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Square Eyes: New Year's Day Special

Sarah Jane Adventures. Images: BBC

The Sarah Jane Adventures
BBC1 4.50pm
The second spin-off show from Doctor Who in a year — and if anything, I’m more excited about this than I ever was in the lead-up to the Torchwood launch. Seventies icon Sarah-Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), fresh from her guest role in an episode of Doctor Who in the spring, gets her second stab at leading a show after the Eighties’ dire K9 and Company. This special, to be followed by a full series later in 2007, sees the intrepid journalist team up with a team of kids to unmask the evil forces behind a suspiciously addictive new soft drink… With the guest villain role taken up by Samantha “James” Bond, and a cracking script from Gareth Roberts and Russell T Davies, miss this at your peril.

The Wind in the Willows
BBC1 6.20pm
I have to say, I don’t think any adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s classic novel could ever surpass the brilliant Cosgrove Hall stop-motion version, voiced by David Jason and Michael Hordern. While the cast list for this new version is stellar — Matt Lucas, Mark Gatiss, Bob Hoskins — and their performances convey the animals they are portraying particularly effectively, somehow the charm of anthropomorphised animals doing silly things palls a little when they look so human.

Dead Clever
ITV1 9.00pm
Suranne Jones and Dean Lennox Kelly lead a great cast in another one-off drama from ITV1 that’s better than the channel’s current reputation may have you believe. There’s nothing especially ground-breaking at work here, but you’llenjoy the two hours you spend in its company.

The Vicar of Dibley
BBC1 9.30pm
This is apparently the last-ever episode of the ever-enjoyable village sitcom — although whether that’s “last-ever” in the normal English sense, or the “Only Fools and Horses” sense, we shall have to wait and see. Whatever, Geraldine’s ridiculously unbelievable romance and engagement, as seen in the Christmas Day episode, culminate in the vicar getting hitched tonight. And Alice turns up to the wedding dressed as the Doctor, flanked by a couple of Daleks. Doesn’t everybody?

Torchwood
BBC3 9.30pm
A double bill of episodes ends Torchwood’s first series. It’s been an up-and-down ride, with the show not really finding its feet until well past the halfway mark. However, with Jack and Toshiko stranded in the 1940s, and the others encountering an American serviceman introducing himself as Captain Jack Harkness, it looks like Cardiff is heading for an apocalypse… Unforutunately, the final episode is written by series co-producer Chris Chibnall, whose scripts so far have tended to be the most clichéd and wearisome of the lot. Hopefully he’ll redeem himself here.

Square Eyes: 30-31 December

Viewer Of The Year

It’s Now or Never
ITV1, Saturday 5:30pm
When this edition of the song-and-dance extravaganza show was hastily rescheduled earlier this year, most tabloids decried it as a ‘series being cancelled’. That was a convenient tag for papers that were describing ITV as being in meltdown at the time — but the truth is that most of the people who saw the first edition of this show loved it. Well, now it’s time for the word of mouth to pay off, as this second show — in which an unsuspecting member of the public is presented with a big song-and-dance number to help announce a bit of life-changing information — promises to be even better than the first.

Robin Hood
BBC1, Saturday 6:50pm
You know, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m going to miss Robin Hood. Tonight’s episode, the last in the series, sees Robin tormented with grief after Marian’s death last week — so much so that he even loses the somewhat namby-pamby image he’s been saddled with all series. But there are twists aplenty all through the episode, keeping you on the edge of your seat. What a shame that this interpretation of the Sherwood legend hasn’t been this exciting and dramatic all the way through the run.

Harry Hill’s Christmas TV Burp
ITV1, Saturday 7:30pm
As with all comedy shows, TV Burp can be a hit-and-miss affair — but when it hits its targets, there is rarely anything funnier. Quite deserving of his recent Comedy Awards wins, a bit of healthy deconstruction of the Christmas TV schedules will be welcome. Expect the various Yuletide soap deaths to feature prominently.

Casualty
BBC1, Saturday 8.25pm & New Year’s Eve 8pm
After last week’s jaw-droppingly good episodes, how could we not compel you to watch another double set of episodes this weekend? As with last week, both episodes are written by the superb Barbara Machin. I haven’t seen these yet — after the thrill of last week, I’d hate my enjoyment to be spoiled — but expect them to be far higher quality than most regular episodes of the long-running soap. Unfortunately, I shall have to record Saturday’s, because…

Viewer of the Year
ITV1, Saturday 9pm
ITV are looking back at the past 12 months in the way that only ITV can — with a game show. Viewer of the Year sees fifty members of the public answering up to 50 multiple choice questions on 2006 television. At various points throughout the two-hour long show, the lowest scoring contestants will be eliminated, until one person remains — and they’ll win £50,000 and a home cinema system.

And, erm, I’m one of the fifty. Wish me luck.

Fear of Fanny
BBC2, New Year’s Eve, 9pm
We featured this heavily on the blog when it was first shown on BBC4, but no apologies for highlighting it again on its terrestrial debut. Julia Davis and Mark Gatiss are superb in this comic dramatisation of the life of Fanny Cradock, one of the first stars of TV cookery. It’s a touching portrait of a fearsome woman and her loyal partner.

New Years Celebrations
Everywhere
Don’t see the new year in with television, there’s a love. Even addicts such as us at TV Today Towers take one night off a year!

There’ll be a special New Year’s Day Square Eyes along later…

TV Today Awards: Most Deserving of a Bigger Audience

Yes, the TV Today Awards are still going on, and you’ve still got a chance to vote in all the categories! Today, we’re looking at the shows who didn’t get great audience figures, but should have done.

  • Suburban Shootout, Five/Paramount

    Five’s twisted sitcom about rival housewife gangs in suburbia was bursting at the seams with great acting names, the humour was sharp, and it was quite unlike anything else on television (save for unfair comparisons with Desperate Housewives).

  • Not Going Out, BBC1

    In an era where sitcoms tend to insist on location shooting and no laugh track, Not Going Out took the brave decision to use a more traditional studio-with-audience format. And the script was more traditional sitcom, too, with a setup-joke-setup-joke format that was actually quite pleasantly refreshing. Written by Andrew Collins and Lee Mack, who also starred, maybe its Friday evening slot worked against it.

  • The Family Man, BBC1

    Trevor Eve’s fertility expert provided the pivot for a selection of stories about families who each had their own problems. Covering very topical ethical issues, The Family Man managed to do so without comprising the entertainment value of the best forms of drama.

  • The Virgin Queen, BBC1

    Anne-Marie Duff’s portrayal of Elizabeth I was simply breathtaking. It was unfortunate that it came to our screens so soon after Helen Mirren’s own performance, but Paula Milne’s impressive screenplay provided captivating viewing for four weeks.

  • Sorted, BBC1

    A sort of Clocking Off for postal workers, with each episode focussing one of a group of postmen, Sorted had a charm about it that was buoyed along by its great cast. With Neil Dudgeon and Dean Lennox Kelly leading the postal side, and able support from Tracy Ann Oberman and Nina Sosanya giving us tales of fractured lives, it looks like there’ll never be a second series.

  • Tripping Over, Five

    A bold attempt at multinational commissioning, with stories set in London and Australia, Tripping Over fused an engaging set of characters with a great script — and for its trouble, got poor audiences. Overshadowed at the time by Dan Chambers’ departure from Five, it may be the channel’s last attempt at original drama for a while.

  • The State Within, BBC1

    A densely-plotted tale of political intrigue, one of the BBC’s most ambitious dramas of the year maybe didn’t do itself any favours by leaving most of the audience scratching their heads in bewilderment at the end of episode one. Those who stuck with it, though, found their patience richly rewarded. Again, a second series is unlikely after the first’s poor ratings performance.

  • The Innocence Project, BBC1

    Now, this is one of Mark’s suggestions, and while he’s off enjoying family shenanigans in Ireland, I’m left having to admit that I’m one of the many who didn’t see the first few episodes of this new legal drama. The concept of reopening old cases worked for Waking the Dead or New Tricks, so on paper exploring miscarriages of justice should work. Unfortunately, ratings have been less than stellar and so the second half of the first series has been delayed…

  • Spiral, BBC4

    Most of the imported crime shows we get here in the UK originate from America. BBC4’s import, on the other hand, hails from France. A taut, intensely plotted thriller, it wasn’t just the subtitled dialogue that compelled you to watch every frame — the acting and cinematography was superb throughout. A BBC2 repeat in the New Year, please!

  • Sinchronicity, BBC3

    For those of us who revelled in Channel 4’s teen/twentysomething drama As If, this was like greeting an old friend. From the same production company, and reuniting Jemima Rooper and Paul Chequer, Sinchronicity also covered much the same ground — but, with a post-watershed slot, could do so more intensely. The dilemmas of all the sexual dynamics built up satisfyingly over the course of the series, leading to a series finale that ticked all the boxes.

Got your own opinion? Think we’ve missed somebody? Take part in the TV Today Awards, where you can vote on this and several other categories.

Behind the cushion

David Tennant as Doctor Who. Photo: BBC

Not too hard to tell what this piece is about, but Christmas Day almost brought a little tear to my eye as I settled down to watch Doctor Who with my family.

It’s very rare that we’re all together, but this gathering did give me chance to experience something that everybody has been talking about since Easter 2005 - that strange ability for Doctor Who to bring the entire family together, united in front of the box for 60 minutes. I’ve been a bit dubious about it all really, but it turns out to be true. I’m usually banished to the black and white portable upstairs when one of those strange sci-fi things I like is on, but not this Christmas. Indeed, I was pushed to find a decent vantage point in easy reach of the nut bowl, so packed was the living room with nephews, brothers, sister-in-laws and parents. But there we were come 7pm, each and every one of us.

And something else that nearly brought a tear to this hardened TV viewer’s eyes… That old cliche about kids hiding behind the sofa when Doctor Who is on? Turns out to be true, too. Well, behind the cushions at any rate. Five-year-old nephew sitting next to me, very brave for the most part, whispered a request for me to hand him the cushion to duck behind every time the robot Santas with the big guns came on. After 30 years, things have come full circle in the Wright household (although it’s the 35-year-old who’s still getting the Doctor Who Annual from his mum on Christmas morning…)

Casualty: Killing Me Softly/Silent Night

Georgina Bouzova and Ian Bleasdale. Photos: BBC

This time last week, if you were to ask me what the most surprisingly original and affecting drama to be shown this Christmas period was going to be, there would have been no way on Earth I would have answered, “Casualty”. Last weekend, though, Barbara Machin created a two-part story that showed that the world’s longest-running medical drama still has the power to shock and surprise.

Saturday’s episode, Killing Me Softly, took a non-linear approach, with three overlapping strands focussing on paramedic Josh (Ian Bleasdale), nurse Ellen (Georgina Bourzova) and frantic mum Laura (Holly Aird). Plotlines weaved in and out of each story, each gradually building towards a devastating conclusion. Dialogue which could otherwise have been mistaken for the usual background filler in a standard episode expanded as each scene was replayed from a different perspective. And while the revelation that Laura was suffering from Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy would not have been a surprise to many a long-standing viewer of the programme, the discontinuous narrative helped the episode steer clear of too many clichés.

In many respects, Sunday’s episode Silent Night was business as usual compared with Saturday’s narrative structure. While the rewind effect, used the previous day to signify the end of one tale and the start of another, returned here, it was generally used on a scene-by-scene basis to delay a plot twist or revelation, such as Nathan’s discovery of Josh, bleeding in the back of the ambulance. All of Casualty’s core strengths were here, particularly the gruesome make-up and prosthetics work in evidence as the team struggled to save their friend’s life.

Sadly, some of the series’ flaws re-emerged too, most notably the need for Laura and her ex-husband to have a big, exposition-heavy showdown in the relatives’ room. But this came after the most horrid, shocking twist of all: after finding Laura and nearly succeeding in calming her down enough to return her sick daughter to the care of the ED, Ellen runs out — to be knocked over by a motorcycle courier. For the second time that day, the staff have to struggle to revive one of their own — and, tragically, this time they fail.

On being written out of a long-running drama, actors must surely dream of such an exit. Throughout the episode, with Ellen’s worries over the threat of cancer returning and the impact that would have on her fertility, to her struggles to cope with the frenetic environment of the department, to her one-to-one with Laura, Georgina Bourzova gave Ellen a tender stoicism that made her departure all the more poignant. Who would have thought when she arrived on the scene three years ago, as a stroppy, unhelpful temptress, that her loss would be felt so keenly?

TV Today Awards: Most Interesting Character

The first category in our new awards is for Most Interesting TV Character.

Actors and actresses (and, to a lesser extent, the writers, directors, make-up artists, etc.) get recognition for their individual work, but it’s a testament to how well the creative team works as a whole when you get a portrayal that really jumps out of the screen at you.

Our shortlist for the award is:

  • DCI Gene Hunt, Life on Mars (played by Philip Glenister)

    What could have been a stereotypical, Sweeney-esque policeman became so much more. An instinctive copper who plays from a very different rulebook than John Simm’s 21st Century detective, there’s an element of the Western sherrif in Gene Hunt. He may not always play fair, but there’s no doubt that he’s on the right side.

  • DCI Jane Tennison, Prime Suspect - the Final Act (Helen Mirren)

    What more is there left to say? This year’s return of Jane Tennison — the last we’ll see of her — gave us a woman on the verge of losing it all. Her alcoholic blackouts, her struggles to deal with her dying father and the issues with her estranged sister, the threat of her impeding retirement: quite how she managed to solve a murder case at the same time is a marvel. She’ll be much missed.

  • Ruth Evershed, Spooks (Nicola Walker)

    How quickly we forget, but Ruth joined the Grid in Series 2 as a double agent, spying on the spies. Not that she was very good at it — her moral compass was always very firmly aligned, and in the shady world of espionage that made her shine like a beacon. This year, her flirtatious relationship with her boss kept us on the edge of our seats just as much as did the action and intrigue of the main plotlines. With the character now officially dead, but last seen scurrying away on a garbage scow down the Thames, Spooks is all the lesser for her departure.

  • Marian, Robin Hood (Lucy Griffiths)

    While Keith Allen is delivering a panto performance as the Sheriff, Richard Armitage is smouldering away in the corner, and Jonas Armstrong — well, the less said about him, the better — it’s Marian that is holding the BBC’s new version of Robin Hood together. With a nifty sideline as masked avenger the Night Watchman, and a complicated relationship with Guy of Gisborne, the storytelling comes alive when she’s on screen and away from the forest antics of the outlaws.

  • Alison Mundy, Afterlife (Lesley Sharp)

    Derek Acorah she ain’t, thank goodness. A tortured, complex soul who sees dead people but wishes she didn’t, in Afterlife’s second (and final?) season, Alison also had to deal with family issues and the illness of her friend, Robert. Lesley Sharp’s portrayal of a woman whose grip on reality could occasionally be described as tenuous was amazing.

  • Stan McDermott, The Street (Jim Broadbent)

    In a series where characters only had one episode in which to shine, despite popping up through the rest of the series, Jim Broadbent’s Stan stood out, as a man unable to come to terms with being made redundant just prior to retirement, and then finding his pension virtually worthless. A measured study in quiet desperation of the sort Broadbent can do like no other.

  • Jackie Tyler, Doctor Who (Camille Coduri)

    When she first appeared as Rose’s mother, fans were in despair. “It’s EastEnders in space!” they cried. But they were wrong: Jackie was funny and entertaining, warm and maternal, flirtatious and still grieving her dead husband. Over the last two years, her character has fleshed out so much that, when Rose was left stranded with her entire family in an alternate universe at the end of the last series, we were not just mourning the departure of Billie Piper, but her whole family — and especially her mother. If the real EastEnders were to hire her, they’d be cannier than they have been in recent years.

  • Jack, Sorted (Mark Womack)

    As the new recruit to the sorting office, it was no surprise that Jack was isolated from the other postmen in Danny Brocklehurst’s new weekday drama for BBC1. But there was an element of mystery about him, an element that he perpetuated by rebuffing any attempt to befriend him. Finally letting canteen worker Nancy (Nina Sosanya) close, the layers started unravelling and a warm-hearted, funny guy gradually started to emerge.

  • Sir Mark Brydon, The State Within (Jason Isaacs)

    While it may have been too tensely plotted for some, too preposterous for others, it was Jason Isaacs’ British ambassador that drove the series forward, and kind of made us wish that our real diplomats and politicans were of the same calibre.

  • Pierre Clément, Spiral (Grégory Fitoussi)

    BBC4’s CSI-style Parisian thriller was led by an upright prosecutor, struggling with an ex-wife, a growing attraction to the attractive female detective he was working with, and the fact that his best friend was potentially implicated in the same case. It’s hard for many actors to have a great presence when the audience are having to read his lines in subtitle form — but Clément’s presence on screen always demanded that you took your eyes away from the dialogue.

Got your own opinion? Think we’ve missed somebody? Take part in the TV Today Awards Survey, where you can vote on this and several other categories.

Square Eyes Christmas Special

I still long for the days when there were only two TV listings magazines, and Christmas began on the night when my father would return home from working at the chocolate factory (no, really) on a frosty December evening clutching copies of the double issue Radio Times and TV Times. Christmas didn’t start until this moment of high anticipation, and was a real treat, seeing as we weren’t allowed either magazine for every other week of the year. It’s probably just my memory playing tricks, but as my brother and I sat there, ringing our most desired viewing choices with a red pen, I’m sure there was the delicious smell of mulled wine and tangerines in the air.

It’s down to this memory that my love of Christmas TV has never dissipated, and I still look forward to it with a childlike glee that makes the writing of this (belated) Square Eyes festive special a real pleasure.

Merry Christmas, and don’t forget to go and vote in the very first TV Today awards

Christmas Eve

Girls Aloud: Loud and Lovely (1.05pm, C4)

Erm… just kidding!

Peter and the Wolf (4.30pm, C4)

One for the kids (although it’s a bit spooky, so mum may want to be on hand for some handholding) with this lovely stop-frame animation to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Prokoviev’s famous piece. Very evocative, very stylised, and all designed to get us in the mood for Santa’s arrival later on tonight.

EastEnders/Coronation Street (8.00/8.30pm, BBC1/ITV1)

As EastEnders serves Billy up with some more angst as little Petal undergoes surgery, Corrie gives us Les Battersby in a bath of peas. I know which one I’m watching…

Casualty (8.30pm, BBC1)

Oh, alright then. It’s the Casualty Christmas special, continuing last night’s opener, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat… probably. Josh, the longest serving paramedic in TV history (I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him pop in Casualty 1906 a couple of weeks back) has been stabbed, and this could be it! If Manimal can’t save him with all the medical skill at his disposal, we could be saying goodbye to one of the last remaining Holby ravens. Without Josh, that would leave Charlie as the last remaining original cast member, and if he ever left, I’m convinced Holby A+E would crumble to dust.

Christmas Day

Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride (7pm, BBC1) I’ll try not to get too gushing here, but it’ll be hard. At the end of the last series, Catherine Tate appeared in the TARDIS wearing a wedding dress, to much gnashing of teeth from the on-line hoards of Who fans. How dare this light entertainment hack sully the good name of their series!?! Well, this barnstorming piece of Christmas entertainment will not do much to sooth their fevered brows as the Doctor and runaway bride Donna take on the Empress of Racnoss (an unrecognisable Sarah Parish). The good news is, the rest of the audience will love it, so settle down with the family gathered around you for some fun, some scares, some laughs, and the craziest car chase you will ever lay on eyes on. Just wait and see…

Emmerdale (7pm, ITV1)

The other big soap death of the day sees the murder of Tom King on his wedding day to Rosemary. The list of suspects is as long as Jack Sugden’s frown, and this storyline will have legs well into the New Year. Whether the kids will let mum watch this with Doctor Who on the other side remains to be seen…

EastEnders (6.30/9pm, BBC1)

As always, ‘Enders pulls its biggest cracker of the year by saving the departure of Pauline Fowler for Christmas Day. Whatever ups and downs Albert Square has endured this year, both on and off-screen, this bowing out for the legendary mistress of the laundrette will be hard to resist for even the most hardened of EastEnders’ detractors. Will it be all smiles as Pauline packs to go and live with Michelle, or is there more hurt on the way courtesy of Sonia and Martin?

Doc Martin (9pm ITV1)

ITV seem to have thrown the towel in this year on the festive ratings battle, and while Doc Martin has some bums-on-seat clout behind it, this two-hour edition of the Martin Clunes comedy drama feels lack-lustre and devoid of any Christmas cheer. Shame really, as it’s usually a good laugh.

The Vicar of Dibley (9.30pm, BBC1)

The penultimate-ever episode of The Vicar of Dibley, with the last-ever to follow on New Year’s Day. No. Really. It is.

Boxing Day

Challenge Anneke (8pm, ITV1) Yes, you did read that right. Is there nothing that TV execs won’t exhume from the archives? This is a one-off special ahead of a new series in 2007. Anneke’s back, and she’s here to stay.

After Thomas (9pm, ITV1)

Oh, at least there’s some snow in this, bringing some sense of Christmas to the ITV schedules. Keeley Hawes and Ben Miles play the parents of the severely autistic Kyle. The strain on bringing him up is crippling, but then Thomas, a golden retriever dog, comes bounding into their lives, and everything changes. Heartwarming – even more so considering the script is based on real-life events.

Faking It (9pm, C4)

Faking it departs from the schedules with this often moving piece about the body-conscious Sharon Pallister, a cleaner from Wales. She has taken on the task of becoming a sexy burlesque dancer, which is an emotional prospect as it will mean showing the scar on her tummy that forces her to face up to her past. Will she able to convince, swapping a smock for a basque?

Will Young - pop idol, thesp du jour and superhero?

Will Young P1As most of you will know the Christmas edition of The Stage boasts a front cover pic of the rather lovely and very talented William Young.

Now I know that a lot of you have been scrambling around to get a copy - but brave the crowds and get down to WH Smiths because they are in demand.

I’ve had a lot of emails from readers wanting to know a bit more about what the canny performer is doing with the BBC in the Congo… so as a Christmas treat I’ll let you in on the secret…

He is making a show for those factual folk at the beeb about saving the planet. The star took a break from his madcap schedule to track gorillas in war-torn Congo in Africa.

He is filmed following the beasts in the heat of the jungle as part of a two week season looking at endangered animals called Saving Planet Earth.

In the interview with The Stage Young said: “It was amazing, we got pretty close but I tell you they are massive. I mean really huge.”

He also revealed that he had a passion for conservation - and in the unlikely event that all the phones from record producers and theatre directors stopped ringing, he revealed that he might make the move to be an eco-warrior.

The BBC series is hosted by David Attenborough and Alan Titchmarsh running over two weeks in summer 2007. The aim is to try and raise awareness about how human behaviour is driving some creatures to the brink of extinction.

There will be previously unseen footage from BBC1 blockbuster Planet Earth and celebrities including Brian Blessed, Toyah Willcox, and ex-SAS man Chris Ryan talking about the plight of endangered animals. Tigers, sharks and rhinos are all running out of time.

The series is set to end with a live fund-raising event to raise cash for UK conservation charities.

Attenborough said: “”Some scientists suggest that up to a quarter of animal species could be extinct by 2050. But it’s not too late - you can be involved in Saving Planet Earth.

“If you are a child, this is your future. If you’re a parent, it’s your legacy. The time to act is now.”

Announcing... the inaugural TV Today Awards

What better way to end the year, than with a celebratory award or two? Welcome to the TV Today Awards, for which voting is now open.

Here at TV Today, we’ve come up with shortlists in five categories, and we’ll be going through our thinking in posts over the next week. But the winners in each category will be decided by public vote — which is where you come in.

Just go to http://www.thestage.co.uk/tvtoday/awards and select your favoured winner in each of our categories:

  • Most Interesting TV Character
  • Most Underrated Show
  • Most Entertaining Celebrity Talent Show Loser
  • Greatest Hope for 2007
  • Most Ill-Advised Programme

And finally, we’re looking for nominees for the Unsung Hero of the Year — someone who works in television, on either side of the camera, who you think deserves more praise. No shortlist, no voting — we’ll print a selection of your nominations on the blog, and then we’ll pick an overall winner.

So what are you waiting for? Get voting!

More telly in print

The 21 December issue of The Stage

The Christmas issue of The Stage should be hitting your newsagents today. As well an exclusive interview with the UK’s most successful TV reality show winner, Will Young, other televisual and radiophonic delights include regular columnist Maggie Brown on some of BBC management’s biggest mistakes; Liz Thomas looks back at the year in broadcasting news; Nick Smuthwaite reviews a year of radio output, while I have the job of condensing 12 months of quality television into a space that’s smaller than the venue for the Jimmy Carr fan club Christmas party (it’s a queer old lark, writing for print).

Not everything’s backward-looking, though: we have previews of the best Christmas TV and radio, as well as details of how you can see real, live Stage contributors on television over the festive period. And yes, that includes myself again. Sorry, this post is turning out to be a little more self-indulgent than I’d intended… Oh well; I’ll let the regular TV Today audience know about it nearer the time; wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise!

We also have some great offers to see fringe theatre in London for half price up until this time next week, as well as the chance to win tickets to see Henry “Happy Days/Arrested Development/Out of Practice” Winkler in panto, or the chance to get your own original Hamlet cartoon, signed by cartoonist (and Stage TV reviewer) Harry Venning. And just for Christmas, there are some fun quizzes and stuff, too.

Meanwhile, here on the website here’s a breakdown of what we’ve been reporting on in the past week:

While here on TV Today:

Tomorrow’s going to be our last ‘regular’ blogging day until after Christmas, although we’ve got some surprises up our sleeves to keep you entertained and amused over the long holiday weekend! Stay tuned — and prepare your voting fingers, that’s all I’m saying…

Strictly sighting

Staggering into the local greasy this morning to pick up my usual marmite toast (granary, naturally) and coffee, who should I find myself standing next to but Strictly Come Dancing finalist Matt Dawson.

Before I could wrestle him to the ground and demand to know why he had taken my beloved Emma Bunton’s place in Saturday’s much-anticipated final, the nice man behind the counter asked him how it was going.

“Knackered,” was his succinct reply, and to be fair, he looks like he’s been working his little cotton rugby socks off in preparation for Saturday.

The final of Strictly Come Dancing is on Saturday at 5.40pm on BBC1. Good luck to all!

It's murder in Soapland

RIP, Tom King. Photo: ITV

Christmas came early at TV Today towers when a very exciting gift arrived from the windswept Yorkshire Dales – Emmerdale Cluedo. Brilliant!

To spice up the buzz about the impending Christmas Day offing of Tom King (played by soap legend Ken Farrington – he was Billy Walker in Corrie), the Emmerdale press office has sent out an Emmerdale branded set of Cluedo. To be fair, it’s just a standard box of Cluedo with a sticker on the front, detailing the suspects in the soap murder of the year, but it’s a nice touch. It’s definitely better than the bottle of brown sauce that EastEnders sent out to mark the arrival of the Miller family in Walford (I daren’t look at the sell-by-date, but it’s still sitting on the shelf above my desk, Keith Miller staring back at me).

Emmerdale is certainly pulling out all the stops for the death of Tom King and the subsequent search for his killer. Viewers can go interactive and help catch the killer by logging on to a special Emmerdale mini-site devoted to the investigation, where weekly rewards can be played for. It has a fun air, typifying Emmerdale’s overall tone when compared to some of its more po-faced competitors. And, even better, the investigation will be headed up by DCI Grace Barraclough, played by one of my first TV crushes, Glynis Barber!

But with yet another soap wedding set for the 25th, it does make me wonder why soap characters frequently insist on getting married on Christmas Day. In recent years we’ve had Kat and Alfie, Little Mo and Billy, and now a Family Affairs refugee and Tara King off of The Avengers.

It’s one of the most stressful parts of year at the best times, so why on earth would anybody want to compound that by getting married at the same time? It’s madness, not to mention incredibly selfish of the bride and groom towards their potential guests. It’s hard enough to please your family and friends over the festive period without having to think about weddings as well. Some people are just greedy.

Emmerdale is on Christmas Day at 7pm on ITV1.

Go, Go, Go, Joseph - but Grease is the word

It looks like it’s going to songsheets at dawn, as both the BBC and ITV decide that they want in on the next phase of musical theatre based reality shows.

The BBC were first off the mark, slipping out a press release yesterday evening announcing Any Dream Will Do, a Saturday night spectacle reuniting Graham Norton and Andrew Lloyd Webber. As well as casting the male lead, they’ll be looking for a Pharaoh/Elvis impersonator, female lead (Pharaoh’s wife?) and a school choir. This will culminate in a production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the West End next year. Over at our companion blog, Mark Shenton wonders whether Joseph ought to be returning so soon. Myself, I wonder whether the hunt for so many stars is mainly to cover up the fact that, actually, Joseph isn’t really inspiring enough to concentrate on a solo quest.

Of course, the immediate successor to How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria? was a sale of the format by BBC Worldwide to the US market, who are about to launch You’re The Ones That We Want with Maria judge David Ian on a quest to find the ideal Danny and Sandy for a Broadway production of Grease.

Now, curiously, ITV has revealed to Broadcast (subscription required) that it has commissioned You’re The One That I Want from Talkback Thames and Simon Cowell’s indie, Syco.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cowell adapts the format to avoid a difficult and potentially embarrassing lawsuit of the type that he settled with Simon Fuller over X Factor/Pop Idol similarities.

But potentially more interesting is another big clash in the offing. ALW’s fellow judge on Maria, theatrical impresario David Ian, is conspicuous by his absence from the BBC press release. Ian will be jetting off to America to help judge their Grease-based talent show — and, as The Stage can reveal, will be working on the UK show as well.

Of course, next week sees the pair face off anyway, as this year’s Stage 100 is announced. Our annual list of the most influential people in UK theatre saw Lord Lloyd-Webber toppled in 2006, falling to third place behind Cameron Mackintosh (2nd) and a silver-haired young upstart bounding straight in to the number 1 spot. His name? David Ian.

Who will win the coveted title this year? You’ll just have to wait until next week’s print edition of The Stage to find out…

Swings and roundabouts

Jonathan Ross and Simon Cowell

It’s one of those funny days for ITV where there are ups and downs, the kind of day that has typified 2006 overall for the troubled (are we still allowed to call them that?) commercial channel.

After the huge ratings success of The X Factor 2006, Simon Cowell has secured a new, three-year contract to stay with the channel until the close of 2009. Not that TV Today would ever bandy around unconfirmed reports of salaries (ahem), but this deal is reported to be worth around £20 million, which would knock Jonathan Ross into second place as the highest paid TV personality.

This is on the same day that ITV also announces that its earnings from ad revenues has fallen by 12.5% overall, although earnings from the company’s digital channels have been better than expected.

The question to pose here, at a time when ITV is still a bit wobbly (but the prognosis is positive), should it be splashing £20 million on talent when revenues are still down?

Probably – The X Factor’s individual ad revenues must be pretty damn healthy, and unless something goes horribly awry, another three series of The X Factor will guarantee a nice audience share spike come the end of each year. In that respect, Cowell is worth every penny.

But one wonders why ITV never receives flack from the press for paying huge sums to secure an individual’s services, when the BBC gets into hot water every time it does what it has to keep hold of its on-screen personnel. I don’t buy that it’s a public service versus commercial sector kind of argument. Ultimately as viewers and consumers of BBC and ITV product, we all pay somewhere along the line, whether as a licence fee or in the prices we pay on the high street for the advertised products.

I’m not going to get into the debate of whether Cowell or Jonathan Ross are worth what they get paid, but it’s time the accusatory finger started pointing in all directions when the wallets are opened.

Just one little thing...

I’m sure you’re all sick of The X Factor but this is one for those who saw some of the final over the weekend. You know the bit when all the freaks from the early weeks came back to wail like banshees and generally be poked fun at… How much did that look like a spoof of Thriller?

Ps… I hear that lego-man Ray is being lined up for an ITV kids’ show. That’s not a bad call, what say you folk out there?

Square Eyes 18-22 December

Bad Girls: A Christmas Special. Photo: ITV

EastEnders/Coronation Street (Monday to Friday, BBC1/ITV1, times vary)
And it’s heads down as the two big soaps make that dash through the final week before Christmas…

In Albert Square, Pauline Fowler is trying to keep a lid on her deceitful ways and stop it getting out that she doesn’t have a brain tumour. Pity Peggy Mitchell has just found out the evil truth. Prepare for some slap-happy times in The Queen Vic. And Billy, for god’s sake, cheer up will you? Your life has been terrible for like, ever. You’d think you’d be used to it by now – it is Christmas, after all…

And Frankie Baldwin’s worst fears escalate when the cops call her in to identify a body. Did Danny really take a dive off the viaduct, and is Jamie not as white as the driven snow? And things aren’t going to get any better for the couple when Danny’s mum turns up and accuses them both of having her loving son bumped off. As Ena Sharples would have said, whatever’s to do?

Losing Gemma (Monday 9pm, ITV1)
As pre-Chrimbo drama goes, this is about all you’re likely to get. Alice (daughter of Trevor) Eve stars as Esther, who heads off to Goa with Gemma, as unlikely a travelling companion as you’ll find. Not surprisingly, considering the title, Gemma goes missing, and that’s when everything turns bizarre for Esther. Worth watching to see if Jonas Armstrong, who pops up in a supporting role, has actually gorrit away from the Lincoln green.

Rick Stein and the Japanese Ambassador (Tuesday 8pm, BBC2)
Rick Stein, god of the undersea food world (and a lot more besides) steps outside his comfort zone to accept a challenge from the Japanese ambassador to Great Britain – cook a banquet for some very special guests. One slight problem – Stein has never visited Japan, and although he loves a bit of sushi, have never attempted preparing this most marmitey of foods. Off Rick pops to Japan to take on his biggest challenge ever, before returning to do battle in the kitchen.

The Worst Christmas of My Life (Tuesday 9.30pm, BBC1)
Oh bliss! Ben Miller returns in this most wicked of sitcoms that actually has the benefit of being quite funny (a rarity in today’s climate). If you don’t know the form, Miller is Howard Steel, who just can’t help getting into embarrassing scrapes with his in-laws. This seasonal three-parter (continuing on Thursday and Friday) is no exception, full of the same slapstick and cringe inducing moments that will make you wince for poor Howard. Good fun.

Bad Girls: a Christmas Special (Wednesday 9pm, ITV1) (pictured)
A sad day – Bad Girls finally gets paroled and goes straight, never to grace our screens again. This Christmas special is a bit barmy, and possibly not the way producers Shed would have liked to go out. Still, there’s lot to enjoy, especially the decomposing body of Natalie Buxton rotting away down in the drains. Fare ye well, girls of Larkhall. Don’t stay away too long.

Father Ted (Thursday 10.30pm, C4)
Repeats are never a problem when they are this good, and A Very Christmasy Ted is sitcom royalty. For my money, nothing can beat the sequence showing Ted leading a group of priests out of a department store lingerie section (it’s the largest in Ireland, so I’m told). The campaign to have this shown every year starts here.

Fanny Cradock Cooks for Christmas (Friday 8pm, BBC4)
Forget the slick shenanigans of Nigella, this is what it’s all about, a bite-size chunk of the marvellous Fanny Cradock, cooking up a storm with mincemeat. She stuffs, she rolls, she bakes and stuffs some more in a vintage festive special from 1975. There are more daily updates from the legendary cook throughout the festive season.

Number 13 (Friday 10.30pm, BBC4)
A spine-tingling return for a one-time Christmas tradition – an M.R. James ghost story for Christmas. Greg Wise plays an academic deep in some research in a cathedral town. But why is his sleep being disturbed by strange noises from room number 13? You may wonder… Nicely creepy in a very cosy kind of way and a perfect aperitif to ease us into Christmas weekend.

BBC service licences: a rundown

The now-Gradeless BBC Trust, the regulatory body that will replace the current board of Governors, doesn’t even take over until Juanuary and already it’s creating paperwork. Today, they have relased the first drafts of a series of Service Licences for each channel. The idea is that each TV, radio or online channel that the BBC currently operates will have its own document giving an overall idea of the channel’s aims and objectives. Any future changes will be subject to a formal review process, to ensure that the changes stick to the BBC’s public service ethos.

You can read any, or all, of the BBC’s TV-related service licences from the BBC Trust website. Reading them side-by-side gives a clue as to how the BBC views the differences between its four main channels, which isn’t always obvious from watching them:

  • All channels are briefed to “exhibit some or all of the following characteristics: high quality, original, challenging, innovative and engaging, and [nurturing] UK talent.”

  • BBC 1 should “deliver its remit through high quality programmes with wide appeal across all genres”. It should also “be the BBC’s main platform for television drama and, especially in peaktime, drama should be one of the biggest creators of BBC’s One’s impact with its audience.”

  • BBC 2 should “deliver its remit with factual programming that broadens horizons.”. Its comedy output “should offer established talent the opportunity to experiment and its drama should be characterised by strong authorship and individual voices.”

  • BBC 3 should broadcast “a high proportion of original UK-produced content across a range of genres, and by taking creative risks and experimenting with new talent and new ideas, in particular in the area of UK comedy.” It should work to increase the appeal of BBC1 and BBC2 with younger audiences, with complementary content. None of its commitments should be allowed to get in the away of BBC1 and BBC2 to appeal to young people, and any of its programmes should be made available to the major channels to enhance their appeal.

  • BBC 4 should offer “a broad range of culturally enriching and innovative programming”, with an emphasis on global news and current affairs. It should also “offer a significant proportion of originally commissioned, UK originated programming, nurture new presenting talent and experiment with new comedy.”

Some additional conditions for each channel, after the jump.

Square Eyes 16-17 December

Rupert Grint in Driving Lessons. Picture: ITV/Rubber Tree Productions

One Man and His Dog (Saturday 6.10pm, BBC2)
Ben Fogle and Shauna Lowry present the first of two special programmes of this much-missed, little-watched TV legend. It’s a very soothing way to spend 40 minutes and marvel at the real skill that goes into the bond between master and animal. There’s certainly more sporting satisfaction in this charming contest than there is going on in The Ashes at the moment.

The X Factor – the Final (Saturday 7pm, ITV1)
Oh thank God! It’s over for another year. In previous years I have lapped up The X Factor like no tomorrow, but this year the whole shebang has passed me by. And that’s probably my loss as the bits I have caught clearly show it’s still as fun and frothy as it ever was. I guess I’ve got bored of the contrived banter between the judges as opposed to the focus on talent. Good luck to Ray and Leona, it’ll be a great for you!

The Culture Show (Saturday 7.50pm, BBC2)
The final edition of this series will reveal the result of the search to find Britain’s greatest living icon, and the final battle is down to three diverse choices. Will it be Paul McCartney, Morrissey or Alan Bennett taking the honour thanks to votes cast by viewers? All are worthy contenders, but my hope is for Mr Bennett. There will also be a look back over the past year as covered by the show.

Ghosthunting with Girls Aloud (Saturday 11.30pm, ITV2)
For those who missed it, catch this timely repeat of the biggest television event of the year. And that’s said with no sense of irony…

Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (Sunday 8pm, Sky One)
This is quite a major undertaking for Sky, tackling the first bona fide live-action adaptation of one of Terry Pratchett’s fizzy, fun Discworld books. On the Discworld, the Hogfather has gone missing on the eve before Hogswatch, leading to Death (he’s a ubiquitously fabulous part of the whole Discsworld experience and voiced to perfection by Ian Richardson) decides to take on the task himself. It’s all fabulously Christmasy with a faux Dickensian bent to proceedings. It’s also odd to see David Jason out of his comfort zone as Death’s man servant, Albert. This is by no means perfect, but as a first attempt at bringing the Discworld to the screen, it’s commendable.

Born Equal (Sunday 9pm, BBC1)
If you want to keep the Christmasy spirit going in your house, it’s probably best to avoid Born Equal from the pen of Dominic Savage. If you do stay clear, you’re missing a powerful (if a little preachy) drama on the inequalities present in the social justice of our country. Colin Firth, Anne-Marie Duff David Oyelowo and Robert Carlyle head up a top cast in a story of disparate individuals in the same neighbourhood. It’s violent, it’s brutal, and the stories will pierce your heart and your mind. It’s tough going, and will make you uncomfortable, but see where it takes you.

Driving Lessons (Sunday 9pm, ITV1)
Okay, we’re treading carefully here, but finally Driving Lessons comes to our television screens, ushered in bizarrely the week before Christmas when it has Boxing day crowd pleaser written all over it. The superbly brilliant and multi-talented phenomenon Rupert Grint plays a teenager who strikes up a friendship with a dotty old actress (Julie Walters) and learns about the world, away from the piercing gaze of his mother. It’s ever so slightly twee, and that’s probably the point, but Walters and Grint are highly amiable company throughout writer Jeremy Brock’s directorial debut.

Opsoks?

So, in the week that BBC3 loses first run rights to Torchwood, the Freeview channel is developing another spin-off for 2007… Rogue Spooks will be an offshoot from the popular MI5 (not 9 to 5, cos that starred Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, obviously) and is being ushered into existence by independent producer Kudos and writer David Wolstencroft.

According to BBC3 controller Julian Bellamy at this morning’s BBC3 winter/spring schedule launch, the series will follow the exploits of a young team of MI5 recruits who, according to Bellamy:

“play by a different set of rules”

Well, with that exciting thumbnail, we hope they play by a different set of clichés while they’re about it.

And as for that moniker… Rogue Spooks is said to be a working title, and TV Today fervently hopes this is the case. And as Torchwood is an anagram of parent show Doctor Who, surely BBC3 has set a precedent here, and the more correct title for the new show would be Opsoks?

We love Spooks, as you know, but we await the arrival of this different rule book with cautious interest…

A very Ambridge wedding

The Archers: Adam And Ian. Photo: BBC

It’s a momentous day for equality here in the UK. For a year now, gay couples have been able to publicly declare their lifelong commitment to one another in marriage — albeit under the name ‘civil partnership’. Over 15,700 couples — far more than initial government estimates — have already taken advantage of the change in the law. But there is one couple who, above all others (yes, even above Elton and David) show just how much this change in the law has become part of British culture. Yes, tonight, we will witness the first soap opera civil partnership, as Adam and Ian tie the knot in The Archers.

The Radio 4 soap, always pretty solid in the ratings, has been getting a major boost recently. Online listening has been going through the roof: the latest figures available, for October of this year, show that the show was listened to nearly a million times. Part of the appeal has to be the slow burn of plotlines; where TV soaps seem to live in a world where everything happens five times faster than real life, the progression of events in Ambridge seems to parallel our own much more closely (for example, compare how The Archers is dealing with Jack Wooley’s progressing Alzheimer’s, in contrast to Coronation Street’s treatment of the same subject matter with Mike Baldwin).

The burgeoning relationship between Adam and Ian has similarly been developing at a natural pace. The couple shared their first kiss with the nation in March 2004, when Adam showed Ian his polytunnels (it’s an agricultural thing, apparently, and sadly nowhere near as rude as it sounds). Indeed, their whole relationship has been much more romantically presented than similar straight couplings, something confirmed by Archers scriptwriter Mary Cutler in a great piece in today’s Guardian:

I wrote the gay kiss and, in a funny way, you can write better romances for gay characters now than you can for heterosexual ones. There are so many issues with heterosexuals, and there’s such a danger of its sounding Mills & Boony. Whereas that was so charming, a kiss by moonlight. It’s quite old-fashioned.

Reaction to Adam and Ian’s forthcoming nuptials have been fairly muted — unsurprisingly, though, Stephen Green of minority sect Christian Voice has, predictably, been foaming at the mouth about it all. Indeed, more Archers fans seem more upset about the prospect of being shown what the characters look like. A forthcoming Arena documentary on the show (showing on BBC4 on New Year’s Day), mindful of the ire that arises when showing the actors, will preface the brief glimpses of in-vision characters with an on-screen warning to “look away now”. For some people, Ambridge life is very, very real — and the presentation of photographs that contradict their own internal picturescape is something to be resisted.

For those people, then, they should perhaps avoid the Guardian piece, where Patricia Greene (Jill Archer) describes the series as “something insubstantial”:

I have to say, I thought the wedding of the gays in a small village like Ambridge was perhaps a little … The fact that we didn’t all open our mouths in astonishment … We just took it as you would in London! We all took it very calmly. But then, we’re talking about something insubstantial. It’s an imagined place, peopled by imagined characters who don’t speak for themselves; they speak the lines that the writers have written.

Sacrilege!

Soap in your eyes

Coronation Street. Photo: ITV

It’s been said to us here at TV Today that we perhaps don’t cover one of the nation’s favourite pastimes – soap operas – as much as we could. This is of course incredibly remiss, seeing as this dark art of television forms the backbone of British drama output, occupying more space in the tabloids than Pete Doherty after a big night out.

This we fully intend to rectify in the New Year and hope to bring more detailed coverage from our Soapland correspondents on a regular basis.

It’s easy to dismiss the soaps as unimportant, as cultural fluff that nobody takes seriously. Their ubiquitous position in the schedules has bred a curious form of contempt, giving simple excuse not to take them seriously. But still, 9 million people will tune in to every episode of both Coronation Street and EastEnders, often amounting to 40 percent of the total viewing audience. Emmerdale is rarely far behind, and even the likes of Hollyoaks, Neighbours and Home and Away have their faithful to keep them as a going concern for broadcasters. And don’t get me started on The Archers, I’ll never stop!

Without the soaps (yes, including EastEnders, which has weathered a very tough year), British television would be a poorer place. They are the training ground for future stars, future writers, and future directors.

Come Christmas Day, I’ll be happy settling down with a glass of sherry and mince pie in front of the Christmas Corrie, my family alongside. For better or worse, soaps are the cultural heritage of our television industry, and we should be proud of that fact.

Wogan on Brand

Radio 2 had its very charming Christmas drinks today and as I strolled in, there in a rather intimate tete-a-tete were Terry Wogan and Russell Brand. Of course Brand’s “tete” was significantly more dramatic than Wogan’s - you can imagine the picture - but there was something quite nice about seeing the stand-up comedian in slightly more humble mode.

In fact, it seems the big-haired one was asking the esteemed Mr Wogan for tips - or at least picking his brain on the subtleties of radio. Later I quizzed the popular Irishman about what Brand could have been discussing with him in such earnest.

“Well”, Wogan twinkled, ” He was asking me for tips… on how to pick up the ladies.”

I promptly choked on my drink due to the strange mental pictures the comment conjured, it took a moment to shake them.

Then slightly more seriously he added “Russell doesn’t have to ask me for tips. He’s doing great - I’m a big fan. He really is a great talent and you know what? I think he is just going to get better and better. I think he’s got great style and is a real individual - you need that to succeed.”

When quizzed on whether Brand was right for Radio 2, wise Wogan stroked his beard [ok he didn’t] and pointed to the outcry when Steve Wright and Chris Evans took to the station’s airwaves. He added:

“Radio 2 has a duty to take risks. The thing about radio is that it is a slow burn, whereas TV is a quick fix. Radio has the ability to get inside your head, whereas television is more superficial.”

The Children in Need and Eurovision favourite, who is fronting a show on Christmas Day featuring Gordon Ramsay, admitted that he did not watch television over the festive period.

“Christmas for me is about eating and drinking and being with family. I don’t watch much television and I don’t play games either. I don’t want to play board games - like Monopoly or something. I wouldn’t mind playing Poker. My wife did suggest that we could play Bridge but I think that is just one step away from having a mobile commode.”

Arise Sir Walliams...?

Apparently much of the comedy world, and if you believe some reports, the wider public as well felt that David Walliams was robbed of the title of BBC Sports Personality of the Year for his wee swim across the English Channel.

The accolade actually went to Zara Phillips last Sunday but he was presented with a ‘special award’ at the bash for his feat of crossing the channel in 10-and-a-half hours and raising £1 million for Sport Relief in the process. His swim time was the 23rd fastest out of 1,200 successful crossings.

But now momentum is moving for something more signifcant for the campest straight man in the the UK.

Walliams’ Little Britain co-star is adamant that Dave should get a little something from the House of Windsor come 2007. He said to The Stage:

I think what David achieved swimming the channel is incredible, especially when you consider he is not a professional sportsman. He deserves all the awards. I think he should be on the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. I think he would deserve it.

Ok, so it might not be a knighthood but just think how hilarious that would be to watch. A sketch in the making!

Round two for Torchwood on BBC2

After a successful first series that saw ratings hold up consistently after a record-breaking opening night on BBC3, the BBC has confirmed that Torchwood, the ‘adult’ spin-off from Doctor Who, has been awarded a second series - to debut next year on BBC2.

“Woo-hoo!” some of you might say. “Oh no!” another group might shout. TV Today will throw a cautiously muted flag wave into the mix. Torchwood is a show that displayed great promise from the off, but, in all honesty, that early promise has not been built on. There have been some flashes of brilliance, but coupled with some highly inept scripting, direction and acting in places, the product has been very uneven. I’d even go as far as to say that the episode Cyberwoman ranks highly amongst the worst 50 minutes of drama I’ve ever seen.

Sorry…

For the series to fulfil its potential, the characters must mine a strata of sympathy for an audience to latch on to. At the moment, the ensemble is, to a man and woman, cynical, nasty, cruel and self-serving (the characters, that is!) There is no heart, and that’s crucial. The series generally amounts to a group of unpleasant characters investigating the activities of even more unpleasant characters, and that’s quiet wearing. And this is supposed to be spin-off from one the most joyous, life-affirming series on British television…

But there’s a wider issue with the recommissioning of Torchwood and its BBC2 premier. There have been reports of a battle to secure the first run rights to this second series between BBC2 and BBC3, and one wouldn’t be surprised if BBC1 has been eyeing up Captain Jack to come to BBC1. And I think that’s a shame - BBC3 championed this series, bringing big ratings to the multi-channel world for the premier episodes. And now one of the bigger boys in the playground has come along and stolen BBC3’s sweets, depriving an important multi-channel outlet of an opportunity to build bigger audiences, much as happened with Little Britain. But then, BBC1 has been beating up on BBC2 for years, mugging the channel for its most successful shows, so perhaps it’s just payback time…

Square Eyes 11-15 December

EastEnders (Monday/Tuesday/Thursday/Friday 8pm.7.30pm)

Ohh, I say, It’s the beginning of the end for Pauline Fowler! In the run up to her departure on Christmas Day, the Albert Square veteran’s secret is out when Mr Ben (aka hubby Joe) discovers she doesn’t have a brain tumour after all. Oops! It’s unfortunate then that Martin has just announced her fatal illness in The Vic, and the Square’s residents rally round to organise some fund-raising initiatives. It can only end in tears. What would Arfer say?

The True Voice of Prostitution (Monday 11pm, C4)

Three real-life testimonies form the basis for this quite harrowing examination of prostitution, with Lesley Sharp, Richard Wilson and Nikki Amuka-Bird relating three very different aspects of this emotive subject. It’s Wilson, as a businessman who has visited prostitutes for years, who is most effective and quite haunting in his delivery, reminding us that there was always more to this actor than Victor Meldrew. Recommended, but steel yourself for an emotional viewing experience.

The Royal Variety Performance (Tuesday 8pm, BBC1)

Oh go on then! The Royal Variety Performance is a national tradition, and this year, Charles and Camilla get the honour of sitting through two hours of music, dance, theatre and some stand up comics who live in fear of swearing in front of the heir to the throne.

The Cult of… Blake’s 7 (Tuesday 8.30pm, BBC4)

Ah, it’s been nearly 30 years since Blake’s 7, a self-styled Robin Hood in space debuted on screens, and is still a mocked but fondly remembered piece of TV royalty. In the grand scheme of things, this even-cheaper-than-Doctor Who space opera was the last show that ever held its own against Coronation Street (the last episode amassed 10 million viewers against Weatherfield’s finest). In this nice little documentary, Gareth Thomas (Blake), Paul Darrow (Avon) and Jacqueline Pearce (the divinely camp villainess Servelan) reflect with happy nostalgia about their time aboard the Liberator.

The British Comedy Awards (Wednesday 9pm, ITV1)

Anything could happen in the next two hours, to paraphrase Gerry Anderson. It’s worth tuning in to The British Comedy Awards to see if anybody steps over the line with an outrageous outburst, making the event a more entertaining watch than other awards ceremonies. This year, it might be a more sedate affair than usual, as comedy has had something of a fallow year all round. Fingers are crossed to see Mitchell and Webb take something home (and for Stephen Merchant to grab the Best Actor award from under partner Ricky Gervais’s nose).

Bodies (Wednesday 10pm, BBC3)

Despite our disagreement with recent comments from writer Jed Mercurio, it’s with open arms that TV Today welcomes the excellent Bodies back for one last examination in this one-off feature length episode to wrap the story up. Rob (Max Beesley) is putting recent experiences behind him, making a fresh start in a new job, with now-girlfriend Polly expecting his child. But of course, the spectre of the incompetent Roger Hurley is not too far away, forcing Rob into another ethical dilemma. Brutal and brilliant, Bodies will be sadly missed.

Have I Got News for You (Friday 9pm, BBC1)

Oh joy of joys, an early Christmas present. Boris Johnson is back as guest presenter on HIGNFY, and that, at the very least, makes me very happy. Whatever you think of his politics, he’s damn entertaining, and this final episode of the series will be good fun all round. But, it might be time for the production team to take a look at the guest presenter policy and wonder if it’s time to have a permanent host back in the chair. The idea has served the show well, but it’s time for a change, and hopefully somebody will be looking for Alexander Armstrong’s phone number, who fits the role like a glove.

Blunder (Friday 10.30pm, C4)

Erm, what can I say. I watched this ensemble sketch show last Friday, and found myself laughing. I guess there’s no accounting for taste (and Tittybangbang makes this look like vintage Galton and Simpson).

She's leaving home (and away)...

The soap opera world is tilting precariously on its axis today, with the shock news that Kate Ritchie, who has played Sally in Home and Away since its very first episode, has confirmed that she is leaving the show after nineteen years.

The last series of the show, which is currently on its traditional summer break in Australia, ended with her character in a life-or-death situation (we won’t go into too many details here; the episode won’t air here in the UK until sometime next year), and a music video compilation of Ritchie’s two decades on the show. Home and Away’s parent channel, Seven, have remained tight-lipped about the character’s eventual fate, but Ritchie has confirmed to the Herald Sun that whatever happens, she won’t be back as Sally:

It’s been a fantastic experience, but now I think I might be ready to look past that. In order to grow creatively you need to spread your wings. While the public might have me typecast, I know in my heart I’m not just that little girl who grew up on Home and Away.

Naturally, the compilation video has made its way on to YouTube, and is presented for your delectation below.

The Runaway Bride - new photos

Catherine Tate. Photo: BBC

A whole load of new stills from the centrepiece of BBC1’s Christmas Day schedules, Doctor Who: The Runaway Bride, have become available today. As a little weekend treat, we thought we’d let you see some. You’ll see more — much more — after the jump. Naturally, you should consider avoiding them if you’re avoiding spoilers. Or David Tennant dong his trademark “gritted teeth” acting style.

All photos are © BBC.

Square Eyes 9-10 December

Victoria Wood in Housewife, 49. Photo: ITV

Robin Hood (Saturday 6.55pm, BBC1)

Ooh, an all girl gang of Saracen assassins arrives in Sherwood. Cool! After last week’s gunpowder plot, Robin Hood, clearly giddy from the excitement of having a second series commissioned, just gets ever so slightly sillier this week. 10 episodes in, and the show has, thankfully, become all the more enjoyable for it. However, disappointment reigns on the realisation that the assassins aren’t played by Girls Aloud (but then, we can’t have everything, can we?).

Strictly Come Dancing/The X Factor (Saturday 5.40pm/6.30pm BBC1/ITV1)

These shows are becoming like a mountaineer’s reason for climbing a dangerous mountain – just because it’s there. But, if Emma Bunton gets voted off Strictly, or Ben is booted out of The X Factor, the TV Today boys (well, me, Scott and Liz) will be going round to have a word…

Extinct (Saturday 7.30pm, ITV1)

Extinct is like a wildlife version of Our Song, with lots of heartstring tugging music played over slow montages of pandas being all cute, making those big old eyes at the camera. But at its heart, Extinct has noble intentions, with celebs heading out into the threatened habitats of some of the planet’s rapidly disappearing species. David Suchet gets the pandas this week, and it really is rather moving despite the schmaltz. Meanwhile, back in the studio, Zoe Ball and Sir Trevor McDonald drum up donations from the public, and there’s also a vote to see which animals will get the most support from the WWF. Blimey, it’s a bit like Restoration

Sports Personality of the Year (Sunday 7pm, BBC1)

Sport doesn’t tend to fall under the steely gaze of TV Today, but Sports Personality of the Year is a television institution. This year, for the first time in its 50-year plus history, the show is being transmitted live in front of a large audience at the NEC. The best thing about SPOTY (well, it was to the seven-year-old me) is that you know you’re on the home straight to Christmas on the Sunday this goes out. TV Today hero Adrian Chiles presents.

Housewife, 49 (Sunday 9pm, BBC1)

Victoria Wood ditches the macaroons and the witty ditties for this sobering piece of drama that shows more than adequately that ITV can still put out some decent drama once in while. Wood is Nella Last, a housewife in the early stages of World War II who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. She is trapped in a decaying marriage, but finds a voice by taking part in the Mass Observation Programme instigated by the government (in other words, she keeps a diary). Wood, as always, is excellent, and with a cast that includes David Threlfall and Stephanie Cole, there’s talent aplenty here. Period drama doesn’t come much better.

Christmas preview: Faking It Burlesque special

Faking It Burlesque special. Pictures: Channel 4

I fear that we may not be able to hold off the inexorable Christmas build-up much longer — although, unlike the BBC news studio, we won’t be cowtowed into adorning Christmas decorations early. But if we must start on the Christmas previews, then this is a suitable first candidate: the return of Faking It.

The simple premise of the show (made by RDF Media for Channel 4) was the reason of its success: normal people struggling with personal demons to do something that they normally wouldn’t do. And it always tended to be the simplest challenges that provided the most compulsive viewing — who can forget gay Alex learning how to be a bouncer? While this special episode involves one of the biggest transformations yet — turning introverted, body-conscious cleaner Sharon into a vivacious burlesque dancer — it succeeds because, as ever, the journey she must go on is an incredibly personal one.

As well as receiving coaching from burlesque stars Immodesty Blaize and Dita von Teese, Sharon must cope with her own poor body image. After surgery left her body scarred, she has a fear of exposing her flesh — something she must conquer if she is to perform a sexy striptease.

Will she manage to convince the three expert judges (including The Stage reviewer Paul Vale)? We’re sworn to secrecy. You’ll just have to watch to find out…

  • Faking It: Burlesque Special, Channel 4, Boxing Day 9:00pm

This is a test

The power of three

Joe Armstrong (Allan A Dale) and Jonas Armstrong (Robin) in Robin Hood. Photo: BBC

Fantastic! We have a new buzzword added to the dazzling lexicon of television production, thanks to BBC1 controller Peter Fincham at today’s winter and spring schedule launch.

“Three generation TV - that’s TV you can watch with your grandparents and children. There’s not enough of that about,”

He told the assembled journalists as he talked up a desire to bring a new version of the Merlin legend to the now hallowed early Saturday evening drama slot sometime in 2008.

Ooh, “three generation TV”, you say? Jed Mercurio isn’t going to like that, as it will only give rise to those pesky children’s dramas dressed up for adults. Oh dear.

I can’t work out if the phrase is genius or a bit naff, but one thing it does indicate is that the pursuit of the Saturday night family drama slot is becoming a tad predictable. If the BBC is not careful, things are going to become terribly homogenized, and instead of three generations, they’ll be back to no generations watching.

As for Merlin, I’m not sure about this – the idea has been kicking around for while, with a pitch by Torchwood producer/writer Chris Chibnall being abandoned some time ago. Here, Shine, the independent behind Sky’s Hex and Channel 4’s Sugar Rush is developing the idea further. While Merlin doesn’t have the same resonance in the public mind as Robin Hood, Shine has a good track record with hitting the youth target. Certainly Hex deserved a bigger audience.

But…

If this vogue for Saturday is going to continue, the shows have to be distinct enough to complement each other successfully. Doctor Who to Robin Hood is quite a hefty jump, but Sherwood and Camelot are just about in the same postcode. How much olde worlde stuff will the kids take, let alone the adults?

In other news, as reported by Liz, Fincham also confirmed that Friar Tuck will appear in the second series of Robin Hood and Matt Lucas is being courted to fill the cassock. Thank the maker, a potentially interesting character at last. In my experience, you can never have too many comedy monks!

Tales of the riverbank

Mark Gatiss, Lee Inglbey and Matt Lucas in The Window in the Willows

In this week’s print edition of The Stage, Gub Neal, executive producer of BBC1’s forthcoming production of The Wind in the Willows, adapted by Lee Hall, writes about the production.

In particular, he discusses how the casting of Matt Lucas helped set the tone for the whole production:

His commitment to the production solved the other major creative question – how to realise the animal element of each of the characters while allowing them to be played by actors.

The key was Matt’s response to the part. It was clear from the start that it was going to take very little prosthetics or special effects to convince everyone that Matt could play Toad in the raw.

It’s a testimony to his talent as an actor and a comic that Matt was able to capture the essence of the character without layers of plastic, which would have diluted the spontaneity of the performance. Matt showed us that Toad could be conjured just as powerfully with a combination of voice, gesture, costume and movement.

Neal also talks about his first choice for Toad, the difficulties of finding suitable filming locations in England and the problems of filming in 38° temperatures.

The Stage is on sale now, price £1.30.

Charlie and Lola vs. the world

Charlie and Lola

Good news for Tiger Aspect — their pre-school animation series, Charlie and Lola, has been nominated for Best Animated Television Production in America’s animation awards, the Annies.

The endearing show, which airs on CBeebies in the UK, is pitted against fellow kiddie capers The Fairly OddParents and Wow! Wow! Wubbzy (which I haven’t seen before, but have located a couple of promo clips for you), along with more adult interest animations Family Guy and King of the Hill.

It’s great to see a show like Charlie and Lola, which stands out against the plethora of by-the-numbers US imports available on the various children’s TV channels, getting the recognition it deserves.

PS: On a related CBeebies note, in print this week, The Stage has an interview with Justin Fletcher, the voice of Tweenies Jake and Doodles as well as a regular on Something Special and Tikkabilla.

4oD: first impressions

Channel 4's on-demand service, 4oD

So, Channel 4 has launched its long-awaited download rental service, 4OD. Unfortunately, I’m going to have to take somebody else’s word for how well it works, because it’s only available for Windows PCs, leaving us shiny Mac owners out in the cold.

Blogger Dan Taylor has got his teeth into the service, however. Some of the key points of his review:

  • The main interface is “relatively clean and simple… running in a full-screen (but re-sizable) window.”

  • Viewing programmes available to download can be done using a schedule view, although doing so highlights the limited range of available shows: “It still feels frustrating to be reminded that you can’t watch The Simpsons, Channel 4 News or Without a Trace, but you can watch Hollyoaks and 8 Out of 10 Cats…”

  • It may be more useful to browse using the genre categories and recommendations lists.

  • Once a programme has downloaded, you can keep it for a month; however, once you’ve started watching it, it will self-delete after 48 hours.

  • Image quality is “pretty good when viewed as Regular or Large but inevitably starts to pixelate in Fullscreen mode.”

Downloads are priced at 99p to rent a TV show, and £1.99 to rent a film. A limited number of TV programmes will be available to “own” for £1.99 as well.

Read the full review on Dan’s blog.

Simpson strikes back at Grade

Finally! Somebody at the BBC has done what most of the higher echelons at Broadcasting House have been itching to do for the last week and cried “Foul!” at Michael Grade for his shock move to ITV.

News god John Simpson, a regular voice of calm reason, has candidly stated his opinion on the situation in the latest issue of the Beeb’s in-house magazine, Ariel, beliving that working for the Beeb is very much a state of mind:

“It’s because we don’t have to make concessions to the market. It’s because we believe that quality is the only thing that really matters. It’s because we don’t have to apologise for what we do. Let’s hope our next chairman will understand this, and share the feeling, and not find his or her attention wandering at the key moment as Michael Grade’s did.”

It does seem that the likes of DG Mark Thompson and his colleagues have been walking round with a rictus grin on their faces, uttering the phrase: “Everything’s fine” like a mantra and if they say it often enough, it’ll be true…

While the situation at the BBC is far from disastrous, it is about time that somebody voiced what was on everybody’s mind - in short, that what Grade did wasn’t a paricularly nice thing to do. He could have waited until after Christmas at the very least.

Ooh, get her!

“If I give it a year people will have seen how boring it is to have endless Doctor Who spin-offs. Then, hopefully, people will go ‘we’ve made idiots of ourselves, let’s make something good again”

So says Jed Mercurio, writer of the phenomenally excellent Bodies, which will be wrapped up in a 90-minute special this Christmas, to the Timesonline.

But, hang on, is the talented Mr M being more than a tad bitter there with his pop about Doctor Who? Whatever anybody thinks about it (and you know our thoughts), that particular show is hitting the right buttons with a very wide audience, a family demographic that had been sorely neglected in the drama stakes. Gladly, that’s being addressed by a public service broadcaster.

And if he thinks there are endless Doctor Who spin-offs, Mercurio should really look just how much of a fraction the output from the Who production office is in relation to the Beeb’s whole drama pie. While I have my own feelings about Torchwood (i.e., it isn’t very good), from the clips disc that just landed on my desk of the forthcoming Sarah Jane Adventures, I’m personally glad that somebody s making a bit of exciting drama for a bona fide children’s audience.

Mercurio also opines:

To be honest, I don’t think it is a brilliant time to be doing grown-up drama series. People now only want to put time and effort into juvenilia, things that are really children’s drama dressed up a bit for an adult audience.”

Oh just get over it, will you? What about Life on Mars, Tsunami: the Aftermath, The State Within, Spooks and Jane Eyre to name but a few (and that’s just on BBC1)? I largely consider Bodies to be one of the finest dramas of the last five years, and it’s criminal we won’t be seeing a third series thanks to some bonkers scheduling on BBC2 and some regime changes. His previous Cardiac Arrest was also a storming piece of work, but for the writer to say that there are no opportunities for grown up drama in today’s climate is frankly absurd.

Perhaps it’s all just sour grapes on Mercurio’s part, and the fact that his own foray into the world of science fiction, the tediously dismal Invasion: Earth, disappeared up its own black hole. I would have used more colourful language there, but fear for our more juvenile readers who might be dressing themselves up as adults.

TV Today's Top Ten Treats

If you’re anything like me, there’s at least another couple of weeks before you even think about doing the Christmas shopping. Worse still, you’re in a bit of a quandary as to answer the question, “What would you like for Christmas?” Worry not — here at TV Today, we’ve got a list of our Top 10 Telly Treats to fill your (or someone else’s) stocking with this Christmas.

And so, in reverse order, our tips are…

10. Dr.Who Dalek 3D Bath & Shower Gel

A nice cheap gift for a young — or young-at-heart — relative that’s into a certain television show that we may have mentioned once or twice. It’s also a decent quality model, so will provide enjoyment long after the bubbles run out…

9. Planet Earth Soundtrack CD

George Fenton’s incredible score has immeasurably enhanced the BBC’s finest wildlife series to date. Whack this on the CD player, and be instantly transported to the Serengeti, the ice-cold tundra, or in a bat-filled cave.

8. Deal or No Deal Board Game

It’s the game show that has no right to be quite as compelling as it is. And now you can not only play it in your own home, but you can also eliminate any trace of Noel Edmonds from the proceedings!

7. “Life on Mars” Official Companion

A meticulously detailed guide to one of the most imaginative drama serials in years. Facts and behind-the-scenes information abound, along with full track lists for all the music used in each episode, ‘interviews’ with the characters, and a hidden surprise underneath the dust jacket…

6. TV Heaven by Jim Sangster and Paul Condon

If you’ve got any interest in television from the last seventy years, you’re going to find yourself easily lost in this massive reference work. Making no attempt to be exhaustive, the authors have instead chosen to concentrate on some of the most defining shows, detailing most in manageable chunks whilst giving fuller-length treatment to many key works. (Disclosure: Jim and Paul are friends of mine.)

5. Am I Bovvered?: The “Catherine Tate Show” Scripts

While Ricky Gervais may have taken the mickey out of the sketch show’s over-reliance on catachphrases, there are plenty of well-written comedic (and occasionally tragic) characters in here. While the first two series of The Catherine Tate show are also out on DVD, reading the well-written skecthes in script form is somehow more satisfying.

4. DIGIHOME DVB915 FreeView Digital Terrestrial Receiver

Set-top boxes don’t come much cheaper than this, nudging just above £21. It may not have the bells and whistles of more expensive models, but its exceptional value means you can enjoy all the extra channels available on Freeview for minimal cost.

3. Doctor Who Soundtrack CD

No apologies for our second Who-related item in the list. Murray Gold, one of TV’s most accomplished and profilic composers, shows his full versatility here, with an astonishing array of musical styles. Look out in particular for the haunting oboe in Boom Town Suite, or the disqueting cello solo in The Impossible Planet. It also features two songs with vocals from The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon.

2. Telly Addicts 2 Interactive DVD Game

You can’t move for interactive DVD games in the shop this year. And while some are less appealing than others, this does at least carry the virtue of having TV knowledge as the basis. Unfortunately, it also has Noel Edmonds, but you can’t have everything.

1. Jack Rosenthal At ITV DVD

I highlighted this release back in July, and it’s remained one of my favourite DVDs throughout the year. Showcasing the writing talents of Jack Rosenthal during his years at ITV, there are some all time greats in here. Whether it’s one off films (Another Sunday and Sweet FA, Ready When You Are, Mr McGill, The Knowledge, London’s Burning), sitcoms (The Lovers), episodes of Coronation Street — not forgetting Pardon The Expression, Corrie’s sitcom spinoff — there is such a wealth of great stuff in here that it will keep you engrossed for hours.

How do you solve a problem like Evita?

Connie Fisher, How Do Solve a Problem Like Maria? winner. Photo: Trstram Kenton

While the concept may have annoyed many of The Stage’s core audience, there’s little doubt that the BBC’s saturday evening talent hunt How Do You Solve A Problem Lke Maria? was one of the TV successes of the year. The format has already been sold to America, for a quest to find Sandy and Danny (cannily entitled You’re The One That We Want). And, as Liz reported last month, there is the possibility of a Grease edition here in the UK, too — possibly preceded by a hunt for the next Joseph (or Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat fame).

First, though, the bandwagon is to roll on to the Netherlands. Broadcast (subscription only) reports that BBC Worldwide has sold the format over there, for them to locate the next Evita.

Which leaves two questions. The first is: what would an Evita themed show be called? You Must Love Me? Another Audition In Another Hall? Oh, What a Circus?

But the second question is a little more serious. When Maria? first launched, it was under the guide of finding a fresher face who might well have been missed through a ‘convential’ casting route. Yet, with all these spin-offs floating around, it seems that any such pretence is evaporating. And at that point, the question has to be asked: how many shows can be spun from the one format before the façade of public service drops away altogether?

Hmm. Maybe the title for the Dutch show should be And The Money Kept Rolling In

Picture shows Connie Fisher, winner of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, as Maria in The SOund of Music. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Square Eyes 4-8 December

Jackanory. Photo: BBC

EastEnders/Coronation Street (Monday – Friday, BBC1/ITV1)

Ah, it’s that pre Christmas slump in Soapland when nobody can really be bothered and all the big stories are gearing to play out over Christmas – much like the rest of the television schedules.

Down Walford way, the Wicks/Fox extended family head off on one of those tedious little holidays to separate them from the rest of the cast who are getting on with double banking episodes so everybody can have a nice Chrimbo holiday. The big news here is the arrival of former Bad Girl Linda Henry as Shirley, the ex-wife of Kevin Wicks. Great casting, and Kevin’s reaction is not what Shirley was hoping for, especially when Kev keeps her from getting to the kids – who don’t know who their mother is. With luck, we’ll be seeing more of Shirley Wicks in the New Year.

Meanwhile, in Weatherfield, it’s much the same story as everybody makes a dash for the Christmas finish line. Is Danny Baldwin dead? What is Tracy Barlow up to? And is the sight of Audrey Roberts puckering up with Bill Webster the single most disturbing image in soap since Pat and Patrick got down to it in EastEnders? Shudder.

Jackanory (Monday/Wednesday/Friday 4.30pm, BBC1)

It’s just brilliant to have this touchstone of children’s television back again, and this second slice of the rejuvenated Jackanory features Sir Ben Kingsley reading the darkly satisfying tome The Magician of Samarkand (pictured). It’s amazing to think that Jackanory was originally cancelled because it was looking a bit naff – this just looks fab. It must only be a matter of time before we have Steven Fry reading a Harry Potter book…

Tsunami: the Aftermath (Tuesday 9PM, BBC2)

Despite misgivings earlier in the year, the first part of Tsunami: the Aftermath turned out to be quite an effective piece of drama that kept the attention across its run time. The questions still remain as to whether it was right to broadcast it, and doubtless those questions will remain for some time to come. This second instalment is a little fragmented, and the thrust of this 90 minutes is the investigation into more hotel developments along the affected coastline.

Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen (Wednesday 8pm, BBC2)

A pre Christmas cooking show wouldn’t usually be under the gaze of TV Today, but Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen is noteworthy as it marks the divine Ms Lawson’s first venture for the BBC. And as these things go, it’s very slick. If you’re the nominated Christmas Day chef in your family, you could be well advised to tune in.

The State Within (Thursday 9pm, BBC1)

It’s denser than a London peasouper, but The State Within has kept its nerve throughout six tense episodes, and if you’ve been around since episode one, the pay off is actually quite satisfying. Will the steely Mark Brydon (Jason Isaacs at his dashing best) be able to prevent Lynne Warner from marching her troops into Tyrgyztan, and will he discover the real Mr Big behind the conspiracy? Actually, do we even care? This is so entertaining, the resolution hardly seems to matter!

Pulling (Thursday 10.30pm, BBC3)

I can’t tell whether Pulling is an acutely observed, slick comedy about modern women, or a load of thinly disguised man-hating propaganda. I’m favouring the former, if only that the other option would show me up as ever so slightly insecure (which I’m not, okay!?). There is some funny stuff here, admittedly, and this week one of the girls inadvertently becomes addicted to Internet porn while looking for a birthday present online.

Square Eyes 2-3 December

And here it is, arriving much like a Virgin Train several hours late, your weekend Square Eyes. We’re blaming trees on the line… Or something.

Waste Man (Saturday 8pm, C4)

You know they are there, so there’s still not much point in drawing your attention to Strictly Come Dancing and The X Factor. They storm the ratings (and it’s pleasing to see Strictly winning the battle, despite what Louis Walsh might have us believe). Instead, take in some art with this dapper little piece on Anthony Gormley’s Waste Man project. The strangely accessible Gormley always produces something interesting, and here, he seeks to use the waste products of Margate to build a giant sculpture of a man with the assistance of the local community. A lesson in how art can help bring people together in wonderful ways.

Casualty (Saturday 8.40pm, BBC1)

With spin-off Holby Blue somewhere on the murky horizon of the New Year, ready to make the Holby brace of shows a franchise in its own right, it’s sometimes good to check in with old favourites and see how they fare these days. Holby City tends to stand up better out of the two long-runners, but tonight Pauline Quirke pops up in a satisfying guest role as a woman trapped in a house, leaving the paramedic team a dilemma. Amputate her leg or risk another patient dying. Away from Holby A&E, Casualty is always better, and this episode is served very well by a usually deft performance from Quirke.

An Audience with Take That: Live! (Saturday 9.30pm, ITV1)

It’s the old adage that everything old is new again, and with Take That riding high in the singles chart (and as of tomorrow, the album chart), that certainly feels appropriate. But for the long running Audience With… series, a brand new approach is being taken by putting out the first ever live edition. It should certainly give proceedings a zippier edge, and a chance for those who didn’t get see them on their reunion tour, a chance to see of the boys still have the range. R Williams Esq. need not attend.

Casualty 1906 (Sunday 8pm BBC1)

Although this has no connection to Casualty (although one would not be surprised to find Charlie Fairhead on the wards back then) this one off drama highlights the tough life for doctors and nurses in a London hospital at the turn of the century. If anything, it’s an interesting novelty, and while it may be realistic in certain areas, it ultimately plays like an episode of the not much missed ITV drama Bramwell.

How to Be Science Fiction (Sunday 9pm BBC4)

Oh bliss! It’s the return of Nicholas Craig, otherwise known as the Naked Actor, otherwise known as Nigel Planer. Craig has appeared on our screen at various intervals over the years to reveal the secrets of the method, not least in the seminal Master Class series. Here, the national treasure showcases the grand tradition of not bumping into the monsters when tasked to work on the grand tradition of science fiction telly in the UK. Using some glorious clips, Craig deftly shows that there’s more to this lark than reversing the polarity of various neutron flows while facing down a Dalek. Brilliant, and we demand more of this powerhouse thespian.

It's Friday, it's five to five...

Well, it isn’t, but it still sounds good. “What’s this?” you ask. Half past six of a Friday evening, and still no Square Eyes weekender, no pithy round-up of weekend TV viewing treats? A big apology - in a move with tradition, expect a once in a blue moon weekend update from TV Today towers. Deadlines. Pesky little things…

And the big story of the day (aside from James Murdoch giving us all a good laugh, accusing the BBC of ‘megalomania’) is that Channel 4 has signed a new deal with Endemol, worth £180 million, to show Big Brother until 2010.

Be still my beating heart. Any chance of seeing Rupert Grint in there?

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