After what feels like an eternity, I have once again returned to The Middle. My pause from it was caused by my obsession with working my way through all 12 seasons of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. My word, the contrast is huge. It feels like entering a sunny landscape after days of hiking through rough terrain and a biting wind. Not that I don’t love It’s Always Sunny, it does edgy so well after all, but watching a comedy that isn’t full of anger and with people who are at a basic level likeable feels almost a relief.

Not that there aren’t clouds in The Middle. It’s just that it is the clouds are what drives the family together. Financial hardship, the perils of adulthood, dissatisfaction with life – they are all on display. But there is a love between the characters. And that’s why you buy into them as a real family.

Also, like with any family, you find yourself siding with different people each time. I have watched episodes where Brick is almost a hero to me, fighting his social awkwardness with a charming naivety. Then, in the next episode, these very qualities become overbearing and frustratingly child-like. Likewise, Frankie can be too naggy in one episode, wanting too much from her family and life and then giving up on her dreams when a minor bump appears. But then, you suddenly feel sorry for her when you see how much she tries to support her family with little gratification in return.

I’ve said it before, but it’s true – American TV truly comes into its own when it allows over a number of seasons at twenty or so episodes at time the characters to develop. Long-running plots can develop without being rushed and even minor characters can be fleshed out.

I think, more than anything, you come away from The Middle wanting the characters to be happy. Obviously not too happy. There is no comedy or narrative tension in a smooth life. But happy enough so that you come away affirmed that life can occasionally at least go your way.

You don’t always want happy in a comedy. Life isn’t like that and humour can come from the darkest place. But sometimes fiction needs to lift you up, even if it’s not aspirational. And that’s because aspiration alone doesn’t lift. It takes people to do that. Even dysfunctional families can make things better.


As autumn tightens its grip, it is time for the televising of The Annual Wankers’ Conference, I mean, The Apprentice. 18 so-called great entrepreneurial minds descend onto London to flap about for 12 weeks, all in the hope that an angry pensioner deems that they have jumped through enough hoops to invest in their business plan.

Whilst it makes great TV, in a practical sense it is all a bit daft. For a start, whilst we hope that these genuinely are 18 great ideas, we all know that even by the time we get down to the interview stage with the final five, only two at best actually work. You do come away from watching it fearing for the British economy if this is where our future lies.

But let’s not worry about that. Instead, we will bask in the glory of one of the greatest episodes of all times. The task was to design a room in a luxury hotel. Team Graphene (the girls) went for golf, while Team Vitality (the boys) plumped for Best of British Tourism. Both proved to be gloriously bad. The girls had a feature wall paper that seemed to resemble something closer to the inside of a spaceship off a cheap sci-fi show, and the boys decided to vomit colour and child-like drawings over the place.

Of course, what we really makes it are the applicants. The girls’ team included Elizabeth, who wielded a tape measure with such manic force she resembled a pass-agg version of Edna from The Incredibles. This was coupled with a tendency to interfere with everyone else’s work rather than do her own, angrily staring at her sub-team leader when reprimanded for doing so.

Meanwhile, on Vitality, maths genius Jeff refused to do any of the figures, insisting his history of break dancing meant he was destined to be a designer. We even got to see a little demonstration. If anyone has seen the American Dad episode where Steve tries to become a backing dancer, then you are in the right ball park. Meanwhile, the buying team went on a spending spree and, with Jeff busy proving he was the next Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen, got the figures wrong.

Neither project manager was much cop. Bushra issued instructions but didn’t do any work, although considering what she did produce, that is probably a good thing. Ross tried his best, but spent the entire episode having to react to the problems caused by others. The girls won purely because their minimalist room had less wrong with it, although this was arguably because there was less in it to be wrong.

One of the most joyful moments of the episode was in the boardroom. Under fire for his performance, Ross committed the cardinal sin of telling Lord Sugar to shut up. To be fair he did it politely, but this is a no-no. Yet I actually agree with him – he was giving a fairly straight forward and eloquent answer yet was facing unnecessary hostility. Lord Sugar plays on the image of being the tough tycoon, but he would benefit from actually listening rather than steaming on at times.

So, do we have any decent candidates? Well, Michaela seems quite grounded. There are a few on both teams who have been fairly quiet that as numbers dwindle could step forward. Twelve weeks could knock some of them into shape enough. We best hope so. Because so far, I have little faith in most of them.

How much of a liberty should you take with history when producing a work of fiction? I suppose it depends on what you want the end result to be. A serious period drama needs more attention to detail, and besides, real historical events rarely need extra dramatization adding. A more fluffy drama (e.g. Downton Abbey) needs less of this, as your audience is essentially wanting a soap in period costume. The social changes are merely a jumping off point for characters rather than being the tale you want to tell.

But what about comedy? Yes, again your audience is hardly going to bristle at 21st-century values being imposed on a historical figure, but you still want to feel as if the writer knows what they are talking about. Satirical jabs at our ancestors can become inane if not handled carefully. Quacks trod this line quite well. Upstart Crow, less so.

You see, the big problem with Upstart Crow is that it tries too hard. The veiled, or not so veiled, references to Brexit, Trump and other problems of our down are heavy-handedly transposed into a late 16th-century context. This is surprising, as Ben Elton did this so well in Blackadder.

In fact, the problems with Upstart Crow are laid bare when you look at Blackadder. Having a background cast that hams it up is fine if there is someone central that keeps it level, as Rowan Atkinson did as Edmund Blackadder. But in Crow, David Mitchell is as OTT in his performance as everyone else. It leaves you feeling as if you are being bashed over the head by a group of toddlers chanting ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’.

And then you have the tricky biographical details. Are we really to believe that Shakespeare was an idiot, entirely dependent on his sensible wife and uber-feminist friend to give him inspiration? I know we can stretch our imaginations a little, but this characterisation of Shakespeare borders on the unbelievable. If the whole point is to show how someone from a modest background rose to be one of our greatest writers, isn’t this rather dulled by making him a stupid man with ideas above his station? I don’t believe in hagiographies, but nor do I like this rather ‘know your place’ attitude the show seems to have.

Another example is the representation of Christopher Marlowe as a caddish womaniser when more and more evidence is showing he was actually as close to being an openly practising homosexual you could possibly be for the time. It’s 2017, viewers won’t demand heads on sticks if you write him as such.

Overall, what felt like a novelty in series one is feeling old and tired now. Most of the jokes are recycled from previous episodes bar the plot specific ones and the characters remain one-note. If you are going to satirise history, you need to show some teeth, especially if you are going to stretch the past to its breaking point. Taking liberties is only worth it if the end product is good enough. In this case, it feels like it is not.

On a recent episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown Jimmy Carr made a barb at Fay Ripley, describing Cold Feet as the UK’s answer to Friends if the question was ‘What’s not quite as good as Friends?’ Ripley jumped to the show’s defence, pointing out that at least her show was still going. This does, however, ignore the massive gap between the original series ending and the comeback last year.

Even so, it does seem silly to compare the two shows, longevity aside. Friends was always a sitcom, Cold Feet a comedy-drama, and one of the rare ones that could pull off both at that. Yes, there were six people navigating relationships and careers in both with a significant ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic’, but that’s where it ends.

I find Cold Feet to be one of the best-plotted shows on TV. It’s a tricky thing giving five (R.I.P. Rachel) central characters enough room for each story to breathe whilst still maintaining a group dynamic and allowing side characters to have their moments. The cleverly demarcated flashback scenes, where some of the group tell the rest what happened whilst we are shown it, is used just the right amount and with both humorous and dramatic effect. Jen and Pete’s sex tape scene was brilliantly comedic and tellingly honest about the gap between expectation and reality in our approach to sex.

I must admit to being nervous when they introduced the teenage pregnancy storyline where Karen and David’s daughter became pregnant by Adam’s son. This is a plot that has been done far too much in soaps and the like and you would struggle to find an original angle. Yet it did. The discussions around abortion were mature and focused on Olivia’s wish to have control over her body and Matt’s naïve belief he could rise to the challenge of fatherhood at just 16. The scene at the clinic was perfection and a lesson in understatement, a young girl facing the reality of her choices an everyone all so quiet and hushed, the fragility of the moment encapsulated merely in a tone of voice.

In truth, all the plots are absorbing. Jen facing the dilemma of reaching the peak of her career just as an ailing parent needs her most. David playing the night in shining armour to trapped Cheshire housewife. Karen risking everything to save her business. And, of course, Adam’s bumpy relationship with new squeeze Tina. I feel a bit sorry for Tina, as much in the centre of things as anyone yet still not given central cast status. Either let her be one of the gang or cut her loose. Otherwise she just becomes a side character who the viewers will never fully accept.

Cold Feet is a brilliant examination of life in your late forties and early fifties and is both funny and honest. Friends may never come back and tell us what happened next, but it doesn’t need to. Cold Feet is doing it better than anyone ever could.

Have you ever read a review by a TV critic and wondered what the hell they were watching? I don’t mean the bloggers like me who is happy to admit that they are entirely objective. I mean the professionals who have been given the status of arbitrators of taste. Maybe they slam a show you love, for example, ignoring any joy the programme might give.

More annoying though is when they decree a triumph for a show that isn’t worth of it. Take Back, for instance. This a comedy about Stephen (David Mitchell) dealing with his father’s death, when Andrew (Robert Webb) returns. Turns out Andrew was a kid fostered by Stephen’s parents for five months. The plot revolves around Andrew’s manipulation of Stephen’s family, presumably to claim some money out of the inheritance.

This is a dark premise for a comedy, but not necessarily bad. There is a lot of potential in fact. And it does exploit some of it well. Mitchell draws out Stephen’s fastidiousness well, but then that isn’t a stretch for him. Likewise, Webb is reliably good as the scheming charmer Andrew. There are even nicely drawn side-characters. Some of the lines are funny, and, when allowed to go slightly eccentric, the show really starts to fly.

Yet there are also many faults. There was an unnecessary plotline of a dying dog in the first couple of episodes, which did nothing in my view to draw out any laughs. In fact, it seemed purely to be a device to add an extra humiliation to Stephen. And that is where the show for me has its biggest weakness: it is entirely dependent of humiliating one character, who is basically a nice but fussy guy. I can’t help but think inflicting misery on someone in a comedy that isn’t a monster isn’t actually funny. It works when, say, Edina in Absolutely Fabulous fails, because she is a vain, egotistical person who doesn’t deserve success. But Stephen is harmless.

Not that you would see it as a problem if you read the view of the professionals. This is apparently a brilliant show, so funny yet so clever. I fail to see how a show that maybe raises one or two smiles and one genuine laugh per episode deserves such accolades, but I assume this is why I merely blog and they get paid. There is no doubt some deep, wonderful thing that I am missing.

Frankly, I’m only sticking with it in the hope Andrew gets his comeuppance and Stephen becomes the rather mild-mannered hero of the piece. Although judging by the show’s form, I wouldn’t count it. The critics would probably prefer to see Stephen wither away into perpetual embarrassment then have a happy ending.

Public services are always a hot political topic here in the UK. We are always asking more of our healthcare system, law and order bodies and educational establishments. There is always a kerfuffle when things go wrong and little reward for those that makes things right. Hence the need to set the record straight so often.

It is why the public services feature so prominently in documentaries. These are tales of how the day-to-day is done away from the headlines. Many I don’t watch, especially police-based ones, purely because they don’t interest me. But education ones do. There is something so vital in how your school years form you that make the stakes that bit higher.

Educating Greater Manchester is the latest in the series and offers the usual winning combination of heart-warming stories, humour and serious challenges. The first episode highlighted many of these. It centred round how the community of the school was changing through immigration and how the issues raised are tackled.

The focus of this was Rani, an 11-year-old who had recently arrived from Syria fleeing the civil war. He was struggling to fit in through poor English and was even being bullied. An older boy from Syria, who had settled in the UK three years ago, became his mentor. He also befriended Jack. Between these two figues, his confidence grew. A particularly touching moment was when Rani discovered he no longer needed to be in the remedial class and was able to join Jack in normal lessons, which led him to burst into tears. I may also have had something in my eye at this point.

The humour was provided by Jack and Rani’s gang tacking advantage of a dirty van in the driveway by drawing the usual cock and balls that are so amusing when you are that age. Well, any age really. If you don’t smile at someone having written ‘I wish my wife was this dirty’ on a mucky vehicle I can’t help you. Even the headteacher Mr Povey found himself having to fight to keep a straight face when disciplining the boys, although he did.

But the challenges of integration weren’t shied away from. A friend of Rani’s mentor from Afghanistan was called Osama by another student, leading to an angry confrontation. Even the mentor himself was, albeit more accidentally, called a terrorist by a Polish student, which just goes to show not all the tensions are between natives and newcomers, but also between immigrants themselves.

There was also the backdrop of the aftermath of the Manchester Concert attack, which some students had attended and, thankfully, survived. What was most telling was that Jack, who lets remember is barely 12, was able to process it in a way that some of my generation and older can’t. He knew that Rani was not responsible for it. Nor his family. Not even his religion. It was a bad person who would have always been bad regardless of religion or absence of it. He wasn’t going to end his friendship with Rani. Oh no, they had more cock and balls to draw.

Last year, half the country started behaving as if the sky had fallen in. No, it wasn’t the Brexit result (the outrage of that is only just starting to bubble of out into general discourse now). Nor was it the realisation we had suddenly got Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. It was the news that The Great British Bake Off was leaving the BBC and moving to Channel 4. Not only that, but three quarters of the team that had come to represent the show were not moving with it.

The concerns were many. First of all, how would a channel that had satirised Russia’s hosting of the Winter Olympics with a song called ‘Gay Mountain’ and had created the dating show Naked Attraction handle the most genteel of TV contests? Worries deepened when the line-up was announced. Prue Leith was seen as acceptable, but no Mary Berry. Sandi Toksvig likewise was given a free pass. But Noel Fielding? Surrealist comedian with a glam rock/sci-fi fashion taste presenting GBBO? You could hear the howls of derision in space.

Rumours of problems on set abounded. Toksvig was refusing to interact with the contestants. Fielding wasn’t sampling the goods. Leith and Paul Hollywood, the sole member of the original cast, were not gelling. It spelt disaster.

But, like many of other viewers, I have given it a go. How could I not? And having seen it, I wonder if some of these rumours were people just being malevolent, trying to ensure the failure. True, Fielding is less greedy than Mel and Sue were. But how much he eats isn’t of interest to me. He interacts well enough with the contestants and the judges, and I feel his humour is slowly but surely finding its right footing in the tent.

Likewise, Toksvig is maybe less giddily emotional. But that has always been her style and her calmer tone isn’t as out of place as the detractors make it out to be. If anything, her placidity allows Fielding’s eccentricity more space to breathe and allows the contestants to be more of the stars. Mel and Sue were a great partnership, but it’s refreshing to see a new energy that isn’t vastly different, just slightly changed.

The only weak link is Prue. There are moments where it feels like her and Hollywood are bad cop/bad cop. There is no-one to mellow his damning criticism or smack down his rudeness. That isn’t to say she doesn’t know her stuff. But she lacks that twinkle that Berry had. The cheeky wink when a cake is spot on or the excitement at a healthy dose of booze in a biscuit. Hopefully she has been given some notes as the series goes on to mellow and revel in the eccentricities and be that bit less prim.

Overall, it is still a great show. The food is amazing, although the challenges feel exceptionally difficult this year. The contestants are developing just as they did before. The outrage was, frankly, unnecessary. If this was Arctic Roll 50 being triggered, then it seems Channel 4 having chosen to stay in the single cream market. A wise move, and one that is paying off.