And Kill Them, Channel 4
Spooks: Code 9, BBC3
Kevin McCloud's Big Town Plan, Channel 4
Britain from Above, BBC1
Andrew Marr's new BBC series is brain-enlarging, beautiful telly where the most mundane earthly activity becomes poetic
Sunday 17 August 2008
I don't know if you've noticed, but there's some kind of sporting event on telly. Winners. Losers. Bullock-necked women lifting steel lollipops, mouths agape with pain. Pint-sized superheroes playing the life-or-death game of badminton. Joyless beach volleyball sessions. Humans pretending to be fish. That kind of thing. So this week, just to keep in the spirit of things, welcome to the TV Olympics.
In the God Complex Category, there were two strong contenders: Kevin McCloud, who descended like a deus ex machina into the benighted town of Castleford to save it from itself (Kevin McCloud's Big Town Plan) and Andrew Marr, who ascended into the heavens to show us Britain from Above. It was touch and go between them. McCloud has upped his game since Grand Designs, where he used to linger like a one-man Greek chorus on the edge of building sites, chanting prophecies of doom. Then he was a private design consultant, like Nicky Haslam but without the fun. Now he has turned public servant, trying to save not just a failing flat-roof gazebo, but a whole town.
By the end of the programme, Castleford had a spanking new S-shaped bridge, and Channel 4 had a shiny new halo, having donating £135,000 to the project. The viewer was not so lucky, however. This film had the soporific quality of a town planners' promotional video. With a constantly changing cast of townspeople, there was no central character to this narrative. McCloud is a deadeningly safe pair of hands, addicted to synonyms like someone teaching English as a foreign language ("The bridge will be a destination, a place for people to gather..."). A worthy performance from McCloud, but not a winning one. And call me pedantic, but shouldn't Channel 4 spend its budget on making programmes rather than building bridges?
Marr, however, beat his personal best. Britain from Above is brain-enlarging, beautiful telly. It has stunning visuals: supermarket depots as busy as Andreas Gursky photographs; huge lakes of sewage, elegant as brown Venetian marbled paper; beaches decorated with recurring patterns of bathers. There is plenty of satisfyingly arcane information, too, about the cause of "phantom" traffic jams, how planes are marshalled in the sky, how power hot spots flow through pylons. Here the mundane becomes poetic. Marr is as enthused and unglamorous as ever, the best geography teacher you ever had. He gets the Mary Goldring medal for services to serious telly.
In the Load of Crapola category, it was all kicking off. Maestro, aka Strictly Come Conducting, beat all previously held records for spinning out third-rate television into as long a time slot as possible. It lasted an incredible one and a half hours, proving only one thing: that there are no limits on how stupid someone can look when they are pretending to conduct an orchestra. Jane Asher looked like a haunted tailor's dummy. Peter Snow was more like a frenziedtraffic policeman. As for Alex James, pulsing to the Carmen beat as if it was, yeah, a chooone... Oh, the horror.
Still, there was stiff competition from Spooks: Code 9 which started off with this cheery scenario: a nuclear bomb hits the 2012 Olympics. But it's OK: a small band of sexy young people enlists as spies, and patriotism flourishes in these isles once more. Yes, it's just as preposterous as it sounds, and occasionally unpleasant, too - the spies look like hairdressers but practise casual torture; we even see them shooting off a suspect's big toe. This is marketed at young people and shown at 9pm; Britain from Above goes out at 10.30pm.
The female-centric TV show category closed after Dangerous Jobs For Girls pulled a muscle with its post-modern contortions and was finally thrown out for being doped up on retrograde politics.
The medal for best male newcomer ended in a photo finish. Alfie Allen's first TV performance outside of a soap was a creditable one (in the outstanding short And Kill Them, part of Channel 4's young talent special Coming Up). But the winner was Tom Daley, who has been scrutinised on film in the air, underwater and in the shower, which is more than can be said even for Peaches Geldof. He already has the model's trick of pretending to notice the camera with a big smile. Clearly, a pro. Go Team TV!
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