The Weekend's Television: Monty Halls' Great Escape, Sun, BBC2
Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock, Sat, BBC4
Al Murray's Multiple Personality Disorder, Fri, ITV1
The best of both worlds
Monday 02 March 2009
Judging from the first episode of Monty Halls' Great Escape, its presenter is not a man who's nervous about stating the obvious. "The nearest supermarket is over an hour away!" he bellowed excitedly at a circling helicopter near the beginning of his back-to-nature series, a revelation that was less than overwhelming given that he was standing on the top of a mountain, natural features that are famously badly served by the major food retailers.
Later, marvelling at a prospect of sea and sky, he delivered another exhilarated ad lib: "It really does feel like I've left the city behind," he exclaimed. Yes, well that's probably because that's exactly what you have done, Monty. Remember? You told us earlier that you'd rented out your Bristol house to fulfil a long-held dream to live the life of a Highland crofter. And you also told us that it took you 15 hours to drive to the semi-derelict cow shed that is to be your home for the next three months. So the sensation of rural isolation shouldn't have been entirely surprising. It might have been worth mentioning if you had been in a dense bit of shrubbery in Berkeley Square, but I think you'll find it's par for the course in the remoter glens. The line I liked best, though, came when Monty was preparing to stock up his smallholding with poultry. "I'm visiting Donald 'the Hen' McDonald," he said, "so I'm assuming from that nickname that he'll know something about hens." I prayed that Donald would actually turn out to be a local madman who dressed in a chicken costume and only ate worms, but it turned out that the locals are just as literal-minded as Monty.
As a form of proxy escapism, though, Monty Halls' Great Escape is perfectly fine, a hybrid of natural-history programme, lifestyle makeover and reality challenge that was only mildly undermined by the fact that Monty's only there for the summer months. That's cheating in a whopping way, surely... a bit like announcing that you're going to climb Mount Everest, but you're going to leave out the jagged, icy bits at the top. A Highland winter is what decides whether you're a crofter or just an unusually committed holidaymaker. Still, never mind. We're not really here for a valid experiment in living history, and Monty himself made no bones about his short cuts: "I'm not some survival expert who can rub two squirrels together and make a fire and knit my own pants from kelp," he explained cheerfully. What he is is someone who wants to get away from it all for a bit, and doesn't mind taking us with him. He's bought a little boat, so that he can chase dolphins, he's got some pigs and Soay sheep, largely, I suspect, for helpful comic interludes involving wayward livestock, and he's got the beginning of a vegetable garden. He's also got an exuberant dog called Reuben, that I suspect will give Rick Stein's late, lamented Chalky a run for his money in the virtual-pet stakes.
Paul Merton can very rarely be accused of stating the obvious. Take this Mertonesque line from his Saturday-night documentary about Alfred Hitchcock, Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock: "If you think Alfred Hitchcock's head on a penguin makes him look like a Jesuit priest, then there's a good reason for this: he was educated by Jesuits." Which slightly raised the question of where the penguin had come from, spliced on to the great director's body in one of the many sight gags Merton had threaded through his film. Merton directed as well as presented, which may account for the slightly erratic inventiveness of the thing, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable film, partly because Merton had had the good sense to let Hitchcock do most of the talking, in lengthy clips from archive interviews, but also because he'd concentrated largely on Hitchcock's British silent career, the period when the director learnt how to tell a story with images alone and before he'd signed up with Hollywood studios that charge so much for film clips that it would break the budget to show any. Here, by contrast, Merton could properly illustrate his film, letting you see the intriguing fact that Hitchcock's early films combined shots that can still dazzle alongside bits of Cholmondeley-Warner clunkiness that make you howl.
In Al Murray's Multiple Personality Disorder, the comic makes a break from the character of the pub landlord in a sketch-show format from the Viz school of comedy. I liked The PC PCs, forced to take control of a hostage situation because the firearms officers were off on a diversity course learning Latin. "Right!" bellowed Sarge at the hostage-taker. "We know you're in there, and more importantly, we know you 'ad an un'appy childhood." I also enjoyed the trailer for ITV1's compelling new autumn drama, "Gandhi", starring Ray Winstone ("If that Mountbatten comes in 'ere talking compromise, I'll tear 'im a new arsehole"). Not sure the sketch will repair ITV1's fortunes, but there'd surely be viewers for "Gandhi".
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