Last night's viewing - Numb: Simon Amstell Live at the BBC, BBC4; Climbed Every Mountain: The Story Behind The Sound of Music, BBC2


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Is self-consciousness contagious? When I started watching Numb: Simon Amstell Live at the BBC I was feeling pretty relaxed. But by the end I was almost as knotted with anxieties as he is. How would he feel if I criticised his voice, for example? He can't do anything about it, after all – that high-pitched, thready delivery which sits just a tweak away from a whine. And I know that he's self-conscious about it because he mentioned it during the routine.

More to the point, what would Simon's mum think if I criticised his voice? Not Simon's real mum, by the way, but Tanya, who (as played by Rebecca Front) monitors the progress of his career with a brutal realism in Grandma's House, Amstell's excellent sitcom about the continuing agony of being Simon Amstell. If I said something too unkind, would Tanya quote it back at him in some future episode of the show?

I seem to remember that critical responses to his acting in the first series later cropped up in the script of the second. So would that count as critical double-jeopardy? Or would it be helpful? And then I started wondering what Tanya would have made of his stand-up routine – torn between utter delight that he was getting some television exposure again and a tough-love compulsion to tell him where he was going wrong.

I think Tanya would have havered between four stars and three, though neither quite does justice to how this routine worked. If you can imagine an MTV Unplugged version of therapy, it was a bit like that – Amstell wandering on to an undressed set to unpack his various neuroses. It is, he said, waving at the stage and the surrounding audience, the only way he can cope with talking to people: "Raised. And lit." And while some of the resulting material overlapped with a pretty familiar comic schtick – the self-laceration of the clown who beats himself up before the big boys can do it for him – some of it went a little further than that. He can do straightforwardly funny lines, as in his description of a department store make-up girl ("She was beautiful and she knew she was beautiful.

But I think that was all she knew") or his sorrow that he spent his youth learning to juggle, rather than play the piano ("There are no requests with juggling. Other than 'Don't juggle'"). But the most interesting stuff came much closer to home, as he revealed the details of broken love affairs or his troubled relationship with his father, who recently persuaded him to make more regular contact on the grounds that he'd be sorry after his death if he didn't. "So now we see each other once a month," said Amstell, "and I always regret it. But when he dies... I'm going to feel pretty good." I think Tanya might honk at that one... and give him a cuddle.

Climbed Every Mountain: The Story Behind The Sound of Music started out as seasonal jollity, with Sue Perkins larking around in a dirndl on an Austrian mountain, and ended – rather gratifyingly – with comprehensive de-mythification, as surviving Von Trapp family members testified to Maria's harsh discipline and bipolar aggression. The Captain was the cuddly warm one, by all accounts, while Maria was a controlling religious nut. I don't know what devotees of the musical will make of this, but I rather enjoyed it, particularly Perkins' visit to the Vermont compound built by the Trapp family after their move to America. "Schnitzelworld", Perkins called it, before laying bare a mixed legacy of Austrian schmaltz and family unhappiness.

I think the programme slightly overreached itself in hinting at an affair between Maria and Father Wasner (the group's real musical director) simply because they once wrote a love song together. If that counts as evidence, then Rodgers and Hammerstein must have been hiding something from their wives.