This week's TV: Wolf Hall and other highlights

23 January 2015

TV blogger Benjie Goodhart takes a look at the best of what's on the box this week, including Wolf Hall, Churchill: The Nation’s Farewell, The Vikings are Coming and Get Your Act Together.


Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall is the BBC’s lavish adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s epic historical novel of the same name, and of her follow-up, Bringing Up the Bodies. Normally, such adaptations are greeted with opprobrium by those who have read the book, but as almost nobody I know managed to finish it, due to its complexity and sheer size, I expect a more sympathetic hearing. That said, anyone who has read it all will almost certainly start trumpeting on about how superior it is to the series, just so people know they waded through to the book’s end.

For the rest of us, this is a welcome opportunity to find out what happens without actually having to read it. This is an age old practise of mine, though I now accept that taking this approach for my set texts at English A Level was a mistake. Especially as I got bored ten minutes into Hamlet and switched it off. Can anyone tell me how it ends? I assume Hamlet and Ophelia lived happily ever after in a beach hut in Barbados?

Anyway, Wolf Hall: After the first episode, I wouldn’t claim to be hooked, but my interest is certainly piqued. Watching the machinations, the politics and rivalry and backstabbing around the throne is fascinating, and the story is beautifully told.

The plot centres around Thomas Cromwell (a fantastically understated Mark Rylance), and his political rise, in a climate of desperation and fear in the court of a volatile Henry VIII. As you would expect from the BBC, the costumes and locations are stunning, the historical detail second to none. Actually, I’m not qualified to comment on the historical detail, but at no stage did anyone make a call on their  mobile or Google something, so it’s accurate as far as I’m concerned.

Intriguingly, despite dominating proceedings throughout, Henry (played by the inestimable Damian Lewis) only appeared in the last few minutes of the opening episode, in a sparkling two-hander with a brave and unabashed Cromwell.

Of course, one of the issues with historical dramas is that they depend so much on how the period is interpreted by the author. Here, Cromwell is depicted as a man of unimpeachable morality, kindness and loyalty, while his rival Thomas More is shown to be a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Yet when I was at school, I was in the play A Man for All Seasons. (I played the Duke of Norfolk, since you ask. I thought I was brilliant, though the review in the school magazine suggested otherwise. Pah, critics. What do they know?) 

In Robert Bolt’s play, Thomas More is a figure of saintly idealism, while Cromwell is a Machiavellian creature of serpentine viciousness. So which is the more accurate? Maybe, as Cromwell continues his rise to power in Wolf Hall, he’ll become a less sympathetic creature. I’d ask one of my friends who’s read the book if I knew anyone who’d made it past page 70.

Preview: Churchill: The Nation’s Farewell

Winston Churchill died 50 years ago this month. He was the only commoner of the 20th Century awarded a state funeral, and it was an extraordinary and lavish occasion. Here, Jeremy Paxman looks back at the events of that day, meeting some of the key players, and asks the question: “Does Churchill’s legacy still have relevance today?” 

The question, of course, is entirely superfluous. Churchill’s legacy will have relevance for hundreds of years into the future. More than anyone, he is the reason we’re not all eating sauerkraut, wearing  tight leather shorts and celebrating world cup wins.

This doesn’t stop the programme from being a thoroughly diverting hour, filled with fascinating anecdotes and absolutely wonderful colour archive footage (and the glorious choral music) of the state funeral. The programme’s real strength lies in the quality if its interviewees. Everyone from Boris Johnson to the coffin-bearers or trumpeters, to Churchill’s grandchildren, is spoken to. Paxo is on uncharacteristically benign form with them – though even he might baulk at exploding into rage and breaking their fingers with a hammer whilst enquiring how they felt at their beloved grandfather’s funeral. 

The interviews throw up some intriguing details, like the real story, told by a disgruntled docker, behind the incredibly moving moment when the dockside cranes all tilted in salute as Churchill’s funereal barge glided past. “That undid us all,” admits Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames MP.

The picture that emerges of Churchill is nothing new. “He was running on a different kind if petrol,” says an awed Boris. (That petrol, incidentally, largely consisted of brandy and champagne – so much so the champagne-maker Odette Pol Roger was invited to the funeral). But as a historical record of an extraordinary day when the entire nation came together to remember its greatest leader, it is superb. All this, and you get to see Jeremy Paxman driving an old Mini Cooper, his knees up round his ears, looking like an embarrassed giraffe stuffed into a hat box.

Modern Times: The Vikings are Coming, Thursday 29th January, 9pm, BBC Two

Not so long ago, if you were an unmarried woman who “got into trouble” you’d disappear off to the continent for several months, and return childless and scandal-free. Unless you lived at Downton Abbey, in which case you’d go off to the continent, leave your baby with a Swiss family, come back, return and retrieve your baby, give it to a local tenant farmer, visit constantly, then take the baby, run away to London, before returning home with the baby and claiming you’ve adopted it for humanitarian reasons. 

Now, single women head off to Europe in order to come back pregnant. Not, you understand, the single women who become pregnant after a bottle of tequila and a bunk up behind a chip shop in Magaluf. This programme is a study of a more edifying trend – that of single women, desperate for a baby, who are using Danish sperm to get pregnant. 

More and more women from the UK are turning to Danish clinics to help them conceive (hence the programme’s rather cheeky title). This is because, under Danish law, donors do not have to be anonymous, and recipients can choose the attributes they want in their child’s biological father.

Sue Bourne’s gripping film meets four women trying to get pregnant, each with their own story, and speaks to the Danish men who donate their sperm, and are potentially fathering hundreds of children. In 18 years, their wives may have to put up with a knock on the door every weekend from a new stepchild. It would be like being married to Julio Iglesias.

But this is the women’s story. Gemma is 40, single, and running out of time. Her eggs will not be viable for much longer. She is funny, and self aware, and desperate for a child. Anna and her partner Kell are lesbians in a committed and loving relationship, who want to start a family together. Holly is 36, gay, and single, softly-spoken and brave. Amanda is 43, single, and is finally pregnant, after several attempts. She used IVF (not – and this is very important, the UVF, who are a paramilitary organisation and therefore not big in the field of frozen sperm).

The programme, like the women involved, is full of charm, warmth, humour, and a degree of sadness. The experience is a weird one for those involved – Anna and Kell, for example, try to make the baby-making moment as natural as possible, with candles, music and wine. But you can’t escape the fact that there’s a ruddy great vat of frozen nitrogen in the room, containing sticks of icy sperm. It’s hardly Mills and Boon.

The emotional and physical battering the women face is plain to see (and that’s before the emotional and physical battering wrought by pregnancy. And childbirth. And parenthood). But you will not see five people more committed to having a baby.

This is the heart of the matter. Many people will argue that children should be brought up in traditional families, with a mother and a father. But these women have so much love to give, and their dedication and devotion to their as-yet-only-dreamed-of children is palpable. What children need – more than anything else on God’s green earth – is love and stability. I defy anyone to watch this film and think they wouldn’t get that from these courageous, fabulous women.

Review: Get Your Act Together, Sunday 18th January, 6:45pm, ITV

I’d not planned on reviewing this programme. To be honest, the idea of having to plough through 75 minutes of a reality show presented by the oleaginous Stephen Mulhern wherein celebs learn new talents, and deemed so bad by ITV that they gave it a 6:45pm Sunday night slot, was about as appealing as slow roasting my feet in a pottery kiln. But then a friend of mine sent me a review fromThe Guardian which suggested that this was quite literally the worst reality TV show ever made. And then that part of the psyche that insists you slow down to gawp at road accidents kicked in. I had to see for myself, no matter the psychological damage.

Every week, five celebrities – actually, hold on a minute. I want to tell you about a book by Dr Seuss. It is called On After Zebra, wherein a young narrator laments that there are only 26 letters in the alphabet, and invents some more. The last letter in this alphabet-addendum is pronounced HI. I mention this, because I think we could reasonably describe the participants in this programme as HI-list celebrities. I’m not expecting Brad Pitt to pop up in episode three, learning to play the bongos.

Anyway, every week, five celebrities are taught a new skill, and then come on stage (on a set where no expense was spent) to perform said skill in front of an audience of normal people plus, for some baffling reason, Christine Hamilton, Lionel Blair and Louie Spence. At the end of the show, the audience votes for the winner, who goes through to the final. The other celebrities are presumably then wheeled out the back and either driven straight to the Celebrity Big Brother house or melted down for glue.

In what presumably struck the producers as a thrilling twist, certain members of the audience are miked up, so we can hear their discussions after each act. Presumably there was some careful editing to remove the majority of chat, which I imagine centred around the futility of human existence, the sweet release of death, and where to go for a curry after the show.

The show featured Ray Quinn doing impressions (he did a brilliant Frank Spencer, which was hampered only by the fact that he wasn’t doing Frank Spencer), Gareth Thomas swinging about on ropes quite impressively, Danielle Lloyd doing trampoline acrobatics (again, quite well), and Brian McFadden performing escapology in a boringly effective manner. But the ultimate humiliation was reserved for actress and Loose Woman Sherrie Hewson, who was heroically failing to spin plates. 

Plate-spinning is the dullest trick imaginable, so it was at least enlivened by the repetitive sound of smashing crockery, but it was almost too embarrassing to watch. Wearing a sort of spangly leotard, Hewson looked like Liberace presiding over a Greek gay wedding. I would advise anyone interested in share dealing to buy porcelain. There’s a lot of pottery to be made after that, if you can just get my feet out of the kiln.

Hewson got a standing ovation at the end. But then, so did everyone else. I suspect the seats were electrified. I can’t believe the audience was.

In the end, Ray Quinn won. He probably deserved it, on balance. 

And as for this being the worst reality show ever? Oh come on! Not by a long chalk. Have we forgotten Richard Blackwood getting colonically irrigated? Or Rebecca Loos and her porcine adventures? No, this particular bar is properly low, and even celebrities of this diminished stature couldn’t crawl under it.


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