Biddy Baxter and the perils of remembering the past

I’ve been reading the cracking, crackling new biography Biddy Baxter: The Woman Who Made Blue Peter by Richard Marson (he’s a friend, but I wouldn’t sell you a pup). There is always fun to be had in the gap between the transmitted, necessarily anodyne, product of children’s TV and the real-life shenanigans backstage, and the story of the often forbidding Biddy serves this up in satisfyingly salty dollops. In the collegiate, committee-ridden atmosphere of TV production, Baxter was a rare tyrant but one who always put the viewer ahead of any other consideration. Making TV is a battle; the reason so much of it is so bad is that the people involved

Much of the mysteriousness is inadvertent: ITV’s The Reunion reviewed

The Reunion opened in 1997 with some young people being carefree: a fact they obligingly signalled by zipping around the South of France helmetless on motorcycles while laughing a lot. Love appeared to be in the air as well – given that they consisted of two couples: the men in charge of driving (different times), the girls holding them tightly around the waist. But then matters took a darker turn as a voice-over intoned that ‘memory is a false friend’ and we sometimes ‘create our own truth’. And with that, we cut to present-day London where, despite its taste for banalities, the voice-over turned out to belong to a respected

The BBC’s biggest problem

As I write this, the director-general of the BBC is being quizzed on the corporation’s future by people who were around when Sir John Reith kind of set the whole thing up. A cheap crack, I know – and I have nothing against the House of Lords. Anything which mediates our dangerous experiment with democracy is to be welcomed – the peers, the royals, the judges etc. I have been dipping in and out of the event and have yet to hear Tim Davie asked if he plans to bring back It’s That Man Again or whether or not the injunction ‘sod off’ is suitable for post-watershed viewing. If only

Gareth Roberts

Will we even notice if AI replaces screenwriters?

We are edging into the third month of the strike by the Writers Guild of America, called because of shrivelling residual royalty payments from streaming movies and TV, as well as concern about AI such as ChatGPT being used to generate story ideas – and indeed to write scripts. Hollywood’s screenwriters have now been joined by the 150,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild, which was demonstrated very visibly by the cast of Oppenheimer walking out of its UK premiere last week. ‘We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines,’ said union president Fran Drescher. Susan Sarandon has said of AI: ‘I would hope that

How to enjoy Glastonbury from your sofa

More than 200,000 people have schlepped down the ley lines for another year of ‘Glasto’. It’s tempting to deride these people: they’ll stink, they’re anchorless hedonists, they’re blue-haired hippies. However, they’ve got tickets to Glastonbury and I haven’t, so they win.  Actually going to the festival, however, is a minority experience. More of us will be watching it on TV. And whether you dig the Glastonbury vibe or not, there’s plenty of good music for all across this weekend.  The most important thing to remember, though, is to watch as little of the coverage as possible. It’s fluff. For three whole days, everything is ‘fantastic’, everyone will ‘bring it’ and

My return to dating

The Coronation Street writers have produced 26 scenes to ease me out of the show for long enough for me to nip down to London to do a play for four weeks in the West End. They are long scenes – one is 13 pages – with my screwed-up, long-lost daughter, played by Claire Sweeney. I really need to get a grip on my Corrie lines, but my attention is torn between them and the play script. It’s been eight months since I last performed Rose, a one-woman show about a feisty old lady who goes from a shtetl in Ukraine to owning a hotel in Miami Beach, and this

Douglas Murray

The strange obsession with Phillip Schofield

As I have noted before, there is always another circle. I thought that last week’s scandal (originally entitled ‘Suellagate’ or ‘speedgate’ by the papers) could not be surpassed for its sheer vacuousness and pointlessness. But then I did not foresee that the next week would be one in which every newspaper and news bulletin would lead with a story about a morning television presenter. Yet here we are, after more than a week of national debate about Phillip Schofield. I first became aware of Schofield when he was presenting children’s television from the BBC’s ‘broom cupboard’ with Gordon the Gopher. I have not followed the career of either character very

TV dramas like Welcome to Wrexham are spoiling sport

Wrexham had never seen anything like it: thousands of fans cheering their team as an open-top bus made its way through the city’s streets. On board, Wrexham’s footballers celebrated their side’s promotion back to the English football league. The club’s star owners, Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, were there too – and with them, as usual, came the cameras. The rise of Wrexham has become the subject of a hit Disney+ documentary, Welcome to Wrexham. It’s a feel-good story about Ryan and Rob, two rich and handsome actors from the other side of the Atlantic, taking over a down-and-out club in a depressed industrial heartland and giving it hope. Wrexham

Does Shakespeare tell us how Succession will end?

The award-winning Succession is many things. Now in its fourth series, it has been compared with a Renaissance painting, a Greek tragedy, a Jane Austen novel, and a psychoanalytical allegory of trauma responses (Kendall – fight; Connor – flight; Shiv – fawn; Roman – freeze). Ultimately, however, it is a Shakespearean series. The writers may have swapped the battlefield for the boardroom and armies for anxious shareholders, but the show’s character studies and themes – power, family, politics, betrayal, revenge – are Shakespearean in their complexity and circularity. Only instead of soliloquies, we have a lot more raised eyebrows, death-stares and ‘uh-huhs’. There’s even a playwright called Willa. Like Shakespeare

The secrets of London by postcode: E (East)

How Walford in EastEnders got its name, why Isaac Newton visited bars in disguise and what happened when the IRA parked on a double yellow line. Our tour of London’s postcode areas has reached its penultimate stop – who fancies an E?

In praise of Prunella Scales

As I’ve got on in years I’ve been fairly successful in eliminating vices – most of the debauchery of my teens and twenties is a distant, hazy memory. But as I reached my fifties I found I had fallen into the grip of a compulsion that was as powerful and unshakeable as any drug. My name is John and I am addicted to Great Canal Journeys with Prunella Scales and Timothy West.  During my condition’s worst ravages I found myself staying up half the night binge-watching this endearing elderly couple navigating their way around the historic waterways of Britain at 2mph. The pottering about, the occasional prang while entering and exiting locks,

The dark side of Ted Lasso

You’ll know where you are with Ted Lasso – the third season of which has just started on Apple TV – as soon as you hear the Marcus Mumford co-written theme song. It peddles a sort of sub-Coldplay uplift, with a lot of big, meaningless anthemic ‘yeah’s in the chorus. Bright, accessible, catchy and instantly forgettable, you still enjoy hearing it every time you watch a new episode. And that’s the show in microcosm: cheery, amusing and utterly inconsequential. Yet somehow the Jason Sudeikis vehicle has become not only Apple TV’s biggest hit to date, but the most Emmy-nominated comedy in recent years. It has won for everyone from Sudeikis (who has

The perverse and addictive appeal of Netflix’s You

In our risk-averse, deeply fearful age, the idea of one of the most popular shows on any streaming service being a black comedy about a serial killer who has an unfortunate penchant for murdering the women he falls in love with might be something of a tough sell. But the bloody exploits of Joe Goldberg, a bookstore worker-turned-university-professor, who has so far terrorised the denizens of New York, California and London, have run to four immensely popular seasons on Netflix, with a likely fifth and final instalment in the next year or two. Not bad for a series that – intentionally or otherwise – treads a fine line between hilarity

Succession and the rise of ‘eat the rich’ entertainment

Farces, satires and straight slapstick comedies about extremely wealthy people have made popular entertainment for centuries. In film, the most notable example is Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), in which a group of upper-middle-class French people gather at swanky events, culminating in an affair that ends in a mistaken identity shotgun death, one that will be reported to the police as ‘nothing more than an unfortunate accident’. HBO’s Succession, which returns to Sky Atlantic with a fourth season on Monday, has followed an even wealthier group of people, even more self-absorbed, distorted and cut off from the outside world than Renoir’s overzealous swingers and servants whistling past the future graveyards

Bored of the Rings: the Tolkien industry has gone far enough

In 1969, Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney, future founders of National Lampoon, published a satirical takedown of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, entitled Bored of the Rings. It holds up remarkably well today as a closely observed parody of Tolkien’s more windy stylistic tics. One critic, David Bratman, remarked: ‘Those parodists wrought better than they knew. I think it is highly significant how close Tolkien came to inadvertently writing the parody version of his own novel – and how completely, in the end, he managed to avoid it.’ Yet recent news that the ‘official’ Lord of the Rings series is to have yet more film adaptations made of it should not only send any right-minded cineaste

What to watch on Netflix (while we can still share passwords)

If you share a Netflix account with a friend, relative, colleague, in-law, neighbour or ex whose password you happened to crack, your viewing days may be numbered. The streaming service is planning to fight back against password-sharing – by charging an extra fee to subscribers who let friends and family from other households use their account. In a post this month, Netflix emphasised that ‘a Netflix account is intended for one household’, adding: ‘We’ve always made it easy for people who live together to share their Netflix account with features like profiles and multiple streams. While these have been hugely popular, they’ve also created confusion about when and how you can

What Jeremy Clarkson has in common with Beatrix Potter

Not since the pursuit of Peter Rabbit around Mr McGregor’s garden has rural drama been writ so large. From behind the wheel of his Lamborghini tractor, Jeremy Clarkson’s face crumples as the nine-ton machine rolls back over a field mouse – only to erupt into joy as the mouse emerges unscathed from beneath the wheel. A decade ago, the Top Gear host was fending off outrage after sharing on Twitter an image of a rodent squashed by the show’s film crew. Today, the petrolhead is a man transformed, his compassion for nature and enthusiasm for rural life lighting up our screens in Clarkson’s Farm, the Amazon Prime series documenting his attempts to run

Meghan Markle’s ‘upset’ over South Park

Harry and Meghan have yet to publicly speak about last week’s episode of South Park, presumably because they don’t have the staff left to formulate a press release. But California sources claim that Meghan has spent the past few days ‘upset and overwhelmed’ about how she was portrayed. If you’ve read anything about Harry and Meghan over the past three years, you’d think the pair would be delighted with how South Park parodied them. The entire episode, titled ‘The Worldwide Privacy Tour’, gives them enough fodder to moan for a few more books… or Netflix documentaries… or Spotify podcasts. Meghan can cry about how she is a victim of misogyny and Harry can

The tragedy of Fawlty Towers

The secret of any great sitcom is the delicate balance of sit and com. Mess the ‘sit’ bit up and you lose the ‘com’. Del Boy without Nelson Mandela House is as unthinkable as Alan Partridge without his ‘grief hole’ (aka the Linton Travel Tavern), which is why both of these characters eventually came unstuck. Sending the Grace Brothers’ employees on holiday to Costa Plonka in the 1977 Are You Being Served? feature-length comedy fell flat because, devoid of petty department store politics, the characters had no reason to exist – thus audiences felt cheated.  Remove tightly written characters from their uncomfortable surroundings and viewers stop caring. The tension between tragedy

Is Amazon wasting Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s talents?

The Tomb Raider franchise seems to have been a graveyard for oddly overqualified people. Angelina Jolie played the character of Lara Croft twice after winning an Oscar, and subsequently Alicia Vikander gave the English aristocrat-turned-global adventurer a go. Neither left much of a mark – which is why it is all the more surprising that Fleabag creator and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is to write the scripts for a new Amazon series based on the video game. It has been wryly observed that, despite her heroics in the forthcoming Indiana Jones film, Waller-Bridge herself is not expected to play Lara Croft. That’s a disappointment for those of us who would enjoy a mixture of arch smirks to