Stranger Things (Netflix)
The End of the ****ing World (C4) | All4
The Great British Bake Off (C4) | All4
Feral Families (C4) | All4
Bear’s Mission with Anthony Joshua (ITV1) |ITV Hub
Whatever else we may think of our young people – too pampered, too entitled, too tremblingly fragile (and whose fault precisely is that? In this generally secular world, is it any wonder that we have tried superstitiously to stuff children into little vacant God-shaped holes, or that they are doomed to frustrate expectations?) – one thing is increasingly clear: there’s a coming generation of truly fine young actors out there. Twice in glorious evidence this week.
The second series of Stranger Things kicked off, appropriately enough, on a Halloween theme: kids riding choppers in a small American town in 1984; loving moms and pops dressing them in Ghostbusters outfits and filming them on early videocams with their cardboard plasma guns; pumpkins in fields rotting, savagely and raw-reeking maggotishly; kids with telekinesis hurling squirrels against trees brain-first. If you haven’t seen the first series, it’s basically 80s small-town America where, thanks to a military/scientific facility, Something Goes Wrong. It’s every Stephen King novel, ever, and done with immense style. Also The Goonies, and every Spielbergian/John Hughes trope ever offered during that decade, but with a dose of John Carpenter’s acidic horror thrown in: the 80s revisited, but for people who like to start drinking at 10.30 in the morning.
It’s thrillingly moreish, for folk who like that kind of thing, and lovingly done. The galloping popularity of the first series (largely unadvertised, this was all by word of mouth) saw Netflix bump its budget from $6m to $8m per episode, and this has allowed the flixsters to employ some serious 80s nerds who might wish to get out a little more: the branded soap (Ivory, which actually floated in water!); the old arcade games magically working once more. And the second series seems to be settling into a serious exploration of what happens when a traumatised community starts to piece itself together, and the acting’s terrific, especially, as I say, from the youngsters… there’s a great deal to shiveringly love, if that’s your bag.
What captivated more, however, was an easily missed programme on Channel 4. Despite its asterisk-heavy title – I had inwardly sighed; not another wacky dystopian angry youths road trip – The End of the ****ing World was mesmerically fine.
Blackly and bleakly comic in parts, this adaptation of a graphic novel had grand scripting, production, filming, locations and the rest, but all were utterly outshone by the two young leads. Alex Lawther, best known for his phenomenal young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, haunted throughout as the confused maybe-psycho with a fat knife down his sock. Jessica Barden, as the gobby, sweet, foul-mouthed innocent, was never less than convincing, either in her beyond-her-years cynical wisdom or sudden wee-girl vulnerability. These two runaways, from boredom, from adults, from actually having to manage to tackle sex, had so many winning ways about them I was almost physically urging them on toward the sunlit uplands, where of course it all went wrong. A dirty, hard watch, and wonderful.
So how, actually, should we bring up our children? It was a subject vaguely tackled in Feral Families, which despite its clickbait title at least attempted an honest exploration of the rise in no-rules home schooling, in which children are free to dance among the daisies – or nettles – all day long. That the programme sought neither to applaud nor condemn was both its strength and its greatest weakness: I could have done with a couple of warring educational panellists to explore further; in fact I could have done with a whole series of this.
No British law obliges anyone to have their children educated but, as usual, class was at the heart. I could almost engage with the Rawnsleys from Halifax, whose son Finlay suddenly decided he did want to go to school – and, after a bit of welcome order, vouchsafed that most of the teaching was “pointless, restricting”… and went back to dancing among the daisies with a polite “Are we done now? Can I go back?” to the camera. Archie from Salisbury, on the other hand, can’t read, count or write, and more crucially doesn’t see the point, ever. Despite grandad Mick’s desperate funding for a private tutor, I suspect Archie never will. I do wonder where Finlay and Archie will be in 10 years’ time, and also wonder whether so many of us, and our children, should count simply “being happy” as the sine qua non of existence.
“Yes, I make this all the time for my kids,” twinkled the splendidly dry Noel Fielding, in answer to an anguished contestant’s plea on last week’s Great British Bake Off. “Who don’t exist.”
This show’s semi-final also went a little retro, in terms of outcome. You’ll possibly remember the Star Trek of the 70s, and how it often (always?) opened with four eager chaps beaming down on to some benighted planet. Kirk, Spock, McCoy… and one anonymous crewman in a red onesie. Guess who was always the first to serve as monster munch. Something similar was always destined to befall Stacey Hart, who had erred only in not opting for Sophie’s nine-layer coffee opera cake inside a corseted tutu. Bake Off just gets better and batter, but they must do something about the air-con inside that stupid tent: if this is truly about baking, rather than ratings, which it obviously isn’t, surely a constant indoor temperature for three hours might be a given. I was appalled to watch Steven’s chocolate hot air balloon basket literally melt into his meringue. Appalled, and also laughing uproariously.
Never been a fan of Bear Grylls, with his Boy Scout stuff and appalling eagerness to drink his own wazz. Ray Mears looks as if he might still pant a little going uphill. But, annoyingly, it was Bear, not Ray, who gave us the survival highlight of the week.
In Bear’s Mission he took heavyweight boxer Anthony Joshua up and down the Commando cliffs in Cornwall, and “AJ” did awesomely well, seriously well, despite Mr Grylls’s commentary. “The guns are really working now.” Guns, in Bear-talk, or moron-talk, means biceps. Uurgh. I actually felt a little for the 43-year-old Bear, having struggled, albeit rather skilfully, with a 200ft rope crossing, until he landed, and shouted: “Oof! I’ve still got it! Still got it!” Penicillin didn’t work then?
Twenty-eight-year-old nice guy AJ, on the other hand, hauled himself to climbing victory, abseiling victory, and rope-cross victory with grim determination and cloying vertigo. A lovely man of few words, but he chooses them wisely. This column goes to press awkwardly early, so I can’t tell you the result of his showdown against Carlos Takam in Cardiff last night. I know who my money’s on.