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TV review: The Masked Dancer

Benjie Goodhart / 25 May 2021

A bunch of celebrities dress up in elaborate identity-hiding costumes and dance...

The Masked Dancer, nightly from Saturday 29th May, 7pm, ITV

Generally speaking, I’m not one of those people who looks at the past with rose tinted spectacles. I was raised in the 70s and 80s, and life is way better now than it was then. There’s less sexism, racism and homophobia, we’ve got way more telly to choose from, and we’ve moved beyond orange juice being served as a starter. (Sometimes I wonder if the latter was just a hallucinogenic dream.)

But on the other hand… back then, we didn’t have twitter, you could buy a pint without remortgaging your home, and music was actually good. But still, it’s not as if modern society is going to hell in a handbasket. I think the younger generation are, on the whole, a pretty smashing lot. Tolerant, open-minded, compassionate, committed, articulate and kind, they seem to me to augur well for the future – even if they do spend rather too much time on their phones.

But then we have The Masked Singer. Surely, if there is one certain indication that we are an increasingly insane species consumed by some collective idiocy, it is the success of The Masked Singer? If you’ve not seen it, the concept is both astonishingly bizarre and absurdly simple: A bunch of celebrities dress up in elaborate and ridiculous, identity-hiding costumes week after week and sing songs. Another group of celebrities tries to guess who they are, based on their voice, and some extremely odd coded references that appear in various promotional clips. When the audience vote on which character must leave the show, that individual is eliminated, and their identity is revealed. There’s no point to it. Nobody wins anything. In fact, you could say that everybody loses.

It’s insanely bonkers. The last series, for example, was won by the singer Joss Stone, who was dressed as an enormous anthropomorphic sausage-and-chips. As the titles rolled at the end of the series, she performed one last time, and then announced, entirely aptly, “What a funny little show.”

I managed to avoid the first series. Saturday evening light entertainment shows tend to leave me praying for the sweet release of death, and this sounded like a particularly egregious example of the genre. But by series two, my wife and kids were determined I sit down and watch with them. Also, a group of friends had set up a WhatsApp group, and every Saturday evening I’d get about 78 messages saying “Badger is Olly Murs” or “I’m certain that Harlequin is Lorraine Kelly”. So, eventually, reluctantly, and with all the good grace of an angry hippo just woken from a slumber, I flopped down on the sofa with a grimace. And I fell in love with the ruddy show.

I mean, I still think it’s an absurd idea, with all the subtlety and panache of a dump truck on an ice rink, but it is so silly and so much fun, I simply couldn’t resist it. I love the performances – this series had some genuinely brilliant singers on it – and I also love the cheesy, end-of-the-pier cabaret-ness of it all. And I particularly love it when one of the judges suggests that they think the person dressed up in the Octopus costume is Angela Merkel or Beyonce, as opposed to someone whose career is probably on the skids and needs a bit of a high-profile fillip.

And so we come to The Masked Dancer. Because if The Masked Singer is a success (and boy, is it a success, with almost 9 million people tuning into the final in February) then we are destined to have spin offs. Who knows where it will all end? The Masked Chef? The Masked Newsreader?

For now, we have this latest bizarre monstrosity. Twelve celebs will dress up in costumes and dance – anything from ballet to ballroom, swing to salsa – while four judges guess who they are. Bearing in mind it’s virtually impossible to guess someone’s identity from how they dance, unless they are Rudolf Nureyev himself, this they will do on the basis of the clues imparted in various video clips. These are so obscure as to be virtually impossible, much as Dusty Bin’s clues used to be on 3-2-1.

Anyway, the judges are Jonathan Ross, Davina McCall and Mo Gilligan, all from The Masked Singer, and Strictly’s Oti Mabuse. For obvious reasons I can’t tell you who the celebs are, but I can reveal that in costume they will appear as: Beagle, Squirrel, Scarecrow, Frog, Beetroot, Viper, Rubber Chicken, Flamingo, Knickerbocker Glory, Llama, Zip (really), Carwash (yes, really) and Lethal Phial of Anthrax (okay, not really). And it’s on every night for the next eight nights, apart from Wednesday when there’s football. What I can’t tell you is whether the format will work, because to me, it looks utterly insane, but then again, I said that about The Masked Singer, and then I fell in love with it.

Brain Cox’s Adventures in Space and Time, Sunday 30th May, 9pm, BBC Two

Professor Brian Cox is the ultimate blag artist. He makes TV series about space and the cosmos and, not surprisingly, it’s quite difficult to shoot a documentary series in space. So you’d think that, in the absence of a relevant location, he’d end up filming his shows in a TV studio, or in front of a green screen in some digital lab in Surrey. But no. Being the blagger that he is, Cox manages to travel the world while making shows about space. One minute he’s on top of a mountain, talking about stars. The next, he’s in the Caribbean, discussing the planets. Finally, he’s in a cave in Mexico talking about different types of organism.

He sure gets about, our Brian. Or, at least, he did. It turns out that even Professor Cox isn’t immune to the limitations of Covid. For his latest series, he is confined to barracks. Or, more accurately, to the world-famous Royal Institution, where he has gone to re-watch many of his previous films. (To be honest, he could have done it from home – most of them are on iPlayer, and he must have the DVD box sets of the others kicking around somewhere…)

His new series sees him taking chunks from past programmes, and using them to ask some of the most fundamental questions of our time: Is there alien life out there? What is gravity? What is time? And why are we so bad at the Eurovision Song Contest?

The first episode asks if we are alone in the universe, in terms of sentient life. Spoiler alert: Professor Cox doesn’t give us a conclusive answer, in that he doesn’t finish the programme with a flourish wherein he a sweeps a sheet back to reveal a helpfully compliant extra terrestrial life form posing for the camera. But he does ask some very interesting questions about life’s origins, the likelihood of other civilisations, and what it means to be human.

Our search for other civilisations has led to us sending out not just radio waves, but also attaching gold-plated discs to the side of Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, before launching them into the heavens, carrying messages to other life forms. Provided they have record players. Among the recordings included are Navajo chanting, and Mozart’s operatic solo The Queen of the Night. My late dad would approve – he used to sing it to us as kids to make us laugh.

There’s a riveting sequence, from his 2010 series Wonders of the Solar System, that sees him descend 2km to the bottom of the ocean in an eight-hour mission on a tiny submarine. (I always wonder what they do if one of them needs the loo…) Even down here, under insane amounts of pressure, and in total blackness and freezing temperatures, life can exist. Apparently, all life on earth originated from something called proton cascades, existing in primordial oceans. That, says Cox, is where our ancestors came from. Wrong. Mine were from Watford.

Cox hypothesises that there are a couple of moons in our solar system where simple life could exist. One of them is a moon of Jupiter, called Europa – just don’t tell Nigel Farage about it. There’s still time for a riveting section about SETI, the Search for Extra terrestrial Intelligence, and a burst of radio waves recorded from deep space in 1977 that came to be known as ‘The Wow Signal’.

Watching Brian Cox do his thing is always a pleasure – he has the ability to explain complex scientific concepts in such a way that even single-celled organisms like myself can understand them. So while this series is, in essence, a rehash of stuff he’s filmed in the past, it is still fresh and exciting and stimulating. It is also almost as far removed as you can get from The Masked Dancer, allowing me to feel at least some self-respect at the end of my week’s telly.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 29th May

The Diana Interview: Truth Behind the Scandal, 8:30pm, Channel 4: Documentary looking into the latest revelations surrounding THAT Diana interview, from the team whose work led to the BBC enquiry into Bashir’s dubious methods in the first place.

Cher at the BBC, 9pm, BBC Two: Archive footage of Cher’s numerous musical performances from the BBC back catalogue. Followed by the delightful romantic comedy Moonstruck.

 Sunday 30th May

Britain’s Most Luxurious Hotels 1/3, 8pm, Channel 4: This brand new series goes behind the scenes at some of Britain’s most opulent hotels. Tonight it’s the turn of London’s Langham Hotel, where a suite could set you back a cool £25,000.

Call the Midwife: Special Delivery, 9pm, BBC One: It’s ten years since we first met the nuns and midwives from Nonnatus House in Poplar. This hour-long warm bath in the joys of the series goes backstage, interviews cast past and present, and relives some of the show’s most memorable moments. Delightful.

Piers Morgan’s 100 Life Stories, 9pm, ITV: Another milestone, and another lookback, this time for Mr Morgan, who looks back at some of his favourite moments from the 100 interviews he’s recorded for the series. They include Rod Stewart, Mary Berry, Bruce Forsyth, Barbara Windsor, Roger Moore and Sor Mo Farah.

Monday 31st May

Mrs Thatcher vs the Miners, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary looking at the tumultuous events of 1984/5 that shaped the future of the nation. Insiders and key operators from both sides reflect on a bitter and divisive conflict.

24 Hours in A&E, 9pm, Channel 4: More tales of love and trauma from the always riveting and frequently moving fly-on-the-wall documentary series.

Tuesday 1st June

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: Sir Keir Starmer, 9pm, ITV: For those of you who haven’t seen enough of Mr Morgan this week, here he is again, this time talking to the leader of the opposition.

The Anti-Vax Conspiracy, 9pm, Channel 4: Documentary looking at the bizarre anti-vaccine movement and those who assert that Covid-19 is a myth propagated by governments keen to inject us all with nanochips. Bonkers.

Anne Boleyn 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: New three-part drama, showing on consecutive nights, about, well, Anne Boleyn, obviously. You pretty much know how it’s going to end. Intriguingly, Ms Boleyn is played for the first time by a black actor, Jodie Turner-Smith.

Wednesday 2nd June

Live International Football, 7:30pm, ITV: Gareth Southgate’s England, among the favourites for Euro 2020, warm up for the tournament with a friendly against a competent but unspectacular Austria side.

Building Britain’s Biggest Nuclear Power Station 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: New series following the construction of Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power plant to be built in this country for a generation, in the remote Somerset countryside.

Thursday 3rd June

Joey Essex: Grief and Me, 9pm, BBC One: The reality star opens up about the death of his mother, who killed herself when Joey was only 10 years old. A brave and painful exploration of love and loss.

Harry’s Heroes: Euro Having a Laugh, 9:30pm, ITV: Harry Redknapp takes a team of boozy, overweight ex-pros across to Germany for a match against a team of similarly long-in-the-tooth former internationals. Daft fun, with occasional moments of pathos.

Friday 4th June

Bear and Nicola Adams’ Wild Adventure, 9pm, ITV: Bear Grylls takes the boxer and Strictly star on a wild ride up and down various very tall things on Dartmoor, and tries to get some insight into what makes her tick.

Celebrity Gogglebox, 9pm, Channel 4: Return of the show that sees celebs watching, and reacting to, the week’s TV. If you’ve never seen it, it’s more fun than it sounds. Which isn’t difficult.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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