I am, I hope, still too young to watch daytime television, but conversation can be slow in the care home where I visit my parents every week. Having something bland wittering on in the corner is a help. In the middle of the afternoon we have antique shows. Endless antiques. Just as we are soon going to run out of cooks, so that nobody will be able to have friends round if there isn’t a camera crew, so we must be getting short of antiques.
They’ll have to start recycling. ‘Has this lovely piece been in your family for long?’
‘Yes, my father bought it at a televised auction, ooh, at least five months ago…’
What most of them do is take the formula of the Antiques Roadshow and, cleverly, add real money. So instead of the experts saying that this coal scuttle might be worth £65 and leaving it at that, it goes straight into auction and we find out if it is. My guilty favourite is Flog It! (BBC2, all week), which is presented by Paul Martin, who manages to be agreeable, even ingratiating, without being camp. People bring along their possessions which, typically, they were going to give away or throw in a skip. A friendly expert tells them how much they might expect. Then there’s the auction. If the lot does better, they look dementedly thrilled, as if their team had scored the winner in extra time; if it doesn’t meet the reserve, they put on their our-pet-labrador-has-been-run-over face. Sometimes there’s a heart-warming story. ‘The money is for cancer research’, or ‘If this Clarice Cliff teapot raises enough I’ll go back to Lyme Regis, where my late husband and I spent our honeymoon.’ Nobody ever says, ‘It’ll go towards the gas bill.’ It’s homely. Eighty quid can be described as a ‘fantastic profit’. We’re not talking Chippendale escritoires here.
There’s a slightly harder edge to Dickinson’s Real Deal (ITV, all week). Dickinson’s richly veneered mahogany face leers out of the screen as the experts — charming and helpful in Flog It! — try to con the punters by offering them less cash than their pieces are worth. Crisp fifties are laid on the table with almost lascivious care. If the owner refuses, it goes to auction; if the dealer buys, he must sell too, so either way we know what the thing fetches. The best moments are when the owner turns down £100 and it goes for £200; the worst is when the dealer makes the profit, boo hiss.
These daytime shows are not knocked off for nothing. They are moreish, like Twiglets, or Pringles, and created with as much research and guile. You think that when you retire you’ll learn to paint, or read Proust. Nope — you’ll be stuck in front of the telly, pointlessly waiting to see if that Hornby Dublo train set really makes £250.
If you really doubted that the Michelin Guide was a force for evil in the world, you’ll have been convinced by Michelin Stars: The Madness of Perfection (BBC2, Thursday). The obsessional secrecy that surrounds the guide — the one inspector they interviewed had his face in darkness, as if he were a paedophile or an IRA informer — may be designed to cover up the fact that, as a means of finding somewhere to eat, it is pretty well useless. We learnt the story of Bernard Loiseau, the Burgundy chef who killed himself when he figured he was about to lose his third star. There were other elements of his life: the main road had bypassed his restaurant, his cuisine fell out of fashion, and his private life was a mess, but it was Michelin that tipped him over the edge. The guide can depress you, too. Top tip for travellers in France: take Michelin for the excellent little town maps, and go anywhere to eat except the restaurants it recommends.
Prof. Brian Cox, who presents Seven Wonders of the World: Empire of the Sun (BBC2, Sunday), used to play with D:Ream, the group that made the New Labour anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. Presumably, this show is a form of redemption. He looks about 18 and has a boyish love for his topic that charms and beguiles. At one point, fiddling round with stuff in a desert, he says: ‘One million times the annual power consumption of the United States is radiated [by the sun] in one second, and we worked that out using some water, a thermometer, a tin and an umbrella. And that’s why I love physics!’ Things can only get hotter. Irresistible.