Melvyn Bragg On TV: The Box That Changed The World

9pm, BBC Two

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Billed as “a two-hour special event,” Melvyn Bragg’s promising-sounding discussion programme on the impact television has had over the past 60 years is a strange one. It’s undeniably two-hours long, and, indeed, feels longer. But how special, and how much of an event it is, are open to debate. It is most striking for feeling so adrift, an anniversary show in search of an anniversary.

Britain’s first regular TV broadcasts began November 2 1936, meaning we marked the 80th anniversary seven months ago, making the timing of this all the more curious: it’s still just about in hailing distance of that date, but, at the same time, exactly far enough away to feel like a weird thing to do now.

Then again, when the BBC started transmitting those first programmes, the signal only reached a few hundred London households, and Bragg makes a point of identifying the coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation, almost 20 years later, as British television’s first great unifying moment. There wasn’t yet a TV in every house, but every street had a house or two with a set, and, as the nation squeezed itself into those front rooms, this was the medium’s moment of arrival, the first time everyone, everywhere was able to watch the same previously exclusive spectacle simultaneously. Again, though: the Coronation took place on June 2, 1953, so, if that’s the reason for the programme, why didn’t they do it four years ago?

It might seem unfair to harp on about this timing point, but if Bragg’s symposium was more soundly pinned to an anniversary – if it felt part of some larger event – it would be easier to forgive how awkward, unfocussed, stilted and arbitrary it is. To be fair, he has given himself an impossible task. His proposal is that television has had the most profound influence on the life of the nation, and on individual lives, since The Industrial Revolution, connecting us, democratising us, opening up the world, and opening up worlds of knowledge, art and culture in ways unimaginable only a few years before it arrived.

To explore this solid thesis, he assembles several short films, using familiar archive clips to illustrate certain hazy themes, then invites guest panellists to gather in twos and threes to discuss fuzzy matters arising, while a studio audience does its best not to yawn in the background.

Precisely because the subject is so big – literally, it covers everything – it remains out of reach. Crammed into little eight-minute chunks, these discussions resemble speed-dating versions of Bragg’s excellent/mind-boggling radio show, In Our Time. There’s no room to develop. Within this, though, valuable moments still flash out. During a fine late segment about the changing face of news, the BBC’s Lyse Doucet is beautifully eloquent on the nature of her work and the balancing act, in the era of 24-hour live streaming, between reporting instantly, and reporting meaningfully.

And the evening is to be valued if only for allowing us to hear from Ken Loach, who casually lobs this provocative grenade: “Broadcasting is an arm of the State. It is controlled by politicians, and, although it will conflict with governments, the central tenets of the State are not challenged: hierarchy, monarchy, established religion, freedom equals ‘the freedom of the market ...’”

“If we started on that, we’d be here all night,” Bragg says, and you get the feeling he wishes we could be. The whole thing plays out like initial notes for a long, potentially fascinating season that just never happened.


Glastonbury 2017

From 6pm, BBC Two

Mark Radcliffe and Lauren Laverne are your guides as the last day of this year’s festival begins with a look back at Bee Gee Barry Gibb’s performance in the traditional Sunday comedown naptime, also known as the “Afternoon Legends Slot". Once you’ve woken up, though, look out for a return by the peerless veteran Nile Rodgers and his current version of Chic, whose epic goodtimes set in 2013 was one of the real high points of that year’s festival. Later this evening, there might be bits of Biffy Clyro (around 7.30pm, BBC Two) and there will definitely be Ed Sheeran’s closing set (9.45pm, BBC Two) to send everybody off to bed. Elsewhere, there are highlights from Rag’n’Bone Man and Shaggy (BBC Four, 7pm), and, finally, some best-of-the-fest picks from the BBC’s presenting team as they gather to reminisce over this year’s whole scintillating caboodle.



9pm, STV

The so-so conspiracy thriller reaches midway point, and maverick cigarillo smoking human rights lawyer Emma (Helen McCrory) is reeling following the raid on her house that saw her clients hustled to jail. But when the cops put pressure on her regarding the missing SIM card from Miriam’s phone, she’s maverick enough to refuse to buckle – yet also suspicious enough to hesitate when Miriam pleads with her to pass the card to another contact. Meanwhile, as fury mounts over her attempts to have the murdered girl’s body exhumed, yet more pressure is building on her to wrap up the old Kevin Russell case. But her investigation throws up more evidence suggesting links with the American airbase. All fair enough – but for anyone seeking a thriller that actually thrills while offering complex drama, it’s a shame ITV is confining the superb espionage show The Americans to the ITV Encore channel (10pm). As the fifth series continues tonight, KGB-spy-in-Washington Philip’s (Matthew Rhys) conflicted feelings about their entire existence grow when a mission takes a turn for the worse.


Hokusai: Old Man Crazy To Paint

9pm, BBC Four

Made around 1830, the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s woodprint The Great Wave is one of the world’s best-known images, as recognisable as the Mona Lisa. Coinciding with an exhibition at The British Museum, this film explores Hokusai’s work in eye-popping close-up detail, while admirers including David Hockney discuss his achievements and influence. Hokusai spent his life celebrating a common humanity while also deeply exploring the natural and spiritual world, and created images of a strikingly modern, almost abstract simplicity that have inspired everything from Monet and Van Gogh to Herge’s Tintin, Manga comics and emoji. A workman of incredible dedication, he took up his pencil every day from the age of six until his late-80s, yet believed he didn’t draw anything worth looking at until he was into his 70s. Still, he was in no hurry. Taking his beloved Mount Fuji as a protective presence and potential source of immortality, he intended to keep living, keep working and keep improving until he was well beyond 100, as is recounted in entries from his diaries, read by Andy Serkis.


Spies Of Warsaw

9pm, BBC Two

You can tell that summer has arrived when they start filling time by pulling out repeats of programmes nobody wanted to watch the first time around. Given the true riches lurking in the BBC archive that they could have broadcast instead, there is really no excuse for them digging up this lifeless two-part drama from 2013, disappointingly adapted by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais from the novel by Alan Furst. David Tennant stars as a dashing French soldier-diplomat in the Poland of 1937, a bruised veteran of the Great War, now based in Warsaw and carrying out the wearisome diplomatic chores of handshaking and party-going. Secretly, however, he’s running a spying network, trying to find out what the Nazis are up to on the border. Given this juicy raw material – a whole world in the balance, perilous missions aplenty, and the threat of discovery and death at every instant – they manage to make it astonishingly tedious. A Casablanca-style romance subplot fails to add much spark.


The Richest Scot In The Empire

9pm, BBC Two

John Patrick Crichton Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, was the richest Scot in the British Empire in the late 19th century, with an annual income in excess of £150,000 (around £15 million today), which he used to fuel a passion for architecture. In addition to exploring the buildings that are his legacy, this film reveals him as one of the most unconventional mavericks of the Victorian age: an aristocrat who supported women’s rights and striking miners, and a landowner who hated cruelty to animals. Above all, though, he was a lavish creator of extraordinary architecture. Having inherited a fortune, he commissioned the extravagant Gothic designer William Burges to transform his visions into reality by transforming the family’s mediaeval Cardiff Castle into a kind of fantastically opulent Welsh Camelot. Next, he set to work on his ancestral seat, Mount Stuart, on the Isle Of Bute. Originally a plain Georgian house, when it was destroyed by fire in the 1870s, Bute embarked on a huge new Gothic palace, rumoured to be the first £1 million house in Scotland.




You might think that, what with the ice-pick killers, exploding cars, skull busting aliens, piles of cash and that fact that her husband was a fleshy doppleganger conjured by an evil spirit who has now been replaced by the stunned reincarnation a lost FBI man, the excellent Naomi Watts would have enough on her plate playing the wife of Dougie Jones/ Dale Cooper in the amazing new Twin Peaks. But, to relax, she is now starring in her own incredibly dull and annoying Netflix series, too. In this 10-part slice of fragrant nothing, Watts is wasted as Jean, a bored, rich psychotherapist going through a mid-life wobble, who starts a dull illicit affair with the irritating wild ex-girlfriend of one of her patients. It gets so crazy she drinks wine! And a bourbon! Supposedly a risky examination of female desire, it’s more successful as a flagrant display of terrible writing: “He kept clinging to me for his sustenance.” Eh? “I understood then the key to happiness. Active denial.” Sorry? Meanwhile, back in Twin Peaks …

Last Week…

Should you find yourself at a loose end, a good way to kill time is to visit Youtube, and search for “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling Rap.” But be warned: the results will throw you down a rabbit hole plastered in dayglo lycra and ozone-eating hairspray, into a cheap neon wonderland of unadulterated 1980s showbiz cheese.

Cashing in on America’s Hulk Hogan-dominated golden era of professional wrestling, G.L.O.W: Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling was an afternoon TV series that ran from 1986-1990, rising from low-budget beginnings to become a minor dumb sensation. As the title suggests, it was an all-female affair, but, if anything, the cartoon attitudes and aggression outstripped the male equivalent. As the stars disappeared into their pantomime alter egos (the costumed fighters included characters based on heavy metal fans, generic middle eastern terrorists and Shirley Temple), the show resembled a spandex-clad collision between Jane Fonda’s Workout and Walter Hill’s The Warriors.

In 2012, Netflix produced an entertaining documentary, Glow: The Story Of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, which included the not-so-shocking revelation that, rather than genuine street maulers, all the wrestlers were actually between-gigs actresses, dancers, stunt performers and models who couldn’t get another job. Last week, Netflix returned to those Gorgeous Ladies for Glow, a 10-part dramedey that uses a heavily fictionalised account of their experiences for a show that revels in glitzy 1980s surface, yet avoids mere nostalgia through strong storytelling and spiky ideas. There’s formidable pedigree behind the camera: its creators include the makers of some of best recent female ensemble dramas, including Orange Is The New Black and Nurse Jackie.

Set around 1985, the brilliant Alison Brie (previously Pete Campbell’s wife in Mad Men) leads a tag-team cast as Ruth Wilder, a struggling, increasingly bitter actress in Los Angeles who dreams of serious roles, but never gets the break – or, perhaps, lacks the talent. In desperation, she attends an open call organised by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a schlocky B-movie director fallen on hard times, which turns out to be an audition for a woman’s wrestling league. As often happens, she fails to impress – until her ex-best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) turns up, and they start catfighting for real. Thus, Sam sees rival stars born before his eyes.

With its seedy fringe-of-Hollywood atmosphere and behind-the-scenes tale, Glow recalls a happier Boogie Nights, only with a stronger feminine emphasis, and much more women’s wrestling. There is some complex characterisation, and there are issues in the mix, including the entertainment industry’s exploitation, sexism and racism. The latter is rammed home as the various women are branded with fighting identities: a black performer becomes “The Welfare Queen”, an Asian-American becomes “The Fortune Cookie,” and an Indian-American becomes a “Lebanese” terrorist known as “Beirut” (echoing the real 1980s’ G.L.O.W’s “terrorist” character, outrageously called “Palestina”).

It takes a couple of episodes to fully click, but bright, pacey, and only 30 minutes long, they fly past. How long TV’s current 1980s obsession can last is hard to say, but Glow rumbles into the top of the wave, just under The Americans and Stranger Things.