TV blog: Springwatch and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 28 May 2015

Our TV blogger takes a light-hearted look at Springwatch, Gadget Man and Big Box, Little Box.

Review: Springwatch episode 1, Monday, May 25, 8pm, BBC Two

There are certain rules in broadcasting that are sacrosanct if you want to make a decent TV programme. Don’t make anything more than two hours long. Don’t feature clowns unless you’re making a horror series. Don’t film all the way down Simon Cowell’s open shirt – who knows if it ever buttons? And don’t ever try to make a live nature programme.

The reasons for the first three are self-evident. The reason for the fourth is that animals have an annoying tendency to dance to their own tune. They are hopeless at arriving on time and hitting their marks. They almost never turn up for rehearsals. And if you are lucky enough to catch them on camera, there’s a high probability that they’ll either be mating or defecating. You don’t even get that on the Adult Channel. Probably. I’ve never actually watched it, let me make that abundantly clear.

Anyway, it’s ten years now since Springwatch first abandoned this convention, and the series continues to go from strength to strength. The presenters have come and gone, but the stars of the show remain the same – small, cuddly, hairy, and occasionally aggressive.

This series began on Monday, based in RSPB Minsmere on the Suffolk Coast. Here, a crew of 120 utilises 30 cameras and over 20 miles of cable in order to film what seems like every bird, mammal, amphibian, insect and reptile in the whole place. Of course, much of the programme consists of VT, for those moments when nothing of interest actually seems to be happening live in the natural world, but the presenters’ ability to talk with utterly beguiling enthusiasm as we gaze at an underwater shot of a floating leaf makes even the dullest moments pregnant with excitement.

The three presenters are Chris Packham, Martin Hughes-Games and Michaela Strachan, who seems to have been appearing on our TV screens for 35 years without having aged a day. Clearly if we all spent our lives waist deep in meltwater or diving face first into badger setts we’d all look about 18 as well.

There is a soothing gentleness to the programme that masks its informative and educational aspects. As well as learning more than I’ll ever need to know about the love life of a great crested newt, I discovered the meaning of the word ‘erumpent’ (bursting forth through a surface), ‘crepuscular’ (forages at dawn or dusk) and that predate (as in predator) can be a verb.

Being set on an RSPB reserve, the place featured more birds than a rapper’s hot tub. There was a tragic sequence, filmed last year, in which a badger swam out to an island on the reserve and wandered from net to nest, eating all of the newly hatched chicks therein. The greedy so-and-so chomped its way through 5000 calories in just a few minutes. There is, we were promised, a plan to stop this from happening this year.

“Hurrah,” I cried, with a thirst for badger blood that would give Brian May a coronary. What would it be? Floating mines in the lake? Poisoning every badger in East Anglia? Chris Packham staking out the island with body paint and a fully loaded uzi? Disappointingly, it turned out to be a fence. Still, if it does the job…

Preview: Gadget Man, Monday, June 1, 8:30pm, Channel 4

Generally speaking, consumer testing shows are not my bag. The bits in the late, lamented Top Gear where they actually reviewed cars generally left me cold, while I’d leap headlong into a bath of liquid nitrogen before I’d sit through an episode of Watchdog. But this week, for the benefit of you, dear reader, I’m previewing two of them – consumer testing the consumer testing shows, if you will. Wow. You must feel like all your Christmases have come at once.

First up is Richard Ayoade with his series Gadget Man. In this show, he races through a panoply of flashy, expensive and largely pointless new gizmos, armed only with his scabrous wit and a couple of celebrity chums. This week, the chums are TV presenter and most handsome man in Wales, Steve Jones, and comedians Sara Pascoe and Al Murray, and the theme is how to make the most of your weekend.

I should point out, at this stage, that possibly the best way to spend your weekend is to save a bit of money by not buying a load of novelty tat that would attract only people with vast amounts of cash and miniscule amounts of sense. For example, if you’re willing to fork out megabucks on a gizmo that transmits video from your phone onto a thin film of mist, so that it looks as though it’s floating in mid-air, you’ve either won the lottery or lost your marbles. 

Meanwhile, what sort of a morbid soul buys the Tikker Death Watch? Handily, for a watch, it tells you the time, but it also offers a countdown to the projected date and time of your death, showing you, to the second, how much time is left. The idea is to inspire you to use your remaining time wisely. It would inspire me to hide under the bedclothes weeping, or to take a hammer to the watch. Who wants to e reminded of their own mortality every time they check whether it’s time for Corrie?

Other absurd inventions include the cargo scooter – basically a scooter with a plastic bucket on the front, yours for £250; a smart cap to tell you your heart rate and calories burned while exercising (just as endless apps and watches already do); a sweat gutr, that acts like a guttering pipe, capturing forehead sweat and taking it away from your eyes; and a sonic foamer, that excites the gases in your beer, causing it to foam up (and presumably then go flat). 

I did like the kitchen safe. It has a timer on it, that you can set to anywhere from one minute to ten days. Once set, you can’t open it, preventing you from going back for your second (or sixth) biscuit. I particularly like the idea of being able to lock away the celery every time my wife proposes adding it to a meal. Be gone, fiery stalks of hideousness.

The gadgets come thick and fast in this show – so much so, you can’t really keep track of them. And most of them are at best pointless, at worst catastrophically ill-judged, that you’d never be interested in buying them anyway. But Gadget Man is worth watching, partly for Ayoade’s deadpan humour, and partly to simply marvel in what a peculiar species we have become.

Preview: Big Box, Little Box, Thursday, June 4, 8:30pm, ITV

And so to our next consumer testing show, where (and I can’t believe I’m going to write this sentence) ITV have come up with a genuinely original formula with Big Box, Little Box

The idea is this. Every week, five families will be sent a truckload of the latest gadgets and goodies to hit the market. Throughout the week, they test them. Er... that’s it. Okay, it’s not exactly revolutionary – it’s sort of Gogglebox-meets-The-Shopping-Channel – but it works, both as entertainment, and as a product review show.

If you needed any more proof that we’ve got too much ‘stuff’, over 20,000 new products hit the UK market every month. How can there possibly be 20 things that will improve our lives, let alone 20,000? And another 20,000 the month after that, etcetera ad infinitum, until we all end up suffocating under a mountain of exercise equipment, unused kitchen items, and novelty toys.

Do we, for example, need a Bluetooth glove? It works like this – you pair it with your mobile phone, and then when your phone rings, you can leave it in your pocket and answer using your glove. You hold your hand, as people do when mimicking a phone call, with your thumb at your ear, and talk into your little finger. It works fine, so long as you don’t mind looking like a looney. Oh, and provided you’re not Ford and Jane.

Ford and Jane, married 52 years, are the undoubted stars of the programme. Watching them try to use the glove is hilarious. “We were very technically challenged by the glove,” admits Jane. “Nevertheless, a very nice, warm pair of gloves.” 

Next up for testing is the Renault Twizzy, a tiny two-person electric car with one seat behind the other. The four house-sharing lads (three of whom have beards – ENOUGH WITH THE BEARDS, YOUNG PEOPLE!!!) love it. Ford and Jane less so. Jane complains of a howling gale in the back, despite Ford driving it at the speed of a mobility scooter. Oh, and they get stuck in it, unable to open the door. “You’ll just have to phone someone, darling,” suggests Jane. If he’s using the gloves, Jane, love, you might want to bed down for the night.

Another of the products reviewed is a sort of sauna in a bag. You wrap yourself up in the bag, with just your head sticking out, and turn it on. It uses infra-red rays, not steam. Whatever. You’re still sitting in a bag. Sweating. And then if someone else wants to use it after you, they have to climb into a bag of your sweat.

The self-heating Balti-in-a-can proves popular. Ford and Jane like it. It’s £3.99. Jane is so impressed, she’s thinking of committing some funds to the company. “I could certainly invest in a tin.” Whoa there, Rockerfeller. 

The show veritably zips along, almost too fast. It is funny, lively and informative. I have no idea if the same families return next week, but I hope at the very least to be seeing Ford and Jane again. And look out for a rather nifty-looking Tepanyaki Grill too.

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.