Last Night's Television - When a Mother's Love is Not Enough, BBC1; James May's Toy Stories, BBC2; John Sergeant on the Tourist Trail, ITV1

Yet to find his rhythm
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The Independent Culture

John Sergeant began his film about British holidays by announcing that he was fed up of those portraits of Britain “with people like me wandering about saying how marvellous we are”. He then proceeded to wander about a bit saying how marvellous we are, sometimes leaving the praise to theoverseas tourists he was travelling with, sometimes chipping in himself with a panegyric to the British landscape and the charm of our ancient traditions. I wonder if he rang up Alexander Armstrong – who did something rather similar on the British holiday on Sunday night – to ensure that they didn’t have an embarrassing staycation documentary pile-up somewhere in the Lake District? And what exactly did the tourists he accompanied make of the fact that native Britons now have a tendency to shout things like, “Do you want a waltz” whenever he appears? Did he explain that this was a highly specific response to reality-television celebrity, rather than a standard English greeting?

The idea of John Sergeant on the Tourist Trail was to get beyond the clichés by looking at Britain through alien eyes. Which naturally didn’t mean that cliché would be dispensed with as a presentational tool. Accompanying the footage of German motorcycle enthusiasts arriving in the Isle of Man for an annual TT Race pilgrimage, what else would be playing on the soundtrack but Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries. And would John mention the war? Well, yes he would, at least obliquely, noting at one point that he was going to talk to a group of tourists “behind German lines”. Not only that but the tourist itinerary seemed to consist of cliché too – the RHS Gardens at Wisley (target for a stereotypically vocal group of American horticultural tourists), Loch Ness, where the invisible monster industry seems to be doing a good job of bucking the recession , and the World of Beatrix Potter in the Lake District, where one in four of the visitors are Japanese, and people who probably command multi-million yen companies back home totter dazedly through the exhibits exclaiming “Ah! Tiggy-winkle!” in tones of childlike wonder.

To be fair, Sergeant had acknowledged that he would be following the standard itinerary, hinting that he would turn guide himself later in the programme to reveal something less stereotyped. He then took the Germans off to Great Tew in Oxfordshire, a postcard English village with cricketers in white on the green and briared cottages on the high street, distinguishable from other postcard English villages only by the fact that one John Sergeant grew up there in the vicarage. The German bikers looked polite but uncomprehending as he took them on a tour of his former home and fell into raptures of entirely private nostalgia.

I’m not sure how to say this but Sergeant could learn some things about presentation from James May’s Toy Stories, which may be a tiny bit selfindulgent at an hour, but which is also inventive and unexpected and unobtrusively instructive about British social history. This week, May set out to construct a bridge large enough to carry him across a canal, using only Meccano, a relatively easy task if they’d gone for a dull design, butmade much harder by the fact that he chose a bascule bridge with a rotating swing arm. It seemed a little odd to me that you could make an hour-long programme about Meccano with only the briefest of mentions about its lacerating effect on childish fingers, but it successfully captured the appeal of a toy that wasn’t really a toy at all, but a calculated plan to create the next generation of British engineers. And – I’m not sure how to say this either – his script (both impromptu and prepared) made Sergeant’s look decidedly underpowered.

When a Mother’s Love Is Not Enough, Rosa Monckton’s film about the pressures that bear down on the parents of disabled children, was deeply moving and sometimes uncomfortable viewing. Having children of any kind has its tough moments, but recalling one’s own grumbles about fatigue and mess and tantrums in the light of the ordeals faced by some of these parents was a shaming business. Monckton spoke from personal experience as the mother of a Down’s syndrome daughter, and was bravely candid about the points at which fatigue and grief overwhelms you. She’d also captured a very touching moment when David Cameron struggled with his emotions on recalling the challenges of living with his disabled son. But it was hard not to feel that something had been left out in her calls for better support for such parents.

“What is missing from the state is the help,” she concluded, “What is missing is the compassion and the common sense.” Surely what is missing is the money that would render state compassion effective? Feeling sincerely sorry for these parents wouldn’t improve their lives a jot, but more free respite care would. How you pay for it is at the heart of such a debate, not an afterthought.