TV blog: The Casual Vacancy and other highlights

Benjie Goodhart / 19 February 2015

TV blogger, Benjie Goodhart takes a look at The Casual Vacancy, More Tales from Northumberland with Robson Green, The Big Painting Challenge and The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief.

Review: The Casual Vacancy, Sunday, February 15, 9pm, BBC One

Are there any picturesque villages in this country that have yet to play host to a TV show? 

Every time there’s a period drama, another Cotswold hamlet steps up to the plate, has mud put down over its roads, post boxes removed, and before you know it everyone in the place is wearing top hats and unfeasibly large sideburns, and an emotionally constipated Colin Firth is riding past your front room talking flowery gibberish. But nowadays, even modern dramas are set in these places. From Midsomer Murders to The Casual Vacancy, it’s all about the golden glow of the Cotswold stone.

My sister lives in a Cotswold village, and it’s the darnedest thing: Not a single person has been murdered in the entire time she’s been there. Nobody’s been attacked or shot at. There’s not even a seedy underbelly, or a dark secret. What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they watch telly? This isn’t how real life is meant to look!

Fortunately, there’s the BBC adaptation of JK Rowling’s novel to show us what life is really like in these villages. It turns out the people are either utterly pathetic, downtrodden, miserable, hopeless types, or unremittingly horrific, conscience-free epitomes of hideousness with hearts of such darkness they make Cruella Deville look like Tinkerbell. 

The story (which we get to after opening credits lasting fully 3 minutes 45 seconds!!) centres around the aforementioned picturesque village of Pagford, where the local council is split down the middle over the question of what to do with the village hall. Then the saintly Barry (Rory Kinnear, excellent as ever) falls down dead and the machinations begin to get the new candidate on to the council to sway the vote.

The all-star cast includes the cheerfully malevolent Mollisons, played with pompous relish by Michael Gabon and Julia McKenzie, St Barry’s rather less holy half-brother Simon (a brutally brilliant performance from Richard Glover) and Keeley Hawes as the village sex shop owner. Because that’s what Cotswold villages are full of. The pubs and post offices may all be closing down, but you can’t move for shops selling leather chaps and bondage whips in Lower Whitteringham these days. It’s like 50 Shades of Grey meets Lark Rise to Candleford.

So is it any good? Well... -ish. It’s all a little bit grim, particularly when the only genuinely sympathetic character dies. It’s pretty much all snobbery, backstabbing, poverty, addiction, neglect, domestic abuse, mental illness and death. But the performances are all top notch, and the brief moments of comedy are beautifully observed, such as the delightful scene where the obsequious Mollisons are escorted through the house and out of the back door by the dismissive Lord and Lady Sweetlove “No need to call again, just email the housekeeper.”  

Review: More Tales from Northumberland with Robson Green, Monday, February 16, 8pm, ITV

A friend of mine at university used to swear that you could never trust a man whose surname was a first name. Applying this remarkable lack of logic in reverse, she’d love Robson Golightly (I kid you not) Green, whose moniker consists entirely of surnames. Whether she’d love him enough to watch a programme which featured him amiably pottering around Northumberland to no great effect is another matter.

Green is off to “discover Nothumberland’s best kept secrets”. Normally, in a remote, rural community, the sort of secrets you uncover involve casual racism and people being related to each other in at least three different ways, but this is not Green’s focus. Understandably, he chooses to concentrate on the geography, culture and history of his county of birth. But can that really justify a whole eight-part series? Especially when the word ‘More’ at the beginning of the title suggests that he’s already been liberally revealing Northumberland’s best kept secrets in the past, like a drunk gossip at a wedding.

That may explain why the first item in the programme is, well… a bit rubbish. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, that there are dolphins in the North Sea. Green travels 50 miles off the coast to find them, which to me suggests it’s not really Northumberland’s secret ay more than it is Norway’s. Where does it end? Could he hop on a boat from Northumberland to Brisbane and claim that the Great Barrier Reef is a Northumbrian secret? Anyway, the entire segment involves them looking for dolphins, finding them, and going home. It was about as illuminating as a black hole.

Just as I was giving up hope, though, Green took us to Cragside, an extraordinary and beautiful country pile with a genuine claim to global significance. It was the first house in the world powered by hydroelectricity. The owner, inventor Lord Armstrong, decided that burning coal was too extravagant and wasteful. This from a man who planted seven million trees, extended his house to feature 100 rooms, and built the fireplace from ten tonnes of Italian marble. It would be a bit like Elton John suggesting your flower budget was a touch OTT. (Still, what do you expect from a man whose surname is a first name...) 

Finally, Green went skinnydipping with a load of locals at 4:30am in 12˚C water. I’m not sure what the ‘secret’ was here – possibly that Care in the Community isn’t proving entirely successful in the area – but there was something rather lovely and British about the glorious eccentricity on display. And it wasn’t all that was on display. We got to see Robson Golightly Green’s bare bottom. No wonder the dolphins all stay 50 miles off the coast.

Continue to page 2 for Benjie's previews of The Big Painting Challenge and The People's Strictly for Comic Relief.

Preview: The Big Painting Challenge, Sunday, February 22, 6pm, BBC One

You wait decades to have a friend take part in a massive primetime televised competition, and then two come along in the space of a few months. I haven’t literally been waiting for this for decades. When I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t say “Someone who knows amateur bakers and painters who are occasionally on the telly.” (I actually vacillated between footballer, actor, train driver, soldier and, for a brief and confusing phase, a full-time mum). 

But there it is. Having had lovely Kate appear on Bake Off last autumn, now it’s the turn of lovely Paul to appear on The Big Painting Challenge

Of course, it’s incredibly exciting, watching a friend take part in something like this. My wife and I spent the entire hour clutching each other shouting “There he is,” and “I’d know that was his painting anywhere” and “Isn’t he brilliant” and “more wine, please” (my wife). And he is brilliant. But so is the show, even if you’re a bit of a loser who doesn’t have any famous telly friends taking part.

The thing that makes the show so fascinating is the astonishing amount if talent on display. Speaking as someone who still draws stick figures when given pen and paper, I am impressed by anyone of an artistic bent, but these guys are an altogether different breed. They are phenomenally skilled, each with a very different style and approach to their art.

They are also an interesting mix. As well as Paul there’s 20-year-old language student Claire; Anthea, a retired naval officer; retired police artist Jan; Richard, an army sergeant; and Melvyn, a retired graphic designer who, at 70, is the oldest in the competition.

Episode one sees them tackling three challenges at the beautiful Alnwick Castle (aka Hogwarts, if you prefer children’s films to, you know, history and that). 

The six-part series is presented by keen amateur painter Una Stubbs and art-collector Richard Bacon, and the judges are Scottish painter Lachlan Goudie and portrait-painter Daphne Todd OBE. I think OBE may stand for Overly Brutally Expressive, if her judging is anything to go by. A clip from a later show reveals her critiquing someone’s painting thus: “Dreadful. I did, earlier on, snort with laughter looking at it.” That’s harsh – particularly for something as intensely personal as a painting. 

Preview: The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief, Wednesday, February 25, 9pm, BBC One

In some senses, it’s not that surprising that I’ve had two friends appear on televised competitions, it’s more just simple law of averages. Andy Warhol was almost right – in the future, everyone will be famous for anywhere between one hour and ten weeks, depending upon how good at cooking/painting/dancing they are. And the beauty of it is, we’ll never run out of ideas. It’s possible to turn anything into a competition. The Great Dishwasher Emptying Challenge, presented by Su Pollard. 

Anyway, for now, we’ll have to make do with new four-part series The People’s Strictly for Comic Relief. It’s basically Strictly, but not featuring anyone who’s in EastEnders or used to play cricket. Instead, the six contestants are, as the title says, ‘people’ (as opposed to glossy-toothed, perma-tanned celebrity-bots programmed to smile whenever their built-in radar detects a camera). But they’re not just everyday people – they are very, very special people. People who have dedicated their lives to doing good work, to helping others, to easing suffering. The type of people, in short, who make the rest of us look like narcissistic, self-obsessed rodents. 

At the time of writing, the shows are unavailable to preview. Instead, what I have seen is a show reel, where each one of the six contestants is informed, in the most magical fashion, and to their unbridled astonishment, that they’ve been nominated to take part in the show. The videos also reveal what it is that makes them so special.

In a cynical world, it is genuinely heart-warming to watch stuff like this, about modest, quiet, normal people who have done extraordinary things for no personal gain, just because it was right. I defy you to keep a dry eye. Though, frankly, if I was shopping in Sainsbury’s, and suddenly everyone around me started singing and dancing in unison and then Russell Grant appeared in a loud shirt and kissed me, I’d assume I was having a long sleep after a surfeit of cheese.


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