TV COLUMN: Dark Angel, The Choir: Gareth’s Best in Britain, BBC 80th anniversary

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies takes a look at this week’s television.

If you’ve ever considered the ‘get rich quick’ plan or doing away with a spouse or two, or three, or even four, and collecting on the life insurance then you’re probably a hundred and fifty years too late. Forensic science and a general scepticism against coincidence would get you after the first, if not the second.

Not so for Mary Ann Cotton, the subject of Dark Angel (ITV), the true story dramatisation of the women reputed to be Britain’s first serial killer during the mid-nineteenth century.

Cotton popped them off ding-dong. Along with her babies dying of natural causes, the husbands dying from causes of the unnatural variety, Cotton kept up a body count of which Rambo would have been proud.

It was a bit of a mixed bag. The serial killer genre needs a bit of the psycho about it. A bit of chill with the steel. Dark Angel had a tad too much sympathetic social realism about it, suggesting that given sufficient poverty and some bad luck, the murdering of your nearest, if not dearest, would be the easiest way to keep the wolf from the door.

Clumsy editing made time difficult to keep track of, suggesting Cotton was doing away with them behind the cover of the ad break. In between, it dragged, with just the odd punctuation of Cotton finding a quiet corner for a bit of respite adultery.

The two ninety minute episodes are too much and a single two-hour drama would have been more effective. Still, it does mean you can tune in next week to see husbands three and four get their unjust desserts. As they used to say, take care of the poisons, and the pounds will take care of themselves.

Gareth Malone, the nation’s favourite choirmaster, is back for another go, this time with the ironically titled The Choir: Gareth’s Best in Britain (BBC2).

Malone is enthusiastic and engaging, and previous series have brought some incredibly moving moments. The Military Wives series was as poignant as reality TV can get and last year’s Sons of Pitches had genuine talent. If this first week is really as good as ‘Gareth’s Best’ can get, then it’s going to be a long haul.

The choirs couldn’t sing and any remnants of personality and charisma had been sucked out of the singing rooms. Unless crying to camera is up for an award, then there’s little reason to grin and bear it to the bitter end.

Malone’s face said it all. You had to feel for him. He’s made choral singing cool outside of gospel churches and the Welsh valleys. He’s got his work cut out this time.

BBC television is eighty years old this week. Often criticised – it makes for an all-too-easy target to hit most weeks – nonetheless, we’re probably all-the-better for its being there. Even in an age of mega-bucks production of online streaming, the BBC at its best is still top notch.

The BBC canon over the eight years is staggering and running over with quality. When you think of the ‘best’ of any television genre over time, the Beeb has got a contender in them all. Best children’s TV? Bagpuss, Rhubarb and Custard, The Wombles, Blue Peter?

Best TV comedy? Porridge, Faulty Towers, Yes Minister, Only Fools and Horses, Butterflies…the list is endless. Drama? Simply too many to mention – and productions such as this year’s The Night Manager show it’s still got the legs.

Then there’s the BBC news output, live broadcasting, sport, science and natural history, music and the arts.

What are you favourite BBC television programmes of the last eighty years?

Just for a week, I’ll give the Beeb a break. It’s earned it and a moment for appreciation doesn’t hurt.

But the gloves are back off next week though…