Last Night's TV: I don't know how they can sleep at night

Freezing, BBC2; Ice Road Truckers, Five

Thomas Sutcliffe
Thursday 21 February 2008 01:00

The tricky thing about self-deprecation is that it's so liable to slide sideways a couple of microns and topple into the ditch of self-regard. For one thing, it doesn't exactly buck the notion that the most interesting subject of conversation is the person doing the speaking, and it's also difficult to suppress the faint odour of satisfaction that accompanies the jokes, the sense that they can be made with complete safety because nobody would think for a moment that they might actually apply to the person making them. What makes Curb Your Enthusiasm so unusual, and so borderline unbearable, is that in every episode, Larry David takes the risk that we'll think he really is that bad, if not a little worse. Freezing, a weirdly self-referential comedy by James Wood, doesn't manage the trick nearly so adeptly.

Freezing is directed by Simon Curtis, who in real life is married to the American actress Elizabeth McGovern. In Freezing, she plays an American actress called Elizabeth, who is married instead to Matt, a publisher who has recently been let go by the publishing house he works for. ("His beautiful picture book about dry-stone walling outperformed all expectations," said his boss, during a farewell speech that was an unbroken string of inadvertent insults.) And, despite being fictional, Matt, played by Hugh Bonneville, is on speaking terms with various of Elizabeth's celebrity colleagues. In Julie's, a real Notting Hill hangout, Matt barged in on a quiet lunch Joely Richardson was having with Richard E Grant, exchanged a bit of industry gossip, and then put his foot in it by congratulating Grant for his performance in Notting Hill. You find yourself thinking, "But hang on, Hugh, you actually were in that film. Surely you can remember who was on set with you?" And then you remember that Bonneville isn't playing Bonneville at all. Or even Simon Curtis, for that matter.

It's an in-joke, I suppose, though what it's in on isn't entirely clear. Wood's script is mostly built around career disappointment, with Matt haplessly trying to crank up some alternative career and McGovern falling prey to the lethally short life-span of the female screen career. Her agent, played by Tom Hollander as a caricature of vulgar rapacity, wanted her to fill in a quiet patch with a cameo on Holby City, where she had a chance to play a woman allergic to horsehair. But McGovern was holding out for a part in Vincent Gallo's next movie, a sexual road trip, which triggered a certain anxiety in Matt about the director's notorious commitment to authenticity in performance. At which point, it struck me that Elizabeth McGovern would never get cast in a Vincent Gallo movie, and would probably run a mile if approached. He was only the director in question because he made Chloë Sevigny give him a blow job in The Brown Bunny and Matt's jealousy needed to be tweaked. And when Alan Yentob turned up – doing a bit of "I'll have my people call your people" schmooze in another popular Notting Hill restaurant – it occurred to me that the target audience for this series consists of around 1,000 people, almost all of whom have a W11 postcode. It might be more cost-effective just to run off some DVDs and bike it round Curtis and Wood's Christmas-card list.

Ice Road Truckers starts with one of those portentous American voice-overs alerting you to the highlights in store. "On this episode of Ice Road Truckers!... spectacular crashes!... crackdowns!... and one of these drivers is about to be kicked off the ice!" It all sounds thrilling, but then you watch it and realise that the relentless boosterism is just a desperate attempt to get some heat into something that is about as exciting as a box of frozen fish. Yes, the trucks are very big, the men are very hairy and the conditions are very extreme, but watching a trucker kick his heels in the local bar because his alternator has broken is no more interesting because the temperature is 36 degrees below freezing than it would be if it was happening on the side of the M25 in a light drizzle. As if aware of this, the makers wobble the camera a lot to simulate crashes they weren't around to film and stealthily inject tension wherever they can.

At one point, they filmed a tailback of trucks, held up by a jack-knifed tanker. "If on the ice, the vibration could be deadly," noted the voice-over darkly, skipping over the awkward fact that they weren't on the ice, and that if they had been a tailback wouldn't have occurred anyway. On next week's episode of Ice Road Truckers... Todd waits for a spare carburettor part to arrive!... Rick is told off by the Highway Patrol for doing 10 miles per hour above the limit!... and one of these drivers gets icicles on his eyebrows!

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