Back in the day, you discovered a good TV series, and then watched the episodes unfold, week after week. that’s how I watched Talking to a Stranger, The Singing Detective and, only this year, Years and Years. But now there’s the dreaded indulgence of binge-watching, where all the parts are made available straight away. I decided I wasn’t really interested in Fosse/Verdon, the story of choreographer/director Bob Fosse and one of his wives. But then I read a review which told me that (a) that Michelle Williams was in it and (b) that it was really good. (In my experience, those two things usually go together). It’s brilliant. Clever, thoughtful, complicated - you jump around in time, and the relationship between the two lead characters develops all the time, but it’s tremendous, one of the best things I’ve seen this year. so yes, I’ll confess. I watched all eight episodes within a week (on iplayer), and almost wish I hadn’t. But whichever way you tackle it, don;'‘t let the chance slip by.
time was, people complained that Tv was dominated by men - producers, writers, actors, and so it was. But some things change for the better, and channel 4s “I am…” series is really good news. It’s a gorgeous idea, for a start. Male writer gets together with female actor and says “what do you care about?” They talk, and work out an idea for a one-hour drama, which he then writes and she stars in. Given that the three actors are Vicki McClure, Samantha Morton and Gemma Chan, the results are very much worth watching. They’re very different, and some better than others (I thought Gemma Chan’s was terrific) but streets ahead of your average TV drama fodder. At a time when there really isn’t that much being transmitted that I want to watch, this has been a godsend. Catch them on All 4 while you can - “I am Nicola…Kirsty…Hannah.”
Maybe I shouldn’t have watched. I’ve thought and read about this, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new, but Thursday’s documentary review of the Brexit negotiations was still hugely depressing. All it did was spell out in remorseless detail, again and again, how incompetent we had been at every stage. European partners, who had thought of us as intelligent and responsible operators, looked on in disbelief, as it slowly dawned on them - “No, they haven’t got a clue. They don’t what they want. They don’t know where they’re going.” Every one who spoke from Europe, and especially from Ireland, was thoughtful, perceptive and illuminating, while the Brits were just floundering around,striking poses and looking at themselves in the mirror.
There was one brief, striking moment of illumination. Theresa May, visiting Northern Ireland, glot a close-up look at what “no deal” would mean to particular people and businesses there - and it cured her of the “no deal is better than a bad deal” nonsense, which she no longer spouted after that particular epiphany. But such wisdom was occasional and late, and we are surely screwed.
i’m not that bothered about cricket. My wife and son are both a lot keener than I am, but he’d been at Edgbaston to see England thrash Australia in the semi-final, so I was having a leisurely day and thought I might as well check in to see if cricket was finally “coming home”, as the wistful patriots love to sing. Oh boy,.what a game. I suppose I started with a “Can we please do it? Just for once?” kind of feeling, but ended up totally gutted for New Zealand. all the luck there was went against them. Yes, both teams ended up with the same total in normal play, but 12 of England’s was from two freak sixes - a catch where the fielder trod on the boundary board a nanosecond before he passed it to someone else, and then then ludicrous 2 plus 4 contrived by the ball hitting Stoke’s bat as he charged into the crease, diverting it for an extra four runs. Before that the New Zealanders had been incredibly impressive, defending what looked like a puny total with tigerish teamwork. Joe Root, an impressive and attractive run-maker throughout the competition, was reduced to a wildly belligerent schoolboy, determined to get himself out through sheer frustration. Watching Kane Williamson do the magic captain thing, organising and encouraging his team, was really impressive - as was the dignity with which he coped with an outrageous conclusion to the match,. Now that;’s sportsmanship.
I really didn’t want to watch this. I hated the whole hassle about adopting or not adopting various definitions of anti-semitism, and i’m sure that the Israeli lobby exerts a powerful force on such debates, but I didn’t know enough what had been going on in the Labour Party, so I thought I’d educate myself.
Oh boy. To start with what seems definite. The change in Labour Party membership has led to a change in tone, an increased willingness to resort to “Zionist” as a term of abuse. The programme gathered together a series of young Jewish members, and - even more crucially - a succession of young campaigners who were seriously committed to the grinding business of exploring allegations of anti-semitism, and of ensuring that they were thoroughly investigated. As a group, I thought they were admirable and convincing, and I believed their cumulative account of a party leadership that had regularly intervened to stop them doing their job. And who, in the process, imposed pressures on them which led to resignation and mental illness.
But the most depressing aspect of this is the leadership’s response. No, they weren’t coming on the programme.( One innocent lower flunky did appear, but only to insist in the vaguest possible terms about how totally he and Jeremy were opposed to anything nasty). The allegations came from disappointed Blairites, disaffected members who had never fully believed in Jeremy - and Jeremy, as we all know, has always been a beacon of hope and light. He may not be personally anti-semitic, but he is a crap manager of people, and if he’s allowed his immediate entourage to infect party procedures in the way this programme describes, then he deserves everything he gets. Not great news for the rest of us, or for any hopes of an alternative government, but here you go. They never said it would be easy.
Watching the great debate between potential prime ministers, it seemed at the time a crucial moment. Hunt says that he backs Kim Darroch, the UK ambassador to the US, despite Trump’s insulting personal attacks. which way will Johnson jump? He won’t jump. He’ll bluster, as usual, and later he’ll say he was misrepresented, misunderstood, like he al;ways does, but he won’t bite the bullet and say Trump has got this wrong, and we stand by our diplomats.
So when, next day, Kim Darroch resigns - partly because of Johnson’s failure to back him - there’s a kind of satisfaction in watching Johnson squirm, at seeing him have to confront the consequences of his self-obsessed entitlement. In any normal world, the notion that he might be the best person to be our Prime Minister is patently ridiculous, but this is the asylum and the lunatics are in charge.
So we’ve come to the end of the line. The plucky Lionesses have come to the World Cup,reached the smi-final, but are now going home. and that’s OK. They weren’t the best team, and they have done well, and it has been a pleasure to sit through a number of games of women’s football - which is something I’ve never done before.
Early on, I wasn’t convinced. We seemed to give the ball away so much, not be able to sustain concentration or teamwork, that i couldn’t see us beating any team of any quality. Watching Norway beat Australia, for instance, I though “either of these are a lot better than us.” But then, when it comes to Englan v. Norway, they manage to turn it on. They chase around the field, harass the Norwegians out of possession, and produce some fast, flowing movements which create great goals.
The USA, however, were a step too far. Too tough, too canny, too consistent. when the commentator was cooing about Steph Houghton’s courage in stepping up to take the crucial penalty, you knew we weren’t quite up to it. sod her courage, where’s her common sense? It was a pathetic penalty, and she should have known she wasn’t in the state to take it. If that had been Megan Rapinoe, it wouldn’t have bobbled along the ground. so we’re not the best in the world, but it was fun while it lasted. r
There’s something about actors of your own age, especially when you both start young and get to be over 70. As a student in 1966 i never dreamed that the smart, tough young woman who leapt off the screen in Talking to a Stranger would end up as an eminent dame, but there you go. It’s been a pleasure to watch most of what she does, and i wish her well in a vague sort of way - which made it all the more poignant to read about her vanishing sight. she’s had to give up driving, because she’s a threat to other people, though the loss of independence is heartbreaking - as it was for my dad, and will be for me, when the time comes. she has to get other people to read her lines to her when she learns them, and that can’t be easy. And as she gets older she has to re-evaluate the past, as we all do. To recognise that Weinstein and spacey seem to have committed serious crimes - but still wanting to hold on to the quality of work that they made possible. It’s true what they say, Judi, life’s a bitch, and then you die. but it’s good to do it in such company.
No, I really didn’t fancy a five-hour series about Margaret Thatcher, lived through all that, thank you, andlife’ depressing enough. But the good thing about the current catch-up regime is that it allows you to have second thoughts, to be persuaded by rave reviews to overcome initial prejudices, and give something a try which you didn’t originally fancy.
And yes, it was worth it. as with many of these current documentary series, they’ve amassed a ton of first-hand testimony from key participants, and have ditched the omnisicent anchor offering their distinctive take on what happened and why. The downside of that is that there’s rather too much Bernard Ingham, lamenting how her courtiers didn’t have the guts to stand by her - even when she was visibly wandering over the edge.
And that’s the big revelation - the speed at which she lost her crude but powerful political instincts, and slid into mania. Insisting that Tebbitt should become chair of the party (though he and they clearly knew that wasn’t the right job for him) but then seeing succession potential plots in any move by any member of her government - paranoia running riot. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt sorry for Tebbit - but i’m not promising that will happen again.
And suddenly it’s gone. This wonderful feast of television, with us for an hour a night, over three spell-binding nights, and now we have to wait another seven years for it to come round again. It’s not fair. but we should be grateful, because there’s nothing quite like it.
You sympathise with the subjects, and the onrunning internal debate about “Can I really stand to do this again?” We might well refuse for ourselves, but we don’t want them to, because it’s just such a rivetting watch. The editing is stunning, taking you seamlessly back over these staging points of lives, so that we kids ourselves that we know these people, where in fact we’ve just had very brief glimpses.
But what glimpses. who’d have guessed that two Barnardo’s boys in adjacent beds would end up with warm links between their families, undertaking regular visits between here and Australia. Or that a plummy, superior young man with a posh accent would turn out to have a very soft spot for Bulgaria, and would put in hours of work to support people without his advantages? We age, they age, and it’s hugely comforting to do it together.
The original narrow "social class aspect has withered, rightly, but what stands out over time is the gender-based insensitivity of some of Apted’s earlier questioning. Rightly, some of the women challenge him on his nosiness about boyfriends, his assumption that family and children would be the limit of their horizons - but they know him well enough to do that, and he knows it’s good TV so it stays in. we’re all getting old, and some of them are dying off, but while it lasts we’re lucky to have it.
Tv drama is a bit like London buses - nothing for ages, and then suddenly there’s three at once. Just at the moment there’s series I really want to watch each time they come round, and it’s not often I say that. Gentleman Jack are both terrific in very different ways, but for me the pick is Years and Years. Russell T.Davies has always been really entertaining, rebellious and witty, but this is a huge departure. Political satire, for a start, spreading ambitiously into the future, building on what’s happening here and now and how it might develop - so hard to attempt that without seeming pretentious. and bits of it are scary without the whole thing just being depressing - because he loves his people, and has a weird, surefooted sense about how families work. the combination of characters and story lines might seem far too much for one show, but with this cast and this script it’s a pleasure to watch. I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
A week ago, I did a post about the glories of BT sport. How little I knew. whatever we saw last week was just the hors ‘d’oeuvres, a preamble to this week’s main course, although sadly I almost missed it all. Teusday I went to a poetry reading, organised by a friend, support a good cause…As I sadi to a fellow fan, if Liverpool had lost 1-0 last week, it woul’ld have been a harder decision. I thought they might score a few goals. I never dreamed they’d keep a cl;ean sheet. Messi? Suarez?
Wednesday night I was at home, so I could watch tottenham try to overtake Ajax. after 45 minutes it was embarrassing. Ajax held on to the ball, passed their way out of trouble, Spurs huffed and puffed, but couldn’t put anything together and never looked like threatening to reduce the lead. So I closed down the upstairs computer, and went down to be sociable, and watch a documentary about Brexit. (which was, as it happens, less than ordinary). Then I watch the ten o’clock news, and find out that Lucas Moura has scored a second half hat-trick. The European Cup final will be Liverpool v. Spurs.
Luckily, in these days of catch up, you never actually miss anything, and it’s easy to relive it, even if not the same as seeing it live - see last week. Two totally different games, different kiinds of triumph, and in both cases it was really close - Barcelon and Ajax both had chances to make the pressure even worse. But you have to hand it to them - for keeping going, for believing, for giving everything for the fans…Just amazing. and it’s quite possible to celebrate that without turning it into some kind of jingoistic faith that England rules the waves.
Oh, the hype, the excitement, the viewing figures…Is Hastings H? Or is it one of the other five characters whose name also starts with H. Actually, I care very little. I’ve been a Jed Mercurio fan since Cardiac Arrest, and earlier episodes of this (remember Keeley Hawes?) have been rivetting. But I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for the current series, and I’m surprised by those who can. Lucy Mangan, airing some doubts in The Giuardian this week, actually started this series with a five star review, and I never thought it was that good.
What’s wrong? It’s partl;y that they’ve got obsessed with the whodunnit streak, the need to produce rabbits out of the hat at regular intervals. so the wonderful Anna Maxwell Martin is given a cardboardy kind of pushy promted officer, with two staff - one of whom shesack for incompetence, the other of whom turns out to be a hired killer working for the crooks. Yeah, police routine as usual.
But the real problem is the key player, and the perfunctory treatment of their personal lives. The possible tension between Kate and Steve (she got promoted. he didn’t - why?) isn’t explored, but we get very skimpy glances at their private lives. She’s having trouble in her marriage, he’s finding ti hard to have sex..but hey, let’s move back tot hew whodunnit and the latest twist. Back in the days of Keeley Hawes we explored this stuff properly. and then there’s Hastings. He’s made to lurk around in his office, looking sinister, to fuel the “is he H?” suspicion. But when he’s arrested he’s blustering like a fool. A senior officer would surely have more clue how this process works, and would be thinking hard about what’s actually going on. Yeah, it was great while it lasted, but maybe it’s gone on long enough.
God knows there have been times when I could happily have consigned the entire BT operation into a deep volcano - but not this week. This week I’ve watched, in full, Tottenham v. Ajax, Barcelona v. Liverpool, and Arsenal v. Valencia - and it’s been sheer joy. in the old days it would have been very condensed highlights on BBC or ITV, but now, in retirement leisure, I can squander the whole evening to watch the drama unfold in real time, and over these three particular matches that’s been a delight. That way, you can watch the drama of how teams and managers change what they’re doing - how Tottenham start as total no-hopers, utterly outclassed, and then - by tactical changes and sheer effort - make themselves competitive again. Arsenal, very similar, give away a crumby early goal and seem about to throw it all away, again, until somehow they don’t, and produce fast, stylish attacks which lead to goals and - eventually - an almost healthy result. And then there’s Barcelona. the electric surprise of that opening goal, a breakaway in a tough, tense opening which suddenly changes the whole picture. and massive effort from Liverpool;, fighting their way back into contention, before lucky bounces and ricochets give Barcelona a second, and then - the magic of Messi - an unbelievable third. there is no justice. 3-0 as a scoreline for this game is scandalous. But you have to watch it in full to really grasp that truth. so, despite the adverts and the endless self-congratulatory promotion, thank you, BT sport.
Ok, so the US has a game show ghost; why shouldn’t Ukraine have a comedian? It’s really hard to know how to take this news, and it’s not made more hopeful by the fact that this young guy, superficially entertaining and ttractive, is dependent on the backing of a serious oligarch. “I promise I won’t mess it up” he says, as though good intentions were all that’s required. does he have any notion of what he’s taking on, and of how much is currently threatening Ukraine?
But it could be worse. He’s not a Putin puppet, that’s for sure. Putin didn’t congratulate him on his election, and he did go out of his way to stress that his victory showed other ex-Russian federation states that anything was possible. I don’t suppose that went down well in Moscow. And however much you disapprove of the razz-ma-tazz and jokey superficiality of the atmosphere, at least there’s an unpredictable spontaneity about proceedings which will look very strange - and maybe quite appealing - to any Russians who get to follow what’s happening. No, it’s not a happy ending, and yes, he could well get pushed around, but it’s not just Russian business as usual, and the Ukrainians deserve something chirpy to boost their spirits. It’s not as though the West have given them much to cheer about over the last five years.
Ever since my knees got worse and I stopped venturing out of the house to go for a walk, I’ve watched a lot more sport. Soon after my double knee replacement I signed up to BT sport, and have never regretted it. I get the European football, regular premiership rugby, and this weekend the quarter-finals of the rugby European Cup. and look, the nice kind people at BT sport arrange the matches so that they don’t clash - if I want to, and this weekend I do, I can sit and watch all four. They’ve been rivetting, but with true dramatic skill they made sure that they saved the best for last. Toulouse had their fly-half sent off for a high tackle after twenty minutes, but still hung on to beat Racing 92 by a single point, after some breathtaking rugby and thousands of twists and turns which might easily have gone the other way.
and at the heart of all this was Luke Pearce, who likes like a well-behaved sixth former, but is consistently clear, appolite and apparently lacking in ego - he just wants to get the decisions right. and he does. He makes good use of the TMO, he isn’t stampeded into rash decisions which might please a volatile and partisan crowd, and in the opinion of people who know (Brian O’Driscoll, Lawrence Dallaglio) he gets them all right. He talks to his touch judges in English, but to the French plays in French, and all in all is just a brilliant example of how to be English abroad. Politicians please note.
Not sure if there’s anything on TV? Just go to BBC iplayer, look up Storyville, and then watch anything they’ve got. I’ve seen some wonderful stuff on there over the last year, and really can’t remember watching anything of theirs that I regretted. This was deeply topical - a look at The Cleaners, the people who police social media, to decide which posts and images should stay up, and which should be taken down. Not exactly ideal working conditions. They sit in a booth, flicking through images, saying “ignore…ignore…delete….ignore…delete…” with a target of 25,000 images a day. some of them have high ideals, about the need for the work they do and the social service they’re performing, but over the course of the documentary it’s very clear that there’s a huge cost - just watching this stuff - the pornography, the violent images of terrorism - is really depressing, quite apart from the pressure of having to make thousands of decisions against the clock. and these are not relaxed intellectuals sitting in California laying down the rules. They’re shift workers in Manila; if they weren’t doing this they’d be sifting rubbish from the piles of garbage that litter the outskirts of town, and the documentary makes clear that these alternative occupations are nothing like as different as we might like to think. not pleasant, not simple, but necessary viewing.
Oh, biy. ever since going out for a walk has stopped being an option, I’ve settled for watching most of the Six Nations matches - while they’re still available to mainstream TV. Saturday, March 16 was the best day’s rugby-watching I can rmember for a while. Plucky dogged Italy, with thwe wonderful Parisse playing his heart out as ever, deserving a win at last but not getting it - with a bright young three quarter grinning widely as he dioves over for the winning try - but fails to touch it down. Wales grinding out their fourth win, rarely entertaining but incredibly difficult to beat, and in the process deflating an Irish side which last year looked invincible. Is that really Johnny Sexton looking hopelessly outclassed?
And then there’s England. for forty minutes they look far and away the best side in Europe, with Sotland embarrasing also-rans. Half time. Switch round. Both switch round. Scotland are fast, brave, incisive. England are lumbering, blundering, incompetent. 31 - 00 to 31-31, to 31-38 to Scotland. Finally, jones realises that Farrell is not the answer but the problem, and George Ford comes on to rescue us, but it’s mighty close. and the imperious Elliott Daly, irresistible in attack,is almost useful in defence. so many fascinating little cmaeos, and future decisions to be made, because beyond this introcate, complex drama lies the fascination of the World Cup…Bring it on. I can hardly wait.
Four hours of documentary about a celebrity paedophile - what’s not to like? Actually, it’s brilliant. the two central guys (both victims of Michael Jackson as young boys) are rivetting - thoughtful, honest, fair. They pay tribute to Jackson’s talent, enthusiasm encouragement of their talent, and to the good sides of what in some ways they still see as an intimate, loving relationship. But as the documentary unfolds we also got the views of their mothers, partners and relatives, and the devious way in which Jackson seduced whole families, and then used that as a lever to bully his victimes into isolation and submission. Even after the boys have become young men, and Jackson’s moved on to younger boys, he exploits the link - there’s a court case, he’s being accused, they need to testify that yhis relationship with them was innocent…And then there’s the toll on their mental health, of living with a lie, of repeatedly telling thier families that nothing happened (because if they don’t, Jackson has warned them, they’ll all go to prison for the rest of their lives).
Predictably, the Jackson machine has moved in to slander these two, to suggest that they lied before, and they’re lying now, because they want to make a bit of extra cash…I defy anyone to watch this balanced, thoughtul, detailed film and say “Yeah, they’re making it all up.”