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TV blog: Walking with Elephants

Benjie Goodhart / 09 May 2020

Our TV blogger takes a look at Walking with Elephants, the film Darkest Hour and the best of the rest...

Walking with Elephants, Sunday 10th May, 9pm, Channel 4

This new three-part series sees explorer, author and presenter Levison Wood tracking elephants as they migrate across Botswana to the Okavango Delta. If you’ve never come across Levison Wood before, he is dreadful. Handsome, erudite, brave, intelligent, sensitive and charismatic, the former army officer really is an objectionably gifted and lovely chap. Even more irritatingly, he makes very good telly programmes. Tsk.

There are now around 450,000 elephants in Africa. Numbers are dwindling – there used to be millions. In this series, Levison will be travelling 650 miles across the Kalahari desert, following the elephants as they make their annual migration to the lush, fertile plains of the Okavango Delta. Botswana is about the size of France, only with less cheese and shrugging. And more elephants. It’s home to the biggest population of elephants in Africa.

Levison starts his journey in a helicopter. Perfect! I’d just get it to take me the whole 650 miles, and I’d be tucked up in bed in an air-conditioned Novotel by sundown. However, it seems Lev and I are not made of the same stuff (him – muscle and courage; me – anxiety and a sort of fleshy blancmange). Pretty soon he’s on foot, meeting up with his guide, Kane Motswana, a San bushman who seems to combine extraordinary tracking skills with a nice line in comedy. He’s brilliant.

Before they embark on their odyssey, they visit an elephant orphanage. It turns out baby elephants are absurdly cute. I want one. Although, bearing in mind how unpleasant I find picking up my spaniel’s poos, maybe this isn’t the best idea. (Also, there’s the whole ethical angle, and I suspect Brighton council might have a thing or two to say about an elephant living in my garden…)

Interestingly, male and female elephants migrate separately. Needless to say, the females get landed with the kids. On the basis of a couple of family car journeys up to Scotland, I would suggest that we might do well to employ a similar tactic in our household.

Before the walk begins in earnest, Kane dons his tribal gear and performs a ritual asking his ancestors to keep him and Lev safe on their journey. Five miles into their walk, they get charged by an angry buffalo. Maybe the ancestors were asleep. Soon afterwards, they find the tracks of both lions and leopards. That would be my cue to call an Uber and head back to somewhere with cable TV and a mini bar. Instead, Kane decides to summon the lions by imitating the call of a distressed antelope, which seems borderline insane. And back they come. It’s a tense moment but – spoiler alert – nobody gets eaten. Hurrah!

Kane and Lev come across some giraffe droppings, and Kane suggests a game. As a rule, I prefer to steer clear of any game that involves handling faecal matter, but Lev seems eager enough. Oh dear heavens. You really do NOT want to see what the game involves. Surely that must violate about 65 sanitation regulations.

There’s still time to visit a luxury safari lodge (a cool £3,500-a-night) and meet a tribal elder from a local village. In the baking heat, he sits there in a large overcoat and a woolly hat. I’ll never have a go at my mum for complaining about the cold again. And, of course, there are lots of encounters with elephants. What’s not to like?

Darkest Hour, Saturday 9th May, 7:30pm, BBC One

In last week’s award-winning blog (admittedly I gave the award to myself) I complained that there was nothing yet available for me to actually watch in advance. That continues to be the case this week, but using the street-smarts that have made me officially Brighton’s Cleverest Man (admittedly self-declared) I have turned the situation to my advantage.

I have been wanting to watch the 2017 film Darkest Hour for the best part of two years, since it became available to download. (As a rule, I don’t go to the cinema much, although that hasn’t stopped me feeling huge amounts of self-pity at not being able to go at the moment). The problem is my wife.

She is, of course, perfect in almost every way (he says, frantically covering his tracks in case she reads this). If there is a film, or TV series, that she conceivably might want to watch at some as-yet-unspecified date in the future, I am not allowed to watch it without her. I have suggested watching Darkest Hour on a pretty much weekly basis for the past 24 months, and every time she has wanted “to watch something nice” – words to chill any discerning viewers to their very core.

Anyway, with a shortage of things to watch this week, I told her I had to review Darkest Hour. Game, set, and match. We watched it last night.

And it is tremendous.

It’s May 1940. Britain is in grave peril. Not the ‘stay on your sofa and get Ocado to deliver your shopping’ peril, but Nazi jackboots potentially marching up your high street peril. Neville Chamberlain has lost the support of parliament, and must anoint a successor. His own choice, and that of party grandees, is Lord Halifax, but he turns down the role. Who, then, could they appoint? Ooh, I’m on the edge of my seat. Who could it possibly be? Spoiler alert: I’m going to tell you. It’s the chubby balding chap in the top hat. No, not the Fat Controller, the other one.

We first meet Churchill (Gary Oldman) in his bed, which is where he did a fair bit of his work. He’s having a cooked breakfast, washed down with a large whisky and an even larger cigar. He promptly reduces his new secretary, Miss Layton (Lily James) to tears, only to be gently rebuked by his wife Clemmie (Kristin Scott Thomas). Shortly afterwards, a telegram arrives from the Palace. Unless he’s a remarkably sprightly centenarian celebrating his birthday, this can mean only one thing. Downing Street awaits.

On his arrival, Churchill appoints a war cabinet, and then enjoys a glass of champagne with his family. Lordy, but he can put it away. At one point, Clemmie scolds him: “How much have you had to drink this morning?” This morning???

All of this takes place just weeks before Dunkirk. The British army is surrounded, with seemingly no means of escape, the French have capitulated, and Europe has fallen. Darkest hour doesn’t even begin to cover it. This riveting political potboiler charts Churchill’s path through his first weeks of office, when both his career and the fate of the world hung in the balance, Germany looked unbeatable, and many were urging him to negotiate peace.

What is remarkable here is just what a controversial and risky appointment Churchill was. The benefit of hindsight has seemingly extinguished all the doubts people had, following a career that was, at that stage, as much characterised by disastrous failure as success. It is astonishing, too, to note how close Britain came to sitting down and negotiating with Hitler. Oldman is breathtakingly good as Churchill, one minute full of brio and vigour, the next consumed with self-doubt and misery.  

In a week when we have been marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day, and at a time when we are facing a degree of difficulty ourselves, this is a timely and salutary watch, and a reminder of the indomitability of the human spirit.

And the wife loved it, too.


The best… and the rest

Saturday 9th May

Peter Sellers: A State of Comic Ecstasy, 9pm, BBC Two: This week’s Saturday night arts documentary is a profile of the brilliant but complex comedian Peter Sellers, charting his meteoric rise to fame and his troubled personal life. Followed by a repeat of Peter Sellers: Talking Comedy, featuring clips from his numerous chat show appearances.

The Queen’s Speeches: In Triumph and Tragedy, 9:20pm, Channel 5: Saturday night is always royal night on Channel 5, and this week we look at the Queen’s most significant speeches, given at key moments in her reign, including the deaths of Diana and the Queen Mother, during the Gulf War, and something called coronavirus. Hm.

Sunday 10th April

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, 7pm, ITV: Following the splendid recent ITV drama about the coughing scandal, Millionaire returns for the next six nights (7pm tonight, 9pm thereafter). Jeremy Clarkson is in the driving seat, posing questions to a series of increasingly sweaty contestants.

Antiques Roadshow VE Day Special, 7:15pm BBC One: Fiona Bruce marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day by looking back at some of the items of wartime significance people have brought in over the years. There’s also testimony from those who were present at VE Day, including the Roadshow’s own Henry Sandon.

The Fantastical Factory of Curious Craft, 8pm, Channel 4: The exceptionally odd pairing of Anna Richardson and Keith Lemon present a crafting show. Four rival amateur crafters compete for the dubious pleasure of creating a one-off craft for celebrity client Eamonn Holmes. Sounds utterly bonkers.

The Ranganation 1/6, 9:15pm, BBC Two: Brilliant comic Romesh Ranganathan presents the isolation version of his show, which sees a cross-section of the public giving their opinions on the state of modern Britain.

Monday 11th April

Hospital Special: Fighting Covid 19, 9pm, BBC Two: The familiar documentary series returns with a two-part special (second part tomorrow night) following staff at the Royal Free Hospital in London from the first night of lockdown onwards.

Wednesday 13th April

The Country That Beat the Virus: What Can Britain Learn? 9pm, Channel 4: One-off documentary studying South Korea’s extraordinarily successful handling of COVID-19, thanks to planning, mass testing, and remarkably effective contact-tracing.

Thursday 14th April

Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe, 9pm, BBC Two: The superbly acerbic Brooker gives his satirical take on everything coronavirussy, with help from Diane Morgan’s excellent comic creation Philomena Cunk.

Paddington: A Year on the Tracks 1/12, 9pm, Channel 5: A look at a year in the life of this London terminus and the Western network. Episode one sees boozy revellers heading to the Cheltenham Festival, and a danger of flooding in Swindon.

Friday 15th April

Portillo’s Empire Journey 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Michael Portillo tells the story of how a small island on the edge of Europe built the biggest empire the world has ever seen. He begins his journey in the slums of Kolkata.

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

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