TV blog: Earth's Wildest Waters

Benjie Goodhart / 08 October 2015

Our TV blogger takes a look at Unreported World and Restoring Britain’s Landmarks.

Earth’s Wildest Waters: The Big Fish, Sunday 11th October, 8pm, BBC Two

If I told you that BBC Two’s new reality-competition featured eight contestants going off to Iceland and trying to come back with the  biggest fish, you could be forgiven for thinking that the malformed lovechild of The X Factor and Supermarket Sweep was about to  pollute our screens for the next six weeks. Fortunately, we haven’t yet reached the point where competitive shopping is deemed  broadcastable (give it time, my friends), and instead we have the considerably more thrilling prospect of competitive fishing.

Yes, my tongue is as firmly in my cheek as a well-embedded fish-hook in a particularly unfortunate cod. This, it must be said, is not a wild, adrenaline-fuelled ride, in spite of the best efforts of presenter Ben Fogle, British fishing ‘legend’ and programme judge Matt Hayes, and the production team.

This is a sort of Great British Fish Off, wherein eight amateur anglers travel to a different part of the world every week to try and catch a variety of fish, using a variety of methods and a range of equipment (week three, fishing using hand grenades in Littlehampton, perhaps). The weakest angler goes home each week, until at last we discover which contestant is deemed to have the Fish Factor, and then we can all get on with our lives again.

I should probably declare a degree of bias. I’m not one of life’s anglers. I prefer a pastime where something, y’know, happens. All the more so if you’re going to watch people engage in said pastime on TV. There’s quite a lot of this opening episode which sees people standing around not catching anything. Or, in the case of one unfortunate competitor, catching the bottom of the sea and spending 45 minutes trying to reel it in. Meanwhile, the heaviest catch of all goes to Ben Fogle, trying out fly-fishing for the first time. Unfortunately, that catch is himself, as he hooks his own jacket mid-cast.

One of the contestants struggling the most is Jo, who is used to fishing next to her husband Johnny, and is missing his reassuring presence. If she wanted to fish next to a Johnny, she could have just taken her rod to a beach in Magaluf.

Restoring Britain’s Landmarks, Wednesday 14th October, 8pm, Channel 4

For the uninitiated, the Landmark Trust is an organisation that rents beautiful cottages to people called Jeremy and Cordelia who arrive in their BMW four-by-four and unload their Waitrose bags of Chateauneuf Du Pape and organic pesto and go on long, hearty walks with their children Hector, Athena and Barry (Barry’s adopted, obvs.)

But actually, as this new series reveals, it is much, much more than a holiday-letting company for posh people. In fact, the Landmark Trust is an organisation that safeguards some of the most significant and beautiful little architectural and historic gems that our nation has spent years attempting to destroy with neglect. To date, the Trust has saved 195 abandoned historic buildings, ranging from castles to cottages, towers to follies. Each one has been lovingly restored, and is then rented out to the public, to bring in more money for future restorations. It is, in its own way, an heroic and priceless venture.

This series looks at some of the Landmark Trust’s latest projects, including the spectacular Belmont House in Lyme Regis, and a house in Belgium that played a key role in the Battle of Waterloo and as such shaped British history. The properties themselves are invariably strikingly beautiful, all the more so when they’ve been lovingly restored by expert craftsmen. But the real star of the show is John Evetts, a man charged with overseeing the décor and furnishing of the properties and who is – how to put this diplomatically – not prone to putting things diplomatically. At the Belgian property, his run-ins with the developers are threatening to end in a second, and far bloodier, Waterloo. He uses words like “hopeless” and “disappointed” before becoming so offended by a choice of paint colour he starts to shriek “Which blind man chose this?” Evetts is funny and rude and passionate and grumpy and utter televisual gold. The series is a wonderful advert for the Landmark Trust, and I defy anyone to watch it and not want to visit one of the properties. Just don’t forget the sun-blushed tomatoes and crostini when you go.

Alexander Armstrong in the Land of the Midnight Sun, Wednesday 14th October, 9pm, ITV

Alexander Armstrong is something of a flavour of the month at the moment. When not presenting Pointless or guest-hosting Have I Got News for You, he’s voicing the newly reincarnated Dangermouse, appearing in the latest comedy-drama mini-series, or here, travelling to somewhere unbelievably cold, barren and inhospitable (he’ll be fine, he was born in Northumberland)

This new three-part series sees the intrepid comedian travel halfway round the Arctic Circle, examining how people have adapted to live in such a hostile environment, and looking at endless piles of white powder (it’s like being back in the Bake Off tent – or in an Al Pacino film…)

The success of these celebrity travelogues depends on two factors – the charisma of the celeb, and the places they are visiting. I’m pleased to announce, therefore, that both Armstrong and the frozen north come out of this project with flying colours, colours that are almost entirely absent from the bleak landscapes Armstrong explores. 

In this series opener, he visits the Lofoten Islands to meet a cheerful fellow who fishes for cod (with blessedly more success than BBC Two’s amateur anglers) before travelling to one of Sweden’s ice hotels for a spectacularly beautiful, and spectacularly uncomfortable, night. Next up, he’s swimming in the sub-zero ocean in Tromso (and actually doing so with remarkably few high-pitched squeals) before visiting a town called Kirkenes which makes a living from an unlikely interloper introduced to the areas fjords by the Russians in the 1970s: Zebras. Okay, not really, it’s Red King Crabs.

After that, it’s a flight north to the Islands of Svarlbad, one of the most northerly inhabited places in the world, to see the sun rise for the first time in 113 days. Except… well… when he gets there, the worst storm for 40 years hits, and not only can he not see the sun, he can’t see a car ten feet in front of him escorting him back to the safety of his hotel. “The scariest 20 minutes of my life,” he pronounces. “That was properly horrific.”

When the weather clears, he sets out onto the sea ice, where he is struck by the creaking, groaning aspect of the ice as it moves on the swell. “I’ve never had a clearer sense of ice being a living thing,” he remarks. Probably because it isn’t. Finally, it’s on to Iceland (two trips in one week – we’re practically Peter Andre!) to a spectacular new tunnel into a glacier.Armstrong’s enthusiasm and amiable good humour makes him a more than companionable host, and the beauty and fascination of the places he visits speaks for itself. 

Download the October digital edition of Saga magazine to read all about Alexander Armstrong's love for music.  

Unreported World: The Fight for Sight, Friday 16th October, 7:30pm, Channel 4

Telly. It’s great, isn’t it? Fast food for the eyes – an opiate for the masses that Karl Marx couldn’t have dreamed of. And so we sit, shovelling crisps and chocolate into our slavering maws and shedding brain cells as we indulge in the modern-day bear-baiting of reality TV, desperate to watch the latest singer humiliated, or to ogle Kim Kardashian’s bottom. That’s what detractors of TV would tell you. This is, of course, intellectually superior cobblers. At its best, TV can entertain, inform, inspire, and even, on occasion, change the world a little bit.

For the last 15 years, and across 24 series, this gem of a current affairs documentary show has travelled to some of the most dangerous places on the planet to report on issues largely ignored by the mainstream media. It doesn’t get vast audiences, it’s never going to knock Simon Cowell of his perch, but it is an undertaking of indescribable worth. 

This programme, the second in the new series, sees reporter Ade Adepitan travel to Malawi to look at the terrible toll that cataracts is taking on the population. Despite being eminently treatable, tens of thousands of the population are blinded by the condition, in a country where blindness and an inability to work can almost amount to a death sentence. The country has nine opthamologists for 16 million people.

Adepitan follows the stories of a great grandmother, Jess, and a 14-year-old girl, Rose, whose futures hang on a knife edge. There are moments in this film that are truly depressing, that could make you howl with rage at the iniquities of the world. But this is also a story of hope, of humanity, of good people doing vital work, and there are moments, at the conclusion, of such unbridled joy, it’s impossible not to be affected. Not bad for a short documentary nobody watches on an emotionally and intellectually bankrupt medium.

The West Wing, Box Set

Anyone who has seen Netflix’s US remake of House of Cards will tell you that politics, Stateside, is a murky business, peopled by cynical, ambitious, manipulative and ultimately murderous individuals. But anyone who ever watched the West Wing will tell you that the White House is populated by the most morally pure, decent, upstanding and goshdarned saintly people outside of the eye hospitals of Malawi.

The truth, of course, is likely to be somewhere in the middle, but I choose the optimism of The West Wing every time. Indeed – I should declare a certain bias here – it is possibly my favourite show of all time.The series, which ran for seven years, followed the presidency of Jed Bartlet (a fabulously patrician Martin Sheen), and his senior White House staff, as they negotiated the problems that we all encounter (friendships, disagreements, romance, stress) and those that we’re less familiar with (global geo-politics, world security, nuclear proliferation).

Everyone walks and talks with great rapidity, and the whip-smart dialogue is almost too clever and funny at times, as if the White House was populated by stand-up comedians with philosophy PhDs, but the characters are beautifully well-drawn – flawed and magnificent in equal measures. The series, which boasted a number of former senior White House staff as consultants, was praised for its realism, and counted Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton among its fans.

The brainchild of Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing won the Emmy for outstanding drama for its first four years, in which he wrote 85 of the 88 episodes – a staggering number in today’s multi-writer US model. And, more extraordinary still, every one is a gem.A complete box set, featuring all seven series of The West Wing, is available from for £44.99, or on Amazon Prime for £1.89 per episode.

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