Archive for the TV Category

Don’t Be Such a Russell, Steven.

Posted in TV with tags , , , , on May 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Budget cuts have no effect on the new series of Doctor Who.

On the eve of a general election that has the potential to change the nature of British democracy forever, my thoughts naturally turn to the latest series of Doctor Who.

This series is notable, of course, for being the first since the resurrection of the programme in 2005 not to have Russell T. Davies at the helm as Head Writer and Executive Producer, and the baton passing instead to Steven Moffat.

This change was anticipated with some excitement by many fans because, although the Russell T. Davies era had many strengths, with some cracking stories, ideas and characters, the flaws were far from negligible, and inescapably the result of Davies’ storytelling style and attitude to narrative.

As Head Writer, Davies was responsible for a significant number of the episodes himself, as well as dictating the overall story arc.  The problem was that, of the excellent team of writers that he had assembled, Davies was by far the weakest.  Consequently, watching Doctor Who was often a bit like buying a Rolling Stones album only to find all of Side One having been written by Bill Wyman.

At the end of a Davies story, myself and many others would be left with the sense of violated trust.  It was as if we had placed ourselves in the hands of someone who’d promised he wouldn’t let us fall, only to be dropped from a great height.  Basic tenets of storytelling were ignored.  Leading characters would become weirdly passive, just because it suited the story for them to be that way.  Meanwhile, the character of Donna (played by Catherine Tate) had her memory wiped, meaning that all the development in her that we had followed over the preceding weeks was rendered irrelevant.  Ultimately, storytelling is all about watching people change through experience.  You mess with that, and you’re effectively sticking two fingers up at your audience.

Alongside all this, the Davies era became increasingly turgid, with David Tennant’s Doctor  so weighted down with the pain of his responsibility and guilt to the point that he was just a chore to be around, repeatedly dwelling on the same problems week in, week out.  The promise of Moffat, and with him a new Doctor, Matt Smith, seemed to be just what was needed.

Moffat came with an impressive CV.  He’d been behind the landmark teen series Press Gang, the good-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing ‘British Friends’, Coupling, and the excellent horror reimagining of Jekyll, as well as some of the very best Who episodes of the Davies era.  And in many ways, his version of Who doesn’t disappoint.  The first episode felt very fresh indeed, and even the weakest story since hasn’t felt like a kick in the shins in the way that bad Davies often did.

Hand on heart, however, I don’t think I can say that he’s quite managed to provide the programme with the new direction that I and other fans deep down know it needs.  There are still some lingering issues that mar otherwise perfectly decent stories, and stop Doctor Who from all it can be.

Here are the things I feel need addressing.

1) Action set-pieces.  The series introduced the Doctor with him hanging out of a malfunctioning Tardis as it flew over London.  CGI now allows the BBC to stage scenes that would once have only ever featured in Hollywood movies.  This diminishes the character.  The key to the Doctor is that he is absolutely unique in the world of fiction.  If you can imagine anybody else doing the things he does, then the programme is not being true to itself.  You could have had a similar scene with Inspector Gadget or any other madcap character who uses technology.  Doctor Who is not Inspector Gadget.

2.  The Doctor’s awareness of his own legend.  At the end of the first episode, the Doctor scares off the alien menace by informing it of his past victories.  This is tiresome.  The charm of the Doctor Who universe used to be its very lack of coherence.  Although, logically, news of the Doctor should precede him, the fact that it didn’t meant that he always served as an unexpected factor thrown into a situation.  The bad guys should win, but don’t, because the Doctor turns up.  Take away this, and you just have another fantasy adventure series with a load of intertwining strands like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (good though that was).  Doctor Who needs to protect its boundaries, and maintain what is unique about it.

3. Wasting good ideas in too-short stories.  Both the second and third episodes of this series suffered from this.  ‘The Beast Below’ had a fascinating future Britain on a spaceship, the intricacies of which were never explained (Why, for instance, were the fairground heads in the cases there in the first place).  ‘Victory of the Daleks’ meanwhile completely threw away its brilliant idea of the Daleks fighting for Britain in WWII.  This could have run over three episodes, with the audience waiting and waiting for the Daleks to turn bad, then all hell breaking loose when they finally do.  Instead, they revealed their evil intentions almost immediately, and the episode just ended up looking rather silly.  The audience needs to be trusted to wait for things.  And if they don’t know how to wait, Doctor Who needs to teach them.  Waiting was what much of the original series was all about, to its credit.

4. Overarching storylines crippling standalone stories.  In this weeks’ ‘Flesh and Stone’, returning villains the Weeping Angels would not have been defeated had the crack in time from episode one appeared and ate them.  This was not the story we were promised.  We were meant to be watching the Doctor defeating them using his own ingenuity.  Instead he just manouvres them into place and feeds them to the metanarrative (Even though this episode was popular, I think it was a mistake to bring back the Weeping Angels.  They would survive in the memory better if their only appearance was in the classic ‘Blink’.  There was nothing gained by elaboration.)

5. Companions fancying the Doctor.  Amy Pond’s efforts to seduce the Doctor at the end of this week’s episode were beyond painful, and not in a good way.  Doctor Who is, at heart, a children’s programme, even though it’s audience contains a healthy slab of adults, as it always has.  If it forgets it’s a children’s programme, however, it instantly stops working.

The companions, even though they are adults, are stand-ins for the child viewer, who can imagine themselves travelling through time and space with the Doctor, who is always in some way a manifestation of the original ‘grandfather’ Doctor of William Hartnell.  Unless they’re downright freaks, kids don’t fancy their grandfather, however dapper objectively they think he might look.  Instinct should tell them he’s off-limits.  Again, although it doesn’t make sense that the Doctor’s companions become weirdly asexual as soon as they step on board the Tardis, it’s another thing that makes Doctor Who itself.  If you mess with it, then the programme becomes just like other programmes, at which point it stops being interesting.  There’s no point deconstructing something if all you’re left with are a bunch of broken parts that don’t fit together anymore.

6. No Adric.  I was very upset by Adric ‘dying’ in 1982, and have never fully accepted it.  I don’t believe he’s really dead, and should be brought back forthwith, complete with his star badge he got for being really good at maths.

With all these elements fixed, I firmly believe that Doctor Who will transcend Chocky’s Children to become the best science-fiction show EVER.  Make it so.

He’s Faceman! He’s Columbo! He’s Facemambo!

Posted in Life, TV with tags , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Columbo                                       Faceman

The other day I went to Dirk Benedict play Columbo in Prescription: Murder at the Worthing Connaught Theatre. The play actually predates the series and was used as the basis for the pilot episode in which Peter Falk played the detective for the first time (although confusingly, the play is based on a previous TV one-off drama, in which Columbo was played by yet another actor).

Benedict was convincing in the role, perhaps wisely adding little of his own and essentially conjuring up the spirit of Falk (who, confusingly, isn’t dead, although he has dementia and can no longer remember being Columbo, which is surely the saddest fact in show-business not involving Alex Reid right now).

The production was cheap and cheerful (and nothing wrong with that), although the sets were excellent, convincingly conjuring up 60s Los Angeles with a minimum of elements. Some of the acting from the supporting cast was a bit creaky, with that ‘TALKING REALLY LOUDLY FOR NO REASON’ you used to get in Radio 4 dramas in the 80s, but I don’t know if the play would really have benefited from a more subtle approach.

Benedict smoked a real cigar, which you could smell and everything.

The audience was played by Victoria Wood and Julie Walters (Sample overheard comments following the murder scene: ‘I can see her breathing.’ ‘Well she’s not really dead.’).

Anyway, the show’s touring the country, and I recommend it.

Bang A Gong

Posted in TV on June 3, 2009 by richardblandford

British Idol Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle duetting with a cat, yesterday.

 

I came to the Susan Boyle story late.  Britain’s Got Talent isn’t my type of show, and she doesn’t make my kind of music (or Michael Barrymore’s, apparently).  Channel flicking on Saturday night, however, I did catch a bit of the final, and what I saw was rather worrying, for reasons that will now be all too obvious.  ‘That woman’s got learning difficulties,’ I found myself saying, ‘don’t they realise that?’

Following a brisk bit of Internet research, it turns out that yes, they did know that, and so did loads of other people as it had been in the papers.  Which is fine, no reason for her not to compete, as long as they were taking it into account, I thought. Later on, I found out that Boyle had lost to a Transformers-inspired dance troupe, and that, I presumed, was the end of it.  

Except that it wasn’t, of course, and as you all know, the story’s since moved on in a darker fashion.  But in-between the contest and Boyle’s anxiety-induced incident that led to her current stay in the Priory, I found myself intrigued by the idea of someone with learning difficulties doing so well in a show such as Britain’s Got Talent (normally they get knocked out in the preliminary rounds after being publicly mocked by smug millionaires) and did a bit of background reading.  Two things struck me as being of particular interest, and somewhat worrying.  Firstly, it seems that Boyle may not have put herself forward for the programme in the first place, but was actively sought out by the production team, who were already aware of her (thereby somewhat demolishing the ‘well, she shouldn’t have applied if she didn’t want the attention’ defense).  Secondly, in the week leading up to the final, she expressed a strong desire not to take part, but was nevertheless somehow talked back into it, with mixed results.

I don’t want to go into that much analysis of it, as that’s what the columnists at the Guardian are for (and I wouldn’t want to deprive them of any of the frothing comments that come their way online), but this does seem to have been a situation where a vulnerable adult with a temper, who had been managing their own stress levels all their life, recognised that they were reaching breaking point, but found themselves in a situation where they didn’t have an independent advocate, and were not taken seriously by the people around her, many of whom had a financial stake in making sure she performed.  Anyway, as a good citizen, I complained to Ofcom who, I understand, aim to do nothing.

What I really want to talk about here are the roots of Britain’s Got Talent, namely a seventies American programme called The Gong Show.  This was the first time that a talent show’s main selling point was not how good the acts were, but how bad.  It was devised and hosted by one Chuck Barris, a man who will surely go down in history as one of the most important figures in television.  British shows such as Blind Date and Mr & Mrs are variants on formats he created.  Barris also claimed to have been a hit-man for the CIA in his autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (made into a film by George Clooney), but this might be a lie.

The format of The Gong Show was simple.  Barris would introduce acts of varying degrees of weirdness to a studio audience.  Like Britain’s Got Talent, there was a panel of three judges, who sat in front of a large gong.  When a judge could bear an act no more, they would hit the gong, and the act would have to stop.  Not all the acts were bad, however.  Some, such as The Unknown Comic (a comedian with a paper bag on his head) and Gene Gene the Dancing Machine (essentially just a man dancing in an amusing manner) became viewer favourites,and would come back regularly.  Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman) was just one of the performers who would go on to become professional entertainers.

Now, on the one hand, this programme reintroduced the idea of the freak show as entertainment, and when watching the clips, the sound of the crowd jeering some of the acts is not pleasant.  Crucially, however, I would argue that it has one fundamental virtue above it’s bastard offspring, Britain’s Got Talent.  There was hardly anything to win.  Whereas Simon Cowell dangles fame, fortune and a full showbiz career as a carrot, thus drawing in the unintentional comedy acts he needs simply by playing on their sheer desperation, The Gong Show’s top prize was $516.32.  All that was really on offer was a chance to take part in the carnival.  And even if the performer’s role in the carnival was to be gonged off the stage, there was always a sense that they weren’t being rejected due to their strangeness, but in a weird way, embraced because of it.  The gong was almost a symbol of belonging.  ‘Gabba, gabba, we accept you, one of us.’

In Britain’s Got Talent, the buzzers are a means of division, separating the acceptable from the freaks, ‘us’ from ‘them’.  This year, someone who had spent her life being a ‘them’ was seemingly sought out and let through the barrier as a gimmick.  Now she’s stranded in the world of ‘us’, wondering how she’ll ever get back home.

Anyway, here are some Gong Show clips.

The Sound of No Hands Clapping

Posted in TV on March 17, 2009 by richardblandford

I was amazed by the first episode of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle last night, not just by the quality, but by the fact that the BBC had actually thought to commission it.  I was under the impression they had a strict ‘No Quality’ policy when it came to comedy (with even talented performers such as David Mitchell shoved into sketch-show formats that do them no favours) so it was with some surprise that I found a show so unashamedly daring and intelligent had washed up on my TV screen.

In one particular segment, Lee went into a long, rambling, strange and disorienting non-description of the nature of rappers, who apparently can be distinguished by their appearing on ‘the Top of the Pops’ and propensity to jump up on bins.  It was obviously an homage to the work of the legendary Ted Chippington, a comedian who appeared on the circuit in the Eighties, telling jokes that were barely jokes, engaging in rambling monologues with obsessive repetition of details, and reciting and subverting the lyrics of songs in a deadening monotone.  Lee is a huge fan of Chippington, as can be seen in this item from the Culture Show, which also serves as an introduction to the great man’s work:

The thing I like about Chippington is that, like Andy Kaufman, he wasn’t afraid to end up with an entire roomful of people hating him. In fact, if he got that much more of a favourable reaction, it was a disappointment to him, and he retired for some years as too many people were getting the joke (He has since come out of retirement. I saw him last year and he still has the power to divide a room. I found it hilarious, but realised on the way home that I’d forgotten practically everything he said. It was as if I’d been hypnotised).

All too often these days, being creative in any field seems like a popularity contest, with work only gaining any validity in the mind of the consuming public (and sometimes the artist themselves) when enough other people can be seen thinking of it as worthwhile. We’ve come a long way, it seems, from the idea of Van Gogh painting masterpieces for no one but his brother and his postman. I once stumbled on a former Britpop star of yesteryear giving a seminar to a handful of young hopefuls, telling them that unless their band had a following after five gigs, then it meant they were no good. That’s it. No room for manoeuvre. No extenuating circumstances. Five gigs and you’re out. No point doing it because no one likes you. Fail (I encountered said former Britpop star of yesteryear later on at a pub quiz. He suggested that we merge teams the following week. He didn’t turn up. Cock).

As Adam Ant said, ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’, and never was a truer word spoken in the history of pop music. If you feel something needs to be done, in a particular way, and cannot be convinced otherwise, then you should do it (In art anyway. Annexing the Rhineland and invading Poland, not so much. Unless that is your art, in which case, carry on). Just as long as you believe in it. Ted Chippington knows that, I think.

Our Day Out

Posted in TV on March 8, 2009 by richardblandford

Delighted to see that Our Day Out, Willy Russell’s BBC Play For Today from 1976, has been posted in its entirety on YouTube (Go here to see it all).

Amazing to think that in the 70s, Russell, Mike Leigh, Dennis Potter, Alan Bleasdale, Lyndsay Anderson and many other notables had work commissioned for this one-off drama slot, resulting in intelligent, brave and entertaining pieces that spoke to a mass audience and yet challenged them at the same time. Now virtually the only serious writers the BBC appears to act as patron to are Jimmy McGovern (whose work has descended into emotionally bullying Catholic guilt-fests) and Steven Poliakoff (who for the most part only seems interested in writing about posh people).

The role of programmes such as Play For Today, in which the audience often had aspects of their own lives projected back to them as drama, has been taken over by soaps. These are incapable of consistently good storytelling because a) they’re in a ratings war with each other, so have to regularly go for extreme plots just to get the punters in, regardless of their appropriateness to the overall situation they depict and b) the cast is never stable, so perfectly good marriages improbably break down, and singletons decide to move, pack and go forever in an afternoon in order to get an actor out in time for the panto season.

Our Day Out is beautifully written. I don’t know if Willy Russell came up with anything quite as good again (I’d take it over Educating Rita any day). There was a musical stage version in the Eighties, but for me the TV version is in no need of elaboration. In it, a group of remedial class Liverpudlian kids are taken on a day-trip to Wales by Diane from Emmerdale and one of the ex-coppers from New Tricks. Along the way, both teachers and pupils discover that there is more to life than they realised. The details are wonderful – the boys smoke at the back of the bus, the girls flirt with a male teacher, and when they go through the Mersey Tunnel, everyone cheers. Politically it’s of it’s time, and maybe it’s a big ragged around the edges, but all in all it’s a fantastic thing, and i guarantee it will touch and stay with you in a way that the latest japeries of Minty and Gary and the conflicts of various shouty East End bald men never will. As a nation, we’ve forgotten how to tell little stories about ourselves like this one, that seem to do so little but say so much. A shame. I think we might have lost something important.

Noel Edmunds shoots Clive Anderson again

Posted in TV on February 9, 2009 by richardblandford

Well, not exactly, but Chris Morris’ concerns about Edmunds’ sanity appear to be well-founded, as this clip from this weekend’s Noel’s HQ demonstrates.  At least, I hope Edmunds has gone mad, because the implications of some of his recent statements being the product of a sound mind are truly frightening.

You may think you speak for Britain, Noel, but you don’t speak for me. Unlike the elected representatives you disparage, no one’s ever been given a chance to decide whether or not they want you acting on their behalf. The only consensus of opinion granting you any authority is the one reached in your own orb-addled head. Now fuck off back to France, you hypocrite, and count your jumpers.

Who is responsible for this filth?

Posted in Film, music, TV on January 29, 2009 by richardblandford

Answer: 

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life – Choreography by Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips.  Meanwhile, look out for Bruno in this classic Elton John vid.

Elton John – I’M Still Standing
Uploaded by val6210

Rumours that Len Goodman can be seen roller-skating in a leotard in Cliff Richard’s Wired For Sound video are unconfirmed at this time.