TV blog: QE2

Benjie Goodhart / 01 February 2018

The story of the fastest passenger ship ever built in Britain. Plus, Dale Winton in Florida and the rest of the week’s TV highlights.

QE2: The World’s Greatest Cruise Ship, Tuesday 6th February, 9pm, Channel 5

I’m writing this on my morning commute. It’s the last day of what has felt like an interminable January, and outside the skies are not so much slate grey as darker than the lasagne I burned last night. (It really was charred. In my defence, Pointless was on). Outside, an air of damp gloom pervades everything. Inside, it is little different. Today’s journey is being ‘illuminated’ by two very cheerful people having an animated and happy discussion. Needless to say, everybody hates them.

I need a bit of escapism. I need some glamour in my life. I need the QE2. Unfortunately, I’ve left it a bit late – it’s now a floating hotel in Dubai – but as this two-part series points out, it was once a thing of magnificent, revolutionary beauty.

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When the ship was first commissioned in the 1960s, it was widely seen as the most expensive white elephant in history. In an age when Boeing were launching the 747, and revolutionising transatlantic travel, the idea of spending a Queen’s ransom on a ship to do the journey a great deal slower, for a great deal more money, seemed utterly barking.

But we are a nation of seafarers, and romantics, so why would you choose a foil-wrapped meal and the threat of deep vein thrombosis instead of of dining at the captain’s table, sipping Martinis on your balcony, and giggling about something called the poop deck? The QE2 wasn’t just a qualified success – she went on to sail further than any ship in history.

She was no slouch in the speed stakes, either. With a cruising speed of 28.5 knots, it remains, even 50 years later, the fastest passenger ship ever built in Britain. It did the crossing to New York in four-and-a-half days. From full speed, it had a stopping distance of 45 miles. Just as well it wasn’t doing the Dover-Calais run, or it would have ended up beached somewhere on the outskirts of Paris.

The first episode deals largely with the ship’s construction. Now, I find documentaries about large bits of metal being welded together as achingly dull as the next man, unless the next man is a passionate welding enthusiast, in which case I’d like to move seats, please. But this isn’t a dry tale of heavy industry, a less-than-riveting tale about endless riveting. This is a compelling story about a virtually bankrupt ocean liner company, and a similarly impecunious shipyard, coming together to create a little bit of maritime magic. And, unlike a voyage aboard the QE2, the journey was by no means an easy one (it also involved fewer bottles of bubbly, and almost no bingo at all).

This is a story of industrial unrest, financial discomfort, theft, vandalism, and potentially devastating technical mishaps. It’s also one of breath-taking vision, state-of-the-art design, and revolutionary forward thinking. There are also some remarkable nuggets of information – like the fact that the Queen actually gave the ship the wrong name, on launch day, and it stuck. Oh, and perhaps best of all, it features the man who was head of Cunard at the time, who was called Sir Basil Smallpiece. If a name like that doesn’t cheer up a wintry evening, chances are you’re dead.

Coming soon in 2019, Saga's new cruise ship Spirit of Discovery. Find out more about how the ship will look

Dale Winton’s Florida Fly Drive, Thursday 8th February, 9pm, Channel 5

Dale Winton is getting ready to go on holiday. For most of us, that involves putting clothes in a bag, making sure our favourite programmes will be recorded, and forgetting to take the three-week old cauliflower out of the fridge. For Dale, it involves going to Asda with an absolutely enormous trolley to stock up on must-haves. This turns out to be a packet of Typhoo teabags and two jars of Golden Shred marmalade. I’m not sure he needed the big trolley. Still, at least he’s got the marmalade which, I presume, is to slather on his face every morning. He really is the most remarkable colour. It’s as if David Dickinson and a reasonably dramatic sunset had a baby.

He knows it, though, does our Dale. He’s got a nice line in self-deprecating humour. He’s always ready with a quip, as often as not at his own expense. Which makes him good company, and means that this three-part travelogue around Florida is something of a cheerful romp. He starts off at Disneyworld in Orlando.

The place is enormous – at 40 square miles, it’s the same size as Greater Manchester, albeit somewhat warmer and with a slightly different ambience. Dale meets Mickey Mouse, watches a spectacular fireworks display, and goes on the teacups. He also meets the cartoon chipmunks Chip and Dale. Due to lack of a shared nomenclature, poor Chip is slightly left out of proceedings.

Next, it’s off for a bit of shopping. It’s striking to note that, wherever he goes, Dale seems to be recognised by Brits abroad. I suppose if you want anonymity, Florida isn’t the best place, with over 1.5 million Brits visiting every year. Dagestan might be a better option. Not that Dale minds – he’s a charmer, happy to chat and pose for pics and call out “How are you, my love?” as if they’re old friends rather than a bloke in a Spurs top who’s just shouted a Supermarket Sweep catchphrase across a concourse.

Next, Dale goes to Cassadega, the spiritual capital of the US. You just know Dale’s going to lap up this nonsense  - and he does. What’s more of a surprise is how moving his encounter with a (predictably vague) medium turns out to be. The issue of his mother comes up – she took her own life days after his 21st birthday, and the scars are still vivid and raw.

From there, it’s on to St Augustine, the oldest city in the US (which isn’t saying much – you probably have a can of tinned peaches that’s older). The place is absolutely teeming with people shuffling along with arms full of cameras and ice cream, and the traffic is bumper-to-bumper. Dale loves it. He’s an enthusiast, our Dale. He’s particularly excited about visiting the ‘world famous Fountain of Youth’. It turns out to be a rather prosaic-looking trickle of water. Nevertheless, a determined-looking Dale has three cups of the magical elixir. There are no immediate affects, but maybe programme two will be presented by an 11-year-old.

Anyway, it’s all very jolly. Florida is sunny and beautiful, Dale is arch and wry and a little bit naughty. Everything is as it should be.

Discover the USA, from the Pacific Coast Highway to the neck-craning skyscrapers of New York. Find out more here

The best… and the rest

Sunday 4th February

6 Nations Live: Italy v England, 2:15pm, ITV: The latest iteration if the historic championship kicks off with what should be a straightforward win for England. If such a thing indeed exists.

Endeavour 1/6, 8pm, ITV: More vintage cars, gleaming spires and scheming liars in the timeless and dependable detective drama. Hurrah!

Monday 5th February

The Bulger Killers: Was Justice Done?, 9pm, Channel 4: Remarkably, it’s already 25 years since the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in a crime that horrified the nation. Now, this sober and admirably sensation-free documentary asks whether justice was truly served in the resulting case.

Tuesday 6th February

Back In Time for Tea, 8pm, BBC Two: Sara Cox transports another family back to a period in history where Ocado didn’t exist, and organic pesto was simply impossible to track down…

The Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds: All Girls, 8pm, Channel 4: To mark 100 years of female suffrage, the charming fly-on-the-nursery-wall show looks at how young girls behave when the boisterous chaos of little chaps is removed from the equation.

What Would Your Kid Do? 8pm, ITV: Fun new format in which comedian Jason Manford presents a new gameshow where parents have to guess how their children will react to a variety of situations.

Flatpack Empire 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: IKEA. We’ve all been there (some of us under duress, others tempted by the meatballs). This new three-part series goes behind the scenes of this remarkable company.

Elizabeth: Our Queen 1/8, 9pm, Channel 5: This new eight-part series looks at the life of the monarch, with tonight’s episode covering the period from her birth in 1926 to the death of her father in 1952. It’s like The Crown, only without a bloke who looks just like Doctor Who.

Ben Fogle: Return to the Wild, 10pm, Channel 5: The delightful, puppyish Mr Fogle reunites with people he met living in remote locations in New Lives in the Wild. Here he travels to the canyons of Utah, where three years ago he first met 72-year-old twins Bill and Bob Stone, who turned their back on an adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle to live organically and prepare for doomsday.

Wednesday 7th February

Eurovision: You Decide, 7:30pm, BBC Two: Decide not to watch. Six acts go head-to-head in the Brighton Dome to determine who will represent the UK and finish 19th in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

My Millionaire Migrant Boss, 9pm, Channel 4: Liverpool-based Palestinian and multi-millionaire Marwan Koukash offers four unemployed Brits a two-week work trial. Can they prove they have the right attitude to be offered a job at the end of the placement? An odd idea, that seems to be attempting to make a serious point, it’s just difficult to work out what it is.

Thursday 8th February

Winter Olympics: Countdown to the Games, 7pm, BBC Two: Clare Balding and guests look ahead to the 23rd Winter Olympics, taking place in PyeongChang, in South Korea.

James Bulger: A Mother’s Story, 9pm, ITV: Trevor McDonald meets Denise Fergus, whose son was taken away and brutally murdered 25 years ago. This is a bleak and shattering look at the case, and the lives it ruined.

Friday 9th February

Cruising with Jane McDonald 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: The chanteuse returns with another series of cruises (how DOES she put up with the hardship?) starting tonight on the 3,000-berth Ruby Princess as it travels up the coast of California.

Julie Walters: By Her Friends, 10:35pm, Channel 5: The national treasure (an overused term, but not in this case) is the subject of a hagiography from friends and colleagues.

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