Desert Darlings, Channel 4
Paul McCartney: Back in the World, BBC1
With his billowing shorts and heroically flat profile (his nose, like his sense of humour, got squashed in the Falklands), former SAS Major Ken Hames is part mercenary, part dromedary. Despite being employed by Channel 4 to ferry six bickering couples through the Namibian desert, Ken clearly sees himself as the hero in a pulpy action novels that are read by furtive men with ponytails who spend their spare time making strange clanking noises in their garden shed. A heavy binoculars user, Ken’s ability to "read" inhospitable environments is second only to his ability to patronise those who can’t. When he’s not being rude, Hames speaks in fantastically measured couplets, all of which are delivered in a melodramatic whisper.
"Nothing lasts," he whispered during the opening moments of Desert Darlings, cigarette smoke circling his pompous thighs like dry ice. "Nature will consume all." Later, perched atop a rocky outcrop, nostrils billowing in the hot desert wind, he told us what he felt was the most important quality his charges could demonstrate. "The spark of purpose. That is what’s required. This is how you sustain. This is how you survive." Was he reading from the autocue? Had Andy McNab been drafted in on a camel the night before for script consulting duties?
Whatever. For all his renegade ridiculousness, Ken is a Star. He’s brilliant. Frankly, if it wasn’t for his wildly pretentious musings, Desert Darlings would flop faster than an under-egged souffl. Extract the Major from the recipe and you’re left with a desperately over-familiar premise (that of the middle classes - the "Darlings" of the title -forced to adapt to alien environs) with nowhere to go but Predictability Heights.
Even more frustrating is the sense of thwarted potential. The sandy brain-baby of Paul The Family Watson, Desert Darlings finds the once groundbreaking auteur treading old water. No amount of half-baked socio-cultural analysis can disguise his latest venture’s yawning lack of inspiration ("the couples come from a fractured society - they are looking for self", indeed). And while Watson retains his ability to encourage extraordinary levels of intimacy from his subjects, the resulting revelations (Darrell does whatever nervy spouse Marie tells him to do, 37-year-old sound engineer Steve hadn’t had a girlfriend before he met wife Sarah and tie-dye fetishist Ania was possibly using boyfriend Lemmy as a substitute father) seemed trite, even irrelevant without the support of a progressive, or even interesting, context. As a result, all the desert stuff started to seem like little more than a distraction; sand in our sandwich.
We wanted Namibian nightmares and desert-bound breakdowns; what we got was a lot of trudging about, grumbling about heavy backpacks and a treatise on the futility of bringing Kendal’s Mint Cake to Namibia. Though it’s early days yet, Desert Darlings bears a stark resemblance to a donkey in search of a carrot.
Sent from Planet Dull as a sobering reminder of what can happen to pop stars when they swap the boots of inspiration for the flock-lined slippers of complacency, Sir Paul McCartney’s relevance has long since been eclipsed by his preternatural ability to irritate. Paul McCartney: Back In The World found the crinkle-cut Liverpudlian rocking the bath-chair of late middle-aged arena rock on the American leg of his current world tour.
Accompanied by a band comprised largely of heavy-set young men with tattoos, we watched him blunder and gurn his way through the better solo stuff (Let Me Roll It, Maybe I’m Amazed) and the overblown Beatles stuff (The Long And Winding Road), while trying not to choke on the ensuing fug of self-congratulation. Ah, where’s Ringo when you need him?