Small-Screen Jabber 25 November – 1 December


guy martin vs robot car

With driverless cars already a reality and said to be widespread on our streets within the next five years, what does this mean for road safety and jobs? In Guy Martin vs Robot Car (Sun, C4, 9pm), the former racer and petrolhead explores how artificial intelligence and robotics will have an impact, builds his own self-driving Ford Transit but finds it hard to get it to think for itself, and races the prototype Roboracer at Silverstone. This is a highly entertaining and unstuffy look at an area of technology that is set to change our lives massively. Then fast forward to The Robot Will See You Now (Tues, C4, 10pm), which looks at the growth of personal assistance in the form of Siri, Alexa and the Echo – helpful or sinister?

last men in aleppo

Most cities in Syria have been reduced to rubble after five years of civil war – in Aleppo, 350,000 people are still living under siege among its ruins and in fear of ongoing military strikes. The Storyville film Last Men in Aleppo (Mon, BBC4, 10pm) portrays the work of the White Helmets, a local volunteer force who search the rubble for both survivors and the dead. The three men – Mahmoud, Khaled and Subhi – in this extraordinary film made with the help of the Aleppo Media Centre face death daily and their own dilemma: to stay and help the remaining residents, while risking their own deaths, or get out and save their families. This is not easy to watch, but it’s an incredibly moving examination of the shocking realities of living through a war.

channel worlds busiest waterway embed

Small it may be, but it ain’t half crowded. The Channel: the World’s Busiest Waterway (Wed, C4, 9pm) is a sharply observed, access-all-areas four-parter about the slender strait that separates us from the rest of Europe. It’s astonishingly busy, as you’d gather from the title, as 400 ships a day pass through – the endless container ships, the passenger ferries, cruise ships and private pleasure boats. The opening episode follows a two-week window in the busy summer period. The container giant the MOL Trust, four times bigger than The Titanic, arrives from the Far East rammed with pallets of Christmas goods and local sea pilot Tony goes on board to steer it as none of the foreign crew have ever navigated the channel. Ferry skipper Mark is beset with drunken passengers and adverse weather. And we get to eavesdrop on angry “right of way” conversations between captains. As fly on the wall documentaries go, this is one of the best in a while – it really lifts the lid on how it all works.


wallis queen that never was

The tale of Edward VIII’s abdication has been told endlessly. His twice-divorced American wife Wallis Simpson was portrayed as a manipulative seductress who sought to become queen, but settled for him giving up his throne for her. Now, Wallis: the Queen That Never Was (Wed, Channel 5, 9pm) draws on her personal diaries and other documents to suggest that rather than a shameless opportunist who inspired hatred, she was intelligent and kind and didn’t actually want to marry him. This docu-drama stars Georgina Rich as Wallis Simpson and Alex Avery as Edward in the dramatised sequences that attempt to flesh out a different viewpoint.


joe orton laid bare

One of our most promising young playwrights in the 60s, Joe Orton was brutally murdered by his jealous boyfriend at the age of 34. Fifty years on, Joe Orton Laid Bare (Sat, BBC2, 9pm) celebrates his cultural contribution to modern theatre and his wit. Actor Bryan Dick portrays Orton in some dramatised scenes of his personal life, while Antony Sher, Freddie Fox and Jaime Winstone head a star-studded cast playing selected scenes from Orton’s often outrageous oeuvre. Biographer John  Lahr, who drew heavily on Orton’s personal diaries for Prick Up Your Ears, Kenneth Cranham and Patricia Routledge are among the interviewees, while fresh evidence is presented about his death.


Now 90, Ken Dodd is still out there gigging on the circuit and entertaining new generations of fans. Ken Dodd’s Happiness (Tues, BBC4, 10pm) was first shown in 2007 in the Arena strand, and is a fine tribute to the tattyhilarious man with the tickling stick from Liverpool’s Knotty Ash. There is archive footage of some of his earliest shows as well as of more performances. Dodd also discusses his lengthy career and the influences on his style of comedy, while not giving much away about the “real Ken” in somewhat guarded interviews.


how to spend well at christmas

With Black Friday now behind us, our thoughts are doubtless turning to all the other presents – and the food and decorations – we still need to buy for the festive season. Philip Schofield presents How to Spend It Well at Christmas (Tues, ITV, 8pm), which over the next three weeks will show you how to bag a bargain, look at the must-have toys and examine the cost of keeping everyone happy (£120 a head, apparently). Jonathan Ross pops up this week to discuss the return of nostalgic toys. Time to dust off my Furby, then.

Louise Bolotin is Screenjabber’s TV critic. She has a penchant for quality drama and quirky documentaries, slums it with EastEnders and pities people who watch reality TV, which might be why she never writes about The X Factor.

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