Gorgeous animals in stunning close-up detail; beautiful landscape vistas; a sonorous voiceover telling us about “mysterious worlds rarely seen and never filmed here before”.
Hebrides: Islands On The Edge - Monday, BBC1, 9pm
Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Dogs - Thursday, STV, 8:30pm
Murder On The Home Front - Thursday, STV, 9pm
Life Of Crime - Friday, STV, 9pm
Ah, the latest big new wildlife series, bringing the exotic into our living rooms. But wait: isn’t it all a bit … familiar? For the setting is not Africa or China, this time, but just up the road, in the Hebrides. Well, that’s not necessarily next door, depending on where you live, but still, these are Scottish animals, in a Scottish landscape, and Hebrides: Islands On The Edge is a refreshing attempt to do for the west coast what Attenborough has done for the rest of the world. And, frankly, it’s a blessed change from yet another film about wildebeest migration.
It’s from a stable of experienced wildlife filmmakers led by Nigel Pope, who created Springwatch and Big Cat Diary. The images they’ve captured are magnificent: the churning waters of Corryvreckan, cod hunting in the wrecks underwater off Islay, every feather on an eagle swooping on its prey.
And it’s what they call “story-led,” that is, isolating moments of drama for individual creatures with manipulative narration which constantly tells us that small things are in deadly danger (though even a sap like me found it hard to get anxious on behalf of a coral colony threatened with being eaten: no face, see). While it’s obviously good that nature programmes now show us the reality as well as the adorable, sometimes this emotional juggernaut can feel exhausting, even with Ewan McGregor gently reading a poetic voiceover which compares swallows to miniature angels and talks about “the wheel of the seasons”.
But these programmes are really about the images and, in case it needs saying, the fact that the setting might be familiar doesn’t mean they’re boring: you may have seen flocks of barnacle geese overhead, or a seal on the shore, but not gloriously up close like this, with every detail in slow motion. It’s a visual feast.
There is also some useful dating advice provided by mating deer: “The hinds are attracted by the deepest and most powerful roars, but they also need males to treat them sensitively, or they’ll choose a different stag”. Wise creatures.
There are more animals, more jeopardy and more cuteness in the return of Paul O’Grady: For The Love Of Dogs, the first series of which surprisingly won most popular factual entertainment programme at the National Television Awards and is nominated for a Bafta. Surprising, that is, for those who didn’t watch it, as dog-lovers already knew that it elevated the genre of Nice Shows About Dogs – not, to be fair, the most challenging TV format – to a new level, thanks to O’Grady’s delightful rapport with the subjects and obvious sincerity.
Again set in the Battersea Dogs Home – let us pass over the silly conceit which pretends that he has moved in – it simply continues to introduce us to various residents and the issues which must be resolved before they can be rehomed. There is affectionate bulldog Frankie with his dodgy legs due to a neurological problem and there is massive slobbery mastiff King, 75lb and stinky due to a skin complaint. O’Grady loves them all and they love him. Now, either you are going to enjoy watching the man who used to be Lily Savage chuckling as he shares a satsuma with a silly bulldog, or stimulating a newborn puppy to pee, or you won’t. Me and my cockapoo were enthralled.
ITV, basking in the success of Broadchurch, offers two new crime series this week, both with period settings. Sometimes it feels that the Second World War is on a loop on British telly, as Foyle’s War has just moved on to 1946 yet here we are again with Murder On The Home Front, back in the Blitz, investigating murders that happen in the midst of all those other deaths.
The series is loosely based upon the wartime experiences of writer Molly Lefebure, who spent the war as a reporter turned pathologist’s assistant dubbed Molly Of The Morgue. Here played by the sweet-faced Tamzin Merchant, she encounters a high-handed doctor (Patrick Kennedy) who drafts her in to type up his autopsy notes, then demands she become his secretary since she doesn’t seem to mind grisly sights. Dr Collins is an odd character who tags along with police investigations complaining that they’re contaminating the evidence, with variations on his catchphrase: “this is a crime scene, not a Lyons teashop/a bloody church fete/etc”.
The first mystery isn’t too gripping, perhaps because the setting and characters had to be introduced as well, and there are lots of artfully placed period references, like the doc unconvincingly laughing along to It’s That Man Again on the radio. It’s alright, but doesn’t seem to have the depth of Foyle’s War yet.
Life Of Crime also has period references to its (initial) 1985 setting, but a more intriguing premise, showing how one case haunts the career of a police officer from her first post as a patronised ‘Doris’ WPC to her higher rank in the current day. The show confidently sets everything up in ten efficient minutes and continues interestingly, with moody direction by Jim Loach (son of Ken). The one weird misfire is a scene where, lost in thought over the case, she meanders blithely through the Brixton riots, untouched by the violence and chaos around her. And, in light of recent events, there’s an ironic moment when Margaret Thatcher’s voice on the radio, declaiming away about freedom, is switched over for Culture Club.
Small screen movies
A Boy Called Dad * * *
Tomorrow, BBC1, 12:40am
Young Robbie is only 14 but already about to become a father; his own father left years before. When he sees him again, the boy’s confused feelings spill over into violence and he goes on the run, in this emotional 2009 drama led by a startling debut from teenager Kyle Ward and a strong performance from Ian Hart.
Midnight Express * * * *
Monday, Film 4, 11:30pm
Controversial in its day, this memorable 1978 prison tale is seared into the brains of a generation who recall it as the ultimate scared-straight movie. Based on a true story, Brad Davis stars as the American student arrested in Turkey for smuggling drugs alongside John Hurt and Randy Quaid. Directed by Alan Parker with an Oscar-winning script from Oliver Stone.
Age Of Consent * * *
Tuesday, Film 4, 1:35am
The last film by the great Michael Powell is, of course, beautifully shot, but an unsettling affair, starring James Mason as a disillusioned painter who retires to the Great Barrier Reef and meets a very young Helen Mirren. He employs her as a nude model, which cheers him up, and various romantic entanglements ensue in this very 60s sex comedy.
The History Boys * * *
Thursday, BBC 4, 9pm
The late Richard Griffiths’ last great role, in Alan Bennett’s polemical play about the value of education. Eccentric teacher Hector enthuses and inspires his favoured boy pupils, who are prepared to put up with his slightly creepy groping. But exam-crammer Stephen Campbell Moore offers them a different approach to learning.