This week's TV: Winterwatch and others

Benjie Goodhart / 16 January 2015

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart takes a look at the extraordinary natural world shown in Winterwatch, the tightly-plotted and nuanced drama of Broadchurch and Freddie Knoller's remarkable story.

"Television highlights reviewed every week by Benjie Goodhart P

Review: Winterwatch, Monday, January 19 at 9pm, and then Tuesday 20 – Thursday 22, 8pm, BBC Two

Imagine working for the BBC as a nature cameraman. “Ooh, what’s next?” you think as you go in for your latest meeting. “Off with Attenborough to The Barrier Reef? Or perhaps hanging out with Charlotte Uhlenbroek in Madagascar?” And then you’re told – it’s in a remote corner of Aberdeenshire. Up a mountain. In January. Where the UK’s coldest ever temperature was recorded in 1982 (minus 27.2°C). Pack thick socks. That’s a poor result in anyone’s book.

Apart from the viewers, that is. Because Winterwatch is one of those quiet, unheralded gems that the BBC does with boundless charm and enthusiasm. It’s presenters, Michaela Strachan, Chris Packham and Martin Hughes-Games, are knowledgeable, eloquent and sparky. (Michaela was also one of my first-ever TV crushes, back in the days of Disraeli’s premiership. Time has been considerably kinder to her than to me. If Oscar Wilde was right, somewhere there is a portrait of her looking like an angry Wheat Crunchie.) The camerawork is always fabulous, and the depth of research and the care taken is exquisite.

This series, we are promised a look at golden eagles, otters, red squirrels and pine martens in Scotland, while there will be reports on creatures from the Norfolk coastline (including seals, wading birds, and retired Londoners opening ceramic workshops). 

There’s also an experiment comparing the intelligence of red squirrels in the Cairngorms with grey squirrels in Bristol. I’m torn as to who to support. Red squirrels are far more attractive than their grey counterparts, but then again, it’s England v Scotland.

Either way, sit back, turn up the fire, and watch other people slowly turn to blocks of ice in what promises to be another delightful look at the extraordinary natural world that exists in our own backyard. 

Review: Broadchurch, Monday, January 12, 9pm, ITV

I won’t even try and sum up what’s happened so far in Broadchurch – in the last series or in this. You’ve either seen it, in which case you already know, or you haven’t, in which case the cack-handed attempts of a witless blogger to condense ten hours of tightly-plotted and nuanced television drama into a couple of hundred clumsy words would be a waste of my fingers and your eyeballs.

Suffice to say, I’m enjoying it – it’s still better than 95 per cent of what’s on TV these days – but I’m also a little underwhelmed. Episode One set the scene nicely, reintroduced us to all the old characters, and moved things along at a cracking pace. But by the end of episode two, I had uncovered some serious issues with the plot. In short, I was struggling to believe it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of these automatons who sits scientifically dissecting a drama to pick holes in its plot. You know the type – “They could never get from Piccadilly to Notting Hill in that time,” “The Diesel 346 wasn’t used on the Dorset Line for another two years,” “they used a form of pasta that’s from a region further north” etc etc. Watching TV drama often involves a cheerful suspension of disbelief. 

I don’t, for example, believe in Wookies, or flying men with pants over their clothes, but it didn’t stop me enjoying Star Wars or Superman.

But when a drama’s strength is its realism, by its very nature it must be that bit more real. Series one was a fabulous study of grief and shame engulfing an entire community. It was raw and agonising. So far, some of series two feels a bit silly.

For example: The brilliant, maverick, slightly damaged prosecutor who just happens to live in Broadchurch, while her opponent is also her protégé, a hotshot lawyer from London. For example: Alec Hardy suddenly seems to have been hiding a woman in a cottage round the corner for goodness knows how long, in his own, unofficial witness protection programme (er... funded how?) For example, her sinister husband has tracked her down, we know not how. And then, most absurdly of all, Hardy arranges for his charge and her dangerous husband to meet in the abandoned house of a suspected murderer, which is still an active crime scene. Errr, hello? And then, in episode two’s denouement, the evil husband and vulnerable wife simply disappear into thin air in the three seconds when an argument is going on outside the house. Who is he, David Blaine? And, most absurdly of all, the geeky vicar is going out with the hot hotelier. As if!!!

I still love the show, and expect great things from it, but it needs to rein itself in a bit, get back to the basics of realism and characterisation that are its undoubted strengths. Thank goodness, then, at the show’s heart, there is the brilliant David Tennant and the frankly astonishing Olivia Coleman, bestriding the show like a thespian colossus, acting everyone else off the screen with beautiful understatement.

Oh, and one more thing. No reporter in the history of the world has ever, ever said “Our live blog’s gonna be sick.” I had to shower after that, I felt so sullied.

Preview: Surviving the Holocaust: Freddie Knoller’s War, Thursday, January 22, 9pm, BBC Two

Freddie Knoller is a remarkably spry, chipper and smart 93-year-old resident of North London. He has a ready laugh, and plays the cello beautifully. He also has a quite extraordinary story to tell.

Born in Vienna in 1921, he describes a childhood of virtually uninterrupted idyll until one day in March 1938 when the Anschluss came to be, and Austria fell under German rule. Unfortunately, Freddie was Jewish. That November saw Kristallnacht, and Freddie’s father saw the writing on the wall. He sent his sons abroad. One to England, one to America, and one – whoops – to Belgium. No prizes for guessing which one was Freddie.

This is the remarkable story of what happened next. It’s difficult to go into detail without giving too much away, although I am prepared to reveal that Freddie survived the war. It would be a fairly short monologue otherwise.

Suffice to say, as with so many people, the war was the best of times and the worst of times for Freddie. He became an adult, he made some great friendships, he fell in love, he worked in the entertainment industry in Paris, he joined the resistance and was active in a guerrilla movement in southern France. But he was also imprisoned by both sides and tortured, before being sent to Auschwitz and then Belsen, where he saw humanity at its lowest ebb, almost certainly, in all of history.

To come through those experiences, and to be the cogent, bright, sparky character he is today is little short of extraordinary. He tells his story in a way that is naturally self-effacing and completely devoid of self-pity. He doesn’t cry, and wipes his eyes only once. Tellingly, this is not when he remembers the unconscionable actions of those around him, but when he remembers how he was reduced to stealing bread from others. They are tears of shame, as if he had anything to feel ashamed of.

At the end of the war, Freddie was 24. He weighed six stone. But he was alive. This is his story, and it deserves to be heard.

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