The week in TV: Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live; I’m a Celebrity…; 1899; Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom and more

The Succession star rages against inequality; all aboard Netflix’s Victorian steamship horror; Hongkongers turn to violence; and The Handmaid’s Tale is back on track

Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live Channel 5 | My5
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! ITV | ITV Hub
1899 Netflix
Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom BBC Two | iPlayer
The Handmaid’s Tale Channel 4 | All 4

It takes a moment to realise why the two-part Channel 5 docuseries Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live feels so special. The premise is simple: the Succession actor looks into the wealth divide in the US and UK to find out what money (too much/too little) does to you, with Cox, as he drily puts it, “swapping the role of foul-mouthed billionaire for intrepid reporter”.

Now based in the US, the 76-year-old declares himself comfortably off – “I’m not Logan Roy” – but says he’s only interested in survival. Having lost his father, he grew up “destitute”, the youngest of five, in Dundee. Thus, money became a lifelong “personal demon, something I’ve avoided confronting”.

This accounts for his sensitivity when dealing with the struggling people he meets, whether they’re buying cut-price groceries in Dundee or homeless in New York. It explains his rawness too. After an encounter with a mother facing eviction in Miami, he explodes. “It’s fucked,” he rages. “Well and truly fucked. This whole financial thing is completely nuts.” Beat that for analysis, Martin Lewis.

How the Other Half Live isn’t perfect: Cox’s energy tangibly slumps as he politely potters through the mindsets of the mega-wealthy, including Phones 4u billionaire entrepreneur John Caudwell, who arrives in a helicopter. Elsewhere, money graphics keep barging on to the screen like a middle-management PowerPoint session, lowering the tone.

The documentary’s strength is of course Cox: a self-made man who refrains from spouting drivel about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps; who knows how childhood poverty becomes lifelong scar tissue; who worries, on screen, about speaking out (“there’s a fine line”), but worries even more about not doing so. At heart, this is a programme about empathy, memory, kinship; a tour of Cox’s soul. It’s really rather lovely.

At the opposite end of the humanity spectrum, there’s former health secretary Matt Hancock still “starring” (unless he’s been booted out between our deadline and this review being published) in I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. Perhaps the 38 Degrees campaign group said it best on their plane banner flown over camp: “Covid Bereaved Say Get Out of Here”.

As I write, the public has tired of voting for the West Suffolk MP to munch through camel penis and sheep vagina in bushtucker trials, perhaps realising that, to Hancock’s mind, shame is for the little people. Hence the soundbite/mantra “I fell in love” – as if the only issue is him having played lockdown tonsil tennis with his then aide – and the hammy simpering (“What I’m looking for is a bit of forgiveness”). Then there’s the barefaced promotion of his forthcoming book, The Pandemic Diaries, to the assembled gaping celebrities.

Chris Moyles and Matt Hancock in I’m a Celebrity.
‘Shame is for little people’: Matt Hancock, right, with Chris Moyles in I’m a Celebrity. Rex/Shutterstock Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

What happened to Hancock’s stated aim of raising awareness for dyslexia? That said, I learned heaps about narcissism and self-delusion. One of his priceless campfire insights was that Liz Truss’s “political career is over”. As is your own, sir; though going by this showing, I doubt he cares.

New on Netflix is 1899, an eight-part period mystery from Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar, the creators of Dark. A US-bound ocean liner, the Kerberos, comes across a missing, deserted vessel, the Prometheus. The Kerberos’s passengers – including Emily Beecham’s Englishwoman, Andreas Pietschmann’s captain and Lucas Lynggaard Tønnesen’s scarred youth – are crippled by their pasts, as revealed in flashbacks. Strange pyramid markings are everywhere, mutiny looms, and the travellers are joined by a stranger (Aneurin Barnard) and a young boy (Fflyn Edwards). All the while, the Prometheus bobs alongside, an ominous black mass sitting on inky waves in choking fog.

Watch a trailer for 1899.

Initially I was rapt, drawn into the ship’s claustrophobic Victorian menace, the rich characterisation of the multinational travellers (complete with subtitles), the near-hallucinatory ooze of themes: fear, regret, longing, death. Is 1899 a redemption ghost story? A time-loop tale? A (watery) Lost update? Sadly – and I can’t reveal how (because: spoilers) – towards the end of the six episodes I’ve seen, 1899 goes thematically berserk, dragging the gloriously cultivated atmosphere of dread and melancholy into the deep and drowning it. I’m still invested enough to watch to the end, but it’s clear that things will get extremely silly.

Toby Paton’s two-part docuseries Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom (BBC Two) covers the 2019 demonstrations. After an appalling murder led to plans for an extradition bill, the city’s lack of democratic autonomy from mainland China was exposed, spurring mainly young citizens into direct action.

A pro-democracy protester throws a molotov cocktail outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 2019.
A pro-democracy protester throws a molotov cocktail outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 2019. Photograph: Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

The first episode features interviews with journalists, government advisers and the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who handed over in 1997, referring to the “unshakable destiny” of its independence. Then there are the protesters who, risking severe reprisals, are disguised with AI technology. Confronted by police armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds, these ordinary youngsters become radicalised and turn violent. Says one of them: “I don’t think any Hongkonger would’ve imagined having to throw a Molotov cocktail in their lifetime, but we really didn’t have a choice.”

It makes for disturbing, illuminating viewing, with a second episode addressing China’s national security law and the Hong Kong exodus: 130,000 citizens have been granted visas in the UK alone. The programme ends with a blunt warning about the global shift towards autocracy, but the content speaks for itself.

Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid’s Tale.
‘Relentless glaring’: Elisabeth Moss as June in The Handmaid’s Tale. Channel 4 Photograph: Sophie Giraud/Channel 4

I was becoming impatient with season five of The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4): too many moany people in puffer jackets in sanctuary in Canada and not enough of the warped, cape-flapping beauty of novelist Margaret Atwood’s original Gilead.

Now nearly halfway through the series, there’s still too much Canada-based PTSD and tedium, while the relentless glaring of June (Elisabeth Moss) verges on the comical. Still, an early funeral scene was mesmerising and savage, and vivid characters such as Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) are back at the forefront. Meanwhile, June and her nemesis, the glacial Gilead wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski), are homicidally fixated on each other. After its largely flatlining fourth series, I’d say this pitiless hymn to feminist justice is more or less back on track.

Star ratings (out of five)
Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live ★★★★
I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! ★★
1899 ★★★
Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom★★★★
The Handmaid’s Tale Channel 4 ★★★

What else I’m watching

Douglas Stuart
Author Douglas Stuart. BBC Photograph: Carlo D’Alessandro/BBC/BBC Studios

Imagine… Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit
(BBC One)
Alan Yentob meets the Booker prize-winning author of Shuggie Bain to discuss his difficult upbringing in Glasgow with an alcoholic single mother and the inspirations for his work.

The Great British Bake Off
(Channel 4)
A rather fraught and emotive final, with puddings collapsing in the tent and un-set vegan gelatine sloshing everywhere. I won’t mention the eventual winner, but never were happy tears more deserved.

Young, Black and Right-Wing
(Channel 4)
A documentary in which presenter Zeze Millz debates sociopolitical issues with young black people who are right wing, digging into everything from sexual mores to racism to the Labour party.


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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