Last Night's TV - The Little House, ITV1; The Trip, BBC2; Twitchers: a Very British Obsession,BBC4
Something wicked behind the wisteria
Tuesday 02 November 2010
There's an old story about a dinner given by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in honour of the French President Charles de Gaulle. Struggling to make conversation with Madame de Gaulle, who spoke limited English, Lady Dorothy Macmillan resorted to a parlour-game overture. "If you could have one thing in life, what would it be?" she asked her French counterpart. Madame de Gaulle pondered this for a second, then beamed and said "a penis". There was a horrified silence around the table, broken by de Gaulle, who realised the confusion and said, "Non, she means 'appiness, 'appiness."
And so to ITV's two-part drama The Little House. One of the oddities of television drama these days is how affluent its inhabitants are, how skewed its portrait of Britain in favour of those few who live in £2m-detached period homes. I should think that less than 2 per cent of the population live in rambling, wisteria-clad houses in the Home Counties, yet in telly drama, soaps apart, it must be 70 per cent or more. This is not really a complaint, just an observation. After all, what these dramas usefully tell us is that money might buy lovely homes with mullioned windows but not, as Madame de Gaulle might have expressed it, a penis.
Anyway, scarcely has our collective mirth subsided at the hammed-up middle-class misery of Bouquet of Barbed Wire, than here we are again in the land of wisteria and hysteria, this time in Ed Whitmore's slick adaptation of Philippa Gregory's novel. This little house, incidentally, is definitely not to be confused with the one on the prairie. It stands in the stockbroker-belt grounds of a much bigger house, owned by wealthy Frederick and Elizabeth (Tim Pigott-Smith and Francesca Annis), who buy it in the hope that their son Patrick (Rupert Evans) and daughter-in-law Ruth (Lucy Griffiths) will move in and raise a family there.
So far, so mundane. Except that Ruth, a teacher orphaned in a childhood car crash, isn't ready to have a baby. She wants to spend time in America hunting down distant relatives. In the meantime, her husband and his parents represent her only family, but Elizabeth's ostensible kindness is only skin-deep. Her passion is for her son Patrick, and when Ruth subsequently gives birth, for her grandson Thomas. Elizabeth was desperate for the child to be male. "I don't think you know what mothering is until you've had a boy," she told Ruth. For Elizabeth, to cite dear old Madame de Gaulle again, happiness is a penis.
All this reminds those of us with long TV memories of Mother Love, another psychological thriller of 20-odd years ago that starred Diana Rigg as the nutty mother-in-law unhealthily attached to her son and hellbent on reclaiming him from his wife. Annis treads similar territory and does so marvellously, offering only a hint here and there that beneath the serene exterior lurks a bunny-boiling psychopath. So far, it is Ruth, diagnosed with postpartum depression, who appears to be the one with the mental illness, and indeed at the end of last night's episode the poor woman was carted off to a residential "clinic", giving Elizabeth the control she craved over young Thomas.
A top-notch cast, decent script and clever, moody direction make The Little House highly watchable, but I have one major gripe. When did we become so unreliable as an audience that we couldn't be trusted to watch next week's episode without a taster, before and sometimes over the final credits, of what's going to unfold? Or is it more to do with the programme-makers' lack of confidence in the product? Either way, it's deeply annoying, especially when we're happy to be kept guessing as to what might happen, only for our guesswork to be undermined by the dreaded "Next Week..."
Thankfully, there was no such nonsense at the end of The Trip, but then we don't need a preview to anticipate more of the same part-scripted and part-improvised banter between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as they travel around the north of England, supposedly because Coogan has been hired by a Sunday newspaper to review fancy restaurants and, after inconveniently splitting up with his American girlfriend, has invited his old mate Brydon along.
The conceit is that the two comedians play heightened versions of themselves, which in the former's case seems to be a less obnoxious, more successful Alan Partridge, and in the latter's case, a worldlier, more knowing Uncle Bryn from Gavin & Stacey. Never mind the haute cuisine, The Trip is a shameless example of television feeding off itself, and sporadically very funny indeed. Moreover, speaking of Shameless, it's high time television showcased the beauty of the north of England. There must be people south of Newport Pagnell, too young to remember All Creatures Great and Small, who think of the north as one big, grubby council estate. Much as I enjoyed watching Coogan and Brydon in last night's opener, I enjoyed seeing the Trough of Bowland in my native Lancashire more.
I'm told that the Trough of Bowland is wonderful for bird-watching. I don't know much about bird-watching, or at least didn't before Twitchers: a Very British Obsession, a jaw-dropping documentary that revealed that the image of the genteel old duffer with binoculars couldn't be further from the truth; they're terrifying.
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