TV review - Strictly Come Dancing

Benjie Goodhart / 03 September 2015

TV critic Benjie Goodhart takes a look at this week's highlights including ITV Changed My Life and Doctor Foster.

Strictly Come Dancing, Saturday 5th September, 7:15pm, BBC One

Just as night follows day, and indigestion follows an all-you-can-eat buffet, Strictly follows The X Factor into the schedules. The two will fight it out for televisual supremacy between now and December, like a couple of exhausted heavyweight boxers in diamante backless dresses.

The contestants have already been revealed, and they’re the usual collection of the famous, the desperate, and the surprisingly high-brow. If any of you have heard of singer Jay McGuiness, go to the top of the class. Ditto Kellie Bright – apparently she plays the landlady of the Queen Vic in EastEnders – you mean it’s not Den and Angie anymore? (I may be a touch out of date…) The (slightly) older generation is represented by Jeremy Vine, Ainsley Harriott, Carol Kirkwood and housewife-catnip Daniel O’Donnell. And Peter Andre gets a set of commemorative mugs for finally appearing on every reality TV show in existence. 

The real action begins inn a couple of weeks. This week is the Launch Show, which is 80-minutes of frantic padding, as the professionals try and look delighted about having been paired with Jeremy Vine, and the contestants reveal how Strictly is their favourite show, and they just love to dance in their kitchen. Just once, I’d love one of them to say: “I hate dancing, but my agent says my profile needs a boost and I want a new conservatory.”

As ever, the most hotly anticipated moment will be the group routine, when we will get our first hint as to who will be the lithe, graceful, expressive delights, and who will be the board-stiff, shop-mannequin horrors carried around by their long-suffering, rictus-grinning partners. 

The whole thing is an absurd pantomime, of course. But there is still something deeply impressive about the passion that the competition engenders every year, and in spite of my better self, I fully anticipate the usual levels of sequin-addiction in the months to come. Hurrah!

ITV Changed My Life, Wednesday 9th September, 8pm, ITV

As we mentioned last week, ITV is currently celebrating its 60th birthday. The celebrations continue with this hour-long one-off examination of all the lives that have been irrevocably shaped by ITV’s programmes over the years. It’s a peculiar and rather self-referential idea that actually turns out to be both diverting and surprisingly affecting.

The stories vary wildly between the hugely significant (The Naked Civil Servant giving young gay people the courage to come out, World In Action’s dismantling of the case against The Birmingham Six) and the relatively trivial (a man who was able to make a career as a Freddie Mercury tribute act, the Blind Date wedding). 

There’s a segment on a married couple, Maureen and Joel, who are both professional extras, or “background artists”. They appear most regularly on Corrie, and take their work rather seriously. “There’s a trick we call silent talking,” says Joel. “You learn to speak without making a noise,” adds Maureen. Genius.

It’s all fun and games, but looking back on ITV’s backlog of programmes has a salutary effect. This is a broadcaster that used to take risks. The screening of The Naked Civil Servant back in 1975 was a hugely controversial and socially significant moment in British life – the BBC, for example, had rejected it. 

Today, you’re unlikely to get a drama on ITV that doesn’t involve a photogenic lady detective and a serial killer. And what price now an ITV documentary going up against the judiciary, the state and the prevailing mood of the time to lay bare a gross miscarriage of justice? 

If you are lucky enough to stumble across a documentary on ITV these days, it’ll almost certainly be about young people being sick in a bucket on holiday somewhere. The problem with having a birthday where you encourage everyone to look back at how beautiful you used to be is that when they look back at you now, they might start to notice your middle aged spread.

Doctor Foster, Wednesday 9th September, 9pm, BBC One

One of my main bugbears in telly is shows with really naff titles. I still find myself bristling with rage that a show ever got made about a pair of crime-fighting gardeners who just happened to be called Rosemary and Thyme. Seriously, sometimes I wake up in the night screaming. 

So I went into this show with pretty low expectations. Why did she have to be called Doctor Foster? Do we have to run the gamut of nursery rhymes? Will we have a show about a diminutive fireman, played by Ronnie Corbett, called Little Jack Horner? Or the tale of thoughtful detective called Peter Piper who does his best thinking while playing the flute? You can scoff, but somewhere a drama commissioner is noting this stuff down and sweating with excitement.

This five-part drama concerns a respected local GP, Dr Gemma Foster (Suranne Jones). She has a lovely life. Lovely house. Lovely son. Lovely husband, who comes back from a work trip and makes lovely love to her. Obviously, this is TV-land, and anyone whose life is shown to be happy must inevitably be hurtling towards a chasm called Disaster in a runaway railway cart marked Implausible Series of Events.

And so it comes to pass, as the good doctor decides that her husband Simon (Bertie Cavell) is having an affair, on the rather flimsy basis of finding a blonde hair on his scarf. And here’s the thing – it’s actually very good. I don’t want to give too much away, but the joy of the programme is its sheer unpredictability. 

Dr Foster is neither some crazed harridan, nor a wronged saint, but is instead a desperate, confused, vulnerable and amoral individual. It is so refreshing to watch a drama and not be able to write the final page in your head after 20 minutes. And there is a scene at the end of this first episode, where a few things fall into place, which is devastatingly effective. 

First Dates, Thursday 10th September, 10pm, Channel 4

This is, hands down, the most hilarious, tragic, uplifting, soul-destroying, glorious and emotionally shattering programme of the week. I love First Dates (no, not in that way, I’m not a serial adulterer) and the series returns this week with an absolute classic of an episode.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, its premise is delightfully simple. In a unique restaurant in London, each table is filmed with diners on a blind date. The cameras eavesdrop on every moment of the date, whether it’s an agonising mismatch or the blossoming of true love. The footage is intercut with interviews with the potential lovebirds, before they are brought together at the end of the meal to reveal whether there will be an all-important second date.

As you might expect, each programme lives and dies by the quality of the characters involved. Tonight’s lot are, by any standards, a remarkable bunch. There’s Anna, whose list of requirements in a suitor is of biblical proportions, and probably doesn’t include a bloke called Liam who opens up by asking her age and then announcing she looks older. He follows this up by stating that he’s often  told he looks like Daniel Craig – presumably by people who have never seen a Daniel Craig film. Still she gets her own back by criticising the way he likes his steak, and announcing his favourite dessert is “so generic!” Ha!

Then there’s Louis, who’s, ahem, ‘cautious’ with money, who’s paired up with Amber, who talks to angels and cried for three days when Michael Jackson died. And charming, cheerful Josh, and Soraya, who has a pram for her cats. And then there’s another Louis, this one simply adorable, and kindly Adela, and a date so achingly poignant it’ll haunt your dreams. 

Yes, Minister/Yes, Prime Minister

Westminster wasn’t always run by shady spin doctors, unelected puppet-masters telling our rulers what to say and do. Oh no. Thirty years ago it was run by shady Whitehall mandarins, unelected puppet mast… you get the idea. 

Just as the magnificent The Thick of It saw Peter Capaldi play arch spinmeister Malcolm Tucker, decades previously it was senior civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby who was the power behind the throne in the equally marvellous Yes, Minister.

Sir Humphrey, a deliciously Machiavellian performance by Nigel Hawthorne, was the permanent secretary to the naïve, ambitious MP Jim Hacker, head of the Department of Administrative Affairs (making him, memorably, the Minister for Paperclips). Caught in the power-struggle between the two was the hapless Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds).

Generally, each episode followed a similar theme. Hacker would attempt to introduce a piece of legislation, and the cynical, reactionary Sir Humphrey would torpedo such a move, often with a deathly reference to what a ‘courageous’ idea it was. But one of the many aspects of the show’s genius was that Hacker occasionally won – and audiences would thrill to the thinly-suppressed rage of Sir Humphrey.

There were six series of the show, from 1980-88. It won the Best Comedy BAFTA three times, and Hawthorne won the Best Comedy Performance BAFTA four times. The writers, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, spoke to high-ranking politicians and civil servants and, terrifyingly, based many of their tales on reality. And, perhaps more alarmingly still, as Lynn once revealed, “there was not a single scene set in the House of Commons, because government does not take place in the House of Commons.”

Episodes are available to watch on GooglePlay, Amazon Instant and iTunes, and box sets are available to buy on Amazon (the complete collection is available for £17.52). It is also available on eBay. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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