Saturday, March 29, 2008

Empire Of The Senseless

Early in March of last year, Channel 4 screened The 50 Greatest TV Dramas. Unlike the numerous lists that have cluttered up their schedules, compiled by votes from the great unwashed, in that instance only television professionals were invited to vote.

In case you can’t be arsed to check back on the full list, the Top 10 were:

01. The Sopranos
02. Boys From The Blackstuff
03. Edge of Darkness
04. The Singing Detective
05. Cathy Come Home
06. The West Wing
07. Cracker
08. Our Friends in the North
09. Twin Peaks
10. Heimat

You may not agree with their decisions but it was the opinion of pros. When it’s left to the gormless numpties-at-large and Shitpeas of this world to have their say on what is the absolute very best of anything we normally end up with something like

Now, for some bizarre reason, Empire magazine has unveiled “The 50 Greatest TV Shows Of All Time!”. Why Empire, which continues to style itself as ‘THE WORLD’S BEST MOVIE MAGAZINE’, has decided to stray into the realms of television is anyone’s guess. Whenever the magazine articles lean towards comic books or television, usually in relation to film adaptations, the contributors hopelessly get the facts screwed up beyond belief.

Maybe instigating their list was simply a front for some crass market research by Bauer, looking toward a future magazine launch. Either way the results, based on reader votes, waver between the outright hilarious and the utterly depressing.

01. The Simpsons (1989-present)
02. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
03. The Sopranos (1999-2007)
04. The West Wing (1999-2006)
05. Lost (2004-present)
06. 24 (2001-present)
07. Friends (1994-2004)
08. The Wire (2002-2008)
09. The X-Files (1993-2002)
10. Spaced (1999-2001)
11. Seinfeld (1990-1998)
12. Family Guy (1999-present)
13. Battlestar Galactica (2003-present)
14. Firefly (2002)
15. Heroes (2006-present)
16. Doctor Who (2005-present)
17. South Park (1997-present)
18. Arrested Development (2003-2006)
19. Scrubs (2001-present)
20. Blackadder (1983-1989)
21. Angel (1999-2004)
22. The Shield (2002-present)
23. The Office (2001-2003)
24. Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
25. Futurama (1999-present)
26. Red Dwarf (1988-1999)
27. Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
28. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
29. ER (1994-present)
30. Dexter (2006-present)
31. Deadwood (2004-2006)
32. Babylon 5 (1994-1998)
33. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-present)
34. Frasier (1993-2004)
35. Alias (2001-2006)
36. Father Ted (1995-1998)
37. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
38. Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)
39. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
40. Life on Mars (2006-2007)
41. Band of Brothers (2001)
42. Only Fools and Horses (1981-2003)
43. Star Trek (1966-1969)
44. Cracker (1993-1996, 2006)
45. Farscape (1999-2003)
46. Sex and the City (1998-2004)
47. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
48. Veronica Mars (2004-2007)
49. Prison Break (2005-present)
50. Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

It’s staggering, isn’t it? I suppose the fact that just nine of the shows are pre-1990, and two of those only began the year before, gives a good indication of the age range for the bulk of the voting readership. Either that or every one of them has incredibly lousy memories.

Really it’s endemic of a much younger generation that sadly doesn’t give much of a shit about anything that came before them. Recently I was working with a young girl who resolutely saw no interest in anything from before she was born. The only thing that stopped me braining her with a two by four was she had an absolutely spectacular rack.

In the way that nowadays youngsters simply can’t wait for instant gratification, it’s interesting that almost one third of the series are still running. So, so much for perspective. How can you judge a show before it has run its course, especially one built on an ongoing story like Lost and Heroes?

Surely it’s far too early to tell. A couple of years into its run, back in the mid-1990s, The X-Files looked like it was going to be something rather special. Then, in the following seasons, it went to pieces in the most spectacular fashion.

Of course seriously considering the results gives the list far more credence than it ever deserves. After all, this is from a magazine and readership eager to celebrate the Star Wars trilogies, obsequiously celebrate Spielberg, and fellate Tarantino every chance they get.

That said, at least they acknowledge The Wire. But it's still no excuse.

Cross Out

It's strange, but I've been staring at this for the past ten minutes or so...

And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out the point of there being a second X-Files movie.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Only Last Week

I don’t do religion, and I’m not a fan or marzipan either, so the long weekend was set aside to start editing two half-hour documentaries rather than simply gorge on chocolate and watch The Great Escape. Except it didn’t go to plan.

We were still waiting on the archive footage and selected clips and, more importantly, the scripts. There was pretty much all the unedited interview footage to go through, but even then we didn’t have much of a clue with what to do with it. Instead we broke for a coffee and watched BBC News 24 while snow was flung horizontally past the window.

The big fanfare was that the BBC had secured the rights to broadcast Formula 1 motor racing. The fact that the five-year deal will cost somewhere close to £200 million wasn’t widely publicised.

As reported on

The BBC deflected criticism about its use of the licence fee by saying that the 10.6m UK audience that watched British-born Lewis Hamilton’s narrow failure to win the world driver’s championship last year demonstrated the sport’s wide appeal. Dominic Coles, BBC Sport’s rights director, said: “The Brazilian Grand Prix was the most watched sporting event in the world last year. That’s what I’d define as a crown jewel.”

Which means they’re either chasing ratings or think they’re doing F1 fans a solid by showing the races free of commercial breaks. I suppose there’s something to be said about guys in fast cars going round and round and round a track. There’s certainly a skill to it if not much else. But really, a large portion of the audience is watching for one thing.

Eventually each interview was rendered out as a QuickTime Movie and I headed home where I could through them in turn, noting down the usable answers and their timings without the distraction of us generally goofing around and laughing at Homestar Runner. Back in London, it meant that I could watch The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency as Easter Sunday drew to a close.

I haven’t read any of Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe novels but I was aware that a faithful adaptation would result in a drama that, while light-hearted and good-natured, would be light on plot. But the 105-minute adaptation had the credentials that would make me sit up and pay attention, by which I mean it was co-written and directed by Anthony Minghella and co-produced through Mirage Enterprises for HBO and the BBC.

The imagery was incredibly seductive. The opening four-minute sequence, from the titles to the arrival of the grown-up Precious Ramotswe and the final credit was a wonderfully assured introduction to character and locale. Actually, those first shots travelling over the river reminded me of the opening of Jim McBride’s The Big Easy.

Though the easy charm made it a treat to watch, the recent death of Anthony Minghella cast a shadow over the warm Botswana landscapes. Most of the listing magazines that came with the weekend newspapers mentioned his passing in their preview to the drama. Except of course in The Times’ The Knowledge.

Obviously Caitlin Moron was too caught up fudding herself senseless at the prospect of Doctor Who returning to the screen to write anything with the remotest hint of sense. Because it was co-written by Richard Curtis and starred Jill Scott as the plump Precious and Anika Noni Rose as her thin, bespectacled sidekick, Grace Makutsi, the Moron concentrates on pushing forward her notion that The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was nothing more than The Vicar of Dibley with zebras and giraffes.

More insulting was her almost complete disregard of Minghella’s contribution to the adaptation. In fact

This is a prime-time drama with an all-black cast, and cinematography by the late Anthony Minghella.

was the sole reference in her article, which total wrongheadedness was also an affront to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for his exemplary work. In fact McGarvey’s lush visuals were so utterly persuasive that I completely forgot to finish my game of hangman once the programme started, having only got as far as:

_ _ I T _ I N / M O _ _ N / I _

_ / _ O M P _ _ T _ / _ _ N T

After some prompting to the relevant parties the documentary scripts still didn’t turn up. We were promised they would arrive on Tuesday. Easter Monday, between trawling through the interview footage, I got around to watching The Curse of Steptoe on BBC iPlayer.

The one problem I have with dramas like this is they tend to be very bitty, simply stitching together the important scenes from the history of Steptoe and Son like it was some greatest hits package. Funny and poignant that it was, Terry Johnson’s Not Only But Always, starring Rhys Ifans as Peter Cook and Aidan McArdle as Dudley Moore, suffered the same fate, as did his Carry On-based Cor, Blimey!

I can’t say I subscribe to this theory that all comics are tragic clowns who end up in a world of shit. Maybe it’s because they are seen as funny on stage or onscreen, that the general public is dumb enough to expect them to perform funny in real life. Though one I’ve had dealings with was a thoroughly miserable bastard, the Bubbly Blonde has always been a hoot when I’ve been out with her and Work Buddy.

Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who first wrote for Tony Hancock before creating Steptoe and Son seemed to be in agreement that the theory was complete bollocks when they wrote about “the curse of comedy” for The Times. If The Curse of Steptoe wasn’t up to much, it provided the perfect excuse for the hour-long Mark Lawson Talks To Galton and Simpson.

The first script turned up late Tuesday morning, which meant that we could at least begin to make a start. Come the evening, I heated up another M&S ready meal and settled down to Lawrence of Arabia. Eyes closed, I’d shuffled the DVDs and it had won out over The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. It seemed an appropriate way to acknowledge the centenary of the birth of Sir David Lean.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Top 10 Days

There are always going to be differences of opinion about the state of television drama. But it certainly says something about the current shows when, over the last couple of weeks, the most intense and exciting material has come in the form of ten to thirteen minute short eatures at the beginning of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme.

To mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces, Newsnight has aired 10 Days to War, counting down each day as it examines different issues and events that transpired in the run up to the invasion. Researched by the programme journalists, who then handed their material over to playwright Ronan Bennett, the series began a week last Monday with A Simple Private Matter, set behind the scenes in the Foreign Office as lawyer Elizabeth Wilmhurst questions the legality of the war after the failure to get a second resolution, and ended ten days later, on the eve of the invasion with Our Business is North, in which Colonel Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment gives his now-famous speech to rally his troops before setting off from the Kuwait/Iraq border.

In between, the episodes covered Iraq’s religious and political leaders ready to discuss how the country will ultimately be governed, British and American representatives lobbying in the UN for the important second resolution, the recruitment of young radical Islamists for jihad, and the agonizing of backbench MPs when it comes time to vote on whether to go to war or not. Toward the tail end of each edition of Newsnight, the events of that day, five years past, would be picked up on and discussed on a debate with key figures from the time.

If you missed them, and they’ve passed through BBC iPlayer, catch the lot on the 10 Days to War website.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Into The Palace Of The Winds

It’s difficult when someone with a high public profile unexpectedly passes away, especially one connected with the arts. After the shock and utter incredulity dissipates there comes an almost selfishness and sense of disappointment that not just they are suddenly gone but they’ve taken the promise of any further work with them.

The death of Nobel Prize-nominated science fiction author, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, at the age of ninety, didn’t seem to be that surprising, especially from the man himself. The video of his 90th Birthday Reflections, recorded late last year, had the finality of someone knowing they were on the way out. The sudden, and shocking, death of writer/director Anthony Minghella was something altogether different.

Point a camera at anyone and they’ll come up with an easy platitude to mark someone’s passing. With Minghella, industry people seemed utterly bewildered by the fact that, still in his early fifties, he was suddenly gone. Newsreaders seemed unable to conduct coherent discussions about him, whether it was with Lord Puttnam on BBC News 24 or with Alan Parker on Channel 4 News.

Even some of the obituaries felt somehow rushed, with a blurring around facts that hadn’t been fully ascertained by the deadline, as opposed to the kind of tributes of people well into their dotage, prepared well in advance and regularly updated before the day they would eventually see print. The obituary in The Independent stood out as the best from the broadsheets.

When the tributes appeared they revealed a loved filmmaker who loved film, whether it was Sydney Pollack’s remembrance in the Los Angeles Times website or actress Juliet Stevenson’s very personal tribute on The Times’ website. In an industry that attracts more than it’s fair share of toxic individuals looking to make a fast buck, and with the bad news coming on a day where a lead item involved the judge’s ruling in a divorce case where one of the plaintiffs was not just a few sandwiches short of a picnic but a whole picnic hamper short of a picnic, such purity and dedication is altogether rare.

The disappointment for people who only knew him through his work was that there would be no more films to watch, save The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, made for television and premiering this Easter Sunday. From the half-dozen to his credit, I’m still astonished by the quantum leap from creating the perfect chamber piece in Truly, Madly, Deeply to channelling David Lean out in the desert of North Africa.

It requires a talent to take a wonderful but supposedly unfilmable novel by Michael Ondaatje and join forces with Saul Zaentz, Walter Murch and Gabriel Yared to create one of the most emotive films of the 1990s, if not in the history of cinema. People go but the work remains.

Earlier this year Roy Scheider’s long and varied career was reduced to simply identify him as the “Jaws actor”. Being remembered as the screenwriter and director of The English Patient certainly can’t be a bad thing.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In A Fix

I wasted another hour of my life last night giving The Fixer a second shot so as not to make any snap judgements. The first episode alone made me want to go off and smoke a cigarette. The second made me want to spark up and then go and punch somebody in the face.

Moreover, the big impression it left me with was that most regular ITV viewers are completely fucking thick. And if they aren’t – although they probably are – the perception is they’re completely fucking thick.

It could have been a really clever and interesting drama but from the get go it seemed to constantly struggle not to dumb itself down. The reference to Schrödinger's Cat certainly wins points. Later they’re taken away when, out on a stakeout, Calum notices Mercer is reading a book entitled Genome to while away the time and observes, “Neighbours used to have loads of them in the garden, with their fishing rods. Little ones, sitting on mushrooms. Mum said it lowered the tone.”

Of course, that alone is pretty good. It’s funny and would have been perfect if Mercer looked up from the book and gave him a look of utter distain. Unfortunately once Mercer looks up from the book and gives him a look of utter distain, Calum says, “Gnomes,” unnecessarily driving the joke home with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow.

That seemed to be my problem with The Fixer. What should have been a great premise was just riddled with compromise, presumably to make it palatable for the ITV audience. After all, a drama that starts out with an ex-soldier shooting a suburban couple before calmly announcing what he’s done to the emergency service switchboard is certainly different from the usual fare. Then it all started to fall apart.

The two minutes of material that followed, post-title, would have made a perfect recap for future episodes, explaining how Mercer, the ex-soldier, was released from prison five years into his life sentence to become “a hit man for the state”. Given it was the opening episode, surely his recruitment should have actually been played out between the characters, at least up until the first ad break, rather than simply reduce it to artful poses and voiceover.

Alternatively, it would have worked if the rest of the episode carried on at a fair clip like, say, an early episode of Alias. Instead the remaining forty-odd minutes juddered forward with the pace of a soporific snail, burying any action sequences beneath an avalanche of blather. Still, it did remind me that it has been a long while since I’ve watched Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita.

In the wake of Dexter, having a sanctioned killer as the lead in a drama shouldn’t be that big a deal. Making him an ex-con, who killed for the right reason, reintegrating himself into the community should have made The Fixer something quite special. Instead it feels like somebody, somewhere, bottled it.

Just in case people found the premise unacceptable or distasteful, a large dollop of fluffiness has been shovelled in. So rather than act alone, Mercer is part of a team. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re all mismatched! Actually, forget La Femme Nikita, this is more like ITC’s The Persuaders!, with Peter Mullan’s character as an updated version of Laurence Naismith’s Judge Felton, blackmailing the English playboy aristocrat, Lord Brett Sinclair, and American self-made millionaire, Danny Wilde, into catching criminals who have escaped the judicial system.

Which meant that we got Shameless’ Jody Latham as Calum McKenzie, an utterly annoying oik who seems to exist solely to be annoying, and Tamzin Outhwaite as an ex-cop and honey-trap specialist who, when she’s not between the sheets, does whatever Tamzin Outhwaite. In fact, in the first episode, it seemed that her character, Rose Chamberlain, was introduced far earlier than she should have been. Then again, this was the episode that had had Mercer ask Lenny Douglas who he is not long after Mercer’s voiceover has introduced the audience to Douglas and his operation.

When Mercer was put to work the effects were a bit on the rubbish side. The law might not have been able to touch the shady businessman but everyone else could, and quite easily. He went for a piss and while he stood at a urinal Mercer stood in a toilet stall. Once his bladder was empty he got shot. That was it. As a professional, shouldn’t Mercer have taken the shell casing with him? It may have been an ‘artsy’ shot, but leaving a bloody big bloody footprint behind made it amateur hour, quite literally.

While stuff happened in the second episode, I pretty much stopped paying attention from the moment a radio news item provided the set-up by spewing out far, far too much information for the typical broadcast. Somebody died, quite bloodily, although the killer didn’t kill anyone. Instead he seemed to be taking the first steps to embracing his touchy-feely side.

That kind of missed the point of the drama as far as I was concerned and it looks like I wasn’t alone. After an audience of 6.2m in the first week, yesterday’s episode began with 5.5m viewers, tailing off to 4.4m. Given that the drama is made by Kudos, I expected better. Although, with Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach on their resumé, it’s beginning to look like while the material they produce for the BBC is interesting and exciting, what gets churned out for ITV is about as entertaining as watching disabled old aged pensioners fuck.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Own Worst Enemy

About sixteen months ago I was all a jingle-jangle, dancing around like spit on a hot griddle over the marvellous six-part political thriller The State Within. The past five Sundays the BBC has broadcast their latest conspiracy drama, The Last Enemy, and sadly it hasn’t even got my toes tapping.

Read previous posts and you’ll find these are the kind of television dramas that I absolutely love. Less than ten minutes into the first episode I had flicked over to Channel 4 to check out the eviscerated, theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven. It’s only down to the BBC iPlayer facility that I eventually managed to sit through the whole thing. Even then, it still took three attempts. In the weeks since, iPlayer was utterly vital in helping me get through the following episodes.

Last Sunday was the penultimate episode, with the finale two days away. At this point watching The State Within I was close to shaking with anticipation as Lizzie Mickery and Daniel Percival’s drama confounded expectations and kept everyone guessing to the very last episode. With The Last Enemy I figure that since I’ve come this far I might as well carry on to the end.

For a near-future drama built around an extrapolation of today’s surveillance society, why has The Last Enemy been so utterly bloody difficult to watch? Perhaps it’s because with each episode the serial simply looked more like a concept in desperate search of a story.

With the country apparently transformed into a security state and ID cards strictly enforced, it came across as the sort of vague (and increasingly ridiculous) ideas employed by the If... series of docudramas from 2004 – which began with If... The Lights Go Out, looking into the results of a massive failure across the national grid – or in the vein of the previous year’s single drama The Day Britain Stopped, in which events conspired to push our transport infrastructure to breaking point.

It may be unfair, but any political-conspiracy drama that appears on television is, whether it likes it or not, going to be compared to The State Within or Paul Abbott’s State of Play or A Very British Coup or Troy Kennedy Martin’s Edge of Darkness which, after twenty-three years, still remains at the top of the pyramid in terms of television drama.

Instead, in the rankings, The Last Enemy is somewhere down with 2002’s rather rubbish Fields of Gold, which, in ratcheting up the genetically modified, Frankenstein crops scaremongering, replaced drama with a tiresome, tub-thumping soapbox polemic against multinationals. Given that it was co-written by the editor of The Guardian I suppose we shouldn’t have expected anything less.

The Last Enemy at least begins with a bang. Whereas shocking acts of violence in The State Within (the blowing up of a commercial jet leaving Dulles Airport), State of Play (the deaths of political researcher Sonia Baker and teenager Kelvin Stagg), and Edge of Darkness (the murder of Ronnie Craven’s activist daughter, Emma) kick off the investigations that ultimately uncover very dirty secrets, the death of a British aid worker in The Last Enemy – blown up after leaving a refugee camp near the Afghan-Pakistan border – sees his scientist brother return to England, almost miss the funeral, and then pretty much not give a damn.

Instead of being driven to discover the truth behind his sibling’s death, once back home Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Ezard discovers his brother has married a Bosnian woman in his absence, and then proceeds to shag the widow. When the Total Information Awareness database, created by a rather dubious company to spy on everyone, is eventually introduced into the narrative, Ezard signs up to help push the government to ratify the spyware, solely to use TIA to track down the suddenly missing widow.

Set in the “near future” – which is always a hiding to nothing – The Last Enemy supposedly takes place in a Britain transformed by a major terrorist atrocity in the nation’s capital. Though vaguely mumbled about in passing at one point, it wasn’t mentioned there after and didn’t seem to be that big a deal. The incident had apparently turned the country into a security state where everyone lives under the lens of a surveillance camera and ID cards are strictly enforced but apparently not yet compulsory. How that works, I’m not sure but before it finally started to look like things were eventually going to turn vaguely nasty, this aspect of life solely consisted of people surrendering their cards for inspection and then allowed on their way.

Along with the spot checks there was also a passing remark about traffic speed enforcement. Of course anyone who drives in or around London knows that, with all the congestion and continual road works, travelling at a virtual crawl is pretty much the only option anyway. Unless, of course, the plot requires a car chase or two, in which case the vehicles set off and nobody takes any notice.

That alone showed how The Last Enemy repeatedly undermined itself by inconsistencies and contradictions in plot and character. Stephen Ezard is initially presented as being anti-social and germ-phobic, with a little OCD on the side. Yet he’s happy to bang his new sister-in-law in an apartment that contains a sickly, dying stranger.

Later on his ex-girlfriend MP later gives him a sachet of handy wipes to use after he shakes hands with strangers. But if he was so Mr Monk, surely he’d carry his own around on his person. Since then the symptoms seem to have been completely forgotten altogether. While these disappearing quirks were pretty much all there was to define his character, at least they made him stand out slightly from the rest of the bland. After five episodes I can’t name any of the other characters.

There’s Robert Carlyle as a one time government-sanctioned assassin now off doing his own business, outside of official channels. Working from the safety of a gadget-filled metal cage inside an abandoned warehouse it’s obvious that he’s watched Enemy of the State during the time he relaxed between killings. He even got to blow it up, much like Gene Hackman’s Brill. As for the shady government types – one of whom just ate a bullet when he realized he might be in over his head – and the shady big business types who looked like they might be integral to the plot before effectively disappearing from view, they’re all pretty much of a muchness.

None of them are all that distinctive and it didn’t help matters that almost every one of the dozen-odd main characters were introduced in the first episode. Without being properly name-checked they appeared, did their piece, made virtually no impact at all, and then hung around in limbo until their presence was required again.

Compare that to the first episode of Edge of Darkness, say. There the audience is introduced to Craven, James Godbolt and Assistant Chief Constable Ross, then Emma, and finally Pendleton. There are also incidental characters like Jones, Craven’s colleague in West Yorkshire CID, their Chief Constable, Muntsey in the mortuary and Dingle from Scotland Yard, but that’s pretty much it.

Hardcourt, Darius Jedburgh, Terry Shields, Bennett, Clementine and Jerry Grogan don’t appear until the second episode or much later, allowing each of them to be clearly defined characters that play an important part in the unfolding narrative. Hell, even Shirley, the tea lady who gives Craven a ham sandwich before tearing up, makes more of an impact in one short scene then anyone in The Last Enemy.

It also didn’t help that the first episode ran close to 90 minutes long with a lot of chat about nothing, very little happening apart from a boom and a bang and a scientist getting shot. As well as the implementation of Total Information Awareness, The Last Enemy set up a secondary story thread about some deadly contagion and the unsolved murders of numerous microbiologists.

Obviously the two are inextricably linked, that’s the nature of the genre, but the way the narrative stumbled from one plot to the other and back again without any fluidity suggested two completely separate storylines at odds with each other. (It doesn’t help that Fields of Gold featured a subplot about unlicensed antibiotic drugs being administered to unsuspecting hospital patients).

Once it was established, at the end of the first episode no less, that the dead brother was in fact alive, it became apparent that, whatever convoluted machinations come into play, the drama was eventually going to be about two selfish siblings fighting over the same woman. Which means that ultimately The Last Enemy devolves into soap opera.

Maybe I missed something because there were times where I wasn’t giving it my undivided attention. Surely that’s the fault of the drama. It might all come together in a perfectly realised finale. Frankly I’m more excited that in the hour before its transmission BBC2 are repeating the Top Gear: Botswana Special.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Picture Perfect

One time at The Esteemed School of Art a fellow student, in preparation to answer the brief to whatever dumb project we had been assigned, brought in some of his old baby pictures for reference. To be more precise, he arrived one morning with a series of large albums, labelled – if I remember rightly – at six monthly intervals from his birth.

Filled with photographs pretty much from birth until he out of the cot and scampering around in short trousers, their appearance astonished me because, while there are pictures of me as a baby, along with snapshots taken on holidays or at extended family gatherings, the photographs from my first twenty-odd years, in total, probably wouldn’t even fill one of his albums.

In the two decades since there’s barely enough for a couple pages worth. After my then-girlfriend and I took turns with the camera on holiday in Venice back in early 2002, there’s been only one picture taken of me that didn’t drop out a photo-booth slot. That’s loaded in the profile box on the right.

It was taken in Brighton a couple years back when we were filming for the NOF at the Labour Conference. Prior to some mouthpiece arriving for a taped interview, the photographer shadowing us wanted to check the lighting. I sat where the interviewee would eventually sit and she fired off a shot.

Typically we were so busy immediately after the event that I never got around to snagging a copy. Then it took a while getting hold of the photographer and the photograph. Without it I’d probably have to load up an old shot like this one

which would have probably left me with a whole lot of explaining to do. Anyway, there’s my happy, smiley face. Ain’t I the cute one?

I don’t know whether a photograph is supposed to validate you as a blogger. Some folk are simply happy to be themselves; others value anonymity due to the nature of their material. But catching various whiny bleats across numerous blogs, apparently it’s seen as incredibly bad form to post any form of criticism without putting your name to it.

Worse there seems to be a notion, floated like a rather noxious air biscuit, that we could all get along just fine without any form of criticism at all, whether it’s directed at television or film or theatre or what have you. Which is complete bollocks. I’m sure we’d all like to skip through sunlit meadows filled with unicorns and cute fluffy bunnies too but... it’s probably not going to happen either.

It’s a shame everything’s not perfect. That’s something circumstances rarely allow. But if, as an audience, everyone simply accepts the mediocre without objection, then the producers, unchallenged in their job, eventually become lazy. Do we want a future watching useless material starring Barry Shitpeas? Shouldn’t the audience be able to demand: “Not good enough, we want something better!” in whatever way they can?

Obviously an opinion needs to be an infirmed opinion rather than resorting to the level of, “You’re shit and you know you are!” Although, if we’re honest, that’s pretty much all the likes of Doctor Who really deserve. Everyone can’t like everything. One of the bods at work decided that the mercilessly amateur Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps – which is now in its seventh series – was only kept in production so that everyone was united in something they hate.

Hopeful ITV aren’t trying that trick with the equally unfunny Moving Wallpaper, the painful comedy without comedy. From the moment it aired, ratings tumbled faster than turds out of a mountain goat, but still it gets a second season. Is that because the writers promised they’d try and put one joke in the future episodes or because it’s Tony Jordan’s cherished project and the channel want to continue doing business with him?

Maybe the diplomatic aspect is what stops a lot of bloggers so utterly desperate to work in the industry from voicing a reasoned opinion. In their bright viewing world everything is shiny and brilliant. Obviously they don’t want to rock any boats and potentially jeopardise future prospects.

But what kind of impression does it give if it’s painfully obvious that the moment they roll off the turnip truck they’ll gladly drop to their knees, coating their throat with pint after pint of sulphuric jizz, as they empty out Beelzebub’s ball-sack for the sake of contributing to mediocrity. Because is you don’t have an opinion you want to voice, then you don’t have passion. Without that, what’s the point?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Bad Service

Last Thursday I lost my server connection. Typical really. After all, I’d had a pretty decent meeting in the morning followed by an entertaining long lunch with Clair Woodward in Camden Town. Once home, I turned on the computer to check emails and discovered the ADSL lights on the modem were out. Obviously this evened the score.

I gave it awhile then tried again. Still nothing. By mid evening, still with no joy, I had to call the TwonkTwonk customer services. To prepare I fired up the Nintendo and spent twenty-five minutes putting a bullet through every damn thing that moved. Over the years I’ve discovered that if you’re polite and try to sound resigned to the fact that it was a pointless exercise dialling the number in the first place, you can get whichever call centre muppet you speak to, to eventually admit that they’re useless at their job and have no idea what they’re doing.

Yes, I had checked that the computer was on. The power light on the modem was also on. And the wall connection was fine, thank you. After that the call centre muppet was pretty much lost for suggestions. Eventually he told me I’d have to speak to the “second tier” operatives, which were jokingly referred to as the “geek squad”. “You mean technical support people who actually know what they’re talking about?” I suggested. He gave me the number. I punched it in, stayed half an hour on hold and then gave up for the night.

Friday morning I spoke to someone who ran a few tests and established a connection through the server to the computer. Broadband was back. At least until Saturday morning when I returned home with croissants, fresh lemon juice and The Times to discover the lights out for a second time. Even the “second tier” tech had the faint whiff of a Saturday staffer looking for a quiet weekend. She suggested it be left to the line engineers who should sort it all out within forty-eight hours.

Which meant a weekend without broadband. Which meant one of the most relaxing weekends I’ve had of late. I polished off both the newspaper’s Su Doku and Samurai Su Doku, kicked back and watched Altman’s The Long Goodbye as continued proof that the 1970s was the last decade to produce consistently interesting movies, and smartly devoured the latest Lee Child novel to hit paperback.

Of course, once it came back on this morning, with a few wobbles before the signal finally settled down, I was left playing a whole load of catch up. Not only do you get what you pay for but you pay for what you get. It’s a bitch, right?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Doing A Better Job On The Wings

Heading down to the theatre on Monday night, I figured a detour was in order and treat myself to a birthday present, however belated, because I figured I deserved at least one. So I picked up this

I’d held off picking up the films on shiny disc because the DVDs had, until the arrival of the two-disc Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, been pretty basic. Luckily this boxset has turned up before the tapes completely wore out.

Not only was there a perfect version of Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures but also the Channel 4 documentaries 2001: The Making of a Myth and The Last Movie: Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut amongst the extras, meaning they can now all happily go to VHS heaven. Then of course there are the commentaries, although of the couple I’ve tried to listen to, after about a quarter of an hour I’ve switched them off simply to concentrate on the film itself.

Of course in any boxed collection of films there’s usually one that in some way doesn’t live up to the standard of the others. For me, the boxset isn’t immune, meaning there’s one film in the quintet that I have a problem with. It’s the first Kubrick film that I saw on its theatrical release: his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.

My sole problem with the film is that it scares the living bejeezus out of me. This is a movie I have to watch during daylight hours because, quite frankly, I get the screaming abdabs. Most of it comes from the overall sense of unease that pervades the film, and this is long before Nicholson’s Jack Torrance goes well and truly off his trolley.

All these recent nasty little horror films that exist solely to show people being abused and tortured in thoroughly unpleasant ways pale in comparison to something as simple as the rhythmic sound of Danny Torrance’s tricycle as it alternates between riding over carpet and the polished floors of the cavernous Overlook Hotel.

That is just seriously creepy, and that’s even before we get to the twins standing in their pale blue dresses. Or Jack’s conversation with Grady in the men’s room. Or the person in the fancy-dress dog suit, looking like they are about to service a guest. I mean... What. The. Fuck?!

Oh, and if you thought I was going to say that the masterful Eyes Wide Shut was the odd one out and maybe “disappointing”, don’t be bloody silly.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Last night I went to the second performance of the Weaver Hughes Ensemble’s Writers Ensemble, a three-month for a quartet of playwrights to create a new piece. During that time portions of the works-in-progress would be staged for an audience who were then asked to give their thoughts and opinions of the material just performed.

I’d missed the first reading, put on at the end of January, which meant that I was unaware how the individual works had developed between performances. That said, it didn’t make the experience any less enjoyable. Although it was a surprise to be asked to write down any views and opinions before the applause had subsided, rather than be allowed time to digest each piece.

With actors on a bare stage devoid of props or specific lighting cues, the segments that had someone off to the side reading the stage directions worked best. Otherwise, with people playing multiple characters and shifting unexpectedly between one and the other, it took a moment to work out who they were.

As someone mentioned afterwards, since each presentation was only a section of the individual plays, it might have been good if we had been informed whether it was the very beginning, from near the middle, or toward the end of the piece. Especially since the one sentence outline in the accompanying literature wasn’t always enough to establish their place in the narrative whole.

Saying that, one of the quartet was presented as a whole short play. Typical of the delightful Potdoll that earlier deadlines meant she couldn’t exactly play by the play group’s rules. Given her marvellous ear for dialogue, and ability to effortlessly slip back and forth between comedy and tragedy, such transgressions can be easily forgiven.

The event was staged in a tiny theatre in Battersea. Maybe it’s an age thing – by which I mean I’ve reached the point where I’m beginning to lose my marbles – but of late, preparing to head out, I’ve scribbled the address of where I need to be on a record card, tucked it between the relevant pages of the London A-Z before leaving, and then left it on my desk.

It’s only when I’m on the train or tube, well on the way, that I remember I’ve forgotten to bring it with me. Setting out early as always, it now means that the spare time is eaten up tramping around, trying to remember the layout of streets and particular street number from when I last glanced at the map.

Darkness had already fallen by the time the bus crossed Battersea Bridge and disgorged the passengers at the final stop of its long route. Vaguely aware of which direction I was supposed to be walking in, I trudged on, save for one brief diversion.

Without properly detouring further to walk right past, I stopped to gaze at the bland 11-storey building that rose above the low-rise housing estate. When I moved to London to waste as much time as I could at The Esteemed School of Art, this was the hall of residence for my first year: Ralph West Halls of Residence.

I had been assigned a room on the fifth floor, luckily looking east across Albert Bridge Road and Battersea Park rather than the grim concrete blocks on the western side. Not to say that I kept to myself, but it wasn’t until the end of the first term that I discovered one of my fellow students was in the room right across the corridor.

Every morning, after an early breakfast in the dining hall, I’d head over the Albert Bridge, walking to South Kensington tube before I discovered getting a bus from the King’s Road, up Sloane Street to Knightsbridge and then up Piccadilly to the art school afforded a far better view of the city. By year’s end I was eager to leave but it provided a safe haven as I was gradually introduced to the city.

My one abiding memory of the place is coming back late from a party, certainly worse the wear for alcohol, with, for some reason, a young journalism student from what was then the London College of Printing, hoisted up on my shoulders. She was far drunker that I was, and it was her swaying that made me stumble as we took an ill-advised short cut over the lawn between the building and the Albert Bridge Road.

Flat on our backs on the grass, with her legs off in all directions as she shrieked and giggled, I remember looking up at the building and seeing the ghostly faces of many irate students staring down from the windows, their sleep obviously interrupted by our shenanigans. Apparently Wandsworth Council has recently received an application to redevelop the site and turn it into retirement flats with care facilities. That should put an end to any further reckless behaviour.

After the play excerpts I was invited to stay for a drink. Given what happened the last time I was south of the river, and the long, long journey home, I said my goodbyes and, like the last time I was in Battersea, got out while the going was good.