The week in TV: Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam; Penance; Westworld; Bulletproof and more

A fine Miss World documentary shows how far we’ve come; charm and menace in a new Channel 5 psychodrama; and Brenda Blethyn is swept away on a tide of canned laughter

Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam (BBC Two) | iPlayer
Penance (Channel 5) | My5
Westworld | Sky Atlantic
Bulletproof | Sky One
Kate & Koji (ITV) | ITV Hub

It’s not only these days that you get to say: “You couldn’t make it up!”, or the sort of folk prone to saying that sort of thing get to say it. The Miss World of 1970 was a concatenation of late-60s anger, a perfect storm in which feminist activists and similarly justified anti-apartheid movers and shakers descended, colliding and sometimes colluding, on the Albert Hall, and the world shifted a twitch on its axis.

Hot on the heels of the new film Misbehaviour, a quite marvellous BBC Two documentary, Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam, sought, through tracking down a gratifying number of original participants, to convey just what a shock to the televisual assumptions of the time this must have been. As the woeful guest host Bob Hope stumbled through his patter, every patronising sneer or lustful lech unbelievably lower than the previous low, one activist stood up on the plush balcony and shook a football rattle: the signal for 100 feminists, sprinkled secretly throughout, to launch smoke bombs and pamphlets on the spangled audience below. And launched niggling thoughts, surely, in a tiny fraction of the 100 million viewers watching.

And the world shifted on its axis, though it wasn’t for the want of trying to stop it by the British press. The interrupters were near universally vilified as hairy-legged lesbians. And, coincidentally, two women of colour had triumphed: Miss Grenada won, Miss Africa South had trumped white Miss South Africa – a risibly false distinction by which that country’s government was still seeking to segregate, only to be bitten right on the arse – to come second. They had it even worse than the feminist campaigners, with an odious News of the Screws headline: “Well, is she the most beautiful girl in the world?” seeking to suggest that a black woman could never be considered anyone’s version of idealised beauty.

But shift it did. One of the things that struck me about this was that – despite the original campaigners, many of whom had first met at that famous Ruskin women’s liberation conference of 28 February 1970, giving generally dispirited views today on how much feminism had moved since – there can be no doubt how any person today views this doc. Whether watching the Mecca-pimp Eric Morley microcontrolling the contestants with chaperones, or the milder Michael Aspel’s simperingly sexist co-host, or the assumption that if you hadn’t caught a man by means of looks alone by 21, then, well… you will have been shocked/pleased at how far social changes have come in 50 years. The other thing that struck was how graceful and eloquent both campaigners and contestants have become in late middle age: Jennifer Hosten and runner-up Pearl Jansen were mightily impressive, having become in their own way activists, even feminists; no less so the spirited ex-squatters. It’s a tired cliche, yes, but so often things that divide us are lesser than…

Watch a trailer for Penance

Channel 5 continued its cheeky drive to be the, or at least a, new home for quirky, quality, original drama writing, chiefly of the psychodramatic variety. It does much badly – the daily Jeremy Vine show has become a solid couple of hours of coronavirus when, surely, the very last thing we need more of is viewers phoning to kindly share their latest misinformed internet blather – but this – this, it does well. Its latest offering, Penance, an adaptation of the Kate O’Riordan novel, has Julie Graham as Rosalie, being gaslit, after the death of her son, into taking in a lodger in the pretty-boy shape of Nico Mirallegro’s Jed.

Jed will first inveigle his way into the daughter’s bed and then, much to her conflicted angst, her mum Rosalie’s, while Art Malik does (finely) the job of a conscience in the shape of the Catholic priest, and Neil Morrissey as the father does… well, whatever it is that Morrissey does. Flawed, then, but entirely and utterly watchable, and in Mirallegro we find a young actor truly able to convey charm and menace in equal degrees.

Westworld also found a new axis, after a thoroughly confusing, to the point of blathery, second series. The hosts (the robots) have escaped the park, finally. Worryingly, they have learned to create simulacra of people in the real world. Because the purpose of the park has been semi-revealed: it wasn’t to give guests their jollies but to harvest all their data. With me so far? It’s worth being with me so far plot-wise because this series, never mind the lush filming, threatens much in the way of lickable, toothsome plot. Dolores is on a spree to destroy all those who raped her in the Westworld park, and you will never listen to Pulp’s Common People in quite the same way again.

Bulletproof returned, with supercops Ashley Walters and Noel Clarke once again kicking bottom all over London. It’s no Top Boy, and even less so any vestige of The Wire, but, in that Walters/Clarke chemistry, thoroughgoing enjoyable. As long as – and this is crucial – you take it for precisely what it is. It’s a Laandan crime caper, innit? With beguiling leads, grand music, a certain ambient murk: a winning lack of pretension.

What a pedigree Kate & Koji appeared to have. Co-stars in Brenda Blethyn and Jimmy Akingbola, written by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton (Drop the Dead Donkey, Outnumbered), and a bonkers-but-might-work premise about an asylum-seeking African doctor setting up a temporary surgery in a seaside caff in exchange for square meals from the reactionary biddy of an owner.

Blake Harrison, Brenda Blethyn, Jimmy Akingbola and Barbara Flynn in the Kate and Koji.
Blake Harrison, Brenda Blethyn, Jimmy Akingbola and Barbara Flynn in the ‘not unsalvageable’ Kate & Koji. Photograph: Luke Varley/ITV

My, it’s grim, and what were you at all thinking, our sainted Auntie Vera? There are jokes about 70s TV detectives, oat milk, newfangled “podcasts”. One running gag is that everyone looks to their phones after the microwave pings. It is amusing precisely once. At one stage Kate (Blethyn) reprimands Koji (Akingbola) for getting pedantic about apostrophes with “all right Doc, no need to go all Rees-Mogg on us!”, as if one had to go to Eton (because it’s posh, see!) in order to have an outside chance of grasping the basics of the English language: it’s that kind of lowest-com-denom writing. Utterly unhelped – in fact, hog-tied at the knees – by a canned laughter track that gives it not just the content but the feel of something that could have surfaced a full 30 years ago. There’s even a rival – snobby – interfering councillor in the shape of Barbara Flynn.

It’s not unsalvageable. There’s a (slight) warmth to be had in Kate’s unthawing towards the 21st century, her refreshing lack of the old prejudices. Some gags show spark, but you don’t even get to enjoy the spark, already tensing at the collective awfulness of the wave of laughter that you know is bound to tsunami in.


Euan Ferguson

The GuardianTramp

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