Walking the Himalayas, Sunday 27th December, 8pm, Channel 4
In 2014, Levison Wood became the first person to walk the length of the Nile from source to sea. On the way, one of his colleagues died of heat stroke. He was shot at, robbed, got lost in the desert, fell ill, narrowly missed being eaten by a crocodile, got stuck in a war zone, almost trod on a land mine, and suffered pretty much every privation you can imagine.
You could forgive him, therefore, for spending the next three or four decades sitting on his bottom on a very comfy sofa, in a room with a carefully controlled ambient temperature, eating pizza and cake and watching telly. But that’s the thing with these adventure types. They never know when to quit. So instead of sitting down with a box set of Game of Thrones and some Hobnobs, he’s decided to go off and walk the length of the Himalayas –1700 miles through some of the most hostile terrain in the world, from Afghanistan to Bhutan.
Off he sets, then, accompanied for the first part of his journey by a cheerful Afghan mountaineer called Malang. They’re in a part of Afghanistan so remote and desolate even the Taliban don’t bother with it. The only people there are nomads. Nomads, as it turns out, with rather excellent hats. Life is hard, here. Life expectancy is between 30 and 40. No amount of jaunty hats can make up for that.
The nomads entertain Lev with a banquet. He is given the prize delicacy – the goat’s eye and brain. Part of me suspects all these tribes have just banded together to hoodwink adventurous TV types with this culinary guff. I bet they’re sniggering into their napkins.
Walking at 4,000 metres, Lev is very tired. The problem is, he’s only gone about 40 miles. I bet that box set looks good now. Especially as their food is dry bread which they have to defrost over a yak dung fire. “It tastes like cow shit,” roars Malang, happily. Suddenly even the goat’s eye looks good.
Finally, they cross into Pakistan – and into what many claim to be “the most beautiful valley in the world.” It’s certainly very nice. But anything would look nice after the arid moonscape of Afghanistan. Problem is, the further they go in, the more the anti-Western graffiti increases. They’ve barely started, and already they seem to be in mortal peril. It makes for riveting television, but it’s not what I’d do with my air miles.
Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands, Sunday 3rd January, 7pm, ITV
First off, a warning to any academics specialising in ancient literature (an intellectual audience with whom I am confident this blog is particularly popular) – this is not so much a retelling of the legend of Beowulf as a complete re-writing of it. This is as true to the original as The Life of Brian was a faithful reproduction of the Bible.
The massive popularity of Game of Thrones, plus the Lord of the Rings franchise, has meant that everyone’s suddenly nuts about tales involving helmets, swords, mythical beasts and a cast that looks like a bunch of suspiciously handsome roadies on a heavy metal tour. Seriously, if you went to the BBC now and suggested Ian Beale started striding round Albert Square firing off arrows and killing dragons, they’d probably snap your hand off. (Though this might just be because they thought you were an idiot).
Anyway, Beowulf. It begins with a man and child running away from a deeply unpleasant-looking breed of monster – sort of a cross between a giant baboon and a prop forward with bad dentistry. The man dies. The kid kills the beast. A rescue team arrives too late to make any difference. They’re led by none other than William Hurt, albeit William Hurt having a very bad hair day.
Fast forward 20-odd years. Beowulf has grown up and (you’re not going to believe this) has grown into a very good looking chap, albeit with rather long hair (clearly there is a dearth of decent barbers in the Shieldlands). He’s returning to his homeland after a long absence, accompanied by a cheeky ne’er-do-well sidekick. When he gets there, he is given a less-than-warm welcome. Indeed some, it seems, will go to great lengths to get rid of Beowulf, any way they can.
With a 7pm slot, this is clearly intended to be family viewing – though with its fantastical monsters and brutal battles, this may prove to be as controversial as the recent series of Jekyll and Hyde, also aimed at an early-evening audience.
Is it any good? Well, the setting and scale of it are impressive, and the cast has the requisite degree of stardust. But hearing people in medieval clothes saying “Oh please” “fair point” and “banter” jars a little. And everyone could do with a ruddy good shave.
Confession time. The truth is, I’m planning to spend a large portion of the next ten days slumped on a sofa smelling strongly of Prosecco and vaguely of Brussel sprouts. My festival of grotesque consumption is run on a tight schedule, and there is little opportunity for writing with a glass in one hand and a turkey drumstick in the other. So I’m abandoning you next week with nothing but a look back at the best and worst TV from 2015 to tide you over.
But obviously you can’t be left to your own televisual devices, lest you accidentally stumble across something with Jeremy Kyle in it and keep watching. I won’t let such a tragic fate befall you.
Here, to guide you through the murky waters of TV dross towards entertainment Valhalla, is my cut-out-and-keep guide to the next fortnight on the box. (NB Please don’t actually attempt to cut it out from your computer screen).
Saturday 26th December
As with Christmas Day, Boxing Day is heavily slanted towards drama. BBC One’s ambitious new 20-part drama Dickensian (7pm) features a neat conceit – what if every major Dickens character appeared in the same story? Reports are good, and the ambition must be applauded.
On ITV at 8pm there is Peter and Wendy, a family-friendly re-telling of Peter Pan featuring Stanley Tucci as Hook.
Back on BBC One, Agatha Christie’s tale, And Then There Were None (9pm) is a three-part chiller with an all-star cast including Anna Maxwell Martin, Charles Dance, and Aidan Turner’s abdominal muscles.
Sunday 27th December
More drama tonight, as the always-excellent Rafe Spall stars in the chilling tale of the Ghost Hunter (ITV, 8:30pm). Do not watch alone.
Meanwhile, I’m breaking a personal rule and going away from the main terrestrial channels to alert you to Fungus the Bogeyman on Sky 1, this star-studded adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ classic tale should be an absolute gem (in keeping with the book’s irreverently revolting tone, the show is being billed as a three-fart series).
Monday 28th December
John Bishop’s Gorilla Adventure (ITV, 9pm) sees John Bishop (obviously) go on an adventure (… yeeess…) involving, um, gorillas. Both gorillas and John Bishop aren’t without their charms, so it should be quite jolly.
Tuesday 29th December
It’s British national treasure night on the BBC, with two of our finest citizens writ large on TV this evening. On BBC One, David Beckham: For the Love of the Game sees the tattooed one travelling to seven continents, including Antarctica, to play football. Eventually, he ends back at another chilly, lifeless place, Old Trafford, on a mission to raise money for UNICEF.
At the same time on BBC Two, A Life on Screen: Stephen Fry, takes a look at the life of Bonnie Langford. No, of course it doesn’t, it’s Stephen Fry, and what a marvellous chap he is, too.
Wednesday 30th December
The Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough (BBC One, 9pm) isn’t exactly what you’d call Christmassy fare, but with the dark winter nights and chill winds of December, a bit of escapism into the azure depths, accompanied by the mellifluous tones of our Dave, is just the tonic.
If you want something with a slightly harder edge, Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe (BBC Two, 9pm) will take an acerbic, rude, and normally very funny look back at the year’s more absurd events.
Thursday 31st December
If you’re lucky enough to be staying in on what is generally the most over-priced and anti-climactic night of the year, good on you! I’ll be round in ten minutes with a bottle of Babycham and a TV guide.
It’s pretty traditional New Year’s fare – there’s Alan Carr and company on Channel 4 (9pm) and Graham Norton and guests on BBC One (10:45pm). Bryan Adams Rocks Big Ben Live at 11:30pm, if you’re so inclined, though myself I’d join Jools’s Annual Hootenanny (I still don’t know what one of them is) on BBC Two at 11:30pm, featuring the twin delights of Paul Weller and Tom Jones.
Earlier in the evening, there’s a documentary about Panda Babies (ITV, 8:30pm) which is so cute I’ve actually taken baked panda off my Christmas menu.
Friday 1st January
Shake off the excesses of last night with a vigorous work out and a long training run, followed by an organic cucumber and prune smoothie.
Or alternatively get a family-sized grab bag of potato-based snackage and settle down for a family-friendly comedy-drama, Billionaire Boy (by David Walliams) (BBC One, 7pm).
Then it’s one of the highlights of the festive season, as Sherlock returns for a one-off. This time, the action is set in 1895 (who on earth would ever think of having a Victorian Sherlock Holmes? Absurd!)
Saturday 2nd January
Tonight’s highlight is Leningrad and the Orchestra that Defied Hitler (BBC Two, 9:10pm), an extraordinary documentary about an orchestra of starving musicians who gathered to perform Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony while their city was under a brutal siege.
Sunday 3rd January
A six-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s insubstantial short story, War and Peace (BBC One, 9pm) boasts an all-star cast including Lily James, Jim Broadbent, Gillian Anderson, Adrian Edmondson, Greta Scacchi, Stephen Rea and Brian Cox.
Meanwhile, Channel 4’s new drama Deutschland 83 (9pm) is as tense and atmospheric a spy thriller as you could wish for. Set at the height of the Cold War, it tells the story of an East German boy forced to spy for his country. It’s German, though, so you’ll need to be fluent to understand it. Oh, unless they stick those clever English translations at the bottom of the screen.
Read Saga Magazine’s in-depth interview with Greta Scacchi in the January 2016 issue
Monday 4th January
Watching a hairy Welshman pottering around the countryside might not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but when the Welshman in question is Griff Rhys-Jones and the countryside is the beautiful South Downs, there is an undeniable pull. Griff’s Great Britain (8pm, ITV) starts there, as the two big broadcasters continue to try and piggyback the phenomenal success of Countryfile.
Meanwhile, When Ant and Dec Met the Prince (9pm, ITV) sees the cameras follow what must be a rather peculiar encounter between the cheeky Georde chappies and the Prince of Wales, to mark 40 years of The Prince’s Trust.
Tuesday 5th January
One of last year’s undiscovered gems was Travel Man (C4, 8:30pm) a comic look at where to go for weekends away, with the peerless Richard Ayoade. Tonight he turns his scabrous attention to Vienna.
Then at 9pm on BBC Two there is the first of a two-parter, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing in which choreographer Jack Murphy attempts to revive the glory days of the dance hall by appealing to the senior citizens of Bolton.
Meanwhile, also at 9pm is ITV’s new series SAVED (no, I’ve not accidentally left my caps lock on, the title is weirdly capitalised) looks at real life stories of SURVIVAL that ARE inspirational.
Wednesday 6th January
There isn’t much in the way of excitement to be had in front of the box tonight, so why not use the opportunity to go out and socialise. Or improve yourself by learning a new language or a musical instrument? Or join a late night paragliding club? Thursday 7th January
ITV’s new 8-part drama, Jericho, starts tonight at 9pm. Starring the indisputably lovely Jessica Raine, who was last seen up to her armpits in babies in Poplar, this time she plays a widowed mother with two children, who is forced to travel to a shantytown in the Yorkshire Dales where the inhabitants are building a viaduct. The taster tape looks classy.
Then, at 10:35pm on BBC One, the ever-excellent documentary-maker Sue Bourne tackles the Age of Loneliness, talking to a whole range of people from all over the country for whom loneliness is a daily reality.
Friday 8th January
Why the massive, constant and unceasing obsession with Wallis Simpson? It seems broadcasters can’t get enough of her – we’ve had at least eight programmes about her in the last two years, as if absolutely nothing of the slightest import had happened in the intervening 80 years.
Royal Wives at War (9pm, BBC Two) is a drama documentary about the enmity between the nation’s favourite American divorcee (no, not Sandra Bullock) and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. If you can actually bear to hear any more about the story, this should be pretty good – as are most things starring Gina McKee.
Right. That’s me done for the year. Pour me a large eggnog and warm up my slippers, I’m spending the next fortnight watching telly. Um… unlike when I’m working…