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TV reviews: The Simpler Life and British Grandmother on Death Row

Benjie Goodhart / 17 March 2022

A group of 24 participants try their hand at self-sufficiency for four months in Channel 4's The Simpler Life, and ITV delves into the case of a British grandmother who has spent 20 years on death row in Texas.

The participants of Channel 4's The Simpler Life stand in a vegetable patch with chickens
The Simpler Life on Channel 4.

British Grandma on Death Row with Susanna Reid, Tuesday 22nd March, 9pm, ITV

There’s an awful lot of true crime stuff on TV these days. When it’s done badly, it’s tawdry, grotty and sensationalist, glorying in the gruesome and salacious details of the case for the titillation of viewers. But when it’s done well, as with World in Action’s 1991 documentary about the Birmingham Six, it can shed new light on key details of a case, and even correct a gross miscarriage of justice.

The case of Linda Carty has been featured in a documentary before. In an American series called Deadly Women, her story was told in an episode entitled “Untamed Evil”. You can probably imagine from the title that it wasn’t exactly a nuanced look at the inconsistencies of the investigation.

But this one-off documentary, fronted by Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid, takes a rather more considered view of what is a tragic and deeply upsetting case. The indisputable facts are these. On 16th May 2001, three men broke into the house of Joana Rodriguez and her partner Raymundo Cabrera. Cabrera and his cousin were beaten and bound, while Rodriguez and her four-day-old son Ray were kidnapped.

Ray was later found unharmed in the back of a car. The body of Rodriguez was found bound and gagged in the trunk of another car. She had suffocated.

In this film, Reid travels to Mountain View Unit in Texas. It sounds delightful – conjuring up images of a delightful country lodge with expansive views of rolling hills. In fact, it is a female death row unit. Carty was found guilty of the murder of Rodriguez, and has languished on death row, awaiting an execution date, for the past 20 years.

Reid interviews Carty, who was born in St Kitts when it was a British territory and is, as such a British citizen. There are aspects of Carty’s case that are deeply troubling. As the film unfolds, it seems certain that she is guilty. Rodriguez was found in Carty’s car. Carty had recently bought some baby paraphernalia, and had told a neighbour that she would be having a baby shortly – in spite of not being pregnant. The prosecution alleges that Carty had intended to kill Rodriguez and take her baby.

In February 2002, Carty was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to death by lethal injection. But as the documentary continues, questions begin to emerge about the police investigation, and the veracity of much of the testimony against Carty. Through Reid’s interview with Carty, footage of initial police interviews, and testimony from those involved in Carty’s prosecution as well as those campaigning for her release, a different story begins to come to light.

Ultimately, viewers will have to make up their own minds about this horrendous and unbearably sad case, and draw their own conclusions as to Carty’s guilt or innocence. But a complete lack of forensic evidence, and indications that prosecution witnesses gave inaccurate and flawed testimony in court, is enough to plant a seed of doubt.

What is not open to debate is that this woman has spent 20 years on death row, awaiting execution by lethal injection. The psychological toll that must take is unthinkable, and to my snowflake-liberal tendencies, grotesque. As Carty herself says, sadly: “I’ll fight to the end, and if I lose my life, I know I have people who will not stop until they clear my name.”

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The Simpler Life, Tuesday 22nd March, 9:15pm, Channel 4

I’ve lamented before that there is very little new in tellyland. The schedules are packed to the gunnels with true crime (see above), competition shows, cookery, murder mysteries and hospital documentaries. Not that they are bad – indeed, some are very, very good indeed – but every now and again, it would be nice to watch something truly ground-breaking.

Well yip-de-doo, here we have just that. A show that, rather than asking who can make the best pavlova, or who the murderer is, asks profound and fascinating questions about the key to human happiness.

The concept is this: 24 ordinary people abandon their day-to-day lives to go and live and work on a farm in Devon. But it won’t all be tractors and combine harvesters and Netflix in the evenings, because for four months, they will be living off grid, without electricity or gas, and growing and rearing their own food.

Guiding them in their endeavours are the Millers, an Amish family from Ohio. The Amish are a religious community who shun modernity, consumerism and individualism. How, one wonders, did they cross the Atlantic? Sailboat?

The point of the exercise is to see if stepping back from modern life, with all its gadgets and gizmos, and pressures and deadlines, will make them happier. Overseeing the whole experiment is Professor Barry Schwarz, a world-renowned psychologist based in San Francisco. So, you know, sort of overseeing it. From a distance.

The Millers seem a delightful family. They are kind, sensitive, and filled with a sense of community. They also enjoy close harmony singing together. Just watching them makes me feel like an evil, selfish, consumerist toerag. They are almost impossibly wholesome. I’m tempted to run off and join the Amish, if only they’ll let me take my iPad. Oh, and probably my wife and kids.

The group of volunteers joining them is a disparate gang: A few families, a smattering of singletons, a gay couple and their two adopted sons, and a single mum, Penny, with her two daughters. It quickly becomes apparent that Penny isn’t necessarily cut out for the Amish life. She admits to a fondness for prosecco, handbags, and shopping, none of which is absolutely at the top of the Amish to-do list.

Instead, she’s facing a life of hard work, tinned corned beef, candlelight and early bedtimes. It doesn’t look likely that this experiment will bring her happiness. I’m not sure I blame her. I don’t think toiling in the fields all day, and then having a corned beef sandwich and snuffing out my bedside candle at 8pm after a celebratory glass of water would necessarily bring me unbridled joy either.

Controversially, the jobs are split along gender lines. The men go out and work the land, while the women look after the home and tend to the chickens. It would appear that the Amish are not an equal opportunities employer. It would be interesting, too, to hear how they feel about Gary and Andrew having a family. Maybe in later episodes.

This is incredibly ambitious, risky television. It is a long, and therefore expensive, project, with no guarantee as to its outcome. Were this being shown by a broadcaster who needed to satisfy shareholders, the risk would not have been taken, or would have been mitigated by having Olly Murs present it, and having participants voted out or undertaking pointless challenges. Instead, we are left with a series that asks some truly fundamental questions about life, happiness, and what it is to be human. This is a fascinating experiment, and public sector broadcasting at its finest. Bravo.

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The best… and the rest:

Sunday 20th March

Dynasties II 1/4, 8pm, BBC One: Return of the David Attenborough-narrated documentary series. A mother puma must battle rivals, tackle prey nearly three times her size and endure the wild mountain weather of Patagonia in her bid to raise four cubs.

The Speedshop 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: Brand new series in which Titch Cormack and his team build bespoke custom vehicles for ‘adventures on wheels’, taking them from the Saharan desert to the snow-covered mountains of Iceland. Tonight, the team builds an adapted motorcycle sidecar for a quadriplegic ex-Special Forces soldier.

Monday 21st March

Then Barbara Met Alan, 9pm, BBC Two: Drama telling the disability civil-rights love story of two cabaret performers, who met at a gig, fell in love, and became the driving force behind an unprecedented campaign of direct action that ultimately led to the passing of the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

Killed By a Rich kid, 9pm, Channel 4: Documentary examining the 2019 death of teenager Yousef Makki in one of the country's most affluent suburbs.

Tuesday 22nd March

The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer, 8pm, Channel 4: Return of the amiable charity version of the baking behemoth, presented by Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas. Tonight’s contestants are TV presenter Emma Willis, Radio 1 DJ Clara Amfo, Taskmaster co-host Alex Horne and Inbetweeners actor Blake Harrison.

Wednesday 23rd March

MasterChef 1/18, 8pm, BBC One: John Torode and Gregg Wallace are back in the MasterChef kitchen for series 18 of the cookery competition. In tonight’s audition round, nine chefs cook off for a place in the next round. Two will go home.

Thursday 24th March

Hospital: Road to Recovery, 9pm, BBC Two: Two years on from the start of the pandemic, this documentary series visits the Royal Free London to follow how hospitals are coping with the longest waiting lists in NHS history.

Cornwall: A Year by the Sea, 8pm, Channel 5: Documentary following all things Cornish over a calendar year, starting off with a father-and-son running their farm together.

Murder My Sweetheart: The Killing of Dolores McCrea, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length documentary about the murder of Dolores McRea in January 2004, and the investigation that caught her killer.

Friday 25th March

Tutankhamun: Waking The Dead, 9pm, Channel 5: Historian Bettany Hughes tells the story of the boy king using forensic techniques and new discoveries.

Not Going Out 1/7, 9:30pm, BBC One: Return of Lee Mack’s witty sitcom, starring mack himself and Sally Breton.

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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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