Archives for posts with tag: channel 4

After a bit of a delay, I have finally got round to catching up on Derry Girls. For the unaware, this is a sitcom set in early 90s Derry at the height of the Troubles. Essentially, a coming-of-age story with a darkly humourous backdrop. Derry is a city that behaves like a small town, in that everyone knows everyone else. Part of my keen interest in the show is that one of my closest friends is from that neck of the woods and she has assured me that, yes, it really is like that.

The focus is on Erin, a fairly typical teenage girl, desperate to improve her status despite already having a loyal gang of mates. There is her cousin Orla, who is dim witted and flaky. Claire operates as the group’s moral compass, but is perhaps too moral and is quick to turn grass. Michelle is the gobby trouble causer, who always has a get rich scheme. And finally, there’s James, the only boy in an all-girls school and who has committed the sin of being, gasp, English.

Interestingly, all the characters seem to be increasingly well fleshed out, bar Erin. For a focal point, she seems a remarkably blank canvas. Her main role seems to be to contort her face in disgust at everything around her, which is getting slightly annoying. Thankfully, the other characters have enough of a footprint to raise the show.

The adult members of the cast are also good. Erin’s grandad constantly undermining his son-in-law, who seems to be an ocean of sanity amongst the madness. Orla’s mum, Aunt Sarah, is every bit as daffy as her daughter.

The show is stolen though by headmistress and nun Sister Michael. There is a delicious stony expression that lives on her face permanently, whether it is dealing with a failed attempt by Michelle to bully a Year 7 or banning ‘Love is All Around’ from the school assembly list. Her deadpan comments are a sheer delight and worth the entry fee alone.

The timeliness of the show cannot go unnoticed either. Just as the Good Friday Agreement comes under serious threat through a mixture of Brexit and the power collapse at Stormont, this is a reminder of the bad old days, where bomb threats and paramilitary attacks were worryingly routine. Whilst this is a fertile ground for dark humour (the first episode sees lots of jokes about a suspicious package on the main road through Derry) it should also be a stark message about not wanting to go back in time.

Is it funny? Yes, perhaps not side-splittingly, but will certainly raise a giggle. It is also well crafted and smart. And if all else fails, it has a corking soundtrack of early 90’s classics. Yes, the main character needs work. But that doesn’t stop it being a joy.


Jo Brand is one of my favourite people. I love her self-deprecating stand up that is unfairly stereotyped by her critics as just being ‘It’s hard to be a woman’ humour. I adore her no-nonsense approach to panel shows, not least her slapping down of male guests whenever a whiff of misogyny enters the air (check out her take down of Ian Hislop and Quentin Letts on Have I Got News For You last year). Mostly though, I love her sitcoms. Truthful, raw and decidedly unglamourous, but never bleak.

Damned has returned for its second series. Set in the world of children’s social work, its title comes from the saying ‘Damned if you, damned if you don’t’, referencing the constant kicking social services receive in the media for either intervening or not. It is an aware Brand has an astute knowledge of, owing to her mother working as a social worker.

The characters all feel very real. There is the world-weary Rose and Al (played by Brand and Alan Davies), the latter of whom has no patience anymore for the rule book. There is the obnoxious, but essentially useless, Nitin (Hamish Patel). Dim-witted receptionist Nat is played by Isy Suttie, Kevin Eldon is team leader and slightly OCD Martin. This series sees the edition of virtue-signalling Mimi played by Lolly Adefope. With the exception of Mimi, none of these characters feel like stereotypes.

The situations are on the button as well. Episode one focused on a woman raising two children and having to resort to sex work to boost the minimum income she received for her legitimate work of cleaning. Sounds harrowing, yet the humour shone through thanks to deft and sympathetic writing. Having said that, the end of the episode is heart breaking.

There are some good background plots too. There is the blossoming connection between Rose and her boss Denise’s brother Dennis. The tension is growing between Mimi and Nat, with the latter unimpressed with the former’s being fast tracked. Plus there is the very timely storyline of historical abuse that they can’t tackle, but a growing storm outside is saying they should.

I think I love this because my work inhabits a not entirely different world, working as I do for a government regulatory body. The constant three-way battle between the morally right solution, the common sense answer and what the rule books say is a constant fixture of my world, although the stakes are rarely as high. It’s a relief for someone to be calling it as it is. Especially the chaos that erupts when meetings get derailed.

Or maybe I love it because it is a show about generally good people trying to do the right thing that is also very funny. The humour maybe dark, but it’s never cruel. Rather, it is smart enough to point out what is going wrong. It’s rarely the people on the front line.

After much delay, I am finally getting round to catching up with the latest series of Man Down. It has always been an interesting beast of a show. No laugh track and a slightly depressing premise – man’s life falls apart repeatedly – should put it squarely in the low-key ‘is this even a comedy?’ category. Yet it is highly slapstick in its humour and boarders on the surreal, giving it a manic energy.

I suspect this is why it fails to win BAFTA’s, despite being so neatly crafted and funny it should be showered in them. There is a tendency for critic-driven awards to reward the dour, those comedies that supposedly purport to reflect real life, despite the fact comedy is supposed to be an escape. If I read one more review of a comedy describing it has ‘heart-breaking’ the only thing that will get broken is the critic’s face.

Anyway, Man Down. This series is opening a new avenue of comic potential by making Dan, played by Greg Davies, a father. So far, so predictable, but Davies lifts this with the aforementioned qualities, plus a dose of uncomfortableness.

Take episode two, where Dan went on a mission to find his childhood toy bear, ripped away from him as a child. This leads him to breaking into a children’s hospital to steal it back, only to find his memories have played tricks on him in the most excruciating way possible. Yes, it is slightly uncomfortable but also very, very funny.

As ever, in the background we have Roisin Conaty as Jo still forming mad schemes, Mike Wozniak’s Brian trying to rebuild his own life and being sabotaged by others and, most gloriously, Dan’s mum and aunt sharing a retirement village together. It is often these little details, including his mum in a series of ludicrous outfits (snooker player, judo robes), that lift this show and bring the best laughs.

This will always be an unrecognised show. Too silly to get the awards, too dark to be mainstream. But it will also always be joyously fun. If you want to escape into a slightly odd world, do so with this. You won’t regret it.

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.

The nineties are making a big comeback at the moment. It seems the decade of choice to go to analyse retrospectively and plunder for ‘new’ ideas. Some are less new than others. Take the return of The Crystal Maze. It doesn’t seem to fit with any modern programming anymore – not gladiatorial or particularly humiliating like Ninja Warrior, nor that highbrow.

I have found memories of the show from my youth. I even had the board game and was jealous of my friend who had the PC game. So this was going to be a big test for me. Would I cringe at the things I used to delight in? Would they change it too much and leave me heartbroken? Would it pick up new fans?

I can’t answer the third question to be truthful. But I can the first two. No, it wasn’t cringe inducing in the slightest. There was the right balance between gentle mocking of the show and a sincere love of it to make it enjoyable. And little has changed – new games yes, but nothing that wouldn’t have fitted the original series.

Speaking of new – the big talk is, of course, the choice of host in Richard Ayoade. For me, he is the perfect fit. He has a streak of Meta in him that suits the show. “You will look different in the next room, don’t worry it’s editing” is one example. He is clearly having fun in the slightly robotic, straight-faced way he does.

It is a smart move starting the show off with celebrity specials as it allows us to settle back into the concept without fear of wooden contestants. Joey Essex was a surprisingly good booking, the interplay between him and Ayoade such a source of joy that I almost want them to have their own show.

Of course, the test will be when the show moves on to ordinary members of the public. Ayoade is an acquired taste and not everyone understands his deadpan humour. It will be uncomfortable viewing if we have an hour of the public stonewalling him. I also wonder if he will be forced to tone down some of his more acerbic comments for fear of causing an upset, which would mean the show loses one of the planks of the success the revival has been built upon.

It has to be said though that this is wondrously joyous, if tense, hour. It may not have been the bravest commissioning idea that has been made recently, but it is one of the smartest. Making TV that is fun is challenging and under-rated. Hats off to Channel 4 for looking like they have got this one right.