I spent a week watching Channel 5 so you don’t have to

Monday

I am watching Channel 5 on purpose. That’s a sentence I never thought I would say 12 months ago, along with “Please keep three fridges apart from me while I’m shopping, sir.”

Channel 5 has always been the Scrappy Doo of terrestrial TV, but it turns out, in the most 2020-esque twists of 2020, that Channel 5 might actually be quite good now. Blood and All Creatures Great and Small have been smash hits, and this year Channel 5 scooped the Broadcast Award for Channel of the Year – although, given the way streaming services are taking over, this is a bit like winning the Gramophone of the Year award the day after the iPod was released.

Nicholas Ralph in All Creatures Great and Small.
Nicholas Ralph in All Creatures Great and Small. Photograph: Playground Television (UK) Ltd./Photographer: Matt Squire

I am determined to take this seriously – to judge each show on its respective merits, to be fair and balanced in my criticism, and not rush to condemn like an elitist Guardian snob.

10.33am (1 hour 18 minutes into The Jeremy Vine Show): Jeremy Vine and a Daily Express columnist are badgering a confused Sophie Ellis-Bextor to disavow Extinction Rebellion via Zoom. I’ve emailed my editor to ask if it’s too late to back out of doing this article. He says it is.

11pm: Every channel has a brand message, and I think I’ve worked out Channel 5’s: “Stay indoors because everyone outside of your immediate family wants to scam or kill you.” There are a baffling number of shows where producers have put a camera on a member of law enforcement or the emergency services, filmed some carnage and then hired a Jamie Theakston-type in voiceover to list a bunch of horrifying statistics about hit-and-runs on Derbyshire A roads.

These shows, with names that sound like straight-to-streaming Liam Neeson movies (Ambulance: Code Red, A&E: When Patients Attack, Traffic Cops, Police Code Zero: Officer Under Attack) have merged into one in my mind to create one single hellscape of shakycam nightmare footage, convincing me never to leave the house again, lest I get run over by an out-of-control driver, attacked by the Wag of a former Premier League footballer and have my stomach cut open by a chainsaw. The single message behind all of these shows is the same: “The world is chaos, and the only thing that can protect your family from being murdered in their beds by blurry-faced criminals is a highway patrolman named Barry.”

Ambulance Code Red.
Ambulance Code Red. Photograph: Curve Media/Channel 5

Just in case, after all of this, I still had the tiniest modicum of faith in other people, the late-evening schedule will see me right – a miserable documentary on the Suffolk Strangler who murdered sex workers in Ipswich, followed by a documentary about a missing woman from 10 years ago. So much misery. So much death. We are cruel animals, hellbent on destroying each other in the sickest ways.

Six days to go!

Tuesday

Daytime doesn’t change from the usual “stick a camera on a policeman’s hat and watch them wrestle a poor person” content, but primetime is different. If Monday was “Killers Are Everywhere” day, then Tuesday is “Animals Day”. Dogs Behaving (Very) Badly and The Yorkshire Vet are basically the animal version of Police Code Zero and Ambulance Code Red, but, instead of blurred-out criminals, we’re treated to a snake who won’t stop getting its penis out. Compared to yesterday, it is a blessed low-stakes relief.

Snake
A snake with a little problem … Photograph: Daisy Beck Studios/Channel 5

Both are just the amuse-bouche for the warmest and beige-est of all Channel 5 shows – the scripted period-drama reboot of All Creatures Great and Small. It is a delightfully mild hour where nothing happens – a vet drives a car, meets another man, goes and sees a cow, comes back, credits – but it is just so calming to watch something without a menacing voiceover telling me how many people go into debt every day in Britain in 2015. It is like a warm hug from a kindly uncle, after two days of being punched in the face by a Danny Dyer lookalike.

Wednesday

And we’re back to the face-punching with The Jeremy Vine Show. Every episode starts with Jeremy popping up and urgently asking a series of inane questions, like the human embodiment of the Microsoft paperclip, demanding a response: “New Covid laws in England! Will YOU comply?!” (“Yes, Jeremy,” I sigh.) “Do you know how the government is going to shrink your takeaway pizzas?!” (“No, Jeremy.”) “Should all hotels allow dogs?!” (“I don’t know, Jeremy, I’m just trying to write an article, how do I minimise you.”)

The actual show is basically an Old Man Yells At Cloud Olympics, where members of the public compete to see who can call in and complain about millennials the loudest. The Human Paperclip is always joined by two panelists: one a Daily Mail/Express columnist who squawks out stock phrases like “fishing rights” and “rule Britannia” like a xenophobic parrot, and the other a tired liberal who just wants to go back to 2015. Clippy presents one of the day’s stories to his panellists in as friendly a manner as he can (“It looks like you’re trying to start a culture war. Would you like help?”) and the panellists proceed to use the stories to fuel whatever narrative they need as loudly and in as uninformed a manner as possible. It is pretty much your standard British debate television in 2020, then.

Thursday

Between the gloom of the cop-based reality TV shows, I am finding some little pockets of (mostly animal-themed) escapism here and there. The Elephant Hospital wins me over within 30 seconds by having soaring knock-off John Williams music over the top of footage of a keeper getting kicked by an elephant, while Wild Britain, which looks at the effect of cities on the country’s wildlife, is genuinely quite moving on the plight of the hedgehog, whose population has shrunk from 30m to 1m in just a few decades. At one point a hedgehog tries to cross the road and I scream, “THERE’S A CAR”, at the TV. I realise I don’t need drama with this hedgehog – I just need it to survive and happily eat bits of dog food that people leave out for it. Note to Channel 5 producers: please make this hedgehog the star of your network. It could probably replace Vine.

Elephant
The Elephant Hospital. Photograph: Crackit Productions/Channel 5

Friday

There’s one Channel 5 show I have watched this week that I can’t quite get my head around – Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! From the glib, exclamation-mark ridden title, you would think it was a silly daytime game-show where contestants have to grab money from a ballpit before the presenter (I’m picturing Stephen Mulhern) takes away the various lovely prizes they could win (I’m picturing a Palm Pilot). But no, it is really about real-life bailiffs repossessing homes from real-life debtors, and it is exactly as bleak as that sounds, with struggling businesses begging for more time and single mothers having to explain to their children why they are being evicted. What’s worse is that we, the audience, are supposed to be on the side of the stern bailiffs – it’s as if someone rewrote Robin Hood where the Sheriff of Nottingham’s lackeys were the heroes.

Can’t Pay We’ll Take It Away.
Can’t Pay We’ll Take It Away. Photograph: Channel 5

I imagine a bailiff being attacked by hundreds of hedgehogs, and it cheers me up, for a while.

Saturday

Movies on Channel 5 are strange. The ones today are good – well, not good, but at least Charlie’s Angels and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle are identifiably movies, with plots and stars. Over the last week I’ve become obsessed with the movies Channel 5 shows during daytime on weekdays, with names that all sound like they should be part of Troy McClure’s back catalogue: Killer Dearest, The Killer Choice, Dream Killer and A Case of Murder: Garage Sale Mystery. Each one has a plot that resonates with Channel 5’s core values (“stay indoors, trust no-one, everyone is trying to kill you”), and while they all feel like they could have been written by American rightwing shock-jock Bill O’Reilly after an all-night bender, The Killer Choice takes Best Screenplay for Totally Batshit Plot.

A war veteran EMT has to choose between saving a pregnant woman or a dying man during a convenience-store robbery. She chooses the pregnant woman, but 10 years later the wife of the man who died has become the boss of the EMT’s husband with the sole intention of hiring a hitman to kill the husband and her daughter in front of the EMT. This is just the first 20 minutes – I haven’t even got to the bit where the wife of the dead man feeds his ashes to a Venus flytrap while whispering: “It won’t be long now, John.” It is exhilaratingly bad, but I would happily watch it again and again. Sure, Charlie’s Angels might have Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore, but does it have a man going, “Ooh, ahhh, ouch,” and holding his side for five minutes after being shot because the production clearly couldn’t afford a blood pack? I think not.

Sunday

I have spent seven days watching this channel and yet there is still so much about it I don’t understand – the constant documentaries about Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York; why exactly the idents look like the inside of a fancy limo; how Chris Tarrant defines “extreme” because, as far as I could tell in Chris Tarrant: Extreme Railways, he thinks it means “Spanish”.

Ultimately, though, I think I see the appeal of Channel 5 now – it is a place of certainty. Police are always there to save the day; criminals are there to scam and kill you; and kindly vets are there to put the penises back inside your snakes. In a world of so much change and upheaval, Channel 5 is there to reassure you that at any moment, your husband’s boss could hire a hitman and kill your family while she cackles with the ashes of her dead lover. And, you know, there is a strange comfort in that.

The Guardian

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