TV blog: World’s Weirdest Homes

Benjie Goodhart / 03 December 2015

TV highlights from World’s Weirdest Homes to the Royal Variety Performance, Prey, Britain's Oldest Crooks and Cheers.

World’s Weirdest Homes, Sunday 6th December, 7:30pm, Channel 4

We’re all pretty traditional when it comes to houses. Generally speaking, they are made of a combination or variation of bricks, concrete, wood, glass, metal, stone or, if you’re a particularly thick and lazy anthropomorphic pig being hunted by an impressively-lunged wolf, straw. They are built with straight lines.

Ordinarily, functionality and practicality dictate that they aren’t shaped like a domestic animal, or an item of clothing, or a toilet. Most of us are, basically, very boring. Or, if you prefer to look at it another way, sane.

But vive la difference. Particularly when most of la difference takes place in (surprise surprise)  the USA, where it’s far enough away not to disturb my eyeline. This programme looks at the 20 most bonkers houses in the world, and the collection of cranks, crackpots and glorious eccentrics who build and/or inhabit them.

Things get off to a pretty decent start, with the guy who lives in a dumpster in New York. I know what you’re thinking – we’ve all seen people who live in dumpsters – but this guy doesn’t think he’s Papa Smurf and smell of cheap gin. In fact, he’s a smart and practical guy who has come up with a pretty ingenious way of converting a dumpster into a (semi-)practical living space. Obviously he’s absolutely barking, though – and we’re only at number 20.

Higher up the list are converted ships, fallout shelters, houses shaped like (variously) geese, dogs, crocodiles, snakes, UFOs, a house built on a floating island of rubbish, and a palace of bubbles.

Some are just plain odd (an exact replica of the house from The Munsters – no thanks!) others brilliantly inventive (the spinning outback house that chases the sun and changes your view) and some are deeply impractical (the hut on a rock in the middle of a river that’s been washed away and rebuilt nine times in 40 years).

And, perhaps most eerily of all, there’s an old nuclear missile base, now owned by peaceniks who hold impromptu panpipe-and-bongo jam sessions in the room that used to house the missiles. In all honestly, if you ask me, they’ve replaced one evil with another.

Related: Fascinated by weird and wonderful structures? Take a look at our 'Shed of the Year' slideshow

The Royal Variety Performance, Tuesday 8th December, 7:30pm, ITV

There’s something slightly anachronistic about the Royal Variety Performance. Back in my youth, it was one of the high points of the televisual calendar. Mind you, a lot of TV was rubbish back then, so much so that sometimes I’d tune in to watch the Test Card rather than any of the actual programming.

Back then, the RVP (that’s Royal Variety Performance, not Robin Van Persie) meant something. It played host to the crème de la crème of British talent. And the Queen was always there.

Not anymore. In recent years, she’s delegated to Prince Charles, then to Prince William, and this year, to Prince Harry. I can’t help but think we’re moving fairly rapidly down the line of succession here. It’s probably a matter of time before the royalty at the performance is Danny Dyer.

Also, it’s all in aid of a rather peculiar cause, namely the Royal Variety Charity, formerly the Entertainment Artistes’ Benevolent Fund, which helps people from the world of entertainment who are in need of care and assistance.

I’m all for making sure Sir Bruce, Sir Terry et al are looked after, but it’s probably not top of my list of global concerns. Mind you, since I started helping my parents with their finances (a case of the blind leading the blind if ever there was one) I’ve discovered that dad has a regular donation to the Lawyers’ Benevolent Fund. Just think, all those poor, impoverished lawyers. What CAN we do to help?

Anyway, Jack Whitehall comperes tonight, becoming the youngest ever host of the RVP.

Performers include Sir Elton, Kylie, ELO, Beverley Knight, Ricky Martin, The Corrs (did I fall asleep and wake up in the 1990s?) plus the cast of Mary Poppins, The Play that Goes Wrong, assorted comedians you’ve not heard of, and Britain’s Got Talent Winners Jules, Matisse and Friends (the ‘and friends’ bit they could have remembered in the BGT final!) Enjoy. Or not, as the case may be.

Prey, Wednesday 9th December, 9pm, ITV

According to celluloid cliché, there are certain jobs that are always, always peopled by colossal sadists. Drill sergeant is one. Maths teacher is another (whereas English teachers are always depicted as kindly and inspirational). But top of the list has to be prison guard.

It is the law of the drama that prison guards are considerably more unpleasant than those they guard; borderline psychopaths who are never happier than when wrapping their truncheon around the head of some poor, defenceless inmate.

It’s a surprise, then, to meet David Murdoch, who carries out his job as a prison guard in a women’s prison with benign professionalism, and has a love of amateur dramatics.

When we meet him, mind you, he’s involved with drama of a rather less relaxing bent. He’s bleeding, handcuffed to a prisoner, on the run from police, and about to hurl himself and the prisoner off a high ledge into freezing waters below. When your day ends like that, you know something has gone seriously wrong, and so it emerges, as the action flashes back to 18 hours earlier.

This is the first of a three-part series written by Chris Lunt, who was also behind the first series of Prey last year, which featured an entirely different cast of characters and a bravura central performance from the ever-excellent John Simm.

This time it is the walking perma-scowl that is Philip Glenister in the main role. Glenister spends most of his career looking like he’s passing a particularly painful gall-stone – I suspect his smile-muscles have long since withered and atrophied into non-existence. But if you want someone who wandered around smiling vacantly at the world, you’d cast Su Pollard as your (slightly implausible) prison guard.

Here, Glenister is ideally suited to the role, and the result is a compelling hour of television.

The prisoner, Julie, played by Myanna Buring, is (of course) rather more attractive than your average member of the prison population, but the fact that you never really know what she’s thinking or whose side she is on adds an extra element to the fascination.

Meanwhile, the cops chasing them include the marvellous Rosie Cavaliero, who’s joyless demeanour makes Robert Glenister look like Mr Tumble. Highly recommended.

Britain’s Oldest Crooks, Thursday 10th December, 9pm, ITV

The over-60s is the fastest-growing category of prisoner in the UK, though this has more to do with changing demographics than vast swathes of septuagenarians becoming muggers and crack dealers.

This programme meets some of the senior citizens who have been spending time at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (an odd phrase that implies dear Queenie does a little jig of delight every time someone is sent down…)

Initially, my concern about this programme was vindicated – I was convinced it would all be viewed as a great lark, with plinky plonky music and a chirpy voiceover giggling away at what an old rascal 83-year-old Tommy is, because he committed an armed robbery while in his 80’s. “Isn’t he naughty, but you’ve got to admire his pluck,” they’d say. Such an approach demeans the victims of crime, and patronises older people everywhere. And for a good long chunk of this programme, that’s exactly where it went.

The criminals we met included a man who repeatedly breaches his ASBO, a woman who committed large-scale fraud, a pimp and drug-dealer, and, um, a man who fed the birds a lot.

These aren’t funny crimes. They’re serious, and there are victims, and people suffering in each case. Um… apart from bird-feeding man. It didn’t seem right to treat the whole thing as a bit of fun.

And then, suddenly, it changed into something completely different… and rather heartbreaking. It became a rumination on ageing, on being forgotten, impoverished and disenfranchised. On death.

So 40-minutes of patronising guff is followed by 20 minutes of genuinely powerful, thought-provoking stuff. It’s also a pretty salutary reminder that crime doesn’t pay. These guys aren’t appearing on the Sunday Times Rich List anytime soon…

Cheers, box set

Back when I was a student in the early 1990s, my friends and I would all gather in our flat before we went out and hit the pubs and clubs of Edinburgh with our ridiculous hair and irksome self-belief. We met up to perform something of a ritual. It began something like this: “Making your way in the world today takes everything you got…”

When we’d finished noisily singing along to the theme tune, a room of 15 loud, obnoxious and slightly drunk 19-year-olds would all fall silent (apart from laughing) for the next 30 minutes, as we enjoyed one of the finest sitcoms ever to grace the small screen.

Cheers was an institution. It ran for 11 seasons, a total of 271 episodes. It centred around a Boston bar, generally filled with the same clientele sitting in the same chairs, being served by the same staff, week after week, year after year.

The bar’s owner was Sam Malone – a perennially single lothario with a history of alcoholism and a failed sports career behind him. He sounded tragic, but unheralded actor Ted Danson turned him into comedy gold.

The cast of other characters was also inspired, and stayed with the show for so long they became a part of the fabric of the lives of those of us who never missed an episode.

It could all have been terribly depressing. They were all stuck in their own ruts, going nowhere except to the same bar, night after night. But they had warmth, and they had each other, and they loved each other in a profoundly dysfunctional but eternally touching way.

It all could have turned out so differently. Initially, NBC tried to give the role of Sam to Bill Cosby, and in its first season, Cheers tanked in terms of audience figures, and was within a whisker of cancellation. But 11 years and a record 117 Emmy nominations later, the show bowed out with 42.4 million households watching the feature-length final episode.

It ends beautifully, with Sam alone once again, his personal life in tatters. He looks around his empty bar, pats the counter, and intones: “Man, I must be the luckiest guy in the world.”

Then someone comes to the door, and for the first time in the history of Cheers, we see Sam from the outside, through the doorway. “Sorry,” he says. “We’re closed.”

Turns out not everything I was into when I was 19 was ridiculous.

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