TV blog: Inside the Commons and other telly highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 06 February 2015

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart rounds up the best of what's on the box this week, including The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, Inside the Commons, Our Guy in India and Barging Round Britain with John Sergeant.

Review: Inside the Commons, Tuesday, February 3, 9pm, BBC Two

Politics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Most people would rather have to chew their own feet out of a bear trap than listen to five minutes of political debate, which is why we’ve ended up with a situation where a half-baked, flowery-languaged, two-bit, faux-intellectual comedian can get away with urging young people not to vote in the name of revolution and be lauded for it.

The happy news is you don’t have to like politics to enjoy Michael Cockerell’s fabulous new four-part documentary series Inside the Commons, any more than you have to like cars to enjoy Top Gear, or like shooting peasants and eating swan to enjoy Downton. This is not a study of politics, per se, but of an extraordinary, historic, beautiful, arcane, fabulous, absurd institution: the House of Commons.

Certainly, it is absurd. Most of the Commons staff dress like extras from Wolf Hall, and potter about snorting “invigorating” snuff. (I assume it was snuff). In the cloakroom, hangers still have pink ribbons upon which members may hang their swords. MPs wanting a decent seat for Question Time need to get to the chamber at 7am, queue up, put their reserved signs on their seat, and attend morning prayers, as if the mother of all parliaments was a cross between a public school chapel and a poolside sunbed.

“What’s the point of being there at 7am?” remarked the fabulous Labour MP for Rotherham, Sarah Champion. “I can see if it’s a shoe sale, but not to listen to a load of men scream at each other.” Champion has only been an MP since 2012. When selected to fight a by-election, she was told she had “unparliamentary hair.” This seems harsh, particularly when, soon afterwards, we meet the extraordinary-looking Michael Fabricant MP, whose own coiffure looks like someone electrocuted a polecat and glued it to his head.

The documentary focuses on everything from the building (crumbling) to the staff (some of whom are crumbling) to the working practices (undoubtedly crumbling) to the MPs themselves (occasionally crumbling, but most of whom come across pretty well, particularly Champion and new Tory MP Charlotte Leslie). But its real strength is in its astonishing access – not just to the floor of the Commons during PMQs, but to the major players.

Even David Cameron is interviewed. He admits to being terrified every Wednesday ahead of PMQs. Of parliament, he says it’s “half like a museum, half like a church, half like a school,” which, if nothing else, makes you grateful he’s not Chancellor of the Exchequer. 


Review: Our Guy in India, Sunday, February 1, 9pm, Channel 4

I went to India at the age of 17. I didn’t find myself, but I did manage to find a pretty nasty dose of typhoid. And amoebic dysentery. I came back looking like the slightly thinner brother of hominin skeleton Lucy. By that stage, I’d also had my passport, ticket home and all my money stolen.  And I‘d still had the holiday of a lifetime. India is simply incredible. I’ve never been back, though. I mean, I can travel round India almost every day, from the luxury of my sofa. The fact is, there are documentaries about India on TV almost as often as there are adverts. If I actually went to India itself, I wouldn’t be able to move for British comedians, actors, pop stars and, most commonly, chefs, all queuing up outside the Taj Mahal for their opportunity to record a piece to camera about the life-changing nature of being in a country where only half of the people you see are members of the Groucho Club.

Thank heavens, then, for Guy Martin, truck engineer and motorcyclist, whose two-part travelogue round India really does show you a different side to the country. Largely because nobody in their right mind would think of making a programme which ignored the Taj Mahal, and instead went to a motorcycle shop, a tea plantation and the world’s largest truck stop.

If it sounds deathly, it isn’t, largely because Martin is so completely unaffected and gloriously cheerful, he could make a documentary about Chelmsford sewage works sing. His enthusiasm for motorbikes, trucks, tea (he drinks up to 20 cups a day), and people, is as infectious as the Indian water I drank back in 1989.

He takes everything in his stride, does our Guy. 12-hour train delays. Mechanical failure on his bike. Delhi belly. He’s so laid back, even when he’s taken paragliding, and is held thousands of feet aloft by nothing but some parachute silk and a harness attaching him to his pilot, he falls asleep. Clearly he needs a spot of caffeine in his system. 30 cups, minimum.


Preview: Barging Round Britain with John Sergeant, Friday, February 13, 8pm, ITV

This is a cracking idea for a programme. Having spent years being trained in the art of aggressive journalism, forcing people out of the way so he could thrust his microphone in the face of some poor politician, John Sergeant is taking to the streets of our great nation and showing people how to knock others over in our ever-more crowded streets.

Not really, reader! I’m having you on. It’s not that sort of barging. Oh my sides!

No, as you have probably already worked out, the former ITV political correspondent and indisputably terrible dancer is narrowboating round our canal network, and looking extremely fetching in a jaunty Panama hat. In this first of eight programmes, John barges across the Pennines on the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, the longest in the UK. En route, he encounters the people and places that represent the canal’s history.

This involves him being measured for a suit in Leeds, and objecting loudly that he is a “Marks and Spencers 38” when told his waist measurement. Yeah, John, and I’m the newest member of Atomic Kitten. He encounters a rather spitty alpaca, and visits the mill town of Saltaire, where he meets an immaculate 96-year-old as sharp of mind as he is of tailoring. He goes on a Women’s Institute outing and (for a reason that I must admit escaped me entirely) visits a wallpaper factory. And he goes through lots of locks, with a couple called David and Denise.

The whole thing nurdles along at a pleasingly gentle pace, and the shots of the boat chuntering down the canal are gorgeous. But, bizarrely for a programme so lacking in speed, there is too much going on.  I’m not all that bothered about watching an alpaca get sheared, or John get measured. I want to see John pottering about on his boat. I want to know why he loves narrowboating – if indeed he does. Maybe he hates it, but needed the cash. Either way, I’d like to know. And I’d like to get more of a sense of what it’s like on the boat.

It’s not a bad show by any means. But in comparison to the gem that was Great Canal Journeys last year on More4, which saw Timothy West and Prunella Scales barging round Britain, this seems a little rushed, and a little lacking in character as a result. The More4 show was an hour long, this one only half the length. And as anyone on a narrowboat will tell you, the one thing you can’t do on a canal is rush.


Preview: The Secret Life of 4 Year Olds, Tuesday, February 10, 8pm, Channel 4

Okay, nobody likes a pedant, and heaven knows I make enough mistakes with grammar and punctuation myself, but first off, I must take exception to the lack of hyphens in the title. Four-year-olds. It should be hyphenated. It’s not difficult. Harrumph etc.

Anyway, as a parent, I have always wished to be a fly-on-the-wall at nursery, to see what my beloved babies get up to when I hand them over for the day. I like to imagine them going round cuddling other children, making them feel included, sharing all of the toys out equally, and generally behaving like little angels.

The problem is, as this eye-opening documentary reveals, the truth is very different. It’s a jungle out there, and your kids or grandkids are locked in a battle for supremacy that is seriously cutthroat. This one-off, hour-long film observes a group of four-year-olds, who have never met before, as they are left entirely alone at an abandoned lighthouse in the North Atlantic for a week, and given enough food for three days. Ha! Not really! Got you again!! Oh, I am a one! No, it follows the group at a rather lovely nursery, where they spend two weekends getting to know each other, while being secretly observed by parents and child psychologists. 

It is, of course, adorable, because four-year-olds are funny and mischievous and cute and terrible. But it’s also thoroughly illuminating, watching how defined the personality types have already become, and how it affects their behaviour. And the scene where the children are left alone with a chocolate cake, and told not to eat it, is bliss.

Oh, and it contains quite the best insult-cum-threat I have ever heard. Next time someone wrongs you, try this out for size. “You’re actually a green toilet, and I’m telling my cat to scratch your face.”

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.