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NEW YEAR WEEK TV PREVIEW: Here are the final highlights of 2020

Here's hoping the meerkats can cheer us up.
Here's hoping the meerkats can cheer us up.

As the year finally draws to its miserable conclusion, our TV critic Paul Whitelaw looks for some light in the darkness (and also some meerkats).

Meerkat: A Dynasties Special – Monday, BBC One, 7.30pm

Meerkats: a great bunch of lads. Show me someone who doesn’t love ’em and I’ll show you someone who should be approached with extreme caution. In this dramatic David Attenborough documentary, we meet Maghogo, a young meerkat queen struggling to protect her dynasty on the salt pans of Botswana.

This harsh environment stretches meerkats to the limits of their endurance, and yet Maghogo refuses to be beaten. Her beautiful, vulnerable family will melt your heart. One could argue that Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit are somewhat guilty of anthropomorphising animals for the purposes of constructing a clean narrative, but the counterargument is that the stories they tell are fundamentally true and educational. Their motives are pure.


Bruce Dickinson: Scream for Me Sarajevo – Tuesday, BBC Four, 9pm

In December 1994, Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson performed a concert during the Siege of Sarajevo. Dickinson and his band risked their lives to entertain people trapped in the midst of a hellish warzone, but this excellent documentary is about so much more than that. It’s a humbling account of Bosnians rising up against their barbaric fascist oppressors, using art as a weapon of defiance.

Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson.

Although Dickinson contributes his side of the story – his, in hindsight, naïve account of organising the concert provides some sporadic light relief – the film focuses on the kids who lived through the horror of genocide. It contains necessarily distressing scenes and eyewitness accounts. You may, however, emerge with some hope for humanity.


Celebrity: A 21st Century Story – Tuesday to New Year’s Day, BBC Two, 9pm

If you fancy ending chucklesome 2020 on a particularly desolate note, watch this grimly diverting series about the birth and growth of modern celebrity culture. The first series of Big Brother, which enveloped an unwary nation 20 years ago, looks so innocent now, but it spawned a monster. Reality TV and money-spinning talent contests elevated people to instant stardom. They were exploited and discarded by villains such as Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan. Fame for fame’s sake became the abiding narrative. The media landscape became shallower, grubbier, allowing narcissists such as Johnson and Trump to seize power. People began to live their lives in public via powerful social media platforms. And this is where we are. Happy New Year!


The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne – Wednesday, BBC Two, 10pm

You can’t have too much metal at Christmas, so here’s a profile of the man who forged it all. Produced by the Osbournes themselves, it’s very much an official document of Ozzy’s wild life, but it’s no hagiography. How could it be? There is just no way to frame this story in an entirely upbeat way.

Ozzy Osbourne.

He’s a recovering addict who, at his most deranged, once tried to kill his wife, Sharon. But she forgave him, as did his children. For all his failings, he is beloved. Ozzy comes across as a fundamentally decent, sensitive soul who for years could only cope with life on a colossal diet of drink and drugs. But the film feels like a eulogy.


Billy Connolly: It’s Been a Pleasure – Hogmanay, STV, 9.30pm

Ever since he went public with his Parkinson’s diagnosis a few years ago, there have been several programmes paying tribute to The Big Yin. Quite right too, he’s one of the greatest stand-ups of all time, right up there with Pryor. As he prepares to retire from the spotlight, this programme celebrates some of his funniest stand-up moments.

Billy Connolly: a beacon of joy.

Preview copies weren’t available, but we’re promised a new interview with Billy from his Florida home, plus the obligatory glowing assessments from celebrity fans such as Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg, Lenny Henry, Paul McCartney and Dustin Hoffman (hasn’t he been cancelled?). Billy is one of the few comedians who can make me cry with laughter. He’s a beacon of joy.


Doctor Who – New Year’s Day, BBC One, 6.45pm

It’s just so sad, really. Jodie Whittaker being cast as the first female Doctor was a cause for celebration, but from day one she’s been saddled with the staggering ineptitude of showrunner Chris Chibnall. I say this without a hint of hyperbole: the man is an abysmal writer. How I miss the wit, craft and emotional depth of his predecessors, Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. Chibnall seemingly writes via hastily scribbled Post-It notes.

Dr Who: where is the wit?

Clumsy political satire abounds in this typically anodyne episode, wherein poor old Whittaker and John Barrowman gamely plod from A to B. Bradley Walsh, who has been excellent as one of the Doctor’s companions, needn’t have bothered turning up at all. They all deserve better.


The Serpent – New Year’s Day, BBC One, 9pm

This absorbing thriller is based on the sordid true story of French conman and serial killer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim), who, together with his girlfriend Marie-Andree Leclerc (Jenna Coleman), preyed on hippie backpackers in 1970s Southeast Asia. His unlikely nemesis was a concerned young diplomat from the Dutch embassy.

Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim.

Co-produced by Netflix, it’s a big-budget affair with a distinct touch of Tarantino and Scorsese in terms of editing, non-linear structure and killer soundtrack. Rahim commands the screen with his sinister snake-eyed charm. Superior stuff, although it’s docked a few points for failing to include a scene in which the French-accented Coleman wears an obvious disguise and says: “It is I, Leclerc.”


Film of the week


Planes, Trains and Automobiles – Monday, Channel 4, 4.05pm

It may be set at Thanksgiving, but this comedy classic from writer/director John Hughes is an honorary Christmas movie. Steve Martin and John Candy play mismatched strangers who are desperately trying to get home in time for the festive season.

Steve Martin and John Candy star in this classic movie.

Much to the chagrin of Martin’s hyper-stressed businessman, his difficult cross-country journey is constantly interrupted by Candy’s abundantly cheerful shower ring salesman. Inspired farce and slapstick ensue. If Hughes doesn’t quite manage to blend the broader comedy elements with his heartfelt sentiment, the two leads ensure that the film never runs out of steam. Comedy greats both, watching them spark off each other is delightful. RIP John Candy, where e’er you may be.


Last week’s TV reviewed:


Worzel Gummidge – Christmas Eve, BBC One

Just like last year, Mackenzie Crook’s adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s classic books for children stole the Christmas TV crown. Crook, who writes, directs and stars as Worzel, gets everything just right. It’s funny, clever, charming and ever so slightly creepy.

Worzel Gummidge (copyright BBC)

The latest episode featured a wonderfully bizarre performance from Shirley Henderson as Saucy Nancy, the ship’s masthead whose salty profanities make no sense whatsoever (by sheer coincidence, in the original TV adaptation, Nancy was played by the recently departed Barbara Windsor). Crook’s Worzel feels like a natural follow-up to Detectorists, which also contained elements of vaguely eerie yet essentially comforting English folklore; the strange, ancient magic of the fields. It’s such a beautiful piece of work.


The Wall Versus Celebrities – Christmas Eve, BBC One

“We don’t spread Corona in this gaff!” I love The Wall. The very idea of Danny Dyer hosting a gameshow is ridiculous. That’s why it works. The game itself is solid, enjoyable, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without uber-geezer Dyer at the helm. Unless you count “Is it wrong, or is it right?” as a catchphrase, he doesn’t bother with the standard golden rules of gameshow hosting.

Yes, he nudges it along and looks like he’s enjoying himself, but apart from that he trims off all the fat. The disembodied voice of Angela Rippon asks the questions, Dyer isn’t required to do even that. It’s an absolute masterclass in achieving stellar results while apparently doing nothing.