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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Matt on the Box: Last Week's TV Highlights: Masterchef, Rev, Salting the Battlefield, Louis Theroux's LA Stories and Kris: Dying to Live

Welcome back to another look back at a week packed full of TV highlights.

Anybody who tuned into BBC One during the latter part of the week probably knows that Masterchef is back as it hogged two and a half hours of the schedules. As has become traditional, the cooking competition debuts at 9pm in its first week before going back to an 8pm start for the rest of the run. A couple of changes mean that the first round contestants get to cook a dish of their choosing first of all before taking on the invention test. In an interesting twist, the invention test now gives the contestants an option of creating a sweet or savoury dish. However this twist hasn't really proved fruitful so far as only one of the twelve contestants that have been featured actually elected to create a dessert, much to Gregg Wallace's horror. The would-be-chefs who remain in the contest are then tasked with creating a two-course meal to be served to three former winners or finalists of the show. This task is the most interesting, not least because the programme is currently celebrating its tenth year anniversary. Rather than being snooty critics, the former contestants have all been there before so to an extent can sympathise with their cooks. Indeed, the ex-finalists have been a lot more complementary than John and Gregg and have looked for the positives rather than the negatives. Friday's quarter final brought together the most impressive four chefs whose final challenge was to cook for just one critic. The critic in question would then help John and Gregg pick just two semi-finalists who we would see again later in the series.

Although I'm a Masterchef fan, I'm still unsure whether we really need sixty initial contestants who will be whittled down to a final twelve over the first five weeks. Judging by the twelve cooks I saw this week, at least one or two had no business being on the show to begin with. I do feel these initial rounds could be trimmed down significantly so we started with thirty contestants rather than sixty. I also wasn't a fan of the Friday show, which in the past had been the time that the contestants would cook for a trio of experts. It almost seemed to be a step backwards cooking for one person after already preparing a meal for three. In addition, though their food is tested by other people, the only opinions that really matter at the end of the day are those of John and Gregg. On the positive side of things I've enjoyed the programme's celebration of its own legacy and it's great seeing the former finalists return. The fact that we've been informed of what Masterchef has done for their careers since they appeared on the show added extra importance to the win. For most, despite what job they were doing beforehand, most have now opened up a restaurant or shop or in some cases own a whole chain. Although I realise not everybody loves them, I'm also a big fan of John and Gregg's as I feel their chemistry adds something to the show. They bounce off each other perfectly and it's great to see John's skill as a chef being put to the test as he attempts every invention test himself. Ultimately, though overlong, Masterchef continues to be a ratings winner for the BBC and I can see why as its completely untaxing viewing. Although two and half hours per week is a bit much even for me, I feel the return of former contestants adds relevance to the overall win and shows just how far the Masterchef championship can actually take you.

Does a sitcom actually need to make me laugh? That's the question I asked myself during the first episode of the third series of BBC2's Rev. I certainly was glad to be given another opportunity to return to Saint Saviours and follow the exploits of the Reverend Adam Smallborne (Tom Hollander). The plot of Rev remains the same as Adam attempts to convince the diocese that his church should stay open despite its dwindling congregation. The big change is that Adam and wife Alex (Olivia Colman) are now parents to Katie, whose birth occurs in the opening minutes of the episode. Almost a year later, Katie still hasn't been baptised a fact which is brought up time and time again between Adam and his parishioners. Adam's other worry is the continued presence of new Area Dean Jill Mallory and Diocese Secretary Geri Tennison (Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine) as he feels they will ultimately decide to close down the church. To do this he gets together with the local Imam (Kayvan Novak ) in order to pool together their collective resources and redevelop the dilapidated playground. Once again Rev looks at the way that different people deal with faith by showing how many more people attend the local Mosque every week than come to Adam's church. James Wood's script is brilliant at combining this fairly deep subject matter with a light-handedness that makes it easy to like. Rev also excels due to its fantastically decent central characters Adam and Alex who are surrounded by a cavalcade of oddballs and mercenaries. Tom Hollander is brilliant in the lead role as he plays Adam as thoroughly down-to-Earth chap albeit one who constantly is worried about something or other. The brilliant Olivia Colman adds a bit of gravitas to her role of Alex whilst Simon McBurney and Miles Jupp continue to provide the laughs as Arch Deacon and Lay Preacher respectively. As a fan of Getting On, I'm ecstatic that Scanlan and Pepperdine have joined the cast as a brilliant double act who may end up closing St. Saviour's. Even if the church does indeed close I hope that doesn't mean the end of what is brilliantly written and extremely well-acted series. While it never makes me laugh out loud, Rev still provides plenty of good humour and that's sometimes all you need.

Last week I reviewed the second part of David Hare's Worricker trilogy, Turks and Caicos, which I really didn't enjoy all that much. To me it felt like it was a necessary evil that Hare had to get through in order to tell Worricker's final tale in Salting the Battlefield. My suspicions were proved right after watching the final instalment which was miles better than both Turks and Caicos and the original Page Eight. When the drama begins, Worricker (Bill Nighy) and Margot (Helena Bonham Carter) are in Europe trying to evade the gaze of MI5. Meanwhile, back in London, the Prime Minister (Ralph Fiennes) is facing the consequences of the revelations that came out about the Bridge Foundation in last week's drama. Worricker's mate Rollo (Ewan Bremner) managed to get a small story about the scandal printed in The Independent which aroused the suspicion of the paper's editor (Olivia Williams). Soon Worricker was back in the country and attempting to right the wrongs he felt had been committed by the Prime Minister. But before the drama had finished there were a couple of twists and turns that even a regular drama watcher like myself didn't see coming. Whilst Turks and Caicos appeared to be an excuse for a bunch of actors to take a Caribbean holiday, Salting the Battlefield was definitely all business. All of the major characters from Page Eight returned to add continuity to proceedings and the focus on the influence of the press was a nice extra touch. Hare's script was a lot more well-paced this week and the conversations between the characters were primarily sparky and involving. The performances from Judy Davis as the head of MI5, Ralph Fiennes as the Prime Minister and Olivia Williams as The Independent's editor were all outstanding. Williams in particular shone in her scenes opposite Nighy in which Worricker tried to convince her of the Prime Minister's wrongdoings. However this was definitely Nighy's show and he demonstrated why he should be put in leading roles more often as he delivered a captivating turn as the erstwhile spy. Salting the Battlefield definitley saved the Worricker trilogy from being an abject failure and I have to say I rather enjoyed it.

We head to the world of documentary now as our favourite oddball host returns for a new series. Louis Theroux's L.A. Stories saw the journalist tell tales from the darker side of one of America's most notorious cities. When the series was first announced I thought Louis would be looking at gang culture, fad diets and possibly plastic surgery however I didn't think he'd tackle the subject of stray dogs. Louis' journey took him round South L.A. as he spent a lot of time with Cornelius Austin, who's known in the local area as 'the dog man'. Cornelius attempts to round up as many abandoned dogs as possible and hopefully either rehouse them or introduce them to one of his friends who'll attempt to retrain them as attack dogs. In addition to his time with Cornelius, Louis went to one of the city's busiest pounds and discovered that a lot of dogs were tragically euthanised to make space for newer additions to the pound. Louis also visited several dog owners, who were struggling with dangerous dogs and learnt how some dogs ultimately become abandoned. As ever, Louis was a fine narrator and often kept back from the action to allow his animated subjects to take the lead. I personally found Cornelius to be an incredibly likeable guy who'd given up any chance of having a proper relationship in favour of devoting his time to the abandoned dogs of the city. Louis' nervous energy was well-utilised in a sequence in which he had to let a potential guard dog attack him, something he wasn't really pleased about doing. As much as I love Theroux's documentaries, I found that this first instalment of L.A. Stories had nothing new to say. The revelation that a lot of dog owners ultimately abandon them due to their dangerous nature wasn't exactly a shock and there was only so much that Louis could discover during the show. In fact I found that the subject matter was slightly stretched to make it fit over an hour and at times I found myself getting rather bored. Luckily, the other two subjects in the series seem a lot more intriguing but I just wonder who made the decision to start this new run with a show about dogs.

A documentary that I felt was a lot more engaging was BBC3's Kris:Dying to Live, a programme that really demonstrated the worth of the soon-to-be-cancelled channel. The programme centred on Kris Hallenga who, aged 23, discovered that she had terminal cancer that had already spread from her breasts to her spine. We first meet her as she celebrates the fourth anniversary of this diagnosis and more importantly the fact that she's still with us. Instead of simply sitting and wallowing, Kris decided to try and prevent other young women from being in her situation so set up her charity Coppafeel! Along with her twin sister Marin, Kris' aim is to get young women to examine themselves on a regular basis to avoid the late diagnosis that Kris experienced. The documentary followed Kris over the course of a couple of years as we saw her fight brain tumours and also experience problems with her boyfriend Rich. In addition we watched her admirable campaign to make breast cancer education mandatory, something that takes her all the way to Westminster. All the way throughout Neil Bonner's extraordinary documentary I was taken by Kris' story and the ways in which it prompted her to go forward. Bonner's direction was incredibly intrusive, even following Kris into radiotherapy, but this helped us to connect more with her character. In addition I found the programme to be a refreshingly honest take on terminal illness, with Marin claiming that she didn't simply want to be known as Kris' sister. As sad as Kris' story was, the sadder element was that if BBC3 does eventually disappear from the airwaves then documentaries like this won't get made any more. I'm sure that part of the reason BBC3 was chosen as the home for the programme is due to the fact that it will reach the key demographic that Kris is attempting to speak to. Had this just been available online, I'm sure not as many would've had access to it and Kris' message wouldn't have reached as many people. Kris: Dying to Live was a superb programme about a remarkable woman and proved without a doubt that BBC3 needs to stay on the air.

That's me done for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites were you'll learn more about my thoughts on TV.

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