Written by Books, Radio, TV

What I Watched, Listened To and Read Over Christmas

You may or may not have enjoyed my Radio Times suggestions. I didn’t always follow them myself. But in the spirit of honesty, this is what I did watch over Christmas:

The final two episodes of Cabin Pressure were recorded back in February, but only reached the airwaves over Christmas with the story being essentially wrapped up. You did know that Benedict Cumberbatch was in a Radio 4 sitcom didn’t you?

Top Gear’s Christmas special is always a guilty pleasure. Despite now seeing the artifice of it, with the by-the-numbers nature of things, it still manages to entertain.

Better though was James May’s Toy Stories with Action Man. This time around it was a little more forced because as May rightly said at the start of the programme, there was very little that Action Man really did. He was most fun for me as a child, when paired with his armoured car (a much treasured present). This could spin him around at quite a speed. I once went to a toyshop in Barnet to get “Action Man’s” autograph…

It is with heavy heart that I have to admit the the first of the Miranda two-parter was quite the worst episode I’ve seen in this series. It improved in the second part on New Year’s Day, although it was a close run thing whether I’d even bother watching, so cringe-worthy was the first part. Wrap-up episodes are always dangerous, particularly when the series has been pretty free-wheeling up until then.

Another sitcom that did the same trick a little better was Not Going Out. I don’t know if another series has been commissioned, but they’ve certainly gone as far as they can with the story so far. This got a super-sized single episode rather than a two-parter. But it was also a bit baggy and could have been chopped down. Like Miranda, there were flashbacks, and a few guests reappeared – not least Tim Vine, who left a couple of series ago. My Sky+ also recorded at outtakes special which had the most awkward pieces to camera you can imagine linking bloopers. Save this for a DVD extra.

Charlie Brooker had two excellent programmes over the festive period. Black Mirror was actually a bit before Christmas, but I’ll mention it because it was a very joined up piece of work linking a portmanteau of stories together. And 2014 Wipe was a funny, scathing and smart as you’d want. With the seeming cancellation of 10 O’Clock Live, we don’t get as much Brooker as we used to. But there are more Wipes on the way.

Sky One brought us the first in what they undoubtedly hope will be an ongoing series based on the novels of M C Beaton (aka Marion Chesney) – Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death. This prolific writer (and she really is prolific) also brought us Hamish Macbeth, the TV adaptation of which I loved. Incidentally, did you know that Hamish Macbeth novels are still being published? Anyway, I was aware of the book series despite not having read any of them, so I gave this a go. I would characterise it as a more light-hearted Midsomer Murders. That’s not a series I’ve had any great truck with, and sadly I’m not sure I’ll be watching any more of these. I’m also not quite sure that this is right for Sky One. It’d sit perfectly on ITV, but it feels wrong up alongside endless Simpsons repeats and American imports. I still feel that Sky needs to work harder to define its channels better.

BBC Four seems to have created a new format with Al Murray’s Great British… Spy Movies. Previously we had War Films, and like that, this was filmed in some lovely London cinema with Matthew Sweet drowning in an armchair, and a couple of other guests. It’s simple, and they show lots of clips – the obvious ones, and the much less obvious ones. In any case, I could watch clips of Monica Vitti in Modesty Blaise as much as you like.

Seemingly one of Waterstones’ bestsellers over Christmas was Mystery in White by a certain J Jefferson Farjeon. I suspect that like many Waterstones customers, I picked this up because of the cover. It shows a train stuck in a snow drift, with the passengers heading away for Christmas. The book is part of selection of old British crime novels published by the British Library. These aren’t the classics that you already know about, and that are still in print, but less well-known titles that were big in their day. In this instance, our plucky characters set out away from the train to a country house they find in the blizzard. It’s totally deserted, yet the fire has been made and the kettle is on… All good fun, and not quite what you’re expecting.

Each year The Guardian’s superb Review section gives publishers a chance to highlight their favourite titles – those they brought out, and those that others had. These tend to be more obvious fare. But the most revealing question they’re asked is about books they believe deserved to have done better. These are often titles that they loved, but maybe didn’t even get any broadsheet reviews. I always make a note of some of these. Andrew Franklin of Profile Books highlighted Andrew Martin’s Belles and Whistles: Five Journeys Through Time On Britain’s Trains. But I’d already added that to my Christmas list! Although it concentrates on five specific lines/routes, it’s also a potted history of British railways. Martin is always good value, as readers of his Jim Stringer books will know. His is a personal view, and makes clear his view on lots of rail-related things.

Off the back of Martin’s book, I bought the DVD of The Flying Scotsman, a very early British talkie from 1930 (as opposed to the Graham Obree story with Jonny Lee Miller). Indeed, it’s so early that the first half of the film is actually silent with the usual intertitles. It seems that the recording kit must have only arrived deep into production. Now I wouldn’t say that this is a great unknown British film, but it’s fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, much of it was filmed on my local railway line, the “Hertford loop”, where the borrowed the real train and shot the film on Sundays. Secondly, it stars a very young Ray Milland before he headed off to America. And third, the stuntwork is amazing. Basically Pauline Johnson really is climbing along the outside of a train in unbelievably inappropriate footwear. Unlike so many other productions, it’s really obvious that they filmed most of it in real trains rather than in the studio, and for that reason alone it’s breathtaking.

Just before Christmas I listened to the always excellent Bike Show podcast, featuring an end of year round-up of cycling books published this year. I’d read a couple of them, and a couple more were immediately added to my very long “must-read” list. But over Christmas, I read Ned Boulting’s entertaining 101 Damnations: Dispatches from the 101st Tour de France. Basically it’s the other bits of the Tour you didn’t already see on the very extensive TV coverage, alongside little bits of history that you may or may not know.

The Doctor Who Christmas special was very clever, and I enjoyed it a lot. That said, I think Steven Moffat has just about mined all our childhood fears completely at this stage, and we need to look elsewhere. Still – spoiler alert – we get more Clara which is a good thing.

Many radio programmes end up with year-end “best of” episodes that sometimes feel a bit lazy. More interestingly, Steve Hewlett’s Media Show tends to take a subject and have a round table discussion, with a little sprinkling of stardust. This time around, it was about chat shows, with Graham Norton among the guests. It’s a very good format, and it’s shame that they only think it’s something to wheel out at Christmas. I’d say doing four or five a year might refresh things a little.

I’ve never truly been able to understand Pier Paolo Passolini. He made some interesting films, but I’ve never been really taken with them. The stylising just never works for me, with seeming amateurs gurning at the camera. And I think it might have been his version of The Decameron that has always made me dismiss it. So Terry Jones’ Radio 3 versions – Decameron Nights: Ten Italian Delicacies Remixed from Boccacchio – was a breath of fresh air. Bawdy? Yes. Raunch? Certainly. Funny? Definitely. Some of these tales are familiar, others less so. And somehow they work so much better on the radio than on television.

Having re-watched both Interstellar and 2001 A Space Odyssey on the big screen before Christmas, I have just caught up with the excellent Second Run DVD of Ikarie XB-1, the 1963 Czech science fiction film. Set on a spaceship heading to Alpah Centauri, the film addresses issues related to time-dilation (as Interstellar did), as well as how a crew might cope over that period of time. It seems clear that Stanley Kubrick must have seen this film because elements are definitely borrowed by him. Certainly the effects aren’t great, but the ideas are fascinating. And the score by Zdeněk Liška is wonderful, and sadly unavailable. There’s a lovely scene where we get an imagined future disco, in which the dancing is more regency than anything. Truly worth seeking out. (As an aside, listening to Graham Norton on Radio 2, I learn that the Queen song 39, also addresses this idea).

Despite finding the woman fascinating, I couldn’t stick with Darcey Bussell’s Looking for Audrey Hepburn. I like Bussell, and I love her subject, but I’m a little fed up of presenters getting fancy cars to drive around Rome in (which we know are surrounded by crew SUVs). I’m not sure what that adds to things. And while Hepburn’s upbringing in Holland during the war was appalling, she wasn’t alone in that country suffering like that. In the end, she probably had it better than many others. That said, I will be happily going along to see the photo exhibition that the National Portrait Gallery is going to be holding later this year. Even today, the announcement of that allowed newspapers the opportunity to print her picture on the front page.

New Year is something I largely opt out. But I do enjoy two stalwarts. One is the obvious New Year’s Day Concert shown on BBC Two (and BBC Four) and also broadcast on Radio 3. The Blue Danube and Radetzky March are always highlights. The other is Le Grand Cabaret Du Monde with Patrick Sebastien from France 2, shown in the UK on TV5. I can’t remember quite how I stumbled across this show, but the 2015 broadcast marks its 31st year. Sebastien seems to be a French, well, I’d say think a younger Bruce Forsyth, but that wouldn’t be quite right. He opens the show surrounded by topless go-go dancers, which apparently is fine at 9pm in France. But the rest of the show is a cavalcade of magic, acrobatics, dance troupes and so on. It is truly international, and for the most part the performances are without dialogue, so don’t worry if your French isn’t up to much. In between acts it’s a bit of a chat show with a stream of French stars plugging their latest wares. And occasionally there will be repeats of performances from previous years (these are seamlessly added by virtue of the set remaining constant over the years). At midnight Sebastien leads the acts and the audience in a big song using the music of the Can-Can. Everyone in the studio kisses one another in that French way, and we then get a load more acts. Incidentally, the programme’s big spectacle might be New Year’s Eve, but it’s a Saturday night staple in France throughout the year. An entertaining alternative to the Hootenannay with the bonus that they celebrate New Year at 11pm.

One thing sadly missing was the programme last year called Moments in Time. The BBC for a number of years produced this news review programme that looked back on the year via some iconic photo journalism – not something you usually get a great deal of on television. We’d get the stories behind the stories and it was a wonderful programme. Then it disappeared until last year it reappeared as mentioned, using the fact that many of these images are now captured by non-professionals who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. Sadly, this year’s schedules reveal no 2014 edition. A pity.

Things still awaiting me on my Sky+: Professor Branestawm, the original Wallanders, and Mapp and Lucia. And I do want to hear all ten hours of Radio 4’s War and Peace. Just probably not in a single day.