Report From London: The Week That Was

June 19, 2011
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Once again, British TV has shown me things I’ve never seen before, this time disturbing images of death and human horrors (and that’s not even including The Marriage Ref). Given that this material aired alongside more standard fare on the primetime terrestrial lineup, I thought a selective overview of the week’s evening terrestrial programming would be instructive to reveal some primary trends, bearing in mind that it is summer, so this isn’t as representative of a typical week as it could be.

First, the programs with disturbing images were, as you would assume, from documentaries. Monday night brought Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die on BBC2 at 9pm. Pratchett, a fantasy novel author, is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and led this exploration into assisted suicide, which is illegal in the UK. In the program’s most indelible moment, Pratchett watches a man suffering from a progressive motor neuron disease drink down a suicide cocktail provided by an organization called Dignitas, which legally assists suicides in Switzerland. We aren’t shown the exact moment of his death, but that which surrounds it stands out just as powerfully. The BBC has thus far logged nearly a thousand complaints from viewers who found this moment inappropriate for airing and others who objected that the documentary acted as advocate for, not objective observer of, assisted suicide. Just when I thought I had seen the most challenging TV footage of the week, Tuesday arrived with Channel 4’s Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, aired at the mature content-accommodating time of 11:05. This unprecedented first-hand record of civilian war crimes conducted by the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters was as disturbing as anything I’ve ever seen anywhere, let alone on a television screen. I’ll leave for others the ethical question of whether the material from these documentaries was appropriate for airing and just offer a single trite observation: American broadcasters wouldn’t touch this stuff.

The rest of the week’s documentaries weren’t so historically important but should at least stay out of my nightmares. Some focused on serious issues, like Thursday night’s Breaking Into Britain on BBC1, which followed the plight of Afghans risking their lives to escape to the UK, and Channel 4’s Born to be Different, a new installment of a decade-old intermittent series following the upbringing of a group of disabled children. Others offered simpler charms, like BBC2’s James May’s Toy Stories: the Great Train Race on Sunday night, which saw the Top Gear host help to build the longest ever model railway track (one reviewer called this “a bit of a waste of the license fee”), and, glancing over at the digital lineup, BBC4’s Apples: British to the Core on Wednesday night (which one review described as “erudite and thoughtful;” seriously, how can you not love a TV system that gives you an erudite documentary on apples?). Channel 4 got more serious about sex than I’ve become accustomed to with Thursday night’s science special The Sex Researchers, but it also made sure to get its “wonky cock documentary” fare in, with the unavoidable Embarrassing Fat Bodies on Monday and Embarrassing Bodies: Live from the Clinic on Wednesday.

Such sensational content calls to mind reality TV, which can blur boundaries with documentary over here, but is also often present in a form quite familiar to US viewers, such as with The Apprentice on BBC1 Wednesdays (Lord Alan Sugar is the British Trump). Most of the competition reality shows, like The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, aired their finales a few weeks ago, but one with a high culture twist, Popstar to Operastar (Simon Callow as judge!), is airing Sunday nights on ITV, with the efficiency of same-night performance and results episodes (they pop a drama in between episodes to supply time for vote counting). Also, God help us all, ITV is indeed airing its own Marriage Ref series with host Dermott O’Leary on Saturdays.

Of course, reality TV originated on these airwaves because it’s cheaper to produce than sitcoms and dramas, and with the terrestrials struggling financially as much as ever, scripted originals aren’t produced with as much frequency over here as they are on US screens. Channel 4 didn’t air a single original scripted show in prime time this week, but there were notable dramas elsewhere, with the BBC’s Tuesday premiere of the quirkily dark detective drama Luther, plus the crime drama Case Histories, airing Sunday and Monday nights; the Thursday finale of BBC2’s stirringly complex paranoid thriller The Shadow Line; the Cagney and Lacey-esque Scott & Bailey on ITV Sundays (which Radio Times describes as “so roundly, so voluptuously, so unashamedly female”); and the good old fashioned Agatha Christie’s Marple Wednesday night on ITV. The sitcom landscape is nearly barren right now, with just a handful of critically-maligned family multi-cams airing, including BBC1’s new In With the Flynns on Monday and the final season (mercifully, according to many) of the American-style My Family on Friday. Similar to how it draws its drama mostly from observational docs, Channel 4 currently gleans its comedy from panel and chat shows, offering a string of them on Friday night, rather than sitcoms.

Finally, there’s a sprinkling of movies and American imports to be found, mostly on Channel 5, which is now airing NCIS, the CSIs, Law & Order and Castle, while Channel 4 has Desperate Housewives on Wednesday, and BBC2 is airing The Kennedys on Friday. And then there are the primetime soaps, which I’m not saying much about because I’m already way over on word count, so I’ll save those perhaps for a future post.

For an American viewer, the abundant documentaries are a joy to behold, though I would imagine that the lesser volume of scripted series could prove frustrating. But at least American versions can be readily found, especially if one subscribes to Sky, whereas American viewers rarely get to see the best, or even the middling, of British TV, especially those documentaries. If only BBC America would air the apple doc, rather than The X-Files.


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One Response to “ Report From London: The Week That Was ”

  1. Faye Woods on June 19, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    I’m interested whether a British The Marriage Ref might go down better here than in the US, with our strong tradition of panel shows – the same usual raft of ‘programme associates’ i.e. writers were seen on its credits. On his way up, for example, Jimmy Carr was part of a show where he and a co-host judged a couple’s respective attractiveness, ‘Your Face or Mine’, I believe it was called. Though I only watched for my beloved Sarah Millican and fast forwarded through the ‘real people’ bits, which felt slightly tired ‘Her indoors’ style relationship ‘comedy’.