‘Stephen Fry in Central America’ – On the Box

Stephen Fry in Central America (ITV)

Photo: ITV

Repeat warning: Haven’t we seen this somewhere very recently? Yes, yes we have.  It was Dara and Ed’s Great Big Adventure (BBC2) in which Dara O Briain and Ed Byrne drove the length of Central America in the footsteps of pioneering journalists who braved the then wild Pan American Highway. And sadly for Stephen Fry, the Irish comics did it better – they had more fun and seemingly a better connection with the people they met. Fry straddled a gulf between sincere and aloof. He was at a massive protest march in Mexico City marking the disappearance and probable massacre of 43 students and he found it very moving. He was genuinely upset, but this was undermined by a lack of explanation, or follow up with the protestors or anyone involved. All we got were his thoughts and observations as an outsider. It wasn’t enough. Two minutes later and we were back on the road again and Mexico City was forgotten. It was a real shame as you can’t fault Fry for a lack of curiosity.

I’m looking forward to watching Sue Perkins on Kolkata. She was a revelation on the Mekong River – a travel guide who wanted to give you an insight longer than a few scribbles on the back of a postcard. She had conflicting feelings towards the countries she travelled through and the aspirations of the people she met, and wasn’t afraid to make that clear on camera. There was a depth and breadth to her travels that maybe 60 minutes without adverts on the BBC could offer but ITV couldn’t.

‘Time Crashers’ – On the Box

Time Crashers (Channel 4)

Photo: BBC

Repeat warning: Haven’t we seen this somewhere very recently? Yes, yes we have. It was 24 Hours in the Past (BBC2) in which celebrities and assorted household names get to grips with various levels of society in Victorian Britain. Basically an excuse to watch people doing necessary but unpleasant jobs with horse manure and saltpeter. I sighed at another repeated format and watched Time Crashers anyway. I did enjoy it more, perhaps only because Ann Widdecombe wasn’t in it, pretending to be a socialist revolutionary while dressed as Widow Twankey. I like a pantomime as much as the next Brit, but come on, we’re not falling for that from a Conservative MP.

I understand people are naturally squeamish to things that we’ve been conditioned to see as revolting or dangerous (uncooked meat, waste products, Conservative MPs) but if one more woman accepts a job in a precise historical reenactment of an Elizabethan kitchen and cries at having to skin an ickle animal I will hurl my Deluxe Meat Feast pizza at the tv. I’m not saying that I could do it; I’d be anxious about my very poor knife skills and making a right mess of the food and possibly my hand, but if I thought I might freak out I wouldn’t agree to be on the show in the first place! Fortunately the cameras didn’t make much of the blubbing and moved away from celeb heartache and on to show the strangeness of the rituals associated with the lavish dinner and how much hard work the servants at every level had to put in to make the occasion a success. Next week it’s off to squire for knights at a joust in 1468. I will be watching.

Being a Human

I never used to get sci-fi. Our relationship didn’t start out well. I was one of those kids who have never seen Star Wars (this was rectified at the age of 21) and the guff that my brother used to watch on the BBC (in what became The Simpsons time-slot) was just awful. He loved Stargate (this is a fact, but he tells me that wasn’t on tv when we were kids – I mean Farscape. This is proof of how much attention I paid). I thought it was toss. He’d watch re-runs of Star Trek: The Next Generation until the galactic space-cows came home, I was sick to death of it. Every week it was the same old crud – distress call! aliens! they’re so strange and mysterious! they’re evil! or are they?! are they in fact… JUST LIKE US?!!1!! The moral message was always writ large in heavy-handed caps lock because this was MEANINGFUL and IMPORTANT and despite trudging through tired old tropes every week, watching the programme made you a BETTER PERSON. (You may be wondering why I suffered through this week after week – why didn’t I just watch something else? Readers, we were a one tv household until well after I left for university, and the internet didn’t exist. What was I supposed to do – go outside and get some healthful exercise?!)

Maybe the problem was that I came to sci-fi in the ’90s when the shiny chrome spaceships had tarnished. There wasn’t even the Doctor to save the world – my fondness for Ace’s leather jacket and Sylvester McCoy’s umbrella wasn’t enough to hold my attention or even keep the show on the air. The genre was ripe for satire and that’s where I got my fix. I adored Red Dwarf in all its glory – rude, gritty, sentimental, ridiculous, hilarious – and really enjoyed Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct with its friendly bug-eyed alien police officers and flying cop cars.


So with these prejudices still shadowing me all these years later I saw the trailer for Humans on Channel 4 earlier this summer and yawned. Androids. Sentient androids. Making a heavy-handed and laboured point about our essential humanity. Bound to be a cheesy American import. YAWN. But I saw the cast had some great actors in it, and it was a British show. I was intrigued. I put the first episode on and quickly powered through the whole series. It was proper sci-fi, and it was great!


It was a series about what makes us human, but the message was subtle, intelligent and never dumbed down. It was a dark drama about love and fear and family. The plots were slow, but that made the action, when it came, all the more shocking. The characters had depth and were terrifically well cast, especially Katherine Parkinson as the struggling Mum and Emily Berrington and Gemma Chan as two very different androids from the same family. It was as if it could all happen tomorrow; a freakishly strange and yet entirely possible future for our tech-obsessed humanity. If I’d known that Channel 4 had pulled an ad stunt for the show with actors in London playing ‘real’ androids ready and available for you to purchase from a fake shopfront for Persona Synthetics backed up with a goose-pimple inducing advert I wouldn’t have been so negative about it initially. I like it when things get a little weird.

This year I made a conscious decision to branch out and find sci-fi worth reading (A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) because it turns out, it isn’t all the same. There’s freshness and variety out there if you know where to look. I still prefer swords to laser blasters and castles to spaceships but after having my preconceptions crushed by Humans I’m happy to timidly peek at what else is on offer on Netflix or SyFy. I’m not sure that I’ll ever boldly go.


There’s too much on!


Perhaps you already know that I am addicted to the news, in all formats – tv, websites, social media and old-fashioned bits of dead tree covered in ink. But that’s not my only passion. My other love is television, a constant companion throughout my life – teacher, traveller, friend but sometimes a shameful associate to be denied and scorned.

A friend was telling me how his one major criteria for women he dates is that they have to be passionate about something. It doesn’t matter if her interests align with yours or not, rather that she can get excited and wildly enthusiastic about something she loves and that she wants to share that joy with you – probably with loud emphatic language and a lot of crazy big hand gestures.

Couch potato, telly addict, square eyes – do you remember being called those names? Fifteen, maybe even ten years ago I can’t imagine being praised for my passions if I told people how much TV I watch. The amount of hours spent in front of the tv is a bit like when you go to the doctors when they ask you about how much you drink, you say “Me Doctor? Well, barely anything. Perhaps the occasional sherry at Christmas or a small glass of low-alcohol wine with dinner”, conveniently forgetting the 14 pint bender you only just survived last Friday.

But thanks to a spike in quality and supported by the twin miracles of streaming and box-sets, hours in front of the tv no longer seem like wasted time. If you reveal your weekend telly bender to a colleague on Monday morning, likely as not, they will acknowledge your achievement with due respect and then tell you what you should watch next. In fact, we may be at peak tv especially when it comes to good American dramas – there’s just too much to watch! There’s stuff from years ago that you bought on DVD and you must get around to watching (The Sopranos, The Wire, The West Wing) stuff that your friends and social media seems to go crazy for (Girls, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad) and shows that are just starting that you might become a fan of (Fear of Walking Dead, Aquarius, The Leftovers). Take your eye off the tube for a couple of weeks and there’s suddenly a list of twelve hours of tv on your planner. The total ticks upwards every week and there’s no time to watch it all. Sad to say, sometimes I delete them all off the planner and think ‘I’ll catch it another time’ because it’s too intimidating to even begin. And if you find yourself going home and watching Pointless, Hollyoaks or any one of 74 programmes on the BBC about antiques you wriggle in your seat uncomfortably wondering if you could be better spending your precious viewing time. It’s a problem that even John Landgraf, CEO of the channel FX has acknowledged.

Far be it from me though to hope for an end to this golden age. We have to learn to be more discerning viewers. I love reading too, but I don’t get stressed by the number of books in the library that I haven’t read yet. We have to approach tv from a different angle and think about it in a different way. Now let’s have a look at the Radio Times – what’s on tonight that’s good?