Scandimania (Channel 4) ***
Apparently, the countries in Scandinavia are the happiest places to live in the world – are we surprised? Some of their most popular exports include ABBA, IKEA, LEGO and, seemingly, capital letters. Channel 4 have decided to send a popular British export, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, on a mission to find out why. This was the premise for Scandimania (clever title, no?), with episode one seeing our British explorer roaming around Sweden and its famously egalitarian society. As a chef, Hugh took particular interest in the cuisine of the country, investigating a fascinating method of cooking scallops over a fire (involving hay, of all things) and the state-governed nature of alcohol – he took no shame, however, in being thoroughly British as he clinked out of the off licence. It wasn’t all sweetness and light though. Many would have found the legal shooting parties harder to stomach, whilst another issue came as Hugh discovered two decades of increasing wealth-inequality, rioting and racism. It was an amiable, if not exciting watch overall, whilst Hugh came across as jolly pleasant, if bland.
Inside No 9 (BBC2) *****
There was a definite air of Pyschoville, the last time Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton collaborated, in Inside No 9 – the first of a six part series of stand alone comedies written by and starring the aforementioned stars. Like Pyschoville, Inside No 9 was a concocted mix of dark and light comedy, filled with bursts of campness and moments of fantastic awkwardness. The story centred around a game of sardines played, naturally, by a group of people with ‘issues’ – mainly concerning each other. It’s a terrific comic conceit, whilst staging the majority in a room and a tight cupboard created a real tension, relieved brilliantly with interspersed comedy.
It is a testament to the writing and, astonishingly starry, cast that in very little time the containment of the story felt like a slot in for a longer series, such was the ease at which the characters were formed. It was Shearsmith and Anne Reid (who really should do more comedy) that stood out most, with Reid’s delivery of “Geronimo!” leaving me in absolute stitches and Shearsmith’s “I’ve not seen this much wood since…” proving that crude humour can be executed cleverly. Notably, these ‘stand-outs’ only stood out by a small margin amongst a superb cast and long list of delirious, quotable lines. When the final, expected, twist came, the tonal shift materialised with a creepy and lasting zenith – a wonderful round off. As with all the best stand-alones, the only flaw is that, having become enthralled, you’re left with a desire to return to the characters and see more. Instead, we have five more individual productions ahead, but if they’re going to turn out half as good as this, I can not wait!
Inspector George Gently (BBC1) **
In the opening of Disney’s 1969 101 Dalmatians we are shown that dogs and their owners are inseparably linked in appearance; a similar principle can, I’ve found, be applied to TV detective’s and their shows. Sherlock, for example, is sharp and modern, whilst Luther is dark and broody – Inspector George Gently, by the same principle, is drab and colourless. Gently (Martin Shaw) has three vocal levels: he does medium, loud and very loud, which he flits between with rare delicacy and, rarer still, propriety. The dialogue doesn’t sparkle much either; the ‘dead one’ is termed “crazy man” (aka “the kiddy fiddler”) by the kids on the street, whilst Gently – on the subject of work trauma – states “It still affects me, but I won’t let it change me!” I worried as much – at least Bacchus chose to stay, he’s the most charismatic thing in it.
In other TV, comedy fans are spoilt for choice at the minute – hoorah! Outnumbered‘s doing a fine job on BBC1, on BBC2 Vic and Bob’s House of Fools is bizarre and very endearing, whilst out on BBC3 Uncle has developed rapidly into my favourite new comedy series in years. On top of the mainstream, if you can, do head over to Sky 1 where Ruth Jones’ Stella is wonderfully funny, while next week they’ve got the return of Moone Boy, Chris O’Dowd’s brilliant, hilarious, sitcom about a boy and his imaginary friend. So, here’s to 2014 – with any luck, the year of the sitcom!