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This Week in British TV: Fred Phelps: Monomaniacal, Racist, Sexist, Homophobic, Xenophobic, Unimaginative and Cruel Hater of Goodness

By Caspar Salmon | TV | April 8, 2011 |

By Caspar Salmon | TV | April 8, 2011 |

University Challenge


So did you see it? The great TV event of the week — nay, of the year — took place on Monday. I’m talking, bien sur, about the final of “University Challenge” — the program wherein teams of four students from the greatest universities in the land, and some less great ones, square off against each other in the hopes of being named Brainiest Brainbox Boffin Brains. The way it works, if you don’t live in the country or are the sort of backward half-mind who doesn’t watch “University Challenge” and prefers to live in your pigswill-stained hovel with no books, is that the teams have to buzz to answer one question that is open to both of them, and upon winning that starter question, get to tackle three more.

Or, as the fabulous Jeremy Paxman put it at the start of the show, “if you don’t know the rules by now, you never will, so let’s get started.” The show brings out the best in Paxman: his huffy impatience when the kids don’t answer quickly enough, his smirking superiority when they get one wrong, his louche amusedness when they make a funny. He’s a bit like everyone’s favourite gruff uncle, and is an erudite, winning ringmaster for this most learned of programs.

Monday’s final saw Magdalen College, Oxford, facing off against York University — and it had already been clear to most viewers when York made it to the finals, that whoever got drawn against them would win. Magdalen were favourites from the outset, and it was only the most radically establishment-hating viewer who could hope for an upset. York University — captained by the feeble-voiced Andrew Clemo — got the first couple of questions, and took the lead. But then Magdalen College guessed ‘Egon Ronay’ correctly in answer to a question about the man who revolutionised food in Britain, and from then onwards York University got fisted to death by a great big arm made of general knowledge. They lost by 85 points to Magdalen’s 290: a veritable trouncing.

Yes yes yes, this is all very well, but I hear you all clamouring: how did you, the writer, Caspar Salmon, fare? Really, you’re too kind. The answer is that this had been a pretty good season for me, during which I averaged about 10-15 correct answers per prog, but I put in a poor show for the final. The only questions I got right related to writers (Tolstoy, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis), conductors (Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic), language (“unzip” is the only word in the English language which begins with ‘unz’), and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Those of you who know me will know how devastating was my failure to recognise paintings by Turner and Constable. I certainly wouldn’t have got a spot on Magdalen’s team, particularly beside the very impressive Kyle Haddad-Fonda, the American science student, and the quite attractive young captain Matthew Chan. There were no real people’s champions this year, and no really sexy candidates, and no all-knowing geniuses like recent victors Gail Trimble and Alex Guttenplan, but it’s still been a very good year for this most reliably delightful quiz show.

The Crimson Petal and The White


A new mega-budget, starry cast period drama trod the cobbles of the BBC in its finest lace and dirtiest underwear this week, as “The Crimson Petal and The White” debuted on Wednesday. And it’s OK!

The show centres on a smart young Victorian prostitute (SIGH, we’ve seen this before, but keep going) called Sugar, and her involvement with a dandified upper-class fop called William Rackham, whose life is changed for the better when he and his bits make the acquaintance of the vital young lady of the night. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the usual collection of kind-hearted whores, cruel madams, prim Victorian reformers etc etc. In her spare time, Sugar writes stories of murder, and there is an air of menace hovering over the whole thing. I quite like it, because the whole thing is filmed rather beautifully, if slightly flashily, with gorgeously lit close-ups, a real feel for colour and texture, and some nice little tricks and effects that give it all a bit of much-needed pep and realism. In the daytime scenes, the lack of artifice in the cinematography, complemented by some naturalistic acting, give it a very modern feel and the young prostitutes feel very relatable. There’s also a proper sense of the drama of the Victorian era: the macabre cityscape; the squalor and the opulence side by side. All of this is rendered perfectly.

A word about the cast, too, who aren’t gobsmacking but do a fine job: Romola Garai has never been a great actor but she is so charming and frank and dependable, with something in her forthrightness that reminds you of Kristin Scott Thomas, that you sympathise quite easily with the main character. Opposite her, Chris O’Dowd of “The I.T. Crowd” does a very creditable job of rendering the feckless, priggish and lost William Rackham, and there are lovely performances in supporting roles by THE GREAT SHIRLEY HENDERSON!, and by Amanda Hale in an unrewarding role as ‘the mad wife’. I’ll definitely carry on with it, even though - slight quibble - not very much story actually got covered in this first episode, which mostly dealt in atmospherics.

Louis Theroux: America’s Most Hated Family In Crisis


After this winter’s excursion to Gaza’s extreme zionists, Louis Theroux went to visit some more horrendous religious bigots this week as he set about revisiting the Westboro Baptist Church, whom he had already filmed in a harrowing documentary for the BBC five years ago or so. In returning, he found that many of the old members of the church had deserted in recent years, leaving behind the foul ravings and inhumane beliefs of the church of the repulsive Fred Phelps.

It made me cry. There comes a point where, if you follow what the Westboro Baptist Church’s activities, you feel you’re becoming inured to their particularly crazy brand of evil — and yet, as Louis Theroux discovered this week, they can still shock you. I don’t know what the worst bits were: perhaps it was when one young woman spoke laughingly of burning a man’s Koran, and then picketing his wife’s funeral when she deservedly died of cancer a year later; maybe it was the signs they held up with Matthew Shepherd’s face on them, saying “10 Year Anniversary In Hell”; or perhaps it was when Theroux went to meet the daughters who had been thrown out of the church aged 18 for having kissed a boy or whatever, never to see their parents or siblings again, and they spoke longingly of their feelings of loss and wanting to see their family once more — while, back home, their parents said their children were dead to them. Oh wait, yup, there it is, I’m crying again. Thanks a flipping bunch, Fred Phelps, you disgusting tyrant, you inhuman opportunist, you monomaniacal, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, unimaginative and cruel hater of goodness. The sheer audacity of the Westboro Church’s hatred — its persistent, callous carelessness and the outrageousness of their all-encompassing loathing — actually made a dent in Theroux’s beautiful carapace of distance and irony; you could see him struggling to control himself in the face of this nastiness.

The most typically lovely Theroux moment came when he interviewed a young boy (aged ten) on the topic of why fags should die. It’s a difficult subject, and one ten year-olds, in my view, shouldn’t be talking about. The kid spouted his rote hatred at Louis Theroux, and concluded, “so you can just shut up about it.” Louis Theroux looked amused and said, “Did you just tell me to shut up?” — whereupon the kid blushed a bright red, and laughed, and blushed some more, and said, “Sorry. OK. No. OK, forget it. Sorry!” and carried on with the interview, in which he confided that he’d heard the entire church would be going to live in a pink cave in Jordan and wouldn’t that be awesome? Theroux had found the heart, the silliness and innocence of the child behind the loathsome propaganda, before it’d yet been able to set in stone as it does for adults. The rest of the show was a struggle, talking to indomitable men and women who have found in their unquestioning acceptance of a strain of Christianity, and their rejection of everyone else, a gap for the things their lives are missing.

Twenty Twelve


Very briefly, I want to go back on what I said about “Twenty Twelve,” the mockumentary satire of the London Olympics team, when the first episode was broadcast a month ago or so. I’ve now watched four episodes and it’s pretty bloody good, actually.

In my original column, I said essentially that the show’s satire is toothless and old hat, but I think I’d sort of missed the appeal of the show, which deals in a much lighter, more airy sort of comedy than I had been expecting. With time, its delicate rhythms and sense of observation have started to really tickle my funny bone, and it also has the bonus, week after week, of showing Jessica Hynes nee Stevenson delivering an EPIC masterclass in comedy acting. A million miles from Daisy in “Spaced,” her marketer Siobhan Sharpe is a vapid, superior, smug idiot whose every utterance is cluttered with disastrous PR-speak. She is so gloriously patronising and vacuous at once, with a completely new voice that sounds absolutely right with that smug face and those overdone clothes and sunglasses, that it is a joy to behold.

The writing on the program doesn’t revolutionise comedy, but it does have some beautiful lines, including the lovely touch each week of the voiceover repeating Hugh Bonneville’s exact words as he says them (i.e. Hugh Bonneville says, “It’s been a good week, all in all”, in muted sound, while the voiceover pompously explains, “For Ian Fletcher, all in all, it’s been another good week”). And it really milks all the comedy out of some of the situations it concocts: particularly, this week, a Powerpoint presentation going wrong. That sounds so corny and unnecessary, a remnant of comedy from the days of yore, but it was smashingly executed, with all the sweetness and whimsy required. Watch it!

Caspar Salmon would not want to have to choose between Tilda Swinton and Shirley Henderson. Oh fine, fine, it’s Tilda — take Shirley away! Let me keep Tilda! Pssh. Meryl Streep never had to deal with anything like this.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.