Television: Our friends off the North Circular
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Sunday 14 March 1999
In Asylum (Channel 4), Rebecca Frayn's clever, poignant film for Cutting Edge, we met former patients and future residents. The residents did not seem to care much about the building's past, although one couple were worried enough to employ a feng shui consultant. I ought to say here that I am a feng shui sceptic. Almost every time it has become an issue in my life, I have managed to work out for myself that the toilet is a bad place for the kitchen table. But I do think that a building can give off bad vibes, in which case the feng shui consultant at Friern Barnet - or Princess Park Manor, as it has been cheerfully renamed - must have felt like the late Jeffrey Bernard's personal fitness trainer, or Jonathan Aitken's lawyer, or Will Carling's PR adviser, swimming strenuously yet forlornly against the tide.
Frayn found three former patients, two of whom hated the place with a vengeance. Think of your worst nightmare, multiply it a thousand times, and still it would not approach the hell that was Friern Barnet. Such was the verdict of Joe, an Irishman who in some ways was a good advertisement for a stint in a mental asylum, since he seemed twice as rational as everyone else in the film. He certainly had a firmer grip on reality than Merylyn, who has bought one of the flats and seems to believe that Princess Park Manor - which in due course will have a swimming pool, solarium and tennis courts - is only a hammock or two short of Shangri-La.
Merylyn finds London a difficult place to make friends, and she has a point. The comedian Arnold Brown, a Glaswegian emigre, tells a gag about the night he spotted smoke coming from his neighbour's flat. Having grown used to London ways, he thought it a little forward to knock on the door, so quietly slipped a note under it, saying, "Your flat is on fire".
Merylyn thinks that Princess Park Manor will be different, a kind of ritzy kibbutz where neighbourliness will thrive. She held a party for her fellow residents, at which she slightly too insistently said she hoped they would all become good friends, and occasionally go to the cinema together. I wasn't sure whether I wanted to slap her or hug her. Either way, she ought to be warned that Shangri-La is almost certainly not to be found quite so close to the North Circular Road.
Crouch End, two or three miles away from Friern Barnet, provides the setting for a new drama called Wonderful You (ITV). I have a particular interest in this, because I live in Crouch End, and part of me hopes that Wonderful You is not a hit, since I'd hate to become a tourist attraction again. I used to live close to the Abbey Road recording studios, and grew accustomed to waiting wearily in my car twice a day while a dozen giggling Japanese teenagers walked barefoot across the zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles.
Still, I think it's safe to say that there's no danger just yet of anyone setting up a Wonderful You location-spotting tour. It is amiable enough, but strains slightly self-consciously to bridge the gap between This Life and Friends. It is co-written by Richard Lumsden, who also plays Henry, a Bridget Jones with testicles, agonising about singledom and his forthcoming 30th birthday. Greg Wise - not only a rich woman's (Emma Thompson's) boyfriend in real life but also the poor woman's George Clooney - plays an accountant, uniting tax returns and sex appeal for the first time since Amanda Burton in Brookside, circa 1985.
Episode one was, as I say, amiable. Wonderful You could even become this year's Love Hurts. But it is a little too middle-class for its own good. A candlelit dinner party, at which three couples trilled the theme tune to Mr and Mrs and waxed nostalgic about the Derek Batey years, lacked only a paeon to the recipes of Nigella Lawson. The scene made me cringe. And not, I fervently hope, because I half-recognised myself. The Grimleys (ITV) taps even more shamelessly into a Seventies nostalgia market that is in danger of becoming saturated. Those of us who come from the Seventies are, of course, thrilled that Channel 4 has started repeating The Clangers, that a current Maltesers commercial recalls David "Grasshopper" Carradine in the 1973 series Kung Fu, and that Mr and Mrs itself is about to be revived with Julian Clary where Derek Batey used to be. But I sometimes wonder where it will all stop. Probably with the next generation of commissioning editors, whose idea of a nostalgia fix will be a Bros retrospective. Anyway, The Grimleys is set in Dudley near Birmingham in 1975. It is written by Jed Mercurio, who created Cardiac Arrest, of blessed memory. Its laughs come mainly from the thick West Midlands accents and the Seventies reference points, which include the Bay City Rollers and extravagant sideburns, not to mention Noddy Holder as a music teacher and Alvin Stardust as a barman.
These are fragile foundations on which to build a sitcom, but it works passably well. And I have to say that Brian Conley's mean PE teacher is eerily like the man who "taught" me PE in 1975. Mr Stichbury used to line us up against the wall of the gym and boot a football at us. The last one to be hit, generally in the abdomen or just below, was the winner. Hence the Pavlovian stab of pain I feel in my groin, every time I hear a song by Suzi Quatro or somebody mentions Tiswas.
Did somebody mention Tiswas? Scarily, it started in 1974, which apart from anything else means that Chris Tarrant has been part of our lives for 25 whole years. Not that 25 years of Chris Tarrant is a bad thing. In fact he presides rather brilliantly over Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (ITV), with just the right blend of engaged enthusiasm and wry amusement. As for the format, it is ingenious, not least because it appeals to both the Lowest Common Denominator, whoever he is, but also to viewers of discernment, who can reassure themselves that a quiz with questions such as, "What is the literal meaning of petit-four?" is not too lowbrow to admit watching.
Besides, after decades of quiz shows in which the most valuable prize was a top-loading washing machine, it is irresistible watching contestants winning and losing vast sums of money. On the other hand, there are more impressive ways of winning money than by answering Chris Tarrant's multiple choice questions. In To The Ends of the Earth (Channel 4), a poet called Robert Twigger discovered a $50,000 challenge established in 1910 by US President Theodore Roosevelt, who promised the money to the first person delivering a 30ft snake to the Bronx Zoo.
Gamely if not somewhat rashly, given his entirely reasonable fear of snakes, Twigger accepted the challenge, and an enjoyable if decidedly eccentric documentary followed him to Malaysia and then on to Indonesia, where big snakes abound. It was established fairly early on that there probably are no 30ft snakes, even in Indonesia, so what followed was a sub-Nick Broomfield exercise, doomed to failure. Nevertheless, it was surprisingly tense, particularly when Twigger and his entourage went wading through an inhospitable Suramese swamp. "They must be mad," I said to my wife, but that was before I heard stories about patients at Friern Barnet Hospital, and realised that madness is not really a condition to be taken in vain.
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