Where I continue my rundown of the TV I watched during my time in the UK, as a result of visiting at a time of year conducive to indoor sports that require no physical prowess or ability. Since we didn’t have a darts board, the television would have to do. Much of the British television I had written off as dated and defunct had returned and, though many were old wine in old bottles, there were several programs being broadcast made by familiar names that added something new and interesting to a pre-existing legacy. There were also genuinely innovative moments:
Car Share – BBC One
After emerging in the late nineties as a successor to the observationally rich character comedy pioneered in the North of England by writer-performers such as Alan Bennett, Victoria Wood and Steve Coogan with That Peter Kay Thing, Peter Kay stagnated creatively in the naughties and the teens, content with cosying up to light entertainment until it swallowed his authenticity. The two-hander sitcom Car Share which follows two colleagues carpooling on their commute to and from work was exactly the stripped-down concept that Kay needed to reboot his realism. Punctuated by conversational silences drowned out in the perfectly pastiched audio garbage of satellite radio commercials, the wiretapped feel of the dialogue and understated sincerity of the couple’s interaction reminds us why Kay was once such a treasured comic voice in British culture. Even the more indulgent sequences, such as the fantasy music videos, have an almost Dennis Potter-like quality in the context of the storyline.
Toast of London – Channel 4
Arthur Mathews once co-wrote and created Father Ted, the sitcom of its day and one which – like much British comedy of the time – refuses to date and instead grows in stature the more we find out about the world (or in this case the Catholic Church). Nothing that Mathews has done since has been able to surpass Father Ted, although surreal juxtaposition sketch show Big Train came tantalisingly close. But seeing Toast of London, which Mathews devised with Matt Berry, a comedian, actor and writer who is a darling of cult comedy and possesses a sleazy retro quality that consumes everything he does, you feel as if he might come close. As with Father Ted, the sitcom is set in another sphere of absurd mediocrity; that of the jobbing actor. As heavily stylised as its ecumenical predecessor – which often resembled a live-action version of The Simpsons – it nonetheless discovers inherent truths about the profession that a documentary treatment couldn’t, though you suspect many of the situations encountered are anecdotally motivated.
All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride – BBC Four
If the successes of Gogglebox and Car Share have demonstrated anything, it’s that extremely basic formats still hold tremendous appeal for British TV audiences. But All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride has taken this to avant-garde extremes. A camera is rigged to a traditional reindeer sleigh and taken on a two-hour journey across the Artic wilderness of Norway. There’s no music or editing or semblance of a narrative, simply the spectacular footage the camera collects as it moves. Of course, TV audiences adore gazing lingeringly at landscapes given the ratings-winning genre of nature programming, but the development here is about time, and how much of it we’ll give without the reward of storytelling and entertainment. Perhaps the structureless viral video has immunised us to the boredom of simple watching, or maybe this is gentle and familiar enough a subject to bring experimental video art into our homes by the back door.
Downton Abbey – ITV
I’ll remain as anachronistic as Downton itself by pretending that anyone in America who wants to see the finale hasn’t already used their internet connection to steal it, and not offer any spoilers. Not that there’s a lot to spoil, the finale ramming home how little storylines or character development have to do with the appeal of this piece of virtual tourism versus the other quality television drama of our time. Creator and writer of all episodes Julian Fellowes certainly knows what his audience wants, and is not shy about giving it to them in as tidiest boxes as he can pack. I preferred the series in high melodrama mode and so it was somewhat of a disappointment to me that the electric hair-dryer that everyone kept pointing out was merely historical window-dressing and not foreshadowing some Emmerdale-like fiery disaster to wipe out the cast. Indeed, any hint of tragedy seems to have been smoked red herring.