TV UK, 11 September

On jumping London and sexing up Chaucer.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Towards the end of Jump London (Channel 4 on Tuesday) we were told that the performance we were about to see spoke for itself, which did make me wonder what the preceding 38 minutes had been in aid of.

Certainly there is a good idea for a TV programme here. French kids gracefully leaping up walls and over the roofs of buildings, and jumping from great heights, make for a great spectacle. French kids explaining their personal philosophies, however, make less engaging TV, especially when this is complemented by even more pretentious philosophising from the likes of the Pet Shop Boys, Arsenal’s Robert Pires, and Will bloody Hutton.

The documentary side of the film combined cod philosophy and cod architectural theory (subverting the meaning of space, etc) with a reality-TV-style preoccupation with the process of making the programme (‘Will we get permission to use the roof of the Albert Hall?’). All this was interspersed with footage of les gars doing their thing, set to that annoying ambient, trippy break-hop music that plagues British TV.

The frustrating thing is that there actually is something exciting about the footage itself. It isn’t that the boys are especially skilled, though they are. In fact, what’s exciting is the realisation that any reasonably fit person could do much of what they do. The reason we don’t see people clamber up the sides of buildings (say, in chase scenes in cop shows) is more to do with social convention than physical impossibility.

This spark of excitement was snuffed out by the boys’ desire to have their ‘sport’ institutionalised, with special ‘free-running’ parks in every major city. Oy – if you’re going to philosophise about ‘coming away from the tram-tracks’, you could at least run with the idea.

It must be nice to have your own word. Shakespeare has ‘Shakespearean’, George Bernard Shaw has ‘Shavian’, and Chaucer has ‘bawdy’. The opening two stories in the BBC’s new adaptation of the Canterbury Tales certainly go for ‘bawdy’, and possibly ‘romp’ too.

The Miller’s Tale (BBC1, tonight at 9pm) stars housewives’-favourite-loveable-Irish-rogue James Nesbitt as a conman (Nicholas the clerk) who sets his sights on the young wife of a older pub landlord (John the carpenter). Clearly, considerable liberties are taken with the plot, and even in spirit this adaptation seems to owe more to the animated version than to Chaucer’s original. It’s enjoyable enough, but take away the authority attaching to the Canterbury Tales and you are left with, well, a bawdy romp.

Next week, it’s The Wife of Bath, with Julie Walters as an aging TV star. The actual tale is relegated to the TV show she stars in, while the broader themes are played out by the actors. The aging actress falls for her young co-star, who is bored by young women, and keen to make a go of it with her, till the question of control arises….

This is much cleverer than The Miller’s Tale, but no less bawdy for that. All six of the new adaptations have different writers and different casts, so it’s probably worth sticking with the series in the hope that a few more good ideas have sneaked in under cover of bawdiness.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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