Damien love gives his verdict on TV Sunday, August 10, to Saturday, August 16.
Sunday, August 10
In Their Own Words: Poets
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9pm, BBC Two
For sheer weird brilliance, there's not much on TV this week that comes close to matching a few moments of pin-sharp black and white footage, filmed by the BBC in 1965. The setting is a cluttered attic room, crammed with empty picture frames and other junk. In the centre of the room there stands a large old armchair and, in the centre of the armchair, there sits a small woman of indeterminate age - in her sixties, yet suggesting a schoolgirl drawn by Edward Gorey - gazing up from under the fringe of her bob with eyes black and watery, glinting both with wicked mischief and angry sadness. She is speaking to the camera, or rather reading to it, and this is what she says: "Nobody heard him, the dead man, but still he lay moaning… poor chap, he always loved larking, and now he's dead..." And then, later: "I'll have your heart. If not by gift, my knife shall carve it out..."
The woman, of course, is the incomparable Stevie Smith, reciting from her greatest hit Not Waving But Drowning and other poems, and the effect is like watching some strange, subversive Jackanory, kidnapped and dragged away down macabre and Gothic backstreets.
In Their Own Words: Poets is a belated, more intense companion to BBC Four's fine 2010 programme, In Their Own Words: British Novelists. (The "British" tag has been dropped due to the pesky fact that, although all the writers under consideration worked on these isles, the first couple under scrutiny, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, were American imports.)
The two-part film offers a succinct history of British poetry across the 20th century, with contributions from contemporary talking heads - Michael Rosen, Simon Armitage and Germaine Greer are good value - but chiefly as told by those vanished poets themselves, caught discussing and reading their work in archive interviews.
And while it's useful as a literary primer, it's that footage from the vaults that is most entrancing: Pound found wandering in Italian exile in 1959, after he was done for being a fascist; Eliot, pouring The Wasteland down a BBC microphone; Robert Graves, reminiscing about being declared dead during the First World War; Hugh MacDiarmid stalking sternly in his stubborn kilt while A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle trembles on the soundtrack; Edith Sitwell, looking like a surrealist buzzard from Gormenghast, sounding like a demented jazz-age Patti Smith; John Betjeman, a subversive Norris Cole in raptures over suburbia.
Or this humdrum yet head-spinning footage from 1972: it is an episode of Parkinson, and Parky is introducing his next guest - "Ladies and gentlemen, WH Auden!" Sure enough, as the bussed-in Saturday night BBC One audience bursts into applause, here comes the poet stately down the stairs in his rumpled suit, 65 but looking 79 if he's a day, face like a map of ruins scratched on wrinkled parchment. Sparking up a fag, he begins chatting about how, years after he went to Spain to volunteer for the Republican cause in the Civil War, he finally came to realise poetry didn't make much difference in the scheme of things. "Nothing I wrote postponed the war for five seconds, or prevented one Jew from being gassed …"
With all due respect to Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr, we don't expect this kind of thing from a chat show any more. Which is why we don't get it. The past is another country, and sometimes there, they made TV from another planet.
Monday, August 11
9pm, Sky Atlantic
After last week's simmering, scene-setting antipasto, the excellent Italian crime saga settles down for the unfolding of its main meal, a long, twisting game of rivalry and revenge, set against the alternately glowing, glowering and gritty backdrop of modern-day Naples. Following the loss of his friend, our central anti-hero Ciro is stoking up a plan of retribution against Conte, the upstart competitor who has been muscling in on Ciro's Camorra boss Don Pietro's patch. But he knows when to bide his time, and his schemes must wait when the cops raid a cocaine shipment at the docks, acting on a tip-off. It would seem that there is a rat among their ranks, and Ciro must
ferret him out. Meanwhile, he also has the thankless
job of trying to steer Pietro's ambitious but weak-willed son, Genny, through his initiation. Not quite a chip off the old block.
Tuesday, August 12
On August 13, 1964, the last two executions on British soil took place. The hangings occurred simultaneously in Manchester and Liverpool, putting to death 21-year-old Peter Allen and 24-year-old Gwynne Evans, both sentenced for the murder of John West, a Cumbrian laundry driver. Marking the 50th anniversary of the final state executions, this serious-minded film looks back at the practice of the death sentence, and the rising tide of public feeling that brought about its end, as more and more miscarriages of justice came to light. One of the most infamous was the case of Timothy Evans (above), a vulnerable figure executed in 1950 for the murder of his wife Beryl and their baby daughter, Geraldine. In fact, as was discovered three years later, the killer of his wife - and, Evans's surviving sister Maureen Westlake still maintains, of their daughter - was the landlord of their flat, John Christie. Alongside the painful memories of Evans's sister, there's also an interview with Maria Bentley, niece of Derek Bentley, who is still campaigning to have her uncle's name cleared for the killing of a policeman more than 50 years after the notorious "Let him have it" case.
Wednesday, August 13
100 Year Old Drivers
Just like it says on the packaging, in this fun but interesting ageist documentary we are confronted with this bald fact: in the UK today, there are over 200 registered drivers over the age 100. Never mind that that's a tiny percentage, the film rounds some of them up for our entertainment, under the guise of pretending to examine how hanging on to the car keys represents a symbol of their individuality and belief in personal freedom. The stars of the show are 100-year-old Bomber Command veteran Harry Kartz ("I'm not dangerous now. I used to be. I've written off three cars. The Daimler Jag I had, I hit another car head-on. Finished up in Walsall Hospital with a fractured spine."); 100-year-old Mary Walker ("It's exhilarating, going fast. People that drive slow, they frustrate you."); and 102-year-old Searson Thompson, who first hit the road 88 years ago, doing motorbike stunts ("Wine, women and whisky," he says.) They're out there on the road tonight, with nothing left to lose. Hell on wheels.
Thursday, August 14
The Honourable Woman
9pm, BBC Two
There hasn't been a moment over the past 50 years that the subject matter has not been timely, but the footage coming out of Gaza over the past few weeks has coincided terribly with Hugo Blick's terrific drama. As with much of the best and classiest pulp, however, The Honourable Woman takes tragic and bloody reality not only to get you thinking about it, but also as raw material to mangle into its own entertainment: the show slowed over the past couple of episodes to lay out its dense, tangled plot, but it speeds up tonight with a bloody and demented sequence that plays out like a British bedroom farce directed by Sam Peckinpah in his paranoid alcoholic years. He can't be serious, you might think, and he's not, except he is. Meanwhile, Stephen Rea's Hugh Hayden-Hoyle might just as well come and call himself George Smiley, and as more connections, misdirections, double bluffs and triple crosses come to light, trying to keep track of who's doing what to whom and for why and who they even really are is getting like trying to find a piece of spaghetti in a haystack made of spaghetti, whilst wearing a spaghetti blindfold. Which is to say, excellent.
Friday, August 15
9pm, BBC One
From the keyboard of Richard Pinto (co-writer with Anil Gupta of Citizen Khan), this is a new Friday night sitcom aimed roughly at the same spot previously occupied by the likes of One Foot In The Grave, New Tricks and (the underrated) The Old Guys. Except not really anywhere near as good. Essentially, we focus on a bunch of recently retired friends living by the seaside, played by a decent cast of well-kent faces: Alison Steadman (who seems only ever to get offered these roles now), Philip Jackson, Paula Wilcox, Stephanie Beacham and Russ Abbot. It's going for that humour-of-recognition feel of something like an Outnumbered (which is being repeated alongside it in a double-bill), but it's somewhat underwhelming, simply for being so predictable. Still, if you're looking for an undemanding wind-down on a Friday night, it might have legs.
Saturday, August 16
Andrew Marr's Great Scots
9.15pm, BBC Two
As the nation stands on the brink of a momentous decision, Andrew Marr seizes the opportunity to whip out a three-part, loose cash-in series that could probably have been made at any time, but has been made now. The three great Scots under consideration are all writers: Walter Scott, Hugh MacDiarmid and, to begin, James Boswell, whose famed biography of Samuel Johnson was a game-changer in the evolution of the form. Marr retraces Boswell's journey from a privileged but austere childhood in Ayrshire, to the vibrant streets of London and on to the epic wilderness of the Western Isles. Casting him as a man torn between home and his desire for fame and adventure elsewhere, Marr sees Boswell's life and work as capturing the uneasy relationship between England and Scotland in the century that followed the Act of Union.