TV blog: Safe House and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 23 April 2015

Our TV blogger takes a look at Safe House, Ballot Monkeys, 24 Hours in the Past and Nick and Margaret: The Trouble with Our Trains.

Review: Safe House, Monday, April 20, 9pm, ITV

It’s a problem as old as the hills: what do you do when you’ve been shot, and are traumatised by the past and struggling with your demons? And, as ever, the answer is perfectly simple: you move to a large, scary, darkly depressing house in the Lake District where, under slate grey skies and near-constant rain, you get yourself back on an even keel by opening up a safe house and getting involved in hideously dangerous cases. Well, it beats a Caribbean holiday and a spot of counselling, right?

Robert (Christopher Ecclestone) is a haunted ex-cop, tortured by the one case he screwed up. It’s one of those default TV tropes that crops up with depressing regularity, like the pompous vicar, the warm-hearted prostitute, and the evil journalist. For heaven’s sake, this is the second former Dr Who-turned-cop we’ve had haunted by his last case in as many months. Enough already.

Anyway, one minute, Robert and his wife Katy (Marsha Thomason) are setting up a guest house in the Lakes. Then they agree to a police chum’s suggestion to set up a safe house, and literally the next day – the next day I tell you – a family arrives. In that time, they have managed to complete the paperwork, have all the up-to-the-minute security systems installed and had background checks done for home office approval. It takes me two months to get a ruddy passport.

The family in question were attacked on a night out in Blackpool. A bearded sadist tried to kidnap the young son and then beat the dad, David, to a pulp. They are immediately removed from Blackpool, so it’s not all bad. (Apologies to Blackpoolians, but there’s only so many stag and hen dos a guy can take before losing the will to live…) Arriving in the Lakes, the teenage girl is appalled to discover she can’t use her mobile phone. It’s against procedure. Plus, presumably, they can’t get any reception. I live in the middle of Brighton and I can’t get reception in my kitchen. 

As well as the clichés, the other problem with this drama is that nobody behaves the way normal people would. The villain seems determined to get caught, taking absurd chances, but the police are so inept it defies belief. Meanwhile, when Robert and David are chased in a car by the killer, they don’t think to report it. And did Robert really just go and unlock the teenager’s phone from its hiding place while she was standing next to him? Ah, well, what could go wrong? It’s not as if there are any ways of updating large numbers of people as to your whereabouts these days. 

Safe House
 is by no means terrible. It’s got as good cast, some fabulous locations, and looks like it could develop a tolerably exciting plot. But in a saturated market, where every other programme seems to be a police thriller, you’ve got to be excellent, and sadly, Safe House fell short.

Review: Ballot Monkeys, Tuesday, April 21, 10pm, Channel 4

During an election campaign, broadcasters are mandated by a strict code of conduct to maintain political neutrality at all times. So to make a sitcom about the campaign, written and filmed just a few hours before transmission, is a hugely risky and courageous undertaking. I suspect many of Channel 4’s lawyers have taken to strong drink.

Writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin managed to maintain an air of impartiality by sticking the knife into everyone – and the result was glorious. This was political satire at its best – sharp, current and painfully accurate. The show was basically a series of vignettes set aboard the ubiquitous battlebuses the parties insist on using. The cast, including Ben Miller, Hugh Dennis, Sarah Hadland, Daisy Haggard and Andy Nyman, played party apparatchiks on the campaign trail, in various states of desperation.

Miller’s Lib Dem was trying to rally his downcast troops with the worst motivational speech in history: “You’ll be getting a visit from Danny Alexander to sprinkle a little stardust over proceedings,” he stated, before exhorting them to go and aim for “modest triumphs”. Later, he reflected on the last five years. “Coalition? It was more like a hostage situation… Like a hamster trying to restrain a Rottweiler.”

Things were a bit happier on the UKIP bus. “Quite quiet today,” said Nyman’s character. “I only had to suspend two people.” Meanwhile, Labour were unsure how much to use Ed Miliband, in spite of the fact that his “personal ratings have rocketed to minus 19.” The Tories had a list of things not to mention, including Education, Eton and Eric Pickles, who was so toxic he makes the list twice.

There was a lovely joke about political disengagement, and the vacuous nature of social media, involving campaign tweets trending behind Poldark’s pecs and the badger that looks like Beyonce. It was delivered by one of the best characters in the show, a Tory donor’s daughter who had been given a campaign job despite being thicker than mince. Hugh Dennis’ Tory also delivered a wonderful rant about Boris Johnson.

But the real strength of the show lay in its quite remarkable topicality. It managed to include jokes about the SNP’s progress, Katie Hopkins’ unpleasantness, and the varying, cynical reactions to the migrant tragedy unfolding in the Mediterranean. Most impressively of all, the show’s final scene centred around a TV interview given by Paddy Ashdown, in which he referred to the Tories as B*****ds seven times. This was given at lunchtime, on the day of transmission, and worked into the script and filmed that very afternoon. If only the campaign itself could display such impressive vivacity.

Preview: 24 Hours in the Past, Tuesday, April 28, 9pm, BBC One

I find TV very confusing. (This is a problem in my line of work). When a programme like this comes along, I struggle to understand whether TV is becoming more brilliantly creative than ever, or has run out of ideas completely and is simply throwing darts at various cards on the wall marked with words like “reality”, “celebrity” and “shovelling horse poo”.

The concept of the show is this: six celebrities  are being taken back to the relentless graft of Victorian Britain for four days, in which they will live exactly as our forebears did. Unfortunately for them, we’re not talking about our Victorian forebears like, um, Victoria, but rather more like the people who had to work their socks off for the pleasure of sleeping on a cold stone floor every night. “Who” asks the press release portentously, “will survive?” I’m guessing all of them, or we’d have quite the lawsuit going on.

Anyway, the celebs in question are Alistair McGowan (impressionist and actor), Miquita Oliver (former presenter), Zoe Lucker (actor), Colin Jackson (former jumpy chap), Tyger Drew Honey (actor and Founder Member of the National Society for People Whose Names Form Complete Sentences) and Ann Widdecombe (force of nature).

The celebs are taken to a specially-created Victorian town, complete with authentic shops, pubs, homes, workplaces, and Equity-registered extras. Oh, and the whole place is knee-deep in horse manure. Which Colin and Zoe are immediately put to work shovelling. However, their boss explains that if they find any dog poo, they are to bag it separately, as it’s more valuable. It’s used for tanning. As in leather. “I thought they meant fake tanning,” admits Zoe. “Putting it on your face and stuff.” Ah, the privations of beauty.

Ann and Miquita are on carpet-beating duty. They don’t so much beat them as stroke them. The carpets are literally dirtier at the end of the day than the beginning. Alistair and Tyger are on the dust cart, emptying bins. It’s all hard graft. In the afternoon, they’re all on recycling duty. By evening, they’re hungry and tired. Fortunately for them, they have a nice stone floor to sleep on, and bacon and onions for tea.

Then there’s a trip to the pub. Ann declines, opting to stay in and read the bible. The pub will be “very loud and very vulgar”, opines Miss Giggles, settling down to Deuteronomy. But for the men, it’s a quick drink before they have to go and empty the privies all over town. It’s an odd thought, but where do they get the, ahem, content from? Do production staff have to go and frantically poo there for days beforehand? Did they employ people on the basis of how much roughage they consumed?

It’s all jolly good fun, and extremely watchable. “Who will conquer the 19th Century and discover their inner Victorian?” asks the voiceover at one point. My money’s on Ann, whose Victorian isn’t particularly ‘inner’ at all. I’m not sure she’s not been living in the 19th Century for the last 30 years. 

Preview: Nick and Margaret: The Trouble with Our Trains, Wednesday, April 29, 9pm, BBC Two

Okay, I should probably lay my cards on the table at the outset. This programme opens with the worst train in Britain – the 7:29 from Brighton to London Victoria. In 2014, it was not on time once. Not. Once. Three mornings a week I take a train half an hour later, on the same line. Maybe it runs brilliantly on Tuesdays and Fridays, but in 2014, I was unaware of it arriving on time once into Victoria. So, in my book, I travel on the equal-worst train in Britain. I’m on it right now, since you ask.

I find writing this blog helps to keep me from strapping the guard down to a seat and pulling out his fingernails while beating him with a copy of the timetable and singing “This is the age of the train”. It also gives me plenty of time to write, what with the rail company thoughtfully giving me an extra 15% free, in terms of time spent on the train.

So you could say I’m not best pleased with the railway. In this programme, venerable business gurus of Apprentice fame, Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford, look into the rail network and ask the pertinent questions. Questions like “Are we getting value for money?” Twenty years on from privatisation, fares are higher than almost anywhere in Europe, punctuality is in decline, trains are hideously overcrowded, and the government subsidy is higher than when it owned British Rail. That would seem to be a ‘no’ then.

Nick meets a man who used the infamous 7:29 from Brighton, and became so enraged he used to have to meditate on the train, and ended up seeing a behavioural psychologist. He wants to get himself a TV blog. (Incidentally, on the subject of Brighton, last week a train derailed there. Due to the heat, apparently. In April.)

Nick goes for a journey on Virgin Trains, to test out the service. I think they may have been tipped off. He’s given table service, allowed into the cab to meet the driver, and given a go making announcements on the train intercom. At his destination, he takes a selfie with all the train staff. Last time I went on a Virgin train, to Glasgow, they ran out of crisps and one of the loos looked like Colin Jackson and Zoe Lucker needed to come in with their shovels.

Margaret and Nick quickly reach the conclusion that the system is too fragmented. The amount of bureaucracy involved, and the time taken to put plans into action, is mind-boggling. Could it be that privatisation is to blame? Margaret, implacably opposed to state ownership, thinks not. But then she goes to Northern Ireland, where the whole system is still owned and run by the state. And it’s good. So, so good. Everyone is happy, the trains are efficient and run on time, the passengers smile a lot. It’s like Thomas the Tank Engine, only with modern rolling stock. Oh, and the trains don’t talk.

Anyway, I’d love to reveal more, but I’m running out of time. I’m still planning on getting a couple of hours of kip before we arrive at Victoria in time for a spot of lunch.

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