Alan Partridge successfully moved into documentaries this year with the excellent Welcome to the Places of My Life. But of course, Steve Coogan was surrounded by other actors playing other characters. How would it be if he did a proper documentary where nobody else was acting?
The Trojan horse of common sense that was Madeley Meets the Squatters (Thursday ITV1) made the fantasy real, and went further. This was Alan Partridge not just doing a documentary, but one that was, as Alan would say, absolutely superb.
Richard Madeley is Britain’s most Partridgean real broadcaster. The sing-song cadence, the mahogany hair worn raffishly – hell yeah, why not? – over the ears, the slightly mangled sentences, the mid-Atlantic “hey guys” tilt at cool. Madeley has it all, as devotees of his stints on Radio 2, or his fabled 2010 appearance on The Daily Politics, will testify.
Madeley Meets the Squatters saw him roving around Britain, investigating the media trope that people occupying empty buildings are a blight. The nasty end of squatting came first: in Walthamstow, a derelict pub was overrun with drunken itinerant labourers. Madeley went in. “Ooh, ripe. Ripe, ripe, ripe… there’s a very strong smell of urine, fire and – I have to say it – faeces.”
A discussion in the street with the man who runs the garage opposite, who has to hose that faeces off his yard every morning but was sympathetic to the squatters’ plight, was regularly interrupted by hulking, staggering, frighteningly inebriated Lithuanian brickies. Madeley conversed compassionately with them, but what was really satisfying about this whole segment was that he conducted all of it with his jacket thrown over one shoulder, like David Cameron at a fête.
On to Bristol, and a local squatters’ forum. “I’ve heard they’ve organised themselves into groups so they can squat more effectively,” said Madeley, stressing the funny words in the sentence just like Alan always does. “Everyone in this room is, or has been, a squatter.”
But Madeley listened to the group’s explanation that they were helping homeless people, and that this desperate need outweighed the annoyance of property owners whose (unattended) assets had been invaded. The debate came into focus – and became fascinating – when Madeley organised a pavement showdown between one of the squatters, Tristan, and an incandescent man who could no longer access one of his many houses.
Madeley couldn’t comprehend Tristan’s view that owning several properties was indefensible “greed” – he and Judy have earned that holiday home in Cornwall fair and square – but, with his unfailing, likeable politeness, he let Tristan make the case. Suddenly ITV1 was broadcasting an eloquent broadside against the inherent injustices of acquisitive capitalist society.
Later on, Madeley ran at night with “freegans” who scavenge in bins round the back of supermarkets, living off the abundant, perfectly good food the shops throw away every day. He stressed that these people were not claiming benefits – and indeed that it was “a point of honour” for many squatters not to do so.
The opposing view came from anti-squat crusader Mike Weatherley MP, who said squatters were “anarchists”, citing the example of people who moved into a house in his Hove constituency and then went online to invite other squatters to it, which showed that they were “internet-savvy” and, therefore, obviously not homeless. By now Madeley had seen squatting on the ground, so to speak. The Westminster rhetoric cut no ice.
Back to the real world, and a commercial building in London where the owners had unsuccessfully tried to deter squatters by wrecking the place before abandoning it. Alan Partridge took a look. “There are as many as 20 people squatting here and, to my discomfort, they share just the one toilet – which I reluctantly needed to use.”
A voice – presumably producer/director Nick Betts – asked if the camera could come with. “You can’t film me pissing! You are not filming me urinating.” Lynn, I will not drive a Mini Metro…
Betts often joshed Madeley: “Don’t ruin your best jeans, Richard!” he shouted, as the presenter shinned over a brick wall. But Madeley was game throughout. He started his career as a journalist and was after a story here, perfectly willing to shock the sort of people who read his Daily Express column by busting myths. Without Madeley’s star power this programme would never have snuck into ITV1 primetime. As he returns to what he, Partridgean to the end, referred to as “my own legitimate bricks and mortar”, he deserves full credit for that.
That ITV1’s dramas have improved over the past few years was confirmed by episode one of The Town (Wednesdays). It looked like a standard ensemble drama about a small town full of secrets, with various plot strands occasionally brushing against each other, a big central mystery sparked by a shocking opening scene, and no discernible point to it.
Which is basically what it was, but the line between goodness and pap is a fine one. The Town had an above-average script by playwright and TV debutant Mike Bartlett, with the lines free of cliché even if the set-up wasn’t. This attracted the sort of quality cast that, in turn, can lift a script.
So there were moments like Andrew Scott in his first major post-Sherlock role as a grief-stricken son, suddenly gabbling out all his feelings in a pub, then trying to stop his sobs with both hands on the way home. Or Martin Clunes as a booze-sodden mayor, stepping up to improvise a eulogy to strangers and possibly galvanise himself to start caring again. There was muscle and brains behind the yarn-spinning that any TV drama should have, but hardly any do.