Our Lives: The Great Cheese Chase, Monday 6th August, 7:30pm, BBC One
Back in 2009 I competed in the World Championships. I know, you probably weren’t expecting such athletic endeavour from someone whose career is now so sedentary, but nevertheless, I went to the World Championships. Actually, I went to two World Championships, in two completely different disciplines, which I imagine marks me out as one of the great sporting polymaths of our age. Admittedly, the events in question were the World Marbles Championships and the World Pooh Sticks Championships, and I didn’t fare brilliantly in either one. But how many World Championships have you competed in, hmm?
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It was part of an idea for a book. I would spend a year travelling to some of the most bizarre competitive events in the UK calendar, for a comedic look at the events themselves, and at the UK in the 21st Century. It turns out that the only event I really triumphed in was the National Not Getting a Book Published Championships, where I finished equal first with around 59 million other Brits. But it was also this experience that took me to a place called Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire.
Every year, something very strange happens on Cooper’s Hill. Thousands of people converge on an absurdly steep incline to watch groups of people hurl themselves with ridiculous abandon from the top, in an attempt to catch a disc of cheese as it bounces wildly down to the bottom. Now, a BBC reporter called Seb Choudhury has made a half-hour documentary about this annual festival of lunacy, including its origins, its competitors, its organisers, and the cheese itself. He has also, in what must have seemed like a tremendous idea when the project was simply at its planning stage, decided to enter the race itself.
Choudhury travels to Cooper’s Hill as a group of local volunteers meet to make sure the course is safe, by removing twigs and boulders and rubbish. This is akin to making sure a tiger has been rendered harmless by giving its ear fur a little trim. It’s not the twigs and Coke cans that’ll injure contestants, it’s the fact that they are hurling themselves into gravitationally-significant oblivion. Honestly, it is impossible to convey the steepness of Cooper’s Hill: Words simply cannot express it. “It’s a grassy cliff face,” says Seb. Oh, okay, that does actually convey it pretty well. As does the fact that Seb’s face has gone as green as the grassy cliff face. He does not look happy.
This is a glorious tale of English eccentricity, featuring stories of skulduggery and dark arts, courage verging on the foolhardy, and a bunch of people with an unhealthy interest in cheese. But the best bits are the footage of the event itself, which may be why film crews from around the world, as well as 6,000 spectators, turn up to watch what is the modern-day equivalent of gladiatorial combat. As the moment of truth nears, Seb looks less and less like a professional BBC journalist, and more like a bloke who’s about to get closely reacquainted with his lunch.
As for me, I’d like to regale you with tales of remarkable bravery, physical courage and boundless athleticism, perhaps accompanied by a picture of me triumphantly clutching a wheel of cheese at the bottom of Cooper’s Hill. But sadly, when I turned up on the day itself, it proved impossible to get anywhere near the start line, due to the sheer number of people wanting to compete, and the fact that, due to circumstances entirely beyond my control*, I always seemed to end up at the back of the queue.
*My habit of walking quickly in the opposite direction, whistling nonchalantly.
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The Real Marigold Hotel, Wednesday 8th August, 9pm, BBC One
Due to (yet more) circumstances entirely beyond my control, last week I was unable to preview the first in the new series of The Real Marigold Hotel. Apologies, dear reader, I hope you were able to enjoy last week’s episode in spite of the absence of a few paragraphs of addled prose giving away the major plot points and making some insufferably weak jokes.
Anyway, we join the action in week two, with nine celebrities of a certain vintage settling into life in the Rajasthan city of Udaipur. They are living in an absolutely stunning lakeside property, known as a haveli, so things are off to a pretty decent start. A group of them are off to a nearby park, and specifically to an open-air gym where plenty of the local population go to exercise of a morning. Few of them, though, will ever have had the opportunity to work out alongside Ian and Janette Tough – better known as The Krankies. I’ve not laid eyes on the Krankies since they used to be regulars on Crackerjack 35 years ago. I can’t tell you what they’ve been up to in the meantime, but I’m prepared to say with no little confidence that it will have involved the word ‘panto’ on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, back at the haveli, Stanley Johnson, Stephanie Beacham and former EastEnders actor Peter Dean are being taught Hindi by a local. Peter, though, seems to be more intent on divining how to date Rajastani women. Will there be cultural disapproval? “Would the parents mind?” he asks. Peter is 78. And clearly something of an optimist.
Then they’re all off to the local Maharaja’s Palace for a party. Now, the series is ostensibly to find out what it would be like to live in India in one’s retirement. But I very much suspect that not all British retirees who move to Udaipur are invited to share bubbly with the local royalty in his 400-year-old palace. Good thing too. The party looks a bit of a drag, until a quite horrific piper and drummer come in, making a noise like an angry cat having bin lids thrown at it. Even worse, Janette sees this as an excuse to show off her dance moves.
After that, it’s all going off. The group are all popping up hither and yon trying out every manner of activity, from cricket to yoga, cycling to the sitar, cookery lessons to craft-making. Pete’s even got a date with a local woman called Christine, although I’ve seen more sparks from a wet fish. I wouldn’t be rushing out to buy a hat.
Then Pete, Selina Scott, Stanley, Stephanie and Susan George are off to stay in Amritsar and visit the Golden Temple. Selina is looking forward to the peace and tranquillity of the temple. Which means she’s clearly never seen it on TV. It’s like a cross between Victoria Station in rush hour and a Wall Street trading floor during a financial collapse. You’ve basically never seen such a frenetic place. Every day, it is visited by 100,000 pilgrims. Even more remarkably, every one of them gets a free meal. I mean, it’s not a lamb biryani from the Star of Bengal, but even a piece of bread and some daal is pretty decent when there’s 100,000 of you, and nobody thought to bring any cash. Stanley probably shouldn’t have tried to order dessert, though…
There is a slight sense, in all of this, that the gang have just been transported out to India and given a load of activities to try out – I could have done with a bit more of them just living, rather than being subjected to an endless stream of classes and trips – but this is, as ever, a show that is long on charm, beauty and fascination, and shows with admirable clarity that there is more than a little life left in these particular ageing canines.
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The best… and the rest
Sunday 5th August
Flying Across Britain with Arthur Williams 1/4, 7pm, Channel 4: Former Royal Marine Williams explores the nation from the air, opening tonight with the West Country, where he meets an array of enthusiasts and eccentrics in the best of British traditions.
Hidden Britain By Drone 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: If you’ve not yet had your fill of the UK filmed from above, this series, presented by the redoubtable Tony Robinson, shows us footage of areas that cannot be reached by everyday means.
Monday 6th August
Saving Poundstretcher 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: Documentary following one man’s quest to save Poundstretcher’s chain of discount stores.
Tower Block Kids 1/2, 9pm, Channel 5: Two-part documentary series hearing from kids growing up in tower blocks as they take stock of their lives, including their thoughts on sharing rooms, crime, poverty… and Grenfell.
Tuesday 7th August
Horizon, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary following NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, the giant planet of terrible beauty and harshness which may hold the key to the origins of the Universe itself.
Wednesday 8th August
Paul O’Grady’s Little Heroes 1/6, 8pm, ITV: Paul O’Grady meets kids receiving treatment in Great Ormond Street Hospital. It’s not always an easy watch, but O’Grady is the perfect host –warm, kind, funny, and more than happy to let the kids be the stars of the show.
Thursday 9th August
Not much. Sit outdoors with a nice glass of rosé.
Friday 10th August
Maybe finish off the rosé.