TV column: Great British Bake Off, Porridge, Ripper Street, ITV ‘switch off’

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his view of some of the recent events on television.

The Olympics are over and having had our fill of Taekwondo, table-tennis and synchronised snorkelling for another four years, it’s time to get back to some serious telly.

As a TV spectacle, the Rio Olympics has to go down as one of the limper affairs in recent Olympiads. Not helped by the time difference, the avid enthusiast had to either be a shift worker or an insomniac to get the full benefit, but the BBC’s decision to put a catch-up highlights show on before midnight just as the day’s live action was getting into full swing was one of the stranger scheduling decisions.

Rio meant that many new series were held back a few weeks and we now have a harvest time bounty of new offerings, promising an autumn glut with which to break the summer telly fast.

The Great British Bake Off (BBC1) is back with a bang and breaking audience ratings. It’s a bit early in the run to know the contestants’ personalities just yet, so we have to make do with Mel and Sue, the innuendo twins, and their Carry On Up The Kitchen routine.

It will be a few weeks before we get familiar with this year’s baking dozen and find out which one will get a national newspaper column, a go on Desert Island Discs and their own TV show just for baking a few cakes, such is all-consuming prestige of Bake Off, whose winning honour now slips in somewhere between a knighthood and Groom of the Stool.

I’m probably out of touch with the massed ranks of TV critics who think Bake Off is the best thing since, well, sliced bread, but it’s already passed its best.

The first two episodes had little real drama or entertainment other than the schadenfreude of laughing at someone dropping their buns on the floor or their gingerbread church falling in – and the high water mark for schadenfreude on TV was back in 1978 with The Generation Game. Bake Off is stale bread, a tired metaphor for the state of innovation in contemporary British television.

As if to hammer the last nail into the coffin on innovation and creativity, some burnt out spark has decided to blow the dust of the 1970s comedy classic, Porridge (BBC1).

Written by the original pairing of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, Porridge 2016 lacked everything its 1976 predecessor had. Bereft of wit, charm and Ronnie Barker’s brilliant timing, the reboot is a clunking, witless, charmless and unfunny reincarnation, relying on canned laughter to punctuate the script so the audience know when to laugh.

Bucking the downward spiral trend that goes with longevity is Ripper Street (BBC1). Now in its fourth season, Ripper Street has sharpened its dramatic teeth and is now confidently going with character as much as plot, a sure sign of quality writing.

Now in 1897, Reid is back from self-imposed retirement, but the friction with his once junior, but now replacement, Drake, is going to be the backbone of the series. Jackson, the pioneering pathologist, continues to be the most interesting character of them all.

Episode one, typical of most opening episodes nowadays, was a bit long on exposition in looking to hook any new viewers, but the second was griping, with Jackson attempting to save his wife from the gallows.

In a vain attempt to get some fleeting publicity on the back of Team GB’s Olympic success, ITV switched off its channels for an hour on Saturday morning, inviting its audience to go and try some sport instead.

Under the inevitable hashtag – you can’t do anything without a hashtag now – ITV ran their #IAmTeamGB stunt and almost hundreds of regular Saturday morning viewers missed their weekly re-runs of Murder She Wrote, Coronation Street, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and a sanitised Sweeney.

Not to be undone, the tenacious couch-potatoes refused to be seduced into to any form of physical activity other than reaching to the remote control. Some 60,000 intrepid souls stuck to their task and watched the whole one-hour test card. Innovation, determination, fortitude and stamina – the Olympic spirit indeed.