Monday, April 28, 2008

Fabulous Absolutely

It’s fair to say that, however good the writing, sketch shows can be horribly hit or miss affairs. Of late I’ve found the more recent shows a lot more miss, but that may be because I prefer actual jokes to grotesques spewing out dull and repetitive catchphrases.

Still, to be fair it doesn’t mean that everything preceding them formed a veritable golden age. For the most part Monty Python’s Flying Circus leaves me unmoved, that I do know. On the other hand the surviving BBC routines – of which there are far too few – featuring Pete and Dud are stone cold classics that still crack me up.

Over the years there have probably been all manner of shows that briefly lit up the schedules before burning out. With a paper and pencil and enough time I suspect everyone could come up with a decent list of their own.

Probably top of my list, even above Spike Milligan’s hysterical and quite odd free-form Q series, would be Channel 4’s Absolutely, which ran from 1989 to 1993, broadcast late on Wednesday nights, and hasn’t been repeated since as far as I know. Rather than being purely comical, quite a lot of the characters created by the sextet of performers that included Morwenna Banks, Jack Docherty and Gordon Kennedy – who now plays Little John in the BBC’s rather rubbish Robin Hood – were actually either disturbed or very disturbing.

If you saw Channel 4’s recent adaptation of Sarah Williams’ Poppy Shakespeare, most of the Absolutely creations should be seated in the room alongside Anna Maxwell Martin’s N. There would certainly be a chair reserved for Moray Hunter’s marvellously, hellishly annoying Calum Gilhooley, a complete gonk, forever wearing his blue anorak and clutching a plastic bag, as he tediously over described everything.

Even more disturbing was John Sparkes’ characters, Bert Bastard and Frank Hovis. The former was a dishevelled geriatric to whom life was perennially unkind, while the latter doled out particularly foul tales of being caught short from the sort of disgusting toilet cubicle Renton disappeared into in Trainspotting.

Less revolting was Banks’ Little Girl, sitting on her wooden school desk and ultimately declaring that her nonsensical childish stream of consciousness was “true!” Even less harmless were the haplessly deluded councillors of Stoneybridge, forever trying to find ways to promote their drab little Scottish town.

Of course there’s always the danger that the monster that is memory is making these sketches and characters out to be far better than they were. There’s the danger that they aren’t the comedy gems that I remember.

Next week I can find out when Fremantle release Absolutely: Everything!, an eight-disc box set of all 28 episodes, together with a healthy selection of extras put together by the cast. Hopefully I’m not wrong.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mrs Trellis Regrets

So farewell Humphrey Lyttelton, jazz legend and one time signals officer with the Grenadier Guards who landed on the beach at Salerno with a pistol in one hand and his trumpet in the other. Claiming to be descended from a collaborator in Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder plot, and described by Louis Armstrong as “That cat in England who swings his ass off,” he was also a cartoonist, calligrapher and, since 1972, supreme master of the double entendre as the deadpan chairman of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

This afternoon Radio 4 bumped the literary quiz The Write Stuff in favour of a typically hilarious classic episode of “the antidote to panel games”, originally broadcast in May 1995. The first edition of the 25th series, it featured original panel member Willie Rushton, alongside Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer, playing the likes of One Song to the Tune of Another, Name that Barcode, and Sound Charades.

After Rushton’s death in 1997 his seat was taken by a rotation of guest panellists including Rob Brydon, Jeremy Hardy, and even Stephen Fry who came up with perhaps the best ever definition for the Uxbridge English Dictionary:

Countryside – To kill Piers Morgan.

The question now remains, will anyone be able to replace “Humph”?

In The Observer today, Lord Bragg of South Bank observed:

He was a very amiable, good-mannered and well-bred man and that is why he got away with all of the stuff he said on Radio 4 as chairman of the panel game I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. His lines must surely be among the rudest jokes that have ever been broadcast anywhere on the radio, but I would be interested to know if he ever got a single complaint.

Who else could ever get away with delivering, in an understated, unknowing way, such typically marvellous ISIHAC filth as:

“The next game is Sound Charades. This is based on the TV favourite Give Us A Clue, where players used to mime the titles of songs, films or plays against a time limit. The master was undoubtedly Lionel Blair, and who will forget him, exhausted and on his knees, finishing off An Officer And A Gentleman in under two minutes?”


“After tasting the meat pies, Samantha said she liked Mr Dewhurst’s beef in ale; although she preferred his tongue in cider”

According to The Times yesterday, last year Tim Brooke-Taylor had been asked to contemplate the future of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue without the then 85-year-old Lyttelton as presenter. He replied

“Humph is the most important component. Willie Rushton and I talked about it once and we agreed that if Humph isn’t there it’s not worth doing.”

In the last stop of the SIHAC Official Stage Tour, Rob Brydon stood in as chairman because Lyttelton had already been admitted to hospital for surgery on an aortic aneurysm. If the BBC do decide to relaunch the show, there are suggestions that Brydon is in the running, alongside Jeremy Hardy and Paul Merton to take over the host’s chair.

Should I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue continue? Who has the ability to fill Humph’s shoes? For once there isn’t a clear antidote.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Future Is Bleak

Just when I thought I was on the mend, a relapse. It may have been because I was up and about too soon, meeting up with Work Buddy and his Brother at a country house to flesh out a new idea they’d been working on.

I’d zoned out a few times during the day, watching a pheasant wandering the grounds and the magpies ganging up on rabbits, rather than make notes. It wasn’t until later in the evening, long after the Governess has joined us to discuss other possible work, that I started to feel like I wanted to be out of there and back home in bed.

Alternatively, the unexpected downswing might have come about from learning that not only had FOX renewed the lacklustre Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles but Sky One is looking to remake Blake’s 7. Why and why? And... for the love of all that’s holy, WHY?

While Elaine Pyke, Sky One’s commissioning editor, seems to misguidedly think that Blake’s 7, like the new Battlestar Galactica, represents “the best traditions of the genre”, I’d say that Blake’s 7 actually represents everything wrong with useless, ill thought out science fiction.

Blake’s 7, it’s reasonably fair to say, falls somewhere between a bit rubbish and dreadful rubbish. It was bright and colourful and entertaining for a younger audience, but then so where the clowns at the circus.

Supposed to be a futuristic variation of Robin Hood – a live-action Rocket Robin Hood if you will – it was a litany of useless clichés. A grim future where individual freedom of expression is outlawed? A handful of rebels in one spaceship battling a totalitarian Federation that rules over the galaxy?

It only really got interesting when Blake and crew argued amongst themselves. A few episodes hit reasonably close to the mark, but otherwise it was like watching mosquitoes trying to take down an elephant, badly. The only reason they survived as long as they did was because Federation soldiers were even worse shots than the Death Star stormtroopers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Blake’s 7 was how, some time ago, fans pestered and petitioned the BBC to repeat it. When the Corporation finally relented and rebroadcast the damn show, the ratings held for the first couple of episodes and then plummeted. The years certainly hadn’t been kind to what had been just about acceptable in the late 1970s.

Of course the news wasn’t that Sky was going ahead with the series, simply that they had ordered two scripts for a potential series. How long has it been since their remake of The Prisoner was supposed to appear? I wonder how that is coming along.

Because, if you want to get information out of somebody you take them down into a basement room, soak them in water, attach electrodes and run a current through them. If that doesn’t work you start in on them with a chisel and a blowtorch. It certainly doesn’t need some stupid Village and stupidly overcomplicated scenarios to elicit the facts from someone.

So what do you think is the way to go with Blake’s 7? How does a handful of rebels fight a dictatorial regime? When he first saw an episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Work Buddy rather astutely pointed out that was the Blake’s 7 remake, right there, or rather the way that it should go.

But I suppose instead of doing what Whedon did with Firefly or what Ron Moore is currently doing with Battlestar Galactica, they’ll go for big, silly names and unbelievably stupid scenarios that haven’t even a shred of logic to them. But then that was what Blake’s 7’s creator, the late Terry Nation, certainly excelled at.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Creeping Forward

It’s that time of year again. In fact, based on this post, bizarrely it actually was a whole year ago since the last time I was hobbled like this.

The week started out just fine and dandy, getting together with Work Buddy and meeting up with an old friend we hadn’t seen for bloody ages. Then Tuesday morning everything was going well, in fact, scooting through Soho I even discovered I was much taller than Brian Blessed.

But on the way home yesterday everything started to grind to a halt. Curled up in the seat, unable to concentrate on the newspaper’s Su Dokus, I was taken with a sudden case of creeping death.

Since then life has been divided between the bedroom and bathroom. When I haven’t been flat on my back, or scribbling some increasingly bizarre notes in the pad beside the bed, I’ve been re-reading David Wild’s The Showrunners, about a select number of programme makers trying to survive the 1998-99 season. Less than ten years ago, the television landscape then appears so quaint.

Woken up by the telephone ringing just after 8:15 this evening, I thought it was the alarm clock announcing the arrival of Thursday morning. Though feeling better I’m a little out of sync. So what I was going to write about this week will have to wait.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

International Rhubarb

The British Academy Television Awards are doled out tomorrow. No, I don’t really care either. They usually get some smug, gobby nerk to present them and... oh, what’s the point?

With the Samurai Su Doku in The Times nailed and nothing to do for the last ten minutes, I skimmed down the list of nominees in the various categories, trying to scrape together a modicum of interest. One category that did catch my eye was Best International Show. Judging from the nominations it translated as best American shows shown on UK TV. The nominations are:

Californication (Five)
Family Guy (BBC Three)
Heroes (BBC Two)
My Name Is Earl (Channel 4)

As with most years, the TV BAFTA nominations are pretty much divvied up between the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. The various other satellite/cable channels people can gormlessly click between don’t get much of a look in because they pretty much only show imports, repeats, or cheaply made tat.

That said, Sky News gets a nod in the Best News Coverage category for its reporting on the Glasgow Airport Attack, while BBC Three and Four, E4 and More 4 have nominations here and there in other categories so it isn’t solely down to the terrestrial channels.

So let’s look at those nominations for Best International Show again:

Californication (Five)
Family Guy (BBC Three)
Heroes (BBC Two)
My Name Is Earl (Channel 4)

And at the same time remind ourselves that last year various terrestrial, satellite and cable channels in the UK screened the final season of The Sopranos, season six of The Shield, season four of The Wire, the third season of Battlestar Galactica and the first season of Dexter. All of them could have been nominated for that category, but instead...

Californication (Five)
Family Guy (BBC Three)
Heroes (BBC Two)
My Name Is Earl (Channel 4)

What. The. Fuck?!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Getting Into The Spirit Of Things

Good days or bad, there’s always something to look forward to...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Just The Right Type

Of course it’s all computers and desktop publishing nowadays. Before the years at The Esteemed School of Art, back during my Foundation Year back in the Westcountry, one typography project involved Letterpress Printing with monotype hot metal typesetting.

It was certainly more time consuming and remarkably fiddly, sorting through the typefaces and building up the different lines of text, but there was something incredibly satisfying by the time we reached the printing stage later that week. Watching BBC4’s magnificent Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press - The Machine That Made Us reminded me how much fun it had actually been.

Most documentaries of the last few years have had an annoying habit of wasting time on irrelevant dramatic reconstructions. In this instance, the sole reconstruction was of a working press based on a Dürer illustration, which was as close to Gutenberg’s original design as possible, and Fry’s snaps of German wine presses. As well as giving a hand with the building, as well as creating metal characters and making his own linen-based paper to print upon rather than use vellum, Fry set about investigating the life of Johannes Gutenberg.

Born in Mainz, on the bank of the Rhine - which Fry described as “the silicon valley of medieval Europe” – it turned out the inventor’s real family name was literally translated as “goose flesh.” Visiting the local church, Fry looked at where Gutenberg had most probably been baptized and described it as a “7,000 point font.”

Typography jokes are never the funniest. The technician in our print room didn’t see the funny side when one of my fellow students pulled a drawer of type out, thinking it was on runners. It wasn’t; and sailed out of chest and landed on the floor where the tiny metal letters, spaces and punctuation marks went everywhere.

Things were much happier in the documentary. The excitement was palpable once it came to reprinting a bible page and the looks of delight on everyone’s faces when the pages came out of the press were just delightful.

The Companion Way

What is the point of Catherine Tate? Or rather, what is the point of Donna Noble, her character on Doctor Who? Although thinking about it, both questions are equally valid.

Back at the very beginning, with television science fiction still in its infancy and only just learning to crawl, the adventures of an alien character tumbling back and forth through space and time certainly needed a human touch, especially since this was, after all, primarily a children’s show. The human companion reflected the fears and desires of the audience watching the exploits at home, asking the questions that would help process the information they were receiving.

The first companion, Susan, was the Doctor’s granddaughter, which meant she was alien too. So her history and science teachers from school were brought along for the ride. The show, conceived by Sydney Newman and developed with Donald Wilson, the BBC’s new Head of Serials, was meant to have an educational thrust after all.

In the first six seasons, from when Doctor Who debuted in November 1963 until the end of the decade, the show got through a total of thirteen companions: nine women and four men. After the original trio’s turn was up they were replaced by a selection of characters from the past, present and future, including a handmaiden from ancient Troy; a 41st Century Space Security Agent; a young woman and merchant seaman from the 1960s; an 18th century Scottish Highlander; and finally a 21st century astrophysicist.

Some lasted only a year because the actor’s contract wasn’t renewed, others longer. One didn’t even make it out of the adventure she was introduced in alive. Characters plucked from the past proved difficult for the writers because it meant even the simplest things in the modern age had to be explained to them. Their last attempt was the daughter of a Victorian-era scientist who could at least, I suppose, comprehend what has happening around her.

Whatever it was, it was making her scream. The historical dramas were soon dropped in favour of fantastical adventures populated by the sort of bug-eyed monsters Newman specifically didn’t want. And the girls turned out to be forever finding themselves in peril.

With the format of the show becoming less of an alien concept, the companions’ role was still to glean information relating to the where, why and who, but they also had to get themselves in deep trouble. Each adventure was made up of multiple episodes, and each episode had to end on a cliffhanger to ensure the audience tuned in next time.

Typically, like in the old Republic serials, the danger was immediately resolved the following week, but getting into deep shit at least gave the companions something more to do. In later incarnations the odd one or two were a little bit more pro-active, but most looked to be rather wet and pathetic and in constant need of rescuing from something in tinfoil.

The thing with the new incarnation, now four years old, is that each story is contained within a forty-five minute running time. Apart from the odd two-parters, the cliffhanger as was no longer exists. So what use do the companions provide?

Toward the end of Rose, the first episode of the reinvented Doctor Who, it soon became evident that Billie Piper’s character was really Buffy, The Doctor was Giles, Mickey Smith was Xander and Rose’s mother was... the Zeppo. Once Rose was stolen away in an end-of-season climax that heavily thieved it’s way from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the replacements haven’t been up to snuff.

From the few episodes of the following year I caught, Martha Jones seemed to be a character in search of something to do. One and one-sixth episodes in and Donna seems even more pointless. It doesn’t help that Catherine Tate’s acting range seems to alternate between being mouthy and not being mouthy. So the question remains: what is she for?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Push Off

Watching the pilot of Pushing Daisies again, this time when it premiered on ITV1, provoked the same response as the first time around: The overwhelming desire to repeatedly punch the television screen.

What I did admire though was the unexpectedly sly wit of the channel schedulers for broadcasting American Pie immediately after it.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Hostile Approach

Before being hurled boggle-eyed and screaming into an edit that won’t take too big a wet bite out of my weekend, I just wanted to point out that tomorrow afternoon BBC2 is showing Hostile Waters. First broadcast in 1996, the BBC-HBO co-production is based on an unconfirmed incident just prior to Reagan and Gorbachev’s historic 1986 Reykjavik summit in which K-219, a Russian Yankee-Class submarine, collided with an American Los Angeles-Class Hunter Killer submarine, believed to be the USS Augusta, while on patrol northeast of Bermuda.

Of course that kind of direct contact didn’t turn out too well for the older Russian sub. An explosion in one of the missile tubes leads to seawater leaking in. That starts a corrosive chain reaction that could cook the nuclear payloads of the ballistic missiles and lead to a pretty severe nuclear catastrophe.

Written by Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by David Drury, Hostile Waters stars Rutger Hauer as the Russian Captain Britanov and Martin Sheen as the skipper of the US submarine who erroneously sees the Russian plan to avert disaster as a ploy to launching their SLBMs. In one of his first acting roles, Lost’s Dominic Monaghan appears as a Russian submariner in a cast that also features Max von Sydow and Angel’s Alexis Denisof.

TKM may have taken some dramatic license with the facts of an event that the United States Navy still categorically denies happening, but in the sweaty confines of the stricken boat he ratchets up the tension in a script that Drury perfectly realizes. Anyway, try and catch it if you can. Hostile Waters is on BBC2 from 5:30pm.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Who'd Have Thunk It?

The last of the quartet of BBC4’s The Curse of Comedy dramas is broadcast tonight. This time it’s David Walliams delivering his take on Frankie Howerd. I’m not sure how successful it’ll be, or how successful they’ve been in total.

The Curse of Steptoe was probably too bitty for it’s own good, trying to cover far too large a swathe of both actors’ lives. The second and third in the series were certainly helped from pretty much concentrating on one aspect of each person’s life. While Ken Stott tried his very best to inhabit the skin of the troubled comic in Hancock and Joan but ultimately not quite pulling it off, in Hughie Green, Most Sincerely Trevor Eve’s turn as the wheezing, womanizing television presenter was just remarkable. That said, it still makes me wonder about the value of biographical dramas whose sole purpose is to revel in other people’s misery.

One thing this short season has had going for it were the Mark Lawson Talks To editions that followed each drama. After starting with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – obvious choices because they had written Steptoe & Son, Hancock’s Half Hour and Frankie Howerd's Hour – the second and third hour-long interviews were with George Cole and Barry Cryer. Neither seemed to have anything to do with the particular drama of that week, but that didn’t matter a jot. These were proper informative and entertaining in-depth interviews, unlike the pathetic circus chat shows have descended into now with utter-cock presenters more interested in themselves than the guests who come on to heartily pimp their latest products.

Since it started in 2006, Mark Lawson Talks To has seen him interview a varied selection of writers, comedians, filmmakers, scientists, polymaths and television programme makers. At the beginning of this year his guest in the spotlight was writer/producer Russell T Davies. Over the course of the hour, the interviewee was revealed as someone enthusiastic about television and, if I recall rightly, measured when it came discussing his own contribution to the medium. Watching it I felt more that a little confused as I tried to reconcile the image of the Russell T Davies on screen with the person who appears in press interviews annoyingly proclaiming that Doctor Who is the bestest thing ever on television because it’s just super and brilliant and ace.

On Saturday I caught the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who. You don’t really need to hear my opinion on it, do you? Really? Well okay then, I thought it was a dreadful, dreary piece of shit. The story was too far beyond stupid for words, the CGI was positively laughable, and, on the evidence of this first show, the stunt casting of the shouty, talent-free Catherine Tate is quite possibly the biggest mistake since Napoleon decided to march his troops on Moscow in 1812.

But then I’m not meant to be watching it anyway. It’s a kiddies’ show, or family entertainment at the very best. Which means that if I was a wee nipper in short trousers, or a dad sitting down to watch it with excitable offspring, then it would be all well and good. Sure I watched it as a kid, but gave up when Bernard Lodge was still designing the title sequences simply because there were far better things to either watch or do with my time. I was never fanatical about the show so there was no problem in letting it go and moving on. For me, going back to it now and getting all excited and aquiver would be comparable to wanting, just as eagerly, to bury my nose in a new series of early learning books. Why would I do that?

As a mildly entertaining diversion the average Doctor Who could be comparable, say, to an episode of New Tricks. What obviously pushes it to the fore is the rabid devotion of a fanbase made up of a new generation taken in by the whiz-bang and the still socially-inept portion of the show’s original audience, most of whom are probably still virgins. For the second group I can only suppose Doctor Who looks absolute aces because they’re blindly comparing it to the original show, with its drawn out stories realised with an inadequate budget, rather than stand it up against its contemporaries.

Then there is the third section of fans with an unhealthy obsession for the show. These are probably the most dangerous lot of all: the current programme makers. This is where the different Russell T Davies appears. Not the relaxed writer who chatted amiably with Mark Lawson on the TARDIS set, but an almost rabid, bullying, tub-thumping über-fan whose appearances in print give the indication that you’re either with him or against him. And if you’re against him, you’re plain wrong.

But then this is the man who, in an interview for The Daily Telegraph’s Seven magazine last year, compared Robert Holmes’ dialogue in the script of Doctor Who adventure The Talons of Weng Chiang to Dennis Potter. I have to say hearing just that alone would put me in the latter camp even before watching the show.

Still, at least Holmes, like Potter, could do plot. This is something RTD still has a big problem with, especially when, from opening title to end credits, he has less than 50 minutes playtime. Yes, he’s good at writing little character moments but with a limited time to tell a story he has to concentrate on story. Maybe the problem is this fan mentality, clinging to the memory of the old multi-part shows that had lengthy talks between characters in empty corridors simply because there wasn’t the money to do anything else.

I’m sure I said a while ago that most of the new Doctor Who episodes I’ve seen since it returned four years back seem like a two- or three-hour story was filmed and then hacked down to fill the timeslot. That’s certainly the best suggestion I can come up with for the liberal use of deus ex machinas. And then there’s the reliance on some of the most unspectacular special effects. They look good compared to the original series, but then what nowadays wouldn’t?

It doesn’t help that with the stories playing out in different settings there isn’t an opportunity to create a library of stock shots to reuse. The Mill is doing its best with what it has but it does looks like, while Impossible Pictures and ITV are at the other end of Great Marlborough Street, getting their dinosaurs for Primeval from Framestore CFC, not a big enough sack of BBC cash is being carried through their doors and up the stairs to the Flame or Inferno suites. Whoopee, this new episode got to use Massive to create the swarm of alien fat babies in the final scenes, but it still looked embarrassingly cheap and nasty.

I doubt I’ll bother watching any more. With the Christmas specials all over the BBC iPlayer like a rash, I set the one that featured Catherine Tate’s character going and shifted the browser over to the second monitor. Then I turned the volume down after a couple minutes of her thoroughly unpleasant screeching and pretty much stopped paying attention to it. Then I collapsed the window.

Going back to Saturday, one thing that really did surprise me was the write-up in The Times. Usually in it’s arts supplement, The Knowledge, Caitlin Moron oozes obsequiously over Doctor Who every chance she can get. Except this week the whole focus of her article was the return of Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked. Instead it was left to Dominic Maxwell to write:

It’s back! The best science-fiction TV series ever created is at last returning for its long awaited fourth series. And so, by a curious coincidence, is Doctor Who.

Yes, Battlestar Galactica really is that mighty. If your only knowledge of BSG is from its initial incarnation, a so-so space-opera starring Dirk Benedict in the late 1970s, that may be hard to take seriously.

But not only is the new show better than the original, it’s also stronger drama than pretty much anything out there, give or take a Sopranos or a Wire. It’s brilliantly written, perfectly played, and credits its audience with plenty of intelligence.

Meanwhile, Doctor Who has grown cocky. Confidence has turned to glibness, as the Doctor cheerily saves himself with a smart comment and a spizz of his sonic screwdriver. Can it ever again be the best science-fiction series around? Not on Battlestar Galactica’s watch - here’s why.

Even some of the recent entries on The Guardian’s arts & entertainment blog are beginning to question whether Doctor Who is on the wane. Even if these are isolated cases, it comes as a relief to see the media blinkers start to come off and reviewers finally see the show as kids’ entertainment that sometimes isn’t very good rather than Doctor Who über alles. It may be that people are wising up to the fact that as fans of the original the writers and production team are more and more making shows for fans, for themselves, rather than the wider audience. It may simply be that the time has come for some fresh blood to stop it from becoming stale.

At the launch of the fourth series last week, BBC News reported the typical runaround RTD and David Tennant keep giving the press about how long they’re staying for or how soon they’re going. Strange that nobody referred to the interview Russell T Davies gave to The Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Pettie at the end of March in which, once he’s exhausted the hyperbole, RTD states when he’s leaving and who his successor will be. If that's the case then 2010 may tell a different, more hopeful, story.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Crazy & Wild

After springing forward to British Summer Time last weekend, it seemed perfectly normal to wake up to thick snow flurries covering the neigbourhood in a uniform deep white blanket. I went for The Sunday Times, chorizo, eggs and milk and that was it for me.

So I had to hand it to the people that braved the elements to line the route as the Olympic torch was carried through London, most of whom seemed to be either police or protesters who made a good fist of disrupting the relay. One zealous pro-Tibet protestor managed to launch himself through the shield and got a hand on the torch before the rozzers stomped him to the ground.

A little further along, on the way to Notting Hill, a further anti-China protestor should be applauded for ingeniously trying to blast the torch with a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately he was a little premature setting it off and soon found himself kissing the tarmac as a swarm of police piled in on him.

Unfortunately, after that, it pretty much reached the point where each successive torchbearer was surrounded by not only the protective near-dozen Chinese “flame attendants” but a large outer ring of Met officers so that it was barely visible. By the end it was carried by bus, Docklands Light Railway and then boat, which seemed a bit rubbish.

And then it’s announced that Charlton Heston has died. I mean, come on!!

With all this craziness it seemed just the perfect time to watch Wild Palms on DVD. I’d recorded the five-part miniseries when it was first broadcast in 1993 and, although it wasn’t something I watched on even a semi-regular basis, the tape was wearing pretty thin.

Seeing this pristine version still didn’t make it any more intelligible, Which is just how I remembered it; especially once the overwrought theme, composed by the Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, kicked in.

Straight away there was James Belushi’s impotent attorney Harry Wyckoff dreaming about a rhinoceros in his empty swimming pool. I suppose that’s quite a start. After that came the media conglomerate with his own religion and virtual reality programming, New Realists, the struggle between the Friends and the Fathers, and the psychoactive drug which, when overdosed on, sends the user visions of cathedrals.

Eventually the palm trees burnt and just as before, it left me with the same vague sense of dissatisfaction as before. It may not have worked as a whole but what Wild Palms had done brilliantly, back when it was originally transmitted, was show that the Twin Peaks debacle hadn’t completely queered the pitch in terms of rather unusual, partly fantastical television. And I'd forgotten it was set in 2007.

Genius or mad as a bag of badgers, Wild Palms is still one of those things it’s simply good to have a copy of. While Fremantle have put out a bare-bones operation, with the five episodes spread over two discs and absolutely no extras or even subtitles, at least it comes in at under a tenner.

Just as there seems to be this hole in the DVD market where a lot of the 1970s movies should be, there are also a whole lot of 1980s and 90s TV dramas that don’t get an airing and really need to be rescued from the ether. Instead of long running series that look like they’re planning to go on forever, I mean the single dramas like 1995’s Go Now, directed by Michael Winterbottom from a script by Paul Henry Powell and Jimmy McGovern. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that repeated since.

Then there are Alan Bennett’s single dramas about Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, An Englishman Abroad from 1983, featuring a magnificent performance from Alan Bates, and 1992’s A Question of Attribution starring James Fox, both produced by Innes Lloyd and directed by John Schlesinger. There’s also Bennett’s remarkable The Insurance Man from 1986 which posits Franz Kafka in an increasingly Kafkaesque nightmare.

There’s also 1987’s Blunt starring Ian Richardson as Blunt and Anthony Hopkins as Burgess, Simon Gray’s After Pilkington, starring Bob Peck and Miranda Richardson from the same year, and the Martin Campbell -directed Frankie and Johnnie broadcast the year before. If the BBC and Channel 4 felt like it, DVDs of Dennis Potter’s Karaoke and Cold Lazarus would be nice.

Whereas boxsets of Lost and Heroes and the like are snapped up by their large fanbases, would there be an audience for these older dramas to make their release on DVD profitable? You’d hope 2 Entertain would take the risk and get around to putting them out. After all, these would be releases that wouldn’t need to be loaded down with extras. For once the quality of the material would be more than enough.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Best Is Back!

Science fiction drama at it’s best is back on television. And it’s starting earlier this year, which is a good thing.*

Even with a special at the end of last year going some way toward sating the audience’s appetite, it’s still amazing to realise just how long it’s been since the slew of jaw-dropping revelations that topped off last season’s climactic final episode.

Not only did the trailers rock but the new promotional shots for the fourth year certainly raise a whole bunch of questions.

If you’re intrigued by the Last Supper tableau and can't wait to know more, on the EW website executive producer Ron Moore gives hints regarding the fates of the various characters.

*You didn’t honestly think I was even suggesting it was the new series of Doctor Who did you? Oh, frak me!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Fighting Women And Machines

Folk who blindly wave the flag for English drama amuse me when they take the stance that of course only the very best of the US dramas make it over to these shores. Their presumption, I assume, is that we only get to see the cream of their crap compared to homemade fare.

While that might have been the case when we only had three or even four channels, that line simply doesn’t wash anymore now there are far too many terrestrial, cable and satellite channels. Now, with every damn station hungrily scrabbling for content it means that not only do we now get the likes of Mad Men and The Wire and The Sopranos but the new Flash Gordon as well.

The thing of it is, I’ve never fought for country but for quality. All I care about is that a show is well made, intelligent and entertaining – which is actually a lot to ask for these days. On top of all that, of course, it all depends whether I have the time to watch.

Back in the 1990s, up to my neck in animation, I got into the habit of putting the first four or five episodes of a new drama on tape. Even if schedules allowed me to be home in time to watch, more often than not I was too damn dog-tired to give the show my full attention. So, once I got a spare weekend, I’d put my feet up and work my way through the tapes, seeing which new shows were worth sticking with.

Nowadays I still try to give new material the same due consideration. Maybe it doesn’t always work out when it comes to giving them as much time as I would have. It may just be that I can decide whether they appeal to me quicker now. Or I’m just less tolerant. Or other factors are involved.

I couldn’t stick with Damages beyond a couple of weeks simply because I found the characters to be generally unpleasant, and not in a good way, and didn’t want to spend any more time in their company. Two other shows I tried out and seriously found lacking were Bionic Woman and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Both might have looked good on paper – one the reinvention of a 70s “classic”, the other based on a successful film series – but brought to the television screen neither seemed to work. The main reason for turning off was that the pair was just so remarkably dour.

Sure, the fantastical subject matter was aimed at being all serious, but a spot of levity here and there wouldn’t have been amiss, right? Instead it was pretty much a continual diet of misery and angst, leaving everyone walking around with a face like a slapped arse.

A nuclear holocaust wiping out most of the population, followed by robot killers really sticking it to the survivors is more than enough to make anyone glum. But if the titular character is going to be such a total fucking misery guts before that even happens, I’m guessing most people would prefer to have a great day at the beach, enjoy a good meal, watch the sunset, then take a bullet and get it over with. Probably the reason I haven’t watched Terminator 2 for a long time is that, between all the slam-bang action sequences that television budgets can’t afford, Sarah Connor was such a goddamn killjoy.

I gave up on the fourth episode. By then it already seemed to have settled quite nicely into a formulaic rut. Their daily ‘to do’ list more or less comprised of: avoiding Terminators; let the good Terminator fight any killer robots they cross paths with; run away; try to discover who is developing Skynet; teach the stroppy kid to be a leader; stay one step ahead of the law; completely ignore there was a third film already.

What it boils down to is the mom’s a royal pain in the arse, the kid rebels because that’s what teenagers do – although getting himself locked in a bunker with a terminator is rather an extreme way of saying, “Gee mom, I hate you!” And Summer Glau goes around wearing clothes. So much is wrong with this picture.

Would it have worked as a relatively straightforward action adventure, albeit one still burdened with Sarah Connor’s lumpen survivalist pearls of wisdom? With only so many exoskeleton Terminators/dream sequence money shots the producers could squeeze out of the budget, what remained was a dysfunctional family bitching and moaning their way toward the end of civilisation. You can catch EastEnders for that.

Actually, in recent years the best drama about a dysfunctional family was JJ Abrams’ bonkers spy drama, Alias, and that was a regular hoot; at least in the early years before it went all to hell. Shorn of that kind of fun threaded amongst the intrigue, both Bionic Woman and The Sarah Connor Chronicles seem to revel in their misery.

Back in 1976, The Bionic Woman, the character could leap straight into action when the series premiered because, having originally appeared in The Six Million Dollar Man, she had already got through the shock of being smashed up in a skydiving accident and put back together again, and was raring to go. Rebuilt for the 21st century, it seemed to take the new Jamie Sommers a far longer time to get beyond her techno freakout mode and into action.

Even once she agreed to work for the Berkut Group, who had paid top dollar for her, too much time was spent training her up in between agonising over everything. Obviously the character is expected to go through a learning curve to be a super secret agent, but did it have to be so shallow?

When she was eventually sent out on missions, Sommers pretty much played second banana to the Berkut agents accompanying her. This is a woman who could now punch someone’s face clean off, and she’s still relegated to the role of a ride-along. Which just leaves her to deal with the bratty little sister and the general anxiety of modern living. What’s the point of that when you’re bionic? Get to the action!

In the 1970s crazy-concept genre dramas weren’t big on angst, they just got right on with the adventure. There wasn’t any problem, however insurmountable, that couldn’t be solved in forty-five hopelessly formulaic minutes. Hell, even in the pilot of the original Battlestar Galactica, after the wholesale destruction of the Twelve Colonies a trip to an alien nightclub for a little drinking, a little gambling, and a lot of loose women was pretty much all anyone needed to cure their ills back then. The only thing the Viper pilots looked pissed about was there weren’t any beaches to surf.

Worse for Jamie Sommers, the revamp introduced Sarah Corvus ahead of her. The first recipient of bionics, and totally bad to the byte, she was a shitload more interesting than the damp squib bartender. The girl-fight in the rain that topped off the pilot was a highlight the successive episodes simply failed to match.

Obviously I’m not alone because already NBC has dropped the former, while the fate of the latter is still to be decided by FOX. I’m betting they boot it out the door. Of course now that I’ve given up on it, the final clutch of episodes might turn out to be action-packed. Even so I’m pretty sure the two spare hours a week I’ve got back in my life could spend them more constructively - like sitting in a hard-backed chair and staring at the wall.