Steve Backshall vs The Monster Mountain, Sunday 27th May, 8pm, BBC Two
Generally speaking, I’ve never been a fan of children’s entertainment. I mean, not ‘never’ obviously. I wasn’t one of these kids who wore a three-piece suit and lamented going to the panto because it interrupted my ability to read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in the original French. But I’ve never been one of those adults who loves watching children’s films or TV with their kids. If I take them to see the latest Disney offering at the multiplex, you’re likely to find me sparked out, head back, mouth catching flies.
That said, if every offering on CBBC is as riveting as this one-off documentary, it may be time for a rethink. Clearly the powers that be at the Beeb agree, because this film, a chronicle of TV naturalist Steve Backshall’s attempt to conquer the North Face of the Eiger, was shown a few weeks ago on children’s telly, and is now being screened in prime time on BBC Two. And it’s genuinely edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckle stuff.
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We join proceedings with Backshall preparing to tackle his long-cherished ambition, to climb the North Face of the Eiger. It’s pretty clear to me from the outset that Steve and I aren’t so much cut from different cloth as being from entirely different species. His lifetime goal is to tackle one of the most arduous and dangerous climbs in the world. Mine is to work out a way to answer the front door without having to get up off the sofa. If I have a secondary ambition, it is to never even lay eyes on the Eiger. I got sweaty palms just looking at it on the telly.
Backshall’s preparations include being trained by double-Olympic gold medallist, rower Helen Glover who, in a handy twist of fate, happens to be his wife. Maybe I’d be in better condition if my wife subjected me to such an intensive fitness program. On the other hand, maybe I’d be divorced. Ice cold swims and green nutri-drinks aren’t my idea of romance.
Accompanying Backshall on his climb will be his friend Leo Holding, one of the world’s best climbers. If Backshall and I are different species, Holding and I don’t even inhabit the same reality. At one point, they set off for a practise climb, and stop to sleep overnight in bivvy-bags on the ground in temperatures of -20°C, before getting up at 4am to cook breakfast in a tin. “I’d take this over a posh hotel 100-times over,” announces the clearly deranged Holding. Good luck, Steve – this is the man who’s leading you up the face known as the “Wall of Death”.
But first, Backshall has his own demons to conquer. Like a deep-rooted fear, caused by his near paralysis following a climbing accident in the past, which saw him break his back and his leg. He is endearingly open about his anxiety, and about his desire to impress Holding. Indeed, what’s charming about Backshall is that he is clearly a tough, strong, brave alpha-male, without any of the rather tedious characteristics that can often accompany such alpha-ness.
Training done, it’s time to tackle the mountain. Their route will take them across the Hinterstoisser Traverse, past the White Spider, and through the charmingly-named Death Bivouac. They’re prepared, strong, and as confident as you can be climbing something that features a sojourn in somewhere called Death Bivouac. And then the Beast from the East hits, and suddenly everything changes…
Pompeii’s Final Hours: New Evidence, Wednesday 30th May, 9pm, Channel 5
From one absurdly dangerous mountain to another. We leave behind the icy vertiginous crags of the Eiger to travel to the verdant slopes of Vesuvius, for a new three-part series showing on consecutive nights this week on Channel 5. The Last Days of Pompeii follows the events in mid-October, 79AD.
The presenting team consists of historian Bettany Hughes, archaeologist Raksha Dave, and TV-journalist-turned-professional-dancer John Sergeant. Tonight’s opening episode looks at the days before the eruption, and tells the story of a thriving Roman town that was remarkably sophisticated and advanced - back then, for example, literally everyone had a tablet (boom-tish! I’m available for weddings, christenings and Bar Mitzvahs, by the way).
Dave begins by visiting the impressively opulent home of Tiberius Verus, a local politician. It’s a lovely property – bit of a fixer-upper, if you’re in the market, what with the whole partially destroyed by volcanic eruption thing – but it’s particularly notable for one feature: its sex room. Most people would be happy with a second bathroom, but each to their own. You can tell it’s a sex room, in part because the mosaics on the walls were not fit for public viewing. Indeed, they’re actually pixelated out on camera. I mean, I know everything looks a bit pixelated when it’s a mosaic, but these are properly hidden from our view, even though it’s after the watershed. And this is Channel 5!
Meanwhile, Hughes is on the far more savoury (in every sense) trail of Roman food. Apparently the streets of Pompeii were lined with fast food outlets, selling all manner of fare. If it were still around today, they’d all have turned into branches of Pret. That said, as Sergeant discovers, one of the local delicacies at the time was Testicole di Torro (no prizes for translating that one) so maybe a crayfish and rocket sandwich wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.
Dave is now off to a local high-tech centre monitoring Vesuvius’ volcanic activity. Its hugely sensitive equipment picks up even the most minute movements. Dave is alarmed to see the machines frantically recording activity, only to discover it’s not a massive geothermal explosion, but the 9:52 Pompeii-to-Naples bus passing by a sensor. Clearly thrown, she then goes on to ask what may be one of the more vacuous questions in the history of human existence. “How much of a surprise would it have been for locals when Vesuvius erupted?”
One of the most remarkable aspects of Pompeii is the casts made of humans in the positions they were adopting when they died, frozen (if it’s not a wildly inappropriate term) in time forever by the ash that covered them. Now Hughes and Dave are taking two of them to hospital. I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but I think they may be beyond saving. Ah, they’re being scanned in a CT scanner, to “help work out the cause of death”. Just a hunch, but I’ve a feeling the socking great volcanic eruption might have played a part.
This is clearly a big event for Channel 5, stripping a documentary across three consecutive nights. And it’s not hard to see why they’re making a fuss of it. Hughes, Dave and Sergeant make a winning presenting team (and those of you who have always wanted to see John Sergeant in a toga will not be disappointed). But it’s Pompeii, whose endlessly fascinating and ultimately tragic tale echoes through the ages, that is the real star here.
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The best… and the rest
Saturday 26th May
UEFA Champions League Final Highlights, ITV, 10:30pm: Can Liverpool overcome reigning champions Real Madrid to win the most coveted prize in club football? With two sides boasting attacking riches and leaky defences, it should be fun finding out!
Sunday 27th May
Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix Live, 1:45pm, Channel 4: For some reason, the jewel in the crown of the Formula 1 season is a race where very, very fast cars don’t get to go very fast at all, and overtaking is virtually impossible. It’s lovely to look at, mind you. Steve Jones and co bring the glamour to your living room. Wear something nice.
Countryfile Royal Special 1/3, 6:30pm, BBC One: To celebrate 30 years of Countryfile and 65 years since the Coronation, this new three-part series looks at life on the royal estates, starting this evening with Windsor. Matt Baker explores the estate in a horse-drawn carriage, while the rest of the team report on schemes taking place including livestock-breeding and tree-planting.
The London Palladium: The Greatest Stage on Earth, 8pm, ITV: Feature-length documentary that sees Bradley Walsh go behind the scenes of ‘the world’s most famous theatre’ (hmm) to discover its history and secrets, and to meet some of the stars who have performed there.
Monday 28th May
Britain’s Got Talent, Semi Final Week, 7:30pm, nightly: If you’re allergic to talent shows, dance troupes, magicians, child singers, dog acts or to a middle-aged man with a shirt open to his navel, you might want to give ITV a miss this week.
Springwatch 2018 1/12, 8pm, BBC Two: Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan return once more to the Sherborne Park Estate for more live goings on from the animal kingdom. This delightful series proves that there is just as much drama taking place on our doorstep as on the plains of the Serengeti. Well, almost as much.
King Lear, 9:30pm, BBC Two: Shakespeare’s absolutely bonkers tragedy has a very dim view of family life, but isn’t short on melodrama. This production, set in present day, looks spectacular, with Richard Eyre directing a cast including Emma Thompson and Emily Watson as the scheming Goneril and Regan, Jim Broadbent as the myopic Gloucester, and Andrew Scott as Edgar. At the centre of it all is the one and only Anthony Hopkins as the mad king himself,
Peter Kay’s Car Share: The Finale, 10pm, BBC One: At the end of series two, John and Kayleigh’s failure to unite in a passionate clinch so infuriated the show’s legion of fans that Peter Kay has written one last episode of this utterly charming, hilarious love story. They’d better get together this time, or there will be hell to pay.
Tuesday 29th May
The Battle for Britain’s Heroes, 9pm, Channel 4: This film, made by journalist Afua Hirsch, will infuriate traditionalists, as she goes after the legacy of some of Britain’s most heroic historical figures and suggests that they were maybe not as morally virtuous as we might like to think.
4 Men, 175 Babies: Britain’s Super Sperm Donors, 10pm, Channel 4: Meet four men who have collectively fathered 175 babies via unregulated sperm donation. Why do they do it, and what are the potential consequences?
Wednesday 30th May
The Big Crash Diet Experiment, 8pm, BBC One: Dr Javid Abdelmoneim looks at the latest research that suggests that some crash diets may not be the pointless, masochistic disasters we’ve all come to assume, But how will a bunch of human guinea pigs fare – including one who was so hooked on fast food she was invited to her kebab vendor’s wedding.
Friday 1st June
Tracey Breaks the News, 9:30pm, BBC One: The marvellous Tracey Ullman returns with her comedy impressions satirising current events. Joining her on this series are rather marvellous incarnations of Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg.