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.
“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.
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.
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.
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!
Missing your Downton Abbey Sunday evening fix? Fancy a posh period drama? They don’t come any posher than this. Dramatist Peter Morgan (who wrote the film The Queen from 2006) offers us a new biographical series about Queen Elizabeth II and her family, disappointingly not called Keeping Up With The Windsors. It’s one of the most lavish and expensive period dramas ever made, and everyone who watches this sort of telly was startled to find out it wasn’t going to be broadcast on the BBC, the go-to broadcaster for Grandma-friendly programming. New commissioning behemoth Netflix apparently paid £100 million for the first 20 episodes, so you can see why the Beeb might have said no, in a year where they couldn’t find enough change down the sofa to keep Mel, Sue and Mary in their big tent.
I was excited to see that the purity of the Birmingham Literary Festival has been infiltrated this year by the lowly gogglebox. In amongst the bearded academics and the beat-boxing poets we find Walter Iuzzolino, the driving force behind the staggeringly successful world drama mission on Channel 4 and their streaming service All4. In just 9 months they’ve taken a chance on 24 series from around the globe and been rewarded with 15 million streams. That’s a lot of viewers.