Last Night's TV: Wonderland: Boy Cheerleaders/BBC2
Explosions: How We Shook the World/BBC4
Thursday 14 October 2010
If those who proselytise on behalf of the Big Society have the slightest bit of common sense, they will ring up the BBC this morning, order several thousand copies of last night's Wonderland, and post them to every sceptic of plans for the regeneration of civic society with whom they are familiar. They'll find no finer example of the little platoons on whom they have staked their futures, nor of such a group doing so much good for such troubled children in such an affecting way.
In particular, Ian, the star of this show, and Cherry, his gorgeously blonde and fanciable sidekick, should be invited round for tea at No 10, and paraded in front of the Cabinet as paragons of virtue. James Newton's superb and compelling documentary introduced them as the coaches of DAZL Diamonds, an all-boy dance collective from Leeds. Their task was to hone the ambitions of all these little Billy Elliots towards a performance at national championships. But as the hour wore on, it became apparent that they were much, much more than mere dance teachers.
Each of the boys we met had single mothers and absent fathers. Nine-year-old Harvey's mum was 10 weeks pregnant with him when she got chucked in prison for 13 weeks for, as she put it with a rather arresting hand gesture, using her fists too much. Most of the other young boys, including a long-haired tantrum thrower called Elliot, had mothers who would be easily recognised by aficionados of Shameless.
Yet just as that programme's real achievement was to show the quiet dignity and patient virtue of the abandoned poor, so too were these mothers revealed to be utterly charming. Wanting the best for their children, they would use DAZL Diamonds as leverage: if you keep getting chucked out of school, I'll stop you dancing with Ian and Cherry.
It worked, unleashing the most extraordinary commitment, determination, and talent among children who seemed destined for a difficult adolescence. In the process, Ian and Cherry flitted between the role of surrogate parents and surrogate siblings. They adopted the former role when adult authority needed to be stamped on an occasion; and the latter when an open ear and childish solidarity were needed. The sequence in which Cherry went through the different looks that the boys needed to pull off – "the wink", "the pout", "the surprise look", "the man look" – was almost impossibly affecting in its generosity of spirit.
Repeated references to Billy Elliot show what an impact that character had on the imagination and lives of the post-industrial North. It was particularly moving coming from Harvey, who accounted for his own ambitions using that name, and whose implied apology when asked to explain why his father wasn't around – "we don't communicate with him... we don't have his number" – was cause aplenty to feel despair at his circumstances. When, later, Harvey practised his dance sequence in his bedroom, and then accounted for his nerves before an audition by telling his friend: "I was shitting my kecks when I got there", it was hard to avoid begging the television that he and the other Diamonds should win in the nationals.
They came a hugely respectable third, and the pride in Ian's face, which made him look even more identical to H from Steps (real name, coincidentally, Ian Watkins), was just gorgeous. So too was the final scene in this deeply moving show, which suddenly came over all Hitchcock. There was Harvey, jumping on a trampoline and reaching for the sky, but in the confines of his fenced-off garden, and surrounded by his mother and sisters. The camera panned up to the sky, and as the credits rolled we were left with the feeling that his escape from penury was written into the stars.
A very different set of apprentices were paraded in front of Lord Sugar for this, the second episode of series six and unquestionably one of the best yet aired. Our power women were asked to design and promote a beach accessory. What they came up with didn't pass muster, and the ensuing – sorry, it has to be done – catfight is quite a scene. Karren Brady, excelling in her new role on the Board, asked if she could step in. And step in she did, reminding the candidates that they were representing the interests and ambitions of businesswomen everywhere. Immediately, they were reduced to a bunch of sheep, nodding with mock sagacity. As they left, Nick Hewer muttered that he was feeling "a bit numb after that experience", and then it was Brady and Sugar's turn to nod.
Sugar, it cannot be said enough, is the perfect TV villain, not only because by the series end he turns out to be quite nice, but because he doesn't realise he looks and sounds like a caricature of a boy done good, rather than the thing-in-itself.
Much of the charm of Explosions: How We Shook the World was owed to Jem Stansfield playing the role of apprentice himself. Clearly super-bright, he submitted himself to the wisdom of an assortment of geeks to explain the role of explosives in shaping human history. From the Chinese burning of bamboo sticks over two millennia ago ("to scare away shape-shifting creatures of the night"), to Franciscan friar Roger Bacon's experiments in the 12th century, the desire of gas to expand suddenly has driven scientific innovation. Only when we got to Hiroshima did its destructive capacity appear unbearable, and even then Stansfield's commendable clarity of explanation made for compulsive viewing.
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