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Television

Please release me

11 August 2012

6:00 AM

11 August 2012

6:00 AM

I am writing this at teatime on Sunday — day nine of the Olympics. So far: 34 medals, we’ve all gone completely bananas, and the Great British mood has improved by what commentators call 110 per cent. Andy Murray has just won gold, beating Roger Federer in straight sets, and by the time I finish writing he may have won another gold in the mixed doubles’ final.

To write about this week’s television and not mention the Olympics would be peculiar, but to write about nothing but the Olympics would be foolish because what I write today will be old hat by the time you read it. Today the Games are the most important thing on television; by the end of the week they might not be — they might have turned from buttered crumpets to stale buns. Perhaps you are settling down on your sofa — instead of standing on top of it, cheering, and throwing all the cushions in the air — and saying to one another, ‘I tell you what — shall we see what else is on tonight? Apart from the Olympics?’

Well, there’s Young, Bright and on the Right (Thursday, BBC2), a documentary that follows two enthusiastic Tory students (Joe at Oxford and Chris at Cambridge) as they try to cut their teeth in Oxbridge politics. This is a film that seemed, at its outset, determined to prove once again that it is not difficult to make young Conservatives look ridiculous on national television. The set was dressed with familiar props — patterned handkerchiefs, colourful cocktails, silver spoons and framed portraits of Margaret Thatcher — and my toes prepared to curl. However, just as I was about to mouth the words ‘Why oh why’ at the ceiling, the film suddenly sprouted and grew right out of its pot: what had been a rather predictable-looking, neatly contained aspidistra became a thorny and intimidating beanstalk. Chris’s story was allowed to wilt (which must have relieved his anxious, sainted mother) but Joe’s? It became eye-watering, in every sense.


One of the advantages of being as ignorant and forgetful as I am is finding so much to love on BBC4, the channel I have come to view as my long-skirted, benevolent governess. In the past three weeks I have been especially treated by A History of Art in Three Colours, which concluded (on Wednesday) with White. This programme, after the richness and generosity of Gold and Blue, told the least seductive and most uncomfortable story — but James Fox makes a compelling narrator. He has a snappy and opinionated style, which I relish (but will doubtless annoy others): he tells us what he knows, and leaves us in no doubt of what he thinks — and what sort of mood he’s in. Man’s pursuit of white, this ‘tyrannical colour’, made Dr Fox pretty furious. What motives, he asked, inspire a worship of ‘pure’ white? What are the costs of acquiring it? ‘Perfect’ white requires not just the exclusion of colour but the sacrifice of character, feature and nuance. How can that be reconciled with the smudges and shades of ordinary life? This was a cold story — but a good one. More, please: more colours, more history, more art and more Dr James Fox.

In Exploring China: A Culinary Adventure (Sunday, BBC2) Ken Hom (now a beady, smiling 63-year-old) set out with Ching-He Huang (a successful young chef based in Britain) to investigate the state of modern Chinese cuisine. The cookery was — for me, at least — nothing to write home about, but entering China through the kitchen door was a clever route. Food makes reticent people talk; characters, places and histories were all worthwhile, and our two guides made an odd — but appealing — pair: sometimes polite, sometimes competitive, sometimes rather sweet. Ken ate a scorpion on a stick, Ching-He got the giggles, they both watched a chef blow into a dead duck and…

Oh, I give up. Can I go back to the Games now, please? What if I miss something? Ken Hom, after all, will be back next week but on Monday 13 August the Olympics will be over. On that day, BBC1 will be released from captivity and persons resolutely unmoved by field, track, pitch, pool, podium, stadium or sandpit will have nothing left to complain about.

But in the meantime — all these medals? Clare Balding? All day? Right at the end of my remote control? It’s a worse temptation than a packet of chocolate Hobnobs: of course I don’t need them; of course if they weren’t there I wouldn’t even think about them, but since they are there…I can’t resist them. I’m like one of those laboratory rats who is given a snack only if he puts his paw on an electric wire: frizzy-haired and glassy-eyed, but still remarkably tubby.


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