I assume that Jeremy Clarkson had a clause in his contract saying, ‘No inane, embarrassing, ratings-grabbing spin-offs from Top Gear – or not while I’m on the show.’ That can be the only explanation for why crud like The Getaway Car has not dripped from beneath the wheel arch until now.
The Getaway Car was a game show, in the loosest sense of both ‘game’ and ‘show’. It was basically Top Gear’s ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ minus the Star, let loose on a Total Wipeout-style obstacle course. Presented by a visibly awkward, get-me-my-agent Dermot O’Leary it took five couples, put them in dumpy hatchbacks and set them various driving challenges, including going up a hill and then going down the other side again. If by some chance our dashing buccaneers made it through all that then a one-on-one race with Top Gear’s white knight The Stig beckoned.
You couldn’t have come up with a more bucket-brained brand extension if you’d given The Stig a chat show. I suspect the producers realised as much late in the day, which is why they then tried to wrench The Getaway Car in to a piece of couples’ therapy. ‘If you want to test love, get behind the wheel of a car,’ said O’Leary, and from then on we were reminded continually that this was social science – a ‘relationship roadtest’ – as much as it was a competition with a prize to be won.
There have been a few recent attempts to give all-action game shows some emotional weight by using couples as contestants. The doomed Prized Apart, the barely noticed Prize Island and the brazenly daft Wild Things all tried to mine entertainment from watching people who were supposedly close failing to work together. Where once you were supposed to watch game shows for the game, now the influence of elimination challenges like X-Factor mean that there has to be some kind of redemptive journey involved. One couple in The Getaway Car said they’d ‘learned something about themselves.’ From recollection, nobody learned anything about themselves on Bullseye.
And Bullseye didn’t drone on for an hour. Again, I’m not sure when the default programme length for game shows doubled, but it is remarkable how ideas that might seem toothsome when served in small portions become nauseating when stretched out for 60 minutes. I would call The Getaway Car ‘car crash TV’ but 1) I’m fairly certain anyone who saw it will have made that joke already, seconds before switching it off and 2) If there were actually a TV channel showing car crashes it would be more interesting than this.
There were many things to like about The Comic Strip’s latest one-off, Red Top, which cast a satirical eye over the phone hacking scandal: it had Stephen Mangan back as Tony Blair, playing him as a sort of demented spaniel in a puffy shirt. And, in an inspired move, it put Rebekah Brooks (Maxine Peake) on rollerskates – she floated in and out of rooms and lives leaving disaster in her wake.
But a writer as acute as Peter Richardson, who has written almost all of the 40 or so Comic Strip films since the first one graced Channel 4’s launch night in 1982, would surely have noted the irony that the series now goes out on Gold, a channel all about nostalgia.
Wearing nostalgia goggles, Red Top was a hoot. You could overlook the fact that Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and the whole cesspit of hacking and hackery has already been anatomised and lampooned in Private Eye. You could forgive the comedy being a little patchy, because it was ever thus with Comic Strips, and that shoestring student revue feel has always been part of their charm. You could ignore the terrible – and old – jokes about Ross Kemp, a man who went beyond parody some time in the mid 90s.
With a clear eye, however, Red Top was more miss than hit. For some reason it chose to transplant the phone hacking story to the 70s, a conceit that gave the newsroom a seedy stench (and Brooks license to wear roller skates) but made the timeline hard to follow. It also seemed to take more pleasure in mocking the smug pinko lefties at the The Guardian, Brooks’ bête noire, than it did in censuring The Sun.
But the real problem was that, as sometimes happens with satire, events have overtaken the story. Laugh all you want, but the plain truth is that Brooks is back at News UK, seemingly without a scratch on her, running the show and – who knows? – rollerskating all round the building. One-nil to the red top.
Worlds away from Brooks came Michael Wood, offering some hefty history for those sober January evenings with The Story of China. I confess that the cynic in me thought ‘Charter Renewal’ when presented with something that so obviously would have appealed to Lord Reith. But for whatever reasons Wood is asked to make programmes like this, we should be thankful that he is.
Wood’s manner is that of an unflappable, avuncular college tutor, but even he has got his work cut out when it comes to China: the oldest nation on earth, arguably its greatest civilisation, and a teeming population that throngs the screen gives him plenty to cover in a brisk six parts. With that in mind his method here was admirably practical: he set out a series of themes that he sees running through all of Chinese history – family, writing as a source of power, the reverence for ancestry – and he travelled around the country finding material that bolstered his argument.
Really, though, like many of the best history series, this was an argument for the study of history itself: Wood’s overarching thesis is that when the Chinese pay heed to their own past it’s a source of immutable strength. As such, The Story of China is a series that rather cleverly justifies its own existence: if we don’t know China’s story, it says, how can we hope to make head or tail of its dizzying present?