TV blog: Billy Connolly's Great American Trail

Benjie Goodhart / 30 August 2019

Billy Connolly returns to our screens in a journey through the USA, and a group of youths volunteer in The Big Hospital Experiment.

Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail, Thursday 5th September, 9pm, ITV

ITV has a lot to answer for. Much of its material is so cheesy it can clog up our televisual arteries in an instant. The ceaseless tide of high-fat, sugary junk food of gameshows, talent shows, reality shows and soaps is unerringly depressing, even if Jeremy Kyle has been temporarily exorcised from the broadcaster. But even if ITV never did anything of value ever again, I’d still forgive them everything for the semi-regular opportunities it gives us to catch up with Billy Connolly. When Billy is on our screens, the world is a better, happier, warmer and kinder place.

Recently, Billy Connolly has made retrospectives of his life, and programmes about death, but in this show he is going back to what he does best – hitting the highways and byways, meeting people, and enjoying the quirks of life. And, let’s face it, countries don’t come much quirkier than America. Our Billy, a proud Scot who has long resided Stateside, is going on the road to discover more about the contribution Scottish immigrants have made to the USA.

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the outset. I do not expect, at any point in this series, to find Mr Connolly celebrating the work of one Donald J Trump, even if he is of Scottish origin. I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that Connolly and Trump are very much at opposite ends of the political and ethical spectrum.

According to Connolly, 33 US presidents have laid claim to Scottish roots, as well as the first man on the moon, Elvis, and the voice of Mickey Mouse. I’m now imagining Mickey Mouse with a broad Glaswegian accent.

Billy starts his journey where it all began – Plymouth, where the pilgrims first landed. He meets a Scotsman running a whale conservation group who has invented a flying drone that collects the spume ejected from a whale’s blowhole. Apparently you can tell a lot about a whale’s health from its spume. The drone, incidentally, has been given the slightly over-descriptive name of the snotbot, so maybe don’t watch this sequence while having dinner. Particularly if your dinner is oysters (I like to fantasise that most of my readers are wildly extravagant aristocrats).

His journey takes him through Massachusetts, to the town of Gloucester, the oldest seaport in the US. It is where the Andrea Gail (the boat featured in the film The Perfect Storm) sailed from, and there is a memorial in the town for all the local fishermen lost at sea over the years. It is shockingly long, like a war memorial in a large town.

And so to Salem, the site of the notorious (and brutal) witch trials of 1692. Witchcraft is now America’s fastest growing religion, although I’m not entirely sure why it qualifies as a religion. Surely it’s more of a hobby, or a passion. Can I start putting my religion down on forms as “Doughnuts”? Billy meets Lori Cabot, the official witch of Salem. (I will think of her whenever I worry that my job lacks gravitas). She is, it turns out, a shameless flirt, which doesn’t seem particularly witchy.

Thence it’s on to New York state, to the birthplace of the original ‘Uncle Sam’, whose family hailed from Greenock. Finally, in New York City, he visits Ellis Island, where immigrants moving to the US used to have to pass through. Billy produces an extraordinary statistic: 40 per cent of the US population can trace their roots to Ellis Island. Gratifyingly, enough of them came from Scotland to ensure that we have a series that, in the image of its host, is warm, big-hearted, and hugely entertaining.

The Big Hospital Experiment 1/4, Wednesday 4th September, 9pm, BBC Two

There are certain characteristics that make one fundamentally British: Hideous social awkwardness when it comes to complaining in restaurants; a marked inability to cope with any air temperature other than ‘mild’; the near-certain conviction that any difficulty, be it physical, emotional, political, economic or practical, can be sorted out by the consumption of tea. And a great and deep-seated love for the NHS.

But although we love the NHS, we’ve been neglecting it. I can relate to that. I adore my kids, but five weeks into the summer holidays, I’m more than happy to ignore them completely. But the NHS is in real trouble. Consistently underfunded (and with no indication that the celebrated £350m-a-week windfall is imminent) the service is suffering from acute staff shortages. This bold new documentary series, though, is looking into the prospect of a solution to this issue. Get young people to volunteer.

The idea, of course, is fraught with problems. The first is getting young people to volunteer. I’ve been trying to get my son to pick up his pants for more years than I care to remember, and even that seems like too much effort for him. The second is that young people aren’t necessarily equipped to go straight into a hospital environment and be useful. Unless you have thousands of patients who need urgent help in lessons on how to wear shoes without socks, or updating their Instagram page with selfies of themselves smiling over a smashed avocado bagel, there may be a skills shortage.

I’m being facetious, of course. The younger generation are, in many ways, more tolerant, caring and conscientious than our own. The lack of socks thing is totally unforgiveable, but in most other respects, they are pretty sorted. So it’ll be a fascinating experiment to see how well the 14 volunteers (aged 18-24) cope with being thrown in at the deep end, working in Royal Derby Hospital for six weeks.

They’re a mixed bag, this lot. Some of them, like Charlotte, seem absolute naturals, born to look after others. And then there is Erik. His only experience of hospital is a private one, when he had cosmetic treatments. He’s excited about volunteering because “I love a bit of Casualty”. I think he may be overplaying the number of terrorist incidents, and underplaying the amount of bedpan washing, that is in store. Incidentally, Erik, who is 21, doesn’t actually know how to make a cup of tea. Literally. So they teach him. At one point, he remarks to a nurse: “It’s so stressful, making a cup of tea.” “What would you do if someone had a cardiac arrest,” comes the waspish reply.

Probably the words you want to hear least of all in this process are “You’re on the colorectal ward,” but for Poppy and Deborah, that’s the fate that awaits them. Unfortunately for Deborah, she’s a little squeamish. She is tasked with helping change the stoma bag of John, a 27-year-old patient who has just had part of his bowel removed. It doesn’t go brilliantly. Suffice to say, if the man who has just had life-changing surgery and is now wearing his bowel outside his body ends up consoling you, you’re probably not quite fulfilling your brief. That said, it’s easy to scoff, but I retched bagging up a small spaniel poo this morning, so I’m not really in a position to cast judgement.

Will, meanwhile, looks an unpromising candidate. He’s had more jobs than Miss Rabbit (a joke for the Peppa Pig fans out there) and none seem to last long. He’s also most exercised about how many fag breaks he can fit in. He has been placed, thanks to someone’s sense of irony, on the cancer ward. A couple of days in, he’s heard remarking that the work is easier than he’d imagined. That’s what’s commonly known as a tactical error, as he soon discovers.

But just as the whole experiment is starting to look like a complete write-off, something rather marvellous happens. The volunteers hit their straps, and actually become… useful. And so much of it is so simple. Because they have a little more time than nurses, they are able to stop and chat to patients, to brush their hair, or help them with their lunch. And the results, for all concerned, are remarkable, and quietly beautiful. Particularly touching are Poppy and Deborah, who converse with a hard-of-hearing old gent called Eric by writing on a whiteboard. Although I’m not sure I’d have opted for the ice-breaker that they went for. “What kind of music do you like?” If you’re writing it on a white board, it’s probably the wrong question to ask…

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The best… and the rest

Saturday 31st August

Britain’s Got Talent: The Champions, 8pm, ITV: The Olympics of talent shows sees the best acts from the UK go up against winners of shows from around the world. As usual, Simon Cowell and his chest hair head up the judging.

Sunday 1st September

Untouchable: The Rise and Fall of Harvey Weinstein, 9pm, BBC Two: Feature-length documentary looking at the career and crimes of the monstrous and predatory Mr Weinstein,. Who used his power to satisfy his nefarious sexual appetites.

50 Years of the Troubles: A Journey Through Film, 10:20pm, Channel 4: Film-maker Mark Cousins charts the Troubles through the prism of film, looking at how cinema provided him, and others, with a means of expression and escape.

Monday 2nd September

Celebrity MasterChef 1/18, 8pm, BBC One: Zandra Rhodes, Neil Ruddock, Joey Essex, Oti Matube and Andy Grant are the first up in the kitchen. If Joey Essex can cook a meal, I will eat my laptop.

Jamie’s Meat-Free Meals 1/8, 8pm, Channel 4: The enthusiastic Mr Oliver returns with a series to help us cook meals that are healthier for both us and the planet.

A Confession 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, Siobhan Finneran and Joe Absalom star in this fact-based thriller about DS Steve Fulcher, whose breach of police protocol caught him a criminal, but cost his career.

The Rise of the Nazis, 9pm, BBC Two: New documentary series telling the familiar, but always grimly fascinating, tale of how evil almost conquered the world.

Tuesday 3rd September

The Capture 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: Holliday Grainger and Callum Turner star in this new drama about a soldier who returns home after his conviction for murder in Afghanistan is overturned. But before he can settle into his comfortable new life, events take a shocking turn.

High Society: Cannabis Café, 10:15pm, Channel 4: 20 Brits of assorted ages and backgrounds, go to an Amsterdam coffee shop to get high, and look at the truth behind the headlines to do with cannabis.

Wednesday 4th September

Location, Location, Location, 8pm, Channel 4: Phil and Kirstie are back with series three squillion of the property show with added ‘bantz’.

Grand Designs, 9pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud returns to meet more people who want to build mahussive eco-houses made of woven hemp and curved glass imported from Mongolia.

Thursday 5th September

The Dog House 1/8, 8pm, Channel 4: Fixed rig documentary series following daily life in an animal charity that tries to manage homeless dogs with hopeful owners. I can feel my wife welling up already.

First Dates Hotel 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: Fred and the First Dates team return for the romantic spin-off, which sees the dates take place in the glorious surroundings of rural Italy. If you can’t find love there…

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