One of the immutable laws of broadcasting is that you never, ever, quit while you’re ahead. If you, or more likely someone else, hit upon a good idea then it is your civic duty to flog that horse until it’s welted carcass is carrion by the roadside. Hence The Great British Bake Off and the mudslide of Great, British twaddle that has followed. Hence Broadchurch series two-to-seventeen, the 59 hard-hitting documentaries about ISIS you’ll see in the next fortnight and the last five years of The Apprentice.
Back in Time for the Weekend is the follow up to the excellent Back in Time for Dinner, which went out early last year. BITFD used food as a wormhole in to a social history of Britain from the 1950s to the present day. A family had their house remodelled and their wardrobe overhauled so that they ate and lived like it was 1950, then 1951, a day a year all the way back to the present. In truth this wasn’t a particularly novel idea either – there have been several historical reality shows taking in everything from Victorian Houses to Edwardian farms. But no matter, because like so many so-called ‘entertainment factual’ programmes BITFD stood or fell on the people in front of the camera. And the Robshaw family were, simply, born to be on television. They were funny, unaffected, telegenic, happy-go-lucky. They made you wish that, (to paraphrase George W Bush), your family was less like The Simpsons, more like the Robshaws. They proved yet again that reality TV, in all its hydra-headed guises, is all about the casting.
Back in Time for the Weekend is a perfectly enjoyable programme that didn’t need to be made. It is the same programme as Back in Time for Dinner, with a new family exploring British social history by being sent back in time 50 years. But instead of food, the prism through which they are exposed to the past is leisure time. Which also takes in food. Thus, the boys joined the scouts, ate some spam, did some whittling while the girls stayed at home and tried to work a mangle. On the one hadn’t life was much worse because we didn’t have washing machines or Ocado, but on the other life was much better because facebook didn’t exist so people actually spoke to each other.
These are not empty insights, but they are the same insights made by Back in Time for Dinner. As such, BITFTW felt like blandhog day – it was entirely reliant on the appeal or otherwise of the Ashby-Hawkins family in thick-rimmed specs and circle dresses. And thus far, they ain’t no Robshaws.
Understandably, presenter Giles Coren spent his time looking twitchy, a little ashamed perhaps to be being paid for presenting something so otiose. In the original series there was at least a reason for him to be there – he’s a restaurant critic; it was about food. But now there isn’t. Indeed, one of the things that has become apparent from observational documentaries like The Secret Life of Four Year Olds or 24 Hours in wherever is that the presence of a nodding presenter is not, in fact, necessary at all.
Given television’s endless appetite for more of the same, however, the disappointment of Back in Time for the Weekend will inevitably lead to Back in Time for Bed, Back in Time for Telly and, in several decades’ time, Back in Time for Back in Time. I would point some television executives to the law of diminishing returns and, more importantly, that nasty taste left in the mouth when a really good series is made weaker by dilution.
You could perhaps make the same objection to The Secret Life of the Zoo, which was yet another Channel Four documentary where they rig cameras all over the place and marvel at what you can see if you spend long enough looking. Except that any objections to The Secret Life of The Zoo were instantly obliterated by footage of the birth of a baby elephant. And the sight of a chimpanzee stockpiling its own poo in order to throw it at a particularly reviled vet.
I mentioned above how reality television is all about the characters you get to film. It’s the same for animals. But animals have an advantage, which is that to humans who know little about them, which is to say most of us, almost all animals appear to be great characters. With that in mind The Secret Life of the Zoo couldn’t miss. I’m not sure how secret all of this was, given that there has never been more footage of animal behaviour available on YouTube and in natural history films than there is now. Moreover, the series’ central thesis seems to be ‘Look! They’re a bit like humans,’ which is the point that everyone from Johnny Morris to David Attenborough, as well as Aardman and Pixar, have been making for many years.
So The Secret Life of the Zoo was plenty of fun but nothing new. This was why Cats v Dogs: Which is Best? promised so much. Enough of the mealy-mouthed titles and the beating around bushes – this programme ensured us that, wielding only the sword of scientific certainty, it would cut through the flying chimp crap and tell us, once and for all, which is better.
But wouldn’t you know, Cats v Dogs only went and bottled it. Chris Packham and Liz Bonnin argued their respective sides, the pointyheads did their experiments, dogs were better endurance athletes, cats had better physical agility… but at the end of it all, both were ‘remarkable animals’ and it was perfectly acceptable to like either. Wrong. All you want from your pop science, really, is a straight answer. Carbs v No carbs, Trollope v Dickens, Harry Styles v Zayn Malik, toilet roll inwards v toilet roll outwards – which is best? If only television could forget lily-livered impartiality and just come out and say it then there, I would suggest, you would have a series that deserves to run and run.