TV blog: Britain As Seen on ITV, Cradle to Grave, The X Factor, Pride and Prejudice and Kolkata with Sue Perkins

Benjie Goodhart / 27 August 2015

Our TV blogger looks at the best of what's on our screens.

Britain As Seen on ITV, Monday 31st August, 8pm, ITV

ITV has been around for 60 years. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of time we’ve spent watching Corrie, game shows and adverts for detergent. If you spliced together and watched all the adverts that had ever been shown on ITV back-to-back… well, you’d be a bit weird. 

ITV is celebrating 60 years of broadcasting with a number of self-referential shows, including this diverting series looking back at how the nation has changed in the last 60 years. 

The first programme in the series looks, ostensibly, at how our homes and our shopping habits have changed over the decades. 

There’s a segment where a presenter coos over the space-age technology of a dishwasher and a dimmer switch, and a report into the new wave of shops hitting Britain – the supermarket (or “Sewpermarket” as received pronunciation in the 1960s would have it). But what’s really in evidence here is how much TV and social attitudes have changed. 

Changing attitudes

In the 1970s, if you were doing a report about a bath, it was de rigeur to have a comely lady in a bathing suit sitting on the edge with her feet in the water – because heaven knows, we all like to put on our bathers and wash just our feet, don’t we?! 

There’s an extraordinary (and, it has to be said, highly amusing) report from Austin Mitchell (then a reporter, before becoming a venerable Labour MP) about a whirlpool bath, that sees him drooling over a beswimsuited lovely, before stripping down to his pants and socks and leaping into the bath with her. 

The unavoidable question, watching a show such as this, is whether the world was a better place then. On the plus side, they didn’t have self-service supermarket tills, the single most irritating invention in global history. But then again, they did have bowler hats (the most ridiculous-looking sartorial item known to man) and the world only existed in black-and-white. 

Oh, and Birmingham had a brand new sex shop, opened by the most sinister-looking man in TV history (think Peter Cushing with a scary quiff, shifty eyes and a magician’s beard). 

Kolkata with Sue Perkins, Wednesday 2nd September, 9pm, BBC Two

How hard can it be to present a travelogue? You have a team ferrying you about from A to B and making sure you don’t lose your passport or get mugged. You get taken to the most dramatic, historical and beautiful parts of a country, where you interview someone who is almost certainly itching to tell their story. You are fed the best food, introduced to the most interesting people, and chances are you’re put up in the best hotel in town. 

All you basically have to do is look at the camera, nod with interest when someone speaks, and not forget the name of the place you’re visiting. 

Except that every now and again, someone who has truly mastered the genre comes along, and presents a programme that combines charm, humour, pathos, social awareness and history. In consecutive weeks, we’ve had the two best in the business, with Stephen Fry pootling across Central America, and Sue Perkins discovering Kolkata as part of the BBC’s India season. 

Raw emotion and moving subject matter

Comedians both, they are undoubtedly amiable and amusing company, but they never make the mistake of trying to be too funny. Indeed, the strongest elements of both programmes come when they encounter the more miserable aspects of life, the rawness of their emotions emphasising the moving nature of the subject matter. For the stiff upper lip brigade, it might be a bit much to see Fry and Perkins on the edge of tears – Alan Whicker never blubbed on TV – but for me, it’s honest television. That’s how they feel. Why should they pretend otherwise? 

There is much to be sad about in this one-off documentary; not least the street children with whom Perkins bonds so warmly. But there is much to celebrate too – not for nothing is Kolkata known as the City of Joy. It is a vibrant, multicultural, thriving, eccentric city of 14 million people, and Perkins brings it to life with her trademark humour and humanity. 

She visits slums, palaces, suburbs and sewers (“You don’t see Judith Chalmers going into an open poo pit!”) Encountering everyone from the richest to the poorest in society, she treats them all with respect, intelligence and above all warmth. 

Cradle to Grave, Thursday 3rd September, 9pm, BBC Two

Anyone who has listened to much of Danny Baker’s prodigious and magnificent radio output, or read many of his inspired and hilarious newspaper columns, will have been struck by the frequency and affection with which he refers to his boyhood, on the mean streets of southeast London. 

So it came as no surprise when his autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, turned out to be populated by a cast of tremendous eccentrics all happily coexisting, drinking, scamming and fighting on the housing estates of his youth. 

London in the 1970s

Now that book has been adapted to make a new comedy series, looking at life in the Baker household in 1974 from the viewpoint of a 15-year-old Danny. In many ways, it is a deeply conventional comedy. The action is based around an eccentric-but-loving family, and the narrative mostly centres round a teenaged boy’s preoccupation with clothes, music and the opposite sex. But 1974 is beautifully recreated (at least I think it is – I was a one-year-old for most of it) and Baker’s affection for those halcyon days, the music, the fashion, the friendships, is vividly brought to life.

Undoubtedly the dominant figure in the show is Baker’s father, a burly, no-nonsense docker called Fred. And here things get really interesting, because Fred, the ultimate East End, knees-up, love-a-duck, gor-blimey-guvnor cockney, is played by Peter Kay. That’s right, Peter Kay. The most northern man in the world. If you cut him, he would bleed Lancashire Hotpot, Eccles Cake and Bitter. He’d also probably thump you. 

You spend the first few minutes wondering if he sounds cockney or northern, because his voice is so distinctive, hearing him as a Londoner just sounds plain wrong, like if Jane Horrocks spoke and Brian Blessed’s voice came out. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. As ever, Kay’s performance is a tremendous, joyous thing, and one that elevates the programme from good to a delight.

The X Factor, Saturdays and Sundays, various times, from now until there’s snow on the ground.

Nobody could ever accuse Simon Cowell of lacking in chutzpah. But to give the twelfth – TWELFTH series of X Factor the tagline “Expect the unexpected” seems to me to be displaying a quite staggering degree of mendacity. 

If there is one show on television that is truly and unmistakably formulaic, it is The X Factor. I can tell you right now what is going to happen. We’ll have the opening rounds, where a mixture of the talented, the deluded and the desperate perform for our entertainment (nobody, but nobody will be mediocre).

Then there will be a second round, where one or two ludicrous novelty acts will be put through, along with the usual collection of kids with big hair, headgear, tattoos and sob stories. A number of talented kids will be booted out, only to be brought back in again as a group. Then everyone will go to the judges' houses, which aren’t, of course, the judges' houses, where they will cry a lot and the final 24 acts are pared down to 12. Including at least one novelty act.

We've seen the formula before

We’ll move on to the live shows, where the judges will have pantomime fallouts about song choices, and the contestants will have their lives raked over by the tabloids. One of them will be the ‘hated’ one, who will go out about halfway through. Then we’ll get down to the last three, and have a final where everyone dresses in black tie (except for Simon, who will still have his shirt open to, ooh, about his ankles) and they’ll talk about it being an impossible decision, the best final ever, blah blah blah, before someone is named the winner and everyone cries a bit more.

If I sound cynical about it, it’s because I am. But even though I know I’m being shamefully manipulated the whole way through, dammit all, I still love The X Factor. This year, new judges Rita Ora and Nick Grimshaw replace Mel B and Louis Walsh, while in less good news, lovely Dermot is replaced by Olly Murs and Caroline Flack. But it’s not as if anything will change much, as I think we’ve already established..

Pride and Prejudice

I wouldn’t swear to it, but I think sometime around the turn of the millennium it became technically illegal to write a column about TV favourites from the past and not reference the sumptuous BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice from 1995. You remember it, right? No? Doesn’t ring any bells? Jennifer Ehle? No? Alison Steadman? Julia Sawalha? Nothing? Colin Firth in a wet shirt? Yep, that’s the one.

The 1990s were a time of such unadulterated Austen-mania that you couldn’t switch on the TV or go to the cinema without seeing some long-coated, knickerbockered buffoon dancing like a twerp and almost collapsing with emotional constipation. Indeed, many of those who grew up in the 90s did so labouring under the misapprehension that Jane Austen is a woman who has made a fortune writing book adaptations of popular TV series.

Not that riding on someone else’s creative coat-tails is bad mind you (says the man who makes a living writing about programmes other people have made…) Especially when you’re as good at adapting the original work as Andrew Davies, whose brilliant script was the cornerstone of this six-part series.

A strong cast and BAFTA winner

While the show made Colin Firth a star – and an uncomfortable sex symbol – it was Jennifer Ehle who won the BAFTA, as the strong- willed and astute Elizabeth Bennet. A strong cast included Susannah Harker, Julia Sawalha, Anna Chancellor and Emilia Fox.

If you don’t know the story, it involves a bounty hunter trying to escape from a space station where he is being held prisoner by an evil race of lizard-people. No. No, it doesn’t. But then you quite clearly do know what it’s about. 

Everyone in Britain has either watched it on the telly, or on VHS or DVD in the 20 years since it went out. And why not? It was named, in 2003, as one of the Radio Times’ 40 Greatest TV Programmes Ever Made. It’s brilliance is, in short, a truth universally acknowledged. Pride and Prejudice (make sure you choose the 1995 version) is available on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant, and is available to order on DVD from Amazon for £5.99.

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