Allan Radcliffe wonders if a TV programme can only be commissioned these days if fronted by a well-kent face
A worrying trend has developed in recent times: folk better known for doing other things have begun reinventing themselves as TV documentary-makers. From Louise Reknapp's psuedo-journalistic investigation into the phenomenon of size zero models to Alastair Campbell attempting to present himself as a sympathetic human being with the personal story of his battle against mental illness, these projects have been brought to our screens with varying degrees of success.
Michael Portillo's career has been almost as remarkable for his complete alteration of his public image - from reviled symbol of the Conservatives' landslide defeat in 1997 to ubiquitous media commentator - as anything he achieved in government. In Michael Portillo: Death of a School Friend (BBC2, Fri 7 Nov, 9pm) ●●● the ex-MP, troubled by the spate of suicides by young people in recent years, explores the seemingly inexplicable death of a friend named Gary, who killed himself days before his 16th birthday.
From interviews with the boy's parents and brother and recollections from Gary's other schoolmates (including comedian and barrister Clive Anderson), Portillo assembles a portrait of his childhood friend as an intense, talented, sensitive teenager, battling depression at a time when there was little public or professional understanding of mental illness and suicide.
Gary's parents Jeanette and Ronnie, now approaching 80, present calm, dignified figures and are eloquent about their feelings surrounding Gary's death. Yet, while it's worth mentioning that this programme was sparked in part by Portillo's being approached by the couple in an effort to confront the tragedy head-on, there is undoubtedly something voyeuristic about the documentary, and you're left with a feeling of having intruded on what is essentially private grief.
Comedian Jo Brand is also fast becoming one of those figures who can be reliably called upon to provide the celebrity hook for a subject she may or may not have the slightest bit of interest in. In the past she's cropped up on numerous quizzes, warbled and wailed her way through Celebrity Fame Academy, battled with sartorial fascists Trinny and Susannah, and fronted a one-off reality show in which she learned to play a church organ. Yet, in the case of her latest project, when she prefaces Vera Brittain: A Woman in Love and War (BBC1, details tbc) ●●● with her claim to have been captivated by the writer, feminist and pacifist and her book Testament of Youth, you believe the sincerity of the former nurse and avowed feminist.
As part of a series of documentaries marking Remembrance Day, Brand traces Brittain's life and career from 1913 when, seeking more from life than mediocrity and 'stupid men', she became a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, serving throughout the Great War, which killed both her beloved brother Edward and her fiancé Roland Leighton. While Brand occasionally looks shoehorned into the various backdrops to the story, her very presence a distraction from the story itself, the film is both a moving human tragedy and a compelling insight into ways in which the war changed women's expectations, opening up new opportunities for them, while cutting down many of their loved ones in their prime.
From celeb-driven documentaries to a fizzy drama about youthful aspiring celebrities. Britannia High (ITV1, Sun 2 Nov, 7pm) ●● attempts to harness the ratings appeal of glossy pop gameshows such as The X Factor and treacly Disney smash High School Musical into a home-grown winner. Episode two focuses on rebel Danny, the 'cutie with the bootie' who struggles with his music theory classes when all he really wants to do is sing and dance. From pirouetting on tables in the canteen to breaking into song in the classroom there's little here that wasn't first aired 25 years ago in The Kids from Fame, though this new effort does benefit from cameos from Girls Aloud's Nicola and Kimberley as well as catchy songs by Gary Barlow, and it's not as sexless and saccharine as High School Musical. But there's still something innately creepy about teens with fake tan, mega-watt smiles and stick thin bodies spinning robotically against a candy-coloured backdrop. I'd take rumpled-faced Jo Brand on Vera Brittain over Britannia High any day.