Friday, January 01, 2016

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: November-December 2015

Something very strange happened to me over the past couple of months.  For in my infinite (lack of) wisdom I decided to revisit "THE X FACTOR" (ITV) and watch the live shows for the first time in 8 years or so.  I don't know why, I must have lost my mind.  But it was strangely addictive for all the wrong reasons.  The six chair challenge was bizarre, the live Judges' Houses shows were frankly embarrassing, and as for Olly Murs and Caroline Flack, well the less said about them the better. So it wasn't only the viewers who were going through the motions....

After weeks of manipulative and predictable television, we were left with three finalists - third-placed soul singer Che Chesterman, chosen one Louisa Johnson and the "people's choice" Reggie 'N' Bollie. R'N'B were like Chaka Demus & Pliers (remember them, 90s kids?) updated for the 21st century. Their "What Makes You Beautiful"/"Cheerleader" mash-up was inspired.  But they were clearly stitched up in the final and in a particular burst of cruelty they were made to sing "Forever Young" which exposed their vocal inadequacies.  And it wasn't the chirpy "Parenthood" theme version of the song either, but rather a dreary ballad version tailored to the style of "new Leona" Louisa.  The music-buying public have finally had enough of Cowell's obsession with boring ballad winners' songs.  Christmas no.1?  It didn't even make no.1, only reaching no.9.  A very telling statistic which speaks volumes, that the great British public are sick and tired of the manipulative X Factor.  The bad news is, it's not over yet and unfortunately will be back next year.  By that time, I'll be using my time more productively, i.e. not watching X Factor!

If The X Factor is crashing down a very slippery slope, "STRICTLY COME DANCING" (BBC1) remains a monster hit.  I quite enjoyed the 2015 series more than some in recent years.  For a start, we had some new professionals in the mix - Oti Mabuse (sadly eliminated early, hope we see her back again), Giovanni Pernice, and Gleb Savchenko.  Ahhhhh, Gleb.......not that we ever need an excuse for a gratuitous picture!

Gleb was paired with Anita Rani and they were one of my favourite couples along with Giovanni and Georgia May Foote.  Before the series started I thought that serial reality TV botherer Peter Andre would win, but after a couple of weeks Jay McGuiness, formerly of The Wanted, became a strong contender.  My main problem with Jay was that he was far too dour and emotionally unresponsive. Dancing is an expression of great joy - I'm not asking for a fake grin but even a glimmer of enjoyment would be nice.  It didn't get any better either - his unimpressed reaction on winning made me very angry indeed.  But I managed to find an extremely rare picture of him cracking a smile...

This was a controversial win, as Jay was not top of the scoreboard on final night.  But that was down to an explosion of favouritism by the judges towards Kellie Bright and Kevin Clifton for their showdance and Charleston which were virtually the same dance; but at least they looked as if they were enjoying it, and their showdance had a bit more 'show' than Jay's non-show-showdance to "Can't Feel My Face" by The Weeknd. But Jay had been the most consistent dancer over the series, so that explained the win.  Given the show's enormous popularity it was inevitable that there is great media interest, and the stories just kept on coming.  Ola Jordan quit the show, just after alleging that the judges influence the competition thanks to over-marking and under-marking certain contestants. The 'fix' allegations arose again following the final.  Whether there is any substance or not to these allegations, you have to accept that it's a modern-day TV entertainment competition, which can easily be manipulated by something as simple as a choice of a certain dance, or piece of music, or the suggestive power of a judge's remark which may convince a viewer to vote a certain way.  But that's modern-day telly for you.  Then there was the gossip about a possible romance between Jay and Aliona - after all these years of Strictly romances, the media was desperate for another one but they didn't get it.  Aliona has now quit the show, going out on a high as the only professional to win twice. Despite all the rumours, allegations and criticism, Strictly remains a bright and glamorous way of lighting up our TV screens during the dark autumn/winter nights. Same time next year then!

Still on the theme of dance, BBC2 screened a very interesting drama-documentary recently, all about Russian ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev.  "NUREYEV: DANCE TO FREEDOM" (BBC2) was a compelling look back at the dancer's rise to fame and finally his decision to defect to the West at an airport in Paris in 1961, with the KGB in hot pursuit.  The drama was interspersed with interviews with those who worked with and knew the dancer.  Nureyev was played by Artem Ovcharenko, who is not only a top ballet dancer in his own right but also bore a spooky similarity to Nureyev.  

The world of lower-league football is mainly overlooked by TV in favour of the multi-millionaire world of the Premiership, but what happened when the two came together?  "CLASS OF '92: OUT OF THEIR LEAGUE" (BBC1) answered that question.  A group of Man Utd's former players who were all part of that successful 1992 team decided to buy a local team, Salford City FC.  This very enjoyable two-part documentary followed the first season under Neville, Neville, Giggs, Scholes and Butt's ownership.  It's a very different world in the lower leagues, but this programme demonstrated that even amateur footballers can be prima donnas who think they can get away with anything! This soon resulted in the sacking of the team's manager replaced by a quite frankly very scary management duo, whilst the team also had to cope with the almost-obsessively hands-on involvement of Phil and particularly Gary Neville.  There was a happy ending of course; the team achieved promotion and face a new set of challenges in the next league up.  It would be a good idea if the BBC revisit this story in a few years to find out a) what happened next and b) if anyone had the guts to tell the Nevilles where to go.

"I can't believe what I'm watching (part 95)" - Is there no hobby, interest, pastime or sport which TV won't turn into a competition?  After the massive success of the Great British Bake Off, BBC2 brought us the Great British Sewing Bee and as if that wasn't enough, we now had "THE GREAT POTTERY THROW DOWN" which followed the exact same format with ordinary people being set weekly challenges, judged by two expert judges. Now I'll admit that pottery is a very intricate task and I applaud the talent of anyone who can turn a lump of clay into a vase or a bowl or a cup - but competitive pottery just didn't work for me.  Host Sara Cox even tried to go down the Mel and Sue innuendo route to make it more interesting, but after 20 minutes I was out.  I guess the difference between baking and pottery is that baking is a more accessible hobby; with the right instructions and ingredients anyone can bake a simple cupcake (come on, if I can, anyone can!!) whereas pottery feels more inaccessible with a higher level of expertise required.

ITV meanwhile needn't look on and scoff - not when they gave us "BBQ Champ" a.k.a. "The Blatant British Bake-Off Rip-Off" or indeed the true horror of the celebrity sheepdog trials that was "Flockstars"....

Dominic Sandbrook, the documentary maker who likes to hear the sound of his own voice, returned to BBC2 with "LET US ENTERTAIN YOU".  Never mind that Britain's manufacturing industry is kaput, because Dominic tried to convince us that Britain's greatest export is popular culture.  All the usual cliches were rolled out along the way, but it was worth watching nonetheless.

Channel 5 is terrestrial TV's home of the deja-vu list show.  The latest was "BRITAIN'S FAVOURITE ABBA SONGS".  Has this not been done already on ITV?  But C5 always have a bit of an Abba obsession and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

ITV is also prone to the odd list show too.  "THE NATION'S FAVOURITE BOND SONGS" revealed the results of a viewers' poll to choose the best James Bond theme song.  But like all these lists/polls it is inevitable that the more recent songs will do better than they deserve to.  So it was here.  I mean, really, people, "Skyfall" by Adele the best Bond song ever?  It's actually one of my least favourite, although the recent effort by Sam Smith is even worse and doesn't deserve to be called a Bond theme!  This show however brought home just how many great and timeless Bond themes there have been, even if there was the odd duffer too.

BBC1's 3-part "CAPITAL" was an intriguing drama, set around the economically and racially diverse residents of a London street, but all linked by a series of events, beginning with mysterious cards posted through their letterboxes, stating "we want what you have".  The series held my interest but I felt that it was maybe too short and could have been stretched out to another couple of episodes. I've never read the novel by John Lanchester, which the series was based on, but the critics were pretty pleased with the adaptation.

"PRISON: FIRST AND LAST 24 HOURS" (Sky One) didn't get much attention in the media, and I never heard anyone talking about it. but this fly-on-the-wall (or should that be fly-on-the-cell) series about the arrival, or liberation, of male and female prisoners in various Scottish jails.  It provided a fascinating insight into the circumstances of those who end up in prison - and almost on all occasions their lives have been doomed from day one, and their lives blighted by unstable family situations, alcohol and drugs from an early age.  It was very easy to guess which of the soon-to-be-liberated prisoners would inevitably end up back behind bars, despite their claims that this would be "the last time"; sadly, for many of these prisoners, it would appear that life 'inside' is a more preferable option to the freedom of the outside world.  This documentary series certainly provided much food for thought.

As the BBC cuts bite, there will probably be a lot less original programming on BBC4 but we got a new music documentary recently.  "I'M NOT IN LOVE - THE STORY OF 10CC" told the story of one of the 1970s' most creative and underrated groups.  I wasn't really aware of the pre-history of the group's members so it was interesting to learn that Eric Stewart sang on the Mindbenders' hit "Groovy Kind of Love" whilst Graham Gouldman was an established hitmaking songwriter before 10cc's formation.  Inevitably though, as with the stories of many bands, it was a tale of fame and fortune followed by creative conflicts which ultimately tore the band apart.  Kevin Godley and Lol Creme would go on to establish a successful career as innovative video directors and released music as a duo, Eric Stewart went on to produce a number of artists whilst Graham Gouldman still tours to this day with a new line-up of 10cc.

Finally, let's nostalgically rewind to the 90s with the return of "TFI FRIDAY" (Channel 4) for one series only.  Now I know this programme has its haters, but I was really happy to see it return although in these days of compliance, censorship and the easily-offended, those sharp edges of the original days were well blunted and the show became an adult version of a kids TV show, with the likes of Freak of Unique and Ugly Bloke replaced by silly stunts like the slip and slide, the Malteser challenge and cute animals.  And the unkindest cut of all, the "It's Your Letters" song was officially retired.  Let's face it people, none of the songs which replaced it were a patch on "It's Your Letters" which Reef came on to give its final performance ...

Scene-stealing star of the show was Chris Evans' son Noah who came on the show every week to ask his "killer question".  But daft stunts and interviews aside, TFI's strong point has always been the live music included in the show.  This series was no different and proved that mainstream TV is missing a regular outlet for music.  We need one, more than ever.  I will miss TFI Friday - yes, it may have belonged to another era, it may be silly and childish, but I've enjoyed this throwback to simpler, happier times.

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