Magazine article The Spectator

Television: The Entire Universe; Ethel and Ernest

Magazine article The Spectator

Television: The Entire Universe; Ethel and Ernest

Article excerpt

As you've probably noticed, TV critics spend a lot of their time trying to identify which other programmes the one they're reviewing most resembles. Sadly, in the case of BBC2's The Entire Universe , this noble quest proved futile. Written and emceed by Eric Idle, the show did contain plenty of familiar television elements: songs, dance troupes, Warwick Davis making jokes about how small he is, a lecture by Professor Brian Cox on the nature of the cosmos. Yet the way it mixed them together was so unprecedentedly odd that it may well have made the average Boxing Day viewer feel they must be drunker than they thought.

The basic gag was that Cox hadn't received his email of the script -- and so believed he was coming to give the studio audience a serious talk, rather than take part in a comedy musical. On the whole, this meant that he'd supply a spot of cosmological information in his usual wondering tones, before being interrupted by a related song-and-dance number, feigning annoyance and insisting that 'science isn't showbiz'. But he was also faced with, say, Noel Fielding dressed as Einstein riding around the stage on a bike, and complimenting him on his knowledge of 'astrology'.

At first, the combination of a satire on TV's desire to jazz up science with an obvious desire to jazz up science felt like a shameless attempt by Idle to have his cake and eat it. Yet, the longer the programme went on, the more successful the attempt became. The songs once again demonstrated his skill at putting complicated ideas to jaunty tunes and cheerfully kitsch choreography. Fielding and Davis delivered their roles as underminers of scientific seriousness with infectious glee, and lots of crowd-pleasing jokes -- although to its credit the show held out for nearly 20 minutes before giving us a pun on 'Uranus'. Above all, Cox played a blinder as the kind of good sport that Des O'Connor used to be as a victim of Morecambe and Wise (who also appeared in the mix -- or at least were rather well impersonated -- as a pair of quantum mechanics).

Along the way, too, we were even told some interesting things about the entire universe -- partly by the songs, but mainly, of course, when Cox was allowed his moments of scientific seriousness. As ever, these alternated between mind-blowing facts (most containing the word 'billions') and stuff that's shamingly impossible to understand even though you know you're getting the idiot's-guide version: 'Matter tells space-time how to curve and space-time tells matter how to move. …

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