TV blog: Paul Merton's Secret Stations

Benjie Goodhart / 28 April 2016

Paul Merton tours the UK's hidden railway stations, meeting plenty of colourful characters along the way.

Paul Merton’s Secret Stations, Sunday 1st May, 8pm, Channel 4

My father-in-law, now retired, worked on the railway for most of his life. To this day, he would rather travel by train than any other way, though this may also have something to do with his being a colossal tightwad financially prudent, his train travel being free thanks to his employment history.

Anyway, he often tells me of a station he used to visit in the highlands where he could just tell the driver to stop, and they’d make an unscheduled halt just for him, as a railwayman’s favour. I always thought that was exceptionally cool, until I watched this programme, and discovered that Britain is littered with request stops where passengers can ask to be dropped off, or flag down a passing train. I wonder if he lied about his daughter’s £5 million inheritance, too…

Anyway, in this gentle and charming new three-part series, comedian Paul Merton visits some of the 152 tiny stations dotted around the country which are request stops. His first visit is to Attadale, a remote point on the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line. “I was told that this line passes through some absolutely stunning scenery, but to be honest, you can’t see a thing through all these pesky hills.”

Related: Britain's best station cafes

He meets Joanna and Alec McPherson, who have swapped cramped living in London’s Lewisham for a huge house and 30,000 acre estate. One of the house’s early owners combined a career as an MP with a lucrative sideline as an opium dealer (how utterly shameful – his poor family must have been aghast. And he dealt opium as well!) He ensured that all of his many properties were served by their own station.

Next Paul meets Bob, the local IVF doctor to the fish. He has to collect the eggs from the females and the, um, other stuff from the males, and create thousands of little fishy babies. It’s a living. At least he’s not a traffic warden. (Apart from anything else, he’d starve – the nearest yellow line is probably 50 miles away…) Then Bob and Paul go fishing together – Paul for the first time in his life. He could have chosen a worse spot, too. It’s beautiful. I’m a bit worried about Bob, though. There must be easier ways of organising family reunions than catching your offspring by sticking a hook in their mouth.

Then it’s on to Cumbria, to West Wales, and down to Cornwall (nobody can say Merton’s not putting in the hard miles). The programme meanders along with utmost geniality, and Paul Merton is affably good-natured, whether he’s fell-running or visiting a nuclear waste site. Finally, he visits the beautifully-named St Keyne Wishing Well Halt, where the well is said to possess mythical powers. Whichever member of a couple drinks from it first will wear the trousers in that relationship for life. I think my wife must have drunk the ruddy place dry. Still, she’ll be worth £5m someday. I’m playing the long game.

Related: holidays by rail

Her Majesty’s Prison Norwich, Wednesday 4th May, 9pm, ITV

According to nomenclature, all of our prisons belong to Her Majesty. She’s got properties dotted about the country, with hundreds of bedrooms, each with their own (somewhat basic) approach to an en suite. And yet she never seems to stay in any of them. Imagine the bedroom tax on just one of those. No wonder she needs to print money with her own face on it.

Anyway, this one-off documentary from ITV looks at life in one of those prisons, HMP Norwich. Over the years, there have been enough documentaries about prisons that you could watch them all the way through a ten-stretch in the Scrubs. Indeed, those hungry for their five minutes in the spotlight could probably do worse than commit a spot of larceny, get banged up, and then start practising their routine for the inevitable day the cameras come knocking.

This programme, however, manages to find a fresh approach to the subject matter, by looking at the relationship between prisoners and their families. I don’t mean their ‘prison families’ (a 7ft bearded and tattooed biker called Reg who’s in for multiple homicide and wants you to consider him a big sister and cuddle up to him of an evening). Of the 800 prisoners in Norwich, around half are dads. Research shows that those prisoners who maintain close ties with their family while inside are six times less likely to reoffend. You miss vital months and years of your kids growing up, you’re likely to think twice about doing it again.

Where possible, the prison takes steps to ensure that family ties survive (though a fifth of marriages break down during a sentence). With time and good behaviour, prisoners are allowed unsupervised visits in play areas with their families. There is a touching service wherein dads are encouraged to record themselves reading bedtime stories, which are then given to their kids. The ultimate goal for the best behaved prisoners is even to live outside prison walls, with more access to their families.

It’s a new and intriguing angle on a familiar story, and well worth a watch. The truth of the matter is that prison, far from being a place where violence and death lurks behind every corner, is a grim place where a lot of sad and lonely people are left to take stock of their lives, and reflect upon mistakes that, god-willing, they won’t make again.

Best (and not so much…) of the rest:

Saturday 30th April

Coastal Walks with My Dog, 8pm, Channel 4: A welcome showing on Channel 4 of More4’s recent two-part series which saw celebs, including Bill Bailey, Cerys Matthews and Debra Stephenson, take particularly lovely walks with their hairy, semi-feral creatures. (Dogs, not teenagers).

Review: Coastal Walks with My Dog

The Rack Pack, 9:30pm, BBC Two: I reviewed this marvellous, wry and ultimately moving drama when it was released on iPlayer. This is a terrific look at snooker’s heyday in the 1980s, with Luke Treadaway magnificent as the charismatic and ultimately flawed Alex Higgins.

Review: The Rack Pack

Sunday 1st May:

Nothing new here. Go for a walk. Have friends over. Read a book. (Just kidding – why not pop on a box set?)

Monday 2nd May:

Invictus: The Road to the Games, 7pm, BBC One: Nick Knowles meets members of the British Armed Forces who are training for next week’s games in Orlando following life-changing injuries. Prince Harry adds an element of regal stardust.

Snooker: The World Championship, 7pm, BBC Two: The final session of the tournament. Men in unfortunate waistcoats lie on a carpeted table and hit balls with a stick. This was what we all watched in the 80s, kids. Days and days of the stuff.

Posh Neighbours at War, 7:30pm, Channel 4: “Oh Camilla, darling, the Fotheringays have stuck a helipad right in my eyeline to see our swan pergola. It really is the absolute end.” Channel 4’s obsession with the super-rich continues unabated.

Tuesday 3rd May:

In the Club, 9pm, BBC One: Series two of Kay Mellor’s drama set around an ante-natal group. It’s ten months later, so if this rings at all true, it will be a series devoted entirely to nappy-changing, bottle-feeding, and arguing about who’s more tired.

The Conspiracy Files, 9pm, BBC Two: Who shot down flight MH17 over the Ukraine in July 2014, and why?

Ian Brady: 50 Years Behind Bars, Channel 5, 9pm: Prison officers, detectives, pen pals, fellow inmates and victims’ relatives discuss a man who continues to exert a grim fascination half a century after his monstrous crimes.

Britain’s Billionaire Immigrants, 10pm, Channel 4: “Wait, they’re billionaires AND immigrants? Perfect, we’ll commission it. They’re not by any chance on benefits too, are they? And if you could possibly find a link with Hitler…”

Wednesday 4th May:

Horizon: Ice Station Antarctica, 8pm, BBC Two: Weatherman Peter Gibb returns to the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Research Station (hey, maybe he’ll go on Boaty McBoatface!) where he lived in the early 80s. Odd place to send a weatherman. “Today it’s, um, cold. Again.”

Never Seen a Doctor, Channel 4, 10pm: Katie Piper meets people who are suffering due to a refusal to ever visit the doctor or dentist. Expect minimal dental hygiene and scary teeth.

Thursday 5th May:

Gareth’s Invictus Choir, 9pm, BBC One: He does love a choir, our Gareth. This time, he’s bringing together a group of wounded and sick ex-servicemen and women of the armed forces to perform at the opening ceremony of the games in Orlando.

Peaky Blinders, 9pm, BBC Two: The problem with this multi-channel age is there is so much good TV you miss. This is the third series of what is by all accounts a superior crime drama. But don’t take my word for it, I’ve never seen a moment of it.

Grayson Perry: All Man, 10pm, Channel 4: The Turner prize-winning, cross-dressing artist takes a look at some of the most macho environments in society and searches for what lies beneath. Tonight, the cuddly world of cage fighting.

Friday 6th May:

The Windsors, 10pm, Channel 4: To some, this six-part comedy will be a hilarious look at the world’s most famous family. No, not the Kardashians. To others, it will represent sacrilege and treason of the worst kind. Those of a fervently royalist disposition may want to look away now…

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