TV blog: Family Brain Games

Benjie Goodhart / 13 June 2019

Dara Ó Briain hosts a new series focusing on family intelligence. Plus, the best of the rest of the week on TV.

The Family Brain Games 1/8, Monday, 17th June – Thursday, 8pm, BBC Two

What we watch on TV can sometimes have an impact on how we feel about our own lives. It’s difficult to watch a glossy US drama and not feel slightly regretful that you’re not a gorgeously-sculpted 29-year-old who lives in a beachside mansion in California and drives a sports car. I’m making assumptions here. I suppose it’s possible you are all of those things, but if so, why are you reading a magazine aimed at the over-50s in Britain?

On the other side, watching EastEnders is good for the soul, because the chances are you haven’t slept with your brother’s wife/met an untimely death/stolen from the Christmas fund. (Sorry, all my EastEnders references are about 30 years old). Therefore, by comparison, your life is fairly sweet and uncomplicated.

For me, though, the shows that leave me truly wallowing in a puddle of my own primordial despair are those which feature impossibly high-achieving families. Channel 4’s Child Genius and ITV’s Britain’s Smartest Family spring to mind. And now there’s another to add to the genre: The Family Brain Games.

The introduction to the Ross family, one of those taking part in episode one, is a case in point. In the film, dad Jonathan (he’s not THAT Jonathan Ross, that would be a bit weird) is in the kitchen making marmalade. Mum Katy and son Alexander are doing Rubik’s cubes together. And daughter Amelia, aged all of 14, is putting the finishing touches to her symphony about Henry VIII. Compare and contrast were a film to be shot in my own household: Mother and daughter are having a stand-up row about the brushing of hair. Son is just clocking up his sixth hour on some electronic device or another. Dad is cleaning up dog sick and wondering if 4pm is too early to turn in for the day.

The Rosses are up against the Griffiths family. Mum Anne is in prison education, while dad David is a teacher. Ollie, 13, is into football (relatable, hurrah) while elder brother Will, 16, is a Latin enthusiast. I thought that meant he liked doing salsa and eating pasta, but they do actually mean Latin the language. Yep. I know.

Anyway, once I’ve finished feeling guilty that we didn’t teach my kids trigonometry in the womb, I should probably tell you about this programme. It’s being streamed every night this week, and is presented by comedian Dara Ó Briain. The families are taken to a place called Discovery Park in Kent, where they undertake a series of challenges under laboratory conditions. Whilst so doing, they are monitored by scientists from Imperial College, who are brought out every now and again to give proceedings a slightly pointless scientific veneer.

It’s all thoroughly diverting, though. Ó Briain plays it gratifyingly straight as the host, and the games are all ingenious and frequently quite riveting. (You can have a crack at playing along at home, but good luck keeping pace with this lot). The games are designed to measure not just how intelligent the families are, but how well they communicate and work together. Ugh! More guilt. Why aren’t they just shouting at each other, like normal families? What’s really interesting is the fact that there are definitely games where the younger family members are better equipped than their parents. In short, I’m about to be overtaken, intellectually, by an 11-year-old who thinks the world is pixelated and operated by touch screen.

Catch-22 1/6, Thursday 20th June, 9pm, Channel 4

Okay, look, I’m just going to come out and say it. A few weeks ago, I sat down in a hotel room with George Clooney, and we did an interview. There. I said it. We don’t need to mention it again.

Anyway, my good friend Mr Clooney and I spent a happy 20 minutes discussing his latest project, a beautiful six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s quite brilliant World War II satire. Oh, sorry, I said I wouldn’t mention the interview again.

Clooney explained to me, over coffee, as we chatted like old friends, that he has executive produced the series, and directed two episodes of it, as well as playing a relatively small but significant role. He had initially been slated to play a larger role, but realised that his other commitments on the project prevented him from doing so. I nodded sagely. He smiled warmly. Sparks flew.

Oh goodness. Sorry. There I go again.

The truth is, when I interviewed him, I was a nervous wreck. That was partly because I was worried that we might clash – two of the world’s best-looking middle-aged men in the same room could have had disastrous consequences. Fortunately, he seemed to accept the unfamiliar role of being the room’s second-most-attractive man with equanimity. But my nerves were in the most part due to the fact that he is about as A-list as it’s possible to get, and I was frankly terrified I’d make a colossal boob of myself and either stumble over all my questions and lose my thread, or simply hyperventilate and pass out.

Here’s one worry I didn’t have, though: Not liking the programme. I’ve done plenty of interviews with actors where they’ve asked if I liked what they’d done and, coward that I am, I’ve looked them straight in the eye and announced that the turgid drama I mostly dozed through was the best piece of work ever committed to celluloid.

Not this time. I loved it. And I very easily could not have done. Catch-22 is one of my all-time favourite books. I read it when I was 18, and it has stayed with me, vivid and thrilling, across the ensuing decades. So I was prepared to be disappointed by the series.

I needn’t have worried. Heller’s razor-sharp dialogue, his ear for the absurd, and his furious cynicism about the madness and bureaucracy of war, are beautifully captured. The series stays as true to the spirit of the original as any book adaptation I have seen. And visually, it is sumptuous. It was filmed on location in Italy, and it’s difficult to film anything in Italy without it looking beautiful.

The story follows Yossarian, a bombardier in the US Air Force, flying missions out of a base in an Italian island in the Mediterranean. He is confused and terrified, because a bunch of people he’s never met are trying to kill him, and because the number of missions he’s required to fly before he gets to go home keeps rising.

Yossarian is beautifully played by Christopher Abbott, one of the rising stars of Hollywood, who captures his baffled horror as well as his lust for life. There is a uniformly (pun intended) brilliant supporting cast, including Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie and Mr Clooney (George to me). One of the most effective aspects of the series is the way it intercuts the lazy pleasures of life on the island with the visceral horrors of the flying missions, which are genuinely terrifying.

There is, inevitably, a certain amount of scene-setting in episode one, but I would sincerely urge viewers to stick with proceedings, because this is an absolute gem of a series, by turns thought-provoking, laugh-out-loud and, in the final analysis, profoundly moving. And I promise I’m not just saying that because it’s made by one of my best friends.

The best… and the rest

Sunday 16th June

Soccer Aid, 6:30pm, ITV: The annual charity match in aid of Unicef is back and, as ever, the England and Rest of the World teams feature a glittering mix of former pros and celebrity names, including John Terry, Eric Cantona, Michael Owen, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt.

Live: Britain’s next PM – the Channel 4 Debate, 6:30pm, Channel 4: This 90-minute debate, hosted by Krishnan Guru-Murthy, should allow about 30-seconds speaking time for each of the roughly 200 declared candidates for the next leader of the Tory party and, by definition, the country.

Top Gear, 8pm, BBC Two: A new series and a new line-up, as the BBC tries to recapture some of the glory (and viewing figures) of the years before Clarkson went off to Amazon, and May and Hammond became Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. I think. Anyway, this time it’s Freddie Flintoff, Chris Harris and Paddy McGuinness at the helm, and tonight they’re off to Ethiopia to see how cars perform in searing heat.

Tuesday 18th June

Our Next Prime Minister, 8pm, BBC One: Emily Maitlis hosts another debate between the Conservative leadership candidates. Expect more than occasional mentions of the ‘B’ word.

Wednesday 19th June

Match of the Day Live: FIFA Women’s World Cup, 7:30pm, BBC One: After an encouraging/irritating 2-1 win in the first match against Scotland (delete according to relevant side of the border) England take on Japan in a match the nation is willing them to win/lose.

Thursday 20th June

George Clarke’s Old House, New Home, 8pm, Channel 4: The architect helps more homeowners unlock the potential of old homes.

Friday 21st June

Celebrity Crystal Maze, 8pm, Channel 4: Richard Ayoade returns with a new series of the fiendish gameshow. Tonight’s celeb special sees Carol Vorderman, presenter Rick Edwards, comedian Ellie Taylor, and someone called Arg, all coming together under the doubtless inspirational leadership of Gemma Collins.

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