Best TV: Face the music, on a bus through Britain or in a convertible in the US
Smashing Hits! The 80s Pop Map of Britain and Ireland -Tonight, 10pm, BBC4.
Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border - Saturday, 9pm, BBC2.
Many years ago, a former pop star who was trying to launch a career in other media told me of an idea he had for a TV programme.
The show was to be called Two Punks on a Bus, and it would do what it said on the tin. These two punks — the ex-pop star was one of them — would ride around the country by public transport, reporting on what they found.
My punk friend may have been ahead of his time. In Smashing Hits!, Midge Ure and Kim Appleby — he of Ultravox, she of Mel and Kim — are time travelling around Britain and Ireland.
They are in a car, not a bus, and their destination is a slightly wonky version of the Eighties, in which fragments of politics crash into musical history with unpredictable results. Midge and Kim’s car chat is fine (“I loved that they sang in their traditional accents,” says Kim of The Proclaimers, before Midge delivers a verse of his gloomy anthem Vienna in the style of Andy Stewart).
The odd bits happen when they have to deliver a script that mixes cereal-packet sociology with dubious musicology.
“Diverse chart-toppers were being produced all over these islands,” said Midge. “Eighties Scotland was an ailing, recession-hit place,” says Mel over footage of the Ravenscraig steel works being demolished. “Dissolved industries crumbling as they faced up to modern global competitors.” Yes, that’s what led Altered Images to write Happy Birthday.
The best bit is Midge’s interview with his old Band Aid partner Bob Geldof. The famine charity transformed Geldof from “irascible irritant to national treasure”, says the script, getting it half right.
In Songs of the Border, comedian-turned-musical-documentarian Reginald D Hunter drives a car along 2,000 miles of the US-Mexico frontier, from Texas to California. President Trump’s proposed wall is the backdrop, though it’s fair to say Hunter’s political analysis doesn’t go much deeper than a broad empathy for the people on both sides of the divide. “The manifestation of political imagination — that’s all this wall is,” he suggests, which doesn’t help much.
In any case, the politics are more complex than Trump’s cartoon ideology allows: the wall already exists in many places, and tougher border controls have been supported by all presidents since Bill Clinton.
But here’s the thing. The music is great and beautifully filmed. There’s Lyle Lovett in Texas, singing The Road To Ensenada, a song inspired by holidays in Mexico; Asleep at the Wheel, doing South of the Border on a film set near Austin; Cecy B, a Mexican-American mariachi singer who moved into rap; Carrie Rodriguez, whose music exists in the borderland between American and Mexican country music.
Rodriguez plays ranchera music, a plaintive form in which the melodrama is heightened. “It’s all love and death,” she says. Or there’s Calexico, the Arizona-based band whose songs explore the politics of the region, and Los Tucanes de Tijuana, who sing narcocorridos: drug ballads that appear to glorify El Chapo and the Mexican drug lords. Or, as Hunter suggests hopefully, they’re Robin Hood tales which are comparable to Nineties rap. “If you have a question,” one of the El Chapo songs suggests, “ask the guy in sunglasses.” And if he doesn’t know the answer, put him on a bus.
Fever Pitch - London Live, 10pm
Pleasure is a rare and unfamiliar flash as a football fan; mostly it’sanxiety, resignation and injustice— sensations that are bottled inthis film adaptation of NickHornby’s gold-standard paean to following your team.
The season documented is unlike any other, Arsenal and Liverpool gunning it out until the last seconds of the 1988/89 season, with Colin Firth as Gooner Paul Ashworth. The love for his team threatens to derail his relationship with the patient Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell).
What to Watch/London Live Debate - Sunday, London Live, from 5pm
Journalist Raphael Rowe is no stranger to life in prison — he spent 12 years inside for a murder he didn’t commit — but what he encounters in new Netflix series
Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons took him aback. In What to Watch he discusses what happened when he met gang leaders in Brazil and a notorious serial killer in Ukraine.
Then in London Live Debate, Anthony Baxter will chair on the issues that have been raised by the visit of President Donald Trump to the capital and the protests that have been taking place across London, and even its skies.