TV blog: Home Fires and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 08 May 2015

TV blogger, Benjie Goodhart takes a look at Home Fires, VE Day 70: Remembering Victory, The British Academy Television Awards and The Secret World of Tinder.

Review: Home Fires, Sunday, May 3, 9pm, ITV

Deciding what to review this week, I was torn between two Sunday night dramas. There was The C-Word, starring the wonderful Sheridan Smith. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to watch a woman suffering terminal cancer. I watched the film The Fault in Our Stars recently and almost had to take to my bed for a week with a broken heart. Plus my wife already thinks I’m a crybaby (on our first date, we went to see Love Actually, I cried, and she thought I was a psychopath). 

So I went, instead, for Home Fires, a six-part drama about a group of women in rural Cheshire at the outbreak of World War II. I did this with a degree of gloom – my pet hate is whimsical Sunday night dramas set in rural communities, peopled by eccentrics. I’d rather poke out my own eyes than watch an episode of Heartbeat, and I’d remove my ears in a butcher’s ham-slicer before I’d listen to a single second of Ballykissangel

The plot got off to an inauspicious start, when it quickly emerged that the main thrust of proceedings was going to centre around the survival, or otherwise, of the Great Paxford branch of the Women’s institute. This, at a time when the survival, or otherwise, of the free world is under threat.

Remarkably, by the closing credits, I found that I did care. Possibly not as much as I would have cared about the annexation of the Sudetenland, or the invasion of Poland. But I still cared. 

This was partly down to an excellent cast. Francesca Annis was icy and snobbish and deliciously dislikeable as the outgoing, bullying local WI head Joyce, and Samantha Bond was feisty and twinkly as the leader of the forces of progress, Frances.  But what really saved this drama from collapsing into a puddle of insufferably saccharine whimsy was a touch of steel at its core. Yes, it was about jam-making and blackberry-picking and people gossiping on the way to church. But there was also a smattering of misery, illness, fear and gloom. This was most effectively epitomised in the domestic abuse storyline, wherein Mark Bazeley’s frustrated journalist inflicted humiliation and worse on his subservient wife (a touchingly vulnerable portrayal by Claire Rushbrook). 

So, at the end of proceedings, war was certainly on the way (I can’t wait to discover, over the ensuing weeks, who wins). It’s all very nicely done, and the script skips along at a fair old lick. I’d recommend it happily enough – but then why would you listen to a bloke who cried in Love Actually? I mean, who does that?

Review: VE Day 70: Remembering Victory, Monday, May 4, 8:30pm, BBC One

Oh, bother. BBC One screened this VE Day retrospective on Monday without so much as a spoiler alert, revealing that the allies won the war. In a stroke this has ruined any possible enjoyment of Home Fires, in what must have been a deliberate attempt by the BBC to scupper ITV’s new drama, the sneaky devils.

This 90-minute one-off programme looked back at the fateful day, 70 years ago, when the war in Europe finished, and everyone had a right old knees up. They did this with a mixture of some wonderful old footage and the recollections of a host of celebrities old enough to remember the day in question. Because obviously, being celebrities, their opinions and recollections have more significance than the rest of us mere mortals.

That said, there were some fascinating anecdotes in a programme that was, by turns, warm, funny, moving and sad. Some of the reactions to the end of the war, for example, were surprising. Michael Parkinson recalls being angry, because he could no longer chart on his map the progress of the allied forces advancing across Europe. June Whitfield, on tour with an acting troupe, wrote in her diary of feeling depressed, though she can’t remember why. “Maybe because we were in Preston.” 

Meanwhile, poor John Craven was confused by all the celebrations. His dad was in a PoW camp in Japan, and they didn’t know whether he was dead or alive.

But overall, the feeling was, not surprisingly, one of great joy. Miriam Margolyes and her mother stopped the buses on the street and served tea to the drivers in cups and saucers. Even 70 years later, Esther Rantzen broke down when remembering her grandmother’s joy upon hearing the news. It was a truly touching moment.

Jilly Cooper went to a celebratory bash at Lady Thornley’s house. Of course. She told a wonderful story about the Thornley’s pile being bombed during the war. Lady Thornley stumbled out, her hair black with soot, and her husband declared “My dear, you look 20 years younger.” Sometimes it’s hard not to be proud of the Brits.

As time passed, soldiers began to return home. One was Leslie Phillips, who carried with him a sense of guilt as one of the lucky ones. Another was John Craven’s dad, malnourished from his time working on the Burma railway. “He was skin and bone. And somehow he managed to lift me on his shoulders.” Patrick Stewart’s father struggled with the return to civilian life, as did many returning soldiers. Suffering shell shock, he drank, and became violent. For too many, the war continued in their homes. In their heads.

This was a fascinating and charming film, but frustratingly one that could have been even better. It suffered from mission creep. It went on until the mid-1950s, covering stories including the founding of ITV which, I’m sure, wasn’t entirely predicated on the defeat of Hitler. It should have concentrated on the war, building up to the climax of VE Day, instead of starting with a joyous bang, and ending up with something of a whimper.

Mind you, TV in the 50s looked a rum business. Una Stubbs recalled it showed Ballet for Beginners, and handwriting lessons. Very instructive, I’m sure, but I’m not convinced I would have got much mileage from reviewing it every week.

Preview:  The British Academy Television Awards, Sunday, May 10, 8pm, BBC One

People who have won a Royal Television Society Award, or a National Television Award, will tell you that those are the big ones. The RTS is seen as highbrow and cultured, and the National Television Awards are populist, live on ITV and normally feature Ant and Dec in some capacity. But anyone who’s won a BAFTA Award knows the difference. These are the real McCoy. They’d be the Oscars for the acting world, if the Oscars weren’t already... well... you know.

There are those who would say, with some justification, that it’s crass to hand out awards for television shows. We are talking about an art form here, not a running race. How could you compare the relative merits of The Missing or Happy Valley, any more than you could say that Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are better than Tracey Emin’s Bed?

Anyway, luckily for us, such trivial issues are ignored by a society that loves a bit of competition. Who cares if they can’t be compared? Let’s compare them anyway! That way, we get to chortle at weeping thespians, watch as someone says something political and gets booed, and the Daily Mail’s website gets to populate its sidebar of sleaze with a bunch of celebs spilling out of figure-hugging outfits. Everyone’s a winner! Well, you know, apart from 75 per cent of the nominees. 

For what it’s worth, here’s who I think deserve gongs on Sunday:

Lead actor should go to Toby Jones, for his wonderful, subtle and utterly charming performance in Marvellous, one of the gentlest, warmest gems of a show all year. Actually, best actor, in my opinion, should have gone to the absurdly-overlooked and un-nominated Tom Hollander, for his astonishing, haunting portrayal of Dylan Thomas in A Poet in New York. Watching a man wilfully drink himself to death was about as shattering a TV experience as I can remember, apart from when my old TV started smelling of burned rubber and the picture made everyone on Take Me Out look like Giacometti sculptures. 

I’d have either Marvellous or A Poet in New York for best single drama as well. One made you want to go out and hug strangers with joy, the other made you want to close the curtains and curl up, sobbing, in a foetal position, but both were fabulous.

Best Factual Series I would like to go to Educating the East End – a show so full of the milk of human kindness you could make a cheese from it. For me, the best comedy and entertainment show continues to be Would I Lie to You, thanks to the consistent brilliance of Lee Mack and David Mitchell. And I’d like to see the Current Affairs award go to This World’s painstaking and gripping Terror at the Mall, about the shopping centre massacre in Kenya.

Finally, I think they should introduce a new BAFTA, for best performance by an actor while they’re discovering they’ve not won the BAFTA, awarded at the end of the night to those who best managed to smile and look thrilled that their bitterest rival and loathed enemy won the award they had always dreamed of. You can have that for free, BAFTA.

Preview: The Secret World of Tinder, Thursday, May 14, 10pm, Channel 4

Okay, I’m going to just come out with this upfront. If you are easily shocked – and even if you’re not all that easily shocked – you might want to steer clear of this documentary. I was sort of expecting it to be a look at modern dating, with a few couples holding hands describing how Tinder (a hugely popular dating app) helped them to fall in love. I thought it would be quite sweet, maybe a little cheeky, with just a smattering of sauce.

Instead, this turned out to be a fairly frank and explicit look at how a whole range of dating apps have basically turned the younger generation’s lives into one long, sweaty and not altogether savoury-looking festival of bacchanalia. It also showed you just how many loathsome types there are out there. And by types, I’m ashamed to say, I mean men.

There’s John. He’s 42, divorced, no oil-painting, and blessed with the most witless chat-up line you’ve ever heard, and he spends his entire life going on dates with women he’s met through a dating app. He’s dated over 200 women, and slept with over 100 of them. Delightful. That’s a badge of honour. If you’re sixteen. And a rabbit.

Then there’s Chris, who’s 34. He’s only ever asked out one girl in the flesh, but he reckons he’s asked out 15,000 on his phone. Assuming he’s been doing this for a decade, that works out at four women every day. Way to make a girl feel special! “I want Phantom of the Opera-style love,” he declares at one point. Presumably he doesn’t mean he wants to kidnap a woman and make her marry him or else he’ll blow up a theatre. Towards the end of the documentary, we see Chris preparing for a date, and decrying the modern woman for not looking after herself enough. This argument would have carried more weight if he wasn’t having a sink wash next to the office urinals at the time.

The programme spoke to women who read some of the bizarre and generally sleazy messages they had from men. 33-year-old Cally was sent one that said “I want to paint you green and spank you like a disobedient avocado.” “I mean,” she observed, “how disobedient are avocados?” And there was a darker side. These apps encourage a level of immediate intimacy that is far from normal or safe. We heard from women who had got themselves into some very dangerous situations. 

It makes me worry for my daughter. She’s only four, and I won’t be letting her out for any dates for a good 40 years, but what kind of a world will she be going into? I wanted the programme to focus on the more romantic aspects of dating apps, but it didn’t. And I think maybe I know why. There aren’t any.

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