TV preview: Tracey Ullman's Show (BBC1, Friday 9.30pm)

Plus Birds of Paradise: the Ultimate Quest (BBC2, Friday 9pm), Tales from the Coast with Robson Green (ITV, Tuesday 8pm), The Great Pottery Throw Down (BBC2, Thursday 8pm), Further Back in Time for Dinner (BBC2, Tuesday 9pm), Great American Railroad Journeys (BBC2, Tuesday 6.30pm)

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 25 January 2017 14:21
Who’s that? Ullman as Merkel
Who’s that? Ullman as Merkel

I ought to get straight to the point. Tracey Ullman is back for a new series of sketches, skits and impressions – and she is brilliant. All I can say is that the first edition of the new series of the immodestly titled Tracey Ullman’s Show has little to be modest about. Tracey Ullman’s Show, by the way, seems to be a bit of a misnomer, judging by the seemingly endless credits, which include a long list of writers and even one for Georgia Maskery, who is apparently “PA to Tracey Ullman”. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite as grand as that on British TV before. Then again, Ms Ullman has been in the States for a very long time, which may account for it.

No matter. It’s all money well spent. Satirists often take themselves far too seriously (more seriously than their targets do, ironically enough), and pay too little attention to the quality of their material. Not Tracey. Her impressions of Angela Merkel, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith and, above all, Nicola Sturgeon are quite terrifyingly accurate and, in their way, effective enough satire too. She’s taken to “doing” Jerry Hall as well, with an uncanny Rupert Murdoch lookalike providing the toothless snogging action for the ex-supermodel, and the rest of the fictional Murdoch family predictably looking forward to pecuniary advantage from the old boy’s demise.

The “topical sketches” were less well done, and could be happily dropped. I think Ms Ullman, if she can bear it, should team up with, say, Jon Culshaw or Rory Bremner – or maybe Alec Baldwin – to bring us a truly magnificent, world-class, definitive encounter between, say, Angela Merkel and Donald Trump. But who’s doing Theresa May these days? C’mon Tracey.

Benedict Allen and Frank Gardner plot their next move in ‘Birds of Paradise: the Ultimate Quest’ 

I can also recommend Birds of Paradise: the Ultimate Quest. Usually we’re used to seeing Frank Gardner offer calm, balanced, evidence-based reporting and analysis as the BBC’s peerless security correspondent. We are not used to see him in a jungle in Papua New Guinea, spotting not terrorists but exotic birds. Anyway, he’s wanted to see one since he was eight years old, and he’s now decided the time has come, notwithstanding that a near-fatal attack by al-Qaeda encounter with gunmen in Saudi Arabia in 2004 put him in a wheelchair.

And so the scene is set, and it is an astonishing beautiful set, too. He’s joined on the adventure by explorer Benedict Allen, who is on a parallel quest to return to a tribal community he left three decades ago. They see swamps, crocs, tribes... but I really can’t tell you quite how successful their quests are. That would spoil things.

In fairness, I ought also to mention that ITV has its own version of Frank’s quest – Tales from the Coast with Robson Green, which sees him in Devon. Maybe, though, like me you’ve seen quite enough of the British coast. The Great Pottery Throw Down is basically an inedible version of Bake Off, and the BBC tell me that the highlight of this new show, presented by Sara Cox, is when the amateurs potters must “sponge decorate a coherent design across a pair of jugs”. Sounds fun, I must say.

Elsewhere I can reissue my weekly injunction to catch Further Back in Time for Dinner, a socio-culinary history of the nation which this week crash lands in the middle of Great War; and Michael Portillo’s Great American Railroad Journeys, where the former Tory cabinet minister politician does a bit of a Michael Moore number on gun control. Not a bad week on the telly, then.

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