Your Home Made Perfect 1/6, Tuesday 7th April, 8pm, BBC Two
I like a home improvement show as much as the next man. Provided, I suppose, the next man is someone who basically has no interest in home improvement shows and would rather watch an hour of footage of people with questionable personal hygiene clipping their toenails in the kitchen. But a friend had said to me the other day how much they had enjoyed the first series of this show, and I thought I’d watch it so I could Zoom them and tell them they were an idiot. (I’m taking this whole confinement thing really well, not at all grumpy).
Anyway, rather irritatingly, they turned out to be right. It’s a lovely watch.
This kind of show normally falls into two categories. There are the Grand Designs-style projects, where people spend £90 quintillion to build a home shaped like an aardvark, made out of petunia and polished tungsten, that goes wildly over budget and almost kills them. And then there is the kind of show where a team decides to surprise homeowners by giving their sitting room an Egyptian theme in two-hours flat while they’re out at the shops. This normally involves stapling up some chiffon and spray-painting camels onto their living room wall using a stencil, it looks gaudy and crap and all falls down three days after the cameras have left.
But this show is about real people in real situations, wanting to improve their homes on a real budget, and because of that, it is genuinely relatable – even moving.
Silvia and Julian own a modest converted 1940s bungalow near Brighton. It is a bit pokey, and they’ve spent the last four years wondering how they can improve it, with their hard-won £50,000 budget. They long for a space where they can entertain friends, and where Silvia can be free to cook in a kitchen that isn’t the size of a large loaf of bread. “For an Italian, food is as important as the air that we breathe,” she says. I don’t think that’s actually specific to Italians. I think it’s pretty much a universal characteristic that, as with air, without food we’d all die.
The problem is, the couple have differing approaches to design. Julian is, by nature, rather conservative, whereas Silvia wants a property filled with space and drama. Maybe she should move to Southfork, they’ve got plenty of both. (My cultural references are nothing if not contemporary). “Ideally,” she adds, “I want to be able to open the door and I can see through the house.” Wait… does Silvia want to live in a greenhouse?
So the presenter (a flame-haired daughter of Ireland called Angela Scanlon) gets the show’s two architects to draw up plans for how to improve the couple’s house. Then the couple are shown the plans in a 3D virtual-reality display.
It sounds gimmicky, but the results are spectacular. Both Julian and Silvia end up in tears watching the VR presentations. They are genuinely things of beauty. But unlike in Bake Off, where the artist’s impressions of the cakes look amazing, and then the cake itself resembles something squashed on the M40 near Bicester, here the reality at the end looks even better than the images. The final reveal is glorious. Hell, the whole show is glorious. And finally, Silvia and Julian have room to entertain, just in time for all social activity to be curtailed for ever!
The Countess and the Russian Billionaire, Wednesday 8th April, 9pm, BBC Two
I don’t know any Russian oligarchs. I have to say, I don’t really want to. I mean, the Lear jets and beachside mansions and free football tickets would be great, but I’m not always convinced they’re necessarily the nicest people.
This documentary is about a Russian oligarch, Sergei Pugachev, and his wife, Countess Alexandra Tolstoy. While you can’t get much more Russian-sounding than Countess Alexandra Tolstoy, she is, in fact, as British as the Queen herself. Which is to say she’s not all that British at all, but is sufficiently posh and aristocratic to pass for it.
Sergei Pugachev amassed an estimated £15 billion in post-Soviet Russia, owning shipyards, a coal mine, designer brands, and even his own private bank. He was, for a time, good friends with Vladimir Putin, and holidayed with him countless times. But no friendship lasts the test of time. Sorry, no friendship with Putin lasts the test of time. He has a nasty habit of falling out with people. He’s not quite reached the levels of Crazy Uncle Joe in his paranoia, but he certainly has a habit of turning friends into enemies. And then of turning enemies into corpses.
At the start of this film, in 2014, Alexandra and Sergei are living in a house in Chelsea. Actually, they’re living in two very large houses in Chelsea. The two if them inhabit one, their three kids inhabit the other, next door. They also have luxury homes in Nice, the Carib… actually, it’ll be quicker to write where they don’t have luxury homes. They don’t own any property in Mogadishu or Bethnal Green. That’s it.
Alexandra proudly shows the cameras her handbag collection and her shoe collection. She explains that, among a vast retinue of staff, the children have both a British nanny and a Russian nanny. It’s safe to say, the viewer does not begin this documentary warming to the Countess. She shows all the humility and sensitivity of a Pharaoh.
But circumstances change, particularly when you’re a former friend of Vladimir Putin. Thanks to a disagreement about a government loan to one of his banks, Pugachev and Putin fell out. (A note of caution to any other oligarchs reading this: Do NOT fall out with Putin. If he says you owe the state a billion dollars, you get right on and pay him two billion and thank him for the opportunity, capiche?) A resulting exchange with some agents on a London street saw them say to Sergei that they would murder him and his entire family, and would start off by sending him his son’s fingers, one by one. “It was a threat,” says Sergei. No kidding? I thought it was an invitation to afternoon tea.
Anyway, where most people would have quietly capitulated at this point, on the basis that no amount of money will cushion you from the deadness of actually being dead, Sergei decided to sue the Russian government for withholding his assets.
When Sergei does a midnight flit from London, without permission from authorities, he ends up in his French chateau, where Alexandra and the kids go to visit him. Here they are forced to live a reclusive, paranoid lifestyle. As the voiceover states: “It’s difficult for them to move beyond the confines of the chateau, putting huge pressure on their relationship.” Hmm. I’m not sure I can feel absolutely waves of sympathy emanating from the ever-so-slightly smaller homes in which we are all currently isolated, but there it is.
As the documentary continues, so the rift between Sergei and Alexandra becomes ever more serious. It is an extraordinary story, involving Alexandra’s first marriage to a penniless Uzbek horseman, accusations of child-theft, and an unedifying appearance on Russia’s equivalent of Jeremy Kyle. Recommended, if only to make you aware that the current situation we’re all in is far from as bonkers as life can get.
The best… and the rest:
Saturday 4th April
Great Asian Railway Journeys, 8pm, BBC Two: Michael Portillo is back with another jaunt around the railways. This time, the Bradshaw guide under his arm is to the railways of southeast Asia. Tonight, he and his collection of garish blazers start off in Hong Kong. This revised repeat is an escapist gem.
The Queen Mother’s Blitz, 9pm, Channel 5: A look back at the pivotal role the Queen Mother played in World War II, when she insisted the royals stay in London throughout the bombings, and helped raise morale at a time when the nation’s resolve was truly tested.
Monday 6th Spril
Terror in Paradise, 9pm, BBC Two: A year on from the terrible bombings in Sri Lanka’s churches and tourist hotspots, this sobering documentary tells the story of what happened on a day that claimed 270 lives.
A Day in the Life of the Coronavirus, 9pm, Channel 4: A documentary, set to be filmed just two days before transmission, looking at life in lockdown UK. If they film it in my house, it’ll mostly be people shouting at each other about home education. (That is literally happening right now, as I type…)
Tuesday 7th April
Return to Belsen, 9pm, ITV: 75 years ago, British troops opened the gates to Belsen, and discovered the unimaginable horrors therein. Among their number was a news reporter, Richard Dimbleby. Now, his son Jonathan revisits the camp, and elaborates on what happened there.
A Country Life for Half the Price 1/6, 9pm, Channel 5: Kate Humble meets people who have moved to the country and embraced self-sufficiency. My wife picked some wild garlic the other day, so we’re basically there.
Thursday 9th April
Coronavirus: A Horizon Special 1/2, 9pm, BBC Two: A look at the facts behind the biggest public health crisis in living memory.
The Mum Who Got Tourette’s, 9pm, Channel 4: Elizabeth, a mum of three, developed Tourette’s shortly after her 40th birthday. This documentary follows her over a busy summer in the family home.
Friday 10th April
Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back 1/8, 8pm, Channel 4: If you like your consumer rights served up with a dose of comedy, this is for you. Tonight, the acerbic comedian changes his name to Hugo Boss… but why?
The Graham Norton Show, 9pm, BBC One: How on earth is this going to work? Expect video-link-ups galore in this truncated version of the consistently-brilliant chat show.
I just thought it might be worth mentioning that my wife and I have been watching Last Tango in Halifax on iPlayer, and it is magical. All five series are on there, and it is a funny, human and warm drama about two widowed 70-somethings who fall in love. A welcome antidote to real life.