Last Night's TV: Baton charge has me hooked on classics

Maestro, BBC2; 1908: The First True Olympics, BBC4; How Not To Live Your Life, BBC3
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The Independent Culture

Maestro is an unabashed reincarnation of a tried-and-tested formula. So it was appropriate that many of the contestants looked like they were flogging dead horses. It takes quite some arrogance, I'd imagine, to stand before an orchestra and attempt to direct it with no idea at all as to how such a thing might be approached. But it was clear that some of the eight celebrities assembled in the cause of learning to conduct had no qualms at all.

Asked to step up and direct one of four familiar pieces of classical music, nearly everyone had trouble making the BBC Concert Orchestra keep time. As the music, almost unrecognisably distorted, ground painfully out, the general instinct was to make great, swooping gesticulations, and if those didn't work, just start shouting: "Faster. Come on!" Yet nothing worked. Scores one ached to hear soaring remained stubbornly earthbound, horribly heavy and almost crushing in their stifling weight.

Later, when the experts moved in to explain what was going wrong, it became apparent that the faster you wanted the musicians to go, the more tight and staccato your hand movement had to be. Obvious, when you think about it. The judges were pretty unimpressed that so few of the contestants had bothered to find this out before battle commenced.

They shouldn't have been. It was quite a revelation, seeing just how appalling a noise an untutored conductor could achieve from a group of fine professionals. One had nothing but admiration for the orchestra, who did as they were told, even when being told by an idiot. They no doubt could have played these pieces of music – Bizet's Carmen, Prokofiev's Dance of the Knights, Strauss's The Blue Danube, and Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King – blindfold. But the illustration of their obedience to even the most inept of direction confirmed that the eight entertainers had all taken on an daunting task.

The line-up consisted of three actors, Jane Asher, David Soul and Bradley Walsh; two newsreaders, Peter Snow and Katie Derham; two popular musicians, Goldie and Alex James; and one comic, Sue Perkins. All had some background in music, except Snow, who was deservedly dispatched in the first programme. Fittingly, the members of the orchestra had the final say on who should leave.

Because it was made so very clear that the eight had wandered into a realm of awesome complexity and skill, the show quickly established itself as weirdly compelling. Given five days of intensive one-to-one training, the contestants became hooked on trying to grasp the baton, and I became hooked on watching them. Asher, Perkins and Goldie appeared to have real promise. Goldie's second attempt at The Dance of the Knights was so impressive that I confess I clapped in fervour at the improbable magnificence of his rendition. The four judges – all conductors themselves – seemed gob-smacked at his virtuosity. That's the show's only real problem. It's hard to believe that any of the others will manage to steal the prize – of conducting at the Last Night of the Proms next month – from the front-runner.

Stealing prizes was very much the theme in 1908: the First True Olympics, a strange and charming documentary that assembled a variety of actors to play the parts of key figures in London's first Olympics. The founder of the modern Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, had been struggling since he had first established the games in Athens in 1896 against enormous expense, poor attendance and hopeless disorganisation. Interest from an English gentleman sportsman, Lord Desborough, had brought the games to London. But it was de Coubertin's new idea of making the sportsmen compete under their national flags that ignited proceedings.

With the Americans under the aggressive direction of the Irish-American sports journalist James E Sullivan, the London games became a proxy Anglo-Irish war, with crowds lining the streets to cheer on anyone who wasn't a Yank. The 110 contentious events culminated in a controversial marathon, with only half of the 57 competitors even finishing. The Italian Pietri Dorando was disqualified after being dragged to the finishing line by officials of Irish descent – conspiracy theorists consider to this day that they did it on purpose – and the Irish-American Johnny Hayes was declared the winner instead.

Abandoning the "British sense of fair play" that Desborough had been so keen on, Edward VII then refused to dole out the medals, or even attend the closing ceremony, while Queen Alexandra in a breakaway prize-giving honoured Dorando with a gold cup anyway. Those were the days.

It's a dead cert that How Not to Live Your Life will attract no prizes at all. A great deal of humour can be squeezed from observing the lives of stupid men. But Don Danbury is no David Brent and this new sitcom offers nothing except sound evidence that the BBC has now got more airtime than it can fill. This show is an insult to the intelligence of stupid men everywhere.