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.

5 Comments:

At 8:49 am, Blogger Ian said...

Maybe it's because my expectations were so low (I'd just finished watching Torchwood Series 1 on DVD - now that really is a totally shit show where not only is the writing bad, but nobody can act either) but I thought Who wasn't as bad as I expected.

Admittedly Tate is too old to be a companion, and her 'shouty' persona gets very old very quickly (not least because we've already got one 'shouty' over-gurning character with Tennant's take on Who) but I thought she played some of the more subtle moments beautifully (especially her scenes with Bernard Cribbens).

Alas, as is always the case with Billy Bunter, the writing was a mess (although I did laugh at the miming to each other scene - hard to tell how much of this was down to Davies and how much Tate given her comment on 'Confidential' that it was left to her to work out what to do). The 'Oh look, they keep missing each other' was tedious in the extreme it was so overdone, and while Davies was glowing in smug satisfaction at the humour of his brilliant writing with what he'd done here, even the hardcore fans were complaining about it.

And did you see Davies pompously talking about his 'fantastic' window cleaner box scene and how it was so difficult to write a scene like that he was thinking of giving a writing masterclass talk on it. :-O. The man is so up himself it's hard to remember a time when someone suffered from so much self-delusion.

On the other hand, it's getting the wretched viewing figures (our fault for continiong to watch it I guess) whereat Battlestar Galactica is dying a death. Who drew over 8 million viewers in the UK, the season premiere of Galactica drew a pitiful 2 million in the USA, despite all the rave critical reviews. More information here: http://tvbythenumbers.com/2008/04/07/no-nielsen-ratings-glory-for-bsg-season-four-premiere/3230

 
At 8:28 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Ian,

You watched the whole of Torchwood series one on DVD? The whole series? Just remembering the episodes I watched of that hot shower of excrement, I’d have gouged my eyes out before the midway point. Then again, that meant I would have missed that fantastically hilarious series finale.

Moving on... Is Tate older than her wearisome shtick? That is the question. I think my ears were still ringing when she played opposite Bernard Cribbins so missed any subtleties. I suppose he was the only actor who could have played that last scene and gotten away with it, god bless him.

Well, the miming through the windows and the rather creaky attempt at slapstick goings-on might have been a hoot to a younger audience – maybe even one that still gurgles and sticks fingers in their mouths and enjoys a game of peek-a-boo. Whenever the show tries out things like that it’s always completely and utterly nobbled by the perambulatory nature of the direction. Their ideal of something interesting is to overdo the Dutch angles.

I actually watched the behind-the-scenes Confidential and you’re right, his statement about writing the window cleaner cradle scene/turning it into a masterclass was simply mind boggling. Unless, for some reason, it was addressed to a younger, even school-age audience.

Again, I noticed that the Mark Lawson Talks To Russell T Davies was back on iPlayer and had it running again to see that I hadn’t misremembered. He was funny and amiable and seemed embarrassed by some of the praised heaped upon him. Though at the end, post “thank you”, he mentioned to the crew behind the camera that it deserved a round of applause. They quickly applauded, leaving RTD to say he was only joking. Maybe.

It is a shame about the Battlestar Galactica figures. Still, there’s the twenty episodes of this final season – if they get the go-ahead to make the final ten, post-strike. That makes 73 episodes, the initial mini-series and Razor which will do for me. Why folk aren’t watching it I don’t understand. Maybe it’s because the vast majority of science fiction fans don’t like drama that has to make them think or TV drama fans don’t like even the merest hint of science fiction. Then again, every serious newspaper and media outlet trumpeted The Wire and it’s audience was smaller than most HBO shows.

 
At 2:27 am, Blogger Jaded and Cynical said...

There was one funny scene.

Towards the end of the story, Catherine Tate had to run for her life up a flight of stairs. And, I swear to God, Bernard Manning would have moved faster.

I'm praying for an episode later in the series where they all have to escape through a narrow vent in the ceiling. That would be good TV.

The casting of Ms Tate is so absolutely wrong (as Ian says, for reasons of age, if no other) that there has to be some angle behind it. No creative person left to his own devices could have made that choice.

While the ratings were impressive, the real test lies ahead.

We've seen a trend emerging in the last couple of years where shows routinely attract huge audiences for the first episode, only for the numbers to plummet within a few weeks.

The figures at the start are, at least to some extent, a function of marketing and hype. A month down the line, it depends on trivial stuff like whether the programme is any good or not.

Maybe I'm clutching at straws here, but do you get a sense that the reaction to the show this time around is a little more restrained? The press reviews seemed to be less one-eyed than usual. The vibe on the internet is cooler. And how many middle-aged blokes went to work on Monday morning raving about those cool flubber-monsters?

The Emperor Has No Fucking Clothes.

Maybe that thought is finally starting to percolate through.

 
At 10:30 am, Blogger Good Dog said...

I think the trend every year is for the ratings to take a slide. Happens with the lovely Torchwood as well, regular as clockwork. This year it started with 4.22m viewers when it was launched on BBC2 and dropped to the 2.9m mark as it reached the final stretch. From the look of it, episodes shown on BBC3 – beforehand? – brought in piss-poor numbers. On terrestrial, after the first five weeks it was regularly being walloped by Masterchef and University Challenge.

It would be interesting to know what the reasoning behind casting the mouthy Tate was. It’s an interesting take, bringing in a companion who looks older than the title character.

But if that’s the only reason, surely they could have found someone with a wider acting range, and one who didn’t make a lot of people in this country want to choke on their own vomit. Yeah, and someone who can make a vague attempt at looking like they can run.

As for the media wising up somewhat, here’s a good start. But watch out for some of the barbed fan comments. especially the ones whose sole argument seems to be based on, “Well I like it so you must like it!” Little twits.

 
At 6:32 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

Oh, and there’s this from Jim Shelley.

 

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