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TV blog: The Pale Horse

Benjie Goodhart / 06 February 2020

Our TV blogger takes a look at The Pale Horse, Britain By Barge: Then and Now and the best of the rest...

The Pale Horse 1/2, Sunday 9th February, 9pm, BBC One

I kept thinking something was missing at Christmas, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. We had the turkey, the stockings, the presents, the industrial quantities of booze, the father-in-law being an expert on every subject that came up, and the over-excited and excessively-sugared children veering from one emotional extreme to another on an hourly basis. But something wasn’t there, and it just didn’t feel right.

It took me until this week to realise what was missing. Agatha ruddy Christie, that’s what. For several years now, Sarah Phelps’ Christie adaptations have been a TV Yuletide staple, and an extremely welcome one at that. There’s nothing like watching a party of houseguests murdering each other over a weekend to remind you to all be civil when the inevitable Brexit debate surfaces after a couple of Proseccos.

Anyway, here it is. At last. In February.

It not the done thing. You can’t go around putting Christmas staples on whenever you want. What next? The Queen’s Speech in May? Graham Norton’s New Year Special on midsummer solstice? It’s anarchy!

Anyway, to business.

It’s 1960. A woman called Delphine (Georgina Campbell) visits a quaint-looking village, Much Deeping. She does what everyone does when they go to visit a quaint British village – complains about the poor bus service and lack of fibre-optic broadband. Oh no, hang on, she goes and visits three witches, who live in a house called The Pale Horse, to have her fortune told – as you do. She asks them if she will make her fiancé, Mark (Rufus Sewell) happy in their marriage.

The answer can’t be great, because in the next scene, she’s plugged in the radio, got into a lovely hot bath, and swept the radio into the water to end her torment. Either that, or she was just an absolute dimwit with a dirty radio.

Fast forward a year, and Mark hasn’t hung about. He’s married Hermia, possibly to cheer her up for almost being named after an uncomfortable medical condition. Incidentally, Hermia is played by Kaya Scodelario, who is 27. As is Georgina Campbell. Rufus Sewell is 52. Why do we persist in casting like this?

Anyway, righteous anger aside, to cut a long story short (and we are only a couple of minutes in so far, so don’t worry about spoilers) people start dying. Well, first, their hair starts to fall out, then they die. I have to say, if hair-loss was a precursor to death, I would have popped my clogs aged 21. As opposed to just having died socially (you try being hip when you’re bald 30-years-too-early…)

As the bodies stack up, the strange spookiness quotient increases. It is marvellously atmospheric stuff, with a couple of genuinely chilling moments. This has all the aspects of Agatha Christie adaptations that we have grown to love: A fine cast (including James Fleet, Bertie Carvel, Claire Skinner, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, and Sean Pertwee). A lot of rather splendid country mansions and quaint villages. People at dinner parties repressing their emotions. A soupcon of infidelity. And a character saying “Cross my heart and hope to die,” which is almost always indicative of a somewhat truncated future.

In short, it’s a treat. Happy Christmas.

Britain By Barge: Then and Now, 1/6, Friday 14th February, 9pm, Channel 5

It’s an odd thing, celebrity. You spend the first chunk of your life wanting to be famous, then you achieve fame, have doors (both literal and metaphoric) opened for you, have photographers follow you around, find that everyone loves you, then all of a sudden and for basically no reason everyone now hates you, and your career appears to be over. But then there is the final stage of celebrity – where Channel 5 gets in touch with you and sends you off on some trip involving sharing cramped accommodation with someone who used to be in a soap.

If you don’t end up in a caravan with Barry from EastEnders, it’s likely to be a barge with Alma Sedgwick. For this series, it’s the turn of barging. And the retired soap star in question is… oh… there isn’t one. Presumably Todd Carty is doing panto, and Gaynor Faye is on holiday.

Never mind. We do have breakfast TV’s Anne Diamond, Pete (Stock, Aitken and) Waterman, Bill Oddie and Jennie Bond, the only royal correspondent ever who was posher than the people she was reporting on. The foursome are off – on two narrow boats – to explore the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, at 127 miles the longest single canal in the UK, stretching from Liverp… actually, you can probably work out that bit.  

Jennie, it emerges, has never set foot aboard a canal boat. (That’s nothing – my mum had her first burger at the age of 79.) She and Anne are sharing a boat, and are delighted to discover it has a bath. Anne’s delight lasts right up until the moment she realises, on the first morning, that Jennie has used all the hot water. Much more of that, and Jennie’s next bath might be in water that is colder, dirtier and deeper.

This series, though, isn’t just about the domestic squabbles of the slebs. It’s also got an eye on the past, as our intrepid foursome navigate not just the waterway, but a route back through time. They are here to examine the history of the canal and its surrounding area.

The canal was built in 1777, after investors met at the Sun Inn to secure funding. I’d invest in pretty much anything if it involved an excuse to go to the pub, but it turns out that the canal was really rather a good idea. According to Pete, it turned the region into “the silicon valley of its day” only with slower Wifi and fewer people wearing flip flops to the office.

The gang visit Saltaire, a model village built by industrialist Titus Salt, who became mind-bogglingly rich after discovering a way to turn Alpaca wool into cloth. At the time, life expectancy in Bradford was an astonishing 20-years-and-three-months, so he built a village of 850 houses next to his gigantic new mill, each with an indoor toilet and water taps. This paradise, though, came at a cost: No hanging out washing (fair enough), no pets (hang on just a minute) and no alcohol (that’s it, I’ll take my chances in Bradford!).

Next, it’s off to the Bingley Five-Rise – a series of five locks taking boats 60 ft up. Luckily, there are permanent lock-keepers here to help, including John Lobley, who was Lock Keeper of the Year 2005. Although I’m sure you knew that already. After that, we’re off to visit someone called Keith Lee, who apparently has his own rugby league team. Oh… hang on, it’s Keighley. I have seen it written down enough times, but had always assumed it was pronounced ‘Kaylee’. Mind you, I’m still insure how to pronounce Shrewsbury.

Later, Anne and Jennie visit Skipton Castle (and very nice it is too…) while the boys organise a trip to the pub. There is discussion about the demise of the canal, because of their habit of freezing over in winter. When railways came along, they weren’t just quicker, they could operate all year round. Hmmm. Fast forward 150 years. Autumn (leaves on the line), winter (the wrong kind of snow), spring (flooding) and summer (melted rails). So much for progress.

The best… and the rest:

Sunday 9th February

My Family and the Galapagos 1/4, 8pm, Channel 4: Second series of the amenable eco-travel show which sees Monty Halls and his charming young family living for six months in the Galapagos Islands to discover its flora and fauna, its people, and its precarious future.

Endeavour 1/3, 9pm, ITV: The return of the ever-popular detective show (for series 7, no less) sees Morse celebrating the arrival of 1970 in Venice. Meanwhile, a murder on a towpath in Oxford seems a relatively straightforward case… as if!

Monday 10th February

Rio and Kate: Becoming a Stepfamily, 9pm, BBC One: The award-winning documentary Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, followed the footballer’s attempts to fill the family void left by the tragic death of his wife, and look after his grieving children. Now, this sensitive follow-up sees Rio and fiancée Kate Wright attempting to integrate the family as they face a united future (no pun intended).

Tuesday 11th February

The Split, 9pm, BBC One: Series two of the drama set among a family of divorce lawyers whose personal lives are as messed up as their clients’. Starring Annabel Scholey, Stephen Mangan and the always-brilliant Nicola Walker.

Wednesday 12th February

Kevin McCloud’s Rough Guide to the Future 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud, one of life’s optimists, believes the future will be fine. Comedians Jon Richardson, Phil Wang and Alice Levine are less confident. This series sees him send them to look into issues and potential solutions, in an effort to get them – and us – to cheer the heck up a bit.

Thursday 13th February

Hunted, 9pm, Channel 4: Return of the series which follows ten pairs as they try to evade capture for 25 days on the run in the UK. Among those evading are 78-year-old Mervyn, who the hunters are confident about capturing… until they make a discovery about his past.

Tyson Fury: The Gypsy King 1/3, 9pm, ITV: Tyson Fury is taking on the biggest fight of his life, the fight to reclaim his title of heavyweight champion of the world and the fight to maintain his mental health. This brand new three part series, Tyson Fury: The Gypsy King offers exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to one of sports most flamboyant and controversial characters Tyson Fury and his larger than life family.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.