TV blog: John Bishop’s Ireland

Benjie Goodhart / 18 April 2019

Two new series fronted by John Bishop and Miriam Margolyes are among this week’s TV highlights.

John Bishop’s Ireland 1/4, Friday 26th April, 8:30pm, ITV

Every era leaves its legacy. The Victorians gave us the Industrial Revolution and ridiculous moustaches. The 1960s gave us a musical and social revolution. This era’s gift to posterity? The celebrity travelogue. I’ll see your Spinning Jenny and your free love, and raise you a middle-aged actor in polyester visiting a local craft shop.

It’s maybe not a legacy to be excessively proud of, but it’s certainly one to enjoy. I love a celeb travel show, and this latest one, a four-part series from cheerful Scouse comedian John Bishop, is no exception. It follows Bishop on a 600-mile round trip as he gigs his way around the Emerald Isle. It is, essentially, us watching him work. It’s a bit like having a series watching me go about my job, except with not quite as much footage of a man on a sofa in his pyjamas scratching himself and shouting at his kids.

Episode one starts in Dublin, on one of the biggest days in the Irish calendar: The All Ireland Gaelic Football final. It’s a day when 80,000 people turn up at Croke Park, and the rest of the country gather round their TV sets, to watch a sport that Bishop describes as “a mixture of football, rugby and GBH.” The players in this massive national occasion, though, are all amateur, and are basically playing for “a packet of crisps and a pint of Guinness.” And for pride. Each one is representing the county of their birth.

This year, the final is between Dublin and Mayo. Dublin are favourites, although some of those Mayo players look lean and fit and muscular. Low fat Mayo, if you will. Bishop decides to support the underdog, only to discover that Mayo had a curse put on them in the 1950s, since when they have lost seven finals in-a-row. I won’t tell you what happens in the match, in the unlikely event that you’re not a massive Gaelic Football fan and don’t already know the score.

After the match it’s on to Cork, a buoyant city if ever there was one. (Cork? Buoyant? Geddit? ) It’s Ireland’s second city, and a place with a strong sense of identity. It’s also home to a university where you can, not to put too fine a point on it, study fairies and leprechauns. It’s hardly quantum physics in the scientific stakes. Bishop attends a lecture given by a professor of Irish Folklore, who is explaining about fairies. Apparently they have a vampire-like interest in blood, and a tendency to kidnap children. “Your fairies are a little different from ours,” Bishop observes.

Finally, it’s on to the English Market, a covered market in Cork, where he meets up with friend and namesake Des Bishop, an American comedian who has made Ireland his home. There’s just time to chat to the owner of a fish stall who met the Queen, and joked with her that a scary-looking, ugly, toothy fish was called ‘The Mother-in-Law fish’. I don’t really get mother-in-law jokes. My own was a lovely woman, apart from her habit of finishing all of the puzzles in the newspaper before I was even out of bed.

Anyway, watch this, if you get a moment. Ireland is, as it always is, charm personified, beautiful, lively and fun, and John Bishop is as genial and warm as the country he’s travelling. Céad míle fáilte, as they completely mispronounce in Ireland.

Miriam’s Dead Good Adventure 1/2, Sunday 21st April, 9pm, BBC One

This programme features something I like very much, and something I dislike very much. The thing I like very much is Miriam Margolyes, of whom I was dimly aware but largely ambivalent until she started taking part in the Real Marigold programmes, whereupon she swore, harangued and farted her way into my affections. She is rude, obnoxious, blunt and stubborn, and is rapidly cementing herself into national treasure status. The BBC, clearly realising they were onto a hit, have recruited her in any number of Real Marigold spin-offs. Now it has given her her own series, and just in the nick of time. In this moment of abject national strife, we could all do with a bit of Miriam to perk us up, bang our heads together and sort things out.

The thing I dislike very much is… well… death. Not that I have any first-hand experience of it, mind you. But some things you don’t need to undergo to be able to say, with a degree of confidence, that you’re not overly keen on the idea. Root canal work, a haemorrhoidectomy, and being a guest on Jeremy Kyle all spring to mind. Let’s be honest, most of us aren’t excessively keen on the idea of death. But its chilly embrace awaits us all, so we’d better jolly well get used to the idea.

Which is where Miriam comes in. In this two-part series, she travels around the UK and beyond, examining the world of ageing and death. How might it happen, how do we ensure a good one, and can we avoid it completely. (I don’t want to give away any massive spoilers, but I’m pretty sure the answer to the last question is “no”.)

She starts off by going to visit her parents in Oxford. Seeing as she’s well into her 70s, this is something of a surprise – at least until she arrives at their home, in Wolvercote Cemetery. She has brought stones to leave on their graves, a Jewish tradition, “because flowers die”. Actually, more accurately, she has brought a single stone. Being one short, she nicks one off the grave of a chap called Wilfred, who she says she knew, and wouldn’t mind. “Besides, what’s he going to do about it?”

Next, she’s off to a care home in Nottingham, where she meets some of the patients on the dementia wing. It is a poignant experience. It could hardly fail to be. More optimistically, she’s off to Loma Linda in California. It’s home to over 9,000 Seventh Day Adventists, and residents there are ten times more likely to reach 100 than other US citizens. Miriam meets a collection of people who are healthy, clean-living, pure-of-heart, and exist on a regimen of early starts, plentiful exercise, and frequent prayer. Miriam looks like she might prefer the sweet release of death.

Things start to get really peculiar when she meets the Death Activists – people who are genuinely striving to become immortal. One of the leading advocates is a woman with a severe bob called Bernie, who produces the following compelling piece of evidence: “A person told me the other day that the Dalai Lama knows a person who is 200 years old.” If that isn’t scientific enough for you, I don’t know what is.

If you think that sounds crackers (and if you don’t, you might want to have a long, hard look in the mirror) Miriam then goes on to encounter a woman who believes that she will achieve eternal life through channelling her sexual energy. It probably won’t surprise you to learn she’s from California. Or that Miriam isn’t entirely impressed.

This is marvellous fun, and Miriam approaches it all with the sort of no-nonsense practicality that makes you think she’d have probably sorted Brexit in five minutes flat, and to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s funny, fascinating and surprisingly upbeat, but be prepared for a sting in the tail – the ending of the first episode is unexpectedly moving.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 20th April

Snooker: World Championship, 10am, BBC Two: Back in the day, audiences of 20 million used to tune in to watch men in waistcoats knocking balls into pockets. Funny what we all do in the name of entertainment. Anyway, if this is your bag, there’s two weeks of it, live from The Crucible. Knock yourselves out.

The Importance of Being Oscar, 9pm, BBC Two: A study of the genius and wit that was Oscar Wilde, through some of his most celebrated scenes, performed here by an all-star cast. Expert opinions come in talking head form, including that of Stephen Fry, and Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland.

Sunday 21st April

Undiscovered Worlds with Steve Backshall, 8pm, BBC Two: The naturalist travels to some of the most inhospitable environments on the planet, starting tonight with the Antarctic. Just as well he’s a naturalist not a naturist.

bublé, 10pm, ITV: The crooning legend and all-round good guy performs classic hits with a 36-piece orchestra. Why the lower-case b I have no idea.

Monday 22nd April

Love Your Garden, 8pm, ITV: Alan and the team head to Salford, to help 87-year-old identical twins Rita and Betty, whose bungalow garden turns out to be one of the worst the team has ever seen.

Wednesday 24th April

Old Wife, New Wife 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: New series in which a couple move in with the man’s ex-wife for a week, to help heal wounds and improve communication/create massive domestic tensions and correspondingly gripping TV (delete according to your levels of cynicism).

Friday 26th April

The Looming Tower 1/10, 9:30pm, BBC Two: New US drama looking at how the rivalry between the FBI and CIA in the late ‘90s contributed to the rise of Osama Bin laden and Al Qaeda. Starring Peter Saarsgard and Jeff Daniels.

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