Last Night's Viewing: A Short History of Everything Else, Channel 4
Turner's Thames, BBC4
Does television really need a new comedy panel show I wonder? Never mind. Reason not the need, because we've got one anyway – A Short History of Everything Else, which sounds as if it was a working title for QI, but here refers to a quiz show about archive telly clips. Or, as Griff Rhys Jones put it in his opening script, "We're off down memory lane without a seat belt."
Marcus Brigstocke and Charlie Baker are the team captains and last night they teamed with up with Micky Flanagan and Kirsty Wark, the former of whom played a kind of Alan Davies role as class clown while the latter mostly supplied amused reaction shots.
The chemistry of these things is relatively uncomplicated but still never easy to bring off. It involves a triangular cocktail of fruitful source material, comic detours and it actually matters to some degree that there's a difference between a wrong and a right answer. And one reason for QI's edge in this overcrowded field is that the basic questions themselves are, well, quite interesting. What A Short History of Everything Else is betting on is the lure of nostalgia, that enough of us will be happy to sit at home saying things like, "Oohh... I remember Swampy the road protestor" or correctly identifying that 1983 was the year when Tom Jones and the Cabbage Patch dolls provoked small riots. And it puts a side bet on the fact that archive clips of these events will provoke something funny out of the regulars.
Judging from last night's show, there's currently a bit too much quiz in the mix and not quite enough banter, though Marcus Brigstocke warmed up nicely and the clip researcher had done a pretty decent job. There was entertaining footage of Jeremy Clarkson showing how to take a custard pie in the face without entirely losing your dignity ("Hoo, hoo! Good one!" he said, in what sounded like genuinely appreciative tones, "That was a great shot!") and a montage of Elton John hissy-fits that was riveting viewing in its own right, even without a humorous commentary. But I'm still not sure you'd make an appointment to watch it, and the most memorable question was the one you started with: how much do we need this?
Here's a starter for ten. What's the most unpoetic title ever given to a romantic landscape painting? Give up? Well, surely Turner's Ploughing Up Turnips Near Slough is in with a shout. It featured in Turner's Thames, a characteristically meandering study of the artist by Matthew Collings, very loosely held together with a riverine theme. There are two tests for a programme like this. The first is whether it makes you want to see the pictures in the flesh for yourself, again or for the first time. Turner's Thames certainly passed that. The pictures looked wonderful and between them, Patrick Duval, the cameraman, and David Barrie, the director, had produced a fitting frame, full of lovely Turneresqe images and some novelties of their own (there was a nice sequence in which Collings moved through the National Gallery, the lights flickering on in the rooms as he entered them).
The second test is whether what's said about the pictures will make you see them differently next time you look. Here, I was less certain. A phrase Collings used about Turner's paintwork would also apply to his own improvised remarks – "soaring abstract tremendousness". His pieces to camera trembled with feeling but involved an impasto of language in which, as with his hero Turner, specific detail wasn't always easy to discern. It looked like an argument and very much felt like an argument, but it was quite hard to say where it began and ended, and what was in all the whirling stuff in the middle. That may not matter though. He loves Turner, and persuasively suggested that loving him is a rewarding experience. It's enough.
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