Coastal Railways with Julie Walters, 8pm, Sunday 26th November
The Scottish Highlands are beset by a plague every year, when a huge number of organisms rise up, seemingly out of nowhere, and irritate the local population and wildlife to the point of distraction. I’m not talking about midges, I’m talking about actors. It’s perfectly normal to go for a picnic out on the heather-clad hillsides of the Highlands, only to be descended upon by a veritable swarm of actors, all of them filming documentaries, waxing lyrical about the area’s beauty, and the quiet simplicity of a rural life. The problem has become so bad that locals will no longer leave their houses without lavish doses of actor-repellent and a swat, lest one of them starts bounding about in the peat bogs reciting Shakespeare.
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The problem is at its most acute on the Highland railways. It’s mere weeks since Richard Wilson made a programme about travelling through the Highlands by train, and only a handful of months since we were up doing something similar with Paul Merton. And now we have the contribution of Julie Walters, who has filmed a four-part series about Britain’s coastal railways, starting tonight with a jaunt around the West Scotland coastline. The reasons for this undertaking are unclear – Walters says she likes the coast, but makes no mention of being a train fan. And who doesn’t like the coast, after all?
Not that any of this matters – the lack of a coherent raison d’etre behind the series, the ubiquity of celebs embarking on these travelogues – because Walters is absolutely, positively knockout charming. Watch out Joanna Lumley – there’s a new player in town, and she’s not short on intelligence or humour either.
Julie Walters is one of those people who you really, really want to like. No, scrap that – you need to like her. In my line of work, I have interviewed lots of actors. Countless. More than you’d get on a Highland moor. Sometimes, they are great. Sometimes they’re bored, or tired, or hungry, or have been answering the same questions all day, and are having a minor breakdown. And sometimes, they’re just pillocks. That’s fine – you can put up with that. But occasionally, there is someone who, were they to be unpleasant, it would simply destroy everything you hold dear, and shake your faith in the world to its foundations. If you saw Julie Walters being unpleasant, it would be like watching Santa whipping his reindeer, or Tom Hanks kicking a puppy.
But she is so lovely, and the countryside around her is so engaging, this is the televisual equivalent of being fed chocolate and having someone massage your feet. Whether she’s beating up a former army major, flirting with a fish-smoker, or bantering with train spotters in a quiet station, she seems permanently cheerful, and never short of a quip. A highlight, for her, is travelling on the Jacobite, an old steam engine that played the role of the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films. Walters is cock-a-hoop that Mrs Weasley, who she played in the films, gets to ride across the famous viaduct at last.
And then, just when you think it can’t get any better, she recites one of my all-time favourite poems. Julie Walters, the Scottish scenery, and The Life that I Have. That’s as close as you’ll get to TV perfection right there!
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How to Spend It Well at Christmas with Phillip Schofield 1/3, Tuesday 28th November, 8pm, ITV
Christmas. It’s brilliant, but it sure ain’t cheap. Every year, I remind my family that it’s important not to lose sight of the real point of Christmas – to have as much fun as possible on a budget of not more than £25-per-head. As inspirational rallying calls go, it’s not exactly Henry V at Agincourt, which may be why it is routinely ignored. My wife, who (it goes without saying) pulls the strings in our family, sets the bar at about £2,000-a-head, so we meet in the middle at around £1995.
Thank heavens, then, for Phillip Schofield. I mean, thank heavens for him on an existential level, sure – I like him a lot, he seems like a thoroughly good egg – but in particular, thank heavens for this new three-part series, advising people how to spend wisely at Christmas.
The first episode is all about toys. This is very useful, because I would humbly suggest that nothing, but nothing, is as important as buying the right toys at Christmas. I would love to convince you that this is because I live to see the thrilled, angelic, shining faces of my children as they open their dream gifts at something dangerously close to 6am on Christmas Day. But the truth is, getting the right toys for them is entirely a matter of self-interest. Make the right call, and you are freed up for long lie-ins, afternoon 007 sessions, all-day Prosecco marathons, or an uninterrupted opportunity to argue with your in-laws.
And so to business. Throughout the series, our Pip will be joined by celebrity guests, experts, and members of the public, to road test some of the new products on the market. First up is Stacey Solomon and her kids who, according to the voice over of the early version I watched, are X years old and X years old. This either means they’re going to fill in the details on the final voiceover, or that we’re working in roman numerals and they’re twins aged 10. Along with various other families, they try out games including Woofy Whoops, Don’t Be a Donkey, Pie Face Sky High, and Twister. Then everyone involved votes for the best. You’d think we’d realise by now that voting doesn’t resolve anything, it just leads to people arguing on Facebook ad nauseam.
Anyway, next up, there’s advice from Peter Jenkinson, a toyologist. He reckons the best thi… wait, there’s a job called a toyologist? No. Way. I didn’t spend years and years working out that the cushiest way to get paid in the world was to watch telly and write nonsense, only to discover there’s something called toyology. Why did I not know this? Where do I sign up? How do you become one? Do you study for a Masters in Toyology from the University of Never Never Land?
Anyway, events continue apace, with Jonathan Ross on board to assess the market for retro toys. Almost ten per cent of toys are bought for adults (probably all the hard-working toyologists out there) and he’s looking at the best buys. Apparently Furbies are now considered retro, in spite of the fact that they first came out less than 20 years ago. These days the world moves so fast I could sell last weekend’s Observer as an antique.
There’s still time, in the midst of this entertaining and informative hour, to road test a bunch of scooters, find out how long it takes to put together a doll’s pram, and check out a series of advent calendars including one that costs £10,000. For all that is sacred, I beg you not to tell my wife about it.
The best… and the rest
Saturday 25th November
Joe Orton Laid Bare, 9pm, BBC Two: The channel’s longstanding commitment to the arts on a Saturday night continues with this 80-minute documentary about the life and work of Joe Orton, who died 50 years ago when he was murdered by his boyfriend.
Sunday 26th November
Expedition Volcano 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary following scientists studying some of the world’s most active volcanoes in the Congo. Unfortunately in this war-torn region, the volcanoes aren’t the only volatile presence, so the scientists have more to contend with than mere magma.
Guy Martin vs the Robot Car, 9pm, Channel 4: The amiable mechanic attempts to build a self-driving car in his shed (errrrrr, no thanks) before travelling to Budapest to ride in one on public roads. Finally, he races against one on the track at Silverstone.
Monday 27th November
Paul Hollywood: A Baker’s Life 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: The bronzed, blue-eyed baker launches his own series, looking at his favourite recipes from a life spent pounding, kneading, shaping and icing. Tonight’s highlight promises to be Paul and Prue baking a Madeira cake decorated by… Noel and Sandi. Do not expect elegant understatement.
Employable Me 1/4, 9pm, BBC Two: Welcome return for the charming and fascinating series following people with disabilities as they battle to find work. Tonight’s episode follows 52-year-old Andy, partially paralysed following a stroke, and Ryan, who has one of the most extreme cases of Tourette’s in the UK.
Tuesday 28th November
The Robot Will See You Now, 10pm, Channel 4: Jess is advising couples and families on how to cope with issues involving marriage, infidelity, obesity and more. The only difference between Jess and other counsellors is that she doesn’t wear cardigans. Oh, and she’s a robot.
Wednesday 29th November
The Channel: The World’s Busiest Waterway 1/4, 9pm, Channel 4: Every day over 400 ships pass through this narrow little alleyway separating the UK from continental Europe. This series gets on board ships, goes into the tunnel, and observes the nerve centres that keep this frantic system from descending into chaos.
Wallis: The Queen that Never Was, 9pm, Channel 5: Feature-length drama-documentary about the life of one of the most controversial figures in 20th Century British history, using extensive source material including her diaries and private letters.
Friday 1st December
MOTD Live: World Cup 2018 Draw, 3:15pm, BBC One: Be among the first to find out which tiny island nation will be knocking England out of the tournament next summer.