It's not the first programmes you think of when you're planning a television season that cause the problems, it's the last ones, as you scrape around trying to make up the numbers. Because the problem with a season – as a scheduling strategy – is that it provides a protective umbrella for all kinds of programme ideas that you'd never dream of commissioning as one-offs. And, from the viewer's end, it isn't always easy to tell which are the core ideas and which are the hangers-on.
Was Al Murray's German Adventure up near the top of the wish list when BBC4 sketched out its plans for their German season, for example? Or did it come up at a brainstorming session to find the programme ideas that would help them meet the qualifying weight?
Whichever is the case it's very peculiar. You can vaguely understand the back-of-the-envelope thinking here. Take the creator of a famous and popular Tuetonophobe – the Pub Landlord – and send him off to Germany on a road trip through its cultural and intellectual history. Who better than a caricature bigot, after all, to explore what lies behind our saloon-bar prejudices about the nation and its people? As Murray said at the beginning of the film, "laughing at the Germans has paid my mortgage for many years". But now, he promised, he was going to abstain from jokes about beach towels and bratwurst, and he was going to do his level best not to mention the war.
And then, slightly disappointingly, he kept his promise. There were a couple of jokey, last-minute swerves away from the forbidden subject ("After the outbreak of an event that began in 1939, Thomas Mann spent most of his life in exile"), but for an hour or so Murray was on his best behaviour. Or rather he was simply Al Murray, a cultured fellow, who studied history at Oxford and who, on visiting the country estate of Duke Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau, automatically reached for a comparison with one of the grand public schools of England. "Worlitz Park very much reminds me of Stowe," he said, "It's like a classic landscaped English garden."
He began on the north German coast in the beach resort of Heiligendemm, where he politely observed some locals swimming in an ice-frosted sea, filled us in on Duke Friedrich Franz's contribution to the German tourist industry, and introduced us to the Strandkorb, a magnificent piece of wicker beach furniture, which is to the average British deckchair what a BMW is to an Austin Maestro. He also pulled out a Baedecker guide to north Germany, a piece of literature that seems to have provided the structural inspiration for the whole programme, which leapt from highlight to highlight with no obvious connecting thread other than the line that occasionally appeared on a map graphic.
We learnt that Hamburg has 42 miles of quays and "the largest continuous warehouse complex in the world". We learnt that Clara Schumann introduced Brahms to the Grotrian-Steinweg piano, an instrument still being made in Braunschweig. We learnt about the contribution of the Brothers Grimm to German reunification and global myth-making and about Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus movement, all in bits of information-heavy script that could almost have been cut and pasted directly from the relevant Wikipedia entry. And throughout it all the Pub Landlord hovered – a ghostly presence itching to get an irreverent word in but never allowed to. Perhaps they were right to resist the temptation. But it couldn't help but strike you as being a bit like hiring Lewis Hamilton to present a road-trip film and then making him travel by bus. If you're going to capitulate to the culture of celebrity endorsement it seems perverse not to let the celebrity do what he's most celebrated for.
Earlier in the evening, Julia Bradbury – unburdened by a reputation for comic xenophobia – had been travelling by foot in Julia Bradbury's German Wanderlust. Is Julia Bradbury a big enough name to justify that clumsy possessive title? Will it draw in avid Julia Bradbury fans who wouldn't otherwise be interested in a yomping travelogue along a stretch of the Rhine? I don't know, to be honest, but the resulting film turned out to be pedestrian in every sense of the word, like a slightly dull item from Holiday '97. "At 291 metres the vista is quite something," said Julia, after taking a cable car up to the Niederwalddenkmal memorial near Rudesheim. Given that you could see the vista for yourself, I'm not sure that that really counted as added-value. This particular site, incidentally, highlighted one of the problems of not mentioning the war, which is that you have to steer clear of quite interesting material. Hitler visited the Niederwalddenkmal memorial – a giant statue of Germania – on his way to serve on the Western Front, and it left a lasting impression on him. "There is a view to ignite the heart of any romantic German," Bradbury said later about another stretch of the Rhine, but surely any account of German Romanticism needs to acknowledge that one strand of it eventually went off with a hell of a bang?
I write before tonight's eviction but I do hope Dom Joly is still in I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!. He's had stiff competition from Shaun Ryder for the title of Funniest Contestant but just edges it, I think, for comic invention in the tasks (his version of counting to 10 in Korean was excellent), and the genial way in which he spills the beans about the other contestants.Reuse content