The Great British Bake Off, Lenny Henry and Ghosts: TV highlights this week
Dark Hearts (Saturday 21/10/23, BBC Four, 9pm & 10.05pm)
Words by Scheenagh Harrington
We all know that the internet has made the world a much smaller place. But before we spent hours endlessly scrolling our feeds, it was the TV that brought foreign shores a little closer.
American culture has permeated almost every facet of our entertainment industry, but other nations have carved out their own places in our hearts.
Few have done it quite as stylishly as France.
It’s easy from the lofty heights of Blighty’s shores to poke gentle fun at our near-neighbours, especially if all you know of their cultural output is some dodgy Seventies crooners and maybe evergreen rocker Johnny Hallyday.
But, lest we forget, this is the nation that gave us the effervescent Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier in Gigi, the wicked trickster Yves Montand in Jean de Florette, as well as Gerard Depardieu proving he was much more than a prosthetic nose in Cyrano de Bergerac (even if he didn’t quite pull off the same feat in Green Card).
Not to mention the luminous Catherine Deneuve in anything she cares to star in, the magnetic Isabelle Huppert and the magnificent Eva Green, to name but three female French icons.
Bearing all that in mind, it’s perhaps less surprising to know that Brits are actually quite fond of French drama.
The rise of the streaming services has enabled the flow of quality programming to go from a trickle to a flood, and recent years have seen us treated to French sci-fi drama Missions, following the first manned journey to Mars.
There was the frothy but hugely enjoyable Versailles, which managed to track several years at the court of King Louis XIV without the saucy monarch ageing a day.
And, of course, there was Spiral. Over the course of eight series it followed criminal investigations in the French capital from the different points of view of everyone involved. Forget Emily in Paris, this gave us the gritty, beating heart of the City of Light served on a plate.
It brings us neatly to the latest cross-border exchange, this six-part drama, created and written by Dang Thai Duong and Corinne Garfin, that looks set to have everyone on the edge of their seats.
It follows a French special forces unit on the brink of the 2016 Battle of Mosul, in Iraq. With a terror threat hanging over their heads, the unit must track down the daughter and grandchildren of a prominent ISIS leader.
If they can safely extricate his relatives from the city, the leader promises he will give them much-needed insider information.
Eagle-eyed film fans will spot the series is directed by Ziad Doueiri, whose 2017 feature The Insult earned his native Lebanon its first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Sue Deeks, head of BBC Programme Acquisition (Fiction), is clearly thrilled at having snapped up the French drama.
“Not only is Dark Hearts a gripping mix of action drama and espionage thriller,” she said, “it also gives a fascinating insight into the lives of a close knit elite military unit who know that every mission could be their last.”
Marie Dompnier, Thierry Godard, Moussa Maaskri and Nicolas Duvauchelle head the top-drawer cast.
Three Little Birds (Sunday 22/10/23, ITV1, 8pm)
If you want to get a TV project made, it’s handy to have a friend who can help.
You would imagine that somebody as famous and well-respected as Lenny Henry wouldn’t need any assistance and that broadcasters would be falling over themselves to produce his work, but not a bit of it, it seems.
Luckily, he knows Russell T Davies, the man behind such hits as It’s a Sin, Queer As Folk and the Doctor Who revival (he’ll be in the news a lot in the coming months due to his involvement in the sci-fi show’s 60th anniversary celebrations). Everything he touches seems to turn to small-screen gold, so having him on board proved to be very useful indeed.
“I’d had a few knock backs script-wise and was a bit down,” explains Henry. “Russell was my mentor and executive producer and worked hard to help me get this project across the line. I said I wanted his help with whatever the next attempt might be, and he very kindly asked, ‘Well darling, what is it that you want to write? What are you passionate about?’ I thought about it and it all came out: I wanted to write about immigration and about Caribbeans coming to Britain in the 50s and what that must have been like.
“Russell and I sat down and broadly worked out what would happen. He’s really good fun to be with. The stories were very much me vomiting out what I wanted to write, and then Russell helping me to organise my thoughts for the first episode. From that, I went away and wrote a script. And then, suddenly, ITV just said, ‘We want to do it straight away’.”
Henry then set to work, with fellow writers Carol Russell And Avril Russell chipping in. However, the story was very much his – it was inspired by the experiences of his mum, her sister and their friend, who emigrated to the Midlands from Jamaica in the 1950s. The six-part drama charts the lives of three very different women after they arrive on our shores in search of a fresh start and a better way of life. Sadly, it’s far from plain sailing.
“The spirit of my mum lives in Leah (Rochelle Neil), who is like John Wayne but in a skirt! She is a stoic. She doesn’t take any rubbish from anyone and she knows her stuff. She will fight for her friends and her family,” says Henry. “Chantrelle (Saffron Coomber) is the flighty, will-o’-the-wisp flibbertigibbet – the clown who wants to be a movie star, that’s her motivation for leaving Jamaica. When she gets here, she realises that there are no movies with a calling for a dramatic and good-looking person who can recite plays but happens to be Black in 1957.
“Lastly, Hosanna (Yazmin Belo) is essentially a mail order bride, but she has secrets. She’s had her fare paid, but there are other reasons for her being here. Everyone’s got a secret.”
Nevertheless, it seems that like Henry, these Three Little Birds have friends they can rely on in their hour of need.
“Chantrelle particularly goes on quite a dark journey,” he adds. “And Leah is just trying to get through every day. So, it’s tough, but they have each other, and hopefully that will resonate with everyone.”
MasterChef: The Professionals (Monday 23/10/23, BBC1, 9pm)
Words by Scheenagh Harrington
This long-running culinary competition may be in what are the difficult teenage years for humans, but in telly terms, it’s just getting into its stride.
This 16th season sees the welcome return of Monica Galetti to the judging panel, after she took a well-earned year off.
Fans of the Samoan-born New Zealand chef were thrilled when she posted the news on social media, writing: “A year ago I made the tough call to take a break from Masterchef: The Professionals. I’m so grateful for everyone’s support that allowed me time out to get back on top of managing business and family commitments.
“I’m super thrilled to see what new talent is out there & to be back with my buddies… see you there!”
Monica later revealed that, during her break from the show, she sought help from a therapist to help her deal with everything that was going on in her life.
“That was one of the best things I did,” she said.
Considering everything Monica has achieved so far in her career, it’s not surprising she needed some time out.
Born in American Samoa, she moved to Auckland in New Zealand when she was eight. After completing her studies in the 1990s, she landed a job at Timothy’s restaurant. The eagle-eyed owner promptly entered Monica in culinary competitions in Australia, America and Europe, and she soon began looking for a job in London.
Her first offer came from none other than Michel Roux Jr, who offered her the role of first commis at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Gavroche.
Despite it being a demotion, Monica took the job and swiftly rose through the restaurant’s ranks to become its first-ever female senior sous-chef, a position she held until 2015.
In 2009, Monica made her debut on MasterChef: The Professionals, and in 2017, opened a new London restaurant called Mere, with her sommelier husband David.
The same year, she began co-presenting the globetrotting show Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby, first with Giles Coren and currently with Rob Rinder.
Irish chef Anna Haugh did a great job holding the fort last year, but Monica is back with a bang for 2023.
The series begins as the first two chefs face Monica’s Skills Test: 20 minutes to prepare and cook a fillet of brill and serve it with a turnip garnish and a coconut sauce.
Next, Marcus Wareing sets a Skills Test for the next two hopefuls: to poach and pan-fry a portion of guinea fowl, make a sherry hollandaise and serve it with a bitter salad, before serving up the two-course Signature Menu follows.
The second episode of the week sees Skills Tests involving cooking spiced monkfish served with polenta and a chili butter sauce, and caramelized bananas, coconut cream, a chocolate sauce and a quick banana ice cream.
Finally, in the first quarter-final of the competition, the chefs must think on their feet in an Invention Test showcasing nuts, before facing the daunting task of cooking for three of the UK’s most discerning restaurant critics, Jay Rayner, Leyla Kazim and Tracey MacLeod.
The Great British Bake Off (Tuesday 24/10/23, C4, 8pm)
Words by Rob Lavender
It’s good to have the Bake Off seemingly going ‘back to basics’ this series, the atmosphere appearing much more jovial and good-natured once again. It almost harks back to the show’s origins on BBC Two. We even had someone (accidentally, of course) swipe another contestant’s biscuit dough from the freezer the other week without drama, recriminations or scandalised social media hashtags (we’re looking at you, #bingate).
New host Alison Hammond undoubtedly has something to do with this warm and cosy feel – it now feels like the show belongs to the bakers and their creations once again, rather than the hosts.
Not that the regulars are unimportant. Co-host Noel Fielding seemingly knew this would be a winning pairing, recalling of Hammond’s screen-test in an interview with The Observer: “I left the audition going: ‘That was pretty obvious’. Alison and I clicked immediately. We just gelled. They’re not called chemistry tests for nothing. Everyone looked at each other and we just knew.
“When Alison met Paul and Prue, that cemented it. Paul loved Alison straightaway because he likes a bit of banter and she gave him some lip.”
A point she conceded, admitting: “I’m a little bit naughty in real life… I hit it off with Dame Prue as well. It’s lovely having another woman around, and she’s so young at heart. She’s 83 but has more energy than all of us”.
This week we return to find it is Pastry Week in the (presumably delicious-smelling; seriously, someone needs to make a scented candle called ‘Bake Off Tent’) marquee this week, and that can only mean one thing: repeated mentions of the GBBO favourite phrase “soggy bottoms”.
The old soggy bottom is as much a part of Bake Off’s DNA as is the chocolate and raspberry cake (famously missing one berry) that was recreated in the opening episode of this series. It’s as familiar a phrase as the “Hollywood Handshake”, but unlike that most sought-after of accolades, the soggy bottom is to be avoided at all costs…
Those hoping to eschew such over-moist undersides as they stake their claim of being the creme-pat de la creme-pat of British baking will have to do so first by crafting perfect savoury picnic pies.
This is for the opening Signature challenge, so the bakers will have had the chance to perfect an offering that encapsulates their personality in pastry.
Then there’s a French rough-puff Technical challenge. Rough-puff is a supposedly quicker way of making puff pastry, although even the keenest of home bakers would usually be happy to resort to unrolling a pack of shop-bought rather than go to such lengths. Temperature is key here, as the butter must remain cold enough not to melt until it goes into the oven, otherwise the “puff” will fail to materialise.
Finally, there’s a decorative sweet pie Showstopper. This has to really look the part, as well as tasting good – but the lighter and tastier the pastry, the less structurally sound the pie will be when it comes to decorating. Crumbs!
Location Location Location (Wednesday 25/10/23, C4, 8pm)
Words by Rob Lavender
Channel 4’s flagship property show launched in the year 2000, a time of Britpop, New Labour and £80,000 average house prices.
Much has changed since then, societally, economically and politically – yet Location, Location, Location has rolled atop every turbulent wave, remaining relevant throughout.
Now, after 23 years and almost 400 episodes, the show enters its 40th series.
The housing market recently has been racing, as a post-lockdown boom pushed house prices higher than ever, before a series of sharp interest rate hikes made mortgages more expensive, throttling demand and causing the market to slow.
Even so, fewer people today are in a position to buy a house than was the case in 2000, with house prices only arresting because mortgages themselves are less affordable – meanwhile the deposits required to buy now represent a much higher proportion of people’s incomes.
Yet rents are also spiralling, meaning if you can afford to buy it’s arguably more important to do so than ever. So, to say that the landscape of home-ownership is changeable is an understatement. But if anyone knows the lay of these perpetually shifting sands it’s our hosts, Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer.
In this opening episode of the series, the pair are in Devon to help Natalie and Glen, who feel as though they have been priced out of their popular local market, and single mum Amy, who is looking for a seaside idyll for her and her two young children.
Kirstie is on the side of Natalie and Glen, Torquay natives who have been giving it their best shot, but after some 30 viewings they’re struggling to find a suitable yet affordable home for them and their 10-year-old son, Barnaby.
The first house Kirstie shows them blows them away, but it’s at the very top of their budget and other potential buyers are queueing up, so they need to be bold if they want to secure it before someone snatches it out from under them.
Phil, meanwhile, has some ideas for Amy, who is moving from Somerset to Exmouth. Amy has worked in social services before going on to develop an app designed to help frontline mental health workers.
The app was a hit and made her a successful entrepreneur, but even a healthy budget of up to £1million isn’t quite cutting it in her own search for a seaside property around Devon.
Phil shows her four very different houses, all of which hit Amy’s criteria in different ways. However, when a previously “loved and lost” property suddenly comes back into the picture, a nail-biting climax to Amy’s search ensues.
It all makes buying a home seem like an awful lot of work, not to mention the stress… But worry not, Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs is showing straight afterwards on Channel 4 – after which buying, as opposed to building, a home will seem like a walk in the park!
Lenny Henry: One of a Kind (Thursday 26/10/23, ITV1, 9pm)
Words by Richard Jones
Sir Lenny Henry started his comedy career on the Midlands working men’s club circuit in the mid-1970s and doing impressions on TV talent show New Faces.
Since then, he has gone onto become one of the UK’s most recognisable comics, with a string of TV hits to his name.
However, there is a lot more to the Dudley-born entertainer’s career than getting dressed up, putting on silly voices and shouting “Oooookay!”.
These days, 65-year-old Lenny is widely accepted as a brilliant serious actor, as well as a director, writer, broadcaster, charity campaigner and activist, and he has made a conscious decision to step away from stand-up comedy.
Three weeks ago, he appeared on Virgin Radio’s Chris Evans Breakfast Show, and explained his evolution as an entertainer.
“It’s almost as if I know what I’m here for now,” he said.
“I think being a stand-up is a noble profession and I loved it for 35 years.
“But there was a moment when I just went ‘This isn’t all that I want to do with my life’. I still love it. I still like the idea of it. I think I kind of know what to do to put together a new show.
“But I think there’s other things to be doing. So when I was asked to do Shakespeare, when I was asked to be in an August Wilson play, I leapt at it because I thought ‘This is a new experience’, and I think it’s really good to do things that are new, that challenge you.”
Tonight’s special documentary, Lenny Henry: One Of A Kind, sees the trailblazing The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power star look back on his 50-year-career in the entertainment spotlight, as he takes viewers on a journey from the Midlands to Middle Earth.
Throughout the programme, which arrives a few days after the premiere of Lenny’s self-penned post-Windrush drama Three Little Birds (the story he’s “been waiting to tell his entire life”), fellow A-listers line up to pay fond tributes and share their own thoughts on the star.
David Tennant, Ben Elton, Alesha Dixon, Richard Curtis, Sir Trevor McDonald and Mo Gilligan are among those celebrating his talents, while Hollywood superstar Whoopi Goldberg also champions the man she declares ‘a real-life superhero’.
Lenny spills the beans about the little-known collaboration between himself, Kate Bush and Prince, shares backstage secrets, offers insights into his life away from the camera, and reveals which of his beloved comedy characters he feels wouldn’t be allowed on-screen in 2023.
Lenny’s sister Sharon discloses his secret nickname among the family and how her ‘nerdy’ sibling with his passion for fantasy comic books ended up living his dream.
We also hear about Lenny’s fight for diversity in the TV industry both in front of and behind the camera.
Of course, there are plenty of clips from across the decades, including footage from Tiswas, Three Of A Kind, The Lord Of The Rings, and Lenny’s time on stage in productions of Othello and King Hedley II.
From custard pies to Comic Relief, from Broadchurch to the Bard, this is a funny, fascinating and inspiring portrait of a true One of a Kind and national treasure.
Ghosts (Friday 27/10/23, BBC1, 8.30pm)
Words by Scheenagh Harrington
The ‘other side’ has been a rich seam for entertainment creatives to mine for generations.
From spooky warnings of strange creatures lurking outside the prehistoric cave to modern ghost hunts, packed to the gills with digital detection technology, humans have been fascinated by things that go bump in the night for, well, just about forever.
Almost every facet of the ghostly realm has been explored on the big and small screen too, with some productions doing it more successfully than others.
Imagine (if you can) a world without the shock twist of The Sixth Sense, and how M Night Shyamalan’s denouement delighted audiences who didn’t see it coming.
Picture Juliet Stevenson’s heartbroken face turning to joy when her alter ego Nina’s grief brings back her recently deceased cellist lover Jamie (played by the incomparable Alan Rickman) in Truly Madly Deeply.
Then there’s Hollywood big hitter Ghost, a sentimental slush-fest that won Whoopi Goldberg an Oscar.
Not to mention the numerous Ghostbuster films, Rentaghost (for those of a certain age), every version of A Christmas Carol ever made, Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and that little cutey Casper.
It would be entirely fair to assume that, as a genre, there was nothing new or original to be extracted from ghosts.
Then, in 2019, several cast members from Yonderland and Horrible Histories came together and produced something entirely fresh.
Created by and starring Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard and Ben Willbond, Ghosts follows the fortunes of Alison Cooper (Charlotte Ritchie), who inherits the crumbling Button House from a distant relative.
Ignoring all advice to sell up, take the money and run, Alison and her husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) decide to move in, renovate the place and turn it into a luxury hotel.
None of which goes down well with the several squabbling spectres from a range of eras, who also call Button House home.
Their attempts to push the couple out result in Alison having her own brush with death and, after awakening from a coma, when she gets home she can see her cohabitees.
From this premise has sprung four series that have seamlessly blended wit and comedy as Alison and Mike’s lives move forward, delighting fans of all ages, while the critics have been eating out of the palms of the writers’ hands.
In this, the final season, we’re inching ever closer to the knowledge that by the time the final credits roll, things at Button House will never quite be the same again.
But, before everyone begins dabbing at their eyes, there are a few episodes still to enjoy – especially if you manage to avoid the mountains of spoilers online.
This week, the ghosts are officially bored, prompting Pat to devise some new entertainment for the gang.
Meanwhile, Mike and Alison host their international buyer at Button House in order to confirm the land sale, but his behaviour threatens to scupper the whole deal.
Plus, Humphrey is offered a fresh perspective on his strained marriage and finally learns some French, thanks to a little help from a rather unexpected source.