Strictly Come Dancing returns and exploration of George Michael: TV highlights this week
Strictly Come Dancing (Saturday 16/09/23, BBC One, 6.35pm)
Words by Sarah Morgan
Polish those glitterballs, make sure your sequins are sparkling and brace yourself for the most glamorous night of the year.
Yes, it’s the moment fans have been waiting for ever since Hamza Yassin and Jowita Przystal lifted the trophy to rapturous applause in last year’s final – Strictly is back for its 21st series and, on paper at least, it looks like being a cracker.
Let’s face it, every year, there’s always a participant or three who aren’t quite as famous as the rest. Funnily enough, Yassin was in that category in 2022, but the audience fell in love with the wildlife cameraman’s gentle nature which, alongside his obvious natural rhythm and dance style, helped him sweep to victory.
This year’s cohort, however, has more big names than ever before. Actors Amanda Abbington, Adam Thomas, Bobby Brazier, Ellie Leach, Layton Williams and Nigel Harman will compete against presenters Angela Rippon, Angela Scanlon, Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Nikita Kanda and Zara McDermott. The rest of the line-up is comprised of ex-tennis star Annabel Croft, comedian Eddie Kadi, Paralympian Jody Cundy and all-round entertainment legend Les Dennis.
The last on the list was also the final celebrity to be revealed. He seems a good fit for the show, the only surprise being that he hasn’t taken part before.
“I’m thrilled to be doing this iconic wonderful show as I approach my 70th birthday!” laughed the former Family Fortunes host when the announcement was made during an edition of ITV1’s Good Morning Britain. “In my career I’ve always gone for challenges outside my comfort zone and this is the ultimate one! Can’t wait.”
Abbington, who’s best known for her roles in Sherlock, Mr Selfridge and Desperate Measures, was the first name out of the hat, saying: “I’m thrilled to have been asked to do Strictly. I’m actually really shy and self-conscious so this will be a great opportunity for me to overcome those things! Plus, I get to learn to dance which I am incredibly excited about. I’m really looking forward to the training too, I’m quite competitive as my family and friends will tell you. I can’t wait to start!”
Of course, they all say such things before the hard work begins. Even those who have been avid viewers of the show are shocked by the physical demands made on them. The person who deals with them the best – while also gaining a rapport with those watching at home – will be the one who lifts the famous glitterball trophy in December.
Another crucial aspect to their success will be how they get on with their professional partner. We’ll find out who they’re all paired with in tonight’s programme, hosted by Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman.
Also present will be judges Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood, Motsi Mabuse and Anton du Beke, who get a chance to see the celebs in action when they take to the floor for the first time in a group dance.
After that, the real hard work begins ahead of next week’s first live show. If the celebs are nervous this time around, they ain’t seen nothing yet…
George Michael: Portrait of an Artist (Sunday 17/09/23, Channel 4, 9pm)
Words by Rachael Popow
There’s no doubt that George Michael had an incredible career.
The singer-songwriter, who was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, became a star in the early 1980s as one-half of Wham!, who were hugely popular thanks to catchy hits like Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and Club Tropicana but were never taken particularly seriously by the critics.
Not that they seemed unduly bothered by that. George’s bandmate and old school friend Andrew Ridgeley recently told The Guardian: “The only people that mattered were the people who were buying records. It was a source of bemusement that the music press had turned on us, but we also understood that the music press took itself very seriously.”
However, it still took some of the cynics by surprise when George went solo and realised the world-conquering album Faith in 1987. In the US, it spawned four number one singles and went onto sell a staggering 25 million copies worldwide.
The critics were now forced to take him seriously, especially as he continued to rack up hits.
Then in 1998, he was arrested for “engaging in a lewd act” in a public toilet in Beverly Hills. It could have spelled the end of his career, but instead George was able to take control of the narrative by refusing to be shamed – he even released a video, Outside, satirising the incident.
So, with an army of loyal fans and a fascinating life story, it’s no surprise that in the years since his death in 2016, at the age of just 53, he has attracted the attention of documentary-makers.
This year alone, we’ve had Wham! on Netflix, which explored his boyband days, and Channel 4’s Outed, which focused on how he dealt with the 1998 arrest.
Now though, we are getting the even more ambitious George Michael: Portrait of an Artist, which aims to be the definitive take on his life and work.
Directed and produced by Simon Napier-Bell, the former manager of Wham!, it explores how George rose to fame and how he managed to stay at the top for so long.
However, there was an undoubted cost to superstardom, and the film explores how George struggled with his sexuality and the pressures of fame.
To explore his life and artistry, the film draws on an eclectic line-up of contributors, ranging from Andrew Ridgeley and Stevie Wonder to Piers Morgan and Richard Madeley, as well as a candid interview with George’s partner, Kenny Goss.
They’ll be sharing their memories of the man and his music and revealing why they think his legacy continues to endure.
And it seems the contributors are pleased with the end result. Stephen Fry, who is among the interviews says of the documentary: “The wonderful, tender, crazy, tormented, wise, intensely lovable George breaks through the screen to win you all over again. Such angelic talent, such devilish mischief, such a fragile soul. This film, like George himself, pulls you from laughter to sobs.”
Jimmy Doherty’s New Zealand Escape (Monday 18/09/23, Channel 4, 8pm)
Words by Richard Jones
Back in 2015, Jimmy Doherty travelled Down Under to film his travel documentary series Jimmy’s Australian Food Adventure.
Now, eight years on, the farmer and food lover is visiting the Aussies’ Antipodean neighbour New Zealand, to shine a light on a country which he believes is home to some of the planet’s finest and most surprising foods.
When asked why he chose the ‘land of the long white cloud’ as his destination, Jimmy explained to Stuff: “I thought it’d be a fantastic thing to do because I think, for most Brits these days, and when I started, you have a sort of a very narrow view of New Zealand.
“We get snippets of news and often see how progressive New Zealand is, but we still have this stereotypical view of it.
“I’ve done lots of shows about agriculture in the past and, obviously, loads of shows on food and that’s often a gateway into a culture.
“I jumped at the chance because I thought lots of people have done tours of New Zealand before, but not necessarily from the grassroots level.
“The other thing I like about it is you can walk through New Zealand without worrying about getting bitten by a poisonous snake. When you go to Australia, everything wants to kill you.”
During the four-part series, Jimmy will travel from New Zealand’s frozen south to the tropical north, exploring the extraordinary beauty of Kiwi-dom as the country shakes itself from its world-shunning Covid lock out.
Along the way he meets, works alongside, and mixes with the farmers and produce-makers who are turning their passion for great food into an enviable lifestyle.
In tonight’s first edition, he sets off from the southernmost island of New Zealand, where he learns to gravity-fish in the pristine waters off Stewart Island.
Then, after a ride on a beach motorcycle to a women-only farm that specialises in sheep and deer, he heads inland to New Zealand’s oldest distillery, and discovers that they are still making superb malt whisky.
Despite being well travelled and hosting the likes of Jimmy’s Farm, Food Unwrapped and Friday Night Feast with his childhood friend Jamie Oliver down the years, the 48-year-old presenter admits he had his eyes well and truly opened on the trip.
Perhaps his biggest takeaway is how New Zealand is incorporating te ao Māori more into people’s thoughts about the natural world, concepts he’d like to see spread wider.
“The one thing that really struck me is the idea that a river or a mountain is its own being.
“And I think from a Western culture it’s always seen as just a resource to harvest.
“By giving something an identity and affording it the respect it deserves, then we talk about preserving our natural resources. It makes perfect sense.
“We talk about the natural world as a bank that we all write a cheque from and you can’t exhaust it. And I think you guys really understand that.”
Secrets of the Universe with Tim Peake (Tuesday 19/09/23, Channel 5, 9pm)
Words by Sarah Morgan
He’s Major Tim rather than Major Tom, but Tim Peake is a real-life Starman.
In 2016, during his sojourn at the International Space Station, the British astronaut paid tribute to David Bowie after learning of his death. You could even say he was sitting in a tin can, far above the world, at the time.
Now, with his feet firmly on terra firma these days, Peake is no longer a Space Oddity. Instead, he’s a familiar face thanks to the numerous talks and interviews he’s given about his experiences. And he’s about to introduce viewers to the universe outside the Earth’s atmosphere in a new three-part series, the latest in a series of exciting commissions from Channel 5.
In recent months we’ve been treated to the dramas Blindspot and The Inheritance, as well as factual programmes fronted by Ruby Wax and Jay Blades, as well as numerous documentaries.
“Our aim is to deliver an exciting, diverse and eclectic schedule of originated content for our viewers that reinforces our public service remit, whilst demonstrating how the creative and the commercial can work hand-in-hand to make exciting and rewarding television,” says Ben Frow, Chief Content Officer, UK, for Paramount, who own the broadcaster. “Of course, it always helps to be working with such stellar talent!”
Describing Peake as a ‘stellar talent’ is rather fitting – after all, he’s come closer to the stars than any other Briton, apart from Helen Sharman, the Sheffielder who was the first person from our shores to visit space back in 1991. Rosemary Coogan, an astrophysicist from Northern Ireland, will be the third, while John McFall, a former Paralympic sprinter, has been selected to become the first disabled astronaut.
Whether Coogan or McFall were inspired by Peake’s explorations is unknown, but he’s hoping his new career as a TV presenter may have an influence on youngsters considering the sciences – and a possible spell in space – as a career. He believes in dreaming big, and lives by his own mantra: “don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do anything.”
According to Channel 5, his series aims to deliver a “fun, action-packed and family-friendly exploration of our universe,” and is split into three subjects: the planets, stars and black holes, and space missions, each of which will have its own dedicated episode.
Along the way, Peake aims to answer such questions as what are stars made from? What is a black hole? And how far have humans gone in space? He also reveals why some planets have rings and the reason that Venus glows, using hi-tech graphics and CGI to bring his explanations and stories to life.
But that’s not all he’ll be getting up to. On the agenda are journeys to some extraordinary places – all of which can be found on our own planet, but are the best stargazing spots in the world; he also visits a laboratory that, incredibly, claims to be able to make stars.
It’s clear that, if you want a truly out-of-this-world experience while Peake-ing at the galaxy, Major Tim’s is the show to watch.
Chris Packham: Is it Time to Break the Law? (Wednesday 20/09/23, Channel 4, 9pm)
In his role as one of the best-loved and most respected wildlife and nature presenters on TV, Chris Packham feels it is his duty to help protect our planet.
He has spent his lifetime committed to cherishing and celebrating the natural world, but climate change is now threatening the very thing he loves the most. So what can what he, and the rest of us, do to save it? Does extreme need require extreme measures? Would more disruptive protest methods finally force governments into action?
Facing the stark fact that decades of peaceful protesting has not managed to drive real and systemic change toward halting climate change, Chris is now asking himself and viewers the shocking question – Is it Time to Break the Law?
The history of successful protest movements in the past has often included law-breaking.
The Suffragettes damaged property, and chained themselves to railings and Gandhi was repeatedly imprisoned for defying British laws.
And some climate change activists now believe the situation is so dire that it is time to follow their example.
Chris, who is also President of the RSPCA, meets activists and environmentalists, including Swedish author Andreas Malm, as well as politicians and police officers, in his mission to explore this most timely of debates.
As protestors continue to break the law, and be imprisoned for it, and as changes to British law make it harder to protest, Chris considers their impact on the climate movement and questions whether more people should be joining them.
Chris says: “Scientists, activists and naturalists like myself have been delving deep into the pressing issues surrounding the climate crisis for decades, shedding light on the disheartening reality that governments continue to fall short on their environmental promises…
“Peaceful protest has been a cornerstone of activism, but as the urgency grows, we must question whether it is enough.
“What will compel decision-makers to listen and take decisive action? The time for complacency has long passed, and it is up to us to drive a tornado of change that cannot be ignored. Our planet’s survival depends on it.”
It’s fair to say that while most people usually agree with the 62-year-old’s views on the natural world, some of his recent opinions on activism have caused controversy.
The presenter has voiced his support of eco-protest groups Just Stop Oil, Animal Rising and Extinction Rebellion, whose activists have variously hurled soup at Old Master painters and disrupted events including Premier League matches, the World Snooker Championship, the Grand National and the Chelsea Flower Show.
When Packham appeared at a Just Stop Oil protest on The Strand to film this documentary, his appearance was heralded by the group.
Chris has also sparked an impartiality row at the BBC after urging his Twitter followers to join an Extinction Rebellion demo in the capital.
In addition, he praised two JSO protesters who were jailed for scaling the Dartford Crossing Bridge in Kent and asked his followers to donate funds to Animal Rising to pay for repairs to houses damaged by police raids.
During his life, Chris has been committed to the idea that we must protest peacefully and within the law.
However, a lack of action has prompted him to consider the tactics of protestors, and change his own approach – whether that lands him in hot water or not.
Taskmaster (Thursday 21/09/23, Channel 4, 9pm)
Words by Rachael Popow
When Taskmaster launched back in 2015, few people realised just how much mileage there was in the format.
Now that doesn’t mean that the first series – which gave us such incredible sights as Frank Skinner and Rob Beckett trying to paint the best picture of a horse while simultaneously riding one – wasn’t hugely entertaining. However, any show that relies on dreaming up ridiculous tasks and then convincing a group of famous comedians to have a go at them would seem to have a limited shelf-life.
Fortunately, it turns out that we’re nowhere near to running out of either challenges or willing contestants, as this week Taskmaster returns for sixteenth run.
As ever, Greg Davies will be taking on the role of the Taskmaster, doling out the points as the contestants compete to what is supposed to be a bust of his head (although he has admitted that it doesn’t really look like him).
At his side is his trusty assistant (and the creator of the show – Taskmaster started life as his 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival Show) ‘Little’ Alex Horne, who will once again be reminding the contestants that all the information they need is on written on the task.
The class of 2023 should all have a very good idea what they are letting themselves in for – after all there are 15 previous series for them to catch up on – but a couple of this year’s hopefuls will also have insider information.
Sue Perkins is among the contenders, and her comedy partner, Mel Giedroyc, took part back in season four. (She lost to another Bake Off presenter Noel Fielding, but seemed to enjoy the Taskmaster experience so much, she was given a special individual task just so Alex and Greg could see her get frustrated.)
Meanwhile, comedian and Hullraisers creator Lucy Beaumont is married to Jon Richardson, who took part way back in series two (won by Katherine Ryan).
They’ll be going up against comedian and performer Julian Clary, stand-up Sam Campbell, whose previous credits include Bloods, and writer, director and Cheaters star Susan Wokoma.
But who will follow in the footsteps of reigning champion Mae Martin, who displayed remarkable grace under pressure? And will any of the team tasks prove as endearing as the odd couple dynamic between Frankie Boyle and Ivo Graham?
We’ll get our first inkling tonight as everyone tries to get a big duck into a lake. Meanwhile, Lucy is stunned by a canned blindfold, and Greg and Alex come to blows over peas.
And just in case a new run isn’t quite enough Taskmaster for you, not only have Channel 4 signed up for six more series, it’s also launching a junior version, hosted by former contestants Rose Matafeo and Mike Wozniak.
As Alex says: “I’ve watched many, many comedians flounder when given simple instructions over the past few years and I fully expect the competitors in Junior Taskmaster to be both more competent and just as funny.”
Amazing Railway Adventures with Nick Knowles (Friday 22/09/23, Channel 5, 9pm)
Words by Rachael Popow
Nick Knowles is probably best known as the presenter of DIY SOS, but when it comes to TV, he’s really a bit of a jack-of-all-trades.
As he told The Metro in an interview last year: “Over the years I’ve popped into all kinds of places: history, interviews, I wrote a movie, I’ve done quiz shows and natural history.
“In the noughties I did lots of holiday programmes [and I’d] wanted to do more travel shows for a while.”
The presenter also has a passion for trains, which comes from his dad. He told The Metro: “We lived in Southall in London and he’d take me to a metal footbridge with holes in the middle. We’d watch the steam locomotives run by underneath and we’d disappear in a cloud of steam.”
So, it’s easy to see why he signed up for the Channel 5 series Amazing Railway Adventures with Nick Knowles, which began airing in 2022 – and why he enjoyed it so much, he’s now back for a second run.
The first adventure takes him to three capital cities – Prague in the Czech Republic, Bratislava in Slovakia and Budapest in Hungary.
Before he gets on board the train at Prague, he pays a visit to the city’s 600-year-old astronomical clock. The keeper explains to him how the remarkable and complex clock keeps going, and even lets Nick have go at activating its striking mechanism.
Hopefully, the presenter is also keeping one eye on the time, as he’s got a train to catch – and an appointment to keep. As he departs Prague for Bratislava, he meets up with an expert on Dvorak, who reveals that the Czech composer loved trains and visited the railway station in Prague almost every day.
We could forgive Nick if he considered missing the train though, as there’s a big challenge waiting for him in Bratislava. He’s embarking on a precipitous clamber around the perimeter of an observation tower, which involves balancing on a narrow ledge above an almost 300-foot drop – and Nick doesn’t have a head for heights.
So understandably, he needs to recover afterwards – and how better than by getting back on solid ground and going for a wander through the city? As luck would have it, his walk coincided with nearly 100 vintage and classic cars arriving in Bratislava at the end of a 500km race.
Then it’s time to get back on board, this time for a train that takes him over the border into Hungary, where he learns more about how Swabian culture is being preserved.
From there it’s on to a real train-lovers’ paradise – the Hungarian Railway Museum, where Nick gets to single-handedly rotates a 147-ton steam engine, thanks to one of the world’s largest functioning turntables.
Then, he ends this leg of his railway adventure in Budapest, where he swaps the trains for a boat, and a river cruise with a couple of reality TV stars, who offer an insight into how young Hungarians view their country. Then it’s back on the rails for a trip on a steam engine with a difference – it’s part of the world’s longest railway run by children.