Thank god for telly. I mean, really. I have a lot to be grateful to telly for – over the years it has been my entertainer, educator, employer and friend (and, importantly, the kind of friend who doesn’t make you do really stupid things on a Saturday night after an evening of libations in the Dog and Duck). But I have been particularly grateful to telly over the last three months. It has been a welcome distraction, and has kept me sufficiently entertained that I have realised I no longer need the company of people. Please accept this as formal notice of my withdrawal from society.
Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but trusty old telly has kept me (largely) cheerful and distracted in the evenings. Of course, wine has a role to play here as well. I’ve done my share of worrying about COVID-19 – actually, I think I’ve done quite a few people’s share of worrying – but TV is a welcome diversion from those thoughts.
Here we go, then – a three-part drama about the Salisbury poisonings of 2018, with a cast led by Rafe Spall, Anne-Marie Duff and Myanna Buring. Excellent! Diversion ahoy!
Oh… a few minutes in, and it’s all people in PPE gear taking swabs and tackling an invisible enemy. There’s all sorts of talk about public health emergencies and the importance of being able to test and trace. There’s concern about the impact on the business community, and discussion of the need for a balance between the medical and the financial. All we need now is a quick trip to Barnard Castle and we can shout ‘house’. Or should that be ‘second home’?
The drama opens with a shot of Salisbury Cathedral. Or should that be ‘world famous’ Salisbury Cathedral with its 123-metre spire. But this isn’t a drama about the two Russian agents who were sufficiently skilled to deliver lethal nerve agent to their target, but sufficiently dim to not be able to make up a plausible excuse for being in Salisbury. It’s not even, really, about the Skripals, the unfortunate father-and-daughter who were poisoned. This is, instead, a story about the public health aspect of the attack, how a town became paralysed by fear, and about the everyday heroes who helped keep people safe.
Chief among them is Sergeant Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall). Bailey quickly grasps the seriousness of the situation, and is among the team sent in, in full Hazmat gear, to examine the Skripal home. Soon afterwards he begins to feel ill. I’d be booking myself the world’s fastest Uber to Porton Down. He takes to his bed, thinking he’s got a virus. Um, hello?
The other hero of the piece is Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff), Wiltshire’s Director of Public Health, whose quick actions and meticulous attention to detail almost certainly saved Salisbury from a far more serious public health emergency. Meanwhile, Myanna Buring plays Dawn Sturgess, another innocent unwittingly drawn into the incident.
This three-part drama boasts an excellent cast, including Annabel Scholey, Mark Addy, Darren Boyd and Nigel Lindsay, and is a well-written and convincingly performed look at recent history. But there are a couple of problems. The first is that you have moments of jeopardy where Tracy makes dramatic projections about how, if the nerve agent gets into the water supply, the health of 46,000 people could be at risk. But we know this isn’t going to happen. I think we’d remember if Salisbury was wiped out two years ago. It’s an inevitable problem of a historical drama that you’re slightly hampered by, well, history. And if the drama isn’t that dramatic, well…
Which brings us to the second problem. At the time, the public health emergency that engulfed Salisbury felt vital and urgent. But developments in the last few months have rendered it far less significant. At one point, Tracy comments: “In terms of protecting citizens, this is about as bad as it gets.” Sadly, that is by no means the case.
Page Three: The Naked Truth, Thursday 18th June, 9pm, Channel 4
As L.P. Hartley wrote, “The Past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” When I look back 30 or 40 years ago, a number of things strike me as being remarkably odd. One of them is my hair. I looked like the love child of Michael Bolton and an ill-kempt Afghan hound. Another is how much we all used to smoke. We smoked constantly, and everywhere. We smoked on planes, trains and automobiles. We smoked in cinemas and restaurants. We smoked in the office. We smoked in bed. Walking into a pub was like walking into the inside of Dot Cotton’s lungs, mid-drag.
I remember being scandalised when the ban on smoking in pubs came in. But fast forward 13 years, and the very idea of smoking indoors in a public place seems utterly bizarre, antisocial and disgusting.
I have an inkling that, in a very short time, we will all have a similar attitude to Page Three, if we don’t already. The concept that, up until five years ago, we had national newspapers that showed a young (often very young) girl jauntily displaying her breasts for the nation’s puerile delectation is a good way along the road to baffling. This one-off documentary looks at the phenomenon that was Page Three, and speaks to many of those whose lives were transformed, for better or worse, by appearing there.
The whole thing began in a different age. In 1970, Britain was basking in a newly-permissive sexual environment, after the constrained 1950s had given way to the liberal hedonism of the 1960s. 1970 was the world of Carry On films and saucy seaside postcards, where a quick pat on the secretary’s bum was considered a perk of the job for any red-blooded male.
In November 1970, The Sun decided that a key feature of any newspaper ought to be the display of the female nipple on its third page. It proved to be an extraordinary success. Within a year, its circulation had doubled, which might be the most depressing non-COVID fact I have heard this year.
Among those to feature in the early years of Page Three were Jilly Johnson and Nina Carter, both of whom cheerfully concede that the (quite literal) exposure launched their careers. Indeed, the two of them formed a pop group, Blonde on Blonde, who became popular in the musical hotbed that was 1970s Japan. “We weren’t particularly talented, we just looked the part in front of the camera,” admits Carter. Never get something like that happening in the music industry these days, obviously!
In the 1980s, The Sun ran competitions encouraging family members to send in pictures of their relatives displaying their boobs, to see if they’d make a good Page Three girl. There is nothing that is not weird about this concept. The past isn’t so much a foreign country as a different planet. Nevertheless, people sent in pictures in their droves, including one Carole Fox, who submitted a photograph of her daughter Samantha. Pretty soon, Sam Fox was named as one of the UK’s three most photographed women, along with Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana. Not, it has to be said, all together, though that would have been an interesting dinner party.
Today, her early career pictures can’t be shown unedited on TV, because she is under the age of 18 in them. It seems that the tabs regularly showed sexual pictures of 16-year-olds on their pages.
Indeed, Debee Ashby was expelled from her school after a topless shoot was published. Meanwhile Hannah Claydon recalls posing for photos aged 15, as the Sunday Sport staged a countdown to her 16th birthday, when readers would be able to see her nipples. They even did a photo shoot with her in her school uniform. It is incontrovertibly creepy.
Many of those interviewed regard their Page Three years with fondness, and readily admit it enhanced their careers. Maria Whittaker recalls stashing huge wads cash in the panel underneath her bathtub; Sam Fox toured the world with her music; for Keeley Hazell, it gave her a career of fronting lads’ mags and calendars. Her mum is keeping a calendar for her grandchildren. Which, you have to say, it a little bit odd.
Other Page Three denizens have sadder tales. Rhian Sugden had her career ruined after the tabloids published details of a sexting scandal with TV presenter Vernon Kaye. Meanwhile, Emma Morgan was felled by a News of the World cocaine sting. “I had to hang up my boots in disgrace.” And no, boots isn’t a typo.
This is a comprehensive, even-handed and fascinating look at a thoroughly outdated institution that was given its last rites in 2015. The topless photos continued online for a while, but frankly who could ever imagine pornography being successful on the internet?
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The best… and the rest:
Saturday 13th June
The Queen’s Official Birthday, 10:30am, BBC One: Huw Edwards presents coverage from Windsor Castle. What happens at her official birthday? Do we get to watch her open badly-wrapped socks and Duchy Original chutneys, before everyone has a few beers and a takeaway?
William and Kate: To Good to Be True? 9:15pm, Channel 5: It’s a veritable royalty bonanza today, with things moving from Queenie to her grandson and his wife, in this documentary examining their relationship, their responsibilities, and what lies ahead for them.
Sunday 14th June
The Queen and the Coup, 9pm, Channel 4: MORE royalty. This will probably go down as the greatest weekend in my mother’s life! This one-off documentary looks at role the monarch unwittingly played in the plot to topple Iran’s democratically-elected government in 1953 and replace him with an all-powerful shah. That worked well, then…
Monday 15th June
Murder in the Car Park, 9pm, Channel 4: Feature-length docudrama about the killing of private investigator Daniel Morgan, murdered almost 40 years ago in the car park of a South London pub.
Tuesday 16th June
24 Hours in A&E, 9pm, Channel 4: Series nine squillion of the consistently engrossing documentary series set in a South London hospital. Tonight, two motorcycle accidents cause life-threatening injuries. As ever, though, the show is as much about love as medicine.
Wednesday 17th June
Keeping Britain Fed, 8pm, BBC Two: Sara Cox and Ade Adepitan take an in-depth look at how supermarkets are dealing with the unique set of challenges presented by COVID-19.
George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces, 9pm, Channel 4: Return of the series in which the architect examines the way people are making extraordinary use of small spaces in their homes. Tonight, a disappearing bathroom, and a man turning his Reliant Robin into a camper.
Thursday 18th June
Remarkable Places to Eat 1/2, 8pm, BBC Two: Fred Sirieix, surely the most hardworking man in television, accompanies chefs to the restaurants that inspire them. Tonight, he accompanies Andi Oliver to Marrakesh.
Friday 19th June
Jack Whitehall’s father’s day, 8:30pm, BBC One: The comedian attempts to spend some quality time with his father ahead of Father’s Day. Expect family photo albums and embarrassing old video footage.
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