EVERY day is a school day for Alan Yentob. The BBC arts doyen had ventured north to Glasgow to make Imagine … Douglas Stuart: Love, Hope and Grit (BBC1, Monday), a profile of the Booker-winning author, and he had clearly done his homework.
He knew about the Barras, Sighthill, the Grand Ole Opry (“another of Glasgow’s quirky haunts”), and what a dookit was. So at home was he in his new environs he even had a go at the accent while reading from Stuart’s novel. “Jee it laldy!” he cried.
“Gie it laldy,” corrected Stuart amiably as Yentob asked for more phrases he could try. Fortunately this reverse Pygmalion experiment was being carried out in the BBC’s Glasgow HQ rather than a local hostelry, or the night might have turned out a little differently.
As the film went back and forth from Glasgow to New York, Stuart’s home town now for many years,Yentob’s affection for the book and its central characters, an alcoholic mother and her gay son, shone through. He sympathised but did not patronise. It can be a tricky line to walk.
At times the programme tried a little too hard (Across 110th Street on the soundtrack), and it could have done with more context. Apologies if I missed it, but was there any mention of that other Booker winner, James Kelman?
On the upside, there were some lovely scenes that cast fresh light on the film’s subject. In one we met the two arts teachers Stuart credited with saving his life no less. They were captioned “Mrs MacLeod” and “Mrs Chesney”, as was only proper.
Hong Kong: Fight for Freedom (BBC2, Monday) packed a lot into the first of two episodes charting the 2019 protests and their – still unfolding –aftermath. The story was told via interviews with some of the young marchers, plus contributions from Chris Patten, the last governor, and others. Footage from news crews and social media brought the times roaring back to life. All in, a straightforward, slickly executed film.
At the same time, this was unlike any other documentary I have ever seen. As captions at the start made clear, the protesters could be jailed for speaking out, so their identities had to be hidden. Not in the usual ways: pixelated faces, darkened rooms, or having actors voice their words. Here, artificial intelligence was used to give them new, computer-generated faces.
There was clearly a good reason for it, but why make things more complicated? It did not make the testimonies any more credible. If anything it risked doing the opposite. In this case it ultimately took nothing away from what was a chilling David and Goliath story of a democracy fighting for its life, but it did not add much either. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this technique.
The Scotts (BBC1, Wednesday) returned for a second series. Iain Connell and Robert Florence’s half hour show is the brash new kid on Scottish sitcom street. Nice enough, but you wouldn’t ask it to water the plants when you were on holiday. Dear God no.
Having saved his marriage, Vincent (Rab Florence) thought he should pay the favour forward by helping others, even if it was the last thing they wanted. Ma Scott (Barbara Rafferty), speaking for Glaswegian mothers everywhere, was unimpressed. “Just check up on me once a week, make sure I’m no deid. That’s plenty.” It’s hit and miss stuff and rough as a badger’s rear end, but when it works, it works.
If you are going to make a documentary about inequality, why not ask the guy who plays Logan Roy, one of many unacceptable faces of capitalism in Succession, to front it? And lo Brian Cox: How the Other Half Live (Channel 5, Thursday), came about.
“I’m swapping the role of foul-mouthed billionaire for intrepid reporter,” said Cox, although it might have been fun to present as Logan Roy for a spell. But if there was one thing in short supply here it was fun.
Born in Dundee in 1946, Cox was eight years old when his father died. When they checked his bank book it had £10 in it. The years of poverty that followed scarred and terrified Cox. He saw how life could change in an instant.
The experience still haunts him. It has made him angry, too. This is what elevated an otherwise run of the mill documentary, with interviewees viewers had likely seen before, into something special. Cox was furious, magnificently so, that little had changed from his day. In some ways life was tougher. He was even narked at the film itself, concerned that there was something a “bit mercenary” in making it.
He need not have worried. He did the right thing.