Town with Nicholas Crane, BBC2, Thursday
Harold Baim's Guide to Britain, BBC4, Wednesday
Olympics 2012: One Year to Go, BBC1, Wednesday
Urban enthusiast Nicholas Crane speaks in fluent exclamation as he (at least) gets high over Ludlow
Sunday 31 July 2011
Even though he cites the statistic that "by 2030, 92 per cent of us will be living an urban life", Nicholas Crane thinks it's a mistake to resign ourselves to a future in sprawling mega-cities. "Towns are the communities of the future, the building blocks of our civilisation," he claims. "Towns are where we learn to be urban."
Which airy inanities might well drive you to live in a small cabin on a mountain. But Crane does have a point: between the narratives of the city (all-consuming, ever-expanding) and the village (blissful retreat), how do Britain's towns impinge upon our collective imagination beyond ring-road retail outlets and Saturday night punch-ups on the high street?
Over the next three weeks, Crane will visit Scarborough, Totnes and Perth. Last week, he began the series Town in Ludlow, a handsome Shropshire town on the Welsh border, about which he was alarmingly enthusiastic ("It's got one of the largest parish churches in the country!" he exclaimed.)
What followed was hard to distinguish from a Shropshire tourist board video, gussied up with a few of the features from Coast, the series that made Crane's name. So, we saw our genial presenter buzzing around the Welsh Marches in a microlight to the strains of generic indie-rock. The problem, however, was that it's a little harder for the viewer to swallow Crane's rhapsodising when we're swooping over the Ludlow Tesco rather than, say, Durdle Door.
The unthreatening travelogue of Coast was built on the assumption that its audience would listen to just about anything as a helicopter-mounted camera produced a seemingly endless pan of the British Isles shoreline Cliffs! Piers! Sheep! Town is a less picturesque and a more subjective affair – why Ludlow, you might well ask. The result was that you could hear the special pleading in Crane's voice as he gushed over its local producers' market or shook his head in wonder at his great aunt's painting of the town.
As Crane strode up, down and around Ludlow, like a funky vicar reading out the town's Wikipedia page, it became clear that his fondness for "the town" rested on his first example's adaptability: frontier outpost, then market town, then regional capital, then tourist attraction.
Racy stuff, eh? There was one diverting encounter, at the livestock market with a businessman who said that each year he acquired half-a-million sheep for his halal meat concern. But, dare I say it, he seemed in rather a hurry to get back to Birmingham.
Perhaps what Ludlow needed was Telly Savalas to sing its praises. Bewilderingly, Savalas provided the narration for a series of British city travelogues made by Harold Baim, a long-dead "quota quickie" film-maker. Savalas's relish for the sights of Aberdeen and Birmingham provided the highlights in the altogether delightful Harold Baim's Guide to Britain – as, indeed, did the Kojak actor's passion for Portsmouth: "I just happen to be one of those people who's crazy about castles ... I suppose this could be called a castle – it's the polytechnic."
Savalas wasn't the only narrator of Baim's films, just the most brilliantly incongruous. Disco-dancing grannies, new flyovers and roller-skating displays spun by in a luridly coloured blur. Torquay Bay, we were told unequivocally, rivals Monte Carlo. And, goodness me, you can't expect anyone but a middle-aged man to judge a local beauty pageant. Although there were plenty of sniggers to be had, it was hard not to be touched by an era that chose to celebrate its civic pride, not with a hand-wringing geography lecture but, rather, with breezily bonkers self-confidence.
Harold Baim, one imagines, might have got on with Boris Johnson. On Wednesday, Johnson led a ceremony in Trafalgar Square to mark a year to go to the opening of the London Olympics. There was Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee; there was Sebastian Coe, looking like he was hiding a spliff down the back of his throat; alongside him was David Cameron, in his Head Prefect mode; and there was Princess Anne, who, in a nice touch, had chosen to style her hair after the Aquatics Centre (Olympics 2012: One Year to Go had just come from a celebrity race there to mark the completion of the pool).
Up stepped Boris to the mic, to rail against "crusties" for apparently vandalising the Olympic countdown clock, and declare that, so far advanced was the building schedule, London may as well call "a snap Olympics". London 2012 may be a big event taking place in a big city, but you can trust Mayor Johnson to bring it down to the level of the village fete.
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