Hello again, welcome to my first roundup post for 2022. It will come as no surprise that this has been a pretty quiet month, due to the traditional lull in activity after the madness of Christmas, coupled with the need to be cautious due to the Omicron variant. A few people I know have caught Covid for the first time recently, and it hit them worse than a normal cold or flu – but crucially their booster jabs provided the vital safety net that stopped it becoming severe, so they were fine. It’ll get me eventually, I have no doubt, and I know my booster will protect me when that time comes, but I’m doing my best to swerve it for as long as I can.
Nevertheless, I have been out and about quite a bit this month, mainly for walks by the Thames and in nearby parts of Central London – including some sights along the North Bank – so I can continue ticking off streets on the map that I’ve been gradually filling in since 2020. I haven’t gone to any theatres or museums, but I do have plans to get back to them soon. My calendar for the year is already starting to fill up nicely, with a few things booked in for March for starters, including a little getaway for a week, and other stuff beyond that.
So as I haven’t got any outings to talk about, this month’s Favourites post and video is purely about the entertainment I’ve been enjoying on TV and online. There’s nowhere near as much as at Christmas of course, and there’s one show in particular that’s had considerable attention online, but there are other bits and pieces to mention as well. And none of this is sponsored as usual. So I hope you enjoy!
Ricky Gervais has always been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I absolutely love his stand-up shows, and the radio podcasts he did with Stephen Merchant & Karl Pilkington (including the animated TV series they were turned into). But I’ve never got into his other TV shows particularly, including The Office, Extras, Derek, and so on – they have occasional amusing moments, but they’ve never grabbed me in a big way somehow.
After Life on Netflix has been the exception, however, because I find this dark but beautifully constructed comedy-drama to be very down-to-earth, moving, relatable and funny. And this month the third and final season was released. So I rewatched the first 2 seasons before checking out the newest episodes. It’s only 18 half-hour instalments in total, so it doesn’t take long. And it’s very nicely audio described by Emily Eden as well.
Without giving away any major spoilers, Ricky plays Tony, a man who feels he has nothing left to live for after his wife Lisa (Kerry Godliman) dies from cancer. We see her regularly throughout the series, as Tony watches video messages she recorded for him in hospital, and clips from their old home movies. He contemplates taking his own life, but can’t bring himself to do so thanks to his adorable dog Brandy. So instead he takes a no-holds-barred approach to living, by saying and doing whatever he likes, expressing his thoughts about people regardless of how offensive it is and irrespective of the impact it might have. He believes he’s got nothing left to lose, so it feels like a superpower to him. And so a lot of the comedy stems from him saying and doing things in response to other people and situations that many of us wish we could in real life.
Trouble is, it doesn’t work out the way he expects, and he struggles to deal with the pity and kindness that others show towards him as a result of his behaviour. He’s clearly not alone, given the number of people who care about his well-being, and there are a few people who he cares about too. And yet he still feels so desperately lonely without the one person who matters most. So he has to learn that there is still hope and happiness out there for him, even if he doesn’t feel he deserves it.
He has quite a mixture of characters around him too, ranging from the relatively normal and sensible to the utterly weird and perverse. His colleagues at the local newspaper (played by people including Tom Basden & Diane Morgan) are a varied bunch for a start, as are the many local residents they meet in their attempts to fill the paper with any stories whatsoever. My favourite cameo in that regard is 100-year-old Rosemary in Season 2, played brilliantly by Annette Crosbie, best known as Margaret in One Foot In The Grave, and she’s very funny here too.
A much more prominent old lady, however, is Penelope Wilton. Famous for playing Ann in the 80s hit sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, here she plays the similarly named Anne, a widow who Tony befriends at the cemetery. They meet there regularly for a chat, and he often confides in her about thoughts or emotions that he’s unwilling or even frightened to admit to anyone else, including himself. And she has lots of wise words to offer in return. Meanwhile, at a younger age level, Tony is also trying to process his admiration for Emma (Ashley Jensen), a nurse at the local care home where he visits his father every day without fail, and she has to decide if it’s worth waiting for him to be in the right mindset to act on her own feelings. And then there are other characters like Pat the postman (Joe Wilkinson) and Roxy the sex worker (Roisin Conaty), who Tony encounters regularly.
The humour in the show is often very rude, and won’t be to everyone’s tastes by any means. But it’s often hilarious, and a lot of it works in the context of Tony’s mental state, or the strange behaviours of some of the other characters. And they clearly had a lot of fun making the show, as illustrated by the highly amusing (and again very rude) outtakes from seasons 1, 2 & 3, especially when Ricky breaks down in squeals of laughter, which is incredibly contagious. For example, in the Season 2 outtakes, there’s a scene where Ratty is introducing his friend in the pub with some very crass nicknames, and actor Andrew Brooke improvises more and more random insults that makes Ricky lose his mind. It’s utterly immature to the lowest possible level and not for the easily offended, but it really tickles me and many other viewers.
But while some of the comedy is sometimes totally ridiculous or coarse, Tony’s despair isn’t remotely overplayed. It’s real, it’s raw and it resonates throughout the entire series, though without being overbearing, as he navigates his way through the different stages of grief. We can all relate to him to one degree or another, especially those who have lost loved ones or close friends. Indeed, after every season Ricky has been deluged with comments from people for whom the show has been a support to their own circumstances, or who have just been deeply affected by Tony’s plight. His sadness and distress is very moving, and at his lowest points you do get scared for his welfare. It all serves as a reminder of how people can put on a front while doing their best to hide the state they’re really in, and thus how important it is to reach out to those you know or just to be there for them.
So all in all I’ve very much enjoyed it. Mixing tragedy with dark comedy is extremely difficult to pull off, and there will understandably be some who feel that the show is too sentimental or depressing, or that the humour is too crude. But like many others I feel that Ricky gets the balance right, as it’s very emotional and thought-provoking, while also being very funny.
And I think the finale wraps things up very well. I won’t give anything away, other than to say the poem read by Lisa particularly strikes a chord with me, as it was read at the funeral of a good friend of mine who also passed away from cancer 10 years ago. And overall the whole episode was very moving and poignant, bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a good place to end it, to go out on a high.
My new iPhone 13, that I bought last year and am still very happy with, came with a free trial of Apple TV+. So I activated that this month, and have been dipping into various shows to try them out. Ultimately, there’s a fairly limited range of Apple’s original content, and none of it has tempted me to take out a full subscription. There’s a lot more of interest for me on the other streaming services I already use as it is. But Apple do have some nice stuff, and full credit to them for ensuring that a lot of it is audio described as well. And out of everything I’ve looked at, I would say the top 5 shows for me are:
- The Year Earth Changed – Where David Attenborough shows us how animals reacted to the absence of humans in lockdown, often in surprising ways.
- Tiny World – Where Paul Rudd takes us into the fascinating world of smaller creatures around the planet.
- Earth At Night In Color – Where advanced camera technology allows us to see animal behaviour quite literally in a new light, narrated by Tom Hiddleston.
- Becoming You – A super-cute series narrated by Olivia Colman, giving an interesting insight into how kids develop in the first 5 years of their life.
- Fraggle Rock – I loved this show as a kid, because of all the muppets, music and mirth. So I did watch a little bit of it this month for a nostalgia kick, though I’m not going to watch the whole series. It’s the only non-Apple show on the service, because they’ve just launched a reboot, Back To The Rock, following on from the special Rock On! shorts they did in 2020. So hopefully that will bring in a new young audience to the show.
The Green Planet
Talking of nature documentaries, the BBC are of course experts in the genre, with David Attenborough presenting many of them. I haven’t seen all of them, as they’ve produced so many, but I do see the occasional series now and again. And the latest one is The Green Planet, a superbly-filmed look at the lives of plants around the world, using high definition time-lapse footage shot over several months and years, that really makes them come alive in a way that’s never been done on this scale before. It’s fascinating to see the many different strategies they have for growth, survival, defence, reproduction, etc in different environments, and the relationships they have with the animal kingdom and human beings.
- Doctor Who: Series 13 (Flux) – This month I added the Blu-ray steelbook edition of the latest series to my collection, which I had enjoyed in November. It’s got quite a few extras as well, with an audio commentary and various featurettes. Nothing as insightful as the old Confidential documentaries of course, as a lot of it is just recapping who the characters are and what the story was about. But there are still some nice behind-the-scenes glimpses, including special features by John Bishop and Mandip Gill, so they’re worth looking through.
- Countdown – This is an enjoyably tense horror film on Netflix that ticks along at a good pace, about a mobile phone app that tells you when you’re going to die, and some of the characters here don’t have very long at all. As their final moments approach, they are increasingly haunted by disturbing visions and events, and any attempt to avoid their fate just leads to their death occurring in a different manner. It’s an interesting premise that’s explored in a fun way.
- As he’s appearing in the next series of Taskmaster, I thought I would check out Chris Ramsey this month. I’ve occasionally seen him in things on TV before, but have never watched any of his full stand-up shows. And he’s very good. His observations and experiences are very funny, and he’s very good at weaving things together, so earlier gags and references come together to give a satisfying payoff later on. And so I’ve ended up watching several of his shows. First I saw his 2019 special Approval Needed on Amazon, where he talks about caravans, underpants, sex education and seagulls, among other things. Then on his Youtube channel he’s generously uploaded his 2017 show Is That Chris Ramsey? free of charge, including routines about oranges, Netflix, toilet privacy and being wrongfully arrested by armed police. Then on the strength of all that, I bought the DVD of his 2015 special All Growed Up, where he talks about games and pranks in his childhood, and how you know you’ve become an adult. And the DVD also includes a special bonus performance of his original award-nominated 2011 show, Offermation, which centres around a few round robin Christmas letters he received from a couple he didn’t know, along with mentions of social media, family holidays, a shop robbery and eating out alone, among other things. So I’ve enjoyed all of that, and some other clips of him on Youtube too.
- Ed Gamble: Blood Sugar – In this 2019 special, Ed Gamble tells funny stories about being in a metal band, farting during a massage, having diabetes, sponsoring a guide dog puppy, and his father getting a cat. He’s also going to be on Taskmaster soon, making a return appearance in the upcoming Champion Of Champions special, which I’m really looking forward to, plus he presents the podcast for the show.
- Nina Conti: In Your Face – This is a mostly improvised show, recorded when audiences were able to return to comedy venues after lockdown. It involves ventriloquist Nina Conti chatting to people with her friend Monkey, and then getting some of them on stage to wear her special masks, so that she can make them say whatever she wants as well. She’s always really good at that, and this show is no exception, it’s very funny. It’s from the second season of Soho Theatre Live, a collection of exclusive gigs filmed at the venue by several well-known comedians. So I’ve had a look through the other shows as well, most of which I didn’t get into, but Rhys James and Desiree Burch were alright too. Nina’s by far my favourite of the bunch though, and I also saw her nice documentary Her Master’s Voice, paying tribute to her mentor and lover Ken Campbell, from whom she inherited all of the dummies he’d used for his ventriloquism.
- Morecambe & Wise – Mum and I have started watching the DVD box sets of the duo I bought in November. I’m not going to mention them every month, as we’ve got lots to get through and it’ll take us quite a while. But we’re currently going through their earliest show in the ITV box set, entitled Two Of A Kind. The very first series is entirely missing, so technically it starts at Series 2 (even though it’s numbered Series 1 in the set). It’s better than we expected it to be as well. It’s not their best material, but even at this relatively early stage the pair of them are still very amusing. And they have good lively musical guests on too, better than The Two Ronnies had on their shows I would say, including jazz bands and some popular singers from the time. So the 25-minute episodes are a nice mix of music and comedy.
- QI XL – At long last we’re finally getting the extended episodes for the new S series. I saw the regular edition of the Christmas episode last month, as I was in the audience for it back in March, but I had been waiting for these longer editions in order to watch the other episodes from the series.
- I’m also enjoying the new series of 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Would I Lie To You? and The Last Leg as always. And I’ve seen all the episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? USA, hosted by Aisha Tyler, that Dave have finally caught up with and thus finished showing for the time being. Plus on the radio Mum and I have been listening to the new series of The Unbelievable Truth as usual.
I watched The National Lottery’s Big Night Of Musicals this month, hosted by Jason Manford and featuring a wonderful myriad of theatre stars. My favourite performances included those from Back To The Future (Gotta Start Somewhere), The Lion King (He Lives In You), Beauty And The Beast (title song), The Wiz (Ease On Down The Road), Dear Evan Hansen (You Will Be Found), Bat Out Of Hell (the title song of the show celebrating the late, great Meatloaf) and The Waitress (She Used To Be Mine), along with medleys from The Drifters Girl (featuring Beverley Knight), Get Up, Stand Up! – The Bob Marley Musical and Tina – The Tina Turner Musical. There were also segments about the importance of the theatre to people in many walks of life, including a nice piece about giving deaf and disabled performers the opportunity to take part in shows, with disabled actress Beth Hinton-Lever and the group Ramps On The Moon.
And finally, on the obligatory Queen related note, I watched the Planet Rock episode of Andy and the Band, a BBC children’s show, purely because Brian May was making a guest appearance as the Godfather of Rock, and played a cool song with the cast. It was silly but fun, and he was a good sport for doing that, bringing the joy of rock to the young generation.
And that’s it, I hope you enjoyed that little entertainment round-up. February is looking set to be a nice quiet month as well, so the next Favourites post will probably be in much the same vein, which is by no means a bad thing. And I hope that your year has got off to a nice start too. Stay safe!