‘The Circle’ – Channel 4

The Circle is a new social media reality show, launched in the week that Channel 5 has finally confirmed what viewers have known for years. Big Brother, once the undisputed king of reality shows, is dead as a dodo. It’s strange times indeed in telly land. The Circle was trailed heavily on Channel 4 for weeks, with each advert being a full instruction manual for the show, not really helping the initial audience reaction that it was overly complicated. Then before and after every ad break the presenters Alice Levine (My Dad Wrote a Porno podcast, coming to HBO in 2019) and Maya Jama (dunno, off some youth radio show at a guess) took the opportunity to again explain the rules in painful detail. We get it  – you’re expecting the audience to be on the thicker end of the education spectrum.

So this is the start of three weeks of Alice and Maya talking about a bunch of people talking to themselves in their pokey little flats, sorry apartments, with an all-knowing Alexa console for company unless they’ve had the foresight to bring their own baby or  turtle for company. The twist on the classic Big Brother format is that they don’t ever meet face-to-face. All contact is conducted via a specially-designed social media platform – the eponymous Circle. The total number of contestants vying for the £50,000 prize is eight which is surely more than enough. But apparently people who get evicted get replaced! Dear God –  is this Black Mirror? Is three weeks actually eternity? Will it ever end?

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Alice and Maya explain the rules again, and again, and again – we’re none the wiser

So down to the fundamentals – how do you get people to like you? Are you true to yourself, as every Insta bio assure us is the way, the truth and the light, or are you more controlling of the image you portray to the world. Do you edit out your bad bits and concentrate on your good bits, both in your personality and your physicality or is it slightly repulsive to be so obviously manipulative? Is all this false advertising even ethical? Some of these contestants have said fuck ethics and they’re halfway to scamming retirees out of their pension as a sketchy African prince.

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‘The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice’ – Channel 4

With this new series of The Great British Bake Off Channel 4 is spoiling us. Can you remember way back to last year when we watched the first series after Love Productions split from the BBC through our fingers as the nation waited to be able to say “I told you it would be rubbish!”. Can you remember our collective confusion, bewilderment and joy because it was still good, maybe even better than before? It was very much the London 2012 Olympics of food-based competitive TV shows. What a glorious time to be alive (and able to properly digest gluten)!

And with Sandi, Noel, Prue and Paul making a glorious return to the tent on Tuesday nights there’s a new generous helping of sister show An Extra Slice on Fridays. Fortunately Jo Brand, the consummate professional that she is, was fine with the move from the Beeb to Channel 4 and nothing much changed at all. But now the show is settled the programme makers can confidently make some long-overdue changes. Extra Slice suffered because it always felt very rushed in the half hour format that Channel 4 inherited from Auntie Beeb, and of course the adverts we were all loath to accept ate into that time, so it was 23 minutes of telly at best. Speaking of adverts in Bake Off, who would have ever guessed we’d miss Dr Oetker and his choir of irritating singing cakes. Amazon spent £5 million on the prestigious slot to advertise the Echo and all they can come up with is forgettable line drawings? “Alexa show me an advert worthy of 6.1 million viewers”.

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‘The Bridge’ – Series 4, Episode 1

This is a full review of The Bridge: Series 4, Episode 1. Don’t read on unless you’re completely up-to-date on the BBC2 schedule.

Hey, you can come out from behind the cushion now. Is everyone ok? Take a deep breath, shake your fist at BBC2 for making you wait a whole week for the next episode and let’s process that remarkable hour of television.

So The Bridge is back with a bang, gleefully ramping up the tension, messing with our expectations of Saga and Henrik, all while introducing the usual cast of victims, ne’er-do-wells, and various hangers-on, some of whom will inevitably be added to the final body count.

We begin with a striking close up of Saga’s face, silent, dark and isolated. She wakes and sighs, remembering she’s in a nightmare she can’t escape from. She’s been in prison since the end of series 3 and I was worried her character development and personal resilience would be set back to zero but she’s doing her best. She awaits the outcome of her retrial for her manipulative mother’s murder. Remember she has a motive, no real alibi (she was set up to be alone in a graveyard when her mother died) and there was forensic evidence all stacked up against her. It sees a new witness has come forward, but Saga’s simple belief in right and wrong, and the power of the law has been firmly shaken. And she’s floundering. If she’s not a cop then where does that leave her. Without the job who is she?

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‘Roast Battle’ – Comedy Central

Comedy roast are not all that common in the UK, despite this being the home of the Archbishop of Banterbury, Bantom of the Opera and the Bantersaurus Rex (lads! lads! lads!). While we’re very much at home with taking the piss out of each other in the pub, the playground and all-office emails, this kind of vicious verbal sparring in front of an audience is a format that we’re just not used to in merry old England. We leave that to the Americans, and a proud history they have of it too. Instantly this new Comedy Central show is a bit out of step for the British audience looking for funnies, with a post-apocalyptic set, macho gunshot sound track, and the studio audience expected to shout and point as well as drink and laugh. It’s all a bit too much to believe we can multitask like this.

I love stand-up comedy, on tv and especially live (shout out to the excellent Fat Penguin club nights in Birmingham – if you’re in the Midlands check them out), but I turned this on and watched it through my fingers. I didn’t was this format to fail, but it was bound to be a disaster, right? As The Guardian said “Roast battles and insult comedy? No thanks, we’re British”. But despite the silly gunshot noises and the heavy reliance on Paper Planes by MIA, the battles themselves were not as aggressive as I’d thought. If anything the style is collaborative; usually solo comics acting as a team, building on each other’s jokes, laughing at themselves and visibly enjoying the experience. I was all set to hate it but the four comedians in the first episode did such a good job they quickly won me over.

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‘Armchair Detectives’ – BBC1

Guys, there’s been a murder! But fear not; it’s mid-afternoon on BBC1 so there’s no blood, no swearing and no one speaking Danish. Armchair Detectives is 100% safe for the squeamish. It’s a very unusual format, a quiz show Cluedo with Susan Calman as presenter and lead investigator. 15 members of the public sit jury-style as the studio audience from which three are picked each day to have their turn as the titular detectives. They are invited up to the drawing-room style stage to sit in fancy leather armchairs and work out whodunnit. The only person who doesn’t get to sit is Susan, despite having a chair placed behind her, which seems unfair given her legs must have taken a battering in the run-up to Strictly Come Dancing.

The contestants are all chatty and intelligent, and are probably the last people you want to watch Prime Suspect with as they’ll have smugly figured it all out at least 20 minutes before the credits roll.  And they’ll smile and say “aha!” and make you feel like a berk. Our first team of three include a librarian who loves the Lord Peter Wimsey books, a crime writer, and one is actually called Wisdom. I expect great things.

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‘Blind Date’

If I said to you, in a lyrical scouse accent “Number one, what’s your name and where do you come from?” would you know what on earth I was on about?

These magic words, filled with excitement and a certain frisson of romance were of course made famous by Cilla Black on the tv staple dating show Blind Date that ran from 1985 all the way up until 2003. At the height of its popularity in the 1980s, 18.2 million tuned in to ITV on a Saturday night to watch the excruciating, the charming, and the unlikely pairings who sometimes rode off into the sunset together.

Fourteen years on, the format has been faithfully resurrected by Channel 5. Paul O’Grady is a damn good fit for the role of presenter. Famously he and Cilla were great friends. The start of the show is a little tribute to Cilla. He jokes Blind Date was left to him in her will. He calls her the woman “who gave me two heart attacks and broke my nose in a Jacuzzi”. It was clearly a spectacular friendship.

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‘Dara O Briain’s Go 8 Bit’

Dara O Briain’s Go 8 Bit is a happy little comedy panel show/ game show hybrid which was originally created by comedians Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2013, and then transferred to television on Dave at the end of last year. The genial and very recognisable Dara Ó Briain is in the host’s chair, with Steve as Sam acting as team captains, and video game journalist Ellie Gibson as the resident expert. The show invites celebs to join the teams each week to play a series of video games against each other. These days I think the kids just call them ‘games’.

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The presenters’ 8-bit characters

I warmed up to this little Bejeweled Blitz gem last year and was happy to see it’s been recommissioned for a second and third series. More proof that with the internet fueling the mobile revolution and people in all age brackets spending more time in front of screens that gaming is no longer niche.  However Go 8 Bit knows its audience and is fondly retro and a warm nostalgic hug. The panelists are asked to come on and nominate their favorite games to play. They range from the ancient arcade classics to the modern commute time-killers, and from the massive studio franchise to the tiny indie developers. The games are adapted cleverly to make them TV friendly. Studio audience participation is encouraged where the audience bet on which team will win each game and that affects the overall points total.

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