I was that desperate for something to watch on TV the other night that I actually sat through half an episode of Outnumbered. This is the highly rated comedy series, now in its umpteenth season, in which children say implausibly clever, sassy things much to the bemusement of their hard-pressed parents.
Why do I not share in the general adulation of this comedy? First, to misquote Homer Simpson, it isn’t funny because it isn’t true. I say this with confidence having personally bred and raised two of the most brilliant, witty and incisive children ever created. Maybe once or twice in their entire lives have they said anything as clever as the kind of one-liners those smartarse — and supposedly typical — brats on Outnumbered come up with every two seconds. So, no, I don’t buy it.
My second problem with it is that like most of the BBC’s output it is so gag-makingly PC. In this particular episode, a neighbour comes knocking at the family’s door to ask whether they will sign his petition not to have speed bumps put in their street. To any sane person this would scarcely sound an unreasonable proposition: speed bumps waste loads of council taxpayers’ money, they drive up your garage bills by ruining your suspension and your tracking, they increase noise and pollution by causing all passing traffic dramatically to slow then accelerate right outside your front door…
But, of course, being a product of BBC land — where everyone reads the Guardian and believes passionately in recycling, state education and bicycles — the man with the petition has to be portrayed as an utter loon. We can tell he’s a loon because — choice comedy moment coming up! — he’s actually gone and sketched an artist’s impression of what the speed bumps will look like. And, of course, it’s a ludicrously over-the-top, self-defeatingly silly artist’s impression. Because that’s what anyone who doesn’t consider road safety for our children utterly paramount is, see: wrong, risible, mildly insane — and probably deserving of execution when the Common Purpose-endorsed Great Cleansing happens.
Anyway, on to Andrew Marr’s History of the World. It’s terribly unfair, of course, but because of — ahem — recent stories in the press I found myself initially less interested in the content than in questions like: ‘If I were a young woman, how much would I mind if I found this chap’s hand straying down the back of my knickers?’ And my answer — I hope, Andrew, if you’re reading this, it will cheer you up — is that actually I don’t think I would mind.
One of the great things about women, quite possibly their most winning feature, in fact, is that they seem to be so much less bothered by age or physical beauty in their partners than we shallow blokes are. Marr does look a bit like Gollum but he has the gentle loveliness of Shrek. An attractive delivery, too. Unlike with a lot of the people you see presenting these lavish, multilocation BBC mega documentary series, you’re not sitting there grinding your teeth going, ‘Jesus! I could have done SO much better a job than that useless bastard with his incredibly annoying tics and mannerisms!’ You’re thinking, ‘I like you, Andrew. You’re not hateful. I’m glad you got to fly to China and do a piece to camera behind that roiling Yellow River waterfall. Because you’re worth it!’
The series itself wasn’t, though. Nicely shot, obviously, with interesting locations. (I did like the Stone Age cave with the handprints.) But it did strike me as a human version of Walking with Dinosaurs: blue-screen dramatisations of scenes from history that never actually happened.
Take the mother of all mothers — this ancient woman from whom, so ‘scientists’ tell us, we are all genetically descended. Well, apparently, if you believe the programme, there was an amazing moment during her migration out of Africa when she and her party had to cross this vertiginous stone bridge over a vast chasm not unlike the one where Gandalf does battle with the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. To show just how perilous and dramatic this moment was, we saw the actors playing Mother’s tribe stumbling, and very nearly falling thousands of feet below. Luckily they didn’t — or it would have been curtains for the human race.
If it had actually happened, that is. Which it didn’t. Mind you, given the poverty and dullness of the historically documented ‘true’ stories the programme did unearth, you can see why they found making up stuff more attractive. One achingly boring sequence from the Papyrus Salt, involving an Egyptian philanderer called Paneb, was described by Marr as ‘an early draft of EastEnders’. God, he must have hated himself as he put on his special, jaunty comedy voice to signal how delightfully amusing this hilarious scene was and how indicative that despite the years and the variations in skin colour and the vast cultural differences we are all truly brothers and sisters under the skin! I know I would have done.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012