Life in Africa, death in London and a New Year's bubble burst


TELEVISION:Did everyone know Jools Holland’s Hootenanny’s spontaneous shindig is as live as a victim of the Ripper?

Out with the old, in with nothing that felt particularly new at all. That was telly in this strange week that straddled two years. It’s already January 5th and there’s no sign of any shouty self-improvement programmes. This is obviously a good thing because it keeps at bay the guilt at not starting a single resolution, but there wasn’t one thing thrilling or new enough to set the recorder for.

David Attenborough’s new series, Africa (BBC One, Wednesday), was, as expected, astonishingly beautiful and superb nature television, just like all his other blockbuster series. You know before you tune in what you’ll get and he, as ever, delivered. But mostly it was a filler of a week, with the TV powers that be in a holding pattern, getting their New Year’s Eve thing safely over with – The Gathering Concert (RTÉ One), Jools’ Annual Hootenanny (BBC Two) or whatever – before taking a breather and starting the TV year properly next week.

Ripper Street (BBC One, Sunday) is new, though; a six-part drama set in Whitechapel, London – and filmed in Dublin – six months after Jack the Ripper’s murderous spree. It’s cod Victoriana meets CSI: visually, it’s like one of those stylised adaptations of a Dickens novel, all spluttering street lamps, shadows and murk, with countless extras in cloth caps wandering aimlessly through grim and grimy streets while carriages trundle noisily past. But it’s really a police procedural tacked on to the Ripper myth – and, in the first episode, a particularly brutal and nasty women-hating one at that. There wasn’t even the redeeming feature of a plot credible or complex enough to satisfy any fan of crime drama.

The trio of crime busters are dressed like models for a designer’s plaid and wool autumn/winter menswear collection. Det Insp Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfadyen) seals off crime scenes and pastes pictures of the victims on his noticeboard in the manner of a modern TV detective. His sidekick Det Sgt Bennett Drake (Jerome Flynn) is a craggy-faced copper who we first see bare-knuckle boxing and spitting out his dislodged tooth. And former US army surgeon Cpt Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg) is employed by Reid as a pathologist. Ripper Street is destined to be shown in the US, which presumably explains that casting.

For reasons not explained, Jackson lives in a brothel that looks like a swanky country-house hotel with a cast of fantasy island gorgeous “tarts”. All the women in this episode, bar Reid’s mostly silent wife, were either dead, viciously mutilated “tarts”, half-naked “tarts” or physically abused “tarts”, and the plot centred around a toff making snuff movies using the newly invented movie camera. And perhaps because it all looks so stagey, Macfadyen acts as if he is on stage, his voice rising and falling theatrically as he delivers his clunky dialogue. Horrible in every way.

Star struck

More uplifting, inevitably, was First Man on the Moon (BBC2, Sunday), an absorbing and intimate biopic about Neil Armstrong, who died last year. For someone who his first wife said “didn’t like to talk much”, Armstrong, on stepping on the moon, said one of the most famous lines of the 20th century.

It was, according to his brother Dean, not the spontaneous awe-inspired quip it seemed, but a carefully rehearsed line that he fluffed. He intended to say, “One small step for a man,” which would have been more in keeping with his modest character, rather than “man”, because, as the film showed, this war hero and son of the great Depression would never have considered he was representing the human race. Except, as it turned out, he was, and he was feted as such.

When they came back to Earth, the astronauts embarked on a 45-day, 23-country tour of shaking hands and making speeches, as part of cold-war pageantry. Mike Collins and Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s Apollo 11 copilots, who were interviewed for the film, become overnight global celebrities and it was a job Armstrong, an unassuming test pilot respected by his peers for his coolness under pressure, never signed up for.

It was too much for a quiet man who considered himself an engineer and aeronautics nut, but not a superhero. Two years after the landing, he resigned from Nasa, opting instead for a life on a remote farm and a teaching job at a small university in the Midwest. In his later years, married for the second time, he became more willing to talk about his Apollo landing. “He wasn’t a recluse, as the media would have it,” said one of his sons. “He was a recluse from the media, which is different.”

Here’s one we made earlier

I know I shouldn’t admit to such slack-jawed gullibility but I always assumed, without thinking about it too much, that Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny on BBC Two was live.

In my defence, the Hootenanny always had a spontaneity and giddiness, and a convincing countdown, that felt live and made up for Holland’s greasy hair and samey samey boogie woogie piano accompaniments, and all his aimless shouts of “Hootenanny”. And year in, year out, it was easy to be carried away by the amazing line-up of artists.

Not this year, though. The headliners were a dud list of 1980s popstars who just aren’t the same any more: Adam Ant and Dexys [Midnight Runners] murdering their own songs. The big name was Petula Clark, and once everyone in my livingroom stopped saying, “She’s 80 you know, marvellous,” there wasn’t much else to say.

And then The Dubliners revealed the truth about the recording. There they were, singing The Irish Rover in front of Holland’s slightly mystified crowd, when a quick zap over to see what was happening on RTÉ showed them live on stage with Imelda May singing Dirty Old Town. A bubble burst with the press of a button.

May was an inspired choice as the headline act for the televised New Year’s Eve concert, from her lovely, relaxed pre-concert interview with Miriam O’Callaghan in the on-site studio that looked like a cross between a bordello and a junk shop, to her powerhouse performance.

RTÉ’s New Year’s Eve show, even with all the plugs for The Gathering shoehorned into every link, was free from any spirit-zapping forced gaiety: quite an achievement for the night that was in it. And it was definitely live.

Ones to watch Danish drama and early entrepreneurship

A dull week of TV ends with a must-see: the start of the second series of Borgen (BBC Four, Saturday), the brilliant Danish 10-parter from the makers of The Killing. Prime minister Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is again the centre of the drama about power, its price and its consequences.

Jeremy Piven is a little too 21st century to take as Harry Gordon Selfridge in Mr Selfridge (UTV, Sunday), about the life of the flamboyant and visionary American retail entrepreneur, but this new series fills the Sunday evening period-drama gap nicely, and his life is a great yarn.