Last Night's Viewing: Jennifer Saunders: Back in the Saddle, ITV1

 

Such a pea-souper is the post-Olympic fog that we find ourselves in that we end up mourning the passing of that Great Sporting Event with programming such as this, a two-part investigation into the early-life equestrian talents of a comedian more usually known for mocking the establishment than jumping on its back and riding it around a gymkhana.

Don't get me wrong, the Olympics left me with a newly kindled interest in dressage and show-jumping. I loved the juxtaposition of a poker-backed toff sitting on top of an animal doing the soft-shoe shuffle. It struck me as a metaphor for society, and I didn't half want to know how on earth you train them.

Watching Jennifer Saunders: Back in the Saddle, I didn't really find out. But I did see enough to want to have a little go myself. Saunders, once a keen if slightly wimpy rider during her girlhood, has decided to try again – as the programme's tagline so winningly and literally suggests – and she has invited some cameras to follow her as she does so. Saunders related her relationship with riding from Pony Club to show-jumping, dwelling particularly on her Olympic hopes, as she trundled through country lanes belting out "Puppy Love", while deep in reverie that she and Topaz would be discovered and recruited for Team GB. Never mind the fact that she keeps on telling us how scared she was of jumping and how she only really liked going for said trundles.

It strikes me that this is the only thing anyone really likes about riding. Clopping along on rolling haunches and admiring the views is a lovely way to get around; being jounced and joggled about as your steed doggedly vaults over a raggedy looking old maypole is far less fun. Still, this is ITV1 and reverie won't do – the audience needs drama, fear, adrenaline and a climax.

They didn't get one here. For a programme that promised thundering hooves and the nobility of woman and beast conjoined in ambitious purpose, the credits and ad break screens looked like a condolence card, and the slow-motion montages set to a Richard Clayderman-esque soundtrack were nigh-on unbearable. I felt like I was being shown some tranquil film stills to distract me and ease my transition to the afterlife while someone – Saunders perhaps – gave me a lethal injection.

Despite the bleeped-out expletives and cheeky asides, Saunders was given a confectionery box of a script that could only ever have appealed to little girls or grannies – and surely (please, somebody back me up on this) what the Olympics proved this summer was that things previously categorised as niche or a bit weird have much further reach than their most obvious demographics. Here was a potentially captive national audience who wanted insight into that world, and what did they get? Jenny, who has run the Cheshire Pony Club for 35 years, telling a little girl off for having loose hair.

The pros provided rather more edifying views. "A horse needs respect, not love," declared rider Tim Stockdale, who recently broke three vertebrae, presumably for giving his horse a box of chocolates rather than a fist-bump. Saunders looked anxious. We will have to wait until next week to find out how she does in her ambition to participate in the Badminton Grassroots Championship, but at least – after donating an hour of our lives – this programme offered one big reveal: what Princess Anne's voice is actually like.

Saunders met the Princess Royal during an event she was holding in her rather extensive back garden. "The thing you need to remember about horses is that they always have the potential to kill you," HRH told her, sounding for all the world like the Queen after she's been on the fags. Saunders looked even more anxious. "I wish I'd never agreed to do this," she breezed. Me too, Jennifer, me too.

twitter.com/harrywalker1

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