TV blog: Extreme Diet Hotel and Vanity Fair

Benjie Goodhart / 31 August 2018

A look at this week's top TV, including a lavish new adaptation of Vanity Fair and a look at a gruelling 'slimming hotel' in Sussex.



The Extreme Diet Hotel, Wednesday 5th September, 8pm, Channel 4

Anyone want a week’s break in a fancypants Georgian retreat near Crowhurst in East Sussex? Oh look, it’s a weight-loss retreat. Well, so what? How bad can it be? You go along, maybe lay off the booze for a bit, do a couple of jogs, have a massage. Lovely.

Don’t believe a ruddy word of it. The Slimmeria (yes, really) might look like a pleasant, civilised country hotel, but don’t let the absence of barbed wire and watchtowers convince you that this is anything other than a brutal punishment camp. And bestriding the whole place is the quite extraordinary figure of Galia, whose like, it is safe to say, you have not seen before.

With her clipped, Eastern European accent, designer jewellery and fur coat, she comes across a Bond Villain crossed with Cruella de Ville. And she couldn’t care less. She’s not in it to be loved. She cheerily explains her methods. “There is an element of intimidation,” she chirps. And later: “You make them feel weak.” Heavens above, you’re trying to help some nice people lose a few pounds, not interrogating Jack Bauer. (Although she could. You just know she could.) Not for nothing is she known as The Slim Reaper.

As the inmates, sorry, guests arrive, she stands at her window and makes waspish comments about their weight. First up is Kirstie, who is getting married in a few weeks. Fifteen months ago she bought a wedding dress, two sizes too small, in the hope that in the intervening period… well, she’s here, you can join the dots. Galia conducts her welcome interview. Naturally, Kirstie cries. “I can see we’re going to cry a lot,” says Galia with all the sympathy of a plank.

Other guests include a cabbie, Tony, and a cabaret performer, Liam. They are all immediately put on a strict diet. It’s 450 calories-per-day of raw vegetables. Breakfast is hot water and lemon, and a few slivers of apple. Seriously. Then it’s off for a walk in the country. This delightful bucolic ramble involves no talking, and Galia striding around issuing instructions and blowing a whistle – a whistle! Who does she think she is? Captain Von Trapp?

Meanwhile, there’s a problem with the sewage. (What do you expect when you fill a building with people eating nothing but vegetables?) Galia insists that the whole thing is handled with the utmost discretion. Unfortunately, this seems to involve a vast workforce turning up in a fleet of bulldozer’s and high-viz jackets in front of the hotel during yoga.

Kirstie, meanwhile, is suffering. She feels horrendous. There is a terrible showdown with Galia in the dining room, where she is instructed to eat her plate of lettuce. “Now!” Galia says sternly. Not long afterwards, Kirstie is packing. Galia goes in with a pep talk. You half expect her to pull out the knuckledusters and thumb screws. But Galia, it seems, has a human side after all.

The Slimmeria is beyond bizarre. You are unlikely to have much fun there. It’d be easier and less painful to lose a few pounds by sawing off an arm. But – extraordinarily – Galia’s methods seem to work. And while I would rather weigh a gazillion stone than attend The Slimmeria, you can bet that, following this hugely entertaining documentary, applications will go through the roof. Not least because one of her employees, Dennis, who I think is Russian, may very well be both the sweetest and strangest man in the world. He might not be much good at fixing the sewage, but if you ever need a man to drive behind you on a run, singing Barbie Girl lyrics through a loud-hailer, you couldn’t ask for better.

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Vanity Fair, Sunday 2nd September, 9pm, ITV

One of the fascinating things about television adaptations of much-loved works of literature is assessing how true they are to the original text, and whether they have picked up on the nuances and subtexts of the writing. Unfortunately, I haven’t read Vanity Fair. Or, indeed, pretty much any of the classic works of literature. You’re as likely to find me reading a 19th Century novel as tap-dancing naked across Trafalgar Square wearing ski boots and a cheeky smile.

But a good costume drama? Oh yeah, I’m your man, right there. I love all the suppressed passions and smouldering looks, the scrupulous propriety and “Good day to you, Miss Bennet”-ness of it all. It’s a long way from the Jaegerbomb-and-Tinder world that passes for romance today.

So I came to Vanity Fair with more than a little excitement – a feeling that was enhanced by a simply marvellous cast, including Suranne Jones, Martin Clunes, Simon Russell Beale, and Michael Palin. But with Vanity Fair, if you don’t have a decent Becky Sharpe, you aren’t going to get out of the starting blocks. I confess to not having heard of Olivia Cooke before this. Mind you, I’ve already confessed to basically never having read anything halfway challenging, so anything after that is going to seem trivial. If my mum reads this, she’ll be mortified. I could go on to announce that I’ve been embezzling millions from children’s charities for years, and she’d reply “Yes, but darling, not even any Austen?”

Anyway, Olivia Cooke. She is simply breath-taking. Becky Sharpe is one of the great characters of literature (probably), an anti-hero who is selfish, manipulative and ambitious, and Cooke’s genius is in imbuing her with such Machiavellian charm and humour that you end up rooting for her anyway.

Becky is a teacher at a prestigious and posh school for young ladies, run by the rather prim and pious Miss Pinkerton (played by Suranne Jones in a role about as far removed as it’s possible to get from Doctor Foster). However, Becky’s enthusiasm for work is what you might euphemistically call limited, and her calls for a pay rise fall on unsurprisingly deaf ears. (Note to anyone asking for a raise: It’s probably best not to sweep into your employer’s office and look at them as if they were something you’d just had to clean off the bottom of your shoe). She is removed from her position, and given a job as a governess teaching an MP’s children in some chilly and remote country pile.

Eager to ensure that she never sets foot within a hundred miles of the place, Becky embarks upon a plan to secure herself an alternative, and somewhat more lucrative, arrangement on the arm of a man who makes Croesus look like Tiny Tim. As luck would have it, she is taken under the wing of kind-but-naïve Amelia Sedley (Claudia Jessie), who invites her to stay with her family. Among their number is the wealthy and buffoonish brother Jos (David Fynn), who quickly becomes the target of Becky’s scheming.

There is so much to enjoy here. It’s a joy to watch a costume drama that is as funny and lively as this, and the sets, locations and costumes are all as sumptuous as you’d expect. But intriguingly, for a production full of well-established and celebrated names, it is the younger cast who really steal the show, with Cooke front and central among them. Meanwhile, the villain of the piece is a character called George Osborne. Doubtless Theresa May would approve.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 1st September

The X Factor, 8pm, ITV: It’s back, this time with Robbie Williams and wife Ayda, and Louis Tomlinson from One Direction, joining Simon on the judging panel. This horse has long since been flogged to death.

How the Victorians Built Britain 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Michael Buerk looks at the surprising stories behind some of the nation’s most iconic landmarks.

Monday 3rd September

Mother’s Day, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length drama about the true story of a Dublin-based housewife and a pair of parents who came together to pursue the goal of peace in Northern Ireland. An excellent cast is headed by Vicky McClure, Anna Maxwell Martin and Daniel Mays.

Married to a Paedophile, 9pm, Channel 4: Jaw-dropping feature-length documentary following two families over 12 months as they seek to come to terms with the impact of the men possessing images of child abuse.

Reported Missing 1/4, 9pm, BBC One: Return of the show that attempts to track down missing people.

Tuesday 4th September

Wanderlust 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: The peerless Toni Collette sprinkles a little Hollywood stardust over this new drama about a couple (Steven Mackintosh plays her husband) who find an unorthodox solution to their sexual rut. But what will the ramifications be?

We Are British Jews 1/2, 9pm, ITV: Two-part documentary (the second is tomorrow night) following a collection of eight British Jews with a range of opinions as they assess what it means to be Jewish in Britain today. Timely, to say the least…

Wednesday 5th September

Coronation Street’s DNA Secrets, 9pm, ITV: This peculiar hybrid of Corrie and Who Do You Think You Are? sees Nicky Campbell investigating the ancestry of some of the soaps most loved stars. As concepts go, it’s not Celebrity Sheep Herding, but it’s still pretty weird.

Thursday 6th September

Back in Time for the Factory 1/5, 8pm, BBC Two: 50 years ago, 34% of the population worked in manufacturing, and the factories floors were mostly filled by women. Alex Jones picks up the story as modern workers go back to the 1960s to experience what the working life would have been like.

Press 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: New drama following the goings on at a left-leaning broadsheet (no prizes for guessing the inspiration for that one) and a right-wing tabloid. Stars Charlotte Riley, Ben Chaplin and Priyanga Burford.

Ross Kemp and the Armed Police, 9pm, ITV: The actor-turned-hard-man-turned-topless-drunk-England-fan (see YouTube for evidence) hooks up with the armed police and criminal gangs to find out what’s going on on our streets.

Friday 7th September

Ancient Invisible Cities 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Michael Scott uses 3D scanning and virtual reality to reveal the secrets of Cairo, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Sphynx.

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