Old formulae are desperately re-worked in order to fill the endless hours of television time. (Did you know that the BBC broadcasts five hours of TV every hour, in this country alone?) The mathematician and code expert Simon Singh, whom I bumped into the other day, suggested I watch Beg, Borrow or Steal (BBC2, Tuesdays) because he felt it illustrated some interesting intellectual problems. It comes straight after The Weakest Link and is in many ways a knock-off, since participants not only need to know the answers, but are also encouraged to swindle each other.
There are five contestants. They are asked clutches of four questions, some moderately tough (‘Which is the fastest animal on two legs?’). Only people who get all four right win any money. If they don’t know all four, they can go off in a huddle with one or two others, and barter the correct answers. Or else cheat by giving the others wrong information (‘I think you’ll find that’s an emu’). The permutations are, of course, endless. Do you trade your credibility to stop someone who might not be as gormless as they look? Can you offer an answer that sounds right but isn’t? It is surprisingly amusing, even tantalising.
What it needs is sharpening up, fast. Twinkly Jamie Theakston spends too much time interviewing these rather dull people (unlike Anne Robinson’s victims, they are encouraged to demonstrate self-confidence and boast about themselves, which can be just as tedious). They need four rounds instead of three, with lots of crisp cutting. And the questions should be tougher. When I watched, they were asked ‘duh’ posers such as the city where you’d find Lime Street station and the century of the French Revolution. Why not ask in which town Mumps station is, or the decade of the Portuguese revolution? Then you’d have something to bargain with. Right now it’s flabby and slow, but it could be fast and exciting.
The new crinkle in Musicality (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is that the judges are nice to the contestants. It’s refreshing. The notion is to find a group of ambitious amateurs who can be trained up to take over a West End musical later this year. If, like me, you have a limited tolerance of receptionists from Walsall belting out ‘Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk!’ a semitone flat, you can still enjoy the three judges, who are experienced, well-informed, sympathetic, truly anxious to discover and nurture new talent. This is not a mean-spirited and cynical show like Pop Idol. In particular, it has in one judge, Stacey Haynes, a beautiful black choreographer and dancer, a real, screen-stealing star. I think that being rejected by Stacey would be more heart-warming than being called the next big thing by Simon Cowell.
My Dad’s the Prime Minister (BBC1) has been brought into a grown-up slot on Friday night. This was something of a risk, but I think it’s worked. It, too, is a twist on an old formula, being another family comedy about how teenagers despise their parents and wives look down with varying degrees of contempt upon their husbands. The extra gag is that the husband is the prime minister, and the twist on that is that Robert Bathurst plays the PM in the same dazed yet pompous style he perfected in Cold Feet. He talks at home like Tony Blair does in public (‘Politics is all about making difficult decisions, and visiting my mother is one of them’; ‘That wasn’t a promise, it was a target — an aspiration’).
There are good gags — daughter is told to take off hoodie for the cameras, revealing a T-shirt that reads: ‘My other Barbie is a crack whore.’ The family poses leaning on a five-barred gate, which collapses, a scandal known as ‘Gategate’, and in Duncan there’s a spin doctor who is quite as malevolent as Alastair Campbell, though perhaps rather more competent.
Raphael — A Mortal God (BBC1) shows what happens when you let a naturally BBC2 programme on to the other channel. This was a serious attempt to explain the painter’s life and work, and put it into historical context. Oh dear — that’s not enough for BBC1 on a Sunday night. There had to be dramatisations. Apparently, the life of Renaissance Florence and Rome closely resembled that of EastEnders, with plenty of ‘leave it out’-style dialogue and knifings. The big rumble was between Raphael and Michelangelo down the Queen Vic — sorry, the Vatican. Raphael arrived with his posse. Michelangelo (dressed like a Big Issue salesman): ‘Do you need all these hangers-on?’ Raphael: ‘Look at yourself, Michelangelo.’
Later, there is talk of Raphael taking over his manor. Michelangelo: ‘I will not relinquish the Sistine Chapel to anyone.’ Raphael: ‘Do you ever change your clothes?’
The scene where Raphael staggered round his bedroom having literally shagged himself to death was unintentionally hilarious. I shall find it hard to get it out of my head when I pop into the new Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery.