QuickTakes: BBC: The Secret Files, My Life in Squares, Taskmaster, All Aboard! The Canal Trip

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I’ve been tidying my desk ahead of the August summer recess (more of which later) and thought I’d use the opportunity to add some very brief reviews of some programmes that aired this week – BBC: The Secret Files, My Life in Squares, Taskmaster, and All Aboard! The Canal Trip – that I ordinarily wouldn’t have got around to covering but which I think and hope may prove to be worth a moment or two of your time.

BBC: The Secret Files

secretfilesEvery big, long-standing institution has a document archive where decades of paper files go to die, and the BBC is no different. It seems that someone in the commissioning department had the bright idea of rifling through the Corporation’s collection of fading, yellowed correspondence and reams of talent scouting reports and thought that simply having them read out to a background montage of stock photographs and video clips would make for interesting viewing. And of course, they were perfectly right. BBC: The Secret Files wasn’t just interesting but also rather sweetly compelling, especially for those of us who grew up in an era when the likes of Arthur Lowe, Frankie Howerd, Ken Dodd and Derek Nimmo were household names – not to mention Penelope Keith who was the perfect choice of presenter for this unfussy, static but broadly absorbing hour of television that will surely appeal to anyone with even a little of the soul of a librarian within them.

It’s truly jaw-dropping to see just how many times the BBC management spectacularly botched their initial assessment of a prospective star: Bruce Forsythe is dismissed in internal correspondence as a third rate vaudeville entertainer of no interest, for example, which is staggering given that he went on to headline TV programmes over the course of five decades for both the BBC and its commercial rivals. It gives heart to anyone who has ever gone to an audition or job interview to know that even the best talents in the world get knocked down at the start, and that what makes the difference is the determination to get back up and prove the detractors wrong by darn well succeeding anyway. Even once they did, there was still every chance that they would fall foul of Auntie’s stuffy protocols, the BBC showing that it was just as bad then as now at handling top talent without alienating everyone concerned.

All the forms and procedures depicted did give me post-traumatic flashbacks to my own decade in the civil service, but despite the potential to find some hitherto unknown explosive ordinance in the files the programme is careful to keep things light. It’s notable who isn’t included in the programme given some of the recent post-Savile revelations that have made Top Of The Pops reruns such a problematic endeavour these days. Overall there’s a definite sense of BBC-boosting with an “only the Corporation could have done this” theme underlying the presentation – it’s as if this show is considered a key part in the opening round of exchanges with a hostile government in the battle over the BBC’s future.

That said, it’s unquestionably a future worth fighting for. The long history peeked at here in this thoroughly fascinating and entertaining if slightly superficial and safe delve into the archives plays a vital part in this discussion and shows what we stand to lose if the barbarians breach the gates of Broadcasting House and sell everything off to the Murdochs.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

BBC: The Secret Files aired on BBC4 on Monday, July 27 and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer as of time of writing.

My Life in Squares

lifeinsquaresI’m so clueless about the Bloomsbury Set that at one point while watching My Life in Squares I thought to myself, “this feels like Virginia Woolf should be in the story somewhere” – not realising that one of the two main sisterly characters in the show that I’d been watching for the last half hour, whose name was indeed Virginia, was on course to marry a certain Mr Leonard Woolf. D’oh.

Lacking any background, knowledge or frankly even that much interest in Woolf and the Bloomsbury Set in general meant that I was mainly watching BBC2’s three-part drama for the sake of the period décor (immaculate as always), the photography (gorgeous and dreamy) and the performances (outstanding and perfect across the board). Lydia Leonard plays Virginia and Phoebe Fox her sister Vanessa, with Eleanor Bron scene-stealing in her cameo as their sternly disapproving Aunt Mary. James Norton confirms the break-out star charisma he demonstrated in Happy Valley and Grantchester as artist Duncan Grant, and it must be disconcerting for ex-Spooks and Whitechapel star Rupert Penry-Jones to discover that he’s now apparently the go-to guy to play an older version of Norton after years of himself being the principal leading man.

Doubtless anyone who knows the story of the people depicted here will find it wonderful to see well-known, oft-told tales of their lives brought to life. Since I don’t know any of those stories, however, My Life in Squares felt to me to be somewhat aimless and directionless, a depiction of scenes from the lives of a group of people which overlap but never properly integrate. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a genuine fascination in a look at their strange existences, wildly scandalous as they were to their pre-World War One contemporaries and yet which to us today also seem oddly archaic – even though they’re simultaneously wholly unrepresentative of how we tend to think about people’s stuffy and uptight behaviour from that period.

It felt to me that the Bloomsbury Set represents something of a dead end in the evolution of social behaviour, a necessary short-lived off-shoot required to help break the old ways of doing things but not itself the road subsequently taken after the trauma of two world wars forced Britain to modernise whether it wished to or not. The Bloomsbury Set was a key part in laying the foundations for such change and My Life in Squares a good representation of how and why that came to be but it’s a perhaps little too superficial to really get its teeth into its subject. But never mind – just lie back and think of England as the various tangled relationships and sex lives unfold in tasteful but still fairly graphic detail.

Rating: ★ ★ ★

My Life in Squares continues on BBC2 on Mondays at 9pm.


taskmasterThere had been so many trailers for Taskmaster in the run up to this latest bit of original programming from Freeview channel Dave that I was almost sick to the back teeth of it by the time it finally premièred this week, and I came close to not watching on principle. But I gave it ten minutes, and before I noticed it had not only stolen another 50 minutes right out from under my nose it had also somehow inveigled its way into my DVR series link settings.

It’s basically the trials from I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here… but without the jungle, and also featuring a much nicer and far more home-spun set of challenges being presented to a group of five stand-ups consisting of Frank Skinner, Josh Widdicombe, Roisin Conarty, Romesh Ranganathan and Tim Key by the comedically imperious Greg Davies assisted by his wry admin monkey Alex Horne (who actually devised the show). In the first of six episodes the tasks consisted of eating as much watermelon as possible in 60 seconds; painting a picture of a horse while actually riding a horse; emptying a full bath of water without pulling the plug; and putting on a onesie while zipped up in a one-person tent. Oh, and a game of hide-and-seek for good measure.

Not only are all the people involved on top form and up for a laugh in a good-natured and genuinely fun show, the programme succeeds best by actually being a fascinating character study into the wildly different approaches taken by the contestants. In the first of the aforementioned tasks for example, Josh Widdicombe ambles into the room, cuts the intact watermelon with a knife he had the presence of mind to bring with him, and then calmly sits there spooning in the fruit as if attending a royal garden party. Roisin Conarty on the other hand forgets the knife and spends 54 seconds trying to find one, managing only one lick of the watermelon before the time is up. And then there’s Romesh Ranganathan who charges in, picks up the watermelon and smashes it on the ground and then spends the next 60 seconds on his hands and knees ramming so much down his throat that he almost chokes and vomits in the process. This is one seriously competitive psycho! The surprise is that the seemingly mild-manned Tim Key matches him every step of the way, and also shows a startling tendency to wildly cheat wherever possible in the name of winning.

I’m not entirely sure how many more episodes I would have ordinarily come back for, but the news that all five celebrities return for every show rather than the producers opting to tediously cycle through a new group every week makes it more of a must-keep-seeing show than I would have possibly guessed. It’s surely worth coming back just to see if Frank Skinner can keep up with the youngsters and how Ranganathan and Key will continue their furious rampage; whether Conarty will ever find a task she has an aptitude for; and if Widdicombe will finally manage to discover his inner killer instinct or whether he is doomed to be the nice guy perennially finishing near-last.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Taskmaster continues on Dave on Tuesdays at 10pm.

All Aboard! The Canal Trip

allaboardOriginally shown in May, the audaciously understated All Aboard! The Canal Trip got another outing this week on BBC Four and is well worth a recommendation. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really must give it a try.

Basically the idea is to stick a static camera on the prow of a long boat traversing the length of the Kennet and Avon Canal. And, err, that’s it really. One hour and forty minutes of gently travelling along the waterways, watching the scenery go past together with the occasional walker or cyclist on the tow path and fellow boater coming down the canal from the other direction. There’s no narration or music, although some static captions are artfully integrated into the visuals, themselves drifting past as they impart information of local interest. Every now and then the programme really pushes the boat out (sorry) and inserts a little FX sequence to show a black-and-white flashback to how the same scene would have looked a hundred years ago, and the effect is oddly unnerving as if we’re seeing long-dead ghosts materialise before our eyes as they obligingly come down to the water’s edge to see us float past.

It really shouldn’t work. At best it’s the kind of novelty that you might watch for ten minutes and then get bored with and turn over to the latest guns-blazing cop show on Sky. But instead it’s hypnotic and captivating, spellbinding in the truest sense of the word. By the time the point of view suddenly switches at the very end to an airborne drone which pulls up high into the sky to show an ever-diminishing canal boat in the foreground, looking back at the long thin ribbon of water that we’ve just travelled through in intimate detail all recede into the distance, there is a real wrench and sense of loss as we pull free of our moorings (again, sorry) and bid farewell to our temporary floating home.

It’s quite brilliant. A work of art that cleanses the soul. It educates, entertains and informs and is the kind of thing that only the BBC would have ever dared to produce, and then only when it has a channel like BBC Four to air such experiments on. As far as cases go for how important the continued survival of the BBC is in its current form, All Aboard! The Canal Trip makes even BBC: The Secret Files look crass and obvious in its advocacy while at the same time being also ten times more effective.

A true one-off to be valued and revisited for years to come.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

All Aboard! was re-aired on BBC Four on Wednesday, July 29 and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer as of time of writing.

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