Sunday, 20 February 2011

What's that smell coming off my telly. Outcasts, Secret Diaries & Master Chef

Sometimes you just wish you didn't bother. This week was one of those times. After at least a fortnight, that's two weeks for those of you in the colonies, I was finally cured of  Egyptitis. However chuffed to bits I am for the people of Egypt and Tunisia and feel deeply the pain of the others still protesting, my reality came calling when I realized I had missed the well flogged and highly anticipated Outcasts on the BBC, Secret Diary of a Call girl on ITV with wor Billie Piper and Masterchef was finally returning with more foodie heaven. What a brilliant way to get back from all that life affirming people's revolution and watershed moments in your life stuff. So there I was all set with my chocies and cookies and big bowl of other assorted edibles to keep my hands busy.   

At first we eased our way into the iPlayer treasure trove of wonderfulness with a little nature programming. BBC's Natural World which  as best as I can figure, is designed to make you cry as early as possible before they tell you the dread situation the ( monkeys, tigers, Iraqi marshes etc...) are in, could be reversible if only we as a civilizations aren't complete gormless twats or greedy self indulgent yuppies. All that's missing is the web site where you can donate cash or volunteer help.   A tiger called broken tail, started the gut wrenching journey with the story of a dead tiger who's demise is expected to lead to more sanctuaries and the linking of said sanctuaries to the famous tiger highway. We then moved on to The chimps of the lost gorge, in which we find out that chimps are increasingly cut off from other chimps what with the shrinking jungles of Uganda, rounding the evening off the true story of Elsa the Lioness and the Miracle of the Iraqi marshes which were less tear inducing. Good thing too, as the tissue box was by now empty. These films are beautiful hour long compendia of misery and doom highlighting the knife's edge on which most of the "canary in a coal mine" animals and habitats are existing on. There are only so many tears one can cry and for my wife's sake if not my own, we switched to something more cheerful like budget cuts in review.

Now just because we watched the news channel near obsessively for what seemed like a month but was in fact 18 days,... that IS a long time isn't' it?  Does not mean we stopped watching the must see programmes like Top Gear, Qi XL and the one awards show where sweaty young boys and tone deaf 12 year old girls are not responsible for guiding billions of pounds in advertising and production money into cultural content. I'm talking of course about the film Baftas, having passed on the Brits as they haven't been relevant to me since the last year Bjork was given an award as incentive to show up and be weird for a few minutes.  Having James Corden present and Justin Bieber win best new comer, so I'm told, is enough to prove there is no intelligent life left in popular music. The Film Baftas were an oasis of  sanity and culture that helped me set my check list of films I hadn't yet seen, but must try to make time for.  What a novel idea, letting the industry types vote for what they consider the best of their craft. As for Top Gear, you can always play gaffe of the week, but sadly I'm immune to the sensitivity required to be a charter member of the Ofcom complaint writers guild. See I was born in an age when people still had a sense of humour,which of course is not to say I didn't enjoy the pin pushing done by presenters and guests alike in the last two weeks. These tempests in the tea pot aside, Top Gear is still as funny and as informative as it ever was. The fact that you cannot buy three identical classic cars ( that's auto mobiles not penises for all you Albanians) convertible BMW 325s to be precise, was a revelations. The sort of things people will do to and in a car over the years is to say the least, eye opening if not inducing hazmat suit wearing.  I sincerely hope the humour free stick in the muds who seem to take special joy in finding fault with Clarkson and co give it a rest. We can't all be so relentlessly dreary like they are. If we were, Cromwell might still be in power instead of being lumped in with other visionaries like Hitler and the Spanish Inquisition.

It's at this point I though maybe I should get around to watching all that quality I had missed in the last two or three weeks. Up first was the long awaited Outcasts. Word of advice, never get so pre sold on a programme that you'll be disappointed if they don't have fireworks shooting out their arses. Maybe if I had not been so starved of decent adult science fiction, I might have appreciated the more subtle characterisations of Outcasts, but as it is, I was too distracted by the one dimensional loonies and psycho killers who are dropped into the more delicate narrative like anvils onto a soufflĂ©. First sledge hammer was the highly unhinged and unsympathetic Mitchell who decided not to murder all the ACs. Was it absolutely necessary to make a potentially interesting character who could challenge President Tate, into a barking mad killer who lives in place with a population of one? Having got rid of the only natural opponent to the established leader of New Australia, the writers introduce the vacant eyed even more stark raving mad Julius Berger. Besides casting an actor who's such a "Hitler's wet dream" as a Jew,  the forced nature of his rise in prominence and the fake religion he espouses is both unsettling and regrettable to me. His so called faith is forced and reminiscent of the sort of cult worship you only see in the truly lost, yet it is portrayed as mainstream. Berger is made to evolve far too quickly and his inclusion in the colony's power structure is so unrealistic that you feel like the production team added Berger in the last minute and had to alter entire sections of story to make him fit in. The other thing that truly and deeply annoys and bores me to tears about Outcasts is for the zillionth time we destroy the Earth in a Nuclear and ecological disaster. Maybe it's the fact that I'm just off a month of watching all of North Africa rise as one to dump it's dictators and tell the West to stop treating them like some kind of dispensable pawns who would otherwise impact on the greater self interest of the industrialists bankers and other greedy bastards that have led us to the brink of disaster in the name of profit and ideology, but I'm frankly tired of the End of the World is nigh stuff. How many more times must we use the same tired old premise of eradicating life on Earth to make so called adult science fiction. This was old hat when Space 1999, a far superior programme in my opinion, hit the airwaves in 1975. I fondly recall the lovely shape shifter Maya who gave a young man in the 70's some hope that not all aliens were ugly or evil. Several recent attempts in America and the UK have tread on this well beaten path with about as much success as Peter Andre at a Lesbian convention, and yet they persist in trying this route. At least when the Daleks took over the Earth you had the compelling and truly scary picture of Nazi Germany loosely disguised as emotion free killer pepper pots. In Outcasts, the people are boring, the town looks like Gazza city but without the spark of life even an under pressure population has. And precisely how will they maintain a series let alone a few if no new people will ever again show up?  To quote a mate, "Oh here come some more people we didn't tell you about last week". Even the ACs (clones) are a bit hard to swallow. We're led to believe they were exiled in the barren tech free hinterland for the last 5 years or more. So how is that Ruddy has such well groomed hair and perfectly maintained 5 o'clock shadow? It would be easy to buy into if I was told they were slightly less shambling zombies who don't age or rot, but they are humans of some kind. Even Ruddy's jeans are in better nick than mine after one year of wearing, clearly he's shopping at Harrod's or Maison Zombie by Gucci. So other than the sudden and unexplained re emergence of Earth, the sudden unexplained appearance of total strangers like on old Battlestar Galactica, sexy shape shifters (Space 1999) or actual indigenous inhabitants who have been on Carpathia for millennia, there is no way you can sustain this longer than a single series.

And if all that wasn't enough , the stories are a bit contrived. In the first ep it's painfully obvious from the first time that the arrivals will only land on Carpathian if they enjoy being plunging fireballs travelling at a few hundred miles an hour. At least the whale in Hitch Hikers Galaxy was funny.  You never once were given the sense that they might after all, make it. So why bother at all? In the last one I watched, Lilly the daughter of the security chief acts up in a way so petty and unreal that you wonder if the writers are themselves barely out of puberty. Surely there are more ways to annoy your mother than steal state secrets and give them to the only media outlet in the place. The DJ/drug dealer loosely based I guess on the radio man in Northern Exposure and Shane MacGowan if he'd still had his teeth and wasn't ugly, is hard to read and hard to care for. On the one hand he treats The Sex Pistols albums like the royal jewels  then in a scene of self pity breaks a record, then is made to cooperate when one of the ultra precious records is threatened with destruction.The other massive inconsistency is that somehow they have after 10 years on Carpathia managed not to adopt a single old fashioned way of doing things like in other subsistence communities. Not a candle or windmill to be seen, every home is so well equipped, you'd think you were in a modern suburb in Tokyo or Berlin. Everybody has the internet and perfect clear telly. Even at the main buildings, the lekky never once flickers or wavers like in real places just hanging on by their fingernails. It's not all bad news. If you like to watch in fits and starts, you'll like the Cass ( Satan in Ashes to Ashes) and Fleur (somebody must be Harry Potter fan) characters. These two  are really interesting and the only reason I bothered sticking with the show at all. I cannot find words that show the depth of disappointment I feel after having looked forward to this rubbish for so long. A brilliant, expensive cast is wasted on this badly written premise that seems to have been surgically altered by committee long before the filming started. Perhaps science fiction in the UK is doomed to be nothing more than a string of sitcoms in space and Doctor Who spin-offs.

Oh well, maybe Secret Diary of a Call Girl will satisfy my desire for semi entertaining telly, even if it is on ITV.  Here it comes.... credits rolling....... Shit, feck, damn.... Belle is going to run the agency for Stephanie, her ex madam is in jail and her ex madam's daughter Polly who knows not a thing  of her mother's business is stopping at Belle's for a while. Much hilarity ensues.  What for every series till now was a string of semi comic semi serious moments connected with our Billie taking her kit off for some soft core sex, has become a mixed up mess sitcom blended with looming tragedy from the clearly unhinged detective who is now stalking Belle. We're now so busy worrying about the psycho killer ( where have I seen this before?) that we don't have time to really see her and Ben work out if she'll stop being on the game and become a regular ubber wealthy Londoner or continue selling herself in private, as opposed to say becoming a trashy Katie Price whore with no decency or decorum. I'm sure Belle is shaved down there too but she won't talk about it with her children in the audience, But I digress...   We were promised "funnier" sex and a decent wrap up of the Belle story, but I never expected it to turn into Luther with the occasional stand in baps. It's bad when you take Billie Piper naked, sexy clothes, thrown in some great locations and the occasional bit of humour and still you find yourself wondering just how quickly the show will come to an end. The young actress playing the innocent daughter of the locked up Madam, is sexy, dresses sexy and  is clearly ready for some interesting stories involving actual men, but so far nothing. She's just eye candy that walks through scenes doing nothing to move the story along. Are you being served was more titillating in it's time and still managed to hold together as a programme at it's height. Clearly this last series of Diary is one series too far. ITV was hoping for one last kick at the can of the cash cow that is Billie Piper, but sadly it just doesn't work. The sex for a start is  contrived, I've seen better porn when the pizza man arrives or the secretary suddenly feels the need to work semi naked at her desk. As for the alleged comic interference of the various working girls, including the very S&M oriental woman, it's poorly placed and more often than not, formulaic. The Ben- Belle - Poppy (Lily James) triangle is left to lay there on the floor being trampled on by all the trollops, the bent psychotic DCI (Paul Nichols) and frankly pointless filler moments that serve only to pad out the already all too brief 22 minutes of actual programme. If Polly is supposed to be 14 or 15, I'm a Sunderland supporter. Much as I am pleased for the actress playing her, she's far too old and too sexy to be an innocent young thing that Ben can ignore. Sargent Psycho is so completely out of place that he jumps right past occasional danger to Hitchcock bad guy that is never comfortable in an alleged comedy.  Sex on British television has moved on past the 70's Oh Matron! Profumo style of teasing and the more casual full on short of penetration scenes, seen on other programmes, do sex far better than Secret Diary is doing in this last series. They should have gone for the real thing or stayed at the line they established last series. I'd like to say I'm going to watch the rest, but honestly it's not worth the time. Life is short and if you feel you need to fill it with this kind of televised mess over say going for a walk or reading a book or even oooo having sex with a real live lady, you are indeed a sad and lonely person. If however you are 14 and looking for cheap thrills, I recommend you look in your father's  hard drive under tax files 2002, the equally dull WIP15a33 or perhaps your older brother's smart phone for his ex girlfriend naked, much better pickings there.

Still no happiness in goggle box land, there's always Master Chef! Thousands of people have auditioned to be on MC and we'll be be bringing that down to the 20 we need for the series starting tonight. Oh Dear.... Then a stream of vaguely interesting "regular" folk and their families in the studio, are made to watch each other cook for 45 minutes until they meet John Torode and Gregg Wallace in the judges room. At least we're spared the full details of every auditionee's cooking, but still we get the full spectacle of nans, mams and bairns banging on about how it would mean the world if "insert name of desperate hapless amateur" got an apron. The then less than appetizing array of dishes served up for Jaunty Roads and Pudding boy to struggle with seems to go on for ever, punctuated by the occasional manufactured conflict over a perfectly fine plate of food. They then look for "interesting" see loonies and nutters, to included to round out things, meaning that the more traditional cooks who aren't 100%, get dropped and the experimental ones are passed through. The vegan woman who makes faces will be fun when she has to cook something that doesn't have roots attached to it. Having seen this stage of the American Master Chef last year, I can honestly say that as uninspiring as the food was at times, even the cat sick de-constructed trifle was still better than the endless mac and cheeses, mock Mexican , appalling deep fried southern food and not bouillabaisse on offer in the US version. What the UK version only hinted at but was in full flower in the US one, was the begging, crying, jumping and posturing we were spared. And yet it was still too much. We could have had more cooking and less maudlin reaction shots more at home on X factor than Master Chef. If I am to even choose one of these people to cheer for, I am hard pressed to find more than two who seem anywhere close to being good enough for Master Chef.  Just when did cooking become the new way out of the ghetto? Aside from a few laughs I had the expense of some truly awful cooks, I can't say this was the Master Chef I was expecting. I wanted skill on display, I wanted invention tests that took the cook out of his or her comfort zone from the start, I wanted some exceptional candidates. Instead we got 25 year mum from Reading who cries, Gastro pub Pete who serves raw fish, Scary Cockney James, who was on the verge of talking about a "field of ponies" and selling himself that much, Miss Swansea Alice, Nutter Mark with his tofu fish and chips and some guy named Dan who may be the only one who knows how to cook. The number of recipes nicked from celeb chef cookbooks and last years Master Chef Pro was awe inspiring. One of the plates looked like it had been copied badly hundreds of times since they saw it first last year ( boules de Berlin in case you were wondering).

Next week we get the competition well and truly under way when the 20 persons they mostly scraped off the back of a spatula, enter the big kitchen stadium. What are they going to do, hide a sniper in the rafter or maybe operate trap doors whenever some chef wanabe nicks yet another recipe from Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsay? Oh look she's wrapping everything in bacon!  Shoot her quick before it catches on. There's another doing bloody fish and chips AGAIN!!! Oh No Chirizo sausage, cos there is no other kind,  BANG.  Gregg I don't do puddings  ZZZAPPPPPP. Burned to a crisp meat.... EXTERMINATE!!! I'll be doing a new twist on roast beef and butter chicken....Death's too good for them! Even the level of skill on display in Celebrity Master Chef with Dick Strawbridge and horrid Tory hostess was better than this lot. I've set my expectations to yeah sure for next week, but will not be surprised if the level of quality just doesn't get any tougher than this. Gregg and John will be hard pressed to find a top 5 anywhere near good enough keep us interested well into the finals. The new format has sacrificed all the elements that kept us foodies glued to our screens from the first candidate to the last plate of food. It may have worked in Australia and the American version was geared at the great unwashed who as always, wanted to see equal doses of pathos and the great culinary traditions (such as they are) of the deep South yet again prevail over anything that passes for food in New York. The new series of the revamped Master Chef UK is off to a bad start and looks to be on a collision course with foodies who will vote with their off switches just like when we stopped watching the fatally flawed The Restaurant. If it doesn't get better fast, I will be finding even more time to watch something else on BBC4 or maybe from my vast collection of unwatched recordings for "when I have time". Master Chef was the last refuge where the skilled went to become more skilled and provide viewers with enough thrills and information to insure their own food rose a notch or two. This new version owes more to Ready Steady Twat than it does Master Chef. I just hope Gregg and John are getting hazard pay for the food they are about to eat, I like them and want them to be around for the next proper Master Chef, you know the one after this mess.

To paraphrase Prince Charles, "The things I do for my readers". I don't want you, dear reader leaving this space totally down hearted, I can continue to recommend The Danish crime thriller The Killing on BBC4 and for the more historically minded, C4's Rome wasn't built in a day. In this fly on the wall documentary we follow a group of builders who use traditional Roman methods and materials to build a Roman villa for English Heritage. Much more interesting than you'd think and the final result is something you'll want to get in your car and visit.

No comments: