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29 January 2016

Subtitles used to belong to art-house cinemas – now they’re everywhere, and shriek middle-class excitement

On Channel 4's new foreign drama platform Walter Presents, Spin is French and sexy, and Clan a dark Belgian comedy. Plus: The Real Marigold Hotel.

By Rachel Cooke

Stand well back. It seems that the BBC’s token efforts to get more older faces on screen are not yet, alas, at an end. No, they won’t be allowing more middle-aged women to present flagship shows. But yes, they will gladly give us pensioners doing daft things. Hard on the heels of Close to the Edge, the Bournemouth-based structured reality show, comes The Real Marigold Hotel (Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC2) in which eight ageing celebrities have been despatched to India to find out whether they might like to retire there.

“Will the challenges of India prove a step too far?” said the voice-over, as our contestants dusted down their arthritic egos and prepared to eat curry. Eh? What challenges? Holed up in a Jaipur haveli with hot and cold running servants, this three-week gig is a Saga holiday gone very right. It’s warm, it’s comfortable, and when they’re all enjoying an evening drink on the roof terrace, none of them is likely to be much troubled, what with the endless drone of the traffic below, by the sound of Miriam Margolyes breaking wind (“I do fart, and they just have to accept that,” said the 74-year-old actor).

In any case, they’re a resourceful lot, able to amuse themselves. The darts player Bobby George (70) has brought along his arrows, and the dancer Wayne Sleep (67) has brought his tap shoes – and should their party pieces wear thin, well, everyone can always stare at 61-year-old Patti Boulaye’s eyeshadow, which can be seen from Delhi on a clear night.

Also in the haveli: the former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy (72), Roy Walker (75), the former host of Catchphrase, the former newsreader Jan Leeming (74) and Rosemary Shrager, a cook (65). Thus far, we’ve had no reported sightings of McCoy’s sonic screwdriver. But if Margolyes refers to her role as Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films one more time, he might have no choice but to get it out.

I was about to ask: who’s going to win? But then I remembered: this isn’t a competition – though that’s not to say the celebrities aren’t treating it like one. Leeming’s suitcase contains more costume jewellery than the average branch of Accessorize, while Margolyes has cunningly deployed a ­bottle of whisky to distract her new pals from her dislike of “sharing food”, and will be keeping back her secret stash of Vegemite.

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Worst of all is Shrager, who is determined to butch it out in the kitchen whatever the temperature (hot as Hades, judging by her raspberry face). When the haveli’s residents decided to host a party for their neighbours, she made, God alone knows how, a batch of vol-au-vents. You’ve never seen a bunch of more unnerved-looking Indians than the ones who attended this peculiar gathering – though it may have been Sleep’s tap dancing, and not Shrager’s finger food, that was  the cause of their bewilderment. Showtime! Now I think about it, his grin was kind of alarming.

What to make of Walter Presents, Channel 4’s new, free online streaming service for the best TV from around the world? It seemed too good to be true to me, but there really is no catch – unless you count the ad breaks, which are long and pretty annoying if you’re used to Netflix, which is ad-free. All this stuff to see: so much stuff, in fact, that it is difficult to know where to start.

Up to now, I’ve had mixed results. Kabul Kitchen, a French “comedy” set in Afghanistan, is the polar opposite of funny (oh, but would you just look at that man giving his adult daughter a good, hard slap! Isn’t that hilarious?). But I’m quite keen on the trashy political drama Spin (also French). It’s so sexy: an oyster-coloured silk slip to the high-collared, brushed-cotton nightie that was Borgen.

And there is much more to come. I can’t wait for the Swedish series Blue Eyes (political intrigue, murders, corruption), or Clan, a Belgian black comedy about five sisters (it’s not so much Desperate Housewives on acid as Desperate Housewives on moules-frites). How strange the world is. Subtitles used to be found only in art-house cinemas, a signifier of the earnest, the gloomy and the pseudo-intellectual. Now, they’re everywhere, and shriek middle-class excitement. In their ropey translations lies all our hope for the winter nights ahead. 

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This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?