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8 April 2020

The bizarre and bland world of lockdown TV

From Sandi Toksvig's ironing to Anton Du Beke's soft furnishings: in these strange times, we crave the slightly boring. 

By Rachel Cooke

I want whatever it is that Angela Rippon’s having. Seriously. What on earth is she on? And in this sad and enervating lockdown, too. Her perky smile, her frisky leopard-print blouses, her brisk questions; truly, there are moments when she puts TV presenters half her age (she is 75) to shame. And then there’s her back: upright still, as Dickens said of David Copperfield’s aunt Betsey Trotwood in her old age. Rippon exercises every day, and should she happen to decide to flip an ankle up onto a ballet barre – look out, there it goes! – she might as well be tossing a pancake, so nonchalantly does she do it. 

What makes her competence and vitality all the more striking, at least when it comes to the BBC’s new coronavirus daytime commission, Health CheckUK Live, is the utter woefulness of her co-presenters, Michelle Ackerley and Dr Xand van Tulleken – a couple whose small talk is only about half a degree warmer than their resting faces (in which you could store vodka). While the two of them can kill any interview at 100 paces – not that this show is exactly full of scoops; had Ben Fogle not been talking to them about endurance via the internet, they would probably have tried to kiss his signet ring in their excitement at his mere presence – Rippon somehow makes even the cheesiest guests tolerable. “Hello, poppet,” she says, as Emily Maitlis never would. 

If she has a failing, it’s that she is too polite – or perhaps I just mean kind. I still don’t know how, on the day I watched, she managed to keep quiet about the pelmet we could see in Anton Du Beke’s living room (the Strictly star was on to discuss living in isolation with small twins, and to do a few dance steps, for added cheeriness). His house seemed perfectly ordinary: telly, side table, bay window. His pelmet, on the other hand, was completely extraordinary: nine parts Louis Quatorze to one part Homebase. What on earth was its fringe made of? Claudia Schiffer’s plaits? I wish she had enquired. 

But this is the thing about live lockdown TV. The interiors! Just as we’re all learning to communicate via Zoom, and wondering why our boss has, say, an inflatable squirrel in his sitting room, so the nation’s television presenters and their hapless guests are also busy coming to terms with remote working. Steph McGovern, for instance, is hosting her new daily Channel 4 show (The Steph Show) live from her home in Yorkshire, a move that Mary Beard is apparently set to follow when the egregious Front Row Late returns later this month. Could such a homely innovation end up revolutionising the chat show format? Somehow, I doubt it. Wandering from kitchen counter to sofa, laptop in hand, the figure McGovern brings most strongly to mind is Alan Partridge (I’m thinking of the caravan years). When I tuned in, she first interviewed Sandi Toksvig, who revealed – hold the thumb screws – that she’d recently done some ironing. Then she chatted to some refuse collectors. “Has everyone got… a lot more rubbish?” asked Steph, uncertainly. “Er, yeah,” replied one of them. Blimey. Even Partridge would have done better than this. (“Can I just ask you, Dave: have you ever found any sex toys in someone’s dustbin?”) 

Where to find refuge in such a sea of bland? In these strange times, we might crave the slightly boring. But we’ll still swerve to avoid the actively irritating. Lots of people – about six million of them – are watching The Repair Shop (repeats by day, the new series by night), in which the public brings its tatty heirlooms to a Sussex barn (think the Bake Off tent, with lathes rather than Kitchen Aids) so they can be repaired by experts. And it’s not too hard to see why. What’s lovely about this show – the sort of creaky specimen that, in 1983, would have been on just after Pebble Mill at One and just before Sons & Daughters – is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with money; the old musical boxes and peeling leather chairs, the spotted portraits and smashed stained glass windows are of sentimental value only to their owners. Thanks to this, I find it soothing in the extreme. I like the experts with their luxuriant beards and their metal rulers, their tiny brushes and their mouths full of upholstery tacks; it makes me want to don a leather apron (and why not? it could be a good Zoom talking point). 

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But I must admit that my current televisual scented candle is the BBC’s adaptation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, a 12 part series that was released early on iPlayer when the schools closed. My niece, E, put me on to it, having repeatedly binge-watched it to the degree that she already knows some bits by heart – though I was reluctant at first, partly because I never favoured these stories as a girl (for boarding school high jinks, I preferred The Four Marys in Bunty), and partly because, well, I felt a bit weird about watching a CBBC series on my own, without the excuse of a child. But I’m glad that I gave in. It’s completely adorable, and I feel, if only I can ration myself, that it will see me through the next week. 

While its writers, Sasha Hails and Rachel Flowerday, have kept faith with its essence – here are dorms and prep, midnight feasts and lacrosse – they’ve also added a delectable splash of feminism; Malory Towers’ headteacher, Miss Grayling, tells her girls expressly that she hopes they will go on to “forge new futures”. Ella Bright as Darrell Rivers, our hot-headed-but-essentially-good-hearted new girl, is gorgeous; and how joyous to find This Country’s Ashley McGuire (in which she plays Mandy) as Matron. My advice is: prepare yourself a small tuck box, and settle in, alone or with the smaller females in your household. Here is humour and stoicism, friendship and boisterous fun: all the things, in other words, that we need right now. It takes you away – not to a better time, precisely, but to a realm where nothing truly bad will ever happen, and in which patience and kindness always win the day.  

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