By and large, we’ve just about had enough of those travel programmes in which faded celebrities or former politicians set off on a train or boat or bicycle journey, or in somebody’s footsteps, or attempting some challenge or other — Across the Andes by Frog as it might be, that ripping yarn in which Michael Palin skewered the genre long before he ever went to the Poles, the Sahara and the Himalayas or around the world in 80 days himself.
These shows take the basic definition of “television”, letting us see things that are distant, a bit too literally. The format is knackered. Yet here comes Palin with another such programme (9pm, Channel 5) — and it’s terrific.
Almost nobody has been able to film openly in North Korea before — but, after two years of negotiations, Palin and his production team were able to visit for a fortnight just after the April inter-Korean summit, just before the Trump talks in June.
They were by no means able to film at will, being strictly monitored by half-a-dozen guards and escorted only to what the regime wanted them to see. So it’s hardly investigative reporting
Yet daily life in North Korea is so very odd, and has been so little seen before in the West, that even the most humdrum street scenes or repressively organised visits are riveting to watch — and there is no more likeable or trustworthy presenter than Michael Palin. His curiosity and humour make him the perfect intermediary, the ideal stand in for what we might feel were we there, a magic everyman.
In this first episode Palin goes to the capital, Pyongyang, a city completely reconstructed to the plans of Kim Il-sung, relatively prosperous compared with the poverty of the countryside.
Waking up in this weird city, its ugly blocks all painted bright colours to make them look more cheerful, he hears peculiar music emanating from all over the empty streets. “Vaguely Brian Eno”, it’s actually a propaganda song called “Where are you, dear General?” “You can’t avoid it, that’s the thing, you can’t avoid it,” he reflects.
He visits the colossal statues of beaming Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il and tries gently to ask one of his guides about them. She loyally tells him: “We Korean people think they are still alive, they’re alive in our hearts even though they passed away.” But evidently even this enquiry is reprimanded by his minders as crossing a line.
In a school classroom, Palin clowns about, blowing up an inflatable globe to see what the students know of the world. They throw it about between themselves as if keen not to be caught in possession of such an incriminating object. A girl nervously recites a patriotic poem.
Their teacher looks on with an extraordinary expression, not just worried but clearly frightened. You can see that she knows if this filming goes wrong, there might be terrible consequences for her. It’s the face of a person living under a totalitarian dictatorship with no regard for human rights, that stricken face sometimes visible in photographs from the horror regimes of the last century but here captured a few months ago as part of a travel show.
Yet Palin finds pleasure in North Korea too: joining mass May Day celebrations in a park, miming being knocked out by strong drink, joining in the dancing even. “These people might live under a repressive system that’s hard to understand but there’s a joy and humanity that’s undimmed”, he says. I can’t wait to see what he finds when he heads out of Pyongyang next week.
Pick of the day
Insecure - Sky Atlantic, 10.45pm
Since it launched in 2016, Issa Rae’s everyday comedy of Los Angeles millennials has been compared to many things.
Some cite Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld, for the apparent plotlessness of the episodes, and the way that the comedy seems to stem from the unremarked quirks of everyday life.
Sex And The City is an obvious benchmark (and has itself been undergoing a bit of feminist reappraisal recently), because of its focus on the uncertainties and the black comedy of the dating game.
And a more obvious recent parallel is Donald Glover’s playful Atlanta, a comedy that sometimes dares not to be funny, plays with the persona of its creator and makes its own rules.
None of which really prepares you for the rapid-fire energy of Rae’s creation, which grew out of her web series Awkward Black Girl.
That explored the black late-twenties experience in an under-exposed part of LA.
Midway through season three, Issa finds she needs moral support; Issa and Kelly try to persuade Molly to date someone new; and the girls attend Tiffany’s baby shower.
The Mighty Redcar - BBC2, 9pm
Dan Dewsbury’s warm-hearted documentary about the hopes and dreams of a group of young people in Redcar, North Yorkshire, is so engaging and optimistic that it’s sometimes possible to forget the slim margins by which their futures are decided.
This week the show focuses on 15-year-old Safy, who has won a scholarship to a private school in York. She wants to become a top netball player but her mother Aicha must find 10 per cent of the fees, while still struggling to provide for Safy’s younger brother and two sisters. Meanwhile, Jess’s apprenticeship is drawing to a close. Bean and Tom have tough choices. James’s struggle to keep his life on the straight and narrow continues.
Blue Steel - London Live, 10pm
Soon, probably around October 31, Jamie Lee Curtis will be back on screen combating a faceless psychopath, a situation more comforting than this one, where her cop Megan Turner is seduced by psychopath Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver).
Unbeknown to her, Hunt has used her sidearm to commit several killings in this taut thriller.
London Go - Tomorrow, London Live, 7pm
Swanky gilded venues are the last place you’ll find Pop-Up Opera performing, this company taking the art to venues far removed from its often lofty surroundings — it would organise a Purcell up in a brewery to break new ground.
This week director John Wilkie and soprano Alice Privett from Pop-Up Opera will be with host Luke Blackall in the studio to discuss their new interpretation of Bizet’s La Tragédie de Carmen, which begins a run across London in unusual venues. Wilkie’s version is set at the end of the Spanish Civil War and this tour, chosen to bring opera to a wider audience, includes performances in Hayman’s Distillery in Balham, the Masonic temple in the Andaz Hotel, and the Asylum in Peckham.
Quacks - BBC iPlayer
The national mourning will be brief but it’s a shame the BBC has decided not to recommission James Wood’s comedy on Victorian doctors. Wood wrote Rev, a comedy of understatement, but Quacks wore its quirks on the outside, and the cast included Rory Kinnear as a flashy surgeon and Rupert Everett, below, as the appalling principal of the medical school. Catch it before it falls from the iPlayer.
Reflections: The Prime Ministers We Never Had - BBC iPlayer
A new series of Steve Richards’s unscripted political talks starts with this reflection on Michael Heseltine, who, Richards says, was seen through the lens of his own ambition. He “flounced out” of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet
in 1986 in a dispute over helicopters. “Thatcher … wasn’t sure what happened — if he had popped to the loo or had left the Cabinet.” Would a few second takes hurt? Probably not.