Care, Sunday 9th December, 9pm, BBC One
The will-they-won’t-they televised debate between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May is scheduled for 9pm on Sunday 9th December on BBC One. Or ITV. At 8pm. Unless it doesn’t happen at all. As far as I can work out, both May and Corbyn are keen to debate, but can’t agree on a time or a TV station. Might I humbly suggest 3am on Men & Motors so we can all get on with our lives in peace?
Apart from anything else, it would be a shame for this absolutely magnificent film to be punted about in the schedules. It’s bad enough that it’s up against the final of I’m a Celebrity, because while a huge number will tune in to watch Nick Knowles tuck into a plate of Crocodile testicles, this is 90-minutes of raw, visceral and agonising drama that deserves a big audience.
Sheridan Smith plays Jenny, a divorced mum of two who is struggling with the financial, practical and organisational aspects of life. Fortunately, she has her mum, Mary (Alison Steadman) who helps out with the kids and is a supportive and loving presence. Except that, one afternoon, driving the kids home, Mary has a stroke. In an instant, this vital, energetic, proud woman is reduced to a whimpering, incoherent, confused and vulnerable figure, and everyone’s lives change forever.
The drama follows Jenny and her sister Claire (Sinead Keenan) as they struggle to cope with their mother’s needs, and with a bureaucracy that seems to be stacked against them. As always, Sheridan Smith is magnificent and entirely without vanity, and the desperation of her situation is almost claustrophobic. Meanwhile Alison Steadman’s performance is a tour de force. So often she plays the role of the charming, slightly batty chatterbox who loves to talk and talk and talk, but here, she barely says a word throughout. But her eyes will haunt you. She is brilliant.
This is harsh, harrowing stuff. You don’t watch Jimmy McGovern dramas for the giggle factor. But, as ever with McGovern, it’s a powerful film making some important points about where we are as a society. As well as being an intense and gripping personal story, this is a howl of anguish against the realities of austerity, the lack of NHS funding, and the way we treat the elderly. The story is co-written by Gillian Jukes, and based on her own experiences. It is sobering to think that a family had to go through the same ordeal, and make the same choices. It is more sobering still to realise that, in point of fact, thousands of families are also going through the same ordeal, and making the same choices, every day.
Billy Connolly’s Ultimate World Tour, Thursday 13th December, 9pm, ITV
I’m something of a worrier. At any one time I’m vexed about climate change, the dangerous populism currently in vogue in global politics, whether I’m messing up my children, and whether the kid in the Sainsbury’s ad who plays the plug injured his ribs when he jumped into the socket. In recent years, I’ve added Billy Connolly to my list of worries.
Every time I watch a new series with the Big Yin, I start it with a sense of apprehension. He’s 75 now, and suffering from Parkinson’s. How will he be? Will he come across as diminished? It seems unbearable to think of a man of such ebullience and effervescence losing his mojo. People like Billy are meant to be immortal. They’re not made the same way as the rest of us. Except, of course, they are.
This new one-off special is cheekily entitled Billy Connolly’s Ultimate World Tour – cheeky, because he doesn’t travel more than about 100 miles from his front door. Connolly lives in Florida these days – he moved there when he began to find cold winters a struggle. I’d say he was the world’s least hardy Scot, but my Scottish wife puts off the heating for about 15 minutes every July, and I effectively live in the world’s largest pizza oven.
Connolly’s sojourn from Key West to Miami is intercut with clips from his travel shows over the decades. It’s 25 years since he first undertook a World Tour – on that occasion the show involved him travelling around Scotland, once again not really going more than 100 miles from home. But since then there has been a genuinely global element to his travelogues, filming in Australia, the Arctic, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, and the US. The clips are marvellous fun (not least, charting the extraordinary variety of hairstyles, both cranial and facial, that Billy has sported over the years. I still maintain the pink beard was a triumph.)
But the real joy here is seeing Connolly as he is today. Because, while he may have slowed down a bit (and cut the guy some slack, he’s 75 and has had Parkinson’s for over five years) he is still the same cheerful, twinkling and benevolent presence as always.
He’s also still a pretty sharp fly fisherman, as it goes. His casting is a thing of beauty. Not that he ever seems to catch anything, mind. He cheerfully admits that in all the travelogues where he’s been filmed fishing, he’s never caught so much as a cold. But it’s not about that for Billy. As he sits there, with the calm, glassy Florida waters gently lapping the boat, he reflects: “Some people never experience this silence.”
Next it’s off to examine the extraordinary feat of engineering that saw a railway line join up all the Florida Keys in 1912, a project that took 4000 men seven years to complete. Then he’s hanging with a crocodile wrangler, the only job known to man that requires more courage than a TV critic. After that, he hears the tale of Key West, the island that sought independence from the US, declared war, and attacked the local air base with a biplane, strafing it with Cuban bread rolls and corn fritters, before promptly surrendering. There’s also a hilarious reminder of Connolly’s old habit of taking all of his clothes off and skipping about in front of the cameras – he’s done it in Australia (easy peasy), Orkney (kudos) and the Arctic (absolutely barking).
Almost as I watched this gentle gem of a show, the news came out that Connolly had retired from live performing. I regret never having seen him live, but remain thankful for all of his TV work. On reflective, philosophical form, he ends this show with a plea for tolerance and decency, before reminding us of the aphorism by which he’s clearly lived his life. “The world’s a joyous place, and should be treated as such.” If this show marks his retirement from TV – and I earnestly hope it does not – it’s a pretty good note to go out on. And, you’d have to say, he’s earned the rest.
The best… and the rest
Sunday 9th December
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here, 9pm, ITV: The live final, and coronation of King Harry. Probably.
Monday 10th December
Sir Cliff Richard – 60 Years in Public and Private, 9pm, ITV: Not surprisingly, Sir Cliff did not elect to make this programme with the BBC. Filmed over six months at his home in Algarve and backstage at his concerts, this film hears the showbiz legend discuss his glittering career, and the battle to clear his name. The contributors’ list reads like a Who’s Who of the great and the good.
Tuesday 11th December
The Royal Variety Performance 2018, 7:30pm, ITV: Greg Davies hosts a night of entertainment in front of a royal audience, including the cast of Hamilton, Andrea Bocelli, Cirque du Soleil and the Britain’s Got Talent winner.
Wednesday 12th December
Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds: Christmas, 9pm, Channel 4: Returning to the residents of Lark Hill in Nottingham as they are reunited with their young friends for festive fun, including a special performance from Alfie Boe that isn’t a hit with all of the kids.
Thursday 13th December
Amazing Spaces Winter Wonderland, 8pm, Channel 4: George Clarke takes to the Alps in search of some architectural mini-marvels, including a ski lodge disguised as a boulder, a tree house disguised as an acorn, and a restaurant disguised as a spaceship.
This Is My Song 1/2, 8pm, BBC One: Members of the public record tracks that have special meaning for them, helped my music industry talents. Tonight, a grandfather and grandson duet, and 13-year-old Jasmine overcomes her anxiety when she sings.
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