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One of the saddest downward spirals on television today is Sir Alan Sugar’s vanity exercise that we all know as The Apprentice, now in its tenth series and increasingly undermining any credibility Sugar had left in the business world. If the ten people you want to really really work with you all leave then you can’t be much of a boss and you should get the message. I have always thought he is a snidely horrible bloke and Dave Whelan maybe right on this case. Sugar likes being famous over being a busy entrepreneur these days and just cant let go of fame, increasingly ridiculous candidates selected and then humiliated to drag out series after series, mugs also looking for TV careers. But we may have a new East End working-class TV hero in the likeable but gruff fish trader that is Roger Barton, the so-called ‘Bastard of Billingsgate’. He was in a BBC documentary at the start of the year about the famous old fish market being dragged into the multicultural 21st London century and proved the most engaging (and least racist) characters of the wily old cockney traders, but more importantly didn’t get tricked into blaming everything on immigrants on camera and proved a decent people person to all faiths and skin colors, as harsh as his business skills were on his fellow traders and customers. It’s a tough life down on the market and Roger lived every line of it on his grey bearded mush. He is the sort of bloke you would want in the trenches. Cor blimey guv’nor!
So, how do you utilize an engaging cockney trader on TV? Well you send him off to other big markets around the world and let him sink or swim, which the BBC did, two episodes of three already broadcast. The first was Fulton Fish Market in New York, notorious back in the day for being controlled by the mob and all manner of punch ups over space and trade between the warring ethnic mixes. It does ten times the trade of Billingsgate today and our Roger was given a few quid by the producers to top up his own savings and with the help of the local traders and a decent pitch tried to see if his selling methods were up to the task in Queens, lots of obnoxious loud mouth Americans ready to shout him down if he slipped up.
With a similar ethnically challenging demographic causing tension it didn’t go well as you would expect. Like Billingsgate, the new big consumers of wholesale fish are mostly South East Asians, Chinese and South Korean. It really is a multicultural mix and the established traders have to learn new tricks. The Chinese buyers are aloof and the Koreans quiet and drive hard bargains. Nobody buys at retail and the margins are tight, the more traders the less product. After two days of losses with very few buying his fish Rog cuts his prices to get rid late in the day to make a loss, Barton decides to take a trip to the docks up the coast to buy directly from the fisherman after recent storms and snare one of the few boats that dared to go out. It’s a success and he makes two grand on the mixed haul and covers the week’s losses. The locals were not impressed with his bravery cutting into their profits and lessons were learnt and few friends made and lost. In the old days he would have got a hiding by the local mafia guys.
Roger (no doubt ‘encouraged’ by the producers) thought it would be a really good idea to try and sell ‘jellied eels’ to high end NY restaurant chefs. Anyone who has tasted them will know that’s not a good idea and a truly disgusting taste as it is an experience picking them out of the jelly. Needless to say he lost a few bucks on that venture too. There’s a reason eels don’t sell well in Manhattan.
Second up was the world’s biggest market, ‘Le Central de Abasto’ in Mexico City, but this time fruit & vedge, and lots of it. Roger has never sold fruit & vedge before and with the local Day of the Dead festival coming up he decides to sell flowers instead, but another slow day, the pure size of the place means you have no idea who else is selling that particular flower and at what price. The traders have a culture of not sharing information and its cutthroat stuff. Every trick of the trade is needed to come out on top. Roger makes a loss on his flowers but invited to a family home to experience the celebration, a surprisingly fun one to be honest, relatives placing items on the shrines of their loved ones that sum up their lives, in this case a bottle of Tequila.
The next morning Roger decides to take advice from Mexico’s king chili trader and goes out to the farms to buy direct. Recent rain hade made the chili supply drop. Mexico loves its chilies and always demand. But he buys at too high a price and by the time he gets back with a truck load the price has fallen, selling every kilo at a loss. But the final indignity is he has to sell most of the lorry load to the chili king at a 30% loss. The Chili king had sent him to a farmer that the chili king had already agreed a price with to buy from Roger and they both stitched him up. That’s business in Mexico. Next week he is in the bustling and chaotic markets of Mumbai in India.
It’s an enjoyable series and Roger no doubt popping up on Nine out of Ten Cats one day as he too chases fame. His wife died recently and 4am starts may not be as attractive now. But he is engaging, knowledgably and articulate for a working-class man and the sort of character that makes good TV. It’s refreshing not to have to watch a documentary that isn’t about poverty porn and we always love a character. The next episode is on BBC2 next Sunday. Oh how I would love Roger to take Sir Alan’s place.
If BBC Three is aimed at a younger audience then I think it is fair to say that BBC Four is trying to appeal to an older one or at least those who are looking for a more educational type of programme discussing subjects that may not feature on the main channels all that much.
Programmes taking an in depth look at major scientific discoveries feature heavily in their schedules along with documentaries and live performances from musicians who are not widely known or who have a specific fan base, I can remember a brilliant live set by Randy Newman which I enjoyed immensely and watched several times using the iPlayer which you can use to view many shows from this station.
Like all television channels BBC Four has some things on offer that you will like and some that will hold no interest for you what so ever. Only Connect is a quiz show presented by Victoria Coren who is absolutely lovely. Two teams of three compete against each other to solve puzzles and questions and it is no exaggeration when I say it extremely tough. Using logical thinking and deep general knowledge the contestants much find answers and then decipher links and connections between other answers, the people are very impressive and never cease to amaze me especially under the pressure of being on television as well.
What I particularly love about this BBC channel though is most definitely their docu-drama type shows of which I have seen several. I have watched those dramatising the lives of Margaret Thatcher and Gracie Fields along with a depiction of the recent MP's expenses scandal and Micro Men.
Long Walk to Finchley told the story of Margaret Thatcher's political career including her early struggle to even become an MP and how she balanced this with her young family. The acting was fantastic and the style of these types of programmes is one of a drama that is very watchable and as great parts of the story are based on truth it is given the title of docu-drama. A similar style programme about Gracie Fields who was a popular singer in the first half of the twentieth century was also very interesting and entertaining.
The drama about expenses told the story about how a journalist started the in depth analysis and exposing of some MP's expenses claims but one of my favourites has to have been Micro Men. This depicted the progress that was made by British companies in the seventies and eighties in the computer market. The relationship between Sir Clive Sinclair and Chris Curry is demonstrated as they both battle for dominance of the home computer market. Martin Freeman and Alexander Armstrong are both brilliant in this and it is quite amusing, showing Sir Clive's obsession with his much maligned C5 car.
Although not everything broadcast on this channel appeals to me the programmes I do watch are thought provoking and very entertaining. I always knew who Randy Newman was but the concert I watched made me want to research more of his music and the various docu-drama's have made me want to learn about certain famous people and periods in time as well as make me think about what I should do with my own life.
BBC 4 This is an excellent channel from the BBC and is the home of a more select group of programming for the discerning viewer what I like about this channel is that there are not many repeats and the programs are of an original concept....this means that on any given day you can tune in from 7pm in the evening to around 2 -3 am.
I love the quiz program called connect this is a high brow quiz show where if I get one or two answer right in a single program I feel like I have achieved something usually vacated by PhD students and Cambridge/oxford grads this quiz as the name alludes is all about connections and making them between seemingly four different objects words places and so on and so on! Hoisted by Poker professional and commentator Vicky Coren this is just one program out of all the BBC Schedule you really should watch! There are of course other programs that will certainly hold or ignite your interest ......currently running is a program on the history and production of tartan....this Channel is like a good Sunday afternoon it warm style unique subjects and easygoingness certainly offers a break from the brash and sometimes clinical nature of other channels.
I consider BBC Four to be the 'Jewel in the Crown' of BBC TV. The subjects covered are wide ranging and extremely well researched and it is so refreshing to turn on the television and find a programme that is both entertaining and in many cases educational. Just this week we have The Story of Maths in which Professor Marcus du Sautoy guides us through the history of mathematics, Andrew Mars Britain From Above, showing how the country has been shaped over the years and a repeated classic Betjeman's Metroland where Sir John shows tells in his wonderful style how the Metropolitan line extended the suburban boundaries of London during the mid - war period. For a little light relief That Mitchell and Webb Look is a good chuckle. Quite a few of the programmes on offer are made in conjunction with the Open University and these I find of particular interest. Altogether a marvellous channel which I believe shows the BBC at it's very best. With quality and in depth detail like this it makes the licence fee a little easier to accept.