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Bad summer telly

Unseasonable weather wouldn’t be so bad if there was something decent on telly.

Usually, bad summer telly doesn’t matter. It’s the season for getting enough outside stuff done to earn nine months’ indoor sloth. There are streets of Christmas lights to admire, beaches to clean up, mosquitos to repel. (Is it just me, or have they been particularly vicious this year?) But this summer just wasn’t. Perhaps the country’s TV programmers should involve Niwa: if it’s a La Niña year, put some decent shows on.

Instead, the 2011/12 season was handed over, almost entirely it seemed, to Come Dine with Me. The UK series in which five guests take turns to host one another for dinner in an effort to win £1000 was on TV1 every weeknight, as well as the regular Saturday morning omnibus. Nearly a full five hours each week of unself-aware Brits sniping at each other and flaunting bizarre food prejudices with pride.

On the other hand, it wasn’t Two and a Half Men, which ran only twice a week. And Come Dine with Me has a certain allure, thanks to its narration by actor Dave Lamb (The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle), who mostly ad-libs his reactions to the contestants. It makes watching feel as though you’re sitting with a particularly acerbic friend. Who’d rather be out smoking.

“Shuuuuut uuuuuup”, he’ll moan, over footage of some incorrigible wine bore being boring. Or, with the perfect level of bitchiness, “what a surpriiise”, as some blowsy tart (there’s always one in each group of five) mentions yet another thing she won’t eat.

It is, like Four Weddings (another weekend treat), a chance to laugh at the tacky and classless. The woman who claims to be a great foodie but can’t pronounce dauphinoise, or the guy who likes his steak well done. Each group usually contains one contestant who’s actually a good cook, but is totally under-appreciated because the show isn’t really about food. The recent “celebrity” edition featured former Page 3 girl Abi Titmuss, who despite displaying her FHM covers and erotica round the house, turned out to have more taste than any of them. As she moaned to camera between courses of her impressive made-from-scratch menu, “It’s like trying to please a bunch of philistines.”

Which is, of course, the point. Disappointingly, Lamb could go quiet when one of the contestants really deserved it – the same edition featured former England footballer Rodney Marsh, whose idea of a conversation starter was to ask his fellow dinner guests whether, on boarding a jumbo jet and seeing two female pilots in the cockpit, they’d get off again. Because, as everyone knows, female pilots go to Female Pilot School, where the qualifications are inferior.

For more laughing at philistines, see Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The co-creators of The Office and Extras have, since 2001, made The Ricky Gervais Show, the most-downloaded podcast ever, featuring them talking to Karl Pilkington. American network HBO animated several of the podcasts, making a TV series with the look of an old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

It could be a lovely mesh of a very new medium, podcasting, with a very old one, animation – but really, it’s money for old rope, as Gervais himself has gleefully admitted.

Viewers familiar with Pilkington from An Idiot Abroad know what to expect. In that series, Gervais and Merchant got mileage from trying to please their pet philistine with the wonders of the world. He likened Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer to a pylon. In the first episode of The Ricky Gervais Show, he’s less concerned with female pilots than he is with planes themselves, claiming they’re a useless invention as they only take people places they’ll need jabs for. You can see where the germ of An Idiot Abroad came from. He also insists procreation is inefficient, and that women should just have fully formed babies inside them to take their place when they die, thereby only replacing themselves.

You get the picture. These musings are beautifully animated, but this is really a freak show: step right up to see the Idiot Man of Manchester! Gervais and Merchant have insisted that Pilkington is not a character they’ve created and Pilkington himself suggests he is how you find him.

Which only makes them all the more cruel in their goading him to let his mouth bypass his brain and claim, for instance, that nothing of note was invented after 1900 – only for Gervais to call him “a little round-headed buffoon”.

They’ve made their bread and butter on a delicious mix of cruelty and sharp insight: this show tips the scales too far one way, and you can only hope Pilkington is getting a decent cut of the old rope.

THE RICKY GERVAIS SHOW, TV3, Sunday, 11.15pm.