Comedy and Errors: Tumble and Maron

August 15, 2014

Forgive me, but when I first heard the premise – if we can call it that – of BBC One’s new Saturday-night filler Tumble, all I hoped was that Ashley Roberts might be found cavorting in leotard. Alas, she is not and no one’s doing anything as entertaining as cavorting in this utterly charmless programme.

It transpires, predictably, that amateur gymnastics is even more boring than the professional kind, even when performed by barrel-bottom celebs – Sarah Harding was the only one I really knew; Carl Froch? I don’t follow boxing; and there’s a Sugababe I’m the wrong side of 20 to appreciate. The non-event is conducted in a sepulchral arena presided over by four judges devoid of personality – that is to say, gymnasts – and professional simpleton Alex Jones (but what a workhorse she is, doing this as a Saturday job while The One Show takes a break).

It tries to come across as something between Splash and Strictly but fails to attain any of the warmth, spectacle or natural entertainment-value of either. We cannot blame gymnasts for not being performers – in the showmanship sense of professional ballroom-dancers (or Jo Brand) – but we can, and should, blame the BBC for pommeling us with them.

Inevitably, Great Poets in Their Own Words (BBC Four) was more successful than Great Artists in Their Own Words, words reasonably being the former’s métier; their success at performing them, however, is variable. One of the commenting book-chatterers was right to say that Dame Edith Sitwell’s work should never be read if you can hear it, and I would say the same for Dylan Thomas, that lilting, lyrical SOB, but T. S. Eliot should surely never have been allowed near a mike.

This first episode, titled ‘Making It New’, was concerned with the poets who swept away the ‘stodge’ of late-19th century poetry and went ‘back to the roots of what poetry can do’. Ezra Pound was surely onto something in his obsessive fealty to the Chinese language and its ideograms, because English, with its manifold phonetic lies, is also consumed by the eye quite as much as the ear. But the modernism of Pound and Eliot was also swept away; and this documentary would’ve done well to emphasise that there never was a more technically formal, and gifted, poet than Auden – other than, perhaps, the early Eliot.

(As an aside, it is simply not true that Eliot stayed in England principally to pursue poetry: no, he stayed for a woman; but Vivienne continues to be airbrushed out of history.)

Television, we were told, gave poets a new platform from which to reach a wider audience; well, surely it did, but that point fails somewhat when you consider how many contemporary poets we have seen reading their work onscreen in recent history.

As ever, the stumbled-upon gem of the week was a nature documentary: The Wonder of Animals (BBC Four) featuring penguins. It could very reasonably have been called ‘The Wonder of Chris Packham’ because his enthusiasm for our little black and white friends – and indeed, any animal – is infectious.

It turns out that though penguins look ungainly, waddling is – as any drunk knows – actually an extremely efficient way to travel, and watching the chinstrap penguins, I could believe it. Having scrambled up a volcano myself, I know how ill-suited ash is to an ascent, but the chinstraps choose to make their nesting grounds on the edge of one, 160 metres above sea-level – which surely makes them even more macho than the pugnacious Adélie.

If I may be permitted to link two themes, you can read a poem featuring penguins by Clive James here, and by myself here.

Nature and poetry were also to be found in new comedy series Maron (FX): the nature in the form of his three cats, the poetry that of bitterness. And it is Mark Maron’s particular brand  of bitterness – at once neurotically self-aware and importunately oblivious – that separates the show from Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm, making it a delectable slice of midlife crisis and a clarion call to all of those struggling to cope with the ordinary disappointments of life – such people always make the best monsters, and monsters are always the best entertainment. (Try watching Big Brother’s Helen, or reading the diaries of A. L. Rowse.)

Line of the week: ‘I’ve spent the whole day with you and it’s been trying.’ – Dave Anthony, as himself, in Maron.

Jacob Knowles-Smith

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