Village of the Year, Monday 15th January, 3pm, Channel 4
I don’t much fancy the idea of living in a village. I’m a city boy at heart. I moved from London to Brighton eleven years ago, and that’s about as bucolic as I can cope with. I still find it weird that everyone isn’t rushing around with their head down, barging each other out of the way and dashing to some really important meeting or other. Some days, I can’t hear a car horn, or smell any smog, from my bedroom window. And who in their right minds can sleep properly when there isn’t a soothing background chorus of police sirens?
Don’t get me wrong. I love a village. They’re generally very friendly, picturesque, and difficult to get lost in. If there’s a welcoming tea room, a cosy pub, and a cricket pitch, so much the better. The lack of a 24-hour supermarket, a neon-lit shopping centre, and somewhere selling botulism-riddled hot meat products at 2am is a drawback, and the Wifi is normally prehistoric, but I’m genuinely happy to visit a village, occasionally for up to 20 minutes at a time.
I have to admit, though, that this series from Channel 4 is enough to make me reconsider my prejudices. On the search for the best village in Britain, it has certainly uncovered some gems. It helps that it is presented by Penelope Keith, pottering about all fragrant and cheerful and posh in her floaty cardigans and wide-brimmed hats. Memories of happy days with my parents, all settling down to watch To The Manor Born, will make me well-inclined to pretty much anything. If Penelope Keith appeared in an advert for Head and Shoulders, I’d buy a job lot of the stuff, and I’ve not had hair since 1996.
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The format is simple enough: The nation is split into different zones, and each programme examines four villages in each zone. The winner of the heat moves on to the semi-finals, then the final, until the judges pick the Village of the Year. The prize is £10,000 which, in a village of 1,000 people works out at £10-per-head (I worked that out myself, I suspect the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics job is all but mine). It’s hardly the postcode lottery, but it should pay for some nice Begonias. Although, on that basis, shouldn’t the prize actually go to Britain’s worst village, to cheer the ruddy place up a bit?
Anyway, the opening episode deals with the Western Zone, encompassing South West England and Wales. And the villages are uniformly fabulous. Charmouth, on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, is a beautiful village in a beautiful spot, with beaches and cliffs and fossils and a fire station, which Penelope gets frightfully excited about (men in uniform?) There’s Lydford, in Devon, with its spectacular moorland location, atmospheric mists, and opulent medieval history. Aberdaron, in Wales, is a coastal idyll dotted with whitewashed houses with slate rooves, its own holy island, and an amazing reconstructed Viking roundhouse. And there’s Redbrook, on the river Wye, spanning the English-Welsh border, with its fabulous salmon fishing, Grade II listed bridge, and award-winning pub. Obviously, they had me at award-winning pub, but each one of these glorious examples of the Great British village would be a worthy winner.
Britain’s Favourite Dogs: Top 100, Tuesday 16th January, 7:30pm, ITV
As a journalist, you should be very wary about expressing opinions on certain things. In this age of social media, saying anything that might be construed as vaguely controversial might result in you receiving such a deluge of unadulterated loathing that you have to walk around in a disguise. Once, after cracking an uncomplimentary joke about a footballer in an article for the Guardian, I had to change my name to Marigold Lightbody and get a job as a dinner lady in Chertsey for two years until the furore died down.
Generally speaking, if you want an easy life, you should never, ever express an opinion on anything to do with football, Scottish independence, immigration, ketchup versus brown sauce, Brexit, and the best and worst sweets to get in a bag of Revels. But one subject towers above all of these, in terms of how much it divides the nation. It has known to destroy lifelong bonds, to rent families asunder, to cause brothers to come to blows. I’m talking, of course, about the question for all the ages: Dogs or cats.
And I know I shouldn’t do this – please think of this as a sign of how much I respect the genteel, proportionate and cultured readers of Saga – but I’m going to state a very firm opinion: Dogs are better. Miles better. No contest.
Let’s say you’re putting up a shelf at home. A cat will languidly stroll into the room, look at you with cynical, narrowed, disdainful eyes and an expression that says “You’re doing that all wrong, it’s not level, it shouldn’t even go on that wall, why haven’t you fed me, you’re an idiot and I despise you,” before yawning and sashaying out of the room. A dog will sit at your feet, looking up at you with head tilted and large brown eyes misty with adoration, and an expression that says “I have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, but it’s brilliant anyway, best thing I’ve ever seen. And I love you.”
Dogs are simply fab. That’s why one-in-four of us shares a home with a canine companion. In honour of our faithful furry friends, ITV has set aside two-and-a-half hours so that we may all pay homage at the televisual temple of these doggy deities. Having surveyed 10,000 dog owners, this programme offers the definitive countdown of the 100 most popular breeds of dog in the country. Who even knew there were that many? It turns out there are 217 breeds, and once you get into cross breeds, the variations are almost limitless.
Presented by Ben Fogle and Sara Cox, the countdown is full useful information about the characteristics of each breed, so that any potential dog owners out there can get an idea of what to look for. The film is also packed with reports on some of the nation’s bravest, most talented, loyal, supportive and heroic hounds, while a host of famous faces, and indeed the rest of their bodies, drop by to talk about their relationships with their beloved pooches. First up is Geri Haliwell, who talks of her love for the feisty, playful, energetic redheads of the dog world, Airedales. What is it they say about dogs and their owners?
This is fun, informative stuff. I’d never heard of a Saluki before. Nor a Chorkie, which is a cross between a Chihuahua and a Yorkie. I wonder what they call a cross between a Chihuahua and a St Bernard. My guess is a Miracle. I’d also never heard of a Chinese Crested, and so had no idea what the ugliest creature on Earth looked like. And I say that, as we’ve already established, as an inveterate dog lover.
The best… and the rest
Monday 15th January
Extreme Cake Makers, 5:30pm, Channel 4: If your idea of a sponge-success involves two pancake-flat, rock-hard, slightly-charred Frisbees stuck together with some Robinson’s jam and a dollop of garish icing on the top, you need to up your game. This series looks at creations from the most absurdly talented baking artists out there. Their work is properly beautiful, and occasionally defies belief.
Wednesday 17th January
Millionaire’s Ex-Wives Club, 9pm, BBC Two: Fascinating, albeit slightly unedifying, documentary about extremely rich people getting divorced. Not recommended for any of you with eight-figure bank accounts and dodgy relationships.
When Beyonce Met Jay-Z 1/3, 10pm, Channel 5: New series looking at how celebrity couples first met. This is an absolute must for all of the Saga readers who happen to be massive fans of hip-hop megastar Jay-Z.
Friday 19th January
8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, 9pm, Channel 4: Like normal Countdown, only with more jokes and swearing.