Last Night's Television - Design for life, BBC2; Keith Meets Keith, Channel 4; Home Time, BBC2
Could be a big draw
Tuesday 15 September 2009
Professor Erno Rubik got fewer twists out of his famous cube than the nation's television producers have applied to the so-called reality format, and the latest version in
Design for Life, a cocktail of Dragons' Den, The Apprentice and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, in which 12 aspiring designers compete for the approval of the celebrated Philippe Starck, dropping out when they fail his challenges until only one is left to take up a coveted six-month work placement at his Paris agency. The paradox is that Starck owes his gigantic reputation to innovation, to the dreaded "thinking outside the box", yet the series itself is relentlessly formulaic, dreamt up by someone who thought not just inside the box, but inside another box inside that box.
Still, if you can bear yet another saga of dashed hopes and contestants disconsolately exiting the fray every week, Designs for Life shows some early promise. I will never entirely forgive Starck for designing a hotel in New York in which I once had the misfortune to stay, a place so intimidatingly fashionable that access to the lounge was forbidden to anyone not at the very least wearing Calvin Klein underpants (you think I'm joking?), but it is enlightening to watch him at work, and to hear his crazy aphorisms; for example, that good design is about "life, sex, flesh, sweat". The West Indian philosopher C L R James put it slightly differently when he wrote, "what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" but it amounts to the same sentiment: to understand the subject, you need to have lived a bit.
It was unsurprising, therefore, that one of last night's two discards was the youngest of the aspirants, a 19-year-old lad studying design at Dundee University. But in truth, Starck could have given the boot to almost any of them, and I wonder whether the original selection process was sufficiently rigorous? The 12 were chosen simply on the strength of design drawings that they sent in, one proposing a light bulb shaped like a noose, another a vertical, screw-in coffin to save space in cemeteries. Perhaps they'd heard that Starck has a death fixation. At any rate, he thinks that the British design industry is in poor health, although frankly it was hard to see which of this collection of hopefuls might offer it new life, with the possible exception of a fellow called Nebil, who unfortunately has the kind of personality you'd cross continents to avoid. But then no one said that great designers have to be nice blokes. Starck himself seems like a bit of a pain in the rear, or maybe he simply suffers from that odd French tendency to mistake clowning for wit.
Some folk are also inclined to mistake blokeishness for being a nice bloke, as became clear in Keith Meets Keith, a strange but compelling documentary in which one well-known roisterer, Keith Allen, went in search of another, the former TV chef Keith Floyd, finding him in a village near Avignon looking terrible, at least one decade and possibly two older than his 65 years.
There is already plenty of evidence to suggest that Floyd is not a particularly nice man, and plenty more emerged here, but his unflagging capacity to drink, smoke and swear to excess – including a liberal sprinkling of the c-word, which has officially lost its status as the last TV taboo – was seemingly enough to convince Allen that he was "one of the most honest and genuine people I've ever met". Now, I don't mean to sound pious. I've even been known to enjoy a spot of carousing myself. But there was nothing honest or genuine in the gruesome spectacle of Floyd getting steadily more hammered, more melancholy and more abusive at a lunch with his daughter Poppy, from whom he had been estranged for 10 years. It was car-crash television. The only thing more agonising than watching was not watching.
Another long-lost daughter surfaced in Home Time, a new comedy sufficiently highly regarded at the BBC for the schedulers to give it a BBC2 slot, without the usual careful launch on Three or Four. All of which might appear to be the prelude for a critical mauling, opening episodes so often being dodgy even when a comedy turns out to be good, let alone when it turns out to be dismal.
But, hold on to your remote control units, Home Time is that dispiritingly rare thing in a new comedy: it's funny. Gaynor, beautifully played by co-writer Emma Fryer, is a mixed-up 29-year-old who left her native Coventry at 17 and hasn't been seen since, even by her parents. Her old friends, still furious with her for doing a runner and not having the decency to come back even when Diana died, have stayed, stagnating, in "Cov". It's slickly and engagingly done, as we might expect of Baby Cow, the production company that gave us Gavin & Stacey. Of course, expectations are routinely dashed by television. But these might just last the course.
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