The Times – Imagine, Shylock’s Ghost

Howard Jacobson has a book out reinterpreting both character and play, but this was no glorified plug. The results were thoughtful, provocative and occasionally revelatory, with the ever-Pooterish Alan Yentob providing inadvertent comic relief as he nosed around Jacobson’s bookshelves. Almost every encounter brought fresh insights. I could only agree with Jacobson’s conclusion: ‘Shlock gets bigger as I discover more and more different perceptions of him. He is a character for all time’.

Radio Times – Imagine, Shylock’s Ghost

Did you know that the word “ghetto” derives from the area of Venice in which Jews were once made to live, asked to lend money to oil the city’s economy but not permitted to mingle with other citizens? Alan Yentob and Howard Jacobson are in town to analyse The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s enduringly popular but endlessly problematic play.
Does the monstrous Shylock – or “the Jew”, as the text more often has it – make The Merchant itself anti-Semitic? On first, second and third glance, yes. But as our hosts debate and examine more and more closely, with the help of some severely brainy contributors, they find genius in the play’s ambiguities. It’s a nourishing academic analysis, of the kind TV doesn’t often give us.


TV Guide – Me and My Guide Dog

“The ‘aww’ factor is incredibly high in this two-part follow-up to the 2013 documentary about the work of Guide Dogs (formerly The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association). It looks at the bond that blind and visually impaired people share with their companions, including DJ Jill Barkley and her dog Lucas, and former Home Secretary David Blunkett and his canine pal Cosby. Cameras also follow a gorgeous 10-strong litter of puppies as they make their first steps on the journey to becoming guide dogs when they go to live with their volunteer ‘puppy walkers’ to learn some basic socialisation skills, but there are challenging times ahead for some of their new foster parents.


The Telegraph One To Watch – Thalidomide: The 50 Year Fight

“How can it be right that a young girl has no arms to hold someone and no legs to dance on?” This was part of MP Jack Ashley’s powerful speech to a packed House of Commons in 1972 over the Thalidomide scandal. During the late Fifties and early Sixties, Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to combat morning sickness. Tragically, it led to children being born with deformed or missing limbs. Bu the time the drug was withdrawn three years later, 180m tablets had been sold across 46 countries, with over 10,000 babies killed or damaged, making this the worst disaster ever inflicted by medicine. Some victims were left to die, while others were shut away from the world and mothers, consumed by guilt, committed suicide.
More than 50 years on, this excellent documentary hears from British people affected by it, their devastated families and those who battled to secure compensation from the drug’s manufacturer. We ear the little-known story of one fathers decade-long fight for justice against one of the UK’s largest corporations – a dramatic saga which takes in dirty tricks, government cover-ups, attempts to silence the press, a boycott of the company’s products, a shareholder revolt and the involvement of such high-profile figures as Ralph Nader and Rupert Murdoch. Narrated by actress Juliet Stevenson, this admirably detailed account eschews sentimentality in favour of factual reporting – yet it remains deeply affecting.


Observer Picks of The Day – Thalidomide: The 50 Year Fight

This is the best, most important documentary on television this week. It tells the little known story of David Mason’s battle for justice against one of the UK’s largest corporations. In the 1960’s the Thalidomide scandal shocked the world and devastated families. The fight for compensation saw the government and drug company silence the press, forcing campaigners to use covert ways of keeping their battle in the public eye. Fifty years on from the tragedy, victims, their families and those involved in the campaign talk about their 10-year battle through the courts. An extraordinary account.


Radio Times – Thalidomide: The 50 Year Fight

DOCUMENTARY OF THE WEEK The thalidomide story still has the power to shock. This lucid but passionate documentary hits us again and again with details of how the scandal unfolded, but also of how one man fought for years to get a just settlement.
Originally a sedative (marketed, strangely, by a drinks manufacturer) the drug was prescribed for pregnant women from the late 1950’s, apparently because doctors at the time thought morning sickness was the result of women getting over-excited about pregnancy.
It’s one of many ways that the story throws beliefs of the time into unforgiving relief. When children started being born with missing limbs, disability was so stigmatised that medical staff would sometimes try to hide the fact from mothers or leave babies to die unattended.
Perhaps the worst aspect of the scandal was the way the City, the legal system and the government tried to suppress the story and keep compensation to a minimum. Art dealer David Mason, father of a thalidomide-affected daughter and the film’s hero, was having none of it.


The Times – Thalidomide: The 50 Year Fight

This moving documentary pays tribute to David Mason OBE who, at considerable personal cost, did more than anyone else to drive through a proper settlement for the victims of Thalidomide. His daughter Louise was born, he says “with little flowers where her arms and legs should be”. Against the wishes of many other parents of Thalidomide victims, he refused to accept Distillers’ derisory offer; he was subject to threats and abuse, and at one stage even lost the legal guardianship of his own daughter. Eventually he received support from a group including one Rupert Murdoch, who secretly funded a guerrilla poster campaign.


The Guardian TV Highlights – THE SCHOOL THAT ROCKS

School is normally something that really gets in the way of rocking out. But not the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, where wannabe popstars line the corridors in search of a legitimate qualification in rebellion. There are some challenges though; 19 year old singer Ella is struggling to find her own groove, producer James returns after being chewed up by the real-life music industry, and the MassMatiks, an indie band whose name is presumably an ill-advised pun, hunt for a record deal. Rachel Aroesti.



There was a time when becoming a rock star meant starting out by touring grotty gigs in a battered old van. These days you can learn to do it at the Academy of Contemporary Music in Guildford, Surrey, where wannabe stadium legends are taught the ins and outs of the notoriously treacherous music biz. This film follows the fortunes of the latest bunch of fame-hungry pupils as they try to get a foothold on the ladder to stardom.



There is a marvellous moment in this profile of The Tiger who Came to Tea author Judith Kerr when presenter Alan Yentob follows her up the stairs to her studio. Though Yentob is more than 20 years Kerr’s junior – she turned 90 in June – he has real trouble keeping up. Kerr seems to be one of those remarkable people who defy their age simply by the strength of their spirit. She smiles – a compassionate, thinking smile – almost continuously, and yomps off around the London suburb of Barnes (where she has lived for decades) for an hour-long constitutional each evening. Yet Kerr’s own early story (which Yentob evocatively tells by the simple expedient of taking her on a trip back to the Berlin locales of her infancy) is anything but cheerful. Her father, the writer Alfred Kerr, was number two on the Nazis’ death list. His family fled Germany on the very night before Hitler came to power, when Judith was nine. She turned the experience into an autobiographical novel, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, now a set text for German schoolchildren. These days, Kerr is perhaps best-known for a much more mainstream series of children’s books, about the sulky-but-beguiling cartoon cat, Mog. Her prolific talent, suggests Yentob, comes from still inhabiting a child’s head. “I think I was rather a grown-up child, so I feel much the same as I did then,” says Kerr. “I wanted to draw things, and look at things, and thought the world was very beautiful – which I do more than ever now, because one does when one is old.”



A remarkable edition of IMAGINE tells the extraordinary life story of Judith Kerr. Alan Yentob accompanies the 90 year-old Kerr back to Berlin, the city she and her family were forced to flee the day before Hitler came to power in 1933. The effects of exile were to have far reaching consequences for the whole family.



Look up “spry” in the dictionary and you might see a picture of children’s author Judith Kerr, who turned 90 this June, but still bounded up the stairs to her attic study, leaving Imagine host Alan Yentob panting behind her. She also walks around Barnes, in south-west London, for an hour every evening, takes a sip of martini every day at lunch and dismisses the Janet and John learn-to-read series as “boring”. My kind of woman.
What a pleasure it was to look at the world through Kerr’s eyes for a little while in Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me on BBC1. She hasn’t ceased her eager observation for 80-odd years and in that time has produced beautiful sketches, paintings, textiles and illustrations, all almost as lively as the artist herself. It’s this creative curiosity, inherited from her father, that has been her lifelong solace. “He was looking at things all the time and if you do that, you don’t despair. He would say, ‘Yes, this is bad, but it’s interesting.'”
Alfred Kerr was a leading Jewish intellectual in pre-war Berlin, but escaped with his family in the nick of time. The Nazis came to power the day after they left for England. On a trip back to her childhood home, Judith told the little girl now living there about her wartime experience, “It wasn’t so sad, it was very interesting.” In fact, as she later acknowledged, the trauma of these years cast a long shadow over her family, especially her mother, who bore the greatest amount of stress and attempted suicide several times. Kerr drew on this these years in her semi-autobiographical books for older children, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Other Way Round.
This Imagine was an example of the increased cultural significance children’s books are now accorded and it’s good to see. Making children laugh is a noble pursuit.
As Michael Rosen, another great in the genre, usefully pointed out, there are darker shades in Kerr’s work too. In a literary form where most characters drift on forever in a kind of permanent stasis, it was radical to kill off beloved cat Mog, but like all the best authors of books for children, Kerr has no time for sentiment.



With celebrated children’s author Judith Kerr (‘The Tiger who Came to Tea’, ‘Mog’) turning 90 this year, this ‘Imagine’ documentary is long overdue. 

Forced to leave her Berlin home for England on the outbreak of war, her story is both terrible and extraordinary. Here we see her return to her home for the first time, and follow her day to day life as she discusses her written – and real – stories. We see not only Judith’s books but her art (including remarkable drawings she made as a child before the rise of Hitler forced her and her family to flee). 

Judith has an attitude that carries through the documentary: a balance of shrewdness and innocence which takes it away from the realm of the dark or the twee. That this approach makes for such wonderful children’s books is unsurprising. Ill-suited psychological readings of her books aside, this is a beautifully straightforward documentary on a hugely likeable figure.



Now here’s an idea. How about a talent show in which all the participants have talent? Where the emphasis is on the quality of the contestants’ work, rather than a sentimental back-story. Where the judges are chosen on their ability to assess the work on offer, rather than their sexual chemistry and willingness to adapt to a good-cop, bad-cop routine. It will never catch on, of course. But if these are the qualities you’d like to see in a talent show, then Portrait Artist of the Year (Sky Arts) is required viewing.



Sky Arts’ random-presenter-generating machine has thrown up an interesting pairing to front their new television competition show. Portrait Artist of the Year will be presented by veteran broadcaster Joan Bakewell and that er… renowned expert in fine art Frank Skinner. It’s Bake-Off, but with painting, because apparently there is no hobby or artistic pursuit that won’t do as the basis for a TV talent competition. Whatever next? A show about competitive stamp collecting presented by Kerry Katona and Alan Yentob? A taxidermy tournament with Mary Beard and Peter Andre? Let’s hope so, because on the evidence of last night’s episode these marriages of high and low culture can be surprisingly successful.
Six 60-minute programmes will decide which of the 21 artists wins the big prize, a £10,000 commission to paint Booker Prize-winning author Hilary Mantel. The first of the heats took place in a tent near the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, where the contestants were given four hours to portray one of the three familiar faces who had come to sit for them: Alison Steadman, Robert Lindsay or Juliet Stevenson.
Bank note designer Louis daubed blocks of colour on his easel without anything close to a likeness appearing for some time, while 17-year-old student Kemi took to her canvas with alarming confidence to quickly produce the faces of Juliet Stevenson and her young son. To see the different artists at work, employing very different methods was a thrill even for the three judges. “I deal in art but I very rarely see portraits being painted,” said Kate Bryan, head of contemporary art at the Fine Art Society. Meanwhile, fellow judges Kathleen Soriano, director of exhibitions at the Royal Academy, and portrait painter Tai-Shan Schierenberg argued over their preferred style. “I like a big head with lots of paint,” said Schierenberg firmly. Soriano was less convinced.
Simply to hear fine art debated enthusiastically by knowledgeable people was a treat, and even more so, given this is a format that might appeal to an audience wider than the usual BBC4 crowd. A different celebrity sitter each week should sprinkle some stardust on proceedings, while the fact that the judges already seem to have developed a simmering dislike for one another also bodes well for our future entertainment. All they need now is to somehow get Mel and Sue involved and they’re on to a winner.



Lushly produced new contest that could happily sit on BBC2. Robert Lindsay, looking every inch the actor, is one of the celebrity sitters, and the different styles of the artists make for some good disagreements among the judges. Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell host.



Every hour, another person in the UK goes blind. When someone loses their site, guide dogs ensure they don’t have to lose their freedom as well.
With exclusive access to The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association, this heart-warming film, narrated by Paul O’Grady, follows the puppies in training and shows the difference guide dogs make to people’s lives.
For the past 80 years, the Association has been matching the visually impaired with their canine guides in life-changing partnerships.
It’s a unique relationship between a blind person and their utterly dependable best friend.



A fascinating one-off documentary about the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind. We begin at the national breeding centre in Leamington, where a Labrador Golden Retriever cross is about to give birth to 12 pups. We also meet Lynette and David, who are being paired with new dogs. Both talk about how they felt when their sight deteriorated. ‘I don’t want to rely on other people, says David, who’s delighted when he meets his new companion, Pippa. We follow dogs and owners in the training process and hear about Mark and Claire, who found love when their guide dogs struck up a friendship.



In Me & My Guide Dog (ITV) we saw not only the difference these dogs make to the lives of people like David, but also the astonishing amount of work that goes into their breeding and training.
Each dog costs around £50,000 to train and of the 1,300 puppies bred for the purpose only around 850 will have the temperament needed.
With statistics like that it’s no wonder Labrador Kane, who’d fathered 162 guide dogs, was considered such a valuable stud.
His mating with golden retriever Georgie resulted in 11 puppies that were all considered obedient and intelligent.
But when a breeding centre tried to get nine year old Kane to become a donor so his sperm could be shipped abroad he was having none of it, proving that you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
As adorable as the dogs were, it was the owners’ stories that made the programme captivating.