Just for Play-Play: the best of catch-up TV

In Search of Science iPlayer (first episode available until 27 August)

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This Brian Cox fronted series was first shown but unfortunately missed back in 2013. Yes it’s all about scientific wonders, but as it deals with the history of British science pioneers there are fewer gorgeous desert sunsets and less opportunity for attractive lens flare than in most of his TV shows. The fascinating stories highlighted here show how science and public perception have often been at odds with each other. It was just Darwin and his monkeys offending public sensibility. The lesson here for all is the importance of proper public engagement – sharing knowledge and showing the benefits of new scientific breakthroughs to assuage any misgivings about strange and startling discoveries. Science needs good PR, and that’s just as true now with the outcry over GM crops as it was with Professor Giovanni Aldini whose research on corpses inspired Frankenstein.

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Bigger, better, brutal – it’s ‘Battlebots’!

 

Jontosaurus laments the loss of Robot Wars on the BBC, again, and finds his mechanical carnage a little bit further away from home…

‘Murica. Anything we can do, they can do better. And, in fairness, when it comes to any and all types of warfare, that statement is truer than most. It is sort of a stereotype attached to our friends across the pond that they like to do things bigger, better and brasher than we do. We laugh about it, but it is perhaps why they have gone on to become the superpowers they are. It is also undoubtedly the reason that a loudmouthed caricature such as Donald Trump can be legitimately voted into the highest political job in the United States. We could delve into the psychology of such things, or we could just take some time out to acknowledge that sometimes, bigger and bolder is undoubtedly better. Battlebots makes this statement true.

With the BBC harshly axing their rushed reboot of Robot Wars– sadly, understandably after its modest viewing figures- there is once again that gap in the UK television market for robotic carnage. And whilst Battlebots is a long way away from being prime time terrestrial viewing, it can hopefully fill that gap for some of us until the BBC inevitably reboot Robot Wars in a decade’s time and them promptly axe it again.

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Mechadon proving that everything really is bigger in America

Battlebots itself is a reboot of the old American television program that aired at around the same time as the UK’S Robot Wars did. Whilst America also has Robotica, a sort of Robotics Olympics, and also its own version of Robot Wars (presented by WWE’s Mick ‘Mankind’ Foley, God rest his soul), it was always Battlebots that epitomised everything the US combat robot scene had come to represent. Big, hulking, super-heavyweight robots fought each other in the arena, but instead of the house robots, the arena is instead filled with various hazards including a hammer that would make Thor’s Mjolnir blush at its own inadequacy, and some huge buzz saws that are sharper than a catty drag queen’s comebacks. Bouts are three minutes long and if you thought the UK’s efforts caused severe destruction, this is nothing in comparison to what the American competitors can manage.

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Eurovision 2018 – Grand Final Preview

Is it really that time of year already? Tonight I’ll take my seat with about 200 million viewers worldwide and watch the Eurovision Song Contest, taking place in Lisbon, Portugal. The £18 million show will see 26 countries go head-to-head with a diverse set of songs, and the vote will split between the public phone vote and their regional juries of pop-music experts. It’s three and a half hours of joyful silliness, amazing sets, outlandish costumes and dark mutterings about politics and the future of Europe. It’s a like a lavish wedding with all your strange and estranged relatives turning up in their most fabulous clothes, ready to get drunk, have a dance and air all those techy grievances. This powder keg is going to explode into a massive argument. There’s nothing you can do about it, so just enjoy the party.

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‘The City and the City’

“Nowhere else works like the cities”. This is the first line of BBC1’s new drama based on the 2009 ‘weird fiction’ novel by British author China Miéville, an exotically named man actually born in Norwich. His book has been adapted for TV by screen writer Tony Grisoni.

The cities in the title are Besźel, which looks like the Eastern Bloc of 30 plus years ago mixed with cafes and people from 1970s Istanbul and Ul Qoma which is glimpsed only briefly in the first episode. These streets look brighter, cleaner, and more advanced. The colour pallets are quite different in each city; dingy yellows for Besźel and clean blues for Ul Qoma. Like the inhabitants, the viewer always knows where they’re looking.

The two cities actually occupy much of the same geographical space, but the inhabitants wilfully ‘unsee’ the areas they’re not allowed to view. Early on Commissar Gadlem (Ron Cook) gets out his overhead projector, and lays two acetate maps on top of each other. That’s a good way to get your head around it.

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‘The Art of Japanese Life’

A long time ago, in a country far far away, I had a Japanese roommate. Manabu was lovely, a total gentleman, but not very chatty. I blame the language barrier, or maybe we just didn’t have that much in common. Eventually we bonded over injuries (his sporting, mine alcohol-related), microwave breakfast burritos (he loathed them, I loved them) and our two crazy little island homes. Comparing the UK and Japan is not as odd as it first sounds. Culturally and geographically we have a lot of shared aspects. We’re wilful independent island nations, who revere our daring histories of medieval knights and samurai warriors. Other countries are somewhat nervous around us as if you give us a flag and a gun we tend to get a little carried away and decide to go off and be a colonial invading force. Small countries, big ideas. Despite our macho military history, our national characters are reserved and polite, and we like to know our place in the social hierarchy. We’re the worlds best queuers!

Art historian Dr James Fox seems the similarities in our two nations, although sadly in this series on aesthetics and art in Japanese life, we are yet to hear his opinion on the breakfast burrito. This BAFTA nominated broadcaster has a day job in Cambridge University’s Art Department and first came to my attention presenting Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? on BBC4 in September 2016.

He’s an engaging, enthusiastic, and quite cheeky presenter. His trademark seems to be a sharp black suit and tie, ever ready for a funeral or a cocktail party. He’s really good at breaking down complex ideas about art, religion and society. These big ideas are discussed in simple terms. His passion for the subject shines through. And, pleasingly, as you’d expect from a BBC4 art show, this whole episode is beautifully shot and framed.

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‘Rich House, Poor House’

There’s no getting around it – Channel 5 has a reputation. It’s a scuzzy low-class broadcaster renowned for poverty porn. Let’s all point and laugh at the disadvantaged people in society. It’s their fault they’re poor, unemployed, stupid, ill, struggling with debt – delete as required. There are very few reasons to watch the channel at all. But the tone of the adverts for Rich House, Poor House was quite different. This programme was billed as an experiment in happiness. Would it be repellant Victorian slum tourism, or something more worthy?

In episode one we meet the Caddy and Williams families, both big families by the UK standard. The premise is that they swap homes, budgets and lives for a typical week. Each family is selected from the richest and poorest 10% of the UK.

The Williams are at the poor end of the spectrum. Mum Kayleigh and Dad Antony have 6 kids, a product of a blended family. They rent a house in a council estate in Weston Super Mare and proudly they announce they are not on benefits. They survive on just £110 per week after rent and bills. Only 22 miles away from them in frighfully middle-class Clifton live James and Claire Caddy with their 5 kids. The family is older than the Williams with some children at university. Their spending money is a frankly staggering £1700 per week, mainly I think thanks to young and hip looking Dad James with floppy Brian Cox hair who is semi-retired after selling his software company.

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‘Bull’

Bull is a stylish American legal drama series that started this month in the UK on Fox.

The bull of the title is Dr Jason Bull, a charming and sparky expert psychologist, played by Michael Weatherly, a familiar face to NCIS fans (of which, inexplicably there seems to be legion). Taking on a new case every week, we follow Dr Bull and his team of fellow ‘trial science’ experts as they use a combination of data, technology and good old-fashioned human intuition to produce a terrifyingly accurate assumption of a jury’s verdict. Apparently “he knows a jury better than they know themselves”. Dr Bull isn’t an entirely fictional creation – the show has been developed by American chat-show host Dr Phil (credited as an executive producer) and inspired by his early career.

So we’re neatly and quickly set up for skillful experts bamboozling the bad guys with their cleverness and helping the little people. I’m not quite sure how the little people will find the money to work with them, but never mind. Don’t let reality get in the way of a good story!

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