Recommended viewing this weekend
Musicals, Great Musicals Sat 9pm BBC2
American Visions Sun 7.30pm BBC2
Travels with My Camera Sun 8pm C4
Arena: Tony Bennett's New York Sun 8.30pm BBC2
Cruel Train Sun 9.50pm BBC2
A head honcho at MGM in Hollywood once asked the studio's producer of musicals, Arthur Freed, whether he would audition his daughter singing at the piano. Freed agreed - and was later asked by the bigwig what he thought of the girl's singing. "Very nice," he replied, "but I hired the piano player."
The piano player turned out to be Roger Edens, and another cog in the impressive machine that Freed built up at MGM during the Forties and Fifties - a team that included Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen and a repertory company led by Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Mickey Rooney. This was the great period of American musicals (Freed produced The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St Louis, Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris - all of which are showing on TV over Christmas and New Year) and Musicals, Great Musicals (Sat BBC2) is a handsome and definitive guide to it.
Freed imported most of his talent from Broadway, which the charming Italian- American crooner, Tony Bennett, made his home during the 1950s. Arena: Tony Bennett's New York (BBC2 Sun) finds Bennett alive and well and even being adopted by the MTV- generation as "The King of Cool". Actually, Bennett's intimate, microphone- hugging style is anything but "cool". It's restrained and stylised, but passionate. And the man - painting, singing and still politically engaged - is certainly not "cool" in the narcissistic, fashion-magazine meaning of the word.
Ian Hislop's satirical comedy, Gobble, which was due to go out tonight, has become a victim of the E. coli bacteria. It was deemed an insensitive time to run a storyline about a "mad turkey disease" food scare. All is not lost on the drama front, however, because we still have Cruel Train (Sun BBC2), Malcolm McKay's very fine adaptation of Emile Zola's La Bete Humaine - updating the classic thriller to the Brighton of the Blitz. It starts with a murder, as railway clerk David Suchet and his wife (Saskia Reeves) stab Reeves's rich and abusive godfather to death on the London-to-Brighton train. Things deepen and twist when Reeves starts an affair with the only witness to the deed (an engine driver played by Adrian Dunbar) and Suchet takes up gambling with the dead man's five-pound notes. Reeves is terrific - sexy, treacherous and vulnerable, all in one roll of her richly suggestive eyes.
The two Cardiff-based creators of Gogs (Sat BBC2), Deiniol Morris and Michael Mort, were apparently invited to "talks" by Steven Spielberg after he saw this new five-part animated series about a prehistoric family (We have yet to hear what happened next). It's being touted as a Britain's answer to The Simpsons, but I should forget all about that. The animation is clever, but the humour is crude and the characters are hindered by only being able to grunt instead of talk. The new 101 Dalmatians has similar problems with its doggie characters, by all accounts
American Visions (Sun BBC2) finds the USA emerging from the Second World War as a superpower, and its art fragmenting into the Beat and Pop movements, producing the likes of Warhol, Pollock and Rothko. Travels with My Camera (Sun C4) has DJ John Peel cruising the autobahns of Germany and meeting some of the people who have tuned into his broadcasts for British Forces radio over the years - civilian Germans to the man and woman.
The big picture
In Bed with Madonna
Sun 11.30pm BBC2
Ignoring On the Town (there are better Arthur Freed musicals on over Christmas), there's a chance to see Madonna (above) doing what she does best - and that's not singing to the masses of Buenos Aires. In Bed... is her film diary of the 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour. The rigorously choreographed concert routines are blinding, while the backstage stuff is by turns wry (witness her put down of Kevin Costner) and eye-boggling. Never forget, though, who's in charge here.
The big match
Aston Villa v Wimbledon
Sun 3pm Sky Sports 1
Vinny Jones (above) will be in a penitent mood after being fined for his piece of jovial leg-pulling in last Saturday's Sun - so Aston Villa's frontmen had better be at their most evasive. The Crazy Gang are the shock troops of this year's Premiership, and they are currently sitting in there at third. Villa, mean-while, should have their own bad boy back on duty - as their goalie, Mark Bosnich (he of the Nazi-style salute), returns from an ankle injury.
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