Damien Love gives his verdict on the week's TV from Sunday April 6 - Saturday April 12
9pm, BBC One
It's Downton Abattoir! The latest debatable budget expenditure in the BBC's endless First World War season is another in the dependable strand of "oh, wasn't it terrible back then, with the poverty and the slaughter and the waste, and so lovely to look at, too" comfy-granny Call The Mimsy Sunday night teary dramas. This time, we're following a bunch of volunteer nurses in the fields of France, M*A*S*H without the laughs, ideas or attitude, but more wimples and heart-swelling music. Fresh from tending the wounded in Game Of Thrones, Oona Chaplin stars as Kit, the one with a heart and ideas of her own, alongside Suranne Jones's suffragette, Sister Modern-Thinking, whose new fangled ideas irk their superiors. The best lines involve a blustering colonel questioning whether soldiers are faking VD: "Needle dipped in paraffin wax applied to the old chap to create a blister. The General's office has even heard of condensed milk being used to simulate discharge!" Quite. Can we have The Monocled Mutineer repeats soon, please?
Monday, April 7
Game Of Thrones
2am & 9pm, Sky Atlantic
Is Game Of Thrones the world's biggest television show right now? The fourth series of HBO's huge, hairy hit arrives in the UK one week after its biggest rival in blood-soaked, brain-spattered, kill-characters-when-you-least-expect-it fantasy, AMC's The Walking Dead, broke certain American audience records with its own Season Four finale.
Last Sunday, 15.7 million tuned in for the closing zombigeddon in the US. For a cable channel, at a time when what jargonists insist on calling "linear television" is supposed to have been time-shifted into extinction, it's an impressive number of bums on seats at once.
Game Of Thrones isn't there yet. Its biggest live US audience to date came last year: 5.4 million. But then, only 32 million American households subscribe to HBO, compared with the 98 million that receive AMC, and to this figure must be added Thrones's long, scaly, non-linear tail. Recordings and on-demand repeats bumped the average to 13 million viewers per episode, and that's before we factor in box sets, or Thrones's most famous statistic: it is TV's most pirated show, with as many illegal downloaders as legitimate viewers.
In the UK, Thrones certainly feels bigger than The Walking Dead. Sky throws advertising at it till it seems ubiquitous, and the fanbase is more visibly active. In our Revenge Of The Nerds era, the appeal is easily pinpointed. Fantasy specialists term it "world building". I call it "the Star Trek stuff": namely, it offers a wide range of characters to dress up as. And, if you're really mental, made-up languages to learn too.
Sky is clever about tapping the buzz - it's why this "Season Premiere" is going out simultaneously in the US and UK at 2am. The showy transatlantic hook-up event makes it feel as if the appetite is enormous. But only around half a million watch the programme on Sky Atlantic here, and how many are up at two o'clock remains to be seen.
Personally, I've gone on a journey with Thrones. When it started, my initial reaction was, essentially, "This is bloody nonsense," put off by a PR campaign that positioned it as "The Sopranos In Middle Earth" when it was more "The Hobbit Reads Hustler".
Now, though, I've evolved to "This is bloody nonsense! I like it! More!" Thrones is ridiculous and hammy, but the writers and cast revel in that without quite tipping fully into camp - well, all except Aidan Gillen - and it flexes a large-canvas muscle that's new in TV. Viewed from a distance, it moves ponderously. Up close, it's hooky as hell, dragging you along to see what happens next, and it's easy to find yourself changing your mind over who are your favourite characters every few episodes. At the moment, it's got to be the odd, bickering double act of vengeful daughter Arya Stark and brutalised-monster killer The Hound. No spoilers, but they have a tremendous sequence together in the first episode of the new series, which begins slowly, with reminders of the blood-letting, in-fighting and in-breeding that has gone before and portentous nods toward what is coming, and ends with a bluntly, horribly good fight.
Pleasures abound, not least the endless opportunities for playing British Actor Bingo. Sure, there are dragons and sweeping vistas, and millions of American fanatics might be dressing up in wigs and beards. But few of them are experiencing the deep passion that comes with punching the air and shouting "Grouty from Porridge!" Class. You can download it, but you can't bottle it.
Tuesday, April 8
Norman McLaren: Boogie Doodler
10pm, BBC Two
This week marks the centenary of the great avant-garde animator, who was born April 11, 1914, in Stirling and studied at Glasgow School Of Art, before making his mark, in more ways than one, in London, New York and Canada. Acclaimed by Picasso as one of the few artists doing "something new", McLaren is best known for the vibrant animations he made by painting and scratching directly onto film stock, working frame by frame right down at cinema's DNA level. (He first hit on the technique as a student, because he couldn't afford a movie camera.) But he pioneered a wide range of methods: using live actors as stop-motion puppets, his 1950s films strongly prefigure David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer, and he was a key figure in early electronic music. This short but tidy profile lays out his career, and some of the passions, experiences and attitudes behind it: McLaren was a gay, pacifist, Communist-sympathiser, at a time when it wasn't easy to be any of those. Colleagues, friends, family and fans including French director Michel Gondry pay tribute. The real draw, though, is the archive of McLaren's work, and McLaren at work.
Wednesday, April 9
Ian Hislop's Olden Days: The Power Of The Past In Britain
9pm, BBC Two
In this pugnacious three-part series, Hislop celebrates, examines and slightly slaughters what he sees as the great British obsession: dwelling on the past and, often, a past that never quite existed. Rather than lovers of history, he casts us as a nation in thrall to the idea of The Olden Days - "Mention 'The Olden Days' to any child," he says, "and they'll know exactly what you mean. It's a precise historical period dating back from when their parents were children to about 10,000BC. It's the vast realm of everything that has supposedly gone before. Some of it is in black and white…" Hislop points out that this is no recent phenomenon: the Britons of 1066 were already harking back to the good old Dark Age days of King Alfred and King Arthur, and he argues that our culture has evolved in part through a process of continually viewing the past through the prism of the present, reinventing fables and folk heroes to suit our changing needs and prejudices, to the point where the original truth is all but obscured.
Thursday, April 10
10pm, BBC Four
Apart from Kate Bush turning up on the Top Of The Pops from 1979 (7.30pm, BBC Four), there's nothing worth watching tonight except this, from 1977. The second of Michael Palin and Terry Jones's warped Boys Own stories, this is the tragedy-to-infamy tale known as The Testing Of Eric Olthwaite. Palin plays the eponymous hero, a young man from Yorkshire so terminally boring that, one day, he wakes to discover his entire family has left him. Despite his extreme congenital tediousness, he goes on to leave his mark in history, when he crosses paths with a hardened criminal who, against all odds, shares his deep interests in precipitation patterns, shovels and black pudding. Teaming up to pull a string of raids to steal local rainfall records, their exploits will go down in legend. Inspired, and next week's is even better.
Friday, April 11
The Trip To Italy
10pm, BBC Two
Pull the curtains closed because, if anything, the scenery in tonight's episode of the improvised road trip is even more ridiculously gorgeous than last week, and Michael Winterbottom puts Richard Strauss underneath it, just to rub it in. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are in Liguria, the shimmering coastal region of the northwest, taking in Shelley's house, and yacht ride out to the hamlet of San Fruttuoso and its Ristorante da Giovanni, accessible only by boat. It puts Greggs by Central Station into deep perspective. Among it all, Brydon wonders how they will be remembered in 200 years' time: "We won't be," Coogan answers. Then, after a pause, "Although if either of us is, it would probably be me." Meanwhile, Brydon's eye is wandering, Coogan is off the wagon, and melancholy creeps. Plus: a lot of Richard Burton, molto Anthony Hopkins, a poignant (sort of) meditation on Roger Moore and Michael Caine attending Michael Winner's funeral, and Saddam does Frank Spencer.
9pm, Sky Atlantic
And so it ends. In the final episode, as Hart and Cohle track down The Scarred Man, True Detective pulls out all its unashamed pulp roots and puts them on shaking display - echoes including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Silence Of The Lambs, Alien, Apocalypse Now, Twin Peaks - wrapped up in its own fried, psychedelic wrapping paper, and tied with a weird, calm, American folk-horror bow. Madly good stuff, with a conclusion people will chew and grumble over, and the last bow of TV's most arresting double act in ages: Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson have simply been great. You have to feel sorry for whoever tries True Detective next. The show is designed as an anthology, with a completely new cast and story next time. Brad Pitt has been rumoured, but more intriguing whispers suggest the next lead(s) might be female. Whatever comes down the line, this one has been a trip.