15th November, 9pm, ITV
The nights are fair drawing in, and the weather is turning a mite chillsome. To most people, this tends to be seen as a harbinger for winter. But when your calendar is as influenced by television as mine is, it these signs indicate something different – namely that I’m a Celebrity is looming.
I’m not an enormous fan of reality TV, as a whole, but I have a distinct soft spot for the show. This is partly due to the charm of its presenters, the ubiquitous Ant and Dec, and the emphasis placed on humour rather than conflict in the show. It is partly because, unlike other celeb reality shows, I can always guarantee I’ll have heard of some of the contributors, and they’re not all from soap operas or TOWIE. And it’s partly because, on these chilly autumnal evenings, it feels a little bit exotic to be watching people swelter in the Australian jungle, surrounded by spiders the size of Alsatians, and by murderous-looking snakes.
Except that this time, we’re not journeying to the wilds of New South Wales, but the wilds of, well, old north Wales. However, I have to say, I’m not entirely displeased by this turn of events. Fine, we may not get the sunshine or the exotic beasties, but it’ll probably be quite fun, watching how the show is recreated in Wales. In November. I think it’s fair to say the showering under a waterfall aspect of proceedings is likely to take a back seat this time around.
The actual location is Gwrych Castle, a vast, somewhat crumbling 200-year-old pile overlooking the Irish Sea. There will be those who complain that this is a rather undignified way for a former stately home to be treated, but over the last 70 years, it has been used as a training venue for boxer Randolph Turpin, a host for motorcycle rallies, a New Age traveller squat, a venue for medieval re-enactments, jousting and feasting, and a film set for various not very good films. It seems that dignity has been in short supply for a while. Besides, ITV is putting up £1 Million towards the castle’s restoration fund, and there’s not much point in maintaining your dignity whilst falling into abject disrepair.
I suspect the rather stark, rather beautiful and distinctly cold location of the show will provide a good degree of novelty and excitement to proceedings. However, there will be some notable differences. For example, it’s not immediately clear whether the contestants will be sleeping indoors or outdoors. Surely they can’t be expected to sleep outdoors in rural Wales in late November. This is reality entertainment, not a snuff movie. Also, due to the UK’s more stringent approach to animal cruelty, it is possible the Bushtucker Trials will be very different.
But as ever, the show is only as good as its cast of characters. It’s fair to say that this year’s selection is a distinctly mixed bag. I have a lot of time for Sir Mo Farah, and Shane Ritchie has always struck me as a likeable sort. Victoria Derbyshire is another familiar face, and is clearly preparing for her enormous, rule-busting Christmas gathering by surrounding herself with people throughout November. Beverley Callard, formerly of Corrie, claims she’s scared of ghosts and insects, only one of which should be a problem, what with the whole ghosts not existing thing. AJ Pritchard, of Strictly fame. And finally, Vernon Kay, aka Mr Tess Daly, completes the list of people of whom I have actually heard.
Of the others, there is Hollie Arnold, a Paralympic javelin gold medallist, Jessica Plummer, who was in EastEnders, Jordan North, a Radio One DJ, and Giovanna Fletcher, described as a podcaster and author. As of this moment, I have no opinion on any of them. Ask me again in a few weeks, and I will probably feel more strongly about them than your average American does about Donald Trump.
The Great Plague 1/3, Tuesday 17th November, 9pm, Channel 5
I have a friend who is a very peculiar chap. While I greeted the arrival of COVID 19 and the first lockdown by deleting all my news apps, increasing my anxiety medication and hiding under the duvet, sporadically weeping, he immediately went and downloaded the film Contagion to watch. Here is how Wikipedia describes the film. “The plot concerns the spread of a virus transmitted by respiratory droplets and fomites, attempts by medical researchers and public health officials to identify and contain the disease, the loss of social order in a pandemic, and the introduction of a vaccine to halt its spread.”
Back in March, I couldn’t even watch Homes Under the Hammer for fear it might trigger a panic attack in me, but here he was, voluntarily and cheerfully subjecting himself to the most alarming material possible, for the sake of entertainment. And he wasn’t alone, either. Films like Contagion and Outbreak shot to the top of the streaming charts back in the spring. Clearly, there is something in the human psyche that revels in watching stuff about plagues and pandemics at such a time. Maybe he’s not the freak after all, maybe it’s me, for wanting to watch programmes about people baking cakes or going on lovely walks.
Certainly this new series (showing on Channel 5 on three consecutive nights) taps into the whole let’s-all-watch-Armageddon TV idea. It looks at the history of the great plague outbreak of 1665, and seeks to draw parallels with the COVID crisis. For example, the presenter, Dr Xander van Tulleken, announces in the intro that the COVID outbreak “wasn’t the first time we’d suffered a deadly epidemic. In a frightening parallel, 350 years earlier we endured one of the greatest tragedies in British history: The Great Plague.”
Um… I’m not sure the comparison is strictly valid. In fact, I’m absolutely certain it is anything but. Just for reference, the bubonic plague outbreak of 1665 killed a quarter of the population of London. It killed 70 per cent of those infected. You didn’t get vast swathes of the population wandering about being asymptomatic, self-isolating with a box set of The West Wing and Deliveroo on speed dial. If you got the plague, you were likely to die a slow, agonising and extremely pus-filled death.
Covid-19 is horrible, and potentially very dangerous, and we all have to do what we can to stop it, but it’s really not realistic, or even particularly helpful, to start claiming it’s akin to the Black Death. It’s also odd to have Xand van Tulleken making such apocalyptic pronouncements. I’m used to seeing him as a children’s TV presenter – we are big fans of Operation Ouch on CBBC in our family – so I am more used to watching him getting sprayed with a snot-gun than predicting my imminent demise.
That said, once you get away from the programme’s slightly crass attempts to draw parallels between 1665 and 2020, there is much to grab the attention here. Not least, the fact that you and I were probably taught the wrong stuff at school about the plague’s spread. Modern thinking is no longer that the plague was spread by rat fleas. Van Tulleken and co-presenter Raksha Dave look into the new theory about what caused the epidemic to move through the population. Meanwhile, poor old John Sergeant is made up to look like a plague victim, and all but given the last rights.
There’s also a fascinating sequence about a plague outbreak in the Gorbals area of Glasgow in 1900. One of the first families effected was called the Bogeys, who lived in cramped accommodation. Dad was a docker, granny sold fish outside pubs at closing time. Life was hard – and was about to get much worse. All that, and they were called the Bogeys as well.
Perhaps most powerful, though, is the image evoked by van Tulleken when he climbs the tower of St Bartholomew’s, the oldest parish church in London. There, he hears the bell ring – the same bell that rang out each time a plague victim died in the parish. Londoners back then could literally hear the approach of the plague by listening to how often the bells rang each day, and how close to their neighbourhood. It is a chilling thought, and a reminder that the privations of lockdown are a small price to pay for our health.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 14th November
Lord Mountbatten: Hero or Villain, 8:40pm, Channel 5: After Lord Mountbatten’s murder by the IRA in 1979, he was publicly feted as a statesman and a war hero. This documentary looks at his life, including his disastrous handling of the Indian partition, and asks if the truth is a little less glorious. Incidentally, the new series of The Crown begins tomorrow (Sunday) on Netflix, and the first episode deals – very movingly – with Mountbatten’s death.
Sunday 15th November
Tennis: ATP Finals, 2pm, BBC Two: Coverage of the season-ending tournament from the O2 Arena that features the top eight players in men’s tennis competing in a round-robin battle for supremacy.
Rock on Tommy, 5:30pm, ITV: Tommy Cannon narrates this look back at the career of his comedy partner Bobby Ball, who died last month at the age of 76. The tribute includes archive footage and recollections from friends and family.
Frankie Howerd: In His Own Words, 8pm, Channel 5: The life and work of the iconic comedian are celebrated in this feature-length documentary narrated by long-term fan David Walliams.
Small Axe: Mangrove, 9pm, BBC One: This impressive new drama anthology series from Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen looks at the reality of life for London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to the 1980s. This series opener tells the story of the trial of Frank Crichlow, wrongly arrested and charged with incitement to riot after a demonstration against racial discrimination.
Escape to the Chateau, 9pm, Channel 4: A seventh series of the consistently charming show that follows the lives of Dick Strawbridge and wife Angel Adoree as they continue to turn what was once a ramshackle French chateau into a thriving home and business. This year, with no weddings or functions able to take place at the chateau, it’s time to take on some long-neglected jobs.
Monday 16th November
Lockdown Chaos: How the Government Lost Control, 9pm, Channel 4: Reporter Anthony Barnett looks at the second wave of COVID 19, and asks how we went from the hope that life would be back to normal by Christmas to the slightly less festive reality of a second lockdown.
Tuesday 17th November
How to Spend It Well at Christmas with Phillip Schofield, 8:15pm, ITV: The presenter’s now annual festive guide helps viewers determine the most sensible way of spending their hard-earned, a particularly valuable service in this rather frugal year. His reporters include Christopher Biggins and Angelica Bell, and tonight, the programme looks at the best toys and games on the market.
Thursday 19th November
Lockdown 1.0 – Following the Science? 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the scientific advice given to the government in the first weeks and months of the crisis, and how closely they followed it.
Mock the Week, 10pm, BBC Two: Dara O’Briain and Hugh Dennis return with weekly guest panellists from the world of comedy, as they satirise the latest events in news and politics.
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