my hero: hugh dennis on ronnie barker (SATURDAY, BBC1)
the secret life of the shannon (sunday, rte1) life of crime (FRIDAY, ITV/UTV)
ronnie Barker was a genius: a superb actor with a special knack for comedy and a hugely talented writer who contributed sketches, always delivered to the BBC in a brown envelope, to The Two Ronnies under the pen name Gerald Wiley, which he continued to use even after the secret was out.
He was also, by all accounts, a very ordinary man in his private life. If Barker had inner demons, they were well concealed in Hugh Dennis's My Hero tribute. "He was Marks & Spencer," said Ray Millichope, an editor on The Two Ronnies, summing up Barker's modesty and lack of showiness.
Unfortunately, extreme ordinariness doesn't always make for compelling TV, and there were moments when Dennis seemed at a loss for something interesting to say. Bizarrely, he started out by claiming he "knew nothing" about Barker – a strange admission to make about your hero. By the end of the hour, we knew little that was new, either.
Sheila Steafel, who appeared alongside Barker on The Frost Report in the Sixties, and Christopher Biggins, who played Lukewarm in Porridge, testified to how great Barker was to work with, as did Eileen Atkins, who appeared with him in rep before his TV breakthrough. Millichope said Barker's eagerness to be involved in all aspects of The Two Ronnies' production could make him exasperating in the editing suite – but it was exasperation coloured by affection.
The only hint of edginess was when Steafel recalled how Barker – irritated that David Frost had travelled alone to Montreux to accept the coveted Golden Rose award for The Frost Report – had certificates made up for his fellow cast members.
Barker was an avid collector of harmlessly saucy vintage postcards, a habit Dennis seemed to view with prissy distaste.
The terrific clips, many of which I'd never seen before, were what saved the programme, and perhaps they're tribute enough. Oddly, though, Dennis managed to overlook Barker's acclaimed straight performance as butler and confidant to Albert Finney's Winston Churchill in the BBC-HBO film The Gathering Storm in 2002.
The first part of The Secret Life of the Shannon made even a non-swimming water wuss like me want to join presenter Colin Stafford Johnson in his canoe for a leisurely trip along our longest river.
"I have no fixed agenda," said Stafford Johnson. "I just want to wander and explore." And that's exactly what he did, marvelling at the variety of wildlife – golden-tipped butterflies, water bats, lapwings, curlews, red shanks, egrets – that emerges once the Shannon waters recede in spring.
Stunningly filmed over two years, it's both a glorious guide to one of the few unspoilt areas left in Ireland and a lament at the way so many species, not least the corncrake, will soon vanish.
The three-part thriller Life of Crime drew to a contrived, anticlimactic close, fizzling out like a match in a puddle. We'd arrived in 2013. Detective Denise Woods (Hayley Atwell) found her career on the up but her private life in ruins.
She finally nailed the rapist-murderer she'd been chasing for nearly three decades – because of the hoary plot device of having the gloating villain incriminate himself by saying too much. A disappointing cop-out.
My Hero: Hugh Dennis on Ronnie Barker HHHII
The Secret Life of the Shannon HHHHH
Life of Crime HHIII