Damien Love gives his verdict on the best of TV Sunday, June 29 - Saturday, July 5.
Sunday, June 29
Imagine: Monty Python - And Now For Something Rather Similar
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10.35pm, BBC One
Eric Idle once declared the Pythons would only perform together again if Graham Chapman came back from the dead. But, while Chapman remains as stubbornly demised as your fabled Norwegian Blue, the rest are preparing to do a funny walk out on stage this Tuesday night at London's O2, for the first of 10 sold-out reunion shows. But this isn't just a reunion: it's also goodbye, as Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam have vowed that this is definitely going to be the Pythons' last stand as a team. To catch the end of an era, Alan Yentob has been granted exclusive access to rehearsals, as they work out the logistics of the shows. "You're still at the mercy of death," Idle says. "When everyone's over 70, that's quite a high risk. We had to take out a lot of insurance to make sure we're still alive by July. I said to the promoter why don't you insure two deaths? If two go, we'll call it off. But if one goes, we'll do it as a tribute…" As the team debate which of their old routines to roll out, Yentob chats with each about their individual projects. "One nice thing about Python," Palin says, "is that you rarely get a Python congratulating another Python about things they've done outside of Python…"
Monday, June 30
Edge Of Darkness
10pm, BBC Four
The conspiracy theorist in me is screaming that it's no coincidence that the BBC's extraordinary six-part drama of 1985 is being repeated alongside Hugo Blick's new The Honourable Woman; Edge Of Darkness was a strong, totemic influence on Blick's The Shadow Line. Written by Z-Cars creator Troy Kennedy Martin, it begins like a crime show, is soon invaded by dark shadows of politics and "security" and then just gets very strange indeed. Bob Peck, in a superb performance of quiet craziness and stark grief, plays the Yorkshire cop at the centre, stumbling deeper into the heart of a vast plot on the trail of a crime that hits him very close to home. This is a programme of mad, mushroomy weirdness, odd humour, big ideas and thriller moments that make your skin creep. And Joe Don Baker. At a time when we seem content to claim the likes of Happy Valley and Broadchurch as the best British TV has to offer, it's a reminder of the kind of monstrous ambition and experimentation that sometimes used to roam free, refusing to hold your hand, or lead you by the nose.
Tuesday, July 1
Rebels Of Oz: Germaine, Clive, Barry And Bob
9pm, BBC Four
In the mid-1960s, the writer and broadcaster Howard Jacobson left a drab British winter behind and sailed for Sydney Harbour where, for him, Australia was an exhilarating opening of the senses: "It was as though I was seeing light and feeling heat for the first time in my life." At roughly the same time, however, four iconoclasts - Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and the late firebrand art critic Robert Hughes - were making the opposite journey, heading for London, and glad to put their homeland far behind them: "You can tow Australia out to sea and sink it for all I care," as Hughes once said. In this splendid two-part documentary, Jacobson explores both the reasons they left Australia, and the ways in which it formed them. With evocative archive, new interviews with Greer, Humphries and James, and input from the likes of Melvyn Bragg, Martin Amis and Simon Schama, the film celebrates the impact four bloody-minded, two-fisted Antipodeans had on the cultural life of the UK and the US.
Wednesday, July 2
The White Widow: Searching For Samantha
11.35pm, BBC One
During the bloody Kenyan shopping mall siege of 2013, speculation grew intense that among the al-Shabaab terrorists inside was the young British woman Samantha Lewthwaite. The widow of 19-year-old Germaine Lindsay, one of the bombers who hit London on July 7 2005, Lewthwaite claimed ignorance of her husband's involvement in that plot. But in 2012, she and her children disappeared, and she has since been on the run in east Africa, wanted in connection with several alleged plots to attack restaurants and hotels in Kenya. For this film, director Adam Wishart has spent a year tracking her movements and excavating her backstory, exploring how a girl from the market town of Aylesbury in the home counties became radicalised, and is now one of the world's most wanted terrorist suspects, hunted by the security services of Kenya, America and the UK.
Thursday, July 3
The Honourable Woman
9pm, BBC Two
The World Cup is still bouncing on, Wimbledon's at full swing, music festivals are eating up the weekends, and the sun is shining. Traditionally, in summer weeks like this, networks do not launch big new dramas. Or, if they do, it's because someone somewhere has watched the thing, reckoned that it's a bit of a dog, and decided to try and slip it out while no one is looking.
Certainly, the scheduling of The Honourable Woman smacks of the BBC hedging its bets, and I can understand why. From what I've seen, this eight-part serial is, by an enormous distance, the best drama British television has produced this year, if not in several years. That sort of thing makes people nervous.
Adding to the angst is that it is by writer-director-producer Hugo Blick who, as previously demonstrated by 2011's brilliant and demented The Shadow Line, has taken the decision not to follow the path that has led to the situation where 85% of our TV fictions today run together in the same grey blur of porridgey "realism", to the extent you could edit together sequences from social-message dramas, sci-fi shows and sitcoms without noticing they came from different programmes.
The Honourable Woman isn't quite as heavily and mischievously stylised as The Shadow Line, but all the elements that made that series stand out - and turned some viewers off - remain. It is rooted in real, pressing concerns: the mystery centres on Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a Briton of Israeli extraction, who, as head of an enormously wealthy family-run business and charitable foundation, and a newly-elected member of the House of Lords, is a major player in the Middle East peace process. Around her conspire secrets, shades, hidden agendas and buried histories, involving her, her family, its fortune and the black, geopolitical, realpolitik jousting of intelligence services. She sleeps alone in a panic room.
Blick assembles his themes seriously, but goes at them as a man whose vision is filtered through, haunted by and seeking communion with TV and films that have moved him in the past. The BBC's Edge Of Darkness and John Le Carré adaptations are major touchstones. Dialogue can have the blunt, pausing patter of Pinter. The landscapes sometimes fall as beautifully and artificially empty as the bright streets John Steed and Emma Peel hunted in The Avengers. In frantic chases by night, shadows loom and flit like they once did through The Third Man.
Beneath trickles a thin current of odd, dark humour. Much involves Stephen Rea as Sir Hugh Hayden-Hoyle, an MI6 spook about to be forced from his job, but digging in his heels to investigate the murder of a Palestinian businessman with connections to Stein. Blick gave Rea the role of a lifetime as The Shadow Line's indestructible Gatehouse, and he's done it again here. Louche yet prissy, dissipated but steely, Rea's Hayden-Hoyle suggests a weird combination of George Smiley and Bill Wyman. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, has Joan of Arc hair, a face like a mask, and a voice like sleep.
There are action setpieces and cliffhangers. Between comes space, light and stillness; moments that have the slow, glassy clarity of a dream. False leads, red herrings and paranoia abound.
The recurring motifs are doors and curtains, things hidden, partially glimpsed. A voice asks: "Are you lost?" Tension pulls tight. It's like doing a jigsaw without the picture, using pieces that come individually through the mail in unmarked envelopes. It is very, very good.
Friday, July 4
The Richest Songs In The World
9pm, BBC Four
A repeat for this documentary, running down of the top 10 highest-earning songs of all time. That's not the biggest-selling songs, mind you, as this list factors in things like licensing for films, Ben E King's Stand By Me et al, and commercials, so there are some surprises along the way. (Unless, of course, you watched it the last time it was on.) It's followed by a double bill of repeats devoted to Neil Sedaka; some may scoff, but the real cool cats know that anyone who can write Oh Carol, Solitaire and a couple of Monkees tunes is worthy of demigod status, at least. In the engaging profile King Of Song, Sedaka lays out his career from his days preparing to become a classical pianist, through his time crafting teenage rock'n'roll and his spell writing at the Brill Building, to the performing comeback that kicked off in the 1970s. Worth watching if only for the moments when Sedaka, at his piano, explains just how his songs work. A BBC Sedaka special from 1983 rounds the evening off in astonishingly cheesy style at 11.30pm.
Saturday, July 5
Tour De France Live
The Tour doesn't get to its most truly hypnotic, and most totally insane, until it gets up into the foothills and mountain passes of France, of course. But the opening stage of this year's event - the 101st, if you're counting - has a particular UK interest, as it winds through 190km of God's Own Country, zipping through Yorkshire from Leeds to Harrogate, with three steep climbs in the Dales along the way. The home turf setting will undoubtedly see serial sprint finisher Mark Cavendish pulling out all the stops to claim the first yellow jersey, but the Tour has a way of thwarting expectations. ITV4's extensive coverage of the event is always first class; but turn the sound down, stick on some Kraftwerk and, after a while, as the long races snake against the landscape, it gets like trancey meditation. There are six and half hours of Le Tour Yorkshire today; the British stages continue with York-Sheffield tomorrow, and Cambridge-London on Monday. Gary Imlach presents, with commentary by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, reports by Ned Boulting and analysis by Chris Boardman.