The Great Pottery Throwdown, Sunday 12th January, 6:45pm, Channel 4
When the Great British Bake Off moved from the BBC to Channel 4, the resulting hoo-hah felt like Brexit, the miners’ strike and Watergate all rolled into one. Only it was more important than that, because it also featured Mary Berry. Yet The Great Pottery Showdown has made a similar journey, three buttons along on the remote control (or, more accurately, one button down on most remotes) without anyone apparently even mustering the tiniest grumble of outrage.
This is because, whereas Bake Off had become a national obsession to rival queuing, discussing house prices, and judging people on their supermarket of choice, The Great Pottery Showdown had proved to be less fine bone china and more a chipped old mug with a tea stain inside. So much so that the show was cancelled after two series on BBC Two. Kilned off, as it were. No? Please yourselves.
Anyway, those gimlet-eyed execs at Channel 4 decided the show had potential, so here it is, back once again, under new management. Sara Cox has been replaced by Melanie Sykes, and ceramicist Sue Pryke has replaced Kate Malone as a judge, alongside Keith Brymer Jones. Keith is described as a ‘maverick’ master potter, in an effort to give him an element of danger. Personally, I don’t see him fronting up a biker gang anytime soon. Sue, meanwhile, says that thanks to her work with brands like M&S and IKEA, “the majority of homes in the UK have something that I’ve designed in their cupboards.” It must have taken her ages to complete that particular survey.
Anyway, the action gets underway with a tribute to the potters’ wheel scene in Ghost. To remind myself, I went back and re-watched it. I used to think it was dead romantic and sexy. Now I just worry that she’s using a potters’ wheel in her living room, and she might get the rug dirty. God, being mature is a bore!
As to whether the format is the same as the original series, I couldn’t honestly tell you. Never seen it. My wife was a fan, but she’s currently asleep downstairs underneath the pink faux-fur blanket I got her for Christmas (after she casually mentioned she wanted it every day for a month from mid-November). Episode one consists of two challenges. The first is to make a six-piece breakfast set, consisting of a cafetiere, two espresso cups and saucers, and a toast rack. I like a mug of tea and a bowl of cereal, so that’s me scunnered. The second is to make egg cups. Is nobody listening? I want cereal. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, BRING ME COCO POPS!!!!
The contestants seem uniformly delightful, in the same way that everyone who ever takes part in The Apprentice appears to have been hewn from the very flesh of Beelzebub himself. Among the group are Claire, a body-builder from Northern Ireland, whose boyfriend Paul is a former Mr Universe; Matt, a former pro-cyclist from Manchester; Ronaldo, a professional footballer for Real Madrid; (not really, he’s a Bajan-born art college technician); and Flea, born Florence Brundenell-Bruce, a model and former girlfriend of Prince Harry. Guess which contestant the tabs will be salivating over? Yep, they do love their Mancunian cyclists…
I was only sent the first two parts of the programme, as obviously the results have to be kept under lock and key next to the Nuclear Codes and the truth about the moon landings. But I really enjoyed the show, with its emphasis on warmth, creativity and the rewarding of excellence. I will happily tune in again next week, even if I’m not about to rush out and buy a potters’ wheel. The missus would kill me if I got spatters on her new blanket.
Catching a Killer: A Diary from the Grave, Monday 13th January, 9pm, Channel 4
It will not have escaped the regular reader’s attention that this is not a serious blog. But with some programmes, levity is not an appropriate response. Often, I will steer clear of them – life is serious enough, there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of fun. Also, I’m not entirely sure I know how to do ‘serious’. But this case caught my attention last year when it made the news, and this feature-length documentary chronicling the police investigation makes for an extraordinary cautionary tale.
In October 2015, retired schoolteacher and novelist Peter Farquhar, 69, was found dead in his home in the village of Maids Moreton, Buckinghamshire. Next to him was a bottle of whisky. The Coroner’s Report suggested he had died from having too much alcohol in his system. His young partner, Ben Field, revealed that Farquhar was an alcoholic. And there, apparently, ended a tragic but all-too-common tale.
Except that there was nothing common about Peter Farquhar’s death.
Eighteen months later, and three doors down the street, 83-year-old Ann Moore-Martin died in similar circumstances. And, as with Peter Farquhar, her will had been changed so that one man stood to inherit her home and estate: deputy church warden Ben Field.
All of this is revealed in the opening few moments of the programme. It quickly becomes apparent that this is not so much a whodunnit as an examination of an investigation, and a chronicle of astonishing evil. The case, as it unfolds, seems like it could have been written by a novelist. There’s loneliness, love, betrayal, a dogged detective pursuing his final case, and a picturesque country village. At one point, one of the detectives comments: “It’s like something from Midsomer Murders.” Only Midsomer Murders has the reassuring aspect of being fiction.
This is a genuinely extraordinary documentary, not least because the cameras appear to have been following events from day one. The access secured is remarkable. Cameras are present for police interviews, as friends and acquaintances of both Farquhar and Field struggle to comprehend why they’re being spoken to by the police. They’re in the police briefing room, out filming searches, raids and arrests. (It’s worth considering that, had the case fallen apart, the entire documentary would have been unusable on legal grounds). But it is also extraordinary because Peter Farquhar effectively chronicled his own demise. He wrote lengthy, detailed diaries each night, and these help add colour and clarity to a deeply disturbing story.
And yet, amidst all the darkness, there is also considerable light. One of the most notably self-evident things in the film is the decency, humanity and professionalism of the police. The whole team, under the sensitive and determined stewardship of Senior Investigating Officer Mark Glover, carries out a painstaking investigation with the utmost tact and dedication.
The other piece of light is Farquhar himself. A lonely, conservative, religious man, he dedicated his life to teaching, and inspired generations of students with his love of literature. His brother Ian reveals that they were inundated with hundreds of letters from former pupils after he died. Some of those pupils, including political journalist Michael Crick, speak in the film of their fondness for their former teacher. It brings to mind the famous old line from the novel Goodbye Mr Chips, when the old teacher lies on his death bed.
“I thought I heard you—one of you—saying it was a pity—umph—a pity I never had—any children … eh? … But I have, you know … I have …” The others smiled without answering, and after a pause Chips began a faint and palpitating chuckle. “Yes—umph—I have,” he added, with quavering merriment. “Thousands of ’em … thousands of ’em… and all boys.”
The best… and the rest:
Sunday 12th January
Vera, 8pm, ITV: Brenda Blethyn returns as the redoubtable DCI Vera Stanhope, in what the publicity blurb refers to as “the longest-running, British-made, female-led detective series on ITV”. So there.
Find out what Benjie thinks is behind Vera's enduring popularity
Louis Theroux: Selling Sex, 9pm, BBC Two: The fabulous Mr Theroux returns with another gently probing documentary, this time about people in the UK who make their money from the sex industry. Possibly not one for those of a sensitive disposition.
Monday 13th January
Cold Feet, 9pm, ITV: The gang are back for more, in the ninth series of Mike Bullen’s long-running and routinely excellent drama. Adam (James Nesbitt) and Karen (Hermione Norris) are still finding their relationship is causing issues with the group, while Jenny’s (Fay Ripley) cancer treatment is coming to an end – but her problems are just beginning.
Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret 1/2, BBC Two, 9pm: Documentary charting the decades-long pursuit of Bishop Peter Bell for sexual abuse, including evidence of a cover up by senior figures in the Church of England. Concludes tomorrow.
Tuesday 14th January
Midsomer Murders, 8pm, ITV: Is anyone actually left in Midsomer-land? Why do they choose to live there? What have two decades of ceaseless murders done to the house prices? Anyway, tonight, Ferrabees Circus comes to town, bringing with it exactly what the area didn’t need: More murder.
24 Hours in A&E, 9pm, Channel 4: Possibly the only more dangerous place to be than Midsomer is St George’s Hospital, Tooting, where every other person seems to have a life-threatening injury. Series 20 of this consistently heart-warming and humbling fly-on-the-wall series will be as powerful and moving as ever.
Wednesday 15th January
Good Omens, 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: Michael Sheen and David Tenant star as an angel and a demon respectively in this uproarious apocalyptic comedy thriller based on the book by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. The end of days is approaching, epitomised by the arrival of the antichrist, in the form of a rather pleasant 11-year-old boy.
Thursday 17th January
Addicted to Painkillers: Britain’s Opioid Crisis, 9pm, BBC Two: A massive problem in America, is an addiction to Opioid painkillers becoming an issue over here? Michael Moseley uncovers some disturbing truths.