Russell Brand's Ponderland – Channel 4: Late Night Comedy From Britain's Most Notorious Stand-Up

What you see is most definitely what you get with Russell Brand. Forced to resign from his BBC Radio 2 show after he and Jonathan Ross made a somewhat tasteless prank call to actor Andrew Sachs, Brand typifies the “edgy” breed of British comedian. Few subjects are taboo, and subtlety is notably absent. So it is safe to assume that “Russell Brand’s Ponderland”, his latest Channel 4 series, is not for the easily offended. “Irreverent adult humour” is what passes for a content warning just before it begins.

Not One For The Whole Family

Basically a glorified clip show along the lines of “Animals Do the Funniest Things” or “You’ve Been Framed”, each week Brand takes a theme and builds a stand-up routine around it. Rather than snippets sent in by the public, there is a series of archive interviews of suitably offbeat people, and Brand invites his audience to have a jolly good laugh at them. The theme for the first show of the series is pets, and starting with his own experience of gerbils, Brand wastes no time in introducing a series of animals and their eccentric owners.

Most of the clips date from the 1970s or earlier, so there is a range of blissfully unaware men and women with terribly posh accents discussing their various pet dilemmas. As this sort of accent is only heard during period dramas these days Brand goes for the easy laugh mocking the “upper class” with all their little foibles. The real “you couldn’t make it up” item comes from the man who kept a lion in his garage to study its movements to help him improve his king fu prowess.

Possibly Amusing After Several Pints of Lager

There are a few funny moments, but so-called jokes about topics such as battered wives, or describing one particularly aggressive dog as a “canine Rain Man figure” leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth. And the clip of an American woman who prefers relations with her dog rather than her husband appears to have been included for shock value and nothing more.

 

Brand obviously has an eye for the absurd, but given “Ponderland’s” post-watershed slot, seems to feel obliged to pack in the obscenities and crude humour. What he will do with next week’s topic, families, is anybody’s guess. The show is made by the Vanity Projects production company, which pretty much sums it up. A waste of a good concept and Brand’s stand-up talent.

The Bible – A History on Channel 4: Ann Widdecombe on the Ten Commandments

Traditionally Sunday telly has succumb to the paltry existence of accommodating religious programmes on the Beeb, tacky family films clogging up most of Five’s schedule and soap omnibuses all round. It’s a depressing day to be blanking out in front of the googlebox especially for those people who suddenly realise after two hours of Coronation Street that the weekend has evaporated into the ether and they’re back in work the next morning. It’s best to spend the time doing something more worthwhile.

But if on the off chance there’s nothing else to do make sure you avoid any show that boasts Ann Widdecombe as host, it might just be the bleakest downer to mark the closure of the weekend. The Conservative MP puts forward her viewpoint of the core Christian text in The Bible: A History, with her focus on the importance of the Ten Commandments and why they should be re-introduced.

Realistically though it’s mainly an excuse for a despondent old gasbag to bemoan modern society and the people in it for living a life they choose rather than following the rules and teaching of an ancient book. These arguments are brought up every generation, as referenced in this documentary, and are best kept to the pages of the Daily Mail for its closed minded readers.

Ann Widdecombe on the Ten Commandments

Widdecombe leads to this point with the familiar story of Moses and how he came to write down the ten basic rules passed to him by God. That’s according to the Bible of course. This is where Widdecombe’s commentary on The Bible: A History starts to unravel as she speaks about the Old Testament as if it’s fact and happened as it was written (all contradictions intact).

Her blinkered viewpoint and reluctance to accept other opinions is infuriating. When a scholar suggests that her research and lack of archaeological remains shows that Moses didn’t write sections of the Bible Widdecombe is personally offended and asks sarcastic questions alluding to Moses not existing. The scholar can’t be certain, and Widdecombe smugly declares her victory against a sceptic.

 

Of course nobody knows for sure, the point of history is to find evidence of what happened in the past and not just go along with one manuscript because it agrees with your opinion. It still doesn’t stop her moralising after hearing a mother’s harrowing tale of aiding her son suicide due to his suffering with Huntington’s disease, using it as an example of how killing could be made legal. It’s not quite as simple as that, and thankfully she does acknowledge the complications of the situation to some extent.

Ann Widdecombe vs Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens

Science be praised for Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens popping in for a quick chin wag – to put it lightly – following a public debate on religion. Both put forward rational thoughts on biblical teachings, not saying that the basic principles of the Commandments are absurd but taking the Bible as a whole without picking out the best bits is ridiculous. Hitchens becomes so enraged by Widdecombe’s pompous attitude that he walks out.

Admittedly this has no more been a review than what could be viewed as a personal attack on Ann Widdecombe but it’s hard to take anyone seriously who seems adamant to push their lifestyle on others. The series as a whole is a good idea if it does represent all sides of the discussion on Christianity, not merely acting a soapbox for one parliamentarian who wishes mankind to be dragged back to an era where understanding of the world was very basic and slavery, as Fry points out, was fine and dandy.

There is a problem with violence and frivolous spending at the moment but oppressive laws backed by religion are not the answer. If 3,000 year old rules suit your way of life that’s fine, don’t think it’s okay to thrust them upon everyone else. Where’s Richard Dawkins when you need him?

The Execution of Gary Glitter on Channel 4: Fictional Hanging of Rock Star to Spark Death Penalty Debate

At the high point of his career Gary Glitter (real name Paul Gadd) was the most popular glam rock star in the UK. Then a string of child pornography and child molestation convictions in the late ‘90s and early 2000s damaged his reputation beyond repair and at one stage he could have faced firing squad in Vietnam for several charges laid at him while he lived there.

So comes The Execution of Gary Glitter, a fictionalised account of a trial to sentence him to death when he is arrested after his arrival at Heathrow Airport in an alternative world where the British government have restored the death penalty for serious crimes. It’s also prefaced with the words “This is a work of fiction” just in case anyone mistakes this for reality in a Brass Eye sort of way.

The Execution of Gary Glitter to Start Debate

The basis for this programme is that a couple of recent polls show that the majority of people questioned wanted the death penalty brought back for serious crimes. This mockumentary/drama aims to confront this opinion much like the similar Death of a President did with assassination of George Bush and Tony Blair during their trial for war crimes.

Glitter (here played by Hilton McRae) is perhaps the perfect choice to spark debate on this subject, as he is constantly berated in the media and is someone whose public image has sunk so low that mere sightings of him would result in lynch mobs. Although it’s very easy to say someone should be killed or sentenced to death but how many people out there would be willing to commit the deed themselves?

 

Hilton McRae as Gary Glitter

McRae is believable in his role, portraying Glitter as an arrogant individual who refuses to plead guilty, claims his innocence and smiles in court but also as a man fearing the end of his life.

The final half hour focused mainly on Glitter’s last days on death row before he is hanged and are emotionally challenging. The idea is not to allow the viewers to completely sympathise with the man or forget what he did but merely present him as a three dimensional human being rather than the personification of evil that’s plastered all over the tabloids.

Real people pop up to speak their mind in “interviews” with the likes of Ann Widecombe and Garry Bushell talking about the case as if it’s actually happening, throwing about phrases such as “rampant paedophilia” and complaining about liberal elites. In the court scenes Glitter’s lawyer James Carter (Adam James) however argues in his summary that even though Glitter disgusts him and may be evil, taking his life is morally as bad.

The Execution of Gary Glitter a Little too Real

Unfortunately its main strength is also its biggest downfall as this all feels a little too real especially as it uses actual footage of the real Glitter and the aftermath of the Soham murders. The latter used as the foundation of a political campaign to bring in the legislation at the centre of this story. The result is something that’s a little uncomfortable to watch, obviously an intention of the makers, and comes across as exploitative despite the important message behind it.

But as parallel universes go the one portrayed in The Execution of Gary Glitter is one of the most terrifying yet.

Bear Grylls Born Survivor on Channel 4: The New UK Chief Scouts Tackles the West Coast of Ireland

These survival shows are brilliant aren’t they? Who doesn’t want to know how to live off moss and build a raft from coconuts just in case they happen to get stranded on a desert island? And not one of those islands that has a mysterious past featuring age-less inhabitants and has been the location for world saving experiments as in Lost, the proper Robinson Crusoe type.

There are a couple of expert faces that pop up in this arena of infotainment, Ray Mears and Les Hiddins are a few but the rugged visage on Channel 4 for Born Survivor is newly appointed UK Chief Scout Bear Grylls – a man with the second best name on TV after Million Dollar Trader’s Lex Van Dam.

It’s a different "island" adventure for him this time. Bear has tackled the extreme cold of the Antarctic and the torturing heat of the Sahara, however on his latest episode he faced his biggest challenge to date by travelling to the dangerous and uninhabited land of…Ireland. It sounds ridiculous in comparison to his earlier exploits but by logic’s sake it’s the one situation most people are most likely to find themselves in.

Bear Eats Maggots and Makes a Sheeping Bag

Literally thrown off the west coast in the middle of sea in freezing cold waters, Grylls not only has to swim to land but also negotiate his way up the rocky shoreline before eventually giving up and diving back in the water to escape. Once he’s on solid ground Grylls spies a rotting seal completely devoid of its blubber so he has to make do with maggots scooped from the eye sockets. Yummy.

It’s clear early on that the lack of glamorous environments hasn’t removed the element of peril especially as he unexpectedly falls through a hole only to be helped by his cameraman. One particularly wince-inducing scene – the “water cooler” moment – came as he spotted a dead sheep during his quest for food. Bear had to wade through the particularly sticky peat bog to retrieve the animal, skinned it and then feasted on raw heart for dinner. He got a lot of mileage out of the carcass, even making a “sheeping bag” and buoyancy aide from its fleece.

 

Bear Grylls vs Ray Mears

Overall the Ireland adventure was entertaining, with just enough mix of facts and fun. It should be noted that Mr Grylls has come under some criticism after it was revealed that on some of treks he wasn’t in fact left in the wilderness but stayed in motels and the occasional tool was actually prepared in advance. But that doesn’t detract from his endearing nature and child-like enthusiasm, all of which make his TV shows largely enjoyable.

Ray Mears typically has far better advice and survival know-how; he could be dumped in the middle of a huge desert with only his trusty pen knife to defend himself yet still manage to live out the rest of his biological life. What Grylls does have over Mears is solid charisma and a more intense screen presence as he spurts out random snippets of information. Or the Bear Necessities of Life. Yes that was terrible.

The remaining episodes of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor are shown every Saturday at 7.30pm on Channel 4.