Hold the Sunset, Sunday 18th February, 7:30pm, BBC One
The problem with being incredibly successful at something is that you will be forever judged against it. Everything else you ever do will be placed next to this impossibly high yardstick and found wanting. Take me, for example. I wrote an absolutely cracking geography essay on glaciers at the age of nine, and haven’t got close to attaining those heights ever since. (And before you suggest that writing a geography essay doesn’t constitute ‘incredible success’, I would caution you that I got a gold star for it from Miss Wheeler).
So it is for John Cleese. The last starring (and indeed writing) role he had in a sitcom in this country was 39 years ago, a long-forgotten little show called Fawlty Towers. Seeing as this is widely regarded as the best sitcom ever made, that’s not so much a yardstick as a milestick, in the shape of an albatross hanging relentlessly around poor Cleese’s neck.
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Yet here he is, starring in a brand new sitcom for the BBC alongside fellow luminary and comedic legend Alison Steadman. That’s pretty much your dream sitcom pairing right there. Steadman plays Edith, a happy, warm, bubbly and cluckily maternal figure who lives in Thameside suburban bliss across the road from her beau Phil (Cleese) a childhood sweetheart with whom she has rekindled affections in retirement. Phil is an acerbic, romantic, sarcastic and funny curmudgeon who seems to ask Edith to marry him pretty much every time he pops round for morning coffee and biscuits (homemade, natch!)
Only, on this day, things are a little different. Because on this day, Edith accepts. And so the two crack open a bottle of champers (at breakfast time – heavens, I’m looking forward to retirement) and start to plan a life together, with thoughts of a house abroad, and evenings spent sipping wine and watching the sun sink into the sea (I’m REALLY looking forward to retirement).
Everything, in other words, is perfect. Which, as the immutable law of scripted television states, means everything is about to become exceedingly imperfect. And, lo and behold, at that moment, the doorbell rings…
Hold the Sunset seems to have presented the BBC with something of a dilemma. You’d expect a sitcom starring Cleese and Steadman, to have been trumpeted from the rooftops for months on end, but instead it arrives on our screens with little in the way of marketing or on-screen support. And it’s been given a 7:30pm slot on Sunday night which, while not exactly graveyard, isn’t Boxing Day sales on Oxford Street either.
And, in truth, it’s not rip-roaringly, gut-bustingly, eye-wateringly funny. But it is rather lovely. It’s wry, and gentle, and old fashioned. It is warm and affectionate and optimistic. And let’s face it, we could all do with a bit of that in our lives after a long, grey winter. It’s not the new Fawlty Towers – it’s the first Hold the Sunset. Instead of measuring one against the other, we should just be grateful that Cleese is back on our screens at all. It’s been far too long.
The First Brit: Secrets of the 10,000 Year Old Man, Sunday 18th February, 8pm, Channel 4
The First Brit in question, in Channel 4’s hour-long, one-off documentary, is 10,000 year-old Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain, discovered in a cave in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. Thanks to advances in technology, scientists have been able to extract Cheddar Man’s DNA to give us a more complete picture than ever before of what our forebears looked like.
Using a model of the skull, and the new DNA evidence, experts have reconstructed Cheddar Man’s head. In the programme, this constitutes a big unveiling, a huge, exciting surprise. The effect of this, however, will have been nullified somewhat by the fact that the picture of said head was on the front page of most national newspapers last week, and featured on the rolling 24-hour news channels on a loop for days on end.
As a result, you’ve almost certainly seen the head. If, however, you haven’t, allow me to spoil the surprise for you now: He’s green. I know! And he’s got pink eyes, three of them, and two noses. (It’s at this stage that the programme makers might be starting to examine their decision to put the reconstruction in the hands of Class 2B from Borehamwood Infant School with a load of plasticine).
In truth, if you’ve not seen it, the unveiling is indeed a powerful moment. The reconstruction is extraordinary, both scientifically and in terms of a creative achievement. It’s certainly an improvement on the previous model of Cheddar Man, created by the University of Manchester 20 years ago, which makes him look like a roadie for an unsuccessful regional heavy metal band who has been slightly melted in the microwave.
The show is filled with clever science boffins in white coats doing forensic stuff, and talking about what life would have been like for these early Brits. They discuss why Cheddar Gorge was a good place for early man to live – shelter, plentiful water, and a good range of wildlife to hunt, not to mention a charming visitor centre and restaurant. And there is much discussion about identity, nationhood and culture.
But the real fascination comes from the building of the head. The work is carried out by a couple of Dutch twins, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, two of the foremost prehistoric model makers in the world (although to put that in context, as narrow fields go, this one has the width of a thread). Hugely enthusiastic, extremely talkative, and with lots of rather wild hair, they are what Jedward would be like with a PhD.
Both the science and the story are fascinating, and the whole lot is delightfully narrated by the mellifluous tones of Downton’s Mr Carson, aka Jim Carter. It’s definitely worth a look, if for no other reason than, when confronted with a 10,000-year-old man, we can all feel young for once.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 17th February
Winter Olympics, actually pretty much all day every day: I don’t have the time or the inclination to produce an exhaustive list of when the women’s 20km Biathlon is taking place. Suffice to say, if you tune into the BBC One or Two anytime between midnight and 8pm over the next week, you’re liable to see someone in garish Lycra doing something potentially life-threatening on something very slippery and white.
Britain at Low Tide 1/6: East Sussex, 8pm, Channel 4: Tori Herridge explores Britain’s extraordinary maritime, industrial and natural history, the type that only appears when the tide is out. Fortunately, she’s not afraid to get her feet wet.
Troy: Fall of a City 1/8, 9:10pm, BBC One: David Farr, whose Night Manager was one of 2016’s drama highlights, returns with an eight-part retelling of the Trojan War. Tonight, a herdsman called Paris meets a lass called Helen. What could possibly go wrong?
Monday 19th February
Marcella 1/8, 9pm, ITV: Anna Friel returns as DS Marcella Backland for a second series of ITV’s acclaimed crime drama, from the pen of Nordic screenwriter Hans Rosenfeldt. This opening episode sees a workman making gruesome discovery that has a personal impact on Marcella and her family.
24 Hours in Police Custody, 9pm, Channel 4: BAFTA-nominated series following Bedfordshire police begins with an extraordinary opening episode looking into a case of alleged police corruption.
Tuesday 20th February
100 Year Old Driving School 1/6, 7:30pm, ITV: Britain’s oldest drivers are back on our screens, including 102-year-old veteran Royal Naval Officer John Errol Manners, who has successfully cheated death three times, and likes to drive on the other side of the road so as to “see the oncoming traffic better”.
Benidorm: 10 Years on Holiday, 9pm, ITV: New documentary celebrating ten glorious, slightly sunburned years of the award-winning comedy.
Working with Weinstein, 10pm, Channel 4: The fall of Harvey Weinstein has been a tale of horrific abuse that went unchallenged for decades, and would have looked far-fetched in one of his films. This documentary hears from some of Weinstein’s myriad accusers, and looks at how he got away with his alleged criminal behaviour for so long.
Wednesday 21st February
The BRIT Awards 2018, 8pm, ITV: Jack Whitehall hosts the biggest night in music, from the O2. However, in the unlikely event that you are entirely uninterested in whether Big Narstie wins more awards than Stormzy, there’s bound to be something else on.
Supershoppers Savers Special, 8pm, Channel 4: For example, you could join Anna Richardson and Sabrina Grant, and discover how to save a few pounds on the weekly shop (with the added bonus that this programme is less likely to make your ears bleed).
Friday 23rd February
Gogglebox, 9pm, Channel 4: The award-winning show, watching others watching TV, returns, although this time without the sagacity and dry wit of the late, lamented Leon and his wife June, both of whom will be hugely missed on our screens.