Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A Life's Work

The beginning of 2007 I posted on what I considered the ten best television programmes of the previous year. I was thinking about doing it again until, checking over that initial post, I discovered the list would pretty much be the same.

Okay, so The Wire wouldn’t be on it, taking a year out between the fourth and final fifth season that’s now airing on HBO. Having come to a premature end, Deadwood would be off the list as well, replaced most probably by its on-screen replacement, the equally intriguing and perplexing John from Cincinnati.

The slots filled by the first season of Dexter and the fifth season of The Shield would be now filled by the second season of Dexter and the sixth season of The Shield, both dramas easily managing to retain the high measure of quality in their following years. Lost, Heroes, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Battlestar Galactica simply carried their series over into the New Year and weren’t bettered. Even if a couple of later season episodes weren’t up to each series' high standard, both Lost and Battlestar Galactica delivered absolutely killer season finales.

If it was just down to season or series finales, or even the final scene of a series finale, The Sopranos would top the list, taking the slot vacated by The Wire. By the time the second half of The Sopranos’ sixth season rolled around I was watching out of duty more than entertainment, intrigued to see how it would wrap itself up but eager for the drama to simply get on with it.

Taking the empty spot would be Californication. It might not have been to everyone’s tastes but I thought it was “all good”, especially once it started to delve into darker territory. In place of The State Within, just to show that for at least a few weeks a year some great UK-produced drama makes an appearance, would be Stephen Poliakoff’s glorious Joe’s Palace, A Real Summer and Capturing Mary. The triptych proved that if the channels here keep stuffing their schedules with manure, eventually a rose will grow.

All that leaves is a replacement for the astonishing Planet Earth. The only thing that equalled it was... a stripped in repeat of Planet Earth that ran throughout one of the more desperate days back home at Christmas. Only now has the BBC delivered something that comes close to matching it with Life in Cold Blood.

The final part of Sir David Attenborough’s ongoing cycle of documentaries that began with Life on Earth in 1979 and continued through to 2005’s Life in the Undergrowth, the new series turns its attention to reptiles and amphibians. The first episode, an overview before getting into later-episode specifics, introduced a stunning array of creatures.

We were treated to the South African Armadillo lizard curling into a tight ball and biting its tail to protect itself; some serious tortoise wrestling and the tender mating rituals of turtles; the South American monkey frog slathering itself in its own sunscreen secretions, and a python swallowing a young deer whole. Once again the material, on digital, infrared or thermal imaging, was flawlessly captured by the BBC’s Bristol-based Natural History Unit.

Then there were the Balearic lizards. Inhabiting an island where the local flora includes Helicodiceros Muscivorus, the dead-horse arum, the lizards feed on flies attracted to the plant’s heady stench as well as warming themselves on the flower. That was pretty much it for them until, twenty years ago, one inquisitive lizard tore away the husk of a dead plant and discovered the rich, pulpy fruit inside. Passed whole, their trip through the lizards’ gastric tract ultimately make the seeds germinate more easily, making the plants grow in abundance all over the island.

That one instance illustrated my sole problem with watching programmes like this. Show enough animals in a symbiotic relationship with their surroundings, however hard their lives are, and it makes me wonder what exactly we’re doing here, fucking up the planet, covering everything in concrete and typically being venal shits to one other.

Maybe there’s an answer. In the meantime Under the Skin, the short making-of programme tagged on to the end of this first programme showed David Attenborough’s delight at finally seeing an elusive Madagascan pygmy leaf chameleon, forty-seven years after he first visited the country as the presenter of Zoo Quest.

As this is David Attenborough’s last major series, coming in before a third of the Natural History Unit’s programme-makers are given the boot as part of the BBC DG-DH’s six-year masterplan, The Times solicited David Attenborough’s ten rules for would-be presenters. Although intended for wildlife programmes, they could easily be applied to all programmes.

We can only hope.


At 8:23 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

My own favourite from that perfectly reasonable list, GD, would be Dexter.

I loved the fact that it was made on a relative shoestring. No grand special effects. No epic set pieces. No desperate stunt casting. Just a smartly put together story that balanced concept and character.

That's something that shouldn't be beyond our own programme-makers. Yet clearly it is. What British drama would get into anyone's top ten?

And the sad thing is, things have fallen so far that if the Beeb or ITV were handed a script for any of those shows, could they even execute it in a competent fashion? Just imagine ITV trying to make The Sopranos. They'd probably get Ben Miller and Liza Tarbuck to play the leads.

You're right that some of the factual stuff on the Beeb still holds up. But it feels like a reservoir drying up.

At 4:53 pm, Blogger Jon Peacey said...

I'm glad you mentioned the decimation of the Natural History Unit: this is misguided, deranged and short-sighted. I don't know the figures but I'll warrant that the Natural History Unit manages to flog more programmes than most other departments... after all there's less cultural differences for a start... a fascinating lizard is a fascinating lizard in anyone's language while humour and drama can be so subjective.

Personally, I'm a heretic when it comes to US TV... I don't watch much and I rarely like what I see. Obviously something like The Sopranos is an exception (even though I haven't seen the ending yet). If the BBC or ITV were given The Sopranos I suspect that first hurdle would be more the possibility of offending a minority before anything else.

Of British TV I'd be happy to stand up for Waking The Dead, Silent Witness and New Tricks... I don't see it as any more formulaic than most US productions. And it's always forgotten that we only see what's deemed the cream of the US crop: what of the endless daytime dramas; and how would you rate Diagnosis Murder, Monk and Murder She Wrote?

At 11:22 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

One show I forgot to mention was Mad Men which was an absolute fucking corker as well. It’s coming to the BBC soon.

ITV did try to make The Sopranos. It was called Family and, not surprisingly, it was shit. When the lead is Martin Kemp, you pretty much know it’s going to be a goner. I suppose it was also aiming to emulate the like’s of Euston Film’s Fox from the early 1980s. Either way, it fell flat on its face. After about three episodes it was pulled from the Monday night, 9pm slot because it was utter pants and nobody wanted to watch it. Who would have thunk it?

Still, the BBC has Waking the Dead and Spooks. Dramas that work because not are the scripts good but they have experienced drama directors who give it some pace and verve.

As I’ve said before, with most UK dramas, whether they are good or bad, the scripts get handed over to people with no discernable talent behind the camera. They point it at the actors and that’s pretty much it.

Now that Channel 4 has dropped the latest season of ER into their Saturday evening schedule, it’s a wonderful opportunity to compare it with the leaden, lumpen, and plain fucking dull Casualty on BBC1 at pretty much the same time.

Anyone who wants to come back with UK dramas having less money and shorter schedules by way of excuse, remember that the pilot to The Shield was shot in – I think - four days. It’s mentioned on the episode commentary.

Diagnosis Murder and Murder, She Wrote is retirement home TV as far as I’m concerned and harks back to the formulaic dramas of the 1970s. But Monk I’ll watch, if I’m in and it’s on. If I miss it, no big deal, but I like the quirky, oddball nature of it, and Shalhoub’s a good actor.

At 2:26 pm, Blogger Robin Kelly said...

"And it's always forgotten that we only see what's deemed the cream of the US crop"

Actually, that's a bit of myth, the vast majority of network and cable drama and comedies over the years have been bought to be shown in the UK. They're popular because you are guaranteed a consistent production quality even if the actual premise or genre won't appeal to everyone.

The amount of actual genuine rubbish on US TV is few and far between because it's a very competitive market with lots of checks and balances and there is simply a different approach and attitude from the start.


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