Simon Hoggart

Playing it safe

Masterchef (BBC2); Life of Riley (BBC1, Thursdays); Hunter (BBC1, Sunday and Monday); Stockwell (ITV1, Wednesday)

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It’s funny how much television depends on repetition. Daytime, especially. The same house is always being auctioned, the same chinoiserie discovered in the attic, the same boxes being opened on Deal Or No Deal. Even the new Countdown has eschewed new letters. It might have been fun if they added a few Greek ones. This repetition is comforting, and it only applies, so far as I can see, to television. The last film I saw was The Reader, and somehow I doubt we’ll ever see The Reader II. Even the James Bond franchise goes in for variety — for example, Casino Royale was very good, whereas Quantum of Solace was rubbish. The last play I saw was August: Osage County at the National, and while it was funny, sad, and full of sharp observation — if a little long — I doubt I’ll go to September: Osage County if Tracy Letts gets round to writing it. Whereas on television, they would have commissioned a 13-part series with the same wacky characters. (‘How about they all go to Disneyland, and Ma is caught popping her pills on top of Space Mountain?’)

I was reflecting on this while watching Masterchef (BBC2), which appears to have set down leylandii-style roots, like The Weakest Link. It is on four times a week, 30 minutes with an hour on Thursdays, for the foreseeable future. I love it. I especially love the repetition. Suppose someone came on and cooked a meal as well as Heston Blumenthal? It would spoil it. Suppose the two hosts, John Torode and Gregg Wallace, stopped shouting and spoke at normal decibel levels? Suppose they had the scene in the real restaurant kitchen, and the real chef didn’t scrape someone’s first offering into the bin?

All the dishes — and there are a dozen in every programme — blur into one: avocado whelks followed by lamb shank with a raspberry ragout and chocolate-dusted beetroot millefeuille... ‘You have THIRTY SECONDS!’ the presenters bellow. The contestants stand by for the judgment, proud but justifiably nervous. ‘The problem IS! Carpaccio of pork is DISGUSTING! I’ve never seen smoked salmon and liver on the same plate, and do you know why? It’s HORRIBLE!’

Every contestant says how winning Masterchef will transform their lives, and they all have the same brave little smile when they’re thrown out, as 23 are every week. This is comfort viewing, like Heartbeat and Poirot, Last of the Summer Wine.

Sitcoms are much the same, drawing all their popularity from repetition. Here I pay tribute to the astoundingly talented Pritchett family. I am well acquainted with some of them, so I’m biased, though I never met Sir Victor Pritchett, the greatest English short-story writer of the last century. But I do know Oliver, his son, the superb Telegraph columnist, his son Matthew, the Telegraph cartoonist (everyone loves his gags. Remember when some councils made rubbish collections fortnightly? Matt had a binman saying to an anxious householder, ‘I do see some people privately’). And now Georgia, who writes, on her own, Life of Riley (BBC1, Thursdays). Some critics have been sniffy about this, saying it’s old fashioned, which it is in a rather nice way — like prawn cocktail and Black Forest gâteau. It’s also unlucky to have started just after another family sitcom, the sublime Outnumbered. But it is also much more subtle and innovative than you realise at first, exploring the new and strange relationships in a family of divorcees with children from three different mum and dad combos, sexual orientation and — like Outnumbered — the nagging fears and anxieties of modern middle-class parents. Like an American sitcom, every line is crafted to get a laugh, except that American sitcoms have dozens of writers, split into teams, spending weeks on each episode. Georgia does it, more or less, on her own. But, as I say, I am biased.

The fictional Hunter (BBC1, Sunday and Monday) was a two-part thriller in which the police, flawed but honest, finally got it right. In the non-fictional Stockwell (ITV1, Wednesday), about the killing of Jean-Charles de Menezes, the flawed but honest police got it dreadfully wrong. In the first, a string of tiny clues were put together to achieve a spine-tingling, last-minute result. In the latter, a string of tiny clues were bodged together to achieve a spine-tingling, last-minute horror. Hard, in the end, to tell the difference.