Paul Whitelaw previews his TV highlights in the week ahead:
Traces – Monday and Tuesday, BBC One, 9pm
Finally, a thriller set in Dundee! Albeit mostly filmed in Manchester.
Traces isn’t new, it debuted on UKTV in 2019, but a bigger audience is guaranteed on BBC One.
Based on an idea by top crime author Val McDermid (who has a fleeting cameo in episode one), it’s an enjoyable potboiler steeped in queasy intrigue.
Molly Windsor plays a forensic science student who is convinced that a supposedly fictional case study is based on the murder of her mother.
Every bit as grim and grisly as you’d expect from a McDermid-inspired drama, it pivots around believable performances from Windsor, Laura Fraser and Martin Compston.
And remember: “There are only so many places you can bury a body in Dundee.”
Winter Walks – Monday to Friday, BBC Four, 7pm
This is the perfect way to ease yourself into a hopefully better year: five 30-minute episodes in the company of various well-known folk, as they traipse around the rural hills and dales of Britain.
It’s comfortingly sedate and almost quite poetic.
There is no music, no crew as such, just solo celebs armed with a 360-degree camera.
Stunning sunrise scenery merges with the sound of rivers, birdsong, sheep and trudging feet. Occasionally, the presenters bump into locals.
They have a little chat, then move on. It’s lovely.
Your unobtrusive wintry guides are Richard Coles, Selina Scott, Lemn Sissay, Sayeeda Warsi and Poet Laureate Simon Armitage.
It should make you feel a bit better about the world.
Bradley and Barney Walsh: Breaking Dad – Monday, STV, 8pm
The affable father/son duo return for more adventures.
This time they’re travelling across Europe (the series was filmed pre-COVID, obviously).
The journey begins in The Netherlands, where they try a bit of canal jumping, visit a velodrome and attempt to scale the world’s tallest freestanding wall.
Preview copies weren’t available, but I think I can state with some confidence that the latest series will be exactly the same as every previous series.
Which isn’t a complaint, it’s a satisfyingly formulaic show. And while it’s not a deep endeavour by any stretch of the imagination, the tightknit relationship between Walsh and his son can be quite touching at times.
They’re nice people doing fun things. What’s not to like?
Staged – Monday and Tuesday, BBC One, 9:45pm
It’s back, a slight, harmless comedy in which Michael Sheen and David Tennant play versions of themselves in lockdown.
Their Skype conversations are spiked with childish passive-aggression; the petty vanity of actors.
They also appear to be going slightly mad, Sheen in particular.
I haven’t seen this second series, it wasn’t available at the time of writing, but series one was a mildly amusing diversion; two fine actors just mucking about in their enforced spare time.
But it pales in comparison to Coogan and Brydon (or should that be Brydon and Coogan?) in The Trip, to which it owes an obvious debt.
Still, each episode is only 15 minutes long, so it’s not as if they outstay their welcome.
The Man Who Fell from the Sky – Monday, Channel 4, 10pm
In 2015, a stowaway fell to his death from the wheel well of a British Airways Boeing 747.
He and a friend, both from Mozambique, were attempting to smuggle themselves into the UK.
Documentary filmmaker Rich Bentley has spent the last five years trying to locate the man who survived that terrifying journey.
His research unearthed a disturbing yet little-reported fact: asylum seekers dying in that particular way isn’t uncommon.
This is a sensitive programme about immigration; a meditation on the human beings behind the dry statistics and racist rhetoric stirred up by the right.
Bentley reveals their names, he speaks to their families.
He doesn’t provide any neat answers, as that would be offensive. It’s a complex tragedy.
Cheetah Family & Me – Tuesday and Wednesday, BBC Two, 9pm
Whispering Gordon Buchanan always turns up at this time of year to share his love of nature.
The affable Scot’s latest adventure involves two Cheetah families struggling to survive in the wilds of South Africa.
We follow him on horseback and on foot, a camera rostrum over his shoulder, as he attempts to find out what life is really like for these beautiful, endangered creatures. The little cheetah cubs are beyond adorable, but a mild word of caution for younger viewers in your household: nature can be cruel.
When Attenborough eventually retires from the planet, I think Buchanan would be a suitable replacement.
A compassionate man who cares about the world around us, his exemplary documentaries are intimate and immersive.
Lucy Worsley’s Royal Palace Secrets – Wednesday, BBC Four, 9pm
The doyen of BBC Four, historian Lucy Worsley churns these programmes out at a remarkable rate.
She appears to spend half her life dressed as Catherine of Aragon while delivering pieces to camera.
This one was filmed a few months ago, but as Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces she wasn’t going to let the pandemic get in the way of her exclusive right to snoop around Hampton Court, Kensington Palace and The Tower of London.
Worsley is an engaging guide, I like her; but while she’s always flirted with twee self-parody, she’s more ‘Lucy Worsley’ here than ever before.
She might want to dial down the whimsy in future. It can be suffocating. Some unbidden constructive criticism there.
FILM of THE WEEK
Another Year – Monday, Film4, 11:45pm
An affecting study of love and loneliness, Mike Leigh’s comedy-drama boasts exceptional performances from Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville. Broadbent and Sheen play Tom and Gerri (they’re aware of the joke), a happily-married couple surrounded by people in various states of distress.
Chief among them is Ruth’s friend Mary (Manville), who struggles to hide her depression behind a chirpy veneer and too much alcohol.
The film follows these keenly-observed characters across four seasons.
It is, in typical Leigh fashion, occasionally funny but ultimately very sad.
Manville’s performance in particular is devastating.
Leigh is sometimes accused of sneering at the fictional beings he co-creates with his actors, but here his compassion is never in any doubt.
LAST WEEK’S TV
The Story of SM:TV Live – Boxing Day, STV
Scheduled, rather sweetly, in its old Saturday morning slot, this tribute to the Ant, Dec and Cat kid’s show was surprisingly touching.
I was 23 when it started in 1998, so I never paid much attention.
But it looks like I missed out on a commendably subversive and sometimes very funny show that understood the cardinal rule of children’s television: don’t talk down to them; they’re smart, they get it.
Broadcast live, SM:TV was benign anarchy, a fizzy rollerball of pop and sketches helmed by three bright young things with chemistry to burn.
Watching Ant, Dec and Cat, all now middle-aged, reflecting on the best time of their lives made me feel nostalgic for something I never experienced.
Stephen Fry’s 21st Century Firsts – Wednesday December 30, STV
Hey! Who remembers Myspace?! In this utterly pointless list show, the cosy centrist tech-lover looked back upon various things that have occurred in the last 20 years.
The legalisation of same-sex marriage and the Black Lives Matter movement jostled for airtime amidst the invention of YouTube, social media, reality television, iPhones and selfies.
The Coronavirus pandemic made a brief cameo towards the end.
Fry admitted that it was a whistle-stop tour, but that was no excuse for a programme in which Harry Potter trampled over the election of Barack Obama and the voice of Greta Thunberg.
All of this stuff, this broiling cultural stew, deserves hours of analysis. Fry was just picking up a festive paycheque.