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Rachel Cooke reviews "Goodnight Britain" and "The Dark Ages: an Age of Light".

Goodnight Britain

The Dark Ages: an Age of Light

There’s nothing worse than a good idea badly done. The BBC has a new show about sleep problems and how they may be resolved. On paper, this should read sure-fire ratings hit. Most people are obsessed with sleep in one way or another. Not to be unladylike but I would love to know how snoring is best cured. Do those Robbie Fowler-style Band-Aid things work? And what about mobile phones? I am convinced that mine causes insomnia, which is why I put it in the biscuit tin every night.

Alas, Goodnight Britain (28-29 November, 9pm) is so awful, it might work as a cure for one of the conditions it aims to treat: insomnia. Dull doesn’t even begin to describe it; I’ve seen more interesting tea towels. The format, stolen from the home of dross that is current Channel 4, is “reality lite”, by which I mean that the science bits, in as much as they exist at all, are made more palatable (supposedly) by some human guinea pigs; these people are not contestants exactly but they must be prepared for a certain amount of humiliation. So meet Sheila, who has a pathological desire to bake cakes until 4am; Gwen, who has chronic insomnia; Paul, whose snoring is so bad, it may be heard in Tashkent; Chris, whose shift work has buggered his body clock; and Kathryn, who talks and walks in her sleep. (“You’re my fibble!” she could be heard shouting, when a camera was placed in her bedroom. She then began muttering about a child who had died. No wonder her flatmate was freaked out.)

The experts were Kirstie Anderson, a neurologist, and Jason Ellis, director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research. They’re knowledgeable and sympathetic but this is prime time, so they had to put up with some help from Sian Williams, whose sole qualification for her role seemed to be that she used to have to get up very early to present the BBC’s Breakfast. Williams’s presence was hugely distracting. Mostly, she wandered about the grounds of the “sleep house” where our patients were berthed for the night doing nothing very much at all that was useful. She looked great in her cigarette pants and heels but they did jar rather, given that this was a pyjama-based show.

Oh, yes. Our experts had also been given a “sleep-mobile”: an old-fashioned Winnebago that, having been kitted out with all sorts of whizzy equipment, was used for consultations as well as surveillance outside patients’ homes (no point in wasting BBC resources, after all). The patients had to walk from the sleep house to sleep-mobile accompanied by two whitecoated assistants – they suffer from sleep problems, not congenital stupidity! – and then hunker inside it, Sylvanian Families-style.

It was undignified and exceedingly dumb. The result was that you cared not at all whether the volunteers would ever achieve the holy grail of a few uninterrupted hours. Though they did, thanks to some careful sleep “hygiene” (translation: tidy your bedroom, turn down the central heating and turn off your computer) and a special Darth Vader mask for Paul (no, I’m not wearing one of those, not ever). At which point, Sian appeared by moonlight and gave her butter-soft leather jacket one last talky turn in the undergrowth.

Meanwhile, on BBC4, Waldemar Januszczak has begun an attempt to cure us of a different affliction: our attitude towards those whom history calls “barbarians” (Tuesdays, 9pm). According to Januszczak, who is working his way through the “lexicon of hate spawned by the Dark Ages”, the Huns had a way with jewellery, the Vandals wrote poetry and the Goths, let loose with a few mosaic tiles, were apt to decorate the ceiling very beautifully.

There are those who think Januszczak has Philistine tendencies of his own but I am not one of them. When Jonathan Meades is off the air (most of the time, sadly), what else can one do but rely on pale-ish imitations? Januszczak is a little shouty but I like his enthusiastic waddle and his deadpan delivery. In Hungary, he met a man called Janos Kasci who is attempting to reconstruct Attila’s long lost palace, a construction that resembled a yurt on speed. No twitch of a smile, Januszczak’s face might have been carved in stone, like a gargoyle on some Gothic cathedral.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril