The week in TV: CripTales; Who Do You Think You Are?; Aung San Suu Kyi: The Fall of an Icon and more

CripTales (BBC Four) | iPlayer
Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One) iPlayer
Aung San Suu Kyi: The Fall of an Icon (BBC Two) | iPlayer
The Vow (Sky Documentaries) |
Don’t Rock the Boat (ITV) |

The BBC just loves its anniversaries, and found one in the passing, on 8 November, of 25 years since the Disability Discrimination Act got its royal assent. It also found, in CripTales, running most of the week on BBC Four, a grand, shocking, funny means to mark it, with chunky, bite-size monologues, along the lines of the recent Talking Heads, in which actors and writers were vouchsafed space to remind viewers (again, sigh) that a person in a wheelchair does not have to be addressed in hushpuppy tones, but also given the right to celebrate, with glee, a spirit of difference, and knock into able-bodied heads the wrongheadedness behind any homogenised idea of “the disabled”.

Ably marshalled and shepherded by the splendid Mat Fraser, his own bitter, witty recollections of auditions and rejections (mainly against the very same six thalidomide actors every four months) struck many galling notes. Liz Carr was Meg Davies, a once proud benefits recipient persuaded to self-shame, with drool and tics and tawdry pants, in order to get a quarter-decent allowance: indeed, the Kafkaesque appraisal system was hauled more than once before the jury. Yet it was Liverpudlian amputee Jackie Hagan who really stood out, with her self-penned tale of a woman having her leg off: so many good little lines. “Drugs are only good if you get to not be on them sometimes.” “Porters are nice dad-shaped men… doctors skinny and scary.” “You can’t go back once you’ve put paper knickers on.”

Carr was in evidence again elsewhere last week, in a so-so Who Do You Think You Are?, which inadvertently revealed one of that show’s few weaknesses: just because someone is fascinating in themselves doesn’t mean their relatives are going to be. (See also Desert Island Discs and record choices.) I find Carr interesting for, in order: the sheer stylish acting sense she brings to our screens; her self-awareness and campaigning nous; the ribald humour when unleashed on the occasional chatshow; and, way least, whether her Irish great-great-grandaddy once shot at a man in a hat. She tried gamely to ooh and aah as the ever-reliable historians unfolded reams of scratchy documents, but were I her I might have chosen not to bother.

There was a rather startling upbraiding of the great liberal west in an honest and fancy-free documentary, Aung San Suu Kyi: The Fall of an Icon, which simply related, soberly, how the Nobel peace prize winner came to be perceived as having let “us” down.

Before the fall… Aung San Suu Kyi being miked up at BBC Broadcasting House, September 2012.
Before the fall… Aung San Suu Kyi being miked up at BBC Broadcasting House, September 2012. Photograph: BBC

For once, the word “icon” was used in its real sense, as opposed to being, rather unaccountably, attached in the modern sense at the end of news bulletins to a deservedly forgotten and possibly racist darts player from the 1970s. She was a plaster saint: a walnut-wood representation on to which we carved and painted our perfect hopes. By dint of having been an Oxford housewife who spoke impeccable English, and spent long years back in Burma under house arrest by the military (which her father had personally founded), she found herself suddenly equated by the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof with Nelson Mandela. What we, seemingly, had forgotten was that she was a real person, with genuine patriotic tendencies, which favoured the Buddhists of (now) Myanmar over the stateless Muslims of Rohingya.

Our western shock at the near-million of them driven out in the last few years, an instance of ethnic cleansing approaching war-crime proportions, is understandable. Our childish desire to reduce everything to goodie and baddie, refracted through a nightly media lens, with little time for flesh-and-blood nuance, a little less so.

The Vow, a Sky Docs series, tells the (lengthy, nine-part) true tale of a vicious little scam, run by a jailed man who preyed on women, raped and branded them, under the global guise of a self-help “empowerment” ploy. It’s not until the third of three increasingly slow episodes that it cuts to the real nasties, and they are truly bad. But it’s in the first two, the setting-up of the scheme to trap those of “low self-esteem”, that the hook is baited so cleverly. And which should warn everyone to be wary of those, yes, who seek to belittle you, but warn more of kindly voices who softly convince you of your victimhood, by murmuring “you have low self-esteem”: heavens save us from bloody self-help.

Don’t Rock the Boat, which ran all week on ITV, was that rare thing indeed – a reality competition that was honestly enjoyable. Seriously, I could have watched this in weekly instalments, like Bake Off, only with the buns being not soggy-bottomed but aching, grizzled and salty, the results of having one’s arse scrape back and forth against cold wet moulded plastic every 15 seconds of day and night.

It achieved this simply by having a few genuine characters in its cast, with a little life experience, rather than toyboy “influencers” or some such, and setting a genuine challenge, two teams of six rowing the stormy west coast from Cornwall to Caithness. We got exhaustion, tears and a very few micro-bitchy fallings-out, yes, but there was chiefly a sense of camaraderie, and of achievement. I suspect this pilot week is even now being hailed as something of a holy grail, being as close as the network has come to finding a replacement for when I’m a Celebrity… finally sheds its allure – I’m not counting Love Island: already, this newbie has the feel of an annual fixture.

Though future producers will have to go some to match the successful, if wildly differing in quality of fitness, grift and banter, pairings of, frinstance, Denise Lewis and Kimberly Wyatt, Victoria Pendleton and Jodie Kidd, even Tom Watson and Craig Charles. Plus we got, a little after all the vomit, rather lovelier shots of coastlines, castles, dolphins. It only rendered more stark the failures of so many wannabe realities, the latest being the sub-dire The Bridge, which, realising it had set up a bunch of (chiefly) spoiled nobodies, and set them a repetitively boring task, was last week finally taken behind the barn and hit with an axe. It had, by default, just fallen back on the playbook formula of sowing pottymouth distrust, ugliness and polarised bitching, and, this weekend in particular, I’m not so sure that’s a default setting for which the world is noticeably clamouring.