Pothole Wars, Tuesday 15th January, 9pm, ITV
We are living in a golden age of TV drama. Last year featured some utterly riveting scripted television, as the networks in both the UK and US tried to fight back against the unrelenting march of the twin TV titans of Amazon and Netflix. And this year looks set to be no different. In a recent look ahead to the must-see TV of 2019, The Guardian picked 21 shows to watch over the year ahead, and every single one was scripted (that is to say, either a comedy or a drama). There were no entertainment shows, no reality TV shows, no gameshows – which is fine by pretty much anyone’s standards. But there was also not a single documentary on the list. And that’s not just odd – it’s a real worry.
We need to nurture documentaries, because they carry a credibility and an immediacy that even the very best drama does not. However true-to-life a drama might be, the viewer will always be left with the smidge of doubt about the more remarkable aspects: Once we accept that dramatic licence is an inevitability, we are always prone to disbelieving the most remarkable elements of any factual drama. But a good documentary lays it all out on the table right there in front of you. Factual television has an honesty to it that dramas, however worthy and accurate, by their very definition, do not.
Having said all of that, it’s probably worth pointing out that not all documentaries are massively important or nail-chewingly riveting. I give you: Pothole Wars. “There’s a pothole war raging on Britain’s roads,” intones the voiceover. “For the workers on the frontline, it’s like going into battle.” Hmm. It’s not really, though, is it? It’s more like going and filling in little holes in the road surface with bits of tarmac.
What you need to know about claiming for pothole damage
This is, and I cannot stress this enough, an entire hour dedicated to potholes, and the people who fill them in. There is nothing else to see here. Well, apart from the section where we are told about how one of the road workers, a fellow who goes by the unlikely moniker ‘Chutney’ (“because when I was a lad I was always in a pickle”) likes to grow vegetables. You know you’re in a spot of bother when a documentary decides to veer off topic to cover the horticultural proclivities of one of its contributors.
Then there’s a chap called Mark, who is Mayor of Brackley, and a part-time bingo-caller. But he has an alter ego. Is he Banksy? Or an international assassin in the mould of The Jackal? Nope. He’s Mr Pothole. His raison d’etre seems to be to trawl the nation’s roads (with particular emphasis on the Brackley region) looking for potholes, photographing them, and putting them on social media. “Being married to Mark can be quite frustrating,” mutters wife Lorraine through teeth so gritted her mouth could be an icy road. Mr Pothole often goes out with his pothole-busting partner Bernie who, like Batman’s Robin, has his junior status emphasised by the fact that he doesn’t get to use a superhero name.
And on we gallop through the knockabout world of road maintenance. In Cranleigh, local residents on The Ridgeway have launched a campaign to complain about the horrendous state of their road which, in fairness to them, does appear to have more craters than a teenager’s face. The protest is not without charm – involving filling the holes with rubber ducks and bubble bath and gnomes – but it’s hardly sitting down on the bridge at Selma or boycotting the buses of Montgomery.
There’s still time to join a couple of work teams as they go out to fix, well, potholes, obviously. At one point, one of the teams encounters a problem, when it emerges that the paperwork to close a road has not been filled out, so they have to sit and wait while it’s sorted out. And, just like that, the programme makers have found something less exciting than potholes to talk about – the bureaucracy of pothole paperwork.
And on once more, to Devon, to meet Reg, a 77-year-old former Tory councillor who goes out and repairs potholes himself. He’s done over 300 in four years. Just imagine if Reg got together with Mr Pothole. Think of the excitement. Think of the chemistry. You could write a script about it – though you’d need to make sure there weren’t any plot holes. Sorry. It’s been a long day.
Prison, Monday 14th January, 9pm, Channel 4
On the other hand, the compilers of The Guardian’s list didn’t even have to look that hard for 2019’s first absolutely must-see documentary, because it’s here, in the first half of January. Originally planned as a three-part series filmed over seven months in HMP Durham, the first two-parts of Prison went out in mid-2018 (with the third one delayed for legal reasons linked to a case going to trial). It was impossible to look away from either episode – in spite of the fact that, at times, you really, really wanted to. They contained some of the most harrowing and extraordinary material you would see in any genre of television. Whether it was the tragic, bullied prisoner being spiked with an almost lethal dose of a synthetic drug, or a mentally-ill prisoner who drilled screws into his knuckles in an effort to stop the torment in his head, this was TV of a brutal, vital relevance.
And episode three is no different. Director Paddy Wivell’s extraordinary skill seems to be to win the trust of everyone, from administrators to prison officers to the prisoners themselves, so that all feel able to talk with commendable candour. This episode is about violence in prison so, as you’d expect, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Right from the opening scene, with a discussion about the best way to get blood out of a pair of trainers, you’re unlikely to mistake proceedings for an episode of Songs of Praise.
But while there is much to lament here, in terms of the world we live in, and the dreadful circumstances of the lives of others, the film is also shot through with moments of humour, camaraderie and redemption. One contributor, in particular, is embarking on a journey that the viewer will end up fervently willing him to complete.
I am a regular, enthusiastic and frequently undiscerning viewer of television. Much of it passes in through my eyes and ears and seems to leak out of my brain almost before I’ve even noticed it was there in the first place. That’s fine. That TV helps us relax and unwind is a good thing. But every now and again, I watch something that stays with me for days, weeks, months, and even years. Prison is one of those shows. I know I will catch myself thinking about it, and talking about it, for years to come. And a programme that can do that is worth protecting. So make all your dramas with explosions and fast cars and beautiful people, or bonnets and handkerchiefs and large houses, but keep a little bit aside for the documentaries that show us aspects of the real world that aren’t always easy or palatable, but are all the more important for that.
The best… and the rest
Sunday 13th January
Vera, 8pm, ITV: Brenda Blethyn returns as DCI Vera Stanhope for this new batch of four feature-length episodes. In tonight’s offering, Peter Davison and Paul Kaye co-star in the tale of a trainee forensic scientist who is murdered.
Monday 14th January
Cold Feet 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Another welcome return for the drama about a group of friends from Manchester as they tackle the vicissitudes of daily life.
Tuesday 15th January
Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly 1/4, 8pm, Channel 5: Trainer Graham Hall tries to sort out some capering canines whose dastardly doggy deeds are driving their owners to distraction. As a family who has started the process of finding a rescue dog to come and live with us, I might give this one a wide swerve…
Wednesday 16th January
Revolution in Ruins: The Hugo Chavez Story, 9pm, BBC Two: A look back at the 14-year presidency of the late Hugo Chavez, leader of the country with the largest known oil reserves in the world. The film documents the initial, remarkable successes of his regime, followed by a long, lamentable slide into chaos, squalor and violence.