Secrets of the National Trust with Alan Titchmarsh 2/13, Tuesday 6th March, 8pm, Channel 5
Alan Titchmarsh is back for a second series in which he investigates some of the great treasures of the National Trust. Some institutions are so integral to a nation’s identity that they come to represent something profound, fundamental and intrinsic. It becomes almost unthinkable to imagine national life without them, as they incorporate everything that is best about a place, its history, and its culture. That is undoubtedly the case here. What would we do without Alan Titchmarsh, eh?
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Actually, Alan was back last week, but there wasn’t space to include him. It came down to a straight shoot-out between him and fellow national treasure Mary Berry, which is the kind if impossible choice no TV critic should ever be forced to make. Mary won by an elegantly coiffured head, but those agonising hours choosing between the two will haunt me forever.
In terms of treasured status, the National Trust isn’t bad either. In a world of rampant commercialism, where Mammon is king, it is all that stands between some of the nation’s finest buildings and the prospect of being turned into a series of two-and-three bed executive apartments with communal pool, gym and juice bar.
Today, our Al visits the quite extraordinary gardens of Stowe, in Berkshire. They were developed in the early part of the 18th Century by Viscount Cobham, a Whig Politician, who wanted to create a garden that inspired political thinking and debate. It’s a morality tale for the ages: 18th -century Britain inspired political discussion using elegant gardens, monuments and temples, while today debate is fuelled by twitter. Back then, people walked the gravel paths among the rhododendrons and camellias, discussing liberty, philosophy and enfranchisement. Today, we have people Tweeting hate speech at each other in their underpants during the ad break in Emmerdale.
The gardens at Stowe are quite remarkable, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the one and only Capability Brown had a hand in their development. The park is littered with monuments, and the thoughtful Cobham even built a pub to slake the thirst of the garden’s visitors. It knocks into a cocked hat the modern equivalent of a tea room, visitor’s centre and shop.
Cobham seems like a decent sort, with a relatively progressive outlook and a desire to create something impressive and lasting for the nation. He was not above a little self-aggrandisement, however. Most of us, after all, don’t build 115ft columns with double-sized statues of ourselves at the top in a Roman toga. (I’ve been hinting to my wife for a while, but so far every birthday has been a disappointment.) Journalist Dan Jones gets the best view in the place as he climbs the internal staircase to the top, though his route back to the bottom again – abseiling down the outside – leaves a little to be desired.
The house at Stowe – more of a palace, really – is now a public school – not too shabby, as inspirational backdrops go. Titchmarsh meets the head teacher, and takes in a spot of lunch in a vast, gilded room that isn’t your average staff canteen. Indeed, as the headmaster points out, “this is exactly where Queen Victoria sat when she came to Stowe,” though presumably not in a moulded black plastic chair.
Stowe is an absolute delight, and, as ever, Titchmarsh is engaging, funny and the consummate host. And there’s a fascinating link between Stowe and the Beatles, which leads Pete Waterman to another NT property, in a suburban street in Walton, Liverpool, slightly smaller than our fabulous Stowe palace, but in many ways no less key to the national identity.
The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer 1/5, Tuesday 6th March, 8pm, Channel 4
Oh come on, schedulers, throw us a bone, would you? We spend our lives flicking channels, sifting through a seemingly endless collection of traffic cop documentaries, police dramas and property shows, and when you finally see fit to bestow upon us two absolute televisual gems, you put them on at the same time!?!
Yes, while Alan is pottering about the highways and byways of Stowe gardens, Paul, Prue, Noel and Sandy are back on 4 with a new take on an old friend, as Bake Off invites celebrities into the tent in the name of Stand Up to Cancer. Each week, four different celebrities will prostrate themselves at the gingham altar where they will be subjected to the ultimate test of their baking skills in a fight to the death. Well, not the death, exactly, but the next worst thing – missing out on a star baker accolade and victory apron.
This week’s celebrities are BBC Breakfast veteran Bill Turnbull, comedian Roisin Conaty, Harry Hill and Martin Kemp, formerly of EastEnders, even more formerly of Spandau Ballet, and the only man in showbiz to have eyes bluer than Paul Hollywood.
Cards on the table – I’m a big Bake Off fan, and yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, this, I hadn’t expected to enjoy this all that much. The point about Bake Off is that there is so much riding on it – it means such a lot to people. The other point about Bake Off is that you will see some absolutely exquisite creations. But in the Celebrity version of the show, neither of these things applies. Let’s be honest, Bill Turnbull is unlikely to burst into tears if his cake doesn’t rise, and Harry Hill is unlikely to create a bread lion or a champagne bucket cake that will stick in your mind for years to come.
Turns out, as regular readers will have doubtless figured out by now, I know absolutely nothing. I defy anyone to watch this show with anything other than a broad smile on their face. It is joyous. The characters are joyous, the bakes are joyous, the (plentiful) disasters are joyous, the presenting is joyous, and the whole experience is just a hoot.
Things get off to a suitably chaotic start with the signature challenge – 12 identical, iced, decorated cupcakes in 90 minutes. Noel asks Roisin if she’s ever made cupcakes. “I’ve never baked before, Noel,” comes the slightly concerning reply. That, and the fact that she’s making her icing using cream cheese and cider vinegar, makes for a less-than-appetising prospect. But as the round progresses, one baker in particular manages to make her look like Egon Ronay.
Roisin’s main ability seems to be to stand around looking confused. She appears to genuinely know nothing about food. “What is zest?” “Is this a sieve?” “There’s no such thing as pith!” But even she has to bow, in the hilarity stakes, to Harry Hill, who really comes into his own in the showstopper round. Asked to create a 3D biscuit scene of the best day of his life, he comes up with an idea of such outlandish and surreal hilarity it almost brings down the tent.
All this, and there’s still time for a Hollywood handshake, and what I imagine is a first in terms of lines ever spoken on British TV: “Can I eat one of your children?”
The best… and the rest
Saturday 3rd March
Piers Morgan’s Life Stories: Pamela Anderson, 9pm, ITV: The former Baywatch star discusses her remarkable life, from Playboy model to anti-pornography campaigner, via Hollywood star and rock star wife. Morgan hopefully asks more probing questions of Anderson than he did in his recent encounter with President Trump.
Monday 5th March
The Kyle Files 1/6, 8pm, ITV: Mr Kyle is the ultimate in televisual Marmite. But, if you’re so inclined, this series sees him investigating high-profile issues that impact on people’s lives. Tonight, cannabis.
Tuesday 6th March
Wild Britain, 9pm, Channel 5: New series looking at the lives of the familiar and more unusual animals in this country, from golden eagles to reindeer.
Seven Year Switch 1/6, 9:15pm, Channel 4: You’re in a relationship that feels like it might be failing. Do you (a) really work at it and make time for each other? (b) Go and see a relationship counsellor, this needs outside help? (c) reluctantly decide to break up before it becomes toxic? (d) go on a prime time TV show where you are given a new partner, because that will somehow help you work out whether you love your old partner?
Wednesday 7th March
One Born Every Minute 1/10, 9pm, Channel 4: The award-winning series moves to the Birmingham Women’s Hospital. No matter the location, somehow watching a new life come into the world never fails to be a profoundly moving experience.
Thursday 8th March
Crufts 2018, 8pm, Channel 4: Does Clare Balding EVER rest? Has she cloned herself? Anyway, tonight she fights off post-Korea jetlag to present the first evening show live from the legendary doggy beauty contest.
Rachel Nickell: The Untold Story, 9pm, ITV: Fiona Bruce pops up to present this sobering look at the dreadful murder of Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992.
Do the Right Thing with Eamonn and Ruth 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Brand new weekly consumer entertainment show, whatever one of them is. We are promised extraordinary tales of ordinary people. “There will be nothing as joyous, emotional or heartbreaking on television,” trumpets the press blurb hysterically. We’ll see.
Not Going Out 1/7, 9pm, BBC One: Series three squillion of Lee Mack’s amiable award-winning show, now the longest-running sitcom on air. Lee and Lucy (Sally Bretton) are trying to cope with life with kids Charlie and twins Molly and Benji (stupid name), not to mention Lee’s feckless dad Frank (Bobby Ball).
Still Game 1/6, 9:30pm, BBC One: More comedy antics from Jack and Victor, the two ageing residents of a Glasgow tower block who manage to envelop themselves in a world of chaos wherever they go.
Friday 9th March
Winter Paralympics Opening Ceremony Live, 10:55am, Channel 4: Ten days of jaw-dropping and utterly inspirational sporting action begins with coverage of the opening ceremony from PyeongChang, presented by Rob Walker and Ade Adepitan.
Putin – The New Tsar, 9pm, BBC Two: This one-off documentary asks how a poor boy from a tiny flat in St Petersburg become one of the world’s most powerful leaders.
Jane McDonald and Friends 1/5, 9pm, Channel 5: The cruise ship chanteuse drops anchor for a new studio-based series featuring singing, laughter and “some of the biggest stars in music”. Though some may be tempted to doubt the veracity of that last statement.