The Weekend's Television: English Heritage, Fri, BBC2
Boy Meets Girl, Fri, ITV1
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain, Sun, ITV1
Monday 04 May 2009
Patrick Forbes's series English Heritage has been greeted in some quarters as a work of underhand subversion, one of those observational documentaries in which the subject unwittingly clambers on to the alter and helps align the knife so that it doesn't jam on a rib on its way in.
I have to say it doesn't look that way to me, which isn't to say that Simon Thurley, English Heritage's chief executive, may not come to regret the candour with which he has displayed his new-broom radicalism in the job. But this isn't, I think, a case in which a television innocent has been seduced by a moustachioed documentarist and then been caddishly betrayed on screen. The reason it makes such a delicately nuanced social comedy is not because Forbes is artificially bending his footage into the shape of a satire, but because English Heritage occupies a place in English life that puts it smack in the middle of a swirling whirlpool of taste, class and cultural snobbery. The subject is inherently and ineradicably funny.
This week covered the organisation's controversial decision to list and then redevelop Park Hill flats in Sheffield, a looming bastion of Corbusian Modernism that had become the haunt of hookers and heroin addicts. Fifty years ago, the people who lived here thought it was an architectural gem, while the predecessors of the kind of people who run English Heritage would probably have regarded it as an atrocity and done everything in their power to prevent its construction. Fifty years on, the people of Sheffield mostly want it torn down and English Heritage have listed it, making it virtually impossible to demolish. This gave rise to irony number one. A monument of social housing, designed and created for the poor, could only be saved by turning it into yuppie flats.
Irony number two arose from the fact that English Heritage had turned to the developer Urban Splash to act as a partner, making all sorts of concessions over the structure to render the deal commercially practical. An architect in Corbu-style glasses talked excitedly about the triumphal arch he was going to punch through the building's façade while his colleagues explained how the original brickwork and infill would be ripped out to make way for a new façade. To save the village we had to destroy it. At the same time, the builders were faced with a baffling set of restraints about what they could do to the crumbling concrete grid that holds the building up. Complete reinvention was to be caged by a nit-picking fetish of authenticity. "There's something Ruskinian about it," said Giles Proctor, English Heritage's concrete specialist, as a he examined a blotchy repair job on a béton brut pillar, "the mark of the craftsman". The faint thumping sound you could hear was Ruskin in his grave, spinning so fast he'd come off his bearings. Visiting the site, Simon Thurley inadvertently told the truth about the result of English Heritage's conservational hand-wringing: "It looks like Warsaw after the end of the Second World War."
In the end, the heritage niceties fell one by one, salami-sliced by the rising price of steel and the slump in the housing market, until the banking collapse cleavered down and cut off progress entirely. Sheffield now has a listed concrete framework with nothing but Yorkshire sky in the holes, honouring, in a way Thurley cannot have imagined, the declared intention to "celebrate the rawness of the frame". Perhaps the most frightening remark, though, came from the ebullient Giles Proctor, a man who manifestly had no great affection for Park Hill's mottled fascia, but loyally suppressed his private feelings throughout. "You hope... something will turn up," he said. Ah, yes, the business plan that served Mr Micawber so well.
Boy Meets Girl, in which Martin Freeman plays Danny, a nerdy shelf-stacker who finds himself swapping bodies with a sassy fashion journalist called Veronica, is curiously underwritten. I don't mean by this that it's badly written, when you get writing, but that in a lot of places where a line would help it simply isn't there. A gender-swap fantasy, after all, is heavily dependent on introspection, on what it feels like to suddenly find yourself in a body that you find either alluring or disgusting. And for that we need words. At one point, for instance, Danny finds Veronica's vibrator and decides to find out how the other half comes. It's an open goal for the right kind of line, but all we get here is an orgasmic expression from Veronica as she/he flops back sated. In other words, we get a look on a woman's face when the really interesting thing would be the thoughts running through a man's head.
Martin Clunes: Islands of Britain is perfectly timed for the credit crunch and swine-flu terror, an amiable colour supplement on potential British holiday destinations. It even contained a potential marketing slogan for Barra, in the line Clunes used to introduce his visit there: "After this, there's nothing till Canada."
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