It’s high summer, most people are on holiday and those that aren’t are about as likely to hunker down for an evening in front of the telly as they are to lag their pipes.
This leaves our national broadcaster in a bit of a pickle. Options include 1) Go big on Bake Off, adding Bake Off, Another Slice, Bake Off – The Big Live Dough Prove and Queen of our Tarts, The Mary Berry Story to the main show; 2) Use the black hole to quietly excrete some silly season dreck like Country Strife: Abz On the Farm; or 3) Shut down TV altogether, blaming the Tube Strike.
To their immense credit this year the BBC have come up with a fourth option – fight silly season with a season or two of their own. As a result this week’s TV consisted of the India Season, the Big Blue Week, and virtually nothing else. I consider myself a man for all seasons, but surely no man wants them all to come at once.
India Season began with The World’s Busiest Railway, which looked in really quite suffocating detail at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. It was granted an extraordinary four hours of BBC2 prime time over four nights. That is a lot of blue chip scheduling real estate to lavish on a railway. No less than four presenters – Dan Snow, Anita Rani, Robert Llewelyn and John Sergeant – were given ‘extraordinary access’… to a railway station. Now I grant you that Mumbai’s CST is an extraordinary railway station, and I can see the idea that underpinned the exercise – The World’s Busiest Railway was attempting to use the CST as a prism through which to view all India in its sprawling, myriad, super-dense crushload (as they call rush hour) complexity. Still, the first half of the first hour was devoted to three of our four presenters trying to get on a packed train, in order to report that it was packed, and quite hard to get on to.
Then John Sergeant pootled around a bit in Darjeeling, picking tea, and then Llewelyn went behind the scenes to see how they manage the 1,500 trains that come in to the station a day. The answer? They use signals. I am perfectly prepared to admit that there is fascination to be had in any complex system when you pick it apart and that minutiae can be meaningful in the right light. But as the episodes of The World’s Busiest Railway during the week moved on to the intricacies of the Indian railway’s laundry operation (it’s vast; they clean a lot of laundry) it was hard to escape the feeling that the whole thing wasn’t a summertime filibuster, a good idea for a one-off Horizon that had been manhandled in to a preposterous piece of event television.
As I wondered why anyone would build their schedule around a tortuous analysis of a rail network, Goodness Gracious Me’s Indian special began. I can’t say that I was looking forward to this reunion – as a blanket rule I would say never bring anything back that you once liked, not television, not clothes, certainly not people – and in the main my rule held. This was student review level humour, with spoofs of Brownton Abbey and Brownadder particularly artless. But it did contain one belter, right at the beginning, a sketch that skewered the notion of having an ‘India Season’ in the first place. Credit should go to the BBC for showing it – perhaps they were a little drowsy after four hours of busy railways.
The sketch was an ideas meeting for the Indian Broadcasting Company, in which the gathered executives hit upon the doozy of having an ‘English Season’ in order to keep their Head of Diversity (who was English and white) happy. The Indian execs reluctantly offered up a few clichéd suggestions to keep the diversity wallah happy, including, ‘Something about the railways?’ It was a great, caustic little nugget that could only have been made better had the cynical, yawning execs gone on to suggest, ‘We could even bring back Goodness Gracious Me again. Unless anyone’s got any better ideas.’
Big Blue Live, meanwhile, was another season, this one gifted a week, in which the Springwatch format was transplanted to Monterey Bay in California and we all went looking for whoppers. This is the time of year when whales, sea lions, elephant seals and all manner of other tremendous marine mammals gather for a vast fish supper, and for some reason the BBC has decided that this year British viewers needed to be there, live.
I am a sucker for marine life and would happily watch natural history docs the way some people ingest soaps, so I was more than happy to sit for hours in the company of Matt Baker and Liz Bonnin as they got unfeasibly excited about whales. (Excited, I should add, about sightings of precisely the humpback whales et al that you’d expect to see at this time of year if you were lucky enough to be in Monterey Bay, have a helicopter, a spotter plane and a very long lens.)
But I would question the format – it didn’t need to be live and we didn’t need a whole week’s worth of it. Inevitably there was much repetition as the presenters, charged with providing the crescendos and diminuendos that give a live broadcast shape, struggled to fill the airtime. One way of filling that airtime was, it turned out, to use pre-recorded pieces about the area and its wildlife. These placed the hyper-caffeinated, and largely otiose, live segments in stark relief. This, I would say, was a place for curated footage, carefully gathered and professionally shot over many years, augmented with informed analysis and ideally framed by a coherent argument.
In other words, precisely the kind of natural history series the BBC has been doing better than anyone in the world for decades. Why spin it in to a Week, a Season or a major event? Because at this time of year there’s an ocean of empty space to fill.