‘It bends and breaks all the rules of storytelling’
Russell T Davies on This Is Us
One great delight during lockdown has been the many years of ER on All 4. It makes me think, why did they stop? Open up Chicago County General, come back! I don’t watch consecutive episodes; I skip here and there, carving out my own favourite stories. One day, I’ll watch the life and death of Dr Greene. The next, Carrie’s coming out. If I’m in a savage mood, the sheer black comedy of Dr Romano’s relationship with helicopters.
But that’s repeats. My favourite new show has been This Is Us on Amazon. And there’s lots of it – four years, with the fifth series dropping week-by-week. It’s hugely famous and award-winning in the US, but a bit of a sleeper in the UK. It’s the tale of one family – the parents, the kids and the grandchildren – but it’s not quite as simple as that sounds. To say any more about the format would ruin the neatest, sweetest reveal at the end of episode one, which left me green with envy.
I swear, I can actually hear the writers’ room at work on this show. I can hear them argue. And that passion and pride spills on to the screen. Just when you’re vexed by something, a solution appears. If you get bored by a story, a surprise pops up. And if you’re wondering why that character doesn’t have much to do, bang! They’re centre stage. But they have far more than narrative tricks in the toolbox. The writers – led by series creator Dan Fogelman – take your love for these good, honest people, and twist and turn it to breaking point. Your favourite character will drive you mad. The one you like least will suddenly break your heart. You will fear for them, laugh with them and at them, in storytelling that’s somehow raw and artful.
People talk about diversity as though it still belongs in little niches, tucked away on BBC Three or E4. But this show brings it front and centre, turning issues into drama. And again, they’re playing that lovely game with the audience. For a year or two, I was sitting there in my Gay Tower, thinking smugly, “OK, you’ve got gay men, but what about lesbi … oh!” Right in front of my eyes, a reveal from a character I’ve loved for years. And it’s the same with disability. Just when I was beginning to doubt this team, season four opens with a dizzying episode which bends and breaks all the rules of storytelling, and introduces a blind character in the most brilliant plot twist. My God, they’re good.
I make a point of telling writers to watch this show because they can learn so much about narrative, character, flashbacks, cliffhangers, juxtaposition – but most of all, honesty. There is a direct, fierce stare at the heart of this show, which makes you realise how good that title is. It’s us, it’s all of us, this show is us.
‘If I’m honest, it was the hunk of a co-judge who hooked me in’
Kathy Burke on Top Chef
During lockdown, I needed to watch something light that didn’t involve people being murdered. I enjoy MasterChef and Bake Off, so the American reality show Top Chef (Amazon Prime) was perfect. It’s a competition in which young professional chefs show they can do something tastier with a kumquat than the next person. There’s a huge cash prize for the winner, which they inevitably use to buy their own restaurant or food truck, plus the title of Top Chef itself, which can give them genuine status in the culinary world. It’s been running since 2006 and there have been 17 series, each one taking part in a different state and featuring local food.
Contestants start with a quick-fire challenge: they have 30 minutes to come up with a tasty morsel that gives one of them immunity from the final elimination round. This can be very hectic. There’s lots of running around and flying pots. What with the frenetic mood music and the contestants’ varied regional accents, I had difficulty deciphering what the heck was going on until I flicked on the subtitles.
Since series two, it has been effortlessly hosted and judged by Padma Lakshmi, who will eat anything. She’s got a great sense of humour but can also be tough and direct, which is important: when a contestant is kicked off at the end of an episode she has to deliver the rather camp killer line, “Please pack your knives and go.” Her co-judge is a big lovely hunk of stuff called Tom Colicchio. If I’m honest, it’s Tom who hooked me in to watching all 260 episodes. Yes, 260: I Googled it. What a life.
Because it started in the noughties, the first couple of series featured that old reality TV trick of setting up a “baddie” of the group – someone we’re all meant to think is a prick. But that particular device is elbowed out by series four, and you’re left to make up your own mind about who you like or don’t like. Go figure! The earlier series also saw the contestants making use of the latest tech devices, in a product-placement kind of way; it was very nice to be reminded how exciting the arrival of the Kindle was. From series nine, they started an extra show called Last Chance Kitchen where the eliminated folk battle it out with each other to get back into the competition, but I couldn’t be arsed with that. You know who wins that anyway, because they rejoin for the final episodes.
Series 17 ended on a sad note, with gorgeous Tom announcing that its final (filmed in Italy) was recorded before the outbreak of Covid-19, and he wished us all love and safety. Same to you, baby. I look forward to series 18. In the meantime, I’ve got Top Chef Masters and Top Chef Just Desserts to keep me going.
Kathy Burke’s new documentary All Money is coming soon to Channel 4.
‘It’s jaw-droppingly frank about the messy process of puberty’
David Nicholls on Pen15
“But is there something we can all watch together?” This has been the mantra of lockdown. When I was a kid we watched what my dad wanted to watch, but I don’t wield that kind of authority. And besides, there are only so many BBC Four music documentaries our teenage kids can bear.
For 17 glorious episodes, Pen15 was the answer. Like Schitt’s Creek, it’s a less-than-great title for a brilliant show, in this case about a suburban middle school in the early 2000s. American adolescence isn’t an unexplored subject but Pen15 has a brilliant innovation: the two best-friends-forever are played by 33-year-old adults, recreating the traumas of their own youth surrounded by an accomplished younger cast. Adults playing children opposite real children– it could be terrible, but Pen15 has such heart and wit and skill that it’s an absolute delight.
Far from being a kids’ show, Pen15 is sometimes jaw-droppingly frank about the smelly, hairy, messy process of puberty and the mystifying business of sex. The age of the lead actors dilutes some of the discomfort but even so, subjects such as masturbation, bullying, racism and homophobia are tackled head-on. It might all be too much if it weren’t for the skill and sensitivity of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the two leads, who also write for the show; the other co-creator, Sam Zvibleman, writes and directs. Erskine’s young Maya is outspoken, passionate, sometimes the class clown, sometimes crippled with self-loathing. Konkle’s Anna is ostensibly calmer and more sensible, but privately torn apart by her parents’ divorce.
None of which conveys just how funny it can be. Too many highlights for here, but I loved the episode where a stolen thong seems to grant the girls an almost magical maturity and sophistication; or the up-all-night sleepover that goes horribly wrong as the sugar-rush starts to fade. My favourite, though, is the two-part school-play finale of the second series (truncated by the pandemic), in which Maya wins the lead role in The Days Are Short, an absurdly pretentious Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf rip-off. There are great school-play sequences in Rushmore and Lady Bird, but this is the greatest, the most accurate and touching.
It’s not a show for everyone. The meanness, the name-calling, the humiliations of early teen life are all there, and you may end up watching some scenes through your fingers. But it’s saved from being just another “cringe-comedy” by its warmth and good-heartedness, the honesty and accuracy of the writing and the brilliance of those two central performances. Despite the feuds and the spite, the weird smells and solitary angst, it’s a love story between two friends, tender and real, written in bubble-writing with a multicoloured gel pen.
Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is out now.
‘You never have to engage your brain – nothing could be more soothing’
Diane Abbott on A Place In The Sun
I don’t generally watch much television. I do watch quite a bit of news and current affairs, because keeping on top of that is part of a politician’s job description. God forbid that you should be rung for a comment about a “breaking” news story you haven’t heard about yet. Coronation Street was the last soap opera that, not only did I follow faithfully, but could also tell you every plotline, name every character, and even hum the theme tune. But that was decades ago. Nowadays, not even the tedium of lockdown could turn me into a binge-watcher of soaps, reality television and quizshows (although I confess I was an avid Strictly Come Dancing watcher when my colleague Ed Balls was a contestant).
There’s one exception. During lockdown, I have watched A Place In The Sun daily (and often more than once a day). It’s a long-running ITV reality show about British couples looking for a holiday home in the sunshine. Guided by a super-enthusiastic presenter (there are a rotating team of eight), they normally focus on a Mediterranean country such as Spain, but occasionally venture as far afield as Costa Rica or a Caribbean island.
What is it that keeps me watching? It is partly wish fulfilment. My parents were part of the Windrush generation, and came from their birthplace in Jamaica to settle in England in the 1950s. I visited Jamaica for the first time with my mother when I was in my late teens and fell completely in love with the country. Ever since, I have nursed the fantasy of having my very own place in the sun.
But there is more to it than that. Like most successful long-running TV and radio shows, A Place In The Sun is completely formulaic. A British couple (occasionally LGBTQ) look for a holiday home. They view four or five properties. The search is intercut with seductive footage of sea, sand, endless sunshine and picturesque village squares. The couple almost invariably find their dream home and successfully make an offer for it. The viewer is left in no doubt that their new home will change their lives and that they will live happily ever after. This unvarying formula means that it is one of those programmes where you never actually have to engage your brain. Nothing could be more soothing.
Furthermore, watching it during lockdown, I realised that A Place In The Sun goes out on three different channels. So not only can you watch it every day, on some days you can watch it for hours at a time. Perfect.
‘I saw my own slow descent into madness reflected back’
Joe Lycett on Celebrity Big Brother 2006
Like you, I watched many things in lockdown. I re-immersed myself in prestige series such as The Sopranos. I joined an American classics film club, watching His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. I subscribed to the streaming service Mubi for curated independent cinema. I binged powerful new work such as I May Destroy You and It’s A Sin. But the show that absorbed me the most, that soothed my soul and helped me make sense of the anomaly of the past year, was this: Celebrity Big Brother 2006.
Forget casts assembled by directors like Wes Anderson, CBB boasted the following: basketball superstar Dennis Rodman; Faria Alam, a tabloid favourite at the time due to her affair with Sven-Göran Eriksson; George “I’ll be the cat” Galloway; nipple pasty enthusiast Jodie Marsh; Maggot from Goldie Lookin Chain, Michael Bloody Barrymore; gay icon Pete Burns; Preston from the Ordinary Boys; acting royalty Rula Lenska; Traci Bingham from Baywatch, and Chantelle Houghton, who, in a huge twist for the format, was a non-celeb pretending to be a celeb. All hosted by OG Davina McCall, a woman who makes reading a live Autocue with a busy earpiece amid a screaming mob seem as effortless as spreading warm Lurpak on a freshly toasted crumpet.
I understand if you need a moment to let all that sink in.
I rewatched it predominantly to remind myself of the gymnastic and unnecessary spite of Pete Burns. My favourite quip on this second viewing, borrowed from Dorothy Parker: “You can take a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” What began as a frivolous YouTube stumble gradually became a vital support. Each day I’d see my own slow descent into madness reflected back, as the housemates became more irritable, entertaining themselves in increasingly absurd ways, as the numbing appeal of booze ebbed and flowed. In the house, as in lockdown life, celebs and non-celebs were rendered equal, thanks to muggle Chantelle. (As a celeb myself, I despise this. I sleep easy each night knowing that when I die BBC News will write an article about me and people around the country will go, “Oh, that little queer lad died.” What will happen when you die? Nothing.)
As the series progressed, I realised that we are all in a Big Brother house of sorts these days. Followed everywhere by Zoom and FaceTime cameras, drinking alcohol in the same chair where we ate breakfast, praying and hoping the outside will be kind when we’re finally allowed out. Some nights, I thought I saw George Galloway on the landing and then realised it was my cat, Winston.
Soon, Davina (or Boris Johnson, as some people call him) will come over the public address system and tell us to leave the house. There will be the iron taste of the unknown as our feet reach the doorstep and we hug our families for the first time, before being dragged about to fulfil our eviction obligations. A few years down the line, we’ll watch it back in clips on YouTube and say to our young relatives, “At the time, all that was a jolly big deal.”