TV blog: Railway Nation: A Journey in Verse

Benjie Goodhart / 29 September 2016

Six poets celebrate the 80th anniversary of WH Auden and Benjamin Britten’s Night Mail, plus more TV highlights for the week ahead.

Railway Nation: A Journey in Verse, Saturday 1st October, 9pm, BBC Two

Ahh, Saturday nights. When the nation opens a bottle of something, disengages its brain, and watches programmes involving orange, semi-plastic judges lambasting people for not singing or dancing well enough. Saturday night television is traditionally a cultural wasteland where B-list celebrities and popstar wannabes go to die. So BBC Two’s ambition that Saturday night will be arts night provides a welcome antidote to the vapid and vacuous light entertainment alternatives.

Railway Nation is a wonderful, brave and innovative example of how good, and accessible, arts programming can be. Eighty years ago, W H Auden and Benjamin Britten wrote about the night mail train from London to Glasgow, as part of a unique collaboration that produced one of the great artistic achievements in celluloid history, the documentary Night Mail.

To mark this anniversary, the BBC is sending six of the nation’s best poets on the same journey, to write about all the people and things they observe en route. Though this time they’re doing it by day, presumably because it’s difficult to write about people who are all asleep, and views that are obscured by darkness.

The result is a charming film, a love-letter to rail travel, and to people in general. Each poet takes a section of the journey – Sabrina Mahfouz, for example, is on the London to Milton Keynes leg, so can be home in time to have a sandwich and watch lunchtime Neighbours (not that I’m saying that’s what she did, she’s a poet, she probably had a falafel and a muesli bar and went to an art gallery).

The programme takes a brief look at the lives of those on board, and their reasons for travelling, some of which are deeply poignant. The two widows making their annual trip to Scotland, a journey they used to do with their husbands. The old fella having a couple of morning lagers (!) to stiffen his resolve on the way to visit, in a care home, a mother who may or may not recognise him. A troubled mum who travels every two months to visit, for four stolen hours, her five-year-old son, being raised by his grandparents. The pirate-themed gift bag sitting on the table in front of her is enough to make you weep.

The train staff feature too – the world’s cheeriest refuse collector, and the guard who takes selfies with the engines and says that trains are “like old friends”.  Presumably in that they’re always late and frequently dirty, but we’d be a mess without them.

And the poems themselves are delightful – the variations of tone and subject matter and delivery keep things fresh and interesting. It’s just as well they didn’t do the journey on Southern Rail, or we’d have six poets writing expletive-ridden rants about cancelled trains, overcrowding, and rail replacement bus services.

Well done, then, to BBC Two, for this first in a season of arts programmes on Saturday night. Obviously, going forward, I’ll be drinking wine and watching vacuous light entertainment with everyone else, but like the theatre, it’s nice to know it’s there, just in case.

Still Game, Friday 7th October, 9:30pm, BBC One

Scotland has given so much to the world. The steam engine, the bicycle, the telephone, penicillin and the small matter of the television. And, whilst not to everyone’s tastes, I myself am a huge fan of The Proclaimers, haggis, the bagpipes, and my wife. I mention this in a craven attempt to curry favour with our ginger northern brethren, because I am about to commit something akin to heresy.

The Scots are a tolerant people (especially when Glaswegian football isn’t involved). But there are a couple of things you definitely shouldn’t do there. Never refer to England when you mean Great Britain. Try not to bang on about either 1746 or 1966. And under no circumstances speak in anything other than glowing terms about the TV show Still Game. In Scotland, Still Game is seen as the acme of human creativity and entertainment. But at the risk of never being allowed into a potentially independent Scotland of the future, I found it a bit of a stinker. I’d say laughable, except I didn’t.

Still Game began life as a sketch in the Scottish comedy show Chewin’ The Fat. In 2002, it launched as a series in its own right, on BBC One Scotland, where it ran for three series, before receiving a nationwide release in 2005, running on BBC Two until the show’s last episode in 2007. In 2014, the show sold out a 21-date arena run in Glasgow, to 210,000 people. That’s four per cent of Scotland who went to see the show. That’s the equivalent of over 2 million people going to see a show in England. Like I say, it’s a religion up there – only more so.

The storyline follows two seventy-something men, Victor and Jack (played by the show’s writers, Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill) as they grow old disgracefully in their Glasgow towerblock, surrounded by a cast of what are presumably meant to be loveable misfits, including one-legged Winston, tight-fisted Tam, Boabby the barman, Navid the shopkeeper, and nosy neighbour Isa.

The problem is, the show very much falls between two stools. At its heart, it is an old-fashioned sitcom, complete with implausible scrapes and long-standing jokes. The first episode centres around a man getting stuck in a bathtub – could you get much more 1970s? Not only does the humour feel somewhat dated, but the show is riddled with swearwords. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m as prone to the odd flowery bon mot as the next man. But it simply doesn’t feel like it belongs here. If the humour is designed to appeal to a certain demographic, namely ones who like cosy, unchallenging sitcoms, then the language is likely to get many reaching for the off switch. The best way I can think of in describing this bizarre experience is that it’s Last of the Summer Wine with Tourette’s Syndrome. And it’s as weird as that sounds.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 1st October

Performance Live: Kate Tempest, 10pm, BBC Two: More from BBC Two’s artsy Saturday night experiment, with Kate Tempest, who is something called a ‘spoken word artist’. I’m assuming that means she’ll be reciting her poems.

Sunday 2nd October

Louis Theroux: Savile, 9pm, BBC Two: Theroux revisits his 2000 documentary portrait of Savile in light of subsequent allegations, and asks if he should have seen through the man who ultimately became a sort of friend. This is an intriguing and ultimately very sad film, with Savile coming across as a creep, a bully, a monster, a massive irritant and, eventually, a pitiless and sadistic criminal.

Tuesday 4th October

The Forgotten Children, 9pm, ITV: A look at the plight of orphaned Syrian refugees who have made it as far as the promised land of Europe, only to find that their dreamed-of lives are turning to dust. And each day, more children are made orphans. Deeply depressing.

Wednesday 5th October

A World Without Down’s Syndrome, 9pm, BBC Two: Actress Sally Phillips has a 12-year-old son, Olly, who has Down’s syndrome. “I was expecting tragedy,” she reflects, “but I got comedy.” She discusses the ethics of a new screening test that may eventually eliminate Down’s syndrome completely.

Thursday 6th October

Anne Robinson’s Britain, 8pm, BBC One: The presenter and reporter travels the country looking at life in 21st Century Britain, beginning tonight with an examination of parenting. Best steer clear of Wales, Anne, I think they have long memories there…

The Apprentice, 9pm, BBC One: Return of the show in which particularly dislikeable individuals all stab each other in the front before one of them is fired by an even more loathsome central character. Nastiness crystallised and condensed into a perfectly vile hour of television.

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