Television: The weirdest dating moment on TV this week

Review: ‘Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People’, ‘First Dates Abroad’, ‘Sensitive Skin’, ‘Fear on Phoist’

The summer reheats have started earlier this year: what station would roll out anything too exciting when soccer is hoovering up viewers?

A million viewers tuned in to see the Republic of Ireland's first match of the Euros on Monday, even though it was on at a less-than-primetime 5pm. And even accidental football fans (me) are tuning in to see the Belgian players' hairstyles (alarming), cheer on the underdog (go Iceland!) or, especially, watch the surreal gags on Après Match, which still, after all this time, delivers.

So the gems plucked from the schedules are not quite as shiny as you'd hope. They're the ones you might not watch ordinarily on a June evening, such as Koko: The Gorilla Who Talks to People (BBC One, Wednesday). It turns out to be not another Remain broadcast – if it's not football or Queen Elizabeth's 90th hogging the schedules, it's Brexit – but a fascinating, carefully nuanced and disturbing film.

In the US in the 1970s and 1980s, teaching animals to communicate with humans was all the go among behavioural-science academics. Koko’s story is in the tradition of those films we’ve seen of experiments with dolphins and chimps.


In 1972 a 24-year-old Stanford PhD student, Penny Patterson, set out to prove that Koko, a newborn gorilla, could be taught sign language. It became her life's work. Patterson's early lessons were filmed by her college pal Ron. Four decades later the trio are a family of sorts, still living in California, and it's quite an enterprise. Patterson's foundation appears to fund it all with donations and by selling Koko-branded goods: Koko is probably the most famous gorilla in the world, with a team of carers looking after her every need.

Patterson claimed early success, saying that Koko could sign up to 1,000 words. Whether the gorilla could really communicate, and express her emotions, or was simply copying Patterson’s gestures has long been contested in the scientific community. Suffice to say, the “talk” in the programme’s title is false advertising.

The film begins at Koko’s 44th birthday party (she gets a cake and presents wrapped by her carers), and you don’t need to see much more to agree with one opinion that “Koko has never been allowed to be a gorilla”. All the talk about her being like Patterson’s child is creepy. “Have you any regrets?” asks the director. “That she was never able to be a mom,” says Patterson, tears in her eyes. She’s talking about Koko – I think.

There won’t be many more films like this. The science has largely moved on from Dr Dolittle, from teaching animals to talk to humans to exploring the far more fascinating ways in which they communicate with their own species.

At one point, in an effort to find a mate for Koko, Patterson shows her videos of likely partners – possibly the weirdest dating moment on TV this week, and that's from someone who watched First Dates Abroad (E4, Tuesday).

RTÉ’s recent Irish version of the hit UK format was sweet, capturing the original’s mixture of charm and optimism, but this Down Under version misses the mark. The ingredients culled from the format playbook are all there – the music, the upscale restaurant, the charming maitre d’ – but the casting of daters appears particularly contrived, the TV equivalent of clickbait.

There’s toothy Nicholas Nicholas – “Your parents must have hated you,” says his date – who is so nervous at the bar that he orders something light to start; it’s a tequila shot, which is light in Australia, apparently. There’s a personality-free “international model” who grins gormlessly across the table at his date, and the mesmerisingly awful Chris. “I believe I have arrived,” he says to the maitre d’ before oozing oily one-liners all over his date.

Corbin gives a blank look to Lauren, who quizzes him about his five-year plan. “No? Three years then?” she asks with the look of a woman ticking off a mental checklist. Lauren says more times than is rational that she isn’t “crazy” or a “grade-five clinger”.

There's a charmless and a predatory atmosphere in the air, the way you feared First Dates was going to be before it first aired on Channel 4 and managed never to be.

Better to give the much less known Sensitive Skin (Sky Arts, Wednesday) a chance. The Canadian remake of Hugo Blick's 2006 bitter-sweet British comedy follows fiftysomething Davina (Kim Cattrall, never better) navigating the empty nest and dully comfortable marriage, at the "what'll I do now and who am I anyway?" stage of her life.

Davina's husband (spoiler alert) died at the end of the first series, but he's not gone: he's back in episode one of series two as a ghostly presence as Davina negotiates life as a widow. Her first task is to sell the achingly hip downtown Toronto apartment that the couple had bought when leaving the suburbs seemed a solution to their midlife ennui. There are only six episodes in each series, a modesty that undersells this smart and unusually subtle comedy.

Fear on Phoist (TG4, Monday) is billed as a silent comedy. It is neither. The laughter track cackles loudly, too often and in inverse proportion to the amateurish humour on screen. The premise is that a hapless postman (John Nee) in a tiny Irish village is in love with a pretty girl in a picture-postcard cottage. He is constantly at war with his love rival. There's cross-dressing, slapstick, drunken nuns – all possibly funny in a village-hall production sometime in the last century. Fear an Phoist is old fashioned in all the wrong ways.