TV Blog: The best (and worst) of the week's telly

Blog by Chris Lindsay | 28 Sep 2009

No-one does nature documentaries like the BBC. It's a simple equation; David Attenborough's hushed narration + sublime footage = TV gold. The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, Planet Earth etc. are all staggering natural history programmes but their stately, hands-off approach can be a little cold - viewing nature from an objective, removed position, so it was refreshing to see a different tack being taken with non-Attenborough series Lost Land of The Volcano (BBC1, Tuesday).

Following an expedition to an extinct volcano, the programme documented a group of scientists and survival experts on a mission to discover species previously unknown. The show was less interested in grand sweeping shots than getting us down 'on the ground' with the team; here the camera operators were not invisible observers but our presenters; enthused experts including us in the excitement of their discoveries and allowing us to understand their importance.

There was an element of real danger too with the explorers often getting out of their depth, including an absent-minded biologist who wandered too close to a live volcano and a slightly mental caver who went on a multi-day underground, hallucination filled sojourn. But the personalities never upstaged the wildlife and their grungy, hand-held aesthetic, allowed for more scientific insight than grander nature-docs as we saw the efforts that went into studying the animals. Gripping stuff.

A few channels over, BBC4's current This is Scotland season is throwing up some interesting programmes from the archives, including some of the best Scottish film, drama and sitcom from the last 30 years, the highlight being the 1996 TV adaptation of Iain Bank's acclaimed novel The Crow Road (BBC4, Wednesday), that the author himself describes as 'better than the book in far too many places.'

Made in the same era of confident Scottish film making as Trainspotting, this is a more genteel, middle class tale but is pervaded by the same effortless cool and underlying darkness as Danny Boyle's masterpiece. As we follow the son of a wealthy family attempting to unravel the disappearance of the uncle he idolised from youth, lead character Prentice is every bit the 90s' everyman and if there was any justice, star Joseph McFadden would be as big as Ewan McGregor. The cast is a staggering who's-who of Scottish acting talent with Bill Paterson, Peter Capaldi, Dougray Scott just the tip of iceberg and it's great to see an adaptation of a celebrated Scottish novel that treats its source material with respect, unlike ITV's garish Rebus mash-ups.

It's also interesting to note the difference in pace to current youth programming. The Crow Road takes its time in setting its tone; treating its audience with intelligence instead of like idiots who'll get bored if the camera stays still for ten seconds, a rare thing in today's frantic schedules. Heartily recommended viewing.

In the second of our occasional classic picks I have the pleasure of suggesting you check out Channel 4's seminal Spaced which celebrates it's 10th birthday this week. Responsible for launching the careers of the team behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Spaced was written by and starred Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (or Stevenson as she's known here) and featured a host of talent that went onto bigger things including David Walliams, Ricky Gervais and Peter Serafinowicz, to name just a few.

A sitcom about a guy and a girl who pretend to be a couple, Spaced explores the age old question of whether men and women can really 'just be friends' and, being written by members of both sexes, has a real authenticity on the topic. But more than this it is about a generation who frame their lives in relation to the film and TV that dominated their childhoods and act out their fantasies in a series of references and riffs on more famous stories.

Very post-modern and very clever, it's hard to overstate Spaced's importance – both in terms of its influence and its own artistic merit. Shot like a feature film on a micro TV budget and performed to perfection, it's responsible for the current vogue for home grown 'Cult TV'. Without it there would be no Being Human, no Peep Show, no Mighty Boosh – dare I say it, no relaunched Doctor Who. The most perfect flatshare drama ever, Spaced moved the goal posts for what was possible in terms of marrying romance, geek appeal, comedy and drama.

All three marvellous episodes of Lost Land of The Volcano are available to view on the iplayer. Watch them, you won't regret it.

Sadly The Crow Road isn't available to rewatch online. It is however available to buy on DVD and is worth every penny.

Both series of Spaced are available to watch on 4od (because 4od is wonderful and the best catch up TV service in the UK.)