TV blog: Great Canal Journeys and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 20 March 2015

Our TV blogger takes a look at Great Canal Journeys, Eat to Live Forever with Giles Coren, Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure and Coalition.

Review: Great Canal Journeys, Sunday 15th March, 8pm, Channel 4

I didn’t really mean to review this programme. I’d made the decision not to, on account of having written about an episode from the first series, last year, and then given the same treatment to John Sergeant’s similar (though inferior) ITV version, Barging Around Britain, a few weeks ago. 

But the pull of dear old Prupru and Timbles proved too much. That’s Prunella Scales and Timothy West to you. I can call them whatever I like, though. They feel like friends. They’re not, of course – and I suspect they would very much object to being called Prupru and Timbles – but you just feel so close to them after the gentle intimacy of this quietly wonderful programme.

If you didn’t see the first series, I’ll try and explain the very, very complex principle at the heart of this programme. Prupru and Timbles go out on a canal boat for a few days. And. Um. That’s it.

Kicking off this series, our happy couple repeat their first ever canal trip, down the Oxford canal, a holiday they enjoyed 40 years ago. Oxford, though, has even earlier memories for them. Once upon a time, explains Tim, he and Pru were starring in a play in Oxford. They went for a meal, then for a walk. “Suddenly we found ourselves outside the Eastgate Hotel... and the rest is history.” Tim, you old dog! Pru doesn’t know where to look, she’s so embarrassed!

Time, of course, has a wearisome habit of marching on, and the canal is not as beautiful as it once was. Individual bits of graffito (I never use the plural since I learned the more pretentious singular) adorn many of the bridges, and there is a general air of slow decay.

For part of this journey their son, who I call Samkins, but you may call Samuel West the Actor, joins them, and turns out to be as charming as his parents. He recalls the family barging holidays with unabashed delight, and recites, verbatim, from the log his dad kept of their adventures. It is all somehow deeply touching, as are the old family videos of their much younger incarnations skipping about on the boats. Samkins recalls the general air of chaos that pervaded their boating. It is something that appears to have moved on very little in the intervening years. They seem to be permanently either running aground or colliding with things. “It’s a contact sport,” says Tim, cheerfully.

They meet and talk to some delightful and interesting people, and tell some fascinating stories on this programme. But it is the interaction between the two of them, and between them and the canal, that makes this a magical, understated gem. 

And underneath it all, there is a tangible sense of melancholia. Times winged chariot draws close not just to the canal itself, but to those who ride on her.

Review: Eat to Live Forever with Giles Coren, Wednesday 18th March, 9:30pm, BBC Two

I like Giles Coren. I know him, a little bit – he was an older boy at my school, and he never once beat me up or stole my tuck money. In subsequent years, we suffered the mutual affliction of supporting QPR, occasionally bound together by shared misery over a gloomy post-match pint. He is a thoroughly nice, and very funny, fellow. Good company. But I’m not sure I want to live forever with him. I’m not sure I want to live forever with anyone. Myself included. 

In particular, I don’t want to live forever if I have to subject myself to the kind of diets to which Giles submits himself in this entertaining one-off documentary.

The premise of the programme is this: Giles is 45, and a father of two small children. His beloved dad, the inestimable Alan Coren, died at 69. Giles lives in dread that a similar fate will befall him, and he wants more time with his young family. 

He’s looking at ways of increasing his longevity, specifically through his diet. So he embarks on three dietary regimes that claim to push the limits of life expectancy.

Okay, quiz time: You want to find three of the weirdest, quirkiest, most outlandish food fads in the world. Where are you likely to go? Is it (a) Bury St Edmunds (b) Northampton or (c) USA? 

First off in (you won’t believe it) America, Giles meets a couple who, I’m trying not to be judgemental here, are very, very strange. They live in the woods in northern New York state on a calorie-controlled diet that consists of pulses, berries and onions. They are weirdly evangelical and scary, and very thin. Giles does not like it. Awake and starving at 4am, he tells the camera he just had a “weird midnight poo.” (Does anyone else think that would be quite a good name for a band?)

He talks quite a lot about his poo. Soon afterwards, he produces a long, wormy one, and feels ‘elated’. TMI.

Then there’s the paleo diet. It’s basically the Atkins diet by another name – lots of fat, no carbs, that sort of thing. He travels to Kentucky to meet a guy who eats raw sheep all the time. He has a weird beard and kills livestock in his garden. 

Imagine being his neighbour. 

Next it’s the fruitarians. They eat nothing but fruit. Obviously, they are idiots. One of them claims to be on a fruit-induced high. I call it light-headedness from lack of nutrition. They’re all young, the fruitarians. Probably because none of them lives past 30.

I enjoyed the programme immensely – far more than poor Giles, who looked fairly miserable throughout (a misery I recognise from the pitch side at Loftus Road). But I’m not sure how much I learned. Giles did each diet for a week. If he wants to take this TV lark seriously, he needs to choose one diet, and stick with it until he’s 130. Then we can decide whether it works or not.

Continue to page 2 for previews of Dara and Ed's Great Big Adventure and Coaliton.

Preview: Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure, Tuesday 24th March, 9pm, BBC Two

It must be a tough life, being married to a comedian. Half the time they’re away touring, and the other half they’re away doing travelogues. You can barely move for comedians trekking up something or motorcycling across somewhere or sailing across whatnot. There’s normally some flimsy pretext for the journey, following in the footsteps of someone who did something remarkable a hundred years earlier. Pretty soon, though, we’re going to run out of these remarkable journeys and we’ll end up with a programme about the Chuckle Brothers travelling to East Grinstead on a journey once made by Edwina Currie after a chicken supper in Bracknell.

For this new three-part series, comedians Dara O’Brien and Ed Byrne are following in the tyre tracks of three guys from Detroit who travelled down continental America 75 years ago. Tonight, they are crossing Mexico, as they embark along the Pan-American highway – at 4000 miles long, the longest road in the world.

The resulting film is a weird combination of funny, beautiful, and utterly depressing. O’Brien and Byrne are easy, amusing company – it helps that they’re best mates in real life. And Mexico has much to commend it – it has a warmth and a vibrancy, and a proud cultural history. But it also has massive social problems – not least the drugs cartels. A week after the team leaves a seaside town, a cartel boss is arrested there, with $200 million in cash. Try explaining that away as holiday spending money.

Even more depressing is the tale of the Guatemalan migrants who are crossing Mexico in an effort to reach the USA. Most travel aboard a vast goods train called “The Beast”. The journey is fraught with danger, as ruthless gangsters exploit the needy, vulnerable migrants. Staggeringly, over 60 per cent of the women who make the journey are raped. 

In Mexico City, the boys are on happier ground. Lucha Libre – Mexican wrestling – is the national sport, and they meet a muscular proponent called Shocker, who teaches them some moves. “I call myself Mr One Thousand Per Cent Handsome,” he boasts. “The people love me.” Poor Shocker, he’d probably have made it if he wasn’t such a wallflower.

On through Mexico, via roadside distilleries (an irritated Dara loses the coin toss and has to drive while Ed gets squiffy) and dreadful roadside Mariachi bands. Finally, Dara meets a transgender Zapatec called Mystica who takes him for a breakfast of Iguana head in chilli sauce. Each to their own. I’m a Coco Pops man, myself.

Preview: Coalition, Saturday, March 28, 9pm, Channel 4

You will doubtless be painfully aware that an election is almost upon us. I have more reason than most to object to general elections, having spent much of my formative years tramping miserably around forlorn housing estates in the driving rain, delivering leaflets and hoping nobody punched me. Both my parents stood for parliament, see? And despite being principled, conscientious Social Democrats, it turns out they weren’t above using a bit of child labour.

As a result, I find myself scrupulously kind to anyone out canvassing, regardless of their politics, who comes to my house. 

I’ve been there (I mean, obviously I’ve been to my house – I’m speaking in a less literal sense). It’s rubbish. The problem is, though, they take your friendliness to mean you’re a supporter. I had a fellow in my kitchen a couple of weeks ago who would not stop talking about fracking, in spite of the fact that I was making sandwiches and trying to dress two bawling kids, whilst communicating with (shouting at) my wife who was upstairs.  He wouldn’t shut up. I think I may have promised him my vote to get him to leave. Oh hell, I probably offered to go canvassing with him.

Anyway, we’ve all pretty much reached saturation point with politics already, and the campaign hasn’t even started. For the next two months we’re going to be made to listen to so many politicians, we’re going to have pithy soundbites leaking from our ears, and find the remnants of catchy slogans in our handkerchiefs. So what does good old, counterintuitive Channel 4 do? Decides there’s not enough politics on the telly, and gives us a feature-length political drama, Coalition

This move sounds even more foolhardy when you consider that it is a drama to which everyone knows the outcome. The subject in question is the aftermath of the 2010 election, when both Gordon Brown and David Cameron were courting Nick Clegg in order to form a coalition government. SPOILER ALERT: Gordon Brown is no longer PM.

The drama deals with the behind-the-scenes posturing and the delicate backroom negotiations that led to the formation of the Coalition. Written down, it sounds absolutely deathly. Believe me, it isn’t.

The drama, penned by political playwright James Graham, is gripping, poignant, funny and, most importantly, revelatory. For his research, Graham talked to some of the most powerful politicians in the country, and has come up with an extraordinary inside story of a historic few days. 

Bertie Carvel is excellent as a tortured Nick Clegg, and Cameron and Brown are both well-observed. But it is Mark Gatiss, as a scene-stealing, wry, reptilian Peter Mandelson, who will live longest in the 

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