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Hidden Britain by Drone review – spellbinding footage, depressing viewing

Hidden Britain by Drone review – spellbinding footage, depressing viewing
11th April 2016 Kactus Pie Design

Tony Robinson’s drones took us to some inaccessible places, but inevitably a human dimension was missing, while the Stephen King 11.22.63 adaptation imagined a better world if JFK had lived.

It has got to the point where I can’t see a man in a hi-vis jacket and hard hat on television without wondering if it’s George Osborne looking awkward in an industrial setting. The man standing in a huge recycling plant on Hidden Britain by Drone (Channel 4, Sunday) wasn’t Osborne, but he did sound like him. “Ultimately,” he said, “it’s about making money.” And you thought recycling was about saving the world.

There was something dystopian and depressing about this programme, even though the idea was good: use cameras on drones to access secret and inaccessible places. It was presented by field-botherer Tony Robinson, who introduced the drones as if they were his pets, though they looked so sinister he came across like a comic-book baddie in sensible outdoor clothing.

To be fair to the drones, they caught some spellbinding footage. First we went to London Gateway, the huge container port by the Thames. From the air, the colourful containers looked like neatly stacked shortbread in a tin. On to Copehill Down, the pretend village on Salisbury Plain where army recruits are trained. Then to Easton Neston, a stately home owned by a rich Russian. Then to Churchill’s decaying war bunker in Neasden; the recycling place in Bristol; the Royal Mail’s railway under the streets of London; and a nuclear weapons storage facility in Suffolk. We swooped over the swimming pools and jetties of the super-rich in Sandbanks in Dorset and, finally, to abandoned croft cottages in the Outer Hebrides whose previous owners couldn’t make a living. If this sounds rushed, it was. The visits were so fleeting and superficial it all seemed a bit meaningless.

At RAF Barnham in Suffolk, where nuclear weapons were kept during the cold war (locals thought they were breeding monkeys for a British space programme), an air commodore says he finds it “extraordinary” that he is speaking publicly about this for the first time, but doesn’t say why he is talking now. The crofters’ cottages are unbearably melancholy, with coats still hanging on pegs, family photographs and a stopped clock on the mantelpiece, and the walls crumbling around them, but the brief explanation about why they are in this state felt unsatisfactory and unexplored. The emotional, human element was missing, but what do you expect from a programme made by drones?

“This is a human-free zone,” says Robinson of the container port – at the old docks, 100,000 people were employed at one time, while London Gateway has “a few hundred highly trained specialists and an ever-vigilant computer”. The Post Office’s railway closed in 2003, and mechanical sorting has edged out human workers. Perhaps one day all TV programmes will be made by drone, with no need for cameramen and women.

James Franco in 11.22.63.
Photograph: Publicity image

“The way the world is now doesn’t make any sense,” laments Al Templeton in 11.22.63 (Fox, Sunday). Everything would have been better, he says like a man who has spent too much time in internet chatrooms, had John F Kennedy lived. This eight-part drama is adapted from Stephen King’s 2011 novel, and one of the producers is JJ Abrams, so you can expect big budgets and big names – the opening episode is directed by The Last King of Scotland’s Kevin Macdonald.

Templeton (Chris Cooper) had discovered a time portal in a closet in his diner – walk through it and you always end up on an October day, 1960. However long you stay, just two minutes have elapsed in the present day. He has been going there for years to piece together who really shot JFK – with plans to stop them – but he is dying and he manages to persuade a young English teacher, Jake (James Franco) to take on the mission: “You save Kennedy’s life, you make the world a better place.”

Jake is out of his depth and reluctant – he must know from every time travel book and movie that changing the past can have unintended consequences. Still, off he goes, back to 1960, with Templeton’s JFK research dossier (here’s a tip from the future, Jake: make a couple of copies).

There are some good jokes and some good shocks, and a fine layer of dread settles over everything like dust. It looks as if we have three years to get through with Jake before the day of the assassination but he’s likable enough, even though his habit of talking to himself is irritating and assumes we’re all idiots. “Holy shit,” he says to himself after following Lee Harvey Oswald’s friend George de Mohrenschildt to a meeting with a couple of shadowy men who must be the CIA. “That was the CIA.”

Imagine an alternate universe in which Simon Cowell didn’t become patron saint of public humiliation and dancing dogs. Britain’s Got Talent (ITV1, Saturday) returned this weekend. Now in its 10th year, there are contestants on the show who weren’t even born when it started, and it was the same old show – the dance troupes, the intros that make you think a contestant is going to be dreadful but – surprise! – they turn out to be brilliant, the no-hopers we’re invited to laugh at. It hasn’t got any kinder.


Review by Published: Monday 11 April 2016 Read review on The Guardian website