Sunday December 2

Secrets Of British Animation

9pm, BBC Four

Looking back over more than a century of wilfully strange, frame-by-frame filmmaking behaviour, Secrets Of British Animation is the most glorious hour of TV this week, but also the most frustrating. The exasperation stems not from anything that’s in this documentary – it’s packed with stuff that is surprising, enchanting, funny, magical, delightful, unsettling and just plain interesting – but from all the things that aren’t.

The problem is simply that the film tries to cover a huge amount of ground in very little time. The territory here is vast and varied, running from Victorian music halls to contemporary cinema; from abstract, avant-garde dancing doodles to Wallace And Gromit; from state-funded information films, to advertising, to kid’s teatime cartoons, to underground satirical saucy sex-romps, to stubborn DIY art made in sheds. In an attempt to corral all this together, the documentary poses one overarching question, or at least pretends to: is there something that makes British animation different from all others?

Amazingly, it comes up with an answer, courtesy of interviewees Peter Lord and David Sproxton, the fathers of Morph and co-founders of the Aardman studio’s Plasticine empire, who laughingly suggest that the thing that defines animation in the UK is “lack of money.”

It’s a good gag, and sounds plausible when you compare the small-scale, artisanal and somewhat maverick nature of animation here against industrial behemoths like Disney. But if you compare animation anywhere in the world against the corporate giants you’d find a similar lack of resources, and also that similar ingenuity has resulted, as animators have made the most of limited means and boundless imagination.

To further muddy its own waters, the documentary also points out that one of defining traits of “British animation” is that, eh, it isn’t always British. Some of the most striking pieces produced here have been the work of immigrants, and the film gets much better when it settles down to offer thumbnail sketches of individual creators themselves, such as the great Lotte Reiniger, who fled Germany’s Nazi regime for the UK in the 1930s. Best known for her fragile fairy-tale pieces, Reiniger’s forte was the silhouette: sooty, paper-world reworkings of stories like Hansel and Gretel and Sleeping Beauty, that have the weird power of shadows flickering on a ceiling.

Another European who came to tower over the UK scene was the Hungarian John Halas, who with his British wife Joy Batchelor formed the groundbreaking team that would come to be known as “the British Disney.” Halas & Batchelor are best known today for 1954’s gorgeous but compromised feature-length adaptation of Animal Farm. But they were behind a vast output: public education films, satirical cartoons, children’s TV, adverts. Tirelessly inventive, they ranged across styles.

But because the film offers snapshots of these animators, along with others including abstract pioneer Len Lye and the magnificent Bob Godfrey (the no-nonsense joker behind the blaring, beating lines of Roobarb), the omissions glare: no mention of names like Norman McLaren, Oliver Postgate, Ray Harryhausen, to name a few.

As it grows rushed, you get the feeling this one-off documentary might have started life as an idea for an entire series: an Animation Britannia, along the lines of the BBC’s encyclopaedic music documentaries. The material would support it, but the art of animation rarely gets a serious look-in on TV today. For fans of the form, though, tonight is a good night. Flawed as it is, this is a fascinating, playful film (worth watching if only to be reminded that Morph remains timelessly funny), and it’s followed by Animation 2018, a feature-length package showcasing 13 films by some of the best of the new wave of British animators working today.


Monday 3

Rise Of The Clans

9pm, BBC One

Neil Oliver throws himself into this three-part series, charting the tangled story of Scotland’s ancient clans. Heavy on the hairy dramatic reconstructions, Oliver inserts himself against the enthusiastic historical re-enactment backdrops almost as a Rod Serling-like invisible narrator. He begins by piloting his Tardis back to the perilous landscape of the 14th century, to follow the clans as they rally behind Robert The Bruce in his against-all-odds bid to win Scotland's crown. After their crucial role in crushing the English at Bannockburn in 1314, Bruce rewarded the loyal chiefs with land and titles, and they would rise to shape the fate of kingdom in the centuries to come, sewing the seeds for mighty documentaries such as this.

Tuesday 4

Mrs Wilson

9pm, BBC Two

This three part drama on the strange life and times of Alexander Wilson – an English adventure novelist and sometime spy, who seemingly just couldn’t stop himself from going around the place marrying women and having families with them, without telling them he was already married to other women he had families with – offers an intriguing real-life story, but it got off to a grindingly slow start last week. Things pep up just a little tonight, as, following his death, widowed Wife Number 2 (or is it three?), Alison (Ruth Wilson, playing her own grandmother), begins to learn more about the secret life he kept from her during their decades together. Among the mysteries to be uncovered is the identity of a mysterious woman she glimpsed at his funeral (played by Keeley Hawes), and her relationship with the dead multi-bigamist. Can you guess?

Wednesday 5

Inside No.9

10.30pm, BBC Four

It’s worth flagging up this repeat from Inside No.9’s second series – it’s “The 12 Days Of Christine,” the episode that saw writers Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton suddenly shifting gear, and proving they were about much more than gruesomely funny little tales of the unexpected. To say much more would spoil things for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but it’s safe to state some facts. The setting is, mostly, Flat 9 in a humdrum high-rise, where we find Christine, an ordinary young woman, played extraordinarily by Sheridan Smith. There are jokes, but they are mostly the passing jokes people share in real life, and it’s not really a comedy. There are ghostly jumps, but it’s not really a horror, either. Except maybe it is. The first time I saw it, it knocked me sideways, and it changes when you watch it again.

Thursday 6


9pm, Sky Atlantic

Sky’s bonkers but glum Arctic-set mystery (popularly known as the one with killer prehistoric wasps hatching out under people’s skin and driving them insane, oh, and the guy eating a baby) returns for a third and final series. Following the recent months of anarchy, murder, mob violence, drugs and blood, Oslo is sending two new officers to attempt to make some sense of what’s going on out at the odd, cut-off community. The bad news for them is that local lawman Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) is by now completely off the rails, and keen to protect his little kingdom from any outside forces. Dennis Quaid is also back as troubled trawlerman Michael Lennox. Fans should strap their seat belts tight – this last series is only four episodes long, so it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Friday 7

Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music: A Musical History 10pm, BBC Four Following last week’s Stevie Wonder tribute, another show in the same amiable, if lazy, format: famous fans of Roxy Music sit around on sofas while discussing the band between footage of Fezzah and his flash mob drawn from the archives. It’s debatable whether the talking heads add much or just get in the way, but there are some brilliant performances (and some shocking promo videos), if nothing particularly rare (tons of Whistle Test stuff). Ranging from their original art-school spacerocker incarnation to the wine-bar phantoms of Avalon, the early sci-fi glam-prog years with Brian Eno rock hardest. But the highlight must be the 1975 Love Is The Drug clip, featuring Ferry in his arch GI Joe incarnation, sporting a natty eyepatch. Contributors include Shaun Ryder, Alan McGee, Gaz Coombes, Sadie Frost and New Order’s Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert.


Saturday December 8

Performance Live: LOVE

10pm, BBC Two

The playwright and theatre director Alexander Zeldin, current Artist In Residence at The National Theatre, adapts his own 2016 stage production for this film, which sees actors Nick Holder, Anna Calder-Marshall, Luke Clarke and Janet Etuk reprising the roles they originated on stage. An eternally timely piece, the drama tells of families brought together and placed in temporary accommodation in the run-up to Christmas. Among the characters are Colin (Holder), a middle aged man, and his elderly mother Barbara (Calder-Marshall), relocated from their previous housing. Meanwhile, young couple Dean (Clarke) and Emma (Etuk) prepare to welcome a new child into their family. Eagle-eyed credit-watchers will spot David Schwimmer’s name as executive producer: the former Friend and beer-thief lookalike previously produced Zeldin’s play Beyond Caring with his Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago.