TV blog: Britain's Got Talent and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 17 April 2015

TV blogger, Benjie Goodhart reviews Britain's Got Talent, University Challenge and previews Hunters of the South Seas and Weekend Escapes with Warwick Davies.


Review: Britain’s Got Talent, Saturday, April 11, 8pm, ITV

The bloated light entertainment behemoth steamrollered its way back onto our screens last weekend with all the subtlety and finesse of a gorilla trying to restore a fresco using a jackhammer.

It’s a simple enough formula. You get four judges – two very pretty, one funny, and one a pantomime villain whose shirts don’t button up – combine them with a selection of the most and least talented people you could ever hope to see, top and tail the whole thing with a couple of cheeky Geordies and hyperbolic lighting and graphics, and let it all loose on a theatre full of over-excited, sugared-up loons. It sounds awful. It’s ruddy brilliant.

Every year it’s the same. I approach it with a lack of enthusiasm most people would reserve for their tax returns. I always get about ten minutes in. And then something happens.

This year it as a choir from Wales. All 162 of them, ranging from 7-65 in age. They sang Benedictus, and it was absolutely magnificent. If I had hair, it would have stood up on end. I’d probably have wept, if I’d not been sitting next to my father-in-law, who already thinks I’m a weirdly prissy half-man because I can’t change a tyre.

If the choir was my undoubted highlight of the show, there were other acts that caught the eye as well. There was a contortionist who was fascinatingly gruesome, a dog that took an extreme dislike to Ant, and a chicken whose talent appeared to be, um, being a chicken. There was a brother-and-sister duo on rollerskates, who said their mother had got them their first pairs aged five and eight, as “something safe to do”. Safe? Where did they grow up? 1942 Stalingrad?

There was a Frenchman who put a hand-operated mouth-mask over his dog that seemed to confuse Simon Cowell into believing the dog could talk. More bafflingly, said Frenchman claimed it was his lifelong dream to perform in front of the Queen. Are the streets of Paris and the squares of Marseille full of young idealists whose most fervent wish is to perform a cheap cabaret act in front of a foreign monarch? Still, at least he could do ventriloquy. The next man to try just stood there and moved his lips as much as you or I when we speak. Which meant that he was just a bloke in a spangly waistcoat holding a toy vulture.

There were consecutive singing siblings who were cruelly manipulated for the show’s narrative. She was ejected despite being rather good, he was given a golden ticket to the semi-final, which seemed over-generous (though he was undeniably talented). And finally, we had a bizarre turn from a group of ladies from Withensea, who basically danced very badly and performed the least titillating striptease since Reggie Perrin went for a swim. But they were funny, and sweet, and there was a majestic, British brilliance to their unabashed awfulness. Much like the show. I loved them. I loved it. There, I said it.

Review: University Challenge, Monday, April 13, 8pm, BBC Two

Like most of the parties I went to as a teenager, the University Challenge final featured no females at all, and an excessively high quotient of geeky blokes in ill-advised knitwear.

Earlier on in the series, I reviewed an episode in which Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, beat Manchester University, and I revelled in the fact that one contestant, Ted Loveday, had without a doubt the worst hair I’d ever seen. The final again featured Gonville and Caius, and I can report that, in the intervening five months, nothing has happened to disabuse me of this stance. He looked like someone had taken Kevin Keegan’s early-80s' bubble perm, thinned it, dipped it in chip fat, and slapped it on top of his head.

Mind you, this is churlish and mean, because what was inside Loveday’s head was more relevant. He was superb, along with his captain Martinelli. Thanks in large part to the two of them, Caius won at a canter.

I was pleased at this. I took against their opponents, Magdalen College, Oxford, immediately. Only two of their team were in knitwear. The other two were in suit jackets. One was in a tie, for heaven’s sakes. You’re a student! You’ve got your entire life to be constrained by society’s sartorial norms. You should be expressing yourself by dressing like a prat, not a 54-year-old tax accountant.

As ever, the range and depth of knowledge on display was breathtaking. How do they know so much at such a young age? They’ve clearly not been doing anything like enough misspending of their youth.

Generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to go for a pint with any of them. You’d be worried they’d be sick after a half of Shandy, and anyway, you’d be distracting them from finding a solution to climate change.

Thanks to Loveday and Martinelli, the final was never in doubt, which made it almost anti-climactic (a bit like the US Masters, won by another youngster who’s far too talented for my liking).

I think maybe Magdalen spent much of the final staring stupidly at Loveday’s hair, wondering if it might actually be a dead octopus.

Will Self came on at the end to present the trophy. He ‘admitted’ he’d only got about 35 per cent of the answers right, which was meant to sound humble, but struck me as more of a boast (my own figure was around 30 per cent lower). Then the trophy was handed over, and Gonville and Cauis went and stood directly in front of Magdalen. It seems, in this case, the old aphorism about nobody remembering who came second kicked in before the final credits had even started rolling.

Preview: Hunters of the South Seas, Sunday, April 19, BBC Two, 9pm

There are all sorts of people in the world. Good and bad. Tall and short. Thin and fat. Rich and poor. Hell, there are even people who thought the new series of Open All Hours was a good idea. But there are few people more unlike the rest of us than some of those in the Western Pacific, in the area known as the Coral Triangle. Because here, there are people who are more comfortable living on water than on land.

This three-part series, by turns riveting, enchanting and depressing, follows a British writer and explorer, Will Millard, as he goes and lives with three tribes who have made their lives, quite literally, on the ocean wave.

You’ve seen Millard before, of course. I mean, not actually him. But Bruce Parry, Simon Reeve, Leveson Wood. All these TV explorer types ae the same. Posh, ruggedly handsome, culturally sensitive, inquisitive, intelligent, and utterly charming. The kind of man who makes your blood boil, while your wife sits there eating Doritos and swooning. Oh. Just me, then.

Anyway, in episode one this week, Will visits the Bajau people. Until two generations ago, the Bajau literally lived on boats on the open sea. Today, they live in houses – but before you consider them pathetic, land-dwelling cop-outs, they’ve built their houses out on the ocean, on stilts, 600 metres from the nearest land. With its ramshackle collection of walkways and huts, it looks like something from the film Waterworld – though fortunately, this documentary has a coherent narrative.

Millard moves in with Kabei and his family for three weeks.  Their home is a two-room bamboo-and-wood hut eight feet above the water. The toilet is simply off the edge of the floor, straight into the water. The place looks like a minor squall or a major bowel movement could destroy it.

Living where they do, the Bajau’s diet consists almost entirely of... anyone? Yes, that’s right, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Not really. Unsurprisingly, it’s fish. All of the Bajau are fishermen. Will goes out fishing with Kabei and his family. The underwater footage of them diving into the azure depths with their spear guns is astonishing and balletic.

There is an idyllic quality to life here, at first glance. But as ever, things are not that simple. The people are poor, and life is getting harder. The area is overfished, and while many Bajau believe their Sea God, the magnificently named Bojango, will continue to provide, scientific  forecasts suggest otherwise. As time passes, the affable Will becomes increasingly worried.

And that’s before the real bad guys arrive: The sharks. The worst breed of all. Deadlier than the Tiger or the Great White. The Loan Sharks, here to collect money from the indebted families.

Will’s empathy for the Bajau is palpable, as is the bond he forms with Kabei and his family. As an Indonesian speaker, Will is able to communicate in their language, which to my mind makes their relationship uniquely strong among such programmes.

The final scenes, where Will tries to communicate a sense of hope, strength and empowerment to Kabei’s young, disabled son, Lobo, are among the most moving television I’ve seen this year. Droplets of salt water are not limited to the sea.

Preview: Weekend Escapes with Warwick Davies, Friday, April 25, 8pm, ITV

This series, in which Warwick Davies travels round Britain with his wife and kids in search of entertainment, actually started last week. But having already watched the Secret Britain team exploring Wales, and Christine Bleakley pottering around Ireland, I reasoned that if I saw one more perky piece to camera from a hill-top, or one more bearded man in a cagoule talking about local wildlife, I’d gouge out my own eyes with my biro. Rather than face the next 40 years staggering about like a late-stage Gloucester in King Lear, I chose to wait a week.

I’m glad I went back, though. This is a wry, warm, big-hearted programme. Warwick Davies is a funny and genial host, and a devoted husband and father. There is something rather life-enhancing about watching a loving family, including two undeniably cute kids, simply pootling about together doing stupid stuff and making each other laugh.

In this episode, the Davies clan travels to Wales in search of adventure. In St David’s (the UK’s smallest City, fact-fans) they join a Viking re-enactment society. When they arrive, the women and children are grinding corn for flour to make bread. Actually, there don’t seem that many kids around. Perchance corn-grinding finishes a poor second to the X-Box? Who’da thunk!

After a while, the men rouse themselves to a spot of pillaging, which seems to involve a great deal of shouting, and popping round the shops demanding goods from the forewarned and agreeable shopkeepers. Warwick is a particularly excellent pillaging Viking, saying please and thank you a lot, and worrying about CCTV footage. “What a lovely selection of chutneys,” he remarks at one point.

Then it’s on to learn some woodcraft and survival skills. Warwick has to eat a millworm. He’s not keen. I don’t expect to see him turning up on I’m a Celebrity anytime soon. After that it’s the World Alternative Games, and more worms. Worm-charming to be precise. There’s also egg-throwing and bog-snorkelling. Again, the nation’s youth seem mystifyingly absent.

Finally, it’s off to Tenby, where Warwick and son Harrison indulge in a spot of close harmony singing with a male voice choir. Actually, with the tone-deaf Harrison involved, the harmony isn’t that close. Or harmonious. They’re singing in Welsh, explains the choir master, so it’s all frightfully difficult. Except that Warwick and Harrison only have to sing the Welsh for ‘Hallelujah’. Which, fortunately enough, is ‘Hallelujah’.

It’s a lot to squeeze in in under half-an-hour. Whilst this means events zip by at a satisfying lick, it also means there’s a slight lack of cohesion to events. The Davies’ just pop up in one place, then another. We have no sense of distance, no information on where they’re staying, no background detail. We don’t really get to know the family that well, which is a shame, as they seem lovely. But Warwick’s enthusiasm and wry asides make this a more than agreeable experience.

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