The week in TV: The Great British Bake Off; the death of Queen Elizabeth II; Frozen Planet II; The Serpent Queen

Mini sponges provide solace in the most momentous of weeks. Elsewhere, David Attenborough and nature’s melting wonders prove equally precious, while Catherine de Medici has a hard act to follow

The Great British Bake Off Channel 4 | All 4
The death of Queen Elizabeth II coverage Various
Frozen Planet II BBC One | iPlayer
The Serpent Queen Starzplay

When times are unsettling, let them eat red velvet cake. With the launch of the 13th series of The Great British Bake Off, the tent of many colours had a big job to do: to momentarily distract the British public from the trouble and sadness of the world – queens dying, wars continuing, living costs escalating – and provide a parallel reality where the very worst thing that could happen to a person is your cake being “claggy”.

The Channel 4 Bake Off team are all present and brazenly incorrect: naughty boy presenters Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas (the counterintuitive casting is the point) and judges – pink-spectacled Prue Leith (intriguing head girl-turned-rebellious energy) and Paul Hollywood, resident silver fox, whose image is begging to be used in an internet scam to con widows out of their savings.

Quaking at their kitchen islands, the contestants are the requisite uber-pleasant mixed bunch of ages, nationalities and professions: nuclear scientist, buff male nanny, a woman who once worked on a project for Boris Johnson but who wisely focuses on her lime, coconut and tamarind flavourings. The effect is of an unusually congenial Question Time audience, dusted with self-raising flour. Otherwise, it’s Bake Off business as usual: a finale of home-themed showstoppers; Hollywood prowling around like a moist-seeking missile; “nightmares!” over cold ovens, crumb structures and curdled buttercream.

All these series in, if Bake Off “represents” Britain, it’s as a cross between a middle England village fete and a really freaky acid trip. More than ever, it feels absurd – all the fussing over sponge when there’s so much going on out there – but isn’t that the point? Such programmes serve as televisual hidey holes – pastel-hued respites, sugar-sprinkled breathers from the real world.

Will I be carted off to the Tower for wondering whether Bake Off would have aired if it were still on BBC One? Does this count as telly treason? Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, it was entirely correct that the main channels supplied rolling news updates and pre-prepared reverential fare. The BBC did especially well delivering the momentous announcement: Huw Edwards in dark tie striking exactly the right tone: serious but not pompous; sombre but professional.

However, as days passed, the coverage began to feel suffocating, the commentary numbing, sometimes verging on asinine. Not because of the Queen, but rather the sheer volume and repetition. Yes, it’s history in the making, but there are only so many deferential documentaries you can watch about anybody. Ditto the interminable scenes of crowds lining roads and placing flowers outside royal residences. Moreover, while disrupted schedules are unavoidable and you can see why Netflix’s The Crown temporarily halted filming, it seems odd to “respectfully” postpone the start of Strictly Come Dancing. I must have missed the bit where the show turned anarcho-punk.

That said, the main channels could hardly stick on a couple of docs and say: “That’s your lot, grieving Britons, the funeral will be pay-for-view.” And there were some memorable, moving moments: the unexpectedly emotional address to the nation from the new King; the jarring sight of Prince Andrew; Princess Anne looking shattered, human; Liz Truss stiffly curtsying like her kneecaps had rusted; that melancholy vigil by the draped coffin; the spectacular procession of the casket from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, followed by royals on foot. Already it’s a twisting, quintessentially British kaleidoscope of tradition, protocol, pageantry, emotion and positioning – and there’s still the funeral and coronation to come.

The royal family accompanying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II to the Palace of Westminster last Wednesday.
‘Protocol, pageantry, emotion’: the royal family accompanying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II to the Palace of Westminster last Wednesday. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Think about the fact that Sir David Attenborough is mere weeks younger than the Queen was as you relish the icy magnificence of BBC One’s Frozen Planet II. Four years in the making, it uses state-of-the-art technology and arrives 11 years after the first series.

You listen for Attenborough, the voice still authoritative, as he promises insights into vast frozen wildernesses, such as the Arctic and Antarctica, from “its highest peaks to its snowbound deserts to deep beneath the ice”. You watch for the animals, for living, breathing evidence of nature’s grand design in all its beauty, savagery, comedy and vulnerability.

The “aw” factor is immense: polar bear cubs playing; young emperor penguins slithering on their tummies. Then there’s the snuff movie element, such as grizzly bears tearing into muskox calves. Obviously, nature should be depicted in all its brutal entirety, but I’m a big wuss: on such occasions, the fast-forward button is my friend.

An emperor penguin chick leaps into the Southern Ocean for the first time on Frozen Planet II.
An emperor penguin chick takes the plunge in Frozen Planet II. Photograph: BBC Studios

Scarier even than the Siberian tigers prowling through the boreal forests, or orcas tipping Weddell seals off ice platforms, is the effect of climate change, always foregrounded by Attenborough, who pledges here to “witness new wonders while there is still time to save them”. As grimly early as 2035, the Arctic could be ice-free during summer. To watch this astounding, harrowing, crisply beautiful documentary is to appreciate all there is to lose.

It could be considered unfortunate for a new drama to appear right now titled (ouch) The Serpent Queen. Based on Leonie Frieda’s biography Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, and created by Justin Haythe, it’s a study of one of the most controversial figures of the 16th century, chiefly reviled (it is now thought wrongly) for the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572.

Samantha Morton plays the older Catherine: jaded, sulphurous, recounting her life story (“Trust no one”) to an awed servant girl (Sennia Nanua). Liv Hill (Three Girls) plays young Catherine; orphaned, cast out then traded into marriage to the youngest son of the French king.

Liv Hill in The Serpent Queen.
Liv Hill as young Catherine de Medici in The Serpent Queen. Photograph: PR

It’s worth checking out, if you can stretch to the Starzplay sub, if only for the extraordinary vision of Charles Dance as Catherine’s devious uncle, Pope Clement, telling her of the impending marriage while his nether regions are prodded by physicians. “Forgive me,” he groans, “abscess on my exit.”

It looks splendidly gothic – the drama, not Dance’s “exit” – and there are solid performances, laconic anachronisms (PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me growling on the soundtrack), straight-to-camera asides and pithy exposures of olde worlde misogyny. If the episodes I saw fell short of the wit and fizz of its channel stablemate The Great, well, that’s a high bar to clear.

Star ratings (out of five)
The Great British Bake Off ★★★
Queen’s death coverage ★★★
Frozen Planet II ★★★★
The Serpent Queen ★★★

What else I’m watching

Our Friends in the North
BBC Four
BBC Four is really rolling out the classics. Here’s another chance to see Peter Flannery’s ambitious 1996 drama about four friends from Newcastle, which turbo-boosted the careers of Daniel Craig, Gina McKee, Christopher Eccleston and Mark Strong.

Storyville: Gorbachev. Heaven
BBC Four
Vitaliy Manskiy’s acclaimed documentary on the architect of glasnost, who died last month. It features intense, revealing interviews with the 91-year-old former Russian leader at his home outside Moscow as he reflects on the past.

Mikhail Gorbachev in Gorbachev, Heaven.
Gorbachev, Heaven. BBC/SIA Vertov Photograph: BBC/SIA Vertov

This bio-series about heavyweight boxing champion boxer Mike Tyson examines his rise, fall and conviction for rape. Made by the team behind the 2017 film I, Tonya, it stars Trevante Rhodes and Harvey Keitel. Tyson does not approve.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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