As we come to the final week of summer it seems that TV is gradually getting back on track with one particular show restoring my faith in the months ahead.
That programme is Educating Cardiff, the latest in the long line of school documentaries that Channel 4 have produced over the past couple of years. The documentary is also the first of the strand to go outside England as we journey to the once under-performing Willows High School which is based just outside the Welsh capital. Headteacher Joy Ballard is a little different from the previous Educating heads in so much as she seems to be motivated by compassion rather than discipline. In fact the only time we see her handing out tough love is during a small chat she has with a group of girls who have been arriving to school late and truanting on a regular basis. One of these girls is Leah, who has little self-confidence, and who is the thorn in the side of beligirent maths teacher Mr Hennessy. Early on in the episode Mr Hennessy is described as the strictest teacher at the school but throughout the instalment we see that he’s a rather sensitive soul. Mr Hennessy has resorted to ringing Leah up every morning before school to double check that’s she going to arrive. However, the majority of these phone calls fall on deaf ears as Leah tends to ignore the maths teacher’s constant attempts to get her on the straight and narrow. However, we eventually learn that she does indeed appreciate his efforts and after a rather touching pep talk she decides that she’s need to knuckle down and concentrate on her GCSE’s. The final couple of scenes are particularly touching as both parties thank the other in their own small ways and I personally felt quite emotional as the episode ended.
What I did like was that the episode didn’t only focus on a child with poor timekeeping but one whose social skills were particularly poor. The child in question was another Year 11 student Jessica, who had perfect grades but didn’t really socialise with any of her peers instead preferring the company of adults. Joy hoped to counter this problem by appointing Jessica as the head of Willows’ new newspaper The Aviator. I did like how the episode emphasised Jessica’s quirks and her inability to be heard above other, more popular students. However it did seem that her role as newspaper editor did the job as she gained in confidence and was ultimately prepared for what the big wide world was going to throw at her. Although very different in personality, both Jessica and Leah were lacking in confidence and the episode proved how the staff at Willows were committed to helping them counter their issues. Just like the majority of Channel 4′s other observational documentaries, Educating Cardiff was perfectly put together with the two key narratives being woven together expertly. What I particularly appreciated was the editing in the episode which was particularly helpful in telling the story of Leah and Mr Hennessy. If I do have one small criticism then it’s that the background music was slightly intrusive during certain scenes. But ultimately Educating Cardiff does seem that Channel 4 are on to yet another winner as the documentary has found a slightly different school with a compassionate head and both teachers and pupils who look like they’re going to provide several weeks of brilliant TV.
On the other end of the TV spectrum we had the return of Celebrity Big Brother which this time round took on a UK Vs US Theme. The problem with promising a line-up that is half American means that you have to plummet the depths of the US reality TV show circuit in order to get to a desirable number. So to that end the Americans included Teen Mom’s Farrah Abraham, MTV stalwart Tila Tequila and some bloke called Austin Armacourt. In fact the only Americans who I’d describe as famous on the line-up are Janice Dickinson and Fatman Scoop. Meanwhile the Brit side looks a bit more impressive as it includes genuinely famous faces including Sherrie Hewson, Bobby Davro, Natasha Hamilton, Gail Porter and DC Burnside himself Chris Ellison. Even the chancers getting their five minutes of fame such as The X-Factor’s Stevi Richie and The Apprentice’s James Hill don’t grate too much. Although I get that the Channel 5 incarnation of Big Brother has been skewed towards controversy and arguments, I think that the opening night at least should be conflict-free. However the shouting started way too early for me as Farrah and Natasha got into a scrap after a friendly opening round between the Brits and the Yanks. Meanwhile it seemed that tension was brewing between legendary porn star Jenna Jameson and the majority of her American brethren. The show has also suffered from its fair share of controversy after tweets were discovered linking Tila Tequila to anti-Semitic comments and shortly after she was removed from the house. I do think it’s going to be hard to top January’s series of CBB primarily as there was a diverse mixture of quiet and loud housemates however this year the yelling has started early. I’m just hoping that things settle down now but with a combative atmosphere looming large over the series I’m not going to hold my breath.
More celebrities were embarrassing themselves over on Big Brother’s original home Channel 4 as ten famous faces signed up to experience history in Time Crashers. Unlike BBC One’s recent outing 24 Hours in the Past, which I hated with a passion, Time Crashers actually wasn’t bad thanks in part to those taking part. Time Crashers biggest coup was getting proper big American name Kirstie Alley to take part in a show where she had to cut up a wild boar alongside British TV mainstay Fern Britton. Kirstie’s one-liners provided the highlights of the show as she adjusted to life as an Elizabethan kitchen maid, forced to sleep rough and endure Britton’s snoring in the servants’ quarters. Also making an impact was Keith Allen, who’s slightly anarchic behaviour was combined with some real insight into the situation he was currently experiencing. Meanwhile comedian Chris Ramsay was trying his best to hog the limelight as he almost broke out laughing every time he and his fellow house servants were forced to kneel in the great hall. Time Crashers had a certain authenticity to it thanks to the presence and narration of Tony Robinson who sort of reassured us that what we were watching was more educational than the usual celebrity reality show. Indeed there were real consequences for those who didn’t pull their weight as we were told that anybody who wasn’t performing to the highest degree would be punished. Unfortunately those looking to see some humiliation would’ve been disappointed as everybody was applauded for their efforts in pulling of a grand feat. What I think will make Time Crashers an interesting show is that every week the celebrities are travelling to a different period in time meaning that there is endless opportunity to give them menial jobs at every turn. Though it might not contain any original elements to speak of, Time Crashers passed the hour nicely and I’m sure every history teacher was recording the show ready to play it back in class during a rather dull lesson next term.
Comedy this week was provided by new BBC Three sitcom Fried which was oddly delivered by Jack and Harry Williams who came into the public spotlight following their harrowing drama The Missing. I can’t think of anything that ties Fried and The Missing together as they differ both in terms of tone and quality. Fried centres on the staff of the Croydon branch of the grotty ‘Seriously Fried Chicken’ all of whom seem to be crafted from well-worn stereotypes. There’s slightly incompetent boss Mary, rather angry assistant manager Derek, a sassy fry cook and a group of youngsters who all seem to hate their jobs for some reason or another. The rather mundane setting of the chicken shop is met with a bizarre plot twist when Mary goes undercover as the Spanish Carlos to root out the snake in the grass. This plot was made entertaining by the presence of Katy Wix as Mary who I feel has more in common with her Not Going Out character Daisy than the writers would like to think. It was also odd seeing Matthew Cottle, who I remember from Getting On, as the middle-aged Derek who was clearly bitter that Mary had the manager’s job ahead of him. Although the A-story was quite strong the other two plots had little I hadn’t seen before with the pay off to both being unsatisfactory. The one involving cynical Amara and her admirer Joe panned out in a predictable fashion whilst horny Ed’s pursuit of a girl dressed up as a crocodile just felt incredibly crass. Most crucially of all I didn’t find anything that happened in Fried remotely funny with even the usually reliable Wix being ill-served with sub-standard material. Although I did really enjoy The Missing, it seems that comedy isn’t the Williams Brothers’ strong suit certainly if Fried’s opening episode is anything to go by. Full of predictable stories and lame jokes, Fried is a disappointing addition to the BBC Three line-up and is a sitcom that I won’t be watching ever again.
Thankfully there were some laughs to be had this week courtesy of the return of a 1990s favourite in the form of Goodness Gracious Me. After a successful one-off reunion special last year, the team return with another stand-alone episode this time as part of BBC Two’s India Season. The cast didn’t take long to spoof the fact that the vast country of India was only allotted a season of shows by beginning the episode with the Indian Broadcasting Corporation deciding to air a season of British programmes on their network. I loved everything about this from the appearance of Dave Lamb as the diversity spokesman to the insinuation that bribery will always work in the world of TV. There were some other fantastic spoofs including different versions of Gandhi directed by the likes of Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen plus the self-explanatory Brownton Abbey. However, as a longtime fan of the show, my favourite sequences involved the long-serving characters including the Coopers and Robinsons as Maharajahs trying to compete over who could give the most away. Meanwhile Art Malik also sent himself up brilliantly in a pre-credits sequence involving the ever-present Smeeta Smitten, Showbiz Kitten. More than anything else Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Nina Wadia and Kulvinder Ghir all understand what works in comedy and make sure that there are as many laughs as possible in each sketch. Just like it did last year, this special of Goodness Gracious Me made me nostalgic for a time when sketch comedy was at its best and also made me sad that we weren’t going to get a full series of this clever, well-performed and ultimately funny piece of TV.
That’s your lot for now next week we have the return of The X-Factor plus dramas The Trials of Jimmy Rose and Danny and the Human Zoo.