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TV blog: Secrets of the Driving Test

Benjie Goodhart / 27 March 2020

Our TV blogger takes a look at Secrets of the Driving Test, Gregg Wallace’s Fun Weekend and the best of the rest...

Secrets of the Driving Test 1/6, Thursday 2nd April, 8:30pm, ITV

It was Andy Warhol who once commented that in the future everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes.  Maureen Rees maybe didn’t make it quite on a global scale, but she got a good deal more than 15 minutes. Mind you, she deserved it. It takes an extraordinary amount of dedication and talent to be that, er, not good at driving.

Back in 1997, Maureen became a star on the BBC’s fly-on-the-wall show about people learning to drive called, logically enough, Driving School. She was famous for shouting at her husband and having all the driving ability of a shrubbery. It doesn’t seem like they’d be natural prerequisites for stardom, but on the back of it she appeared in a sitcom, as well as The Tonight Show in the USA, starred in adverts, and released a cover version of Madness’ Driving in My Car. She even had an episode of This Is Your Life dedicated to her (Sir John Gielgud must have been busy that day…).

Now, 23 years after Driving School became a bizarre national smash hit, ITV is back with a docuseries that basically covers the exact same ground. According to the blurb, Secrets of the Driving Test was filmed over two years, and gets “unprecedented access to the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency”, as if it were MI6 or the Pentagon. They have rigged up cameras inside and outside the test cars, and also in the cars of people having their lessons.

It sounds ruddy awful. Watching people driving badly. Where’s the fun in that?

So why on earth did I find myself rather enjoying this?

Well, a couple of reasons. Neither of which reflect well on me. The first is that it got me out of helping my wife to home educate our children. As I heard the argument about complex fractions begin to reach boiling point downstairs, I simply turned up the volume and watched someone repeatedly fail to reverse park. The second reason is that it turns out it’s always quite fun watching people who are really bad at something. It always gives one a boost to see someone who is much worse at something than you. (I think that’s why I make my wife so very happy.)

And, make no mistake, these people are very, very bad drivers. Top of the list is Shaunna, from Hull. She’s been learning to drive for (deep breath) ten years. Ten. Years. She’s sat 11 tests and failed them all. Her instructor Andrew, who has the haunted look of a man who has seen more than he should in this world, comments: “If she just focused on controlling the car a lot more, then she’d be fine.” That whole “controlling the car” thing is, I would have thought, a fairly fundamental part of being able to drive.

Anyway, she’s got her 12th test, with a poor, unsuspecting chap called Wayne, who’s got over 20,000 tests under his belt. It’s an impressive score, but one that Shaunna seems determined to emulate, in spite of not being an actual examiner. She might be an appalling driver, but Shaunna is an even worse flirt. Wayne appears for her test, and she announces: “Ooh, you look dapper.” Later in the test, she tries to distract him from the imminence of his death in a road accident by saying: “You’ve got massively blue eyes, haven’t you?” I think she’d actually marry him if he gave her a pass.

Then there’s Drew, a 36-year-old from Newport who sweats so profusely in his lesson he looks like he might slide off his seat. He also reminds me of the National Theatre, in that I’ve never seen so many stalls in one place. And finally there’s Wesley, an enthusiastic young chap from Croydon who would probably stand a better chance of passing his test if he didn’t insist on trying to make small talk the entire way through his exam.

I’m not sure any of them are going to quite end up as the next Maureen Rees – for a start, none of them have actually managed to run over their husband’s foot – but this is still a divertingly daft show, and a reminder, too, that being cooped up indoors might be the safest place for all of us, with drivers like Shaunna out there on the roads.

Would you still pass your driving test?

Gregg Wallace’s Fun Weekend 1/4, Friday 3rd April, 9pm, Channel 5

It’s a safe bet that we’re not going anywhere much for a little while. But if we’re stuck on our sofas, there are worse things we can do than travel the world televisually. My wife and I have just completed the first series of the BBC’s fantastic show Race Across the World, and are halfway through series two. It is a pleasant reminder that there is a whole world out there just waiting to be explored when this is all over.

A bit of travel escapism is available, too, on Channel 5 this week, with a new series presented by Gregg Wallace. For those unsure, Gregg is the bald-half of the MasterChef presenting duo, the one with the absurdly OTT facial expressions and the paroxysms of joy about desserts. In this new series, he will be travelling to four European cities on weekend breaks, to discover more about each destination’s history, culture and cuisine.

Gregg arrives on a Friday afternoon and checks into his hotel, overlooking the Coliseum. He explains that, in its time, over half-a-million people died fighting there. It’s an astonishing, ghastly statistic, and a reminder that however bad we think modern society is, at least we don’t treat people getting mauled by lions as a spectator sport. Mind you, we did have The Jeremy Kyle Show, so we should probably suspend any feelings of moral superiority.

He’s only there for a weekend, so it’s straight into action for Gregg, who gets a tour of Rome on the back of a Vespa. “I feel like Audrey Hepburn,” he coos. The similarities are striking. Then it’s off to the Forum, and on to the place where Julius Caesar was killed. You’d think a place of such historical significance might be the site of a huge museum. In fact it’s a cat shelter.

There’s still time for a trip to the old Jewish ghetto for fried artichoke, which looks fabulous. My mum used to serve artichokes at dinner parties in the 80s, but I’ve barely seen one since. I thought they went out with shoulder pads and shell suits.

It’s up at dawn for Gregg on Saturday. Mental note never to go travelling with Gregg. Although the Roman breakfasts do look quite appealing – every morning seems to start with what we would consider to be a vast birthday tea party, filled with cakes and pastries. No wonder the rest of the weekend passes in a blur of activity, it’s just one enormous sugar rush. The experience includes a behind-the-scenes look at the Trevi Fountain, a food market, lunch, churches, more food, the odd coffee, and a spot of stargazing.

On his last day, Gregg decides to get really controversial. “For my money, the Italians make the best ice cream in the world.” In other news, the Brazilians are good at football, and the French like to shrug. Mind you, the ice cream does look amazing.

Finally, Gregg goes to a park, to meet up with some gladiators. Well, obviously they’re not real gladiators, they’re probably an accountant and a librarian in real life, but they’re historical re-enactors. They persuade Gregg to don a gladiator’s outfit (glad rags?) and get involved in some rather terrifying looking sword-play.

It is, of course, a well-trod path. The culinary-travelogue has a rich history, running from Keith Floyd to Rick Stein, and Rome isn’t exactly off the beaten track. But Wallace is amiable, if rather goofy, company, and Rome is, well, Rome. This programme may not change your life, but it will fill it with the sights, sounds and, if you imagine hard enough, even the smells of the city, and we could all do with a bit of that right now.

The best, and the rest:

Saturday 28th March

Royal Holiday Secrets, 8pm, Channel 5: Find out what the royals have always done to relax, and how this has changed over the years. A glamorous trip from Mustique to the Med, from skiing to safaris.

Sunday 29th March

Secrets of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings 1/2, 8pm, Channel 4: A specialist team unearth a long-lost tomb in the shadow of the pyramids, as archaeologists hunt for remains and explore hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Monday 30th March

The Real Michael Jackson, 9pm, BBC Two: Journalist Jacques Peretti sets out to try and form a full, rounded picture of the troubling life of Michael Jackson. Grimly absorbing.

Thursday 2nd April

Gordon, Gino and Fred: American Road Trip 1/4, 9pm, ITV: The culinary trio head out Stateside for this latest travelogue series, although this first episode sees them in Mexico. Here, they’re on the hunt for the world’s best breakfast, have a chilli-eating context, and get up close and personal with some Mexican wrestling.

Friday 3rd April

Have I Got News for You, 9pm, BBC One: At the moment, this is still in the schedules, though it’s difficult to imagine how they’ll carry it off. Video link? If they do manage it, though, this should be must-see TV, as there are one or two things to talk about. Well, just one, actually.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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