Archives for April 2012

Bang Goes The Theory's human-powered plane experiment: The results

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Jem Stansfield Jem Stansfield | 10:06 UK time, Tuesday, 24 April 2012

When invisible forces suddenly pluck you off the ground it's a massive shock, even if you've just spent weeks trying to make it happen.

And up until that moment I was far more worried about dealing with the consequences of failure than those of success.

But as I started to get a good view of the tops of people's heads and registered the weird, unexpected near silence of flight I realised I had but an instant to figure out how to control and power a brand new aeroplane.

When myself and my two mates Chris Hill and Jim Milner start designing and building the more extreme stuff for Bang Goes The Theory I know I'm probably going to be the test pilot.

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Watch Jem's pedalling power test

In some ways it's great but you don't half feel the responsibility.

Often the first chance we get to properly test a completed item is the day the cameras arrive. And I know that all the effort that we've put into it will mean very little if I don't somehow get it to perform on the day.

Designing and making a plane that works on pedal power took the most amount of resources we'd ever put into a job.

Before dawn on the day of our attempted flight even the boss of the programme was at Lasham airfield along with the camera crew.

There was also a crowd of pilots, photographers and eminent aero engineers who very much liked the look of the machine we'd constructed.

But Lasham is a working airfield and I knew that we only had a two hour window to try getting our plane airborne before the real planes started to come in and we had to stop.

If nothing happened in that time all we'd have really managed was to build a very odd looking bicycle.

Almost everything else we'd ever built for Bang Goes The Theory were things that I'd been thinking about for months or sometimes years until I felt they were ready.

In all that time however, an image of a one man aircraft that had to be pedalled into the sky had never once crossed my mind - until this series when Alex our producer planted it in there very firmly.

Also whilst filming at the new Olympic velodrome in Stratford for episode six there were a bunch of interviews with British Olympians being played out on the big screen behind us.

Over half of them said that the superpower they would most like to have was to be able to fly.

The thing is by then I knew that they all actually had enough muscle power to do it they just needed someone to build the correct exoskeleton - and that's what we were on to. (In some ways it's a plane but in many ways it really is just the exoskeleton a human being needs to put on in order to give them the power of flight.)

Back at the airfield with me in the cockpit, the first attempts didn't look good at all.

Jem Stansfield on the plane at dawn with his Bang team running beside him

Jem and the Bang team start the experiment at dawn

Although the early morning was almost as still as you could hope for, there was a breath of wind and we couldn't risk that flipping the lightweight plane.

So I had to pedal into the wind, which meant across the width - rather than down the length - of the runway.

With only a few metres of tarmac to gather speed we had no idea if I'd be quick enough to take off.

Pedalling uphill to avoid that side wind I couldn't seem to get any decent roll control. You have to turn towards the upward wing so the other wing effectively speeds up, gets more lift and evens things out - great in theory. Grrr.

The aeroplane turned uncontrollably, ploughing its precious and delicate wing into the ground.

I bailed out to try to minimise the impact on the airframe but luckily we discovered that if handled thoughtfully the craft seemed more robust than we'd ever hoped.

Now massively feeling the pressure we headed for an old part of the runway.

With a little headwind and flatter ground I got a small hop. I could tell because the sound of the wheels on tarmac suddenly went briefly silent.

At this point though some of the amassed eminent figures in aviation were questioning my piloting - was that really the reason it was almost bound to the ground?

We decided to put a pretty fit and phenomenally experienced pilot in the hot seat.

He too only managed a very small hop but crucially he was able to give me definite advice on using our homemade control system.

Success!!  Jem (with team) finally makes a 'hop' into the air

Success! Jem manages a few seconds in the air. Image copyright: Arthur Willmer

I took on board everything he said and cycled into a sensation that I simply didn't know existed. It's literally like being plucked from the ground.

Flying in a pedal-powered aeroplane feels like you've just dragged something out of the world of cartoons and into the fringes of reality.

It wasn't a huge flight - seconds long and 30 yards at best - but we'd definitely made an aircraft.

An aircraft powered by a fairly ordinary human.

In the history of the world it's highly likely that man is by far the heaviest creature ever to fly using muscle power alone. I now hope it happens far more often and gets easier with every attempt.

Jem Stansfield is a presenter of Bang Goes The Theory.

You can watch the human-powered plane take flight in episode seven of Bang Goes The Theory on Monday, 30 April at 7.30pm on BBC One and BBC One HD in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Viewers in Wales can watch on the same day at 8pm on BBC Two. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Meet The Romans - and not just the toffs

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Mary Beard Mary Beard | 09:40 UK time, Monday, 23 April 2012

Making Meet The Romans has been one of the most fun things I've ever done.

It's been extraordinarily hard work (don't think making a documentary series is very glam!) but it has let me share some of the things I do in my day job as a Cambridge classics professor with a much wider audience.

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Mary shows us an ancient Roman communal tomb

So, what do I try to get over to my students?

First that ordinary Romans are just as interesting as the toffs - the generals and emperors - and that there is still loads that we can find out about them.

They really come alive again if you take the trouble to listen to what they have to say.

Secondly that they were in some ways just like us.

I love the story of Allia Potestas, the ex-slave who was living with two blokes - the tombstone says that she was always up first and went to bed last (the woman doing the housework as ever).

And yet in some ways they were utterly different. Just think, for example, of all those communal loos.

That makes the Romans really interesting to try to get to know.

Mary Beard on the communal loos at Ostia near Rome in Meet the Romans

Mary Beard on the communal loo at Ostia near Rome in episode two

But it also shines the spotlight back on ourselves and on some of the things that we take for granted without much thinking about.

Your average ancient Roman would be gob-smacked for example at the way we separate our children off from the adult world, with their special food and clothes and books.

No turkey twizzlers in ancient Rome (and that's not just because the Romans didn't have turkeys)!

It's almost impossible to pick a favourite bit of the series.

But I don't think I shall ever forget unpacking the almost 100 teeth found in the drain of a dentist's shop in the Forum. Every one had clearly been extracted, and every one was rotten to the core. Just think of the pain.

And the ancient Roman bar-keeper who called himself Calidius Eroticus ('Mr Hot Sex') has made a pretty indelible impression too.

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Mary introduces us to a resident of ancient Rome - the baker

And what was I particularly sad didn't in the end make the cut? Again it's hard to say.

But I had really enjoyed going underground to explore Rome's Great Drain (it's still in use and we all had to be togged up in masks and germ-proof outfits).

And I learnt a lot when we actually made up some of the weird potions that the Romans recommended as contraceptives!

Mary Beard is the presenter of Meet The Romans.

Meet The Romans continues on Tuesday, 24 April at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Playing Sam in Lip Service's love triangle

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Heather Peace Heather Peace | 09:50 UK time, Thursday, 19 April 2012

Sam is everything I would like to be.

Smart, cool, brave, steady but with a spark and a wicked sense of humour. She doesn't suffer fools and she intrinsically knows herself.

Sam (Heather Peace)

Heather Peace as DS Sam Murray

In series two of Lip Service I was given some real challenges with the writing.

I felt like I had a real sense of who Sam was, which was a blessing as the writing explores how this steady character would react if everything around her became out of control.

It explores how it affects her work and it looks at Sam dealing with the issues alone and not asking for help.

I think the love triangle between Cat, Sam and Frankie only worked in series one because of the writing.

Harriet Braun (series writer and creator) wanted the Sam character to be a real contender in the fight for Cat's affection.

This contributes to the drama as it leaves the audience torn between Sam and Frankie.

When I first auditioned for Lip Service it was for the part of Frankie - they hadn't yet started to look for a Sam.

I read for the part but just wasn't right and I knew it. I couldn't find anything charming or loveable about the character but I think Ruta Gedmintas did.

At the end of my audition for Frankie I said "I could play that Sam character standing on my head!" at which point they made me read for it there and then.

I was thinking "I better get this right now after being so blooming cocky!".

At that time she was only in a couple of scenes and when I came out of the audition I phoned my agent and said "If I stood a chance of getting the lead role in Lip Service, I just talked my way out of it by reading for one of the really minor roles, sorry".

Cat (Laura Fraser) and Sam (Heather Peace) in Lip Service

Cat (Laura Fraser) and girlfriend Sam (Heather Peace) in Rubies bar

The hardest part of this second series was the fact that I had a few scenes on my own to film and I tend to be someone who bounces off the energy of the other people in the scenes with me.

I have the concentration span of a hamster so I really had to stay in the zone.

I listened to my iPod between shots so that I didn't start chatting and being silly.

It was a challenge but one that I loved every minute of.

I believe in the show and the writing... so roll on series three (fingers crossed).

Heather Peace plays the role of Detective Sergeant Sam Murray in Lip Service.

Lip Service starts on Friday, 20 April at 9pm on BBC Three. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

The 70s: An eye-opener and a joy

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Dominic Sandbrook Dominic Sandbrook | 09:50 UK time, Monday, 16 April 2012

I've always been fascinated by the 1970s. As I was born in October 1974 I can vaguely remember some of it - mainly Bagpuss, The Wombles and the excitement of seeing Star Wars - but the politics of the day completely passed me by.

But there's something oddly compelling about the day before yesterday and that's why I was so thrilled to have the chance to turn my two books on 1970s Britain into a television series.

As a slightly nervous first-time presenter I had no idea what to expect.

But making the series has been not just an eye-opener but a joy.

Of course television has its fair share of trials, from getting up day after day at 5am to enduring the stares of crowds of Birmingham shoppers who couldn't see the camera and naturally assumed that I was just wandering around talking to myself.

Dominic Sandbrook as a child in the 1970s, holding his Silver Jubilee balloons

Dominic Sandbrook in the 1970s with his Jubilee balloons

Back when I was playing with my Silver Jubilee balloons and my Space Hopper - and yes I really did have one - I had no way of knowing that one day almost four decades later I'd be striding up and down in front of the camera in a long coat surreptitiously held together by safety pins.

And certainly I had no idea that as a Wolverhampton Wanderers fan I'd one day face the supreme challenge of feigning enthusiasm while filming a segment about our rivals West Brom's pioneering multiracial team of the late 1970s.

But it's been a real pleasure to work with such talented and committed people to bring my vision of the 1970s to the screen.

In particular, even I have been amazed by the wealth of archive footage that our researchers managed to dig up.

If nothing else our series will have a wealth of clips that haven't been seen since they were first shown back in the 1970s, covering everything from the first package holidays and the first credit card to schools, cars, football hooligans and glam rock.

What all of this brought home was how strangely poised the 1970s now seem.

In some ways the decade feels like ancient history.

When you watch the clips of, say, Bernard Manning on prime-time television, or of people joking about working women, or of British holidaymakers heading out to Torremolinos for the first time the 1970s seem impossibly remote.

But then you watch footage of the oil shock of 1973, or news reports about the great explosion in credit card debt, or anguished documentaries about the state of Britain's schools and the morals of our teenagers and you realise that some things have barely changed at all.

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Designing the perfect 1970s living room

Perhaps above all then we've tried to capture the ways in which the decade of Ted Heath, Marc Bolan and Mary Whitehouse was both strange and surprising.

Seventies Britain is a place we've almost forgotten existed: a land that seems oddly familiar but also weirdly remote.

Will it chime perfectly with viewers' recollections? I doubt it. We all remember the past in our own way.

A woman who spent the 1970s as a teenager in Aberdeen is bound to remember them differently from a man who was, say, running a small business in Shropshire.

I'll be interested to hear what you think.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with our interpretation of big events like the advent of feminism, the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

But that's what history's all about: a healthy debate.

And if it gets people talking about our recent past and if it makes people think again about the 1970s, the most turbulent but also the most exciting of recent decades, then even filming at West Bromwich Albion will have been worth it.

Dominic Sandbrook is the presenter of The 70s.

The 70s begins on Monday, 16 April at 9pm on BBC Two (except for analogue viewers in Wales and Northern Ireland, who can watch on 17 April at 11.25pm and 11.50pm respectively). The series will be available to watch in iPlayer until 21 May.

For more information about analogue television and the digital switchover please visit Help Receiving TV and Radio.

For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Creating The Matt Lucas Awards with my childhood friend

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Ashley Blaker Ashley Blaker | 12:34 UK time, Tuesday, 10 April 2012

This corner of a school quad in Elstree, Hertfordshire is where this story begins in in the winter of 1986.

Matt and Ashley's school quad

The spot where Ashley and Matt first met

Over 25 years ago I approached Matt Lucas on this exact spot to tell him that the day before I had been off school sick and I had been watching a television show that featured a phone-in about TV, and I had heard a call from a 'Matt Lucas from Stanmore' and wondered if it was him.

It was: he had been off school unwell too and despite the fact that he was in the year above me we became good friends based on our apparent shared love of TV and being off school.

We have also collaborated professionally several times over the years as well.

Possibly the finest thing I've ever produced is a tape we made of phone calls to our teachers including Matt impersonating one in conversation with another on Christmas Day.

So despite having worked very closely with Matt and David Walliams since, it was an exciting proposition to make a solo Matt show when we first talked about it in 2008. It was this that became And The Winner Is... on Radio 2 and now The Matt Lucas Awards on BBC One.

We made our radio pilot on 27 April 2009 at the BBC Radio Theatre with guests Jon Richardson, Lucy Porter and Adam Bloom and for what it's worth, the first ever award was the Lucas for Most Incomprehensible British Accent.

Of course making a show for radio and making a show for television are very different and so Matt and I have spent a lot of time basically knocking the format down to its bare foundations and building it up again.

Matt Lucas and Ashley Blaker laugh together

Matt Lucas and Ashley Blaker

When we made the TV pilot, perhaps understandably, we embraced the award show theme and had the audience at tables.

However we quickly realised while it was the obvious thing to do it didn't actually work for us.

It looked amazing but there was something overly formal about it so we set about thinking of ways to recapture the relaxed mood of the radio recordings.

The result is the show that you will shortly see.

We decided to have the whole thing come from Matt's 'flat' and even have his real mum in the kitchen chipping in every now and again.

(I think some of the BBC people thought we were joking when we said 'not an actress, Matt's actual mum' but having known Diana for a very long time and having seen her chemistry with Matt I always had real faith in this idea.)

We'd had a house band in the pilot - David Arnold and the Available Session Musicians - but they had been a long way away and were rather underused.

So in the series we just had David on his own at a keyboard and brought him much closer to the action so he could also join in during the show.

Unlike on radio we also starting thinking a lot about the structure of the show.

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Watch Matt and guests discuss flat-pack furniture stores

We wanted to be able to change the pace more, have surprises and things happening between the awards and to also have some kind of climax at the end.

Always trying to make everything moveable within an episode, I initially wanted to avoid any costume changes that we wouldn't be able to drop if we didn't want them.

But Mark Freeland the BBC's head of comedy made the point that if you're making a sitcom you commit to the ending so why not do that here too and just say 'this will be the end of the show no matter what'.

That was the moment we starting thinking with each episode 'what are we building up to this time?'.

I hope people enjoy the show.

I'm very proud of it because I think this is exactly what a Matt Lucas show should be.

It's upbeat, jolly, has some singing, lots of silliness and Matt being charming and likeable as ever.

I hope you agree but if not you can always ring a TV phone-in like Matt did over 25 years ago.

Ashley Blaker is the co-creator, co-writer and series producer of The Matt Lucas Awards.

The Matt Lucas Awards starts on Tuesday, 10 April at 10.35pm in England and Northern Ireland on BBC One and BBC One HD. It's on at 11.05pm in Wales and 11.35pm in Scotland. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Writing The Preston Passion from the ground up

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Colin Heber-Percy Colin Heber-Percy | 12:02 UK time, Thursday, 5 April 2012

Here's the brief from Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC's Head of Religion and Ethics:

a) Tell the story of Christ's Passion, his suffering and crucifixion, in a way that's fresh and universal.


b) Set it in Preston.

That's it.

Writing drama for TV normally means having a detailed series outline to stick to, or piles of research to trawl through, or a novel to adapt.

But this?

A blank page is always daunting, but this was so blank. Where do you start?

By ripping up the rule book, and going to Preston.

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The self-sacrifice of Jesus is reflected through 12-year-old carer Bella (Aimee Leach)

My writing partner Lyall Watson and I spent six months in Preston talking to local people - faith groups, museum curators, leaders of the immigrant communities, prison visitors and people who came forward generously to share their stories: recovering alcoholics, war veterans, victims of crime and racial abuse and perhaps most affecting - a group of young carers.

All shared stories with us of quiet, personal heroism and sacrifice.

For me this research process was extraordinarily moving and a completely new way of developing television drama.

From the ground up. By listening.

Aaqil and Hilary Martin, the executive producer, wanted the drama to be 'universal'.

It must speak to people of other faiths and no faith as well as to Christians.

By telling very human, personal stories we hoped to avoid falling into the trap of re-enactment.

We wanted enactment, to make the Passion dramatically REAL and close. The story of the Cross as it matters everywhere and at all times, not just in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.

Bishop Crowther (Ronald Pickup) and Samuel Horrocks (Tom Ellis) in Pilate, part of BBC One's The Preston Passion.

Bishop Crowther (Ronald Pickup) and Samuel Horrocks (Tom Ellis) in Pilate

Returning to the gospel accounts of Christ's Passion we asked what elements must a story have for it to count as a 'passion' story.

And we settled on a formula: a passion story must have at its heart an act of gratuitous self-giving love that somehow turns the world upside down.

No longer blank the page is now a scrawl of notes for many stories.

It's at this point we decide to write not one Passion, but three: to tell the familiar story from three different points of view - Pilate's, Mary's and Jesus'.

So Pilate's story is mirrored for us in the story of Sam Horrocks, the mayor of Preston in 1842.

Confronted by a town in turmoil during a mill workers' strike he must decide between the starving workers on the one hand, and the powerful mill owners on the other.

Like Caiaphas in the gospel, the Church of England sides with the mill owners and the strike leader's fate is sealed.

Our connection with Mary, the mother of Jesus, is through one of the many women who ran a free cafe on Preston railway station for the troops during World War I.

She bravely continues to serve while awaiting news of her soldier son.

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Mary (Samantha Bond) waits for news of her soldier son

And the self-sacrifice of Jesus is reflected here and now by a 12-year-old girl.

The daughter of an alcoholic mother, Bella cares for her young brother and sister.

As she shops, cooks, baths and loves them she passes through the traditional Stations of the Cross (the stages in Christ's journey to his death).

It's a way of telling the Passion story that satisfies me as a committed Anglican, and Lyall, an agnostic.

Did we ever argue about religion? Of course. But then having written together for years we argue about everything.

And most importantly we both feel enriched by our encounter with the Passion and with the people we met in Preston.

The Preston Passion has been a turning point for both of us - a reminder of why we wanted to write in the first place - to share stories. To share.

Colin Heber-Percy is the co-writer of the three short dramas which form part of The Preston Passion.

The Preston Passion is on Friday, 6 April at 12.00pm on BBC One and BBC One HD.

If you are affected by any of the issues featured in the Preston Passion, and would like some advice, please visit the Help and Support information page (available until 16 May).

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Our Food: Exploring Britain's colourful history

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Alex Langlands Alex Langlands | 12:00 UK time, Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Our Food is a celebration of the nation's food - its origins, its tastes and the story it can tell us about our island's history.

I'm passionate about food and where it comes from.

At home I try and grow as many fruits and vegetables as the garden and greenhouse will allow and firmly believe the love and care put into the growing of food comes out in the flavour.

For me Our Food was an opportunity to extend that passion nationally and to explore the story of my favourite food and the people responsible for its production across Britain.

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Alex Langlands meets Gwyn Thomas and his mountain sheep

You might think that as an archaeologist there isn't much call for my services in the food industry, but you'd be wrong.

Archaeologists - especially on TV - have been guilty of portraying archaeology in too narrow a light.

Over the last decade or so it has moved on as a discipline and has become so much more than a few trenches, some broken pottery and a handful of dusty old bones.

Archaeology is all about the material world around us and how to read that world.

Our own lives leave in their wake an archaeology of sorts, and even the most contemporary of industries leaves behind an archaeological record that can be studied in its own right.

The structured landscape of the world around us and the built environment are archaeological resources that can tell us a huge amount about ourselves.

For example I was amazed to discover in Scotland just how big the herring industry had been and how crucial to its growth the railways were.

The smokehouses of Mallaig, the dry stone walls of the Welsh valleys and the ancient field systems of Norfolk (all of which feature in the series) are all archaeological remnants of food-producing industries that have come to define these places and the people that occupy them.

What's more, before the Industrial Revolution the overwhelming majority of people in this country worked in a rural setting where their lives were intimately bound up with the production of one thing - food. So as an archaeologist you're never far from studying that which we have eaten and its centrality to our island's history.

In episode two, I got the opportunity to explore sheep farming in the mountains and valleys of Wales.

It's a way of life that really appeals to me. My host Gwyn was a true inspiration and I can honestly say that after a day striding around the valley I didn't want to leave.

Carving out a living in this harsh environment is all about working with the conditions - not against them - and the idea that sheep can be 'hefted' to the hills fascinates me.

A 'hefted' flock is a flock that knows their patch of the hillside and knows where to be and when. So much so that when the farmer comes to round them up all he needs is a dog and a whistle and the ancient knowledge passed down from generation to generation of sheep kicks in.

The flock slowly make their way, without the encouragement of a quad bike or the constraints of barbed wire, to a convenient place on the mountainside where they can be counted and checked - magic and timeless.

Alex Langlands with turnips

Alex visits Norfolk in episode two to examine the impact of the turnip

You'll see in episode one that I've always struggled to enthuse people about the turnip and just how important it has been to British farming.

So when I was asked to travel to Norfolk and explore the history of this humble vegetable and the role it still plays in agriculture, I was delighted.

This was a chance, once and for all, to spell out just how key it was to arable and livestock farming.

Turnips were introduced into crop rotations in the 18th Century to improve fertility in the soil, break the cycle of pests and disease and to support greater numbers of livestock.

The results of its introduction can hardly be understated and there's little doubt that without this simple root vegetable farming would never have been able to support the huge population growth of the 19th Century.

It was in Norfolk that it was really brought home to me just how important food is.

Its production and consumption permeate almost every aspect of our lives and its story can tell us so very much more than we think about Britain's colourful and extraordinary history.

Alex Langlands is one of the presenters of Our Food.

Our Food begins on Wednesday, 4 April at 8pm on BBC Two and BBC HD (except for analogue viewers in Northern Ireland and Wales). The series will be available to watch in iPlayer until Wednesday, 2 May. For more information about analogue television and the digital switchover please visit Help Receiving TV and Radio.

For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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