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TV PREVIEW: Who Do You Think You Are? + Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play For Today

Who Do You Think You Are? (Copyright BBC. Photographer: Stephen Perry)
Who Do You Think You Are? (Copyright BBC. Photographer: Stephen Perry)

This week, Paul travels with the Doctor as she investigates her troubling family history, and celebrates one of British television’s greatest achievements… 



Monday, BBC One, 9pm

There are only four episodes in this new series of the popular genealogical treasure hunt. There would’ve been more, but, well,  you know why there aren’t. In episode one, Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker returns to rural West Yorkshire to find out more about her paternal grandmother, the glamorous Greta. She eventually finds herself in a former First World War military hospital, where she looks understandably nervous during a male historian’s weirdly enthusiastic display of sword-wielding warfare. Perhaps inevitably, she ends up in a Yorkshire coalmine where she uncovers grisly details about child labour and whip-cracking mine owners. She comes across as a lovely person whose working-class socialist values are troubled by her discoveries. The past is neither neat nor kind.


Monday, BBC Four, 9pm

Drama Out of a Crisis: A Celebration of Play for Today (Copyright BBC)

Between 1970 and 1984, the BBC’s often controversial Play for Today strand hosted more than three hundred single dramas. Their broad remit: to challenge and innovate. This stellar documentary is a labour of love, a celebration and an elegy. Notable PFT contributors included Alan Clarke, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach (the latter two appear as talking heads). All white men, but this is addressed with a third-act chapter on emerging black, Asian and women writer/directors. The 90-minute running time allows for a wide-ranging dissection of the various genres it encompassed. There was more to PFT than social-realism. It was undoubtedly left-wing, and all the better for it, but those great writers weren’t polemicists, they were dramatists first and foremost. We will not see its likes again.


Monday and Tuesday, STV, 9pm

John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue (Copyright ITV)

Journeyman comedian John Bishop is a nice fella, as evinced by this touching two-part documentary in which he assists in the logistically fraught release of two captive Beluga whales from a water park in Shanghai. Following a difficult journey via land, air and sea, they will eventually be returned to their natural habitat in Iceland. Little White and Little Grey are beautiful creatures who have been in captivity their entire lives. The issue of why the park’s new owners have decided to release them is never directly confronted in episode one (episode two wasn’t available for preview), but one hopes it’s part of a wider plan to abolish, or at the very least reduce the scale of, these aquatic prisons. Animals don’t exist for our entertainment. Apart from cats, obviously.


Monday, Channel 4, 10pm

Adult Material (Copyright Channel 4)

Last week, as you may recall, I mentioned that this frank comedy-drama about the adult entertainment industry is a difficult thing to describe in a family newspaper. But it’s excellent. Purposely bold, difficult and humane, Adult Material feels like an honest appraisal of the porn world. It confronts the blatant hypocrisy that performers such as Jolene (a soulful, layered turn from Hayley Squires) endure daily. She’s a working-class woman who has earned a good living “from something I love.” She’s given her children more opportunities in life than she ever had. But she’s not perfect. No one is. Episode two continues to explore the impact Jolene’s career has on her family life, while digging deeper into her complex relationship with a porn Svengali (Rupert Everett, unrecognisable). It’s funny. And bleak. It lingers.


Tuesday, BBC One, 9pm

Life (Copyright BBC)

One of the many commendable things about this semi-spin-off from Mike Bartlett’s Doctor Foster, is that you don’t need to have seen Doctor Foster to enjoy it. Life is its own thing (coincidentally the title of my new soul-jazz concept LP). Bartlett, like all good dramatists, appreciates the instinctive impact of stories in which characters discover that trusted loved one weren’t all they appeared to be. But sometimes there is hope. The storyline involving Peter Davison’s self-serving bully and Alison Steadman as his wife, who has been ground down by decades of ‘jokes’, is one of the best pieces of drama I’ve seen on TV this year. Great writing, great performances. All six episodes are available on iPlayer.


Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm

Donald Trump is a liar, a bully, a bigot, a baby, an idiot. These aren’t glib insults, they’re drily factual assessments of his character. This riveting series examines his first (and hopefully only) term as President. It features contributions from former insiders such as Steve Bannon and Sean Spicer – terrible people, but their insights may be valid – who help to paint a grim portrait of a lazy, facile, incompetent egomaniac who found himself hopelessly out of his depth when he got what he thought he wanted (just like Johnson). During his first eighteen months in office, it was a constant struggle to contain him as he frantically signed executive acts in an attempt to confound the news cycle. The Trump Show is a queasy churn of apocalyptic despair. This man is a catastrophe.


Thursday, Channel 4, 9pm

Taskmaster (Copyright Channel 4/Dave)

A deserved cult hit on digital Dave, Taskmaster is, along with Would I Lie to You?, the best comedy panel show on TV by some considerable margin. And here it is, making its Channel 4 debut. Fans needn’t worry, nothing has changed. Likeable hosts Greg Davies and Alex Horne instruct a panel of comedians to carry out a variety of ridiculous practical tasks, e.g. transporting some eggs into a receptacle without throwing them. The rules are deliberately loose: the contestants can basically do what they want, as long as they don’t blatantly fail. Part of the fun is working out how you’d complete the tasks yourself. Taskmaster is warm, silly and convivial, you won’t find a trace of competitive nastiness here.



Wednesday, Film4, 3:10pm

The Naked Truth (Copyright J. Arthur Rank Film Distributors)

Peter Sellers was one of the few bona fide genius comedy character actors. And he was at his best in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the success of Inspector Clouseau turned him into a Hollywood superstar. I adore those films, up to a point, but this is a great black comedy example of early, edgy Sellers; when he was still interested in acting, as opposed to just doing some funny turns. He plays a popular, wholesome, smarmy television host – pitched somewhere between Andy Stewart and Hughie Green – who ends up being blackmailed by Dennis Price. Entrepreneurial Terry-Thomas encourages the victims to gang up on him. It’s an absolute delight, a sly piece of satire.



Saturday October 3, BBC One

The Wall (Copyright BBC)

I love this daft Danny Dyer-fronted quiz show. Pure entertainment. The wall itself is a massive pegboard that drops balls into slots marked with cash amounts. If the contestants answer a general knowledge (although mostly pop culture-based) question correctly, the wall does its randomised stuff. The game works because it’s so simple and innately suspenseful, but Dyer is the selling point. He looks pasty and knackered, like he’s just woken up, but he’s harnessed that quiz host skill of appearing to actually care about the contestant’s fortunes. He addresses the wall as if it’s a sentient being: “Give us some big numbers, you mug!” His catchphrase is the amusingly half-baked, “Wall! Was it right, or was it wrong?” He looks happy when it’s right. And then he goes back to sleep, like a knackered cockney Bagpuss.


Sunday October 4, BBC Two

Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime (Copyright BBC)

Over the coming months, we’ll be seeing a lot more of celebrities looking back over their storeyed careers from the socially-distanced comfort of their own homes. But if this COVID-triggered spate of clip-show filler results in programmes such as this and the recent Louis Theroux retrospective, we really can’t complain. Michael Palin invented travelogue TV as we know it. That’s not his fault, he knew not what he wrought. And this delightful series reminds us that Around the World in 80 Days was something new and different in 1988. It was uncontrived in the sense that Palin – who, with a commendable lack of ego, sometimes appeared tired, bewildered and at toilet – really threw himself into his exhausting journey. Previously unheard excerpts from his Dictaphone diaries added fresh perspective to a classic piece of television.