After Big Brother, Channel 5 has grown up and struck documentary gold

From heartwarming escapism to Michael Palin in North Korea, out of nowhere Channel 5 has become the home of smashing documentaries, says TV editor Alison Graham

Michael Palin in North Korea (Channel 5)

I must make a confession. It’s not a big confession, it’s not Watergate, I’m not going to go on telly to insist there was no cover-up before it is revealed that there WAS a cover-up and I have to apologise publicly and leave Radio Times in a helicopter, with one last salutary wave.

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No, my confession is that roughly this time last year I had a favourite show that I watched in my own time, not as part of my job. I’d decided it was just too frivolous to bring to anyone’s attention, except my own as it turned out.

Dear readers, I watched a two-part documentary about Christmas shopping in Harrogate and I loved it. There, I’ve said it. I’m not ashamed. It was called Harrogate: a Yorkshire Christmas and honestly, there was nothing to it, just footage of businesses in the well-heeled spa town arranging their festive window displays for the year’s best Christmas scene competition, and setting up the Christmas lights.

I loved it, and it was made by Channel 5. No other channel would have bothered, but Channel 5 will make documentaries about anything, and they do it jolly well. The Harrogate thing was pure escapism, but it was also heart-warming, a little programme about people who simply loved their town, were proud of it and wanted it to look its finest. What’s wrong with that?

Channel 5 has suddenly, out of nowhere, become the home of smashing docs. Nothing fancy, just straightforward, informative stuff about disused railway lines, railway modellers, doctors, vets, farms (Our Yorkshire Farm, Tuesday 27th November: C5 clearly has a fascination with Yorkshire), Michael Palin in North Korea, and this week, Oxford Street (Oxford Street 24/7, Thursday 29th November). There’s also Egyptian Tomb Hunting with Tony Robinson (Tuesday 27th November) and there are a load more Inside documentaries coming up.

There is a place in the television landscape for documentaries that have no frills and no fuss. There’s nothing fancy about any of these shows, but they do a job. I love Portillo’s Hidden History of Britain (Friday 30th November), which is packed with nuggets of quotable information. Like the one about the abandoned nuclear bunker in Cambridge, and Britain’s hopelessly inadequate plans for possible nuclear annihilation, which included civil servants handing out biscuits to whoever was left alive. Biscuits?

Michael Portillo
Michael Portillo

Other channels , particularly the BBC, of course, do the Big Stuff, the Major Issues, and so they should (see They Shall Not Grow Old). But Channel 5 is good at nosing into corners and bringing us small stories, things that won’t make us feel overwhelmed and despairing (just about any Channel 4 documentary). They might even make us feel good.

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It’s a valuable service and, more widely, it’s heartening to see a channel that used to be a bit of a joke actually grow up, dump Big Brother and start stretching its limbs into not just documentaries, but new drama, too (see new series Blood, which was really quite good). And I hope that there’s a return visit to Harrogate this year…