Last Night's TV - Ross Kemp’s Extreme World, Sky1
My Life in Books, BBC2
An injection of adrenalin
Tuesday 22 February 2011
If only Ross Kemp had been called up by the Baltimore Police Department, David Simon might have had the whole of The Wire wrapped up in a one-hour HBO special. In the first of his new series, Ross Kemp: Extreme World, the EastEnders actor-turned-Bafta-winning documentary maker set out to expose the murky secrets of Chicago's underworld. And expose them he did, gaining impressive access to a tangle of junkies and dealers, hookers and police, from the inner city to the affluent suburbs. There are now an estimated 50,000 users (and 100,000 gang members) in the Windy City, making it the heroin capital of America.
The aesthetics were all suitably Wire – simmering projects, nocturnal car journeys and a soundtrack growling with Inception levels of portent. Interviews took place on neon-lit street corners, in underpasses and (to avoid wiretaps?) in noisy, clattering diners. It's an acquired taste as documentaries go – macho and in-yer-face, with no qualms about showing needles stabbing around in collapsed veins. And Kemp, looking like an off-duty bouncer in a black T-shirt and jeans, narrated the seamy tour with a rat-ta-tat-tat urgency – think Gordon Ramsay in a war zone.
The show plays on the hard-man image of its host, but even Kemp, who has previously filmed favela gangs in Rio and squaddies in Afghanistan, seemed shocked by what he saw, veering between revulsion, pity and perhaps a little thrill of fear. He stood over a junkie having a speedball seizure in a brickyard, hung around the red-light district and, in one extraordinary scene, called into a "chop house" where strung-out minions, in surgical masks and half-naked to stop them smuggling out a stash, sat diligently cutting smack with Actifed for the street.
The programme culminated in an interview with one of the city's kingpins. Why he would decide to go on camera is a mystery, though, appearing only in silhouette, with his voice distorted, it could have been anyone. "Sometimes people get hurt really badly," said Kingpin. "You mean killed?" demanded Kemp. He's not bad at this kind of muscular interviewing – his thick neck, shaved head and impassive stare giving him an intimidating, no-nonsense air. "I have to say, while we've been here we haven't come up with any solutions to the problem," he barked at the end of a grisly 60 minutes. Don't worry, Ross, it took McNulty at least three episodes just to find Barksdale's stash house. You can't win the war on drugs in an hour.
More gimlet-eyed "interviewing" came courtesy of Anne Robinson in My Life in Books, a 10-parter leading up to World Book Night on 5 March. With a set of squashy leather armchairs and book-piled coffee table straight out of Borders, it's a hybrid of Desert Island Discs and Nigel Slater's A Taste of My Life that doesn't quite manage the cosy charms of either. This is largely down to Robinson, who is, let's be honest, better suited to whipcrack interrogation than soothing sofa chat. The producers have tried to soften her, having her pop up alarmingly from between the covers (of a book) in the credits, looking quizzical and wearing russet shades instead of her usual black. After that, though, she's pure Weakest Link, interrupting – "maybe you're just a bit soppy?" – demanding a "quick summary" of Pride and Prejudice and looking for all the world like a bossy teacher forced to listen to parents boring on at the school open evening.
She was blessed with two very charming participants for the first episode – P D James (shockingly referred to as Phyllis throughout) and Richard Bacon, who obediently explained plots and related anecdotes when instructed by the Iron Lady of literature. You didn't learn much about books, though I liked James's description of Nancy Mitford as "the sort of book you keep by the bed in case you wake up in the middle of the night with bad dreams" and Bacon's succinct observation on One Day: "I've never spent so long thinking about people who don't exist." The real interest came from the guests' own biographies, including insights into James' writing life ("I'm a woman who likes order") and Bacon's tabloid scandal. These came up in spite of, rather than thanks to, Robinson's rapid-fire questioning, though. In fact, the best rapport was between the guests who hit it off famously, Bacon patiently demonstrating his iPad and describing his early foray into television, Behind the Scenes of Topless Darts on Ice, to his 90-year-old counterpart. "In many ways, Phyllis, it's still my best work."
Another week, another guest for Glee, which is becoming the LA elite's personal, well, glee club or at least an all-singing, all-dancing Saturday Night Live for Hollywood stars keen to prove they have a sense of humour and bankable Broadway talent. This week it was Gwyneth Paltrow, fresh from promoting her music movie, Country Strong. She gamely showed her versatility performing a perky Cee Lo Green number, a little razzle-dazzle from Chicago and a splashy Rihanna/"Singin' in the Rain" mash-up as super-cool supply teacher Holly Holliday. It all felt a little try-hard, but you couldn't fault her tits-'n'-teeth, gung-ho attitude. And at least this was an episode where the guest star actually starred, unlike the Britney special, in which the singer put in a 20-second dream sequence cameo and left the entertaining to the preternaturally talented cast.
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