TV blog: Celebrity SAS

Benjie Goodhart / 05 April 2019

A celeb-led charity challenge, plus a gentle new sitcom are among this week’s TV highlights.

Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins for Stand Up to Cancer 1/5, Sunday 7th April, 9pm, Channel 4

Back in the salad days of journalism, when writers were paid by the word, a title like this one was a godsend. If you popped it in the body of the text a few times as well as in the title, that was practically your lunch right there, assuming you were having a sarnie and a bag of crisps rather than caviar at The Dorchester. Nowadays (and unlike caviar) it’s just a massive mouthful. If the tendency for absurdly verbose programme names increases, we’re all going to need widescreen TVs just for the title sequences.

Anyway, if you’ve never seen the non-celebrity version of SAS: Who Dares Wins, it’s basically just about the toughest show on television. Recruits are subjected to several weeks of brutalisation at the hands of special forces instructors seeking to recreate the SAS training programme to find out who would make it through selection in the real world. They’re subjected to an exhausting and punishing regime that tests their courage, fortitude, strength, nous, fitness and endurance. They’re also shouted and sworn at for pretty much every waking moment of their existence – it’s like living in a Tarantino movie. If they had a swear box on set, it’d end up rivalling Fort Knox’s gold reserves.

The show starts in the same week that Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up to Cancer finishes. I have to say, were I a celebrity (which, in my own mind, I definitively am) I think I’d go for the baking-scones-in-the-grounds-of-a-country-house-with-Sandi-Toksvig option rather than the one that would see me floundering in a frozen Andean lake while a man with a beard swore at me profusely. Call me old-fashioned.

The truth is, if any of the celebrities taking part in this show thought they’d get an easier ride from the instructors on the grounds of their rarefied status, they’re disabused of that fact pretty much instantly. The very first test they are subjected to sees them having to fall backwards out of a helicopter into a freezing cold lake below. It looks horrible, and for former Tory MP Louise Mensch it is a moment of pure unadulterated terror. She’s clearly struggling to channel her inner Schwarzenegger, in spite of telling us in no uncertain terms, during her interview, that he is a personal friend of hers. That booming sound you heard was his rather long name hitting the floor from a great height.

The other 11 celebrities, by the way, boast varying degrees of fame, as is always the case with these shows. One day, there will be one where Barak Obama, Paul Newman, the Duke of Edinburgh and JK Rowling all go camping together or something, but in the meantime we’ve got the usual smattering of retired athletes, reality TV stars, and actors ‘on sabbatical’. That said, it’s an interesting bunch, including Olympic champion Victoria Pendleton, former England stars Wayne Bridge (football) and Ben Foden (rugby), Loose Women’s Andrea McLean and War Horse star Jeremy Irvine.

The whole experience looks utterly hellish, which is always quite fun to watch from the comfort of your own sofa, with a nice biscuit or a glass of wine. And then chief instructor Ant Middleton pops up on screen and asks you to give money to Stand Up to Cancer, and if Ant asks you to do something, you’re a brave soul to resist, even if he’s only on the telly.

And, of course, there is the VT featuring someone with cancer – in this case, a young British judo star called Jamie. It’s a profoundly moving film, and a timely reminder that real suffering is more likely to be happening behind a front door in your street than in a Chilean training camp.

Don’t Forget the Driver 1/6, Tuesday 9th April, 10pm, BBC Two

Being a TV critic is a fairly straightforward business. You watch something on the box. You make notes. You shout at the children for coming in every three minutes to get you to resolve an argument. You decide whether you like something or not, and write it up accordingly (making sure, wherever possible, to squeeze in a joke about Jeremy Kyle). That’s it.

Well, no this time. This time I’m going to deviate from the plan. I mean, I’ve watched the programme and taken copious notes, and I’ve shouted at the kids, obviously. And, if the opportunity arises, it would be irresponsible not to get in a dig at our Jezza. But I can’t take a stance on this new series, because I have absolutely no idea whether I like it or not.

It’s a new six-part sitcom written by and starring Toby Jones, the brilliant star of The Detectorists and countless Hollywood blockbusters. It’s set in Bognor Regis, a place where I have spent a good deal of time, but could tell you absolutely nothing about, as every second of that time has been spent at Butlins. (I could wax lyrical about Butlins, but another of the golden rules of TV criticism, and indeed life, is don’t spend all your time talking to people about your holidays).

Jones plays Pete, a single dad living in a squalid house in Bognor with his rather selfish and directionless daughter Kayla (Erin Kellyman, Eponine in the BBC’s marvellous recent adaptation of Les Miserables). In between looking after her and worrying about his mum, who has dementia, he just about finds time to have a job as a coach driver, which is about as glamorous as it sounds. To emphasise the humdrum nature of Pete’s life, he has a twin brother in Australia, Barry (also played by Jones) who video calls him from beside the pool at his expansive Aussie property.

The other figures in Pete’s life are co-driver Dave (Danny Kirrane) – young, enthusiastic, crass, funny; and Fran (Claire Rushbrook) who runs a local catering van, and will, I suspect, provide a spot of will-they, won’t-they romantic interest.

Pete and Dave are taking a group of retirees to Dunkirk for the day, to pay their respects to veterans, and (seemingly more importantly) to stock up on booze and fags. Pete has to contend with driving, listening to Dave’s terrible jokes, and the slightly excessive attentions of Maureen, one of his passengers. Meanwhile, back in Bognor, daughter Kayla dreams of a better life. “There’s nothing here,” she opines to her friend. “There’s always Butlins,” he replies, and they both burst out laughing. It’s easy to mock, but their archery is second-to-none, and where else can you see a panto all year round?

The action moves along as sedately as a coach queuing for a cross-channel ferry. Which is a polite way of saying not much really happens. Herein lies my problem. Generally speaking, when nothing really happens in a show, it’s not a good sign. Except some of my favourite shows have nothing happen. And a good deal of action and lurid drama does not always signify a quality programme – just look at Jeremy Kyle. (Box ticked).

I’m also not sure I laughed once, which generally isn’t a great sign for a comedy. And yet… there is something about the show… It’s sad, and it’s gentle, and it has some interesting characters, and the first inklings of some real warmth. And Jones, as ever, is brilliant, in a careworn, world-weary way. Just as with Butlins, then, I’ll be going back for more.

The best and the rest

Saturday 6th April

The Grand National, 2pm, ITV: The nation’s exercise in giving money to the bookmakers (maybe that’s just me) returns once more, with some very big horses jumping over some even bigger fences. My tip? Bojangles Masterful, a good each way bet at 10-million-to-one. (The odds are so good because I just made the horse up.)

Match of the Day Live: FA Cup Semi-Final, 4:55pm, BBC One: Manchester City v Brighton. Can the Seagulls upset the odds to stop the all-conquering City in their quest for the quadruple? Um… no, probably not.

Britain’s Got Talent, 7:15pm, ITV: The annual search for a superstar begins again, with the unceasing quest for a dancing dog, a ventriloquist who’s not rubbish, or someone who can actually sort out Brexit.

The Voice UK: Live Final, 8:40pm, ITV: Who will win? Malcolm, the fridge technician from Ullapool, or Susie, the lollipop lady from East Grinstead? (I’ve not been watching, and may have just made them up, too…)

Sunday 7th April

The Boat Race, 1:20pm, BBC One: Look, I know my tip for the winner of the Grand National was fairly ropey, but I’m quite confident I’ve picked out the winner in this one. Or, at least, I’ve narrowed it down to two… James Cracknell, in the Cambridge boat, becomes the oldest ever competitor at 46.

The Durrells, 8pm, ITV: Keeley Hawes, possibly the busiest person in Britain, returns for what is rumoured to be the last series of the whimsical family biopic set in mid-20th century Corfu.

Florida: America’s Animal Paradise, 9pm, BBC Two: Documentary examining the extraordinary diversity of wildlife in the American state. Obviously there will be alligators, but who on earth would expect Burmese Pythons?

Monday 8th April

The Victim 1/4, 9pm, BBC One: Sombre and involving legal thriller starring Kelly MacDonald and John Hannah, about a historic child murder in Edinburgh. Continues over the next three nights.

A House Through Time, 9pm, BBC Two: David Olusoga returns to chart more British history as lived through by the successive inhabitants of a house, this time a Georgian property on Ravensworth Terrace in Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Widow 1/8, 9pm, ITV: The latest drama from prolific writers Harry and Jack Williams has more than a sprinkling of stardust, featuring Kate Beckinsale, Alex Kingston and Charles Dance. Beckinsale plays a reclusive widow living in Wales, who spots something in a news report from the Democratic Republic of Congo that she wasn’t expecting… her supposedly dead husband.

Life After Lock-Up 1/3, 10pm, Channel 4: This thoughtful new three-part documentary series looks at what happens to prisoners when they are released from jail, how they cope on the outside, and why reoffending rates are so high.

Tuesday 9th April

Save Money, Lose Weight, 7:30pm, ITV: Can you lose weight, and save money at the same time? In my case yes, just stop buying so many cakes.

Hard to Please OAPs 1/8, 8:30pm, ITV: Eight celebrity pensioners take on modern technology. The intrepid eightsome are June Brown, Amanda Barrie, Ruth Madoc, Sheila Ferguson, Harry Redknapp, Jack Whitehall's father Michael, Lionel Blair and John Sergeant. 

Surgeons at the Edge of Life, 9pm, BBC Two: Cameras return to the surgical theatres of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, as a nation wishes it hadn’t eaten quite such a late dinner.

Thursday 11th April

Naked Beach, 8pm, Channel 4: Every week, three people who have major body-image issues go and hang out with a bunch of nudies and some television cameras, oddly. Even more strangely, this series is rather touching, and nowhere near as crass as I’ve made it sound.

Lee and Dean 1/6, 10pm, Channel 4: The return of the largely improvised travails of builders and best buds Lee and Dean as they (barely) navigate their way through life’s romances and tragedies.

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