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TV: Damien Love reveals his pick of the week's TV

Damien Love gives his verdict on the best of TV Sunday, July 20, - Saturday, July 26.

The Opening Ceremony of Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 is a TV highlight this week
The Opening Ceremony of Glasgow Commonwealth Games 2014 is a TV highlight this week

Sunday, July 20

Rich Hall's California Stars

9pm, BBC Four

Following How The West Was Lost, The Dirty South and Inventing The Indians, the grouchy comedian returns with another film on the way America mangles, misrepresent and revises its own history.

His subject this time is the state that prides itself on being called The Land Of Dreams, and which, from the gold rush, to Hollywood, to Silicon Valley, has dangled before us one maddening dream after another.

Hall begins by musing on the fact that, where most US states were named after geographical place-names, Native American tribes or British royalty, California was named after a mythical god-queen, Calafia, a kind of giant Spanish Snow White: reality has never been good enough for Californians.

As ever, he's sardonic, but passionate and erudite, with an essay that ranges from the visits of Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde to San Francisco, through WC Fields, Woody Guthrie and the dustbowl, to Merle Haggard and Gram Parsons, taking in Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Hollywood Cemetery along the way.

Monday, July 21

Every Breath We Take: Understanding Our Atmosphere

9pm, BBC Four

You know how, if you're walking down a flight of stairs and begin consciously thinking about it, you find it increasingly difficult to do?

Well, all I'm saying is, don't get yourself bogged down in thinking too much about how you breathe. No good can come from it.

In this chemistry-class-style film, science writer Gabrielle Walker explores how we developed our understanding of the air that surrounds us, why we need it, and what it's made of.

She begins by probing the question of how we came to realise that all that invisible stuff wasn't just empty space in the first place.

As she reveals, the quest to understand air and the contract shared between us and the natural world is one that has unfolded through the work of forgotten heroes and, often, by sheer chance.

But along the way it has uncovered raw materials that have shaped modern life, unravelled the secret working of our own bodies, and gone some way to explaining just what we're doing on the planet.

Tuesday, July 22

Utopia

10pm, Channel 4

If you're the kind of Utopia fan who's been missing the old ultra-violence, the opening of tonight's episode might be just the ticket: an odd, blank killing in an open-plan office, with red gouts of arterial spray splashing against the show's dominant palette of fluorescent yellows, lime greens and electric blues.

Meanwhile, The Network prepares its plan to unleash a weaponised strain of Russian flu on the planet, and we catch up with the gang on the run, as they try to work out whether they can possibly trust Arby.

Elsewhere, Jessica Hyde is about to be lobotomised, and the stressed-out civil servant, Dugdale, finds his day going from horrible to worse when a colleague discovers that there's something nasty lurking in the flu vaccine.

The show has resumed the familiar pattern of chase, hunt and twist that made the first series such a hooky watch, but there's a slight sense of the story being padded out.

Still, rather this than Downton Midwife.

Wednesday, July 23

Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony

8pm, BBC One

If it's Wednesday, July 23, it must be Celtic Park, and the opening bash of the imperial sports thing.

The organisers have already set a formidable new record for looking pleased with themselves while saying the word "gallus" over and over again; now we get to find out whether that actually means anything, or whether it's just the usual people on stilts dancing about to optimistic Lion King music, like some collision between Starlight Express and a happy Orwellian theme park.

The highlight of the evening will undoubtedly be the bit where they don't tear down a block of flats, but there will be tons of other things going off, too, before the athletes from the 71 competing nations enter the arena.

Presenters Gary Lineker, Hazel Irvine, Earnest Clare Balding and Huw Edwards are on hand to help explain a safe path through it all.

Thursday, July 24

The Honourable Woman

9pm, BBC Two

Just what happened back then, when nessa Stein and Atika were taken from that car in Gaza?

The clues have been piling up, especially last week, when nessa made the fatal phone call about her secret no longer being safe.

Tonight, find out whether your suspicions have been correct, as the episode unfolds as one long, dense flashback to eight years ago, and we follow the events of the trip that led to the bloody ambush in that backstreet, and what happened next, in their holding cell.

Meanwhile, we also get to see just how hugh hayden-hoyle landed his current job at MI6.

However, in both cases, it becomes clear that there are backstories lurking behind the backstories. Look out for a particularly crackling scene between Ephra Stein (Andrew Buchan) and Dame Julia Walsh (Janet McTeer) as the billionaire and the MI6 head try to work out just where the balance of power lands between them.

MAIN EVENT Friday, 25 July

Northern Soul: Living For The Weekend

Friday, 9.30pm, BBC Four

There will be lots of people jumping around sweating on TV this week.

But when it comes to giving off inspiring, optimistic vibes, the sculpted athletes of the Commonwealth will have to go some to compete with the foot-stomping, four-to-the-floor gyrations of a bunch of pale, amphetamine-guzzling 1970s British kids dancing their baggy trousers off in dingy rooms so thick with body heat and cigarette smoke that the gunge comes dripping in fudgy brown stalactites from the ceiling.

BBC Four's Friday night slot has produced many great music documentaries, but few have been as genuinely feelgood (or sounded so good) as this quick, tidy film on Northern Soul: the much name-checked British subculture of the 1970s that formed around a handful of venues in hard-pressed, hard-working towns like Stoke, Blackpool, Manchester and, most iconically, Wigan, and was devoted to dancing effusively to increasingly obscure American soul records.

The scene had its roots in mid-1960s Mod culture, when young stylists hopped-up on benzedrex flocked to clubs like London's Flamingo and Manchester's Twisted Wheel for R&B all-nighters.

As James Maycock's film explains, the "northern" classification came about toward the end of the 1960s to designate a parting of the ways.

While some fans split off to pursue psychedelic rock, and others followed the evolution of black American music into the slower, fatter fields of funk, a sharp northern hardcore remained determined to keep on dancing to a highly specific kind of mid-1960s-Motown-inspired tune.

The classic Northern Soul favourites were sad songs that made you feel happy, often defined by a fast, rigid 4/4 beat: good for timing the handclaps, spins, backdrops and kicks that became the hallmarks of iconic venues like Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino (voted "best disco in the world" by Billboard magazine in 1978, beating New York's Studio 54).

God forbid a DJ should play an actual well-known Motown hit, however.

A youth cult is nothing without codes, fetish, elitism and snobbery, and Northern Soul came into its own in the early 1970s, when competing DJs started attempting to outdo each other by unearthing "new" (ie old, but previously unknown to their crowds) records bearing the crucial authentic credentials.

Going on record-finding trips to the US, they scoured flea markets and warehouse sales for little-known singles, flop Motown-soundalikes recorded years before by also-rans for tiny, rough-and-ready labels. Returning with suitcases full of such fantastic, forgotten 45s, they made floor-filling legends out of unknown names like The Invitations, The Flirtations and, indeed, Tobi Legend.

The rivalry between DJs and venues that kept the scene bubbling eventually helped split it apart as the 1970s ended.

To tell the tale, Maycock has rounded up the best of the period's DJs, odd fellow travellers like Pete Waterman and Peter Stringfellow, and celebrity fans Lisa Stansfield and Marc Almond, who transformed Gloria Jones's Northern Soul classic Tainted Love into a synth smash with Soft Cell.

It's the kids who went dancing who really make the film, however, both in new interviews and, especially, in the footage of them in their 1970s stomp-pomp, spreading talc on the floor to help the Jackie Wilson moves.

Most of this vivid archive comes from director Tony Palmer's cracking Wigan Casino documentary, made for ITV in 1977.

It's a shame BBC Four isn't playing the full thing alongside the new documentary.

Instead, it's complemented by a compilation of Motown At The BBC - exactly the kind of thing to get northern soul purists grumbling. Kind of perfect, then.

Saturday, July 26

Dad's Army

7.55pm, BBC Two

It's pretty much all athletics and repeats across the board today, but that offers the perfect excuse to single out this exquisite episode from the fourth series of the sitcom that age shall not wither, first broadcast in 1970. In an effort to free up his men to "grapple" with the enemy, Captain Mainwaring unveils a plan to recruit Walmington-On-Sea's women into the platoon. As the ladies gather, this provides the expected sexism and sexy-talk from the likes of Frazer and Walker respectively; but something slightly more unexpected happens too. Among the new recruits is a quiet woman who has fled the London blitz, something fragile sparks between her and Mainwaring, and before you can say "that's not a tear, it's just dirt in my eye" the two are meeting up in the local tearoom and playing out a sublime reworking of Brief Encounter. Arthur Lowe is fantastic - the more you watch Dad's Army, the more you realise Mainwaring was actually a hero after all.

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