TV blog: Countrywise and other TV highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 15 October 2015

Our TV reviewer recommends Countrywise, Fargo, 24 Hours in A&E, My Son the Jihadi and the extraordinary documentary, 7 Up to 56 Up.

Countrywise, Monday 19th October, 8pm, ITV

I’m reading the Harry Potter books to my son at moment. In the third book, Hermione is able to study twice the number of subjects as everyone else, and nobody can work out how she does it. It turns out (spoiler alert if you’re an eight-year-old) that she manages to do it by means of time travel.

I mention this because I imagine Ben Fogle has discovered the ability to teleport through time as well. It’s the only explanation I can find for the fact that he’s on pretty much every programme I switch on.

One minute he’s off meeting Brits who have settled in remote locations, the next he’s travelling the world with a bunch of competing anglers, and now he’s pootling around Britain filming Countrywise. And that’s all just in the last couple of months!

One of these days, I fully expect to switch on the TV and discover Ben Fogle reading the news, before handing over to Ben Fogle for the news where you are, before going to Ben Fogle for the weather.

Not that it’s unwelcome. Fogle is an enthusiastic, upbeat and cheering presence, like a Labrador with media training. His fellow Countrywise presenters, Paul Heiney and Liz Bonnin, are equally bumptious and beaming. Mind you, you wouldn’t want a serial miserablist presenting Countrywise, standing in the middle of a field, in the drizzle, complaining about their cold toes.

The three bring a winning energy to Countrywise, which is essentially ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Countryfile. They’re basically the same programme, except that one of them has a break in the middle so someone can shout at you about dental hygiene. They’re even worth the same amount in Scrabble.

This series opener, the first of eight, sees Heiney visit a swannery near Chesil Beach. Fogle goes to Northern Ireland for an encounter with the (apparently) ‘iconic’ Irish hare. And Bonin swims with basking sharks off the Isle of Coll.

It’s gently paced (unlike the Irish hare), relaxed (unlike the aggressive swans) and easy to watch (unlike the elusive basking shark). You’re unlikely to die of a heart-attack induced by over-stimulation, but this is a modestly informative and pleasant half-hour.

Fargo, Monday 19th October, 10pm, Channel 4

In 1996, the Coen Brothers made Fargo, a film set in America’s frozen midwest about the increasingly inept criminal enterprises of William H Macy’s desperate Jerry Lundegaard. It was brutal, bonkers and brilliant. So when it was announced that a TV spin-off was to be made a couple of years ago, there was much understandable scepticism. Sometimes, works of art should be left alone. (Yes, I’m looking at you, George Lucas.)

Except that Fargo, the series, turned out to be brilliant. And brutal. And bonkers. The critics agreed, as did the awards committees. Fargo cleaned up.

All of which means that hopes are extremely high for the second season. And, with a cast including genuine Hollywood royalty in the form of Ted Danson and Kirsten Dunst, anticipation is piling up thicker and faster than a Minnesota snowdrift in a blizzard.

As usual, with the Fargo genre, there is a message at the beginning of the show stating that all of the events depicted are true. The reality is that the events are about as true as your average episode of Dangermouse. If they really were true, there would be nobody left in Minnesota or North Dakota, such is the preponderance of characters to die in fairly gruesome fashion.

Events take place in 1979, 27 years before those depicted in the first series. It means a whole new cast, a new setting, and a lot more sideburns.

Be warned, the show is not without a liberal sprinkling of body ketchup. But it is much, much more than a bog-standard thriller. What distinguishes Fargo is its remarkable evocation of time and place – it’s so atmospheric, you half expect a moose to walk into your living room – and it’s magnificently bizarre sense of humour.

If you’re not afraid of some fairly wince-inducing scenes of brutality and bloodshed, do yourself a favour and watch this.

24 Hours in A&E, Tuesday 20th October, 9pm, Channel 4

I love Americans. My grandpa was one. In the main, they’re friendly, intelligent and charming. But there’s one thing that baffles me about our Stateside cousins – their assertion that the very worst thing that could happen in their country would be to have a state-funded, free National Health Service. They look at our model and see some sort of crypto-Trotskyist Orwellian nightmare.

I’d like to sit them all down and show them 24 Hours in A&E (but it’s difficult finding a telly big enough, and some of them are too busy watching football played entirely with hands and calling jam ‘jelly’). It is the most eloquent advert you could wish to see for our invaluable, priceless NHS.

The award-winning fly-on-the-wall documentary films patients being treated in London’s St George’s Hospital over a 24-hour period, and returns for its tenth series, as gripping, emotionally draining and inspiring as ever.

Tonight, an 89-year-old wine merchant, Sir John Cockburn, is brought in with a suspected abdominal bleed. His son, Jonathan, reflects on growing up in a loving, eccentric household, with such warmth and vivid affection it is deeply moving.

Mick and Linda are involved in a head-on collision with another car, and both are seriously injured. Yet throughout the ordeal of their treatment, their only thoughts are for the other one. And ten-year-old Niall has fallen out of a tree, and has hurt – well, you’ve only got to look at his ‘banana arm’ to see what he’s hurt. His concerned parents are at his bedside.

This is a programme featuring the quiet profundity of the love that sustains us all, a reflection on the simple beauty of family life. But it’s also a tribute to the unfussy professionalism, dedication and skill of the NHS staff, who go about their daily work of saving lives with calm matter-of-factness. If this is Trotskyism then sign me up. (It isn’t, and please don’t).

My Son the Jihadi, Thursday 22nd October, 9pm, Channel 4

Being a parent is many things. It is both an overwhelming joy and a semi-permanent source of irritation (small children cry a lot, fight a lot, and are absolutely hopeless at cooking Beef Wellington while I watch Homes Under the Hammer).

Two of the pre-eminent feelings on this bewildering emotional journey are guilt and fear. Guilt that you’re not doing it right, and fear that, as a result, something will go badly wrong in their lives, and they’ll end up damaged in some way.

For most of us, the fear is that they’ll turn out to be unhappy, that they’ll end up cruel or antisocial. But even the most pessimistic parents, in their worst nightmares, would find it hard to envisage a scenario as devastating as that which befell Sally Evans’ eldest son, Thomas.

Aged just 21, Thomas left his home in a quiet Buckinghamshire village and went to Somalia to join Al Shabaab, one of the most extreme and murderous terrorist organisations in the world. Al Shabaab has committed countless crimes of astonishing brutality in Kenya, including the Westgate shopping mall massacre and the murder of 147 students at a university.

This extraordinary documentary, filmed over nine months, charts the lives of Sally and her younger son, Michael, as they attempt to reconcile their son and brother, Thomas, with Abdul Hakim, the hateful Jihadi extremist he became.

Theirs is an agonising existence, wondering if he has hurt or killed anyone, or if he has been killed himself. Perhaps most striking is Sally’s dignity and simple courage, as she confronts the fact that he has married a girl of 13 or 14, and as news of more and more atrocities filters through from East Africa.

And then, in the second half of the programme, she receives a phone call that changes everything…

7 Up to 56 Up, box set

In the 1960s, an extraordinary experiment began. To be fair, I think a lot of people were experimenting in the 60s, but this one didn’t involve being naked, covered in mud, and making interesting soups with mushrooms. It was a TV experiment that led to one of the defining programmes in the history of British television.

7 Up was screened in 1964. The one-off documentary took a snapshot of the lives of 14 British children, from a variety of socioeconomic and regional backgrounds. The programme’s concept was based on an old Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” We are all, in other words, defined by our first seven years – these early, formative experiences, combined with our social class, determine who and what we are and will become.

One of the researchers on the programme, tasked with finding the children to feature, was a young man called Michael Apted. Seven years later, he came back, as director, to film 14 Up. He has returned, every seven years since then, to film the same individuals, to track the course of their lives. Most recently, in 2012, he helmed 56 Up, and he asserts “I hope to do 84 Up when I’ll be 99.”

It is an extraordinary project, showing the poetry and nobility of quiet, everyday existence, the mini triumphs and tragedies that form the tapestry of life.

Of the original 14, some have dropped out over the years. Only one, Charles, ironically enough a documentary maker himself, has not returned to be filmed. Sadly, when 63 Up goes out in 2019, another member of the group will be missing. Lynn died in May 2013.

The series is not without its faults – most glaringly, only four of the subjects are women, and only one is non-white – a fact that Apted has said he regrets, and a sign of a very different world in 1964. But this is television gold, at once a social history of Britain and an intimate look at individual lives. In 2005, Channel 4 named it first in a list of the 50 Greatest Documentaries. It’s not hard to see why.

A DVD of 7 Up to 49 Up is available from Amazon for £22.98, while 56 Up is available on DVD for a further £6.69.

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