There are few things quite as sickly as an ostentatiously happy marriage, and the one you got at the beginning of All the Small Things was so smugly cheerful that the Radio Times should have stapled a waterproof bag alongside Tuesday's programme details. Esther and Michael, we discover, are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, an occasion marked by a surprise chorale of "Nobody Does It Better", arranged by Esther with the help of the choir that Michael runs. And when she finds out that he hasn't got anything to offer in return for this heartwarming gesture, she doesn't pout or get cross, she dissolves into affectionately scandalised giggles and they have a play fight that ends in bed. Even when she disagrees with him she does it while snuggling up to him and staring adoringly into his eyes. Curiously, her children don't make the loud retching noises with which my own teenagers greet any display of parental affection, but perhaps after 20 years of this syrupy stuff they've had time to get used to it.
Fortunately, this being a Debbie Horsfield drama, you know it couldn't last for long. Debbie Horsfield does relationship angst, and rivalry complicated by relationship angst, so barely 10 minutes had passed before Layla was beamed into the drama, played by Sarah Alexander with those sexy humanoid cat's eyes and a celestial voice that, judging from the weird lip-sync, was being transmitted from her home planet. "I should warn you, I'm very slow," she purred suggestively, after Michael unceremoniously bumped Esther from her solo spot to give it to Layla. "I need a lot of rehearsal." She got it and next thing you knew Michael was standing moodily in the marital bedroom, having a go at Esther for liking cocoa and Harry Potter. "When was the last time you travelled, or learnt a new skill or brought a new perfume? When do you ever step outside your comfort zone?"
Do we have a suspicion of where we're headed to from here? I rather think we do, don't we? Poor dumped Esther is going to blossom and Michael is going to be punished, although the speed with which Horsfield had the worm turn was dizzying, as if the drama's storyboard had come out of a double-page spread from a Bunty comic. Determined to bring her withdrawn (possibly autistic) son out of his shell, Esther set up a choir of her own, roped in her pony-tailed neighbour (who, I'm guessing, will declare his adoration some time around episode three) and entered the local music competition. And no sooner had Michael turned to Layla and said, "Oh my angel... I think I can visualise that trophy on my bedside table tonight" than Esther's scratch chorus had brought the crowd to its feet with a version of Blink-182's "All the Small Things" that was heart-warming, uplifting, life-affirming and a number of other unsettling adjectives. And, wouldn't you know it, the backstage tussle as Layla tried to pull the plugs on their amplification accidentally brought up a spotlight on Esther, shyly trying to lurk in the shadows. Some of the singing was quite fun, but dear Lord you paid a heavy price to get to it.
It isn't easy for a real scientist to present Horizon these days. The best tactic would probably be to give up the day job altogether and carve out a career for yourself in stand-up comedy, though you can take a short cut by sharing the gig with somebody who's already done that, as the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy did in "Alan and Marcus Go Forth and Multiply". The idea was that he would take Alan Davies on a magical mystery tour of mathematical concepts, moving him on from the mere "grammar of maths" (times tables, quadratic equations etc) to its Shakespearian poetry, which was things like the Poincaré conjecture and Euclid's proof that there are infinite primes.
The title perfectly summed up my feelings about the programme, though I expressed the concept in two monosyllables, because this was a classic example of Horizon's increasing reluctance to let anything like scientific complexity spoil an otherwise inoffensive light-entertainment programme. Tantalisingly, they occasionally touched on genuinely interesting ideas, only to veer away almost immediately for a bit of low-energy comic bumbling from Davies or time-wasting "experiments". It now seems to be compulsory, for instance, to have someone undergo a brain scan in every programme even if, as here, the results are completely unilluminating. " We're definitely seeing parts of your brain activating when you're doing a maths problem," the researcher told Davies after he'd donned the wiry shower-cap. Goodness, who'd have thought it? Meanwhile, the fascinating idea that the distribution of primes may be linked to deep patterns in the real world was effectively just mentioned in passing. Trying to acquire scientific knowledge from Horizon these days is like trying to learn to swim in a municipal pool's footbath. It's far too shallow, and you don't even want to think about most of the stuff that's in there.Reuse content