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Spy class

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

6 October 2012

9:00 AM

Hunted (Thursday, BBC1) made a terrific start, but whether the first episode has set the standard for the next seven is another matter — a thriller, after all, has a duty to overwhelm, seduce and deceive with its opening gambit.

This series was not conceived by fluke: anyone with half an eye on Bond, Bourne, Spooks or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo can see its pedigree, but that is no bad thing, and if its look reminds us of last year’s Scandinavian hits then so much the better. The territory is familiar — international espionage — but we never tire of spies, and these are not the double ‘O’ kind (who save the world every week) but private intelligence ‘operatives’ (who choose which side to play for).

‘Top operative’ Sam Hunter (Melissa George) is confronted, in the opening sequence, by a series of grim-faced men. Lovers? Colleagues? Targets? Who knows. She knocks most of them downstairs, kicks a few in the head and then gets shot. Why? It doesn’t matter — not yet. All we need to know for now is that Hunter’s future, like her past, will be chock-full of incident and that she’s taciturn, secretive and good at running up hills. What’s not to like?

Welcome to India (Wednesday, BBC2) is a revelation: a programme about India that has nothing to do with Britain. At last! This film does not contain the words ‘British’ or ‘Empire’ and does not feature a British presenter; it is an authentic, current guide to Indian street life, filmed by the participants with confidence and panache. We are searching for gold in the gutter-dirt of Kolkata; we are crouched in a drinking den on a beach in Mumbai; we are hawking knocked-off paperbacks to commuters in rush-hour traffic. We see resourcefulness, courage and humour that is remarkable, but this is everyday life — only we are the ones astonished. I was put in my place — and happily so — but I was also made to laugh: ‘She is my life partner,’ shrugged a man about his ‘shouty’ wife. ‘She is not my biggest headache.’

I’ve become rather wary of Channel 4 — rather in the way I might be wary of a friendly yet unpredictable drunk — because while sometimes it is the best company in the room, at other times it might be tiresome, dull or downright crazed. Helpfully, each of its presenters personifies a different mood and their programmes are labelled with their names — Heston’s Mission Impossible, Kirstie’s Homemade Home or Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares – so that we may brace ourselves for the coming event. This early-warning system, however, has recently failed: Kevin McCloud (the self-effacing soul who has fronted Grand Designs for 13 years) is building a hut in the woods (Kevin McCloud’s Man Made Home, Sunday, Channel 4) and the programme has revealed a different Kevin. His design for an off-grid, ecofriendly cabin may be modest and wholesome, but the ambitions of his television series are positively brazen. ‘The joy of this project,’ trumpets the new Kevin, ‘is that it’s me; it’s mine; I can do what I want.’ The poor man has been kettled at Grand Designs for too long. ‘I’m having the time of my life,’ he announces. ‘Being in a wood, mucking about and lighting fires — it sets my soul on fire.’ Four hours of television from this? Four hours? ‘This is a deliberately slow project,’ Kevin boasts — but it’s the programme, not the project, that seems to be taking for ever.

Ian Hislop has taken possession of his subject — Ian Hislop’s Stiff Upper Lip (Tuesday, BBC2) — but he, by contrast, has made a virtue of restraint: he gives the appearance of being a thoughtful and principled man of learning who is struggling to contain a fit of the giggles. This is a particularly winning kind of charm — semi-smothered humour is infectious — and it makes Hislop’s Emotional History of Britain sensible and funny in just the right quantities.

To command a stiff upper lip — to employ diffidence or humour for the sake of concealing emotion — is one of our proudest national boasts, but it was only between the deaths of Nelson and Wellington that a resolute lip became, rather than merely the business of an individual, the expected characteristic of a nation. Nelson’s valour was singular, but Wellington’s was exemplary: his pristine ideals reproved the romance of the previous era and set a new standard of forbearance. So much so, in fact, that the Victorians decided Nelson could not (in the name of all that is manly) have begged Hardy for a kiss before dying. He must, instead of ‘Kiss me’, have whispered ‘Kismet’ (meaning ‘fate’). If this is the case, and Hardy misheard him, then those kisses must have come as quite a surprise.

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