TV Review - All Creatures Great and Small

TV critic Benjie Goodhart takes a look at this week's highlights, including World Athletic Championships and World's Busiest Railway

The World Athletics Championships, 22-30 August, BBC One and BBC Two

It seems to me that Beijing and Rio are dividing up the world’s sporting events between them. It feels like only yesterday that we  witnessed the Olympic Games in the Bird’s Nest stadium (in fact it was seven years ago, which is a distinctly unnerving trick of  time) and now we discover that Beijing is also to host the Winter Olympics, in spite of a distinct lack of, you know, mountains and  snow and other such trivialities. Anyway, in the meantime, we have the small matter of the IAAF World Athletics Championships taking  place back in the good old Bird’s Nest over the next nine days. 

Hurrah! I happen to love athletics. It is, after all, the oldest sport on earth (at least I think it is – it’s either that or motor (racing…) and the purest a test of power speed and’s also a sport I can watch with my wife without the need to explain the rules  even she,an inveterate loather of all things sporty, gets the concept of crossing the line first and she’s quite happy to watch a sporting event that goes for just shy of ten seconds. 

The BBC are covering the action with over 70 hours of live broadcasting, on both main channels. Because the Chinese are inconsiderate  enough to live so far away, the morning sessions will happen in the middle of the night, UK time, and you’d have to be a serious fan  to stay up all night to watch them, as almost all the finals are in the evening sessions. These sessions will be on in early  afternoon, and promise some gripping action. There will also be a nightly, hour-long highlights show.

Coverage will be fronted by Gabby Logan. If you look hard enough into her eyes, you can probably see the emotional scarring from her  recent stint hosting Flockstars, but she’ll be far happier with Michael Johnson, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Cram, and the sweet embrace  of top class sport to keep her going.

Highlights from the first weekend include the heptathlon, featuring British medal hopefuls Jessica Ennis Hill and Katarina Johnson- Thompson, and the big match-up between Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin in the 100m, both of which conclude on Sunday afternoon.


The World’s Busiest Railway 2015, Monday 24th August, 9pm, BBC Two

Are you desperate to get on television? Do you yearn to impress your friends and family with a few brief moments on the old  gogglebox? If so, I have a solution for you. No longer do you need to humiliate yourself as one of the ‘joke’ entries on X Factor  (and be realistic, we both know you’d be one of the joke entries). Nor do you need to go out and commit the sort of mid-ranking crime  that would get your mugshot on the local news. Instead, just get a job on the Indian railway.

Okay, I’ll admit that, logistically, this may involve a spot of retraining. And moving to India. But you’re practically guaranteed to  get on the telly. There seems to be a fascination with Indian railways at the moment – in recent years, the BBC alone has given us  Indian Hill Railways, India’s Frontier Railways, The Great Indian Railway and Bombay Railway.  Now BBC Two is showing this fascinating look at the Mumbai railway as part of its India season. This series, showing over the next  four nights, sees Dan Snow, Anita Rani and Robert Llewellyn based at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the beating heart of the  busiest railway in the world. And boy is it busy. The footage of the three of them attempting to get on a rush hour commuter train is  gobsmacking. The trains are crammed with up to 14 people-per-square metre, twice as many as the busiest commuter trains in Europe.  It’s probably all the British TV crews jostling with each other.

There’s a riveting report into a lunchtime delivery service operated by the “Dabba Wallahs”, who take a home cooked meal from your  house to your workplace. Over 200,000 lunches are delivered daily in Mumbai, with an error rate of one in 16 million. And John  Sergeant presents a sequence on the Darjeeling Hill Railway, which is a bit odd, as it’s nothing to do with the Mumbai railway, but  is delightfully photogenic in any case. It also features him picking tea. He asks a local woman for the best way to do it. She gives  him the pleasingly straightforward reply “You have to pluck the leaves.”


Educating Cardiff, Tuesday 25th August, 9pm, Channel 4

TV can offer up a tide of unutterable guff sometimes. You know it, I know it. Hell, I watch a lot of it. Sometimes I’ll even tape it  to watch later. Unutterable guff can be a guilty treat, like hot dogs for breakfast. (Just me, then?) But when TV is good – very, very good  – it can be funny informative, edifying, deeply moving. And Channel 4’s beautifully-constructed educating series is all of these and more.  

For the uninitiated (what have you been doing? Please see me after class) the series follows the day-to-day life in a school, with  footage filmed from unobtrusive fixed-rig cameras, combined with interviews with those featured. It is an insight into the daily  lives and preoccupations of pupils and teachers alike. And it is wonderful.

For this series, the franchise moves to Willows High School in Cardiff. When Mrs Ballard – a warm, twinkly lady with a steely resolve  – took over as head three years ago, it was one of the worst schools in Wales. But she and her remarkable staff are dragging the  place up by its bootstraps.

This opening episode features two very different year 11 girls. Leah is a tearaway, a truant whose undoubted ability is likely to be  squandered in her forthcoming GCSEs. Jessica is a bright, bubbly and hugely intelligent pupil, who is also something of a loner, and  prefers the company of adults to other children.

Jessica is made founding editor of the new school newspaper, in a bid to build up her confidence and interaction with other students.  Meanwhile, maths teacher Mr Hennessy is fighting tooth and nail to keep Leah in school. Both stories are deeply involving, and  contain moments that would melt even the flintiest of hearts. And in Mr Hennessy, there is an everyday hero who should be celebrated  and feted. Underneath his strict exterior is a man of wondrous dedication and devotion. A man who gets in at 7am each day, and phones  Leah every morning to encourage her to get in to school.  A man, in short, who you’d want teaching your kids or grandkids. “Why did  you become a teacher?” he is asked. “Long holidays,” he replies. Yeah right. Pull the other one.


Stephen Fry in Central America, Thursday 27th August, 9pm, ITV

There are two types of people in this sceptred isle of ours: Those who see Stephen Fry as a gloriously urbane, witty, sensitive and  charming presence, and those who are wrong. If you begrudge Fry his status as a national treasure, I would urge you to listen to his  fascinating recent appearance on Desert Island Discs, where he comes across as humble, affable and searingly honest and self-aware.  But this is a TV column, not a radio one (just as well, as I only ever listen to Desert Island Discs and Chris Evans) so let us away  to Central America to join the delightful Mr Fry on his latest televisual sojourn.

Fry’s journey in this four-part series will take him through Central America, from the American border down to Panama, much as Dara  O’Brien and Ed Byrne’s did a few months ago for the BBC (and you can imagine how well that will have gone down at ITV!)  Having previously gone round America in a taxi, Fry is making this journey in a converted American school bus. Why we insist on these  gimmicks is a mystery to me. We didn’t demand Alan Whicker traversed Africa in a Bubble Car, or make Michael Palin span the globe in  a revamped fork lift truck. Anyway, Fry seems happy enough with his transport – climbing aboard he sees a hammock, a bed, a stove and  a fridge. “What more could we want,” he asks, clearly forgetting the inevitable toiletry requirements that are a tedious part of the  human condition.

No matter. The opening episode, set entirely in Mexico, is packed with moments of sheer delight, from a truly spectacular canyon  (“I’m tempted to say eat your heart out, Arizona”) to a remarkable creature, the axolotl, that may hold the key to an extraordinary  medical breakthrough. On the way, Fry makes a hilarious appearance in a Mexican telenovela, is terrified by the sickening danger of  cliff diving, is visibly moved at a demonstration against the drug cartels, and encounters the world’s only ‘multigenerational  migrational phenomenon’. Magical.


All Creatures Great and Small, on YouTube and DVD

The way we watch telly has changed. With the birth of the Internet and websites like Amazon and Netflix, and the advent of Tivo and  on demand services, there is more choice than ever. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more quality, mind you (I’m looking at you,  Flockstars…) So, to guide you through the murky waters of televisual bilge, every week we will draw your attention to a classic TV  series, and tell you where to find it. I know, our kindness is boundless. (Please feel free to express your gratitude through the  medium of finance). 

This week, an all-time personal favourite. In its heyday in the mid-80s, All Creatures Great and Small drew audiences in excess of 20  million. With its charismatic blend of 1930s nostalgia, Yorkshire Dales, cuddly (and not-so-cuddly) animals and well-drawn, funny and  believable characters, the show oozed warmth and humour. And that theme tune. If you didn’t grow to love that theme tune, a part of  your heart was missing. Incidentally, it is called The Piano Parchment, and as written by Johnny Pearson in 1968. I was reminded of the glories of All Creatures Great and Small last year, with the sad news of Lynda Bellingham’s death at just 66.  Bellingham succeeded Carol Drinkwater as Helen. I scarcely need tell you that Christopher Timothy played the kindly James Herriot,  Robert Hardy the gloriously cantankerous Siegfried Farnon, and Peter Davison the cheerfully irresponsible Tristan Farnon. (Siegfried  and Tristan? Were the parents sadists?) 

I was reminded again of the show more recently, with the news that HBO have acquired the rights and are planning a big budget remake.  Expect to see Darrowby transposed to Florida, and James Herriot played by Brad Pitt. Mrs Pumphrey will probably be played by Charlize  Theron, and Tricki Woo will be a dolphin. 

Several series of All Creatures Great and Small are available in their entirety on YouTube. A comprehensive box set, featuring all seven series and three Christmas specials on 33 discs, is available on Amazon for £66.  

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