24 Hours in the Past: the randomest collection of participants in the BBC’s weakest historico-reality-doc-thing yet

The appearance of Ann Widdecombe working in Victorian conditions makes for frustrating and pointless watching, and is not redeemed by the ex-politico famemonger’s ironic push for workers’ rights in this week’s episode

Question: is the sight of Ann Widdecombe on our screens in a time that now sees Michael Gove presiding over our justice system a more or less exquisite torture than it used to be? Has she been transfigured by recent events into a relatively uplifting reminder of better days? Or does the fact we now live in a world in which Ann Widdecombe can in any way, however twisted and oblique, be conceived of as a reminder of better days mean that these days are even worse than we thought and require us to crunch down on our cyanide capsules en masse? Questions without answers, my friends, and a lot of emotional ravaging on the way.

Let us concentrate, instead, on the simpler question of who made 24 Hours in the Past – the programme in which the former prisons minister and shadow home secretary appears – and why.

BBC1 made it. Why? Place a cross by your preferred option:

1. They realised they hadn’t commissioned a programme about The Past for 24 hours and took it from there.
2. Bad planetary alignment.
3. Someone in the office had a bet – under what is known at Broadcasting House as standard “monkey tennis” rules – that they could out-bizarre W1A’s suggestion of Idris Elba as the host of its new family game show, and came up with Widdecombe, Colin Jackson, Alistair McGowan, Zoe Lucker, Miquita Oliver and Tyger Drew-Honey as the randomest (yes, now a word. Gove is justice minister. Nothing matters any more) collection of participants in their weakest historico-reality-doc-thing yet.
4. They read the runes correctly long before the exit polls came out and decided there was no point trying to prove the licence fee’s worth any more.
5. [For Scottish readers only] The SNP.
I realise I am disproportionately furious about 24 Hours in the Past. It is, technically, harmless. A group of celebrities and a proto-Katie Hopkinsesque, ex-politico famemonger spend a day in four different Victorian workplaces, minus any actual danger, malnutrition or other potentially entertaining element of reality. And then … well, then the series is over. This week they were working in the Staffordshire potteries, pounding clay and treadles, packing greenware into kilns, stoking fires and making futile attempts to acquire in a couple of hours various skills it takes a lifetime to learn. Ruth Goodman hovers around the edges trying to get in a few words of social history and explain who the Chartists were – because maybe option 4 above is not true and there was, at one stage, a single desperate individual still flying the flag for money not being totally pissed up the wall.

It is so deeply frustrating and pointless – and no, not redeemed by the irony of Widdecombe fleetingly becoming an agitator for workers’ rights when her friends are done out of their earnings by their despotic boss – that it is all you can do to not put a boot through the screen. At one point, McGowan was reduced to tears by the contrast between the beauty of the potteries’ workings and the crap that we put up with nowadays. Everywhere is metaphor.

I’m sorry. *Breathes*. I shall recuse myself from reviewing any more of these things.

Let us turn to Channel 4 and something better: Paul Abbott’s new police drama No Offence, the second episode of which aired last night. It has been occasionally billed as a comedy-drama, but it is only that in the sense that it has as many jokes in it as people make in real life while they are getting on with serious stuff. Which makes it realistic, believable, compelling drama rather than any weird hybrid.

A case-of-the-week plotline about taking down a drug factory is meshed with the series arc about a serial killer targeting young women and girls with Down’s syndrome – DI Deering ’n’ team’s success in the former seeing responsibility for the latter restored to them despite Dinah having ill-advisedly given a main witness a place to stay in her house.

Joanna Scanlan as Deering gives the standout performance, even if (as with David Threlfall’s Frank in Abbott’s most famous creation, Shameless –) it seems to be coming from a slightly different programme from the one everyone else is in – and occasionally threatens to overshadow, rather than enhance, the brilliant ensemble work of the rest of the cast.

But it’s fresh, it’s funny, it is scripted, it is clever. It took time, effort and talent to create and it makes you want to fall at the feet of everyone involved in love and gratitude. Thank you, all.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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