Brian Donaldson finds that the past is a place where we never had it so good. Maybe.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to back in the good old days, do they? The nostalgia industry is showing no sign of abating and, frankly, why should it when it consistently throws up some fascinating television. The clutch of shows about the past during this fortnight have plenty things in common, and not just that they have all elected not to give Jimmy Carr a job as comedic link man. Looking back on recent events may be one of the keys to helping us change the way we live, but the evidence it puts forth goes a long way to proving that history has an uncanny habit of repeating itself over and over again.
You can easily imagine a programme such as Children’s TV on Trial: The Kids’ Verdict (BBC4, Sat 26 May, 9.05pm, 3 Stars) being made in another 30 years time with a similarly diverse quartet of nippers absolutely destroying Tracy Beaker (‘not shrill and annoying enough’), slagging off the Tweenies for being grey and quiet, while possibly lamenting the fact that we still can’t get shot of Blue Peter, Grange Hill or Ant and Dec. In this streamlined social experiment, the weans were made to don the clobber and snack on the scran of each decade going back to the 1950s while analysing the telly of those periods. It was disconcerting to see them recoil in horror at a tame gay peck on the cheek in Byker Grove, but it was hard not to agree with statements about the early days of Newsround such as: ‘they’re talking to us as though we’re adults. And we’re, like, children’. Yet the claim that John Craven was no Peter Kay would surely be laughed out of court.
It was hard not to chuckle at Sport’s Dirty Secrets (Channel 4, Mon 28 May, 11.20pm; Tue 29 May, 11.05pm, 4 Stars) when it recalled the female East German athletes who were gradually testosteroned into men via state dictat or the drugging of ponies with a manipulated mint sweetie. But when dodgy dealings end in death (Pakistan cricket coach Bob Woolmer killed in ever more mysterious circumstances at the recent World Cup), the destruction of careers (1960s Sheffield Wednesday player Peter Swan embroiled in a match fixing scandal) or really sore legs (ice skater Nancy Kerrigan whacked across the knee by a hatchet man hired by jealous rival Tonya Harding), the smile soon drops. Well, OK, maybe the last one retains some traces of black humour. Over two nights, 18 of the best/worst examples of the Queensberry Rules being swallowed whole since the American baseball bung drama of 1919 will only leave you gasping for more juicy tales.
Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (BBC2, Tue 5 Jun, 9pm, 4 Stars) is loaded with fairly bland historical facts and figures, but in the hands of the Glasgow-born BBC political guru with the windmill arms, such tedious data is transformed into captivating social commentary. Whether Marr sees himself as a serious historian or a skilled entertainer is for others to decide, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else (other than the similarly fidgety Peter Snow) keeping us entranced with the oil crisis of the 1970s which led to Ted Heath’s demise or the wrestling with the unions which ultimately cost Harold Wilson his first taste of tenancy in Number 10.
While Marr injects a little Rock’n’Roll Years element into his series, Seven Ages of Rock (BBC2, Sat 26 May, 9.05pm, 4 Stars) opts not to bother with recapping the events which led to the devaluation of sterling. We’ve reached the second age here, which broke the news that the swinging 60s were now dead and a more arch period had been born, with Britain under siege from the psychedelic soundscapes of Pink Floyd while America was powerless to resist the art magic of the Velvet Underground. This addictive series has some excellent archive footage though its greatest success is in interviewing Lou Reed without the merest hint of a passive-aggressive interlude.