The Christmas Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, Sunday 13th December, 9:10pm, BBC Two
I have a theory about the pandemic. During the first lockdown, the streets were utterly deserted. You could have walked naked down Oxford Street and nobody would have noticed. It would have been just you, the traffic lights, and the enormous bollards. I said bollards. But by the second lockdown, the streets were much, much busier. My theory is this: The streets were absolutely jam-packed with TV crews and presenters on their way to film a staycation travelogue somewhere in the UK.
Seriously, you can’t move for UK-based travel shows these days. Whether it’s Simon Reeve going to Cornwall, Paul O’Grady beetling around Kent, Julia Bradbury climbing yet another mountain (blimey, can that woman walk!) or Sandi Toksvig sleeping up a tree (a treat in store for early next year) the nation is clogged up with people doing pieces to camera from a pub/castle/riverbank. By the time life has returned to normal, there will not be a corner of this Sceptred Isle we do not know intimately. Every time we visit a picturesque village in the future, we will half-expect a jaunty voiceover telling us about the local history or complaining about the weather.
That said, I bow to no-one in my enjoyment of a good travel show, and I’ve rather enjoyed getting to know unfamiliar parts of the UK this year from the comfort of my sofa. And unfamiliar is certainly how I’d describe the Hebridean Islands of Skye and Lewis and Harris.
I’ve spent plenty of time in Scotland over the years. I love the place. Any culture responsible for Billy Connolly, the Royal Mile, Kenny Dalglish and the Scotch Pie is pretty much fine by me. Oh, and I should probably include my wife, too, in case she decides to pay her annual visit to my blog. But I know nothing about the islands. Until this programme, I didn’t even realise that Lewis and Harris were actually one island.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you’ve never seen the show before, it involves the comedian Romesh Ranganathan travelling to a remote or unusual holiday destination, getting to know the place, and cracking jokes. The success or otherwise of the show depends upon how interesting the location is, and how much you enjoy watching a former maths teacher looking hacked off and doing quite a lot of sweary complaining. Personally, I can’t get enough of him, but all comedy is subjective, as I frequently remind my wife when she stares at me, stony-faced, in the face of yet another dad joke.
The show’s masterstroke is to get a local to guide Romesh, and give him an insight into what life is like at his chosen destination. For this episode, he is being shown around the islands by Donald McSween (was there ever a more Scottish name?), a crofter from Harris. First off, he takes Romesh on a walk up a mountain, to look at an extraordinary natural wonder, The Old Man of Storr. It becomes apparent, fairly rapidly, that Romesh is not cut from the same ambulatory cloth as Julia Bradbury. Viewers be warned: If you are distressed by a spot of profanity, this may not be the show for you.
Skye is absurdly beautiful. The whole place looks like a film set for Lord of the Rings. You half-expect an orc to wander past at any moment. It’s harsh country though, where men are men. Romesh meets a couple of Highland Games contestants, and has a crack at some of the events, with all-too-predictable results.
Such cheerful silliness is mixed with more serious issues, like the Highland clearances, and the erosion of the culture, language and identity of the population. This mix of joy and a slight sense of melancholy , all set against a backdrop of spectacular beauty, makes for a thoroughly diverting hour in the agreeable company of Romesh and Donald. Most spectacular of all is their visit to St Kilda, a large rock 40 miles off the coast that was inhabited for thousands of years, until 1930.
To his credit, Romesh is more than just a clown there to make us laugh, and his conclusion at the film’s end is measured and thoughtful. But, as he himself readily points out, there is absolutely nothing remotely Christmassy about this show.
The Year that Changed Love, Tuesday 15th December, 10pm, Channel 4
Look, if you don’t like bad language, this week’s featured programmes aren’t going to be your favourite bits of telly in 2020. I’m terribly sorry. I chose to feature these two programmes on the basis that one promised to be a gentle meander around the Scottish islands, and the other a rather touching look at how love can blossom in the most unpromising circumstances. But I turned out to be watching two programmes with a swear count that sounds like Eminem wrote a film script for Tarantino to direct.
Mind you, I should have known. Channel 4. Those cheeky, boundary-pushing scamps have never been afraid of dropping the occasional F-bomb. They could make Songs of Praise an X-rated experience.
The frustrating thing is, these programmes are exactly what I otherwise expected. One is a gentle meander around the Scottish islands, and the other is a touching look at how love can blossom in the most unpromising circumstances. So if you can gird your loins against a spot of bad language, you could do considerably worse than these two affable, warm shows.
This one-off documentary follows seven people as they attempt to negotiate key moments in their love lives during lockdown. Some are searching for love, some are married, some are dating – but all are attempting to follow their hearts in what is a weird, unnatural and unnerving experience.
Take Scottish twosome Jade and Claire, for example. They met for a first date in March, and had a nice time. So nice, in fact, that when lockdown hit, after said date, they made the decision to move in together. Such impulsiveness unnerves me. I moved in with my (now) wife after three years together, and even then, I thought it was an absurdly rash decision. But fast forward 15 years, and it’s not me who’s regretting it, it’s HER! So who’s the real loser here, I ask you? Oh… hang on…
Meanwhile, in Bradford, Emma and Dean are also moving in together for lockdown. But they’re not virtual strangers. They’re ex-partners, who have decided to lock down under one roof for the sake of their son, five-year-old Cole. There is no hope of them getting back together though – Emma makes that clear. Famous last words…
In Llanelli, long-term couple Ffion and Tom, both of whom have Down’s Syndrome, are having to keep their long-term relationship alive by communicating over Zoom. I’m so pleased to discover Zoom can be used for things other than endless quizzes with my in-laws! They dream of an end to social distancing, so they can enjoy a cwtch together. Don’t worry, that’s not more swearing – it’s a Welsh word for a cuddle. And my spell checker has just resigned on principle.
Louise, 50, who lives in Wiltshire, has had a pretty rotten trot, luck-wise. She had a life-threatening illness, and a long and arduous treatment process, during which her husband left her. Now, she’s ready to embrace the dating scene once again, and is putting her fate in the hands of internet dating – not to mention a ‘love coach’. At one point, she has an online session with her love coach, who talks to her about the importance of being ‘the most golden version’ of herself. I assume she doesn’t mean get a fake tan. Londoner Bradley is another singleton using the internet to try and find love. It’s fair to say, though, he doesn’t quite seem to have got the hang of social distancing!
What follows is a funny, honest, sad and touching look at relationships and love. In essence, it’s not really about Covid at all, any more than Romesh’s travelogue is about Christmas. It’s about love – searching for it, finding it, or losing it – and how important it is in all of our lives.
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The best… and the rest:
Saturday 12th December
Roses v Quality Street: Chocolate Box Wars, 7:40pm, Channel 5: Documentary examining the ongoing battle between these two chocolate assortment brand behemoths at this key time of year. Personally, I’m more of a Celebrations man, though there’s always a fight for the Malteser, and nobody likes the Bounty.
Princess Alice: The Royals’ Greatest Secret, 8:35pm, Channel 5: Anyone who watched series three of The Crown can’t fail to have been struck by the drama and oddness of the life of Prince Phillip’s mother. Now, this documentary charts her extraordinary journey from diagnosed schizophrenic, who was committed to an asylum and treated by Sigmund Freud, to a nursing nun in Greece, and ultimately to living in Buckingham Palace with her son and daughter-in-law.
Sunday 13th December
I’m a Celebrity… A Castle Story, 8pm, ITV: Ant and dec and this year’s camp mates look back at the best and worst moments of a very different season of Celebrity, with fewer spiders but far, far fewer degrees on the thermometer.
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Christmas Fishing, 8:10pm, BBC Two: A special, hour-long festive outing for the duo, as they visit Mortimer’s old stomping ground near Middlesbrough to fish, while Bob tries to instil in Paul a long lost love of Christmas.
Des O’Connor: The Ultimate Entertainer, 9pm, ITV: Sadly there were no previews of this show available, but any highlights reel of O’Connor’s glittering six decades in showbiz is worth a watch, as celebrity fans recall his rise from Butlins redcoat to primetime stardom.
Monday 14th December
The Real Full Monty 1/2, 9pm, ITV: Ashley Banjo and Coleen Nolan attempt to guide two teams of celebrities to recreate the infamous strip scene from the film. This year, though, they’re planning to do it all… on ice! What could possibly go right? The show, which raises awareness of the importance of checking oneself for cancer, concludes tomorrow night.
Tuesday 15th December
The Great British Bake Off: The Winners, 8pm, Channel 4: The first of two shows paying tribute to past winners of the show; their triumphs and disasters, snappy biscuits and soggy bottoms.
Inside KFC: The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop, 9pm, Channel 4: Have you spent most of your life hankering after an opportunity to see exactly what goes on in a fast food chicken emporium in the run up to Christmas? You HAVE? Well, today is your lucky day.
Christmas at Hampton Court, 9pm, Channel 5: Documentary examining how Christmases past and present have been spent at the castle. It’s fair to say, there probably haven’t been that many visits to KFC.
Wednesday 16th September
Vicky McClure’s Dementia Choir at Christmas, 7:30pm, BBC One: Two years ago, McClure made a series following a choir made up of people living with dementia. Now she catches up with the team, learning how they’ve coped during lockdown, and organising a very special Christmas performance for one member of the choir.
Gordon, Gino and Fred: Desperately Seeking Santa, 9pm, ITV: Last year, the trio were sent on a Christmas road trip to Morocco. This time around, Gordon is determined to inject a more wintry, festive vibe into proceedings and has organised (read: Got a production assistant to organise) a Christmas trip to Lapland.
Christmas at Highclere Castle 1/2, 9pm, Channel 4: Highclere is the none-too-shabby home of Downton Abbey. This documentary follows a small team dedicated to bringing Christmas cheer to the castle, and to its proprietors, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. To be avoided if you suffer from House Envy.
The Vanishing of Suzy Lamplugh, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary examining the twists and turns over more than three decades of the case of the missing estate agent, who vanished in 1986.
Thursday 17th September
The Savoy at Christmas, 9pm, ITV: Following the festive season in the luxury hotel, as the staff pull out all the stops to create a magical Christmas for a regular visitor who is staying there for the first time since his mother died.
Friday 18th September
George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces: Winter World Tour, 8pm, Channel 4: The architect teams up with designer and craftsman Will Hardie, and the pair visit Norway, Finland, the Alps and Canada, exploring everything from ice hotels and igloos to modern mansions designed with the snow in mind.
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